Let's Pretend: Surangama Sutra, The Coming into Being of Illusion

Like all toddlers, my two grandchildren enjoy tasting the world. They put all sorts of things in their mouth. Recently Lucas and Noemi have delighted in a new game: they take hold of one of their toy fruits and vegetables and, knowing it’s not a “real” banana or cucmber, hold it close to their mouth, look at me with a twinkle in their eye, and say: “yum yum!” Then they offer it to me, and I join them in their pretend play.

It’s fun to use our senses to explore, and to pretend. A problem arises, though, when we forget our senses are only pretend tastes of the world, not the world itself. There’s a well-researched psychological phenomenon: the more often we see or hear something, the more we believe in it. This tendency is beloved by advertising executives and used in the repeated proclamations of politicians, television gurus, and internet influencers. After the nth retelling and a few thousand “likes,” lies masquerade as common knowledge.

As we go through various stages while we’re growing up, it’s natural to pretend to be firefighters and explorers, teachers and rock stars. We try on images of ourselves and see how they fit. When our pretend play turns into badges of identity, though, we get caught by our pretensions. When I was an adolescent I decided to pretend I liked spicy foods: my friends and I had a game to see who could eat the hottest chili without spitting it out. A few years later when I was living in Tokyo, some Japanese friends heard I liked spicy food and took me to a Korean restaurant. I ordered a soup and the waiter said to me: “you don’t want that, it’s too spicy-hot.” I replied I liked spicy-hot. The waiter insisted: “this is really spicy-hot, I don’t think you’ll like it.” Feeling challenged, I insisted he bring me the soup as my main meal. When it arrived, the soup was a scarlet sea - bright red with not much else in it to temper the pepper puree. My first spoonful told me I’d made a big mistake, but I had to save face, and finish it all. I’m not sure my taste buds ever fully recovered from that trial by fire.

Children like to pretend to be adults. By the time they turn thirty years old, adults often regret how, pretending to be this or that, they’ve locked themselves into restrictive roles. Then adults like to pretend they’re children. Some people are uncomfortable in their work roles or parent roles: they fulfill all their duties but feel like they’re phonies, that they are only pretending to a competence they don’t really have (a competence which nobody “really” has). Other people pretend their work and family roles are who they “really” are: they become so identified with their images that when they retire or their children grow up, they feel they no longer know who they are.

Buddhists sometimes like to pretend they’re Buddhists, sometimes they like to pretend they’re not. There’s always a few people who pretend to be enlightened: this often snares religious communities in scandals of power, sex, and money.

Most of us pretend we are not enlightened. This is very sad.

The Surangama sutra strips away our pretensions to understanding what we are and are not. It reminds us that every time we say “I am seeing /hearing/tasting/touching/thinking that” we’re pretending our illusions are our reality. Perceptions of self and world are refracted through the filters of our Big-I minds. Our illusions of the world are us, bent back onto ourselves: illusions of self projected onto the world, illusions of the world projected onto the self.

It’s not surprising that Buddha’s disciples, having had all their perceptions uprooted, are assailed by doubt. They complain: ‘we don’t understand - Buddha says the Matrix of the Thus Come One is fundamentally pure, empty of any thing which comes into being or ceases to exist. In that case, how do mountains, rivers, and everything else subject to causes and conditions, birth and death - [every material thing, including me and you] - arise? Even very wise Pūrṇamaitrāyaṇīputra laments that when he tries to listen to the Buddha’s discourse he feels he “might as well be a deaf man trying to hear a mosquito from a distance of more than a hundred paces…..”

I’ll paraphrase Buddha’s response. Basically, Buddha sighs.“Ah, Pūrna! Still trying to understand!” Still making conceptual distinctions! Still trying to sort the world into categories!” Still trying to reconcile the many and the one, delusion and enlightenment.

Because the category of what is differentiated and the category of what is uniform have been established, the category of what is neither uniform nor differentiated is further established. The turmoil of this….gives rise to mental strain, and as the mental strain is prolonged, grasping at objects of mind begins…..[this] creates a turbidity of mind, out of which the afflictions are generated.

Does that clarify the matter for you? Or is your mind feeling muddy at this moment?

