All Phenomena Are Illusory

In the main teachings it is explained that all phenomena that we experience are illusory. This teaching can be demonstrated logically. If outer objects actually exist independently, then all objects should be perceived in the same way by all observers. Yet, for example, for some people certain places are very happy places, while for others, the same place is an unhappy place. There are many other examples like this. Different people have different experiences, depending on their level of the mind. It is very difficult to meditate on this profound idea when we begin, so we begin our practice, and progress gradually. As pointed out by Nagarjuna, ultimate reality has nothing to do with our ordinary perception of activity and our ordinary modes of description. Because everything is interdependent, everything is emptiness; because of emptiness, everything is interdependent. These both depend on each other, and thereby help our understanding of each. Because everything is emptiness, every practice, every activity in samsara and nirvana is possible, because everything is void.

The particular term for this view in the Lam Dre teaching is "the non-differentiation of samsara and nirvana." The object that the conventional or relative mind perceives, it perceives as real. This means that the experiences of our relative mind, such as seeing, hearing or tasting may likewise be perceived by bodhisattvas as the ultimate reality. For example, if we look at an ordinary cup, we see it simply as a cup. On the other hand, the great bodhisattvas who have wisdom, and who after carefully examining the nature of reality and through contemplation and meditation have achieved realizations - these great bodhisattvas perceive the cup as ultimate reality. Great beings who already have the realizations, perceive the same objects we see as ordinary, as the ultimate reality. These two modes of perception are not two separate things - what we see as ordinary and impure, is seen as ultimate reality, as nirvana, by those great beings who already have realizations. So samsara, the world we ex perience, when looked at from another angle, viewed with wisdom that is free from illusion, is seen as ultimate reality. Therefore, there is a non-differentiation of samsara and nirvana at the ultimate level.

We can also view this idea from the side of conventional, or relative truth. The relative truth refers to the things we see and feel now. This same relative truth can be seen in the ultimate way through meditative practice.

At our ordinary, relative level we see the vision of clarity and emptiness as two different things. Clarity refers to things we see; emptiness refers to nothingness. These two things seem very different and contradictory, but in reality, the two do not contradict. Clarity is not separate from emptiness, nor is emptiness separate from clarity. This basic clarity and basic emptiness is in everyone - but we do not recognize it. We cling to the notion of our existence as a separate self and we are caught up in the illusory vision that is known as samsara. For those who realize this as illusion and who have awakened from the illusion, this vision is called nirvana.

Regarding the object itself, there is no samsara to abandon and no nirvana to achieve. If one realizes this, one realizes the non-differentiation of samsara and nirvana.

It is very difficult to practice this view when we begin meditative practice because of our strong propensities. Just as on our ordinary level, it is difficult to give up a bad habit, even though we are aware of the habit, know that it is harmful and creates suffering, and that we must face severe consequences from it. Because of the subtle and strong propensities we have, it is difficult for us to meditate. And so we must proceed gradually.

There are three steps in this gradual process:

1. Understanding that all appearances are in the mind

2. Understanding mental vision to be like a magical show

3. Understanding that all appearances are devoid of self-nature


The first step in this gradual process is to understand that all appearances are in the mind. This teaching has eight examples:

a. dreams

b. drug-induced hallucinations

c. hallucinations during illness

d. demonic or spirit 'possession'

e. physical positions

f. physical defects

g. optical illusions

h. dizziness


The first example is dreams. When one compare the experiences of a vivid dream with that of waking experience, one observes that there is no real difference between dreaming and waking. In the dream, as when we are awake, we feel happiness and suffering, good and bad. One talks to others, and remembers what one did. But, when you awaken from a dream, there is no sign or physical evidence of what you saw and experienced. When we are awake, all the propensities placed on consciousness ripen when the proper causes and conditions come together. In reality, there is no difference between a dream and our waking, present life.


The second example has to do with the effects of certain substances, which when ingested, cause us to experience a completely different vision than in our ordinary life. These kinds of experiences are due to the substance. The experience is obviously not objectively real, but to the person experiencing it, it is not different from reality. The quality of a substance-induced experience is as real as ordinary experience.


