The External World

In the Dhammapada, the Buddha says,

We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world.”

Almost all Buddhists have accepted this core idea for 2500 years. The world is a construction of the mind. The words we use to describe the world, the names (nama) and signs (laksana), more thought constructions, are meaningless as they cannot be one with the referent they direct our attention to, and all of it is an illusion, because it’s all empty.

This is the view from the ultimate truth. The conventional truth is, well, conventional. Things exist, they have substance, at least temporarily. The palm tree outside my window was there years before I came along. It was made by a seed, not my mind. I’d like to make trees with my mind. I’d make a lot of money.

The ultimate truth is taught in order to break our attachment to these constructions of thought and to clear away the illusion. Now when we say that everything is an illusion, there is a small caveat involved. It doesn’t mean to suggest that nothing is real. It means that the way our mind normally constructs, or rather perceives, the world is illusory, as it often does not include interconnectedness. We tend to see things as being separate.

Our environment is an excellent example. Until recent times, human beings viewed their environment as something separate from them, in terms of individual parts rather than as a whole. Based on this illusion, we have polluted the earth, not realizing that the pollution of one part of the environment would have an effect on the other parts. Now, forced awake by climate change, we understand that this thing we call the world is a single living organism composed of smaller organisms functioning in a complex interrelationship.

The culture of human thinking has created the illusion of dualism, projecting a world of opposites, separate parts. To think holistically, focusing on the whole and the interdependence of its parts, is called non-dualism, although I think the Sanskrit word advaita, which means “not two” expresses it better. Human beings and their environment are “two but not two” (Jp. esho funi).

When we talk about seeing the external world as it truly is, we mean understanding the relationship between the ultimate and the conventional, recognizing that while there is some degree of separation between our-selves and the world around us, there is no real determinate essence of separateness.

We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness.”

– Thich Nhat Hanh

As I wrote recently, this is such an important point it bears consistent repeating. Another term we use to describe the interconnectedness of all things is ‘emptiness’ or sunyata, a Sanskrit word, a noun derived from the adjective sunya, meaning ‘empty.’ All things are empty of a independent self or own-being.

For those of us who practice Buddhism, an understanding of emptiness is crucial. Because wisdom, in this case ‘emptiness-knowledge’ (sunyata-jhana), is the root of awakening Buddha-nature, in a sense, we can say that emptiness and Buddha-nature are synonymous.

In his Treatise on the Maha-Prajna-Paramita Sutra, Nagarjuna put it this way:

All that we see is a creation of the mind [citta]. How is this? It is through one’s thoughts that all things are perceived. Through mind one sees the Buddha and through the mind becomes a Buddha. Buddha is mind itself, and mind itself is our body. Because of ignorance, the mind does not know itself, cannot see itself. Ignorance causes one to seize the fixed nature of the mind. Under this state, the mind one seizes is false. The bodhisattva sees the true aspect of reality, the emptiness, through comprehending the real nature of mind.”

To wipe illusion from our mind, we must open it. Open our minds to the truth of interconnectedness and to the possibility of becoming a Buddha, which is not a fixed state either, but a continual process of re-opening the mind and acquiring wisdom.


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