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On Divine Play

                                                                                                                The one consciousness which is whole and integral
                                                                                                                thus divides into two streams in order to provide
                                                                                                                this subjective-objective play of manifestation –
                                                                                                                this Lila of Bhagavan.
                                                                                                                                                                 ~ I. K. Taimni

                                                                                                                 Play is the exultation of the possible.

                                                                                                                                                                 ~ Martin Buber

In a prior essay ("Many Worlds, Many Entries") on the Additional Content page of this website, I mentioned two mottos that arose during one of our "Purpose Games": "Appreciate the universe (in both senses of the word "appreciate"—to increase, to understand)," and "Realize all possibilities (in both senses of the word "realize"—to make real, actualize; to understand)." In that essay, these were presented in the context of the Principle of Plenitude: that the Universe is very full, that any thing that might exist actually does exist, that the Universe and Nature are extremely generous in their productions, that the world at large is—in the words of the Neoplatonist Plotinus—"that fountain ever on." The principle is not unlike physicist Freeman Dyson's Principle of Maximum Diversity: that the laws of nature, and the initial conditions at the beginning of time, are such as to make the universe as full and as interesting as possible.

Here, I introduce those two mottos again—this time, in the context of play and, more specifically, in the context of Hinduism's concept of Lila, a Sanskrit term that might be translated as "play," "pastime," "game," or "sport." The flavor of Lila, as the creative cosmic play of the divine absolute (Brahman), is conveyed well by the following quotations:

Brahman is full of all perfections. And to say that Brahman has some purpose in creating the world will mean that it wants to attain through the process of creation something which it has not. And that is impossible. Hence, there can be no purpose of Brahman in creating the world. The world is a mere spontaneous creation of Brahman. It is a Lila, or sport, of Brahman. It is created out of Bliss, by Bliss and for Bliss. Lila indicates a spontaneous sportive activity of Brahman as distinguished from a self-conscious volitional effort. The concept of Lila signifies freedom as distinguished from necessity. (Misra, 1957/1998)

The relation of Purusa to Prakrti—the unfolding force of nature—becomes here a relation of male to female. . . . The basic cosmogonic motif of an unfolding or flowering cosmos is expressed here specifically in the relation of male to female, as well as in terms of consciousness and intentionality (in the concept of lila as the divine play of male and female). (Zimmer & Campbell, 1969)

The Vendantic yogi never tires of stating that kaivalya, 'isolation-integration,' can be attained only by turning away from the distracting allure of the world and worshiping with single-pointed attention the formless Brahman-Atman; to the Tantric, however—as to the normal child of the world—this notion seems pathological, the wrong-headed effect of a certain malady of intellect. . . . 'I like eating sugar,' as Ramprasad said, 'but I have no desire to become sugar.' Let those who suffer from the toils of samsara seek release: the perfect devotee does not suffer; for he can both visualize and experience life and the universe as the revelation of that Supreme Divine Force (shakti) with which he is in love, the all-comprehensive Divine Being in its cosmic aspect of playful, aimless display (lila)—which precipitates pain as well as joy, but in its bliss transcends them both. (Bastin, 2002)

Suffering, struggle, loss, and gain are part of the natural realm, the samsaric realm, just as they are inherent to any sport or game. The possibility of suffering and defeat in sports enhances the pleasure of the fans; similarly, suffering, death and loss in samsara enhance the pleasure of the Lord, the Ultimate Fan of the lila-vibhuti, the realm of sport. (Nelson, 1998)