The third example is that, when due to an illness that brings on a very strong fever, one may see different things. In this experience the person looks at ordinary objects, but experiences them differently.


The fourth example is the effect of other-worldly spirits. People under the influence of other-worldly spirts have experiences which are, for them, as real as our ordinary experience.


The fifth example has to do with certain physical positions, such as pressing the corner of the eye. Like the other examples, the person who experiences these distorted visions believes they are just as real as ordinary vision.


The sixth example is when a person sees double vision or other phenomena due to a defect in the eyes. These visions are seen only by the person with this visual impairment.


The seventh example is the kind of optical illusion which appears when one holds up a light and turns it in the air very quickly. The light appears to form a circle of light, but of course, there actually is no circle - just a single light moving very quickly in a circle. We actually see things on the relative level that do not exist.


The eighth example has to do with the experience of dizziness which occurs when we turn around very fast. When we experience this, our outer vision seems to be turning. Of course, the outer vision itself is not moving - the appearance is just the effect of the dizziness.

We should meditate by remembering these examples and mixing them in our actual life experiences. In doing this, we will establish that the mental vision is all in the mind. We'll see that the mind is the most important thing, and that our state of mind makes the most difference when we are in different places or in the midst of different experiences.

2. Understand mental vision to be like a magical show

The second step is to begin to understand all mental vision as a kind of magical show. This step, like the first, also has many examples. One example is that, in an actual magic show the audience is shown all sorts of things, using tricks and sleight of hand. But although these illusions appear as real as our present life, of course it is quite easy to understand that what we are seeing is not real. Yet, when we experience the illusion of magic, it is as real as our present ordinary life. In this way, all the mental visions that we have are like a magic show, but are not actually real.

3. Understanding that all appearances are devoid of self-nature.

The third step is to establish that appearances [such as the example of the magic show] are devoid of self-nature. Outer objects and inner mind are like a magical show, which consists of non-dual appearance and emptiness. Emptiness and appearance on a relative level are very different. But, on the absolute level they do not contradict each other: appearance is emptiness and emptiness is appearance; the two are not separate.

Establishing that all phenomena are devoid of self-nature has two subdivisions:

3a. All phenomena are interdependent

3b Interdependent phenomena are inexpressible

3a All phenomena are interdependent

First, it is necessary to establish that all phenomena are interdependent. This is commonly referred to as "interdependent origination. One begins by examining if the appearances we see are truly existent or not. Everything depends on everything else - results depend on causes, and causes depend on result. Of the many examples of interdependent origination, one important example is that of a seed. If a good seed is planted on fertile ground, with the right moisture and right temperature, the seed starts growing. It begins as a sprout and continues to grow until a harvest is produced. However, if the seed is kept in a dry place, without the necessary growing conditions, it will not grow. But, as soon as the seed is planted in fertile ground with all the right conditions, it starts growing. This is a very good example of interdependent origination. In this example, interdependent origination means that crops do not appear without all the proper conditions that lead up to making a harvest poss ible. Nor do the crops appear from a wrong or incomplete cause. In order to arise, each and every thing needs a cause, and in particular, the right cause and the complete cause.

Similarly, since we have committed many virtuous and non-virtuous actions in the past, we have planted propensities and actions, just as a seed is planted. The seed of our actions ripens into the various experiences we go through during our lives. However, until all the right conditions come together, we will not experience the result of certain actions. For example, right now, we have the right karma and propensities to be human beings. When this strong propensity meets with the right conditions, we are born as a human being and experience human life. But when we die, our present vision will cease, and another completely different scene will appear. In reality, all these visions, lives and phenomena that we go through do not inherently exist. But, at the same time, our belief in this illusion continues until we attain the realizations. There are many examples to establish that all things are interdependent, even to point of enabling us to understand emptiness itself.

