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imagesBuddhists say the world is an illusion

So a physicist friend asks, “If all is illusion, how can we know what is true?

It’s a good question but not easily answered.

From a Western perspective, the first name that comes to mind is Descartes.

Descartes sat snowbound in an upper-floor room of a Bavarian Inn contemplating such a question.

It’s when he made his famous observation, “Cogito, ergo sum.”

He took time to explore the physicist’s question this way, “How can I tell what’s true of all the ideas I’ve been taught by my parents, teachers and church?

He challenged the veracity of each idea that came to mind, see whether he could doubt the truth of each.

If there was any doubt, he tossed the idea and moved onto the next.

Only if an idea passed muster of this examination would he accept it as true.

Needless to say, he found it easy to doubt every idea, one after the other, so tossed each as it flunked his test.

When he’d gotten to the end of his list, he asked, “Then, can I doubt that I exist?

unknownHe said, “No, I cannot doubt that I am!

Now here is the rub.

It doesn’t necessarily follow from “I cannot doubt that I am,” to “I think, therefore I am.”

I’d reverse the statement from, “Cogito ergo sum,” to “Sum, ergo cogito,” “I am, therefore I think.”

I believe this follows more logically.


Other Descartes observations

Descartes next put his test to the truth of things he directly observed, to see if they were trustworthy.

For one, he held up his thumb alongside the image of the stove he saw at the far side of his room.

His eyes showed his thumb being much bigger than the stove.

Intuition though, told him the stove actually was far bigger than his thumb.

His senses needed this additional reasoning to give perspective to his observation.

He next looked out his window and saw a sea of wide-brimmed hats moving about on the street.

Again, with snap intuition, he understood there were people wearing the hats that moved about.


Descartes thus, saw how much of what we take in with our five senses we edit with our intuitive nature for clearer understanding.

He therefore deduced that nothing should be assumed true unless you can quantify and measure it.

It was his way of answering the question of how to discern the true from the illusory.

Thus, Descartes became the father of modern science.


Beginning of Modern Science

Some years later Immanuel Kant made additional observations about the limits of our five senses.

He noted that our senses do not take in direct information about things “out there” in the world.

The senses instead, take in phenomena from the real “things in themselves” — the noumena out there.

He contended that data our senses present to us begins as a hodgepodge of chaotic digits.

The mind then shapes this chaotic data into meaningful objects in the world around us.

Just as a wine glass gives shape to wine poured into it, the mind gives shape to objects by giving them a position in space at a particular time.

Kant considered space and time to be mental constructs we apply to data as our senses receive it.


Then, early last century, physicists gave us even more refined limits to how our senses shape information — views of Relativity and Quantum Physics, for example.


Types of illusion.  

Briefly,  there are four major types of illusion.


First, there is the “snake in the rope” delusion that is often used by Eastern philosophers to indicate one type.

On entering a dimly lit room, a snake is seen.  When the light is turned on the snake disappears.

What was seen as a snake turns out to be merely a coil of rope. The snake is no longer seen. And the light enables us to see the rope.


Second, there is the mirage that gives the illusion that there is a pool of water in the distance.

Knowing that there is no water does not change the illusion.  We still see water in the mirage.

Due to the perspective from which it is viewed, Descartes’ thumb still appears bigger than the stove.


Third, we are entertained by fantasies which we know are illusory from the beginning — plays, film, operas, novels.  They are still fiction after we know it.


Fourth, are our dreams.  We take them as true until we awaken.  When awake we know they were false and they no longer appear to be true.


Western Perspective

According to Buddhism, as well as Vedanta, all we observe of the world is illusion — like either the water in a mirage or the snake in a rope.

Mirages persist in giving us false images, though we know they are not true.

Other worldly illusions disappear as we put the light of reason on them, just as the snake disappears from the rope when the light is turned on.

eye-cross-sectionA perfectly good way of grasping this type of illusion, is knowing about the optics of the eye.

The eyes project the world upside down and backwards on the retina in the back of the eye.

But we “see” the world right side up. The “light of reason,” also called “the heart,” of the mind flips the images right side up.

It does this fast and unbeknownst to us.


This is a Western explanation of how we deal with worldly illusion. The East has a slightly different take.


Eastern Perspective

To understand the Eastern perspective it helps to have a look at the Eastern model of our inner life.

It is a considerably different model from our Western psychological map of the mind.

In the East, our inner world is called anthakarana, in Sanskrit.

Eastern philosophy includes not just the mind, but all of our inner life in its concept of anthakarana — feelings, instincts, emotions, intuition, fantasies, imaginings, dreams, knowledge, memories as well as thinking.


There are four broad functions of anthakarana  — manas, buddhi, ahamkhara and chitta.

Each has a specialized set of functions.

Manas transmits information to the mind, both from the senses as well as from our subconscious memory bank.

Buddhi is the function that receives the information and determines whether it is true or not.

Ahamkhara is more like what we call ego.  It tells us who we are by attaching ideas to our true Self.


Manas conveys what our eyes see to buddhi, which flips the images right side up.

Buddhi does this by merging the data that the eyes see with other information that manas transmits from our subconscious memory bank.

It’s the kind of information that enabled Descartes to intuit that the stove was a lot bigger than his thumb and that the hats he saw moving about on the street were worn by people walking about.

Buddhi has no idea of the validity of what it receives from either the senses or the subconscious memory bank.

That is the sticky wicket.

The memory bank may not provide good information. Nor will the senses always provide good information.

This is where the “light of reason” comes in.  And, yes, it is difficult to sort out “intuition,” from guessing.”

We have to trust our gut.  And that is not always trustworthy.


There Is Help

In the everyday world we make our most accurate observations when we do not have distractions.

That is why courtrooms are kept quiet during proceedings.  And why juries are sequestered to deliberate.

We know that when we bring ourselves to stillness we observe things more accurately.

We have found deeper restfulness through meditation that gives us an even clearer perspective.

Becoming still allows the mind to empty itself of the intrusion of ideas so that it can get a more accurate representation of that which is observed.



Know You are the Supreme Self

This brings us to the ultimate illusion, the ego’s claim that we are the do-er and thinker.

As Shakespeare put it —

All the world’s a stage. And all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances. And one man in his time plays many parts.

Coming to stillness in meditation enables us to see more clearly who we really are as different from the parts we play.

We exist as the Supreme Self at all times.

We need only awaken to this reality by seeking the source of the ego, or “I-thought,” and abide in the Self we always are.

The primary consideration is to be free from the “I-am-the-doer” illusion.

We can be sure that if we can see it, we cannot be it.

2 Responses

  1. Heidi
    | Reply

    Thank you, dear Bill, for these worthy reflections. So much to hold and observe and appreciate. And thank you for visiting with us all yesterday and leading our dialogue. With great love and gratitude, Heidi

    • BackpackerBill
      | Reply

      I enjoyed meeting all of your friends. I hope something good came of it.

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