The basic recurring theme in Hindu mythology is the creation of the world by the self-sacrifice of God - 'sacrifice' in the original sense of 'making sacred'—whereby God becomes the world which, in the end, becomes again God. This creative activity of the Divine is called lila, the play of God, and the world is seen as the stage of the divine play. Like most of Hindu mythology, the myth of lila has a strong magical flavour. Brahman is the great magician who transforms himself into the world and he performs this feat with his 'magic creative power', which is the original meaning of maya in the Rig Veda. The word maya—one of the most important terms in Indian philosophy—has changed its meaning over the centuries. From the might, or power, of the divine actor and magician, it came to signify the psychological state of anybody under the spell of the magic play. As long as we confuse the myriad forms of the divine lila with reality, without perceiving the unity of Brahman underlying all these forms, we are under the spell of maya.
     Maya, therefore, does not mean that the world is an illusion, as is often wrongly stated. The illusion merely lies in our point of view, if we think that the shapes and structures, things and events, around us are realities of nature, instead of realizing that they are concepts of our measuring and categorizing minds. Maya is the illusion of taking these concepts for reality, of confusing the map with the territory.
In the Hindu view of nature, then, all forms are relative, fluid and ever-changing maya, conjured up by the great magician of the divine play.
     The world of maya changes continuously, because the divine lila is a rhythmic, dynamic play. The dynamic force of the play is karma, another important concept of Indian thought. Karma means 'action'. It is the active principle of the play, the total universe in action, where everything is dynamically connected with everything else. In the words of the Gita 'Karma is the force of creation, wherefrom all things have their life.' (Capra, 1975, pp. 87-88)

It is interesting that Hindus, when they speak of the creation of the universe do not call it the work of God, they call it the play of God, the Vishnu lila, lila meaning play. And they look upon the whole manifestation of all the universes as a play, as a sport, as a kind of dance--lila perhaps being somewhat related to our word lilt. (Watts, 1997)

In order to arouse and develop this sympathy and fellow-feeling with nature Tagore founded a school at Santiniketan in his native Bengal in which the pupils, through being in constant contact with natural things, were to be led to the apprehension of the divine. Under his affectionate care work was made to resemble play and every day was thus a holiday, that is, a holy day. He wished his pupils to be like God whose work is at the same time his play—his karma is his lila—effortless effort expected in joy. (Zaehner, 1962, p. 190)

There is an old Sanskrit word, Lila (Leela), which means play. Richer than our word, it means divine play, the play of creation and destruction and re-creation, the folding and unfolding of the cosmos. Lila, free and deep, is both delight and enjoyment of this moment, and the play of God. It also means love. Lila may be the simplest thing there is---spontaneous, childish, disarming. But as we grow and experience the complexities of life, it may also be the most difficult and hard won achievement imaginable, and its coming to fruition is a kind of homecoming to our true selves. (Nachmanovitch, 1990, p. 1)

I sometimes have remarked that if I were stranded on a desert island and could have only one book with me, that book would be a thick dictionary. This is because I always have maintained that one can learn a great deal—about the world and about human behavior—simply by studying the origins, meanings, and interrelationships of words. For example, even a cursory examination of various English words based on the Latin roots for play—the noun ludus and the verb ludere—can reveal much about the nature of both lila and maya. The following are some examples. Note how nicely these seven English words reflect aspects of lila and maya, play and "illusion":

Allude – to play with, to make indirect reference, refer (point to Brahman)
Allusion - indirect reference, hint
Elude - avoid adroitly, evade, to escape the perception understanding, or grasp of
Elusive - evade grasp or pursuit, hard to identify or comprehend
Elusion - deception
Ludicrous – amusing or laughable through obvious absurdity, incongruity, exaggeration, or eccentricity; meriting derisive laughter or scorn as absurdly inept, false, or foolish
Illusion – that which deceives misleads, or is misapprehended (its root means play and mocking)

Our understanding can be enhanced even further by considering additional meanings of the two Latin roots (ludus, ludere) themselves, and their derivatives:

Ludus – play, game, sport, pastime, trifle, jest, joke, a training establishment, school
Ludi – public games or spectacles
Ludum dare – to give free play to
Ludere – to play, to sport, to play at, to play with, to imitate, to banter, to deceive, to delude

Keys to the understanding of lila are the ideas of play, a play, performance, magical creation, illusion, misapprehension, effortlessness, the realm of appearances and their underlying substratum, transience and permanence. Also important to understanding lila is the essential complementarity of all of Nature's Ten Thousand Things, a recognition of the necessary co-occurrence of the this and its contrary that: that there can be no light without darkness, no good without evil, no such thing as a stick with only one end or a coin with only one side.