3b Interdependent phenomena are inexpressible

The second subdivision of this topic is to understand that interdependent phenomena are inexpressible. As I mentioned in the beginning, ultimate reality cannot be described or categorized. Different philosophical schools have come to different conclusions about the nature of phenomena, in spite of the fact that they all have carefully examined the same objects. For example, the theory that objects do not exist, but that it is only the mind that exits, and so forth. All philosophies come to certain conclusions. For the Buddhist Madhyamika, or middle way view, ultimate reality cannot be described in terms like "existing" or "not existing." In our experience, we perceive all outer objects as mental objects, and the entire mental vision as a kind of magical show. These two points of view are also interdependent. What we experience in this sense we cannot describe. The example that is used to illustrate this is the example of a small baby laughing. When a baby laughs, it must have reason to laug h, it must go through certain experiences, but cannot express them in words. So, similarly, though the ultimate reality can be experienced, it cannot be described. At the moment we see things in a dualistic way, as subject and object. And, at this dualistic level we do not see ultimate reality. Ultimate reality is beyond dualistic experience. When the curtain of dualistic vision is torn, one sees the ultimate reality which is not associated with any form or description. The ultimate and absolute reality is "covered" by all phenomena, especially in our mind. The true nature of our mind is called "Buddha Nature." Every one of us possesses Buddha Nature, but until we meet with the right conditions, we cannot realize it. Instead, we cling to the self and continue to suffer in this realm of existence.

Many of the higher tantric teachings call this ultimate reality, "the simultaneously born primordial wisdom." "Simultaneous" means that the result and the cause arise simultaneously - the result is not elsewhere. In this sense, the result is not something we seek outside ourselves, but which is actually within ourselves. Because the cause and the result are simultaneously born, Buddha Nature is within every human being.

If we make efforts, we can all attain full enlightenment. In the relative sense, we go through different phases along the path to enlightenment; however, we must understand that there is a continuity between the ordinary cause mind and the ultimate enlightenment mind. We might consider the example of a copper container which is used to hold dirty things. When such a container is used for dirty things, we consider the container itself dirty. But if the same copper were melted down and made into ornaments which people wore proudly and others admired, then we would consider the copper radically transformed. If again, the ornaments were melted down and made into the image of a deity, then the copper becomes even more precious, as people worship and pay respect to the image. The point is, of course, that the actual nature or real quality of the copper never changes. The same copper has been used as a dirty container, as ornaments, and as the image of a deity. The face or the appearance of the co pper may change, but the actual quality of the copper does not change. Similarly, the natural cause, the true state of our mind, is the Buddha nature. The true state of all phenomena is the same everywhere.

Through our practice, the application of method and wisdom eliminates obscuration and finally enables us to achieve results.

After the vision of experience, when obscurations have been gradually eliminated, and inner wisdom improves, the pure vision is attained. The Buddhas or Tathagatas abandoned every possible fault or obscuration and then, through their great realizations, achieved the pure vision. Just as a man who has awakened from sleep cannot experience his dreams, similarly, beings who are completely awakened from illusion cannot see the impure vision. They see the same vision that we have now, in complete pure vision, everything in form and primordial wisdom and everything in pure vision.


Some Questions and Answers which relate to these topics follow.

Q: What is the difference between undetermined, unconditioned absolute reality and absolute nothingness and where does the primordial spontaneous wisdom come from?

Sakya Trizin: There is a vast difference between nothingness and ultimate realty. Nothingness is just emptiness. The things we see exist on the ordinary level, and this life which we consider very important, exist in a relative sense. The ultimate reality is neither. Existing and non-existing is only at the relative level. At the relative level we have extremes such as existing and non-existing, neither and both. The ultimate reality is beyond our present relative perception. The ultimate reality is beyond any description. Therefore, one experiences it yet cannot express it in words.

Q: If you concentrate on an image, what size should it be?

Sakya Trizin: There is no specific size, but something that you can see the whole shape of. If it's too big, it can't be seen as a whole. Something you can see straight from your eyes is acceptable.

