Understanding the Nature of Illusion
by Sharon Janis
Author of Spirituality For Dummies
Wake up o man, at least now, wake up. Consider this whole creation as a mere dream. This world is like a flower in bloom; as you watch it, it wilts right before your eyes. Why are you so attached to it?
When studying ancient spiritual writings, we have two main obstacles to overcome. The first has to do with language and cultural barriers. Our modern society does not have words to adequately express the same blend of connotation and nuances as, for example, ancient Sanskrit, dubbed the "Language of the Gods" back when spiritual knowledge enjoyed a position of respect and prominence in a very different society. While translating such texts into English, one can only hope to find words that contain some semblance of approximation to the original word.
The second consideration is a reader's own psychological, spiritual and mental state. It is not possible for the mind to leap from level three of spiritual knowledge directly to level ten. If possible, certainly it is uncommon. One can only understand teachings within one's own level of awareness, and hopefully consistently just above and beyond it, stretching our experience of life into ever-new vistas of appreciation. This means that even if one hears "the absolute truth," its meaning may not really be accessible to the person's current level of understanding.
This is one reason spiritual teachers in various traditions have insisted that disciples undergo a period of spiritual purification before they are given higher knowledge. It's not because these teachers are selfish or greedy, rather because the student must be ready to receive and digest higher knowledge. How can one pour a huge lake into a small cup?
Once upon a time, a seeker of truth found himself a highly respected spiritual teacher, and asked to be initiated into the state of self-realization. "Oh Guru, please tell me the secret of life, by knowing which one is freed from all bondage."
The teacher looked at this seeker and saw that his container was not yet able to contain the unadulterated Truth that breaks one free. The seeker needed to be purified by the lessons inherent in living an austere, surrendered life of service and contemplation. Nevertheless, the teacher spoke, "Tat Tvam Asi, Thou art That."
The seeker settled down to hear the rest of the lecture, but the master fell silent, as though that was all he had to say. The eagerness on this seeker's face told the master that he was genuine and passionate in his quest. The master said, "I will accept you as a disciple. Go and work in my fields for twelve years, and then come back to me. I will give you the secret knowledge at that time."
The disciple worked hard for twelve long years. During the many hours spent toiling in the fields, inner understandings and glimpses of the nature of life were revealed inside himself. At the end of his assignment, he again came before the guru. "Oh Guru, I have fulfilled your command and worked in the field for twelve years. Please enlighten me. What is the secret of life, by knowing which one is free from all bondage?"
The guru now saw before him a shining light, a purified vessel ready to accept and hold the Truth. He looked into the disciple's eyes and spoke, "Tat Tvam Asi, Thou art That."
Immediately, the disciple understood these words at a level deeper than ordinary knowledge. With "Thou art That" throbbing in every particle of his being, he ascended to the spiritual state of the masters.
This story illustrates a point we must keep in mind when approaching ancient spiritual knowledge. There must be enough humility to admit that our interpretations of ancient texts may not be fully accurate or complete, having been covered over by layer upon layer of cultural and language transitions, generation after generation of change.
For example, there is a common Sanskrit word, maya, which is commonly translated as illusion. Some, who have not grasped the deeper meaning of the original word maya, might read about its play, adding all the connotations modern society has placed around the word illusion. We don't have an English word that can accurately portray what the sages meant by the word maya, though one who has awakened to a vision of life beyond maya for even a moment will be better prepared to grasp the intended meaning of this word.
Some say that thinking of this world as an illusion is irresponsible, and will only bring suffering and lack of interest. However, one who truly sees the world as maya, will laugh and dance through life. My teacher once described this world as a two-day picnic that you go to on a holiday. When the veil of maya is rent, you begin to see that you are an eternal being, travelling through countless fields of existence at once. All the thoughts, colors and memories we know are the handiwork of that eternal being, the hub of this wheel of life. It's like the experience of awakening from a dream where you are running for your life from a gang of criminals. Upon awakening, you realize that it was all maya, illusion. The criminals did not exist, nor were they chasing you.
