All the world’s a stage…

Do you ever feel you’re being manipulated when you’re watching something? Like it’s staged to make you think and feel a certain way?

Of course, all plays and movies are! But sometimes for some reason you see right through it.

Mad Men is a popular drama and several friends had recommended it to me so I watched some of it. Notwithstanding the intentionally annoying misogyny that pervades it, I enjoyed the fact that it was set not long before I was born but might as well have been made in the dark ages, so much has changed since then. Those telephones! I remember we had one as a child; it seemed perfectly fine back then, now it belongs in a museum. The whole way of life without cell phones and computers is entirely different. And yet this is only 50 years ago, and I was born pretty much into the tail end of it. This is the world of my parents. Mad Men and Buddhism

It also struck me that one reason there was no way out for these characters is because meditation hadn’t even arrived on the scene yet – they had to hit the bottle or the sack because they had no reliable sources of pleasure or satisfaction, especially as on the whole these were not church-going types and yet had few spiritual alternatives.

But for the purposes of this article I was interested in how much effort and how many causes and conditions were brought together to convince me, the viewer, that it was real. The telephones for sure, and all the design pieces. The Neanderthal attitudes, the drinking, the nervous reaching for a cigarette at times of the remotest stress or pleasure, the boredom, the futility… Thousands of people have engineered this reality for me, making it as real as possible, and a huge variety of causes and conditions have gone into it. Remove any of them – the hairstylist, the director, the camera man, the cigarettes, the clunky telephones, etc – and I may not have been as convinced.

A movie clearly depends completely on its causes and conditions. It is none of those causes and conditions either individually or collectively, yet take even one away and it disappears. It has no power to exist from its own side. The same is true of life.

When I was living in San Francisco I visited the set of Pixar with a friend, T., who was working on Ratatouille. My mind boggled at the number of causes and conditions going into producing a 90-minute animated movie – thousands of skilled people, several years, and seemingly never-ending still drawings and sculptures both traditional and computerized. In The Incredibles, there is a typical teenager called Violet, who is characterized by hiding behind a large fringe of hair, until she gains confidence (helped no doubt by saving the world with her superpowers) and the hair gets tucked back. During this whole eye-opening visit to Pixar, the thing that struck me most was learning that one of T’s friends had worked for three years on … get this… pretty much just Violet’s hair! Violet from the Incredibles and Kadampa Life

If we really examine it, we can see that our own hair has also risen and continues to arise in dependence upon numerous causes and conditions – both physical and karmic – going back a very long way. Even just one moment or freeze frame of our hair depends on genes coming from our parents and their parents etc, and karma we have created – and moment by moment these causes and conditions continue to evolve to produce moment after moment of hair (or hair loss).

Countless causes and conditions have also gone into the scene I am witnessing right now. I am sitting at my desk writing on a PC with a splendid cappuchino from the World Peace Cafe downstairs, looking out onto a park that is vividly green with flashes of rhodedendrom colour, half-sunshine/half clouds and a sky close enough to touch, magpies hopping about on the branches, goslings on the lake, and people kicking a football… Remove any one of these causes and conditions – the desk, the park, the sunshine, even the football — and the scene is a new one. If I was to look for anything really happening, from its own side, as in the movies, I would find nothing – none of the causes and conditions is this scene, but remove even just one of them and this particular scene dissolves.

goslings in Sefton Park Kadampa Meditation Centre Liverpool(In a few days, all the causes and conditions for my sitting here in Liverpool will have been used up. New causes and conditions will be kicking in to produce new effects as life unfurls … )

Everything is illusion-like according to the Buddhist Madhyamika view of reality. Even though it appears to, nothing exists inherently, from its own side. In Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, Shantideva says:

Provided all the necessary conditions are assembled,
Even an illusion will come into being.

Illusions like movie characters appear in dependence upon causes and conditions, and so do we.

Different types of cause
Give rise to different types of illusion.

We take one rebirth after another in dependence upon particular causes and conditions, and Mad Men comes into being in dependence upon different causes and conditions. There is no single cause that can give rise to the infinite variety of different effects. A movie may not last as long as us, but this is no proof that we are more existent from our own side – or it would follow that a dream of long duration was more valid than one of shorter duration.

sowing seeds of love karmaI can tell I’m being manipulated by the acting in Mad Men — the fake smoking and the fake sex and the fake attitudes. Not that it isn’t well acted; it is just that sometimes you can’t help seeing through things, you can see they are staged. Just like a movie, all the causes and conditions of my life effect an appearance that I get sucked into as real, even though this reality is just a set-up, a projection of my ignorance. How great it will be to see through the seeming permanence of every scene in my life to see that it is changing moment by moment in dependence upon causes and conditions. How great it will be to see through the veneer of my current reality to see that it too is fake, artificial, Drapersmile-lg1appearances pretending to be something solid and “out there”. We already are the designers, producers, and directors of our own reality. Once we realize this, we can design, produce, and direct a life we actually want!

Postscript 3 years later: Who thought Mad Men would end with Don Draper meditating?! There is hope for us all.

Author: Luna Kadampa

Based on 40 years' experience, I write about applying meditation and modern Buddhism to improve and transform our everyday lives and societies. I try to make it accessible to everyone anywhere who wants more inner peace and profound tools to help our world, not just Buddhists. Do make comments any time and I'll write you back!

