We usually think of illusion as unreal, and it is. But thinking of it that way, even though accurate, seems to ignore the fact that for many people the illusion is concrete, sensible, and real in its consequences.
The favorite example of this predicament is to say that a bus hitting me on the Third Dimension will propel me to the Fourth (i.e., kill me), whether the bus is illusory or not.
I’d like to shift the emphasis from illusion being unreal, which I agree it is, to illusion being temporary, impermanent, changeable.
The only thing that I’m aware of that doesn’t change is God. Since God is everything that is, everything that is not, and no thing at all, we still face the need to address a seeming paradox here.
To begin with, God is said to be unchanging, and nothing else is. Let’s review what our enlightened masters have said about that.
Krishna: “Veiled in my Maya, I am not shown to many. How shall this world, bewildered by delusion, Recognize me, who am not born and change not?” (1)
Buddha: “Ananda, can you not see the difference in nature in that which moves and changes, and that which is motionless and unchanging? It is body which moves and changes, not Mind. …
“As one forgets the true nature of Mind, so he mistakes the reflections of objects as being his own mind, thus binding him to the endless movements and changes and sufferings of the recurrent deaths and rebirths that are of his own causing. You should regard all that changes as ‘dust-particles’ and that which is unchanging as being your own true Nature of Mind.” (2)
Pseudodionysius: “The Cause of all … passes through no change, decay, division, loss, no ebb and flow, nothing of which the senses may be aware.” (3)
Sri Ramakrishna: “Like the akasa [ether], Brahman [the Father, God] is without any modification. It has become manifold because of Sakti [the Divine Mother]. Again, Brahman is like fire, which itself has no colour. The fire appears white if you throw a white substance into it, red if you throw a red, black if you throw a black.” (4)
Chang Tsu tells us that God does create, but is not identical with its creations, affected by them, changed by them, etc.
“As to what pertains to Manifestation, the Principle [of life] causes the succession of its phases, but is not this succession. It is the author of causes and effects, but is not the causes and effects.
“It is the author of condensations and dissipations (birth and death, changes of state), but is not itself condensations and dissipations. All proceeds from it and is under its influence. It is in all things, but is not identical with beings, for it is neither differentiated nor limited.” (5)
Krishna explained the matter on one ocassion.
“This entire universe is pervaded by me, in that eternal form of mine which is not manifest to the senses. Although I am not within any creature, all creatures exist within me.
“I do not mean that they exist within me physically. That is my divine mystery. You must try to understand its nature. My Being sustains all creatures and brings them to birth, but has no physical contact with them.” (6)
Thus while God is everything, viewed as being apart from the illusion, God is no thing.
We say that the Buddha did not recognize God, but of course he did. He just called it by a different name than others, such as here: “There is but one common essence.” (7) Or here:
“Monks, there is a not-born, a not-become, a not-made, a not-compounded. Monks, if that unborn, not-become, not-made, not-compounded were not, there would be apparent no escape from this, here, that is born, become, made, compounded. “(8)
This not-born, not made and not-compounded essence creates illusory forms which persist for a while and bear a relationship to him (her, it) that cannot be explained. But eventually the compound, changeable things resolve themselves back into the great changeless ocean, the akasha, the Void from whence they came. Hence they are called “illusion.”
That leaves us with the problem of us. We say that the purpose of life is to know ourselves as God and that we are God, and yet something about us is illusory.
In fact everything about us is illusory with the exception of that substratum or essence that is God. All our bodies – not just the physical, but the astral, mental, causal, and other bodies – are illusory in that they’re not permanent, and all must be shed before we merge again back into God, which is the purpose for which we were created.
So we see in our own selves that the game of life, the divine play, the leela, in which God meets God in a moment of our enlightenment, is entirely centered on creating an illusion from which we God-sparks extricate ourselves and realize again the One Reality behind all appearances.
Our journey is out from home, into the world, and then home again, amid much cheering and celebration (until the cheering stops because there is no other than God).
As some sage once said, there is nothing actually happening here, except Realization.
All is real on its own level of reality – for a time. The bus is real; our death is real – on their own level of reality. But nothing but God is ultimately real.
Everything illusory, all changeable appearances are finally drawn back into the Void when their natural term expires and their usefulness ends. Only the great Void, the transcendental absolute, the essence of everything that is and is not, is unchangeable and therefore real.
Therefore, in my discussions of illusion anyway, I prefer to see the illusion not as what’s not real but as what’s not permanent, eternal, unchanging.
(1) Sri Krishna in Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood, trans., Bhagavad-Gita. The Song of God. New York and Scarborough: New American Library, 1972; c1944, 73. [Hereafter BG.]
(2) Buddha in Dwight Goddard, A Buddhist Bible. Boston: Beacon Press, 1966; c1938, 131. [Hereaftere BB.]
(3) Pseudo-Dionysius in Cohn Luibheid, trans., Pseudo-Dionysus, His Complete Works. New York and Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1989, 141.
(4) Paramahansa Ramakrishna in Swami Nikhilananda, trans., The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna. New York: Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, 1978; c1942, 280.
(5) Chang Tsu in Aldous Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy. New York, etc.: Harper and Row, 1970; c1944, 7-8.
(6) Sri Krishna in BG, 80.
(7) The Buddha in BB, 283.
(8) The Buddha in Trevor Ling, The Buddha’s Philosophy of Man. Early Indian Buddhist Dialogues. London, etc.: Dent, 1981, xiii.