Q: If one considers everyday practice as a dream or illusion, how does one avoid nihilism?

Sakya Trizin: Nihilism, as far as I understand it, is the other extreme of existence. What we try to achieve is the ultimate reality that is away from all extremes like existing or non-existing. To achieve this, we establish all outer objects as mental phenomena and all mental phenomena as magic shows. We do this step by step.

Q: What is it that remains the same in sentient beings at the time of death, between the time of death, and the reincarnation?

Sakya Trizin: Ordinary sentient beings go through the bardo state. Very good practitioners don't go to bardo, but go directly from this life to the pure realms or wherever they wish to go. Those who have a very heavy karma also don't go to bardo but go directly to lower realms. The average people, the people in the middle, don't necessarily go straight away after death, sometimes a few days later. It is said that there will be a sign that the consciousness leaves the body. As long as the consciousness remains inside the body, although one is dead, one is not conscious, however, one's body remains like a living person. As soon as it leaves, the body changes and deteriorates.

After that one goes into bardo realms where one forms a mental body, not a physical body, but a mental body that has five sense organs. Once one is there, one goes through great anxiety, great suffering. It lasts one week and one experiences every week a death and new rebirth. For average people, one remains there for 49 days, seven weeks. After that they will be born at wherever their karma forces them to go, from heavenly realms to lower realms. There are exceptions. Some do remain for a very long period of time in bardo state.

Q: What is it that reincarnates?

Sakya Trizin: Consciousness. The stream of mind.

Q: Could you describe the nature of the stream of mind?

Sakya Trizin: It's clear, void, and the combination. When we say mind, we can mean gross mind. The most important thing in this life, is the mind. Without mind we would not be working, would not be moving, would not be talking. Because of our mind, we can talk, move, and walk. But if we ask where the mind is, we cannot find it. Is it inside the body, outside the body, or in between the body? If there is a mind, where is it and what does it look like? Does it have color or shape? You can't find mind. It is devoid of self-nature. Therefore it is void and empty. Yet there is a continuity. Like the one who is searching, the one who is trying to find the mind, that is the mind, that is the clarity. So emptiness is one aspect and clarity is the other aspect, and the two are inseparable. Just as the fire and the heat of the fire, you cannot separate the two. So the special characteristic of mind is clarity, the nature of mind is emptiness, and the essence of mind is the two combined. That is what continues. It continues right up to now. We grow bigger, we age, and the mind is continuing. Ever since we are born, our bodies change--we grow and age, however, the mind is continuing, it does not cease but continues. And when we leave this body, this mind continues. The body will be cremated or burned, but the mind must go on. One cannot burn the mind; one cannot bury the mind. The mind has to remain; therefore, the mind has to take another form.

Q: I don't understand what you mean when you say, "don't grasp at ultimate reality." Is the idea that, if you have any firm, fixed idea what enlightenment is or what ultimate reality could be, that is just an illusion?

Sakya Trizin: Ultimate reality in the Madhyamika philosophy explains, as I said before , that all other schools, including the different Buddhist schools, when they try to explain the ultimate reality, all came to the conclusion that it was a definite thing, such as, everything is not existing, but the mind is existing, and mind is absolutely existing. But the Madhyamika philosophy says that if you grasp at anything like that (like either "existing" or "non-existing") then by grasping at that with your mind, it is not the proper view. Because the actual ultimate truth is beyond our mind, beyond our present mind. If you grasp at any form, then it is our present mind, and the true reality is completely beyond that boundary.

Q: I've read the word 'mahamudra' many times in many different contexts. I'm wondering how can it be used in daily life? And also I'm wondering what part good intentions play in mahamudra?

Sakya Trizin : Mahamudra is the very very highest wisdom that you attain through the practice of very high tantric techniques, and techniques with the wisdom you get through the practice of the highest Vajrayana path. To enter the Vajrayana path, also the intention must be the right one from the very beginning. Even in the ordinary mahayana path, intention is necessary right from the beginning. So of course for Mahamudra, which is not ordinary Mahayana teaching, but the extraordinary Vajrayana teaching's highest realization, it by all means requires a good intention.

