Sunday, January 2, 2011

Maya and the Illusion of Perception and Reality in the World

Lena Olin in Unbearable Lightness of Being
In the Hindu and Buddhist tradition there is the mention of Maya, which is generally defined as the illusion we face in our everyday lives. It is Maya (literally meaning “Not-That”) that blocks our true perception of Reality, Truth and the real meaning of life.

But where exactly does this illusion lie? In other words, what creates this illusion or gap between our perception of the world and its reality, the “such-ness” of the world. Is it inherent in the source itself; is the world itself not real but an illusion, or does the problem exist because of our “perception” of the world? Does it reside in our minds then?

It is a worthwhile question. If what looks like reality is indeed reality, if there is a “real” material world out there, then we would not have to doubt it anymore. Instead it would become a psychological matter of “cleansing” the mind, of attempting to see things as they really are.

I would spend less time philosophically and existentially on examining (the) matter, but will see and accept everything as truly and undoubtedly there. Seeing will be believing. And I would say, hey listen, Descartes, the world out there exists, I exist as well, now let us synchronize the two and achieve a vision of truth and reality. We do not look at the world existentially anymore, but rather psychologically.

This is not Plato's posture, however. To Plato the world is simply appearance. All things have a perfect eternal source, but the way they appear is only its copy, an imprint, an imitation. The Form is itself the true object while many diminutive forms exist in the world. It is like a fax; the imprint is the same, but it is only a copy of the original document. At its extreme, all things on Earth no matter how faithful they look are “forgeries” then.

What would such a worldview entail? This would mean that we need to “train” our mind to be able to see through things as they appear in order to get a glimpse of its real ultimate Source or Form. This is, in Platonic tradition, achieved through reason and deductive logic.

Still there would be a gap there that could be filled with the concept of God or a Supreme Being. The highest good there is would be perfect and eternal in nature, just as the monotheistic religious tradition claims. The world we see in our daily lives are only shadows on the wall compared to the true life and meaning in the other heavenly world. That was one of the reasons why Plato became a perfect mouthpiece for the Christian religion.

On the other hand, to return to our first argument, if the world is the Form itself – if the two of them are identical and match perfectly - then there would be nothing beyond our world; therefore, an idea about a Platonic Form as the real essence would be a case of faulty thinking or simply Maya. If the Reality is there, right in front of our noses, it is our own fault of being too blind or too confused to perceive it as it is.

Which one is it then? There is an example in Buddhist thought that may be reconciled with Plato's ideas. It goes with the saying that the map is not the territory or that the finger pointing to the moon is not the moon itself. In my opinion, this is true.

The world as we see it is in fact a perfect case of illusion. With modern technology we have been able to delve deeper into the subatomic world and there is definitely more than meets the eye. These findings will have sooner or later repercussions on our religious and philosophical beliefs.

The world becomes then a veil created, sustained and incorporated by the Cosmos. Now the Cosmos could be the embodiment of Brahman in the Hindu tradition or God as defined in the Christian tradition. This view, however, would mean that God is the world and that has a mystic flavor to it (what some Christians would define as a "bitter taste"). It can be reconciled with Plato's views and is Spinozian in nature.

And at this point, we have suddenly turned full circle and combined what seemed like a gap between two perceptions. Perhaps the world is really one whole, both interacting and harmonious within its little parts or monads, as Leibniz would say. Maya may lie in the faulty assumption that there is indeed any gap between the two. One is the other the same way drops make up the ocean.

At best, this is a positive and comforting conclusion and may satisfy and embrace most religions. At its worst, it may add to the endless pathways of Maya. It would be then like looking from a mirror into a reflection in a mirror with absolutely no idea which the real source is or whether such a thing actually exists. We would be caught up in an indeterminate web of self-propagating lies and mirrored deception with nothing solid to fall back on. For better or worse, I prefer the previous option.


Bryan White said...

Tell Descartes I said, hi.

Arash Farzaneh said...

I would, but unfortunately he thinks I don`t really exist ...

John Myste said...

Arash, when I started reading this, I immediately thought of Plato's "Myth of the Cave." Shortly after, you invoked the name of Plato directly.

Then you spoke of the sub-atomic world and I was reminded of the theory that maybe one atom at the tip of a pen holds a universe larger than anything we currently imagine. We may be nothing more than an atom on the tip of something more vast, and as easily extinguished.

If we are an infinitesimally small part of something much greater, something that is so great that our existence and concerns are inconceivable to it, it is highly possible that one day this great thing may drop his pen, and when he does, this atom will be smashed, and with it, every profound concept we ever had a Supreme Beings or an immaterial spiritual essence.

Vincent said...

Personally I agree with whoever thinks God is the world. I also think Plato has a lot to answer for. A book I’m currently reading (The Passion of the Western Mind, by Richard Tarnas) says: “Plato maintained a strong distrust of knowledge gained by sense perceptions, since such knowledge is constantly changing, relative and private to each individual.”

I on the other hand defy my own possession of a “Western mind” by having a strong distrust of knowledge achieved via intellect or cultural inheritance. I look to the sensual and primitive within myself to find God, truth and knowledge. I don’t set the disembodied soul on high but the divine spark in matter, including every cell of my body.

However as I write this, an inner voice speaks to me thus: “That’s all posturing, Vincent! You do believe in an unseen power, and in angels which help bring about miracles. You are just against theorising, and the clinging to any form of belief that’s non-instinctive”.

So, my philosophical position is contradictory and untenable. I’m rather pleased that it’s so.

Enough about me (he said, hypocritically). I love your blog.

Arash Farzaneh said...

I think philosophy has become victim to both rationalization and certainty. The untenable and contradictory is considered "unstable" and "foolish."

So what? I like contradicting myself. After all, we are humans. We are supposed to be right and wrong in equal measure.

I personally like the idea of winged creatures here to protect and guard us. As long as it does no harm, so be it!