THE PHENOMENAL WORLD IS AN ILLUSION
Phenomenal and Transcendental Perspectives
All schools of Buddhism believe that the self is empty, i.e. the self is devoid of its ultimate reality. But while Theravadins maintain that the self is empty in both the phenomenal and the transcendental dimensions, Mahayanists and Vajrayanists suggest that in the phenomenal dimension the self like all other entities such as flowers, houses, horses, the sky, the moon, ghosts, gods, heavens and myriad other things and beings, is relatively real. Without this concept of a continuous entity in the phenomenal dimension, call it self or soul or whatever you like, many fundamental tenets accepted by all schools of Buddhism, such as karma, reincarnation, heavens and hells, and different stages of spiritual cultivation over many lifetimes, become ontologically untenable. (Please see Chapters 2 and 4 for a detailed discussion of the self or soul in Buddhism.) In the transcendental dimension, of course, everything including the self or soul is illusion; ultimate reality is free from any form of differentiation.
A rough analogy is asking whether the electron exists. In quantum mechanics, considered by many as the greatest scientific achievement of our present 20th century, an electron is just a conceptualization. No one can define where an electron is, because it is just a measurement of possibilities where clouds of energy may collapse into a particle. In classical science, whose laws still govern all our everyday events, the existence of an electron is without doubt. We say, for example, that a hydrogen atom has one electron, and a carbon atom has six. While it is now generally accepted by scientists that at the sub-atomic level there is no such thing as objective reality, it is not necessary to single out the electron among myriads other objects in our everyday world to say it is not real. Similarly, while in ultimate reality all phenomena are illusory, it is not necessary to single out the self or soul among myriad other phenomena in our phenomenal world to say it is unreal.
This failure to perceive reality from a higher dimension, or in Buddhist terms this lack of prajna or transcendental wisdom, is what Mahayanists and Vajrayanists claim prevents Theravadins to go beyond the preliminary teaching of the Buddha. Theravadins, understandably, deny this claim, saying in return that this so-claimed higher teaching is an adulterated addition.
The following apparently simple Zen story reveals this profound truth that reality can be perceived from two different perspectives.
A layman once asked the Venerable Xi Dang Zhi Zang, "Master, are there heavens and hells?" "Yes." "Are there the triple gems of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha?" "Yes." The layman asked many other questions, to which the master gave affirmative answers to all. The layman then said, "There was a monk studying with the Venerable Jing Shan Dao Qin. He put the same questions to his master, who answered all in the negative. Are you mistaken or is Jing Shan mistaken?"
The Venerable Zhi Zang asked, "Do you have a wife?" "Yes," replied the layman. "Does the Venerable Jing Shan have a wife?" "No!" "So the Venerable Jing Shan was correct when answering no to the monk's questions."
To lay persons living in the phenomenal dimension, heavens and hells, the Buddha, the Buddha's Teaching and the Buddhist Monkhood are real. To a monk who has given up everything to cultivate for enlightenment when and where cosmic reality is undifferentiated, heavens and hells, the Buddha, the Teaching and the Monkhood are illusory.
Theravada Wisdom on Phenomena
Yet, somewhat surprisingly, although Theravadins have successfully liberated themselves from the attachment to self -- a cosmic mistake made by most other spiritual and mystical disciplines as well as by the greatest of scientists -- they still consider phenomena as ultimately real! Theravadins believe that everything can be reduced to dharmas, or sub-atomic particles and forces, whose existence is real though momentary. Mahayanists and Vajrayanists believe that in ultimate reality, everything, including dharmas, is illusory. This is popularly expressed in the tenet that "the four great fundamental dharmas (`earth', `fire', `water' and `air') are actually empty."
The Theravada teaching that dharmas are ultimately real is often found in their Abhidhamma Pitaka, which is one of the three categories of the Pali Canon, and which Theravadins regard as containing the higher teaching of the Buddha. In his An Introduction to the Abhidhamma, the well known modern Theravadin scholar Dr W.F. Jayasuriya says:
As in science, Buddhism too teaches that the reality in mind and matter is something different to what is apparent. This reality of the ultimate things of which mind and body are composed are the units of mind or thoughts (Sampayutta Dhamma) and the units of matter or atoms (Rupa Kalapa).
This Theravadin belief that mind and matter are ultimately real is echoed by another Theravada scholar, Dr. S.P. De Silva:
The four abstract elements of matter and the units of mind are infinite phenomena and are without beginning and without end. However, any product of these infinite phenomena such as a matter of matter (e.g. the earth or a star) or any mind-matter combination (which constitutes a living being), must necessarily have a beginning since the product is conditioned or caused, and also, necessarily, an ending.