Thich Nhat Hanh, when teaching meditation, sometimes likes to use the metaphor of a glass of muddy water to represent the mind full of thoughts. If you try to calm the mind by picking out all the little pieces of dirt, you’ll only stir things up and maintain the turbidity. If instead you just settle down and do nothing, the mud will gradually subside and the glass of water will clarify. This is excellent instruction for beginning meditators who strain themselves trying to control their minds by grasping and rejecting mind-objects.

This metaphor, though, can be misleading: it may give the impression that the bits of dirt really exist and the muddy water is really unclear. In the Surangama Sutra Buddha goes further by insisting this, too, is delusion. The muddy water manifests as an illusion in the Matrix of the Thus-Come-One. In true reality, the muddy glass of water is eternally clear throughout all time and space: that clarity just appears, for this moment, as a muddy glass of water.

Our self-centered Big-I mind makes distinctions: muddy, clear. Then we get confused, and we have troubles understanding. Enlightenment, though, is itself wondrous understanding.

Buddha wants us to wake up to how we all are, were, and will be fundamentally enlightened. We mistakenly believe we must become enlightened by gaining some additional understanding. But that would mean our fundamental enlightenment is somehow incomplete, that it needs something extra - that we need something extra.

When we try to add (Big-I) understanding to wondrous (G-B) enlightened understanding, we trip over our own feet:

An enlightenment to which an understanding is added cannot be a true enlightenment……
an enlightenment that lacks understanding cannot be the true intrinsic enlightenment that is inherently pure…..
Once the category of ‘something understood’ is mistakenly established in the mind, the category ‘that which understands’ is mistakenly established as well.

When you or I try to understand something, we separate ourselves from what we wish to understand. This creates a seemingly unbridgeable chasm where self and other can never meet. The illusion of “self” and “objects” alienates us from our true world of inter-being. This delusion is the root of all suffering.

Let’s take a concrete example. We all have phases where we’re slumbering in bed and periods where we’re aroused and going about our business. We assume “I” wake up and “I” go to sleep. However, while we’re dozing our brain stays active and our heart continues to beat. Who is this dragon who never sleeps? To think you are “out of it” when asleep and “with it” when awake is an illusion.

Sometimes, when I go to bed, I say to myself: “time for dream-self to wake up.” Often, when I get up in the morning, first thing I say to myself is: “how did that (waking up) happen?” When the mind wanders during meditation, and the mind notices itself wandering - what is the mind which embraces wandering, embraces catching itself, and embraces catching itself catching?

My eight year old daughter once posed a riddle: “why did the girl close her eyes when she looked in the mirror?” The answer: “to see herself asleep.”Whenever we look at ourselves with Big-I mind, we are looking in the mirror with our eyes closed, we are asleep thinking we’re awake.

When our inner eye is not open, we make false discriminations between asleep/awake, enlightenment/delusion. We don’t realize: we are always fully right where we are, whether asleep or awake. To think otherwise is like thinking the sun is “gone” when it sets at night, and “there” when it rises in the morning. The sun is always there: we just turn away from it for a while every twenty-four hours. The stars are always there: we just are too dazzled sometimes to see them. Enlightenment is like the sun: it is not a lamp that needs to be plugged in, that turns on and off: it offers itself to us as an ever-present star. Enlightenment is like the dark that reveals the stars: nothing needs to be extinguished or snuffed out to go beyond understanding.

Not understanding opens the horizons of wonder. Understanding has its practical uses, but it also causes major problems. As Shakyamuni says:

[once understanding arises] there arises a firm attachment to that understanding, and this firm attachment is categorized as solidity.
A point of light is seen to appear. When the light is seen clearly, deluded thoughts arise — both hatred in response to incompatible points of view and love in response to compatible ways of thinking.

Light is wonderful, but it also pollutes: in most urban areas at night now, we cannot see the stars. In the light of knowledge, we become attached to our dualistic distinctions. We identify with our limited ideas of who (me not you) and what (this not that). From these illusions come desire and aversion, bringing suffering. Darkness, if we do not violate it with light, has its own means for dispelling illusion.

Wendell Berry’s poem is apt:

To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.

At this moment, you are thinking something different from what I am thinking. In the light of thinking we know what we know, skin colors divide us, voices are upper- and lower-class, tastes are pleasing or harsh. But also at this moment, you are not-thinking what I am not thinking. As the Sandokai says, “the dark makes all forms one.” In dark non-knowing, beyond understanding, there is no color nor sound no taste no smell no touch no object of mind: no racist divisions, no highs nor lows, no inequality, no equality.

