Maya (illusion)

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Maya or Māyā (Sanskrit माया, a term found in Pali and Sanskrit literature, is often used to refer to a magician's illusion, or the illusory nature of reality, particularly in the Sanskrit tradition.

In the Sanskrit tradition, the magician's illusion exemplifies how people misunderstand themselves and their reality. Under the influence of ignorance, we believe objects and persons to be independently real, existing apart from causes and conditions. We fail to perceive them as being empty of a real essence, whereas in fact they exist much like māyā, the magical appearance created by the magician. The magician's illusion may exist and function in the world on the basis of some props, gestures, and incantations, yet the show is illusory. The viewers participate in creating the illusion by misperceiving and drawing false conclusions. A wise person sees the appearances as illusory, and thus is freed from attachment to the appearances.

For example, some texts identify eight similes of illusion (the Tibetan sgyu ma translates māyā and also other Sanskrit words for illusion): magic, a dream, a bubble, a rainbow, lightning, the moon reflected in water, a mirage, and a city of celestial musicians." [1] Understanding that what we experience is less substantial than we believe is intended to serve the purpose of liberation from ignorance, fear, and clinging and the attainment of enlightenment as a Buddha completely dedicated to the welfare of all beings.

Depending on the stage of the practitioner, the magical illusion is experienced differently. In the ordinary state, we get attached to our own mental phenomena, believing they are real, like the audience at a magic show gets attached to the illusion of a beautiful lady. At the next level, called actual relative truth, the beautiful lady appears, but the magician does not get attached. Lastly, at the ultimate level, the Buddha is not affected one way or the other by the illusion. Beyond conceptuality, the Buddha is neither attached nor non-attached.[2] This is the middle way of Buddhism, which explicitly refutes the extremes of both eternalism and nihilism.

Nāgārjuna, of the Mahāyāna Mādhyamika (i.e., "Middle Way") school, discusses nirmita, or illusion closely related to māyā. In this example, the illusion is a self-awareness that is, like the magical illusion, mistaken. For Nagarjuna, the self is not the organizing command center of experience, as we might think. Actually, it is just one element combined with other factors and strung together in a sequence of causally connected moments in time. As such, the self is not substantially real, but neither can it be shown to be unreal. The continuum of moments, which we mistakenly understand to be a solid, unchanging self, still performs actions and undergoes their results. "As a magician creates a magical illusion by the force of magic, and the illusion produces another illusion, in the same way the agent is a magical illusion and the action done is the illusion created by another illusion."[3] What we experience may be an illusion, but we are living inside the illusion and bear the fruits of our actions there. We undergo the experiences of the illusion. What we do affects what we experience, so it matters.[4] In this example, Nagarjuna uses the magician's illusion to show that the self is not as real as it thinks, yet, to the extent it is inside the illusion, real enough to warrant respecting the ways of the world.

For the Mahayana Buddhist, the self is māyā like a magic show and so are objects in the world. Vasubandhu's Trisvabhavanirdesa, a Mahayana Yogacara "Mind Only" text, discusses the example of the magician who makes a piece of wood appear as an elephant.[5] The audience is looking at a piece of wood but, under the spell of magic, perceives an elephant instead. Instead of believing in the reality of the illusory elephant, we are invited to recognize that multiple factors are involved in creating that perception, including our involvement in dualistic subjectivity, causes and conditions, and the ultimate beyond duality. Recognizing how these factors combine to create what we perceive ordinarily, ultimate reality appears. Perceiving that the elephant is illusory is akin to seeing through the magical illusion, which reveals the dharmadhatu, or ground of being.[5]


  1. Thinley Norbe Rinpoche in The Dzogchen Primer, Marcia Binder Schmidt ed. Shambala, Boston, 2002, pg. 215 ISBN 1-57062-829-7
  2. Thinley Norbe Rinpoche in The Dzogchen Primer, Marcia Binder Schmidt ed. Shambala, Boston, 2002, pg. 217 ISBN 1-57062-829-7
  3. Nagarjuna's Mulamadhyamakakarika Prajna Nama, J.W. DeJong, Christian Lindtner (eds.) quoted in Nagarjuna's Madhyamaka: A Philosophical Introduction, Jan Westerhoff, Oxford University Press, New York, 2009. p. 163 ISBN 978-0-19-537521-3
  4. Nagarjuna's Madhyamaka: A Philosophical Introduction, Jan Westerhoff, Oxford University Press, New York, 2009. p. 164 ISBN 978-0-19-537521-3
  5. 5.0 5.1 The Emptiness of Emptiness: An Introduction to Early Indian Madhyamika. C.W. Huntingdon, Jr. with Geshe Namgyal Wangchen, University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, 1989, ISBN 0-8248-1165-8, p.61-62.
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