16 thoughts on “All the world’s a stage…”

  1. Hi Luna!

    I was searching your blog for something to help me in my work. My challenge is to be able to engage in my client’s worlds ‘as if’ it is me, to stay in their world and know that is what I am doing AND, somehow, to be able to keep a sense of the unreality of it all. Their distress is real and powerful for them. I so want to be able to use wisdom to help them find at least some relief from their current suffering. How can I retain a sense of self imputed as Vajrayogini and still connect with them?

    Do you have a proto-blog waiting for the causes and conditions to appear to help me in my search for answers and guidance?

    Thanks so much for all your blogs. They are an inspiration for me and so many others still stuck in samsara.


  2. This article really moved my mind, thank you. This quote is extraordinary when you contemplate it, ‘Provided all the necessary conditions are assembled,
    Even an illusion will come into being.’ This is like saying a magicians illusions will become rel if all the necessary conditions are assembled. Which is, in effect, what is happening every day we open our eyes and are ignorant that nothing exists from its own side independent of mind.
    We are watching an illusion like movie believing it to be reel.
    I agree, what a relief it will be when the projector breaks down and we are left with reality.

    1. Was that a deliberate typo, “reel” ?!? It is a reel, not real?!

      Thank you for another lovely comment. I do really appreciate them!!!

  3. Dear Luna could you point me to a good online site/course where I can continue with my understanding of Dharma.I find it very confusing to continue my study without some feedback as half my time is spent in more or less isolation from Buddhist practitioners.
    My lifestyle means that I cannot regularly attend classes at my home town centre in Birkenhead and it has been pointed out to me that my attendance at the Saturday study group would be too disruptive for the other students.

    1. Other than the study programs at the Centers, I don’t know of other good online courses. Perhaps you can get on the Birkenhead FP by correspondence, or else enquire at another center near you.

  4. “How great it will be to see through the veneer of my current reality to see too it is fake,artificial,appearances pretending to be something solid and “out there”. We already are the designers, producers, and directors of our own reality. Once we realize this, we can design, produce, and direct a life we actually want!”….
    But surely Luna , given your own analogy , this life that we go on to design ourselves is also a pretence at something solid ?? I’m confused….

  5. You know Luna, I was 22 and actually living in that illusion. I worked as a secretary in an advertizing agency. Watching Mad Men was difficult for me as I was thrown back in time. You are right, there was no, none, zip spirituality. Life was so very different then. I am so grateful Geshela came along and opened my eyes. And thank you for your wonderful analisis of the situation. You and Kadampa Ryan really sing to me. I sit here nodding Yes, Yes.!!!

  6. Everything being like an illusion, a dream, or a reflection on a clear lake is one of my favourite things to contemplate. It just makes things so much easier to cope with, and adds that extra sparkle to the nice stuff. ‘Only mind‘ 😀 I find seeing phenomena as dependent related, depending on cause and effect, harder to grasp (though it’s meant to be easier). Thanks for the film and animation examples Luna, good ones to chew on.

    1. Just realized you’re moving again?! Where to? Dear Luna, such a Dakini. Best wishes for the next stage of your path.

  7. Skilful, articulate and intelligent analysis of ‘reality.’ Pagpa just posted Shantideva on FB saying when all the causes and conditions come together, even an illusion appears. How apt! We are just like ‘Mad Men’ in more ways than one, thinking our dream like appearances exist from their own side, sleep walking in a nightmare.

    Thanks, Luna. Your departure is Liverpool’s misfortune but you have sprinkled some wonderful seeds during your brief stay and I rejoice so much in Kadampa Life and your example. May everything be auspicious for you. Much love, Jan xxx

  8. Exactly what I needed to read this morning. I wish I had the clarity of mind that you have. I will keep that wish. Liverpool will have been so very blessed by your being there. I trust that wherever you are now called to be will be equally blessed. Offering your experiences here in this blog, means that we can all learn from you wherever you happen to be appearing. Thank you Luna

  9. Wow!

    I LOVE the movie analogy to our reality. We are all have a 3D movie projecter at our heart; the film is our karmic stream unfolding in mere appearance reality. Knowing that this is happening has the potential to liberate us from the drama. How wonderful!

    My mind has often gone into these kinds of awarenesses and analyses too but never organised and presented in such a concise and precise manner. I sent this article off to a long-time Kadampa friend of many years (19) who I am very concerned about. (I believe he is pathalogically mixing dharma meals) sort of like someone sitting down to eat Chinese, Indian, Mexican and Italian all at the same time! I was hoping that he would be as enthusiastic as me about your insights. Here’s his response:

    “….First thing came to mind as I was reading thru this was, this guy’s on speed….maybe seems kind of crass, but he runs on just like someone on speed…making a big story out of some middling insight…a lot of words, rambling on in the inspiration of the moment…I’ll read it again when I’m less calloused because I understand what he’s getting at, but it misses the mark with me…thanks anyway……..”

    My friend “misses the mark with me”! I believe he is mistaken when he says “I understand what he’s getting at”. His assessment of a “middling insight” suggests that he has a less than middling insight himself into the theme that you are discussing.

    As you suggest in your article I have the causes and conditions to delight in your article this morning. My friend has other causes and conditions.

    Thanks again for an inspiring start to my day.


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