In The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, which I highly recommend, Alan Watts presents the following delightful tale about divine play:

It's . . . like the game of hide-and-seek, because it's always fun to find new ways of hiding, and to seek for someone who doesn't always hide in the same place.
God also likes to play hide-and-seek, but because there is nothing outside God, he has no one but himself to play with. But he gets over this difficulty by pretending that he is not himself. This is his way of hiding from himself. He pretends that he is you and I and all the people in the world, all the animals, all the plants, all the rocks, and all the stars. In this way he has strange and wonderful adventures, some of which are terrible and frightening. But these are just like bad dreams, for when he wakes up they will disappear.
Now when God plays hide and pretends that he is you and I, he does it so well that it takes him a long time to remember where and how he hid himself. But that's the whole fun of it—just what he wanted to do. He doesn't want to find himself too quickly, for that would spoil the game. That is why it is so difficult for you and me to find out that we are God in disguise, pretending not to be himself. But when the game has gone on long enough, all of us will wake up, stop pretending, and remember that we are all one single Self—the God who is all that there is and who lives for ever and ever. . . .
God is the Self of the world, but you can't see God for the same reason that, without a mirror, you can't see your own eyes, and you certainly can't bite your own teeth or look inside your head. Your self is that cleverly hidden because it is God hiding.
You may ask why God sometimes hides in the form of horrible people, or pretends to be people who suffer great disease and pain. Remember, first, that he isn't really doing this to anyone but himself. Remember, too, that in almost all the stories you enjoy there have to be bad people as well as good people, for the thrill of the tale is to find out how the good people will get the better of the bad. It's the same as when we play cards. At the beginning of the game we shuffle them all into a mess, which is like the bad things in the world, but the point of the game is to put the mess into good order, and the one who does it best is the winner. Then we shuffle the cards once more and play again, and so it goes with the world. (Watts, 1989, pp. 11-14)

[Note: For a more complete version of this wonderful tale by Alan Watts, click here.]

In a later section of the book, Watts writes more about play and lila:

To play so as to be relaxed and refreshed for work is not to play, and no work is well and finely done unless it, too, is a form of play.
To be released from the "You must survive" double-bind is to see that life is at root playing. The difficulty in understanding this is that the idea of "play" has two distinct meanings which are often confused. On the one hand, to do something only or merely in play, is to be trivial and insincere, and here we should use the word "toying" instead of "playing." . . . On the other hand, there is a form of playing which is not trivial at all, as when Segovia plays the guitar or Sir Laurence Olivier plays the part of Hamlet, or, obviously, when someone plays the organ in church. In this sense of the word Saint Gregory Nazianzen could say of the Logos, the creative wisdom of God:

For the Logos on high plays,
stirring the whole cosmos back and forth, as he wills,
into shapes of every kind.

And, at the other end of the earth, the Japanese Zen master Hakuin:

In singing and dancing is the voice of the Law.

So, too, in the Vedanta the whole world is seen as the lila and the maya of the Self, the first word meaning "play" and the second having the complex sense of illusion (from the Latin ludere, to play), magic, creative power, art, and measuring—as when one dances or draws a design to a certain measure. From this point of view the universe in general and playing in particular are, in a special sense, "meaningless": that is, they do not—like words and symbols—signify or point to something beyond themselves, just as a Mozart sonata conveys no moral or social message and does not try to suggest the natural sounds of wind, thunder, or birdsong. (Watts, 1969, pp. 118-119)

A Recognition of the Importance of Play?

It may be useful for me to share an experience of many years ago. I was fixing breakfast, and the television was on in the background. As I listened to what was being discussed on the TV, an interesting thought arose. I thought of the great (excessive?) amount of attention and money associated with three occupations—sports, acting/performing, and fiction writing ("best sellers"). Think of the vast media attention, celebrity, and outrageously high pay that certain sports figures, actors, performers, and some fiction writers (the "successful" ones) receive. Think of this, especially, in comparison with what is received by educators, service providers, scientists, scholars, and those engaged in other very useful and essential occupations. It occurred to me that this great attention and pay could be a kind of unconscious recognition, within certain societies and at certain times, of the great importance of play, of lila—for play is what these greatly compensated individuals are doing in their "work."