Q: I've heard Madhyamika philosophy characterized as a destructive dialectic in that it seeks to refute all other systems. Could it instead be considered a sword of wisdom?

Sakya Trizin: I think the Madhyamika philosophy is the highest and it rejects all other schools including the Buddhist lower schools because they think that reality is not in agreement with Madhyamika, so the Madhyamika rejects all others. So to realize ultimate truth it is absolutely essential first to study the Madhyamika philosophy and then to meditate based upon the Madhyamika philosophy.

Q: I've heard that the term 'suchness' in Madhyamika philosophy implies seeing things as they really are. What kind of attitude should we have towards the things that we see if we understand that they are all shunyata and yet we still see something? Is it simply a projection of our own mind and we simply shouldn't even be concerned with it like a dream?

Sakya Trizin: We have very firm seeds within our mind so therefore it is extremely difficult to realize the present vision as illusion and dream. But through study and contemplation and meditation we will gradually be able to realize. In the meantime we should try to see less and less clinging as the real. We should try to think of all the visions that we see in this manner: in reality there is no such thing as these really existing. It's all illusion, it's all like a dream.

Q: What I was driving at in my question, I'm trying to understand whether you accept something as it is and maintain a sense of detachment, or you think that this thing isn't even there?

Sakya Trizin: You should understand these "things" as not really existing.

Q: Could you please redefine the four Buddhist schools?

A: Generally, if you make a division in the Buddha's teachings, the two main divisions are Hinayana and Mahayana. Among the Hinayana there are many different lineages concerning moral conduct. But philosophically, there are two main schools which are known as the Sarvastivada or Vaibhashika and the Sautrantika. In the Mahayana the two main schools are the Vijnanavada and the Madhyamika.

Q: When we do concentration meditation and thoughts come in, you said that normally, we would follow the thoughts. Is there any particular method in not following them? Is it just a matter of ignoring them?

Sakya Trizin: It is important when one meditates not to suppress thoughts. When a thought arises, let it arise. Instead of following it, as normally you do, you can concentrate. Normally, we follow the thought and it goes out. Now, instead, when the thought arises, turn your mind inwardly and concentrate on this. Where does it come from? And what is the nature of the thought? And so forth, and so on. You examine the thought itself and then, naturally, the thought goes out.

Q: What is the dual vision?

Sakya Trizin: Dual vision means subject and object. We think the visions we have now are dual visions because we always think in terms of subject and object.

Q: What is interdependent origination?

Sakya Trizin: Interdependent origination means that each thing must have a right cause. Each and every thing must have a cause, and it also has to have a right cause. For example, if you have a rice seed -- from that wheat cannot grow. From a rice seed, you have to grow rice. Like that, each thing must have its own cause, its right cause. This is one of the greatest teachings Lord Buddha has bestowed. What he said was that everything is cause and effect. Each thing must have a cause. It is not as if Brahma or some Deity likes you and gives you all happiness. Or Brahma or Shiva get very angry with you and create all your sufferings. Buddhism rejects this and holds that all our happiness and sufferings come from our own actions. With pure intentions, if we do the right actions, then we will have happiness all the time, and if with an impure mind we commit non-virtuous deeds, then we will have all the sufferings. That is how all things are related to each other. The root of all this lies in ig norance. Ignorance, because the root of all this is ego, clinging to ego. When you carefully examine that, there is not a thing as oneself; it is all illusion. But, we do not realize this and we think in terms of oneself. When you have self -- I, ego -- you have others. And when you have I and others, then you have desire for your friends and hatred for your enemies. When you have desire and hatred, then you take actions. When you take actions, this plants a seed on the continuity of your mind and creates more suffering. So when you stop this, when you try to depart from clinging to ego, all the defilements stop. And when the defilements stop, then the actions also naturally stop. When the actions stop, then no more propensities or seeds are planted. Finally, when there is no seed, there is no result of suffering.

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