Here Dr De Silva is stating a basic Theravadin belief that all living and non-living things are non-self, i.e. they are not ultimately permanent and real. All these living and non-living things are created when karmic forces and right conditions bring their composite dharmas together; when the karmic forces are spent and the conditions are no longer binding, the living and non-living things disintegrate back into dharmas. All dharmas can be reduced to two fundamental kinds, a unit of mind and a unit of matter. A unit of matter has four elemental characteristics and are symbolized as earth, fire, water and air. These units of mind and matter, according to Theravada philosophy, are ultimately real; hence, fundamental units of mind and matter have no beginning and no ending.
The following quotation may amaze many modern scientists as to how advance is Buddhist knowledge on mind and matter:
1. The Physical Unit or Atom
The Physical unit as the Rupa Kalapa, which means a bundle of Rupas, is held to be an aggregate of material elements (Rupa Dhatu). Their members, in quality and quantity, vary in the different atoms. In quality they may range from 8 to 13. Thus the Eye Decad consists of an inseparably bound radical (Avinbbhoga) of eight elements called the Octad together with element of Life and Seeing. The Atom called the Male-sex Decad consists of the Octad together with the Life and Male-Sex elements. The element constituting the Octad radicle are: the four primary elements of Support or Hardness, Cohesion, Energy and Motion together with Colour, Smell, Taste and Nutriment (Pathavi, Apo, Tejo, Vayo, Vanna, Gandha, Rasa, and Oja. They are dealt with more fully in Ch. VII.
2. The Mental or Thought Unit
This compound state or aggregate is called a Thought Unit (Sampayutta Dhamma). As with the inseparable mass or the radical element (Aviniibbhoga Rupa) being common to every kind of matter, so are Cognition (Citta) and seven mental factors or mental universals found in every unit of thought. These seven are: the Contact, Feeling, Noting, Volition, Concentration, Psychic Life and the Attention elements. Altogether there are mental factors ranging from 7 up to 37, in the 89 different kinds of thoughts. Thus the First Moral thought of the Sense Plane, in an act of speaking the truth, has the Cognition element and 34 mental factors, i.e. the 7 Universals, 6 Particulars, 19 Wholesome, Right Speech and Wisdom. The thought unit called the Eye Cognition has only Cognition and the 7 Universals.
Phenomena are Emptied of Characteristics
Mahayanists and Vajrayanists, on the other hand, go beyond this phenomenal view of mind and matter. While they accept this aspect of Theravada wisdom, and appreciate that it contributes greatly to our human understanding and well-being, they maintain that mind and matter as the Theravadins interpret them are only relatively, not ultimately, real. Other sentient beings, such as gods, insects or western psychologists and physicists operating under a different set of conditions, would interpret mind and matter differently. Hence, in ultimate reality phenomena are emptied of characteristics; in other words, phenomena are appearances, which in fact is the original meaning of the word.
What then, according to Mahayana and Vajrayana philosophy, are mind and matter ultimately? In ultimate reality, there is no mind and matter, or, to put it in another way, it is all mind and matter, because ultimate reality is tranquil and undifferentiated, usually described in Buddhist terms as void or emptiness.
In the Abridged Prajna Paramitta Sutra, the Venerable Subhuti asked the Buddha to explain the meaning of emptiness. The Buddha says:
Subhuti, emptiness is boundless, emptiness is beyond the infinite ... When the Tathagata says limitless, non-quantity, empty, non-characteristics, non-activity, non-arising, non-birth, non-death, non-attachment, non-defilement, nirvana, this is because of the use of provisional language. ... All dharmas are inexplicable. Subhuti, all characteristics of dharmas are empty, inexplicable.
In the Great Prajna Paramita Sutra, the Buddha explains:
The deep meaning of emptiness is non-characteristics, non-carving, non-activity, non-birth, non-death. Tranquillity, nirvana, real suchness, spiritual realm, ultimate reality, such are the various names describing the deep meaning of emptiness. ... The Tathagata is wonderful, using marvellous expedient means to help non-retreating Bodhisatts and Mahasatts to overcome form and all other dharmas to attain nirvana.
It is inexplicable to describe the emptiness of all dharmas. Using expedient means the Tathagata explains emptiness as boundless, or infinite, or immeasurable, or limitless, or void, or explains as non-characteristics, or non-attachment, or non-activity, or non-birth, or non-death, or liberation from defilement, or explains as tranquillity, or nirvana, or real suchness, or ultimate reality, and so on. These are the expedient means of the Tathagata to explain. ... All spiritual nature is inexplicable. Why is it so? All spiritual nature is ultimately empty; it is impossible to explain ultimate emptiness.