My purpose in writing this short essay was to provide merely a taste of some of the special meanings and other aspects of lila. For more nourishing treatments, the interested reader can consult the sources cited above, as well as additional works by Sax (1995) and Laude (2005).


Bastin, R. (2002). The domain of constant excess: Plural worship at the Munnesvaram temples in Sri Lanka. New York: Berghahn Books.

Capra, F. (1975). The tao of physics. Boulder, CO: Shambhala Publications.

Laude, P. (2005). Divine play, sacred laughter, and spiritual understanding. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Misra, R. S. (1998) The integral advaitism of Sri Aurobindo. Delhi, India: Motilal Banarsidass. (Original work published 1957)

Nachmanovitch, S. (1990). Free play: Improvisation in life and art. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam.

Nelson, L. E. (1998). Purifying the earthly body of God: Religion and ecology in Hindu India. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Sax, W. S. (1995). The gods at play: Lila in South Asia. London: Oxford University Press.

Taimni, I. K. (1975). The science of Yoga. Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House.

Watts, A. (1969). The book: On the taboo against knowing who you are. New York: Collier.

Watts, A. (1997). Zen and the beat way. Boston: Tuttle Publishing.

Zaehner, R. C. (1962). Hinduism. London: Oxford University Press.

Zimmer, H., & Campbell, J. (1969). Philosophies of India. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

I have always been delighted at the prospect of a new day, a fresh try, one more start, with perhaps a bit of magic waiting somewhere behind the morning.
~J. B. Priestley

That's the thing with magic. You've got to know it's still here, all around us, or it just stays invisible for you.
~Charles de Lint

One way can be learned by starting to see the magic in everything. Sometimes it seems to be hiding but it is always there. The more we can see the magic in one thing, a tiny flower, a mango, someone we love, then the more we are able to see the magic in everything and in everyone. Where does the mango stop and the sky begin?
~Joshua Kadison

Science is always discovering odd scraps of magical wisdom and making a tremendous fuss about its cleverness.
~Aleister Crowley

The universe is full of magical things, patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper.
~Eden Phillpotts

"Illusion" and "Reality"

                                                                                              Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.
                                                                                                                                                       ~  Albert Einstein

                                                                                              We read the world wrong and say that it deceives us.
                                                                                                                                                       ~  Rabindranath Tagore

                                                                                              Pray look better, Sir... those things yonder are no giants, but windmills.
                                                                                                                                                      ~  Miguel De Cervantes

                                                                                             What difference is there, do you think, between those in Plato's cave                                                                                                          who can only marvel at the shadows and images of various objects,                                                                                                            provided they are content and don't know what they miss, and the                                                                                                              philosopher who has emerged from the cave and sees the real things?
                                                                                                                                                      ~  Desiderius Erasmus

Illusions and related experiences

Let's begin by distinguishing Illusion from several related experiences:
  • An illusion is a perception of a real stimulus, but the experience of that stimulus is misperceived or misinterpreted and departs from what is known about that stimulus if it were to be sensed or measured in a different manner. Subsets of illusion include optical illusions and the illusions of a magician.
  • A delusion is a mistaken or unsubstantiated belief that is held with very strong feelings or opinions and usually is expressed very forcefully.
  • A hallucination is a perception that occurs in a conscious and awake state (so as to distinguish this from dreaming) in the absence of an external stimulus and that has qualities of real perception: What is perceived tends to be vivid, substantial, and located in external objective space.
  • In synesthesia, experiencing something in one sensory mode (e.g., hearing a sound) is accompanied, usually involuntarily, by a very specific experience in one or more other sensory modes (e.g., the sound is accompanied by a visual image and/or a taste).
  • Imagery, or what might better be called mental imagery, is the subjective experiencing of content in the absence of a corresponding external stimulus. A simple definition might be "pictures in the mind." However, imagery need not be only in the visual mode. Any of the senses can be represented in imagery. The mental content usually is nonlinguistic and usually is voluntary, although it is possible to "image" or "imagine" words, and imagery production sometimes can be involuntary or spontaneous. For example, I find it almost impossible to hear Waltz 2 from Dimitri Shostakovich's Suite for Variety Orchestra (especially if it is performed at the appropriate tempo) and not have very vivid imagery of couples in period clothing spinning around a large ballroom floor.
Each of these five kinds of experiences may occur in any sense modality. However, because we humans tend to emphasize vision so very much, most of the examples mentioned here will be visual in nature.