One of the Lojong guidelines for cultivating compassion is: “Don’t try to figure things out.” When I first learned that, I was shocked. I like figuring things out. Then I remembered how frustrated my loved ones and friends can get when they want me to just listen to them, and instead I start analyzing and problem-solving. Trying to figure things out can get in the way of empathizing and being fully present.

As soon as we start to figure things out, we identify causes and conditions: we find reasons to blame someone or something for our difficulties. If we encounter suffering without trying to analyze it, we can respond naturally with loving-kindness. When I attend my daughter’s middle-school concert, I can cavil about ragged entrances, wince at wrong notes, and protest problems with pitch. Deeper down, though, there is nothing but love. When my daughter comes up to me after the concert and asks how I liked it, I can respond sincerely: it was wonderful.

Zen master Gensha liked to say: “all the universe is One Bright Pearl.” One day a student said to him: “you teach that ‘all the universe is one bright pearl - but I don’t understand. How can I gain an understanding?” Gensha replied: “All the universe is One Bright Pearl - what need is there to understand it?”

Our need for understanding comes from pride (“I am only as good as what I understand”) and fear (“if I don’t understand what’s going on, I’ll lose all control of the situation”). Understanding, though, is not insight. Insight turns us back to the fundamentals, looking for the teachings within us, our in-tuition. There’s not only nothing shameful about not understanding, it often is the spark we need to bring out previously unthought-of perspectives. Sometimes my students will start asking me about something by saying “This is a stupid question, but…” Usually, what follows is a great question. It’s often about something which I’ve taken for granted, and the student’s inquiry challenges me to go deeper. As my teacher Sojun sometimes would say, “If you want to realize enlightenment, you have to be willing to be a little bit stupid.”

A little bit stupid, though, is not the same as ignorant. Ignorance is the breeding ground for delusion. If you grasp at understanding you aggressively break the universe apart into small bits. This violates the universe. However, if you settle for not understanding, you’ll miss out on the wonders of the universe. This dishonors the universe.

It’s not a matter of understanding or not-understanding, not a matter of illusion and not-illusion, not a matter of “is” and “is not.” All these do is perpetuate dualistic distinctions. Whenever we separate delusion from clarity, we tend to treat clarity as better, as more “real.” We tend to treat delusion as if, being false, it were also “unreal” - perhaps even evil. A successful illusion, though, is completely real in its deceptiveness, and can be destructive or beneficial. The myth of WMDs in Iraq justified a war; the placebo “illusion” has very real curative effects.

Clarity is ungraspable and transparently invisible - how can you call it “real?” That which does not exist is very real in its non-existence. As the Tao Te Ching says, “that which is not penetrates every crack.” If that which does not exist were unreal, where would we find the space which provides us room for all that exists?

Trying too hard to understand false and real can give you a head ache. Before pinning your hopes on understanding false and real, right and wrong, enlightenment and delusion, consider the limits of our understanding. There will always be more that we do not understand than we do understand. To paraphrase Ivan in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov: we have three-dimensional brains, how can we hope to understand a universe which has ten dimensions (or more, according to scientists and mathematicians). Even more fundamentally: do you think it is possible to truly understand yourself? If not, how could you possibly understand anyone else - let alone Buddha-dharma?

Do we even understand what understanding is? School systems have problems measuring it; philosophers have troubles defining it. Zen insists words cannot describe our understanding, even though we are continually demonstrating our understanding by how we live. We realize our enlightenment by how we stand here and face now.

Luminous, wondrous, enlightened understanding is is not a cognitive operation (though it is includes, and is not separate from, cognition). It is always in good standing; it underlies all.

What is under standing?
- The Great Earth.

What is under The Great Earth?
- The center.

What at the center of the center?
- A dimensionless point.

In meditation we cultivate intimacy with this center, with this dimensionless point, not by understanding it (or not understanding it). We cultivate this center by harmonizing body-and-mind, dropping body-and-mind, settling the self on the Self, as described in the Tao Te Ching:

Reach the pole of emptiness
- abide, still, in the center.

Constant things co-arising
- see them turn and re-turn.

Return to the root
- at the root to be still

In stillness recover, revive, and endure.


My teacher Sojun once said: “I could explain it to you, but it would be doing you a dis-service.”




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