The Philosophy of Emptiness or Sunyata
The best known exposition of emptiness or sunyata is by Nagarjuna Bodhisattva (c, CE 150-250) whose sunyata philosophy forms the core of Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism. Nagarjuna explains that nirvana and samsara, or enlightenment and delusion, are two aspects of the same reality. When a person is deluded, he experiences cosmic reality as samsara, or the phenomenal world; when a person is enlightened, he experiences cosmic reality as nirvana, or transcendental emptiness devoid of any dualism, devoid of any differentiation, where there is no difference between the knower and the known.
Nagarjuna emphasizes and elaborates the Buddha's teaching that ultimate reality is devoid of phenomena, and the phenomenal world we see is our interpretation of reality according to our set of conditions. In his adoration of the Buddha at the very start of his Mula Madhyamaka Karika (Treatise on the Mean), which is one of the most important scriptures in Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism, Nagarjuna says:
- I pay homage to the Fully Awakened One,
- the supreme teacher who has taught
- the doctrine of relational origination,
- the blissful cessation of all phenomenal thought construction.
- Therein, every event is marked by
- non-origination, non-extinction,
- non-destruction, non-permanence,
- non-identity, non-differentiation,
- non-coming into being, non-going out of being.
As it is not easy to understand emptiness, Buddhist masters often compare it with something that is more familiar. The ten analogies commonly used to describe emptiness: are:
- illusion (maya).
- mirage (marici).
- moon in water (udaka-candra).
- empty space (akasa).
- sound (pratisrutka).
- kingdoms of heavenly musicians (gandharva nagara).
- dream (svapna).
- shadow (pratibhasa).
- image in mirror (pratibimba).
- vaporization (nirmita).
- internal emptiness (adhyatma-sunyata) -- emptiness of the six internal organs: eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and intellect.
- external emptiness (bahirdha-sunyata) -- emptiness of six external realms: form, sound, odour, smell, touch, and perception.
- internal-external emptiness (adhyatma-bahirdha-sunyata) -- emptiness of combination of the six internal organs and six external realms.
- great emptiness (maha-sunyata) -- "great" refers to the ten directions, thus emptiness of ten directions or all space.
- supreme emptiness (paramartha-sunyata) -- the supreme attainment is nirvana, and nirvana is empty, thus emptiness of nirvana.
- empty emptiness (sunyata-sunyata) -- all dharmas are empty, and such emptiness is also empty, thus empty emptiness.
- mundane emptiness (samskrta-sunyata) -- emptiness of the mundane worlds, i.e. the three phenomenal spheres of desires, form, and non-form.
- supramundane emptiness (asamskrta-sunyata) -- emptiness of the supramundane, i.e. emptiness of the birthless and deathless.
- ultimate emptiness (atyanta-sunyata) -- emptiness of the ultimate realms.
- endless emptiness (anavargra-sunyata) -- emptiness of endless beginning, or emptiness of beginningless origin.
- non-diffusion emptiness (anavakara-sunyata) -- particular in Wisdom Sutras, "non-diffusion" refers to non-activity, non-abiding of dharmas, non-arising and non-terminating.
- original-nature emptiness (prakrti-sunyata) -- original nature or ultimate reality is empty.
- self-characteristic emptiness (svalaksana-sunyata) -- self-characteristics are ultimately empty.
- non-attainable emptiness (anupalambha-sunyata) -- emptiness is non-attainable in the phenomenal world.
- non-nature emptiness (abhava-sunyata) -- phenomena have no ultimate nature.
- self-nature emptiness (svabhava-sunyata) -- dharmas accumulate to constitute selves.
- non-nature self-nature emptiness (abhava-svabhava-sunyata) -- combination of non-nature and self-nature emptiness.
- elimination emptiness (vikkhambhana sunna) -- emptiness as a result of elimination of greed, anger, doubt, distraction, ignorance.
- activity emptiness (sankhara-sunna) -- emptiness of activity.
- characteristic emptiness (lakkhanasunna) -- emptiness of characteristics.
All phenomena, therefore, are illusory; they are like a mirage, the moon in water, an image in a mirror, or a dream. They have no characteristics of their own, and are devoid of self-nature. Because of our delusion, we mistakenly think that phenomena, such as people and animals, rivers and mountains, stars and galaxies, are objectively or ultimately real; if we are enlightened, we shall find that actually there are no phenomena. In the phenomenal world, a thought, an emotion or a building may arise or cease to be; an intention or an action may be considered defiled or pure; new monks may be added to the monastic order or some money may be subtracted from your bank account. But in ultimate reality, there is nothing arising or ceasing; nothing defiled or pure, nothing is added or subtracted; ultimate reality is all tranquil and undifferentiated.