Optical Illusions

A representative selection of familiar optical illusions is shown below.

In the first (Müller-Lyer) illusion, the two horizontal lines actually are of equal length; in the second (Vertical-Horizontal) illusion, the vertical and horizontal lines are of equal length; in the third (Poggendorff) illusion, the two diagonal lines are not displaced but are perfectly aligned with one another; and in the fourth (Chessboard) illusion, the two squares near the center and near the upper left that are marked A and B are actually of the same brightness.

Illusions in the Natural World

Of greater interest are the illusions we experience in the natural world. These involve either misperceptions or misinterpretations of what we see. For example, under poor lighting conditions, a rope may be mistaken for a snake. To an apprehensive child in a dark room at night, a bundle of clothes may appear to be a scary monster. A straight pencil may seem to bend or break in two when placed in water.

An extremely compelling natural visual illusion is the moon illusion, in which, to the naked eye, the moon, especially when full, appears much larger when it is near the horizon than when it is much higher or overhead.

Of course, the moon's size does not really change. In fact, if actual physical measures are taken, the moon appears 1.5 percent smaller when it is near the horizon than when it is high in the sky, because it is farther away by up to one Earth radius and also because greater atmospheric light bending makes the moon image appear somewhat smaller, vertically.

Although there have been attempts to explain the moon illusion for over 100 years, there still is no agreement as to which explanation or theory is the most correct one. For a review of the many explanations that have been proposed, the interested reader may consult Hershenson (1989) and Ross and Plug (2002).

An interesting natural illusion that is not very well known is the "snow illusion." When one views a car driving through snow, it appears that the snow from the wheels moves backwards and away from the car. In fact, the snow never moves backwards; instead, it moves forward, upward, and downward. The path taken by a particle of snow on the outermost part of a tire, provided that the tire is not stuck or slipping in the snow, takes the form of a curve known as a cycloid:

Notice that at no point does the curve have a backward-directed component; it has only forward and upward and downward components. The snow expelled by the tire moves only forward, upward, and downward. It appears that the snow is moving backwards because one's eyes track the forward-moving car, and in relation to that movement the snow seems to be moving backward. If one steadily views one spot on the road, rather than tracking the moving car, one can see the actual forward, upward, and downward movements of the snow itself.

The cycloid curve has an interesting history and properties. This curve, which is the path traced by a fixed point on the circumference of a wheel as it rolls without slipping upon a fixed straight line, was studied by Nicholas of Cusa, Mersenne, Descartes, Pascal, Wren, and others, and was named by Galileo in 1599. Among its curious properties are that it is the fastest distance between an upper and lower point in space (a straight line is the shortest distance between those two points but the cycloid is the fastest), and if objects are placed at many very different locations on identical cycloid-shaped tracks, and released at the same time, they all reach the bottom of the tracks at the same time, regardless of their very different original starting points (due to different acceleration values at the various points on the curve).

Still another very compelling natural illusion involves what appears to happen when one tosses a small stone into the center of a pond and observes the concentric ringlets that ripple out across the surface of the still water. It seems that certain portions of the water (the wavelets) move horizontally and outwardly from the place where the stone plopped into the water to the outer perimeter of the pond. Actually, no specific water molecules move horizontally. Instead, all of the water molecules move only upward and downward, standing in place. It is true that a wave pattern does move horizontally, but no one drop or portion of water moves from the pond's center to its periphery: Different molecules/drops/portions of water participate in the water's apparent horizontal motion.