Nevertheless, being an illusion does not make it unreal. This is where a subtle distinction comes in regarding the nature of maya versus illusion. Illusion is generally used to refer to something that doesn't exist. Maya, on the other hand, is existent and non-existent at the same time, like a dream. The experience you had while running for life was absolutely real while the dream was occurring; therefore, the maya of this dream cannot be called non-existent. Yet, through the sobriety of wakefulness, one can see that the dream was an illusion, a false world. The only problem is that there is no objective experiment we can run to prove that the waking state we are in right now is any more real than last night's dream, which also felt completely real.
There once lived a powerful King named Janaka. One night, he dreamt that he was a beggar, being persecuted by a group of villagers. They had tumbled him onto the ground, and were beating him with their fists, throwing stones and clods of dirt at him. All of a sudden, he awoke.
There he was, King Janaka, swathed in silk and jewels, being fanned by servants in his luxurious castle. Shocked by the contrast, he closed his eyes, and fell immediately back into the dream, where the villagers were still beating him, as he cowered on the ground in fear for his life. Once again, he awoke, finding himself back in the lap of luxury. This happened twice more. Janaka was fascinated and intrigued by the experience. Both states felt equally real when he was in them. How could he know which one was true and which was maya, illusion? Was he the beggar or the king?
Back in the waking state, King Janaka called in all of his wise Prime ministers and advisors, and asked them which state was real. None was able to answer the question to his satisfaction. The king expressed his displeasure by sending all of these so-called wise men away to be locked up indefinitely. In the meantime, a young son of a sage stepped into the courtyard. He was crippled, and made quite a spectacle of himself as he hobbled down the aisle to the throne. Many of the townsfolk had gathered, and were laughing at this ridiculous figure. The boy knelt down before the king, and with great effort stood back up. "Your majesty. I have come to answer your question." Now the bystanders really began to whisper and chuckle. This kid was asking for trouble.
But the king saw a light around the boy's face, and was guided by deep intuition to allow him to say his piece, even though it seemed unlikely that this boy would ever be able to answer the question. "Fine," said the King. "Tell me which state is real, the waking state or the dream state?"
The young boy smiled softly through his disfigured body, and replied. "O King. Neither the waking state nor the dream state are real. Only the Self is real, the Self that is beyond all maya."
The phenomena of life can be compared to a dream, a ghost,
an air bubble, a shadow, glittering dew, the flash of lightning —
and must be contemplated as such.
Over the past few decades, many students at the Stanford University sleep lab have been trained to become lucid in their dream state. While being chased by criminals, for example, they'll become aware it is just a dream — their dream — and will take control of the reins, flying off to a preferable place, while the bad guys dissolve back into the ether of consciousness. Developing an understanding of the nature of maya, illusion, is like learning to be a lucid waker rather than a lucid dreamer. You can dance more freely through your life, without holding on to old habits and fears. Although the old self-preservation instincts may still have their place, in your deepest heart you are not afraid of death, because you know that only illusion can die.
Some say that an understanding of illusion is detrimental to the world, and that it might cause one to think their life is worthless and meaningless. But this fear comes from a misunderstanding of maya's glory. With a glimpse into the nature of this world as maya, life becomes more amazing and filled with meaning. Even the butterfly landing on a flower next to you is filled with beautiful, metaphorical significance. From this space, we can actually accomplish much more in life, and enjoy it more fully. We know we are playing wonderful, important, and ultimately illusory roles in this universal play of Consciousness. With this insight comes a sense of appreciating both the ups and downs of human life. As my teacher has beautifully expressed, we learn to "smile at our destiny."
Without an understanding of the illusory nature of this world, we can't fully enjoy even the blessings that come our way, because there are so many underlying fears for the future. Without an understanding of the nature of maya, even success can bring unhappiness, because there is so often an underlying fear of loss.
With enjoyment, comes fear of disease
With social position, fear of disfavor
With riches, fear of hostile people
With honor, fear of humiliation
With power, fear of enemies
With beauty, fear of old age
With scholarship, fear of challengers
With virtue, fear of traducers
With the identification with body, fear of death
Everything in this world is done with fear
Renunciation alone makes one fearless.
An understanding of the nature of illusion helps us to achieve an attitude of faith and renunciation. With these gems, we can witness the events of life from a higher viewpoint, even while we continue to play the game.
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