Are we hallucinating all this?!

shoes on mountainI was on a walk the day Prince died, in the freezing/hot Colorado spring weather, which took me through no fewer than 12 snow-melty streams; and I didn’t see another person all day, not even a bear. And I got to thinking all philosophically about what’s life all about; so I thought I’d share some thoughts.

The aim of Buddhist practice and, if you ask me, the meaning of life, is to gain the realization of Mahamudra, the union of bliss and emptiness. This will obliterate samsara, freeing us and enabling us to free those connected to us, which is everyone.

And there are two complementary approaches (I was thinking on my mountain) into this. One is through the mind (aiming for the clear light of bliss) and the other is through the object (aiming for a realization of emptiness).

In The New Heart of Wisdom, Geshe Kelsang explains how all conventional truths are created by our mind of self-grasping ignorance (albeit not apprehended or established by it.)

In How to Understand the Mind, he says that everything appearing to our gross and subtle minds is hallucination. It would seem that of all ordinary beings’ minds, only our very subtle mind is not mistaken because it perceives emptiness, the way things are.

Yikes, we’re hallucinating all the time!
it'll be fun
Fooled again!

Taken together, it looks like we are always hallucinating, except when we can use our very subtle mind. All appearances to these gross and subtle levels of mind, and even the mind itself, are hallucinations that we need to learn to see through.

We end up with the union of these two approaches by practicing the union of Sutra and Tantra. We get closer to the very subtle mind by understanding its object, emptiness, as taught in Sutra; and we get closer to emptiness by learning to manifest and use the very subtle mind, as taught in Highest Yoga Tantra. It seems these realizations are symbiotic.

We can start practicing this union now by feeling that we are meditating with and on our own very subtle mind whenever possible, seeing all other minds and their appearances as simply waves from that ocean.

So, what can we trust?!trees

In the meantime, trapped in hallucination, how on earth do we function at all? How do we know what to rely on? How can we trust anything that doesn’t exist as it appears?

We can because some things have relative meaning, are relatively meaningful. Within our hallucinations we agree on some things, eg, we can sit on chairs, and that is relative or conventional reality (shared experiences arising from the similar perceptions/appearances of our collective karma). We can rely on it to a certain extent. It functions in the way it is supposed to, and we can have a relatively valid apprehension of it, with a so-called ‘conventional valid cognizer’.

One way to understand this is by using the example of a dream. As Geshe Kelsang explains in Modern Buddhism:

Conventional objects are false because, although they appear to exist from their own side, in reality they are mere appearances to mind, like things seen in a dream.

The world we experience in a dream is deceptive because it appears to have its own existence independent of the mind, and we discover this when we wake up. However, within the dream we can say that there are relative truths and relative falsities.

Within the context of a dream, dream objects have a relative validity and this distinguishes them from things that do not exist at all. ~ Modern Buddhism

Geshe-la gives the example of our stealing a diamond in a dream – if we confess to it, we are telling the truth, if we say we didn’t steal it we are telling a lie.

Another example – if in my dream I nod to the six-stringed instrument I am playing and tell you, “This is my guitar”, this is true, but if I say “This is my ukulele” (a four-stringed instrument), this is false. However, within the whole context of the dream both are deceptive because they appear to be real when they are not. (As I discover when I wake up and can no longer play either.)

flowers.jpgSo, it seems that everything in a dream is created by the self-grasping of the dream mind and is therefore deceptive; but within that experience some thoughts are ‘valid’ and establish the ‘truth’, relatively speaking, and some thoughts are not, namely our delusions, whose objects don’t exist at all.

I think we can say the same for conventional truths while we are awake — all conventional truths are ‘created’ by self-grasping, true only for self-grasping; but compared with non-existents they are relatively true, truths by convention or agreement, ie, conventional truths. A non-existent on the other hand is still hallucination, still projected by self-grasping, but has no validity at all. It is apprehended or established by self-grasping delusions. An example would be an object of anger, such as an inherently existent faulty person, who doesn’t exist at all. (The anger itself however does exist and is a conventional truth, as is every mind.)

Perhaps I will stick my neck out and say that conventional reality is collective hallucination?! But please don’t take my word for it, please feel free to debate this in the comments.

Given all this, how are we to navigate through these mistaken appearances and make our lives meaningful? Answers on a postcard …! And Part Two is here.

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!

9 thoughts on “Are we hallucinating all this?!”

  1. …I’ll sign up to your/the theory that ‘….conventional reality is collective hallucination…..’, but am too long away from tertiary education , and too lazy , to competently manage to explain why . I think my mind would have been in a roughly ‘ tabula rasa ‘ condition at conception , (but) with an ever accelerating, delusions prone , hallucinatory sensibility , invading and colonizing it through the ignorance informed efforts of immediates and encountered ( just ! ) continuing normal service. My defence is that it was ‘ too soon to know ‘ ( to quote the title of the Don Gibson song famously recorded mid-sixties by Roy Orbison ) , though frustrations, angst and non-acceptance have (and still do ) almost continuously manifested with varying degrees of problematicisms ….Oh Dear , I feel sn attack of ‘poor me ‘coming on……better summon up some happiness from within and ” set to work and meet the [ not so heavy ] demands of the day ‘ ( Max Weber )…………Thanks for inspiring article/piece , and for leading me to first time use of square brackets on this phone……

    1. Yes, they are functional hallucinations and relative truths as opposed to the things that we normally see (which don’t exist at all) and hallucinations that do not perform their functions (such as a mirage seen as water in a desert or a length of rope seen as a snake).

  2. Would you say that conventional reality is collective mistaken appearance, it’s just that some hallucinations possess the qualities they appear to possess and this is what we call ‘reality’ and some do not and these are called actual hallucinations or wrong awarenesses? Strictly speaking there are no correct conventional truths because conventional truths are manifestations of self-grasping ignorance and are not truths at all: they are only relative truths just as things appear and function in a dream.

  3. No offense intended. But isn’t this leading to paralysis by analysis. Buddhism doesn’t seem to answer the question (or does it?) why do we exist? Maybe it’s as simple as to say we exist to help and love one another in this life.

    1. Yes, you’re onto something, more about that in the next article. Meantime, as Socrates (i think it was him) said, ‘”The unexamined life is not worth living.”

  4. Lol answers on a post card made me laugh. As at the moment I am sitting on a rock in the stream at Burleigh falls just off Young’s Point Ontario eating a Ben and jerries — can taste it yummy. Oh but in reality I am going to peg out the laundry 😊 How wonderful the mind is — it can take you back to bliss or reality living in the moment 👍

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