Something very similar to the above happens when one moves the end of a rope up and down to create a wave or ripple in the rope. It seems that "something" moves from one's hand down the rope to its opposite end. But, of course, nothing physical moves horizontally through the rope. Each part of the rope moves only up and down. Different parts of the rope participate in the apparent horizontal movement of "something" from one end of the rope to the other.

I sometimes have used the pond ripples and rope waves as analogies for what might happen in the cases of the reincarnation type. Although it may seem that the same "person" moves through time to incarnate at different times and places, perhaps it is some sort of pattern, rather an individual personality, that propagates through time—just as it is a pattern that propagates through the pond and through the rope—using quite different individual instantiations (physical components) to produce the illusion of the same entity moving through time and space. And might that pattern be a sometimes recurrent archetypal pattern that instantiates at different times and places?

Susceptibility to Illusions
As is the case for nearly every human experience, ability, and skill, there are individual differences in the degree to which persons are susceptible to optical illusions. Two findings of such differences that are especially interesting are those of Segall, Campbell, and Herskovitz (1966) and of Hartgrove (1975).

Segall et al. found that persons who lived in "circular cultures"—such as the Zulu people of South Africa who live in round huts and plow their fields in circles rather than rows—were less susceptible to optical illusions such as Müller-Lyer illusion than were Western participants who lived in "carpentered worlds" rich in rectangles, squares, right angles, and parallel lines.

Hartgrove (1975) found that practitioners of Transcendental Meditation showed less susceptibility to optical illusions—i.e., showed less errors in making judgments about various components of the illusions—presented immediately following a period of meditation than did comparable control participants following a similar period of rest and relaxation. It may not be unreasonable to suggest that just as a relatively mild form of meditation can allow one to "see through" optical illusions, so too might more profound meditational practices—as recommended in the wisdom and spiritual traditions—allow one to "see through" the much more impressive illusions of maya and recognize the greater reality that is behind maya's veil.

Adaptation to Illusions

Of great importance is our ability to adapt or habituate rapidly to illusions and to other distortions of reality. We quickly become accustomed to what we are experiencing—however distorted it may be—and it soon becomes familiar, "normal," and real to us.

One of the most common instances of such adaptation is our adjustment to an upside-down world. What we look at casts an inverted image upon our retinas. In addition, because we have two eyes, we should see two inverted images of the world. Our brain quickly does its job of somehow correcting these sensations, and we quickly learn to appreciate and respond to the world in an adaptive way.

What happens naturally can be simulated artificially in order to study the process more closely. Research participants have been asked to wear glasses with prisms that invert everything seen before the images reach their eyes. At first, the world seems upside down to these participants. However, after a few days, the brain does it job, and the world once again appears right side up. When the inverting prism glasses are removed, the world again appears upside down, but this, too, quickly adapts and the "normal" appearance of the visual world returns.

Lessons and Spiritual Implications

From the consideration of illusions and other distortions and of our susceptibility and adaptation to these we can learn several lessons, some of which are rich in transpersonal and spiritual implications. Regarding illusions, we are able to make the following observations and summary statements:
  • Some perceptions and interpretations can be deceptive and misleading.
  • Illusions are distorted or misinterpreted real perceptions.
  • In the case of an illusion, something is perceived but not "correctly."
  • The stimulus and the perception are both real but not in the usual way.
  • A certain perception and interpretation can be real, yet not as real as another.
  • Illusory perceptions and interpretations can be not true and, at the same time, not false.
  • Illusional perceptions are shared by others but not equally or by all. 
  • Experiencing the illusions of magicians reveals our basic desire to "figure things out" and to seek and find a something else or a More beyond the obvious.
  • Perhaps the basic lesson of illusions of all types is that things are not always what they appear to be and that there are other ways of apprehending, appreciating, and interpreting the world, beyond what seems immediately obvious.

It is possible to make some connections between what we know about illusions and misleading interpretations and certain transpersonal and spiritual concepts and constructs. The most immediately obvious of these are parallels with Hindu and Buddhist understandings of lila and maya. In short, the divine play of lila may be likened to a magician's creation of illusions, and maya may be likened to the incomplete or misleading perceptions and interpretations of those illusions—the illusions, in this case, being our misunderstandings of the ultimate nature of ourselves and of the physical world around us.

Fritjof Capra's words, already cited in the "On Divine Play" essay immediately above, provide useful clues regarding the parallels between what we know about illusions and what we understand about lila and maya:

The myth of lila has a strong magical flavour. Brahman is the great magician who transforms himself into the world and he performs this feat with his 'magic creative power', which is the original meaning of maya in the Rig Veda. The word maya . . . has changed its meaning over the centuries. From the might, or power, of the divine actor and magician, it came to signify the psychological state of anybody under the spell of the magic play. As long as we confuse the myriad forms of the divine lila with reality, without perceiving the unity of Brahman underlying all these forms, we are under the spell of maya.
Maya, therefore, does not mean that the world is an illusion, as is often wrongly stated. The illusion merely lies in our point of view, if we think that the shapes and structures, things and events, around us are realities of nature, instead of realizing that they are concepts of our measuring and categorizing minds. Maya is the illusion of taking these concepts for reality, of confusing the map with the territory.
In the Hindu view of nature, then, all forms are relative, fluid and ever-changing maya, conjured up by the great magician of the divine play. (Capra, 1975, pp. 87-88)

I believe that to properly understand maya, one must leave behind the familiar Aristotelian logic with its either-or nature (in which a middle is excluded, contradictions are not permitted, and something must be either this or that) and adhere to the expanded four-fold logic of the tetralemma—in which, in addition to "A exists" and "A does not exist," "A both exists and not exists," and "A neither exists nor not exists" are possibilities.

The Sanskrit term "maya," often translated at "illusion" derives from "ma" and "ya," which means "not this" or "not that" (similar in some ways to the phrase "neti neti" meaning "not this, not that"). To me, this suggests something in addition, something more, something beyond.

In certain systems of Indian philosophy, maya (illusion)—i.e., the familiar world of matter and mind (prakriti)
is something that is not true and also not false. Maya (illusion) is true and real in itself but not as true or real as something else (purisha, Brahman). Maya, and the realm of matter and mind, is not "false." It is real, but not in the sense of an independent, self-existing, substantial, eternal reality. Instead, it is derived, transient, dependent. In Buddhist teachings, each "thing" is interdependent upon all other things and the entire set of things arise through dependent origination or mutual co-arising (pratityasamupada).

Consideration of the nature of the various visual illusions described above should help one's understanding of the seemingly contradictory, "irrational" nature of maya—and how it is both real and not real, neither real nor not real, depending upon how it is being considered: in itself or in comparison with something greater, something More.

Even the illusory nature of apparent phenomena is itself an illusion. Ultimately, the yogi passes beyond a conception of things either existing or not existing, and beyond a conception of either samsara or nirvana. Only then is the yogi abiding in the ultimate reality. (Feuerstein, 1998, p. 164)

To me, all of this brings to mind the way William James once defined reality: "Anything is real of which we find ourselves obliged to take into account in any way" (James, 1911, p. 101).

Just as the curious watcher of a magician's illusions has a strong desire to "figure them out," so to do curious seekers wish to see beyond appearances, to discover what might lie behind and beyond these, to look beyond maya to Brahman. Without such a desire, one may remain enthralled by maya and forget one's true nature.


Capra, F. (1975). The tao of physics. Boulder, CO: Shambhala Publications.

Feuerstein, G. (1998). The Yoga tradition: Its history, literature, philosophy and practice. Prescott, AZ: Holm Press.

Hartgrove, J. L. (1975). Perception of illusions and depth during a "transcendental" state. Unpublished Master's thesis, University of Houston, Houston, TX.

Hershenson, M. (Editor). (1989). The moon illusion. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

James, W. (1911). Some problems in philosophy. New York: Longmans, Green.

Ross, H., & Plug, C. (Editors). (2002). The mystery of the moon illusion. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Segall, M., Campbell, D. & Herskovits, M. J., (1966). The influence of culture on visual perception. New York: Bobbs-Merrill.

The fundamental delusion of humanity is to suppose that I am here and you are out there.
~ Yasutani Roshi

Advaita (nonduality) does not mean "one" in the sense of eliminating all differences. The differences are present in the one in a mysterious way. They are not separated anymore, and yet they are there.
~ Bede Griffiths

Above are two versions of the famous Sri Yantra. Within the Yogic tradition, a yantra is a visual image that has meaningful geometric and symbolic properties. It is a meditative device that may be understood as an instrument for restraining, fastening, or holding [of attention]. The image can help the mind focus upon a particular quality or idea. The Sri Yantra is perhaps the most important and powerful of the yantras. It is held that a focused, controlled gaze upon this yantra may foster a deep appreciation and understanding of the nature of the cosmos and may lead to liberation.
I find it of interest to note that many physicists have become mystics, whereas I am not aware of any mystics who have become physicists. Could this suggest a kind of special law of spiritual dynamics: that Wisdom flows in only one direction?
~  William Braud

Ayers Rock, also known by its Aboriginal name Uluru (which applies not only to the rock but also to the surrounding area; the word is a place name but it also is related to local words for “shadows" and "crying"), is a large and impressive sandstone rock formation in the Northern Territory of central Australia. The structure is very important to the Aborigines and features prominently in their lives, dreamtime, rituals, and mythology. Some have reported unusual and dramatic experiences and encounters that have taken place on or near this “rock.”
There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.
~ Attributed to Albert Einstein,
but such attribution has been questioned.

The most incredible thing about miracles is that they happen.
~ G. K. Chesterton

                 Five Thoughts for the New Year of 2012

and Bodhisattva Vow have several meanings within the various Buddhist wisdom traditions. According to one meaning, to take the profoundly compassionate Bodhisattva Vow is to wish and intend not to escape from this relative realm of earthly suffering (samsara) and attain nirvana until one has helped all other sentient beings attain such enlightenment (bodhi)—working to fulfill this aim through thoughts and actions in this life and in possible future lives. Would you be willing to delay your own “salvation” until all other sentient being are “saved” in this way?


In the Taoist wisdom tradition, the term The Ten Thousand Things often is used to refer to the extraordinary diversity of beings, things, and events in this earthly realm of existence. Could it be that all of these Ten Thousand Things are but sources of lessons for us, should we fully attend to and understand them? If so, is this or is this not a very selfish thought?



In the Sufi wisdom tradition, there is a wonderful parable called The Tale of the Sands, in which a formerly struggling stream was able to cross desert sands only by transforming itself--losing its individuality as a stream and becoming absorbed, as vapor, in the wind, which carries it across the desert where, later, it can fall as rain and again become a stream. In this tale, the stream’s “essential part” is carried away by the wind, then re-formed into a stream. You can find the full text of this brief tale here and hear a tone-poem of the tale here. What are your thoughts and feelings about this tale? Have you identified your “essential part?”

A key understanding within the wisdom tradition of Hinduism is that all things, including one’s own essential nature (
Atman), ultimately derive from the infinite, eternal consciousness or spirit (Brahman), which pervades the universe. Within many of the Hindu traditions, an important goal is to eventually lose one’s egoic individuality and merge, again, with Brahman, the Universal Principle, much as a water droplet loses itself in the sea. (An alternative interpretation of this is that the entire ocean enters into the water droplet!) Is this a goal in your own spiritual journey or path? If so, what might this mean? If not, what might this mean?

In the Christian tradition, there are well-established interpretations of the nature, life, and teachings of Jesus Christ. Could there be other interpretations, outside of the familiar ones of organized Christianity, that might differ, perhaps radically, from these? What might be some of those alternative interpretations?

There are two excesses: to exclude reason,
​to admit nothing but reason.
​The supreme achievement of reason
​is to realise that there is a limit to reason.
~ Blaise Pascal

Science says the first word on everything,
​and the last word on nothing.
~ Victor Hugo