Some Reflections on Illusion, Reality and Relevance

Dr Thakshan Fernando
Delivered at the SOFN (NZ) Conference 10 October, 1998

I wish to thank the Sea of Faith Network (SOFN) for according me the privilege of being a keynote speaker at your Annual Conference of 1998. I approach my task with a sense of challenge and some trepidation. I have no claims to erudition in matters of philosophy and religion and, in that respect, I am probably something of a maverick amongst you! In the context of your metaphor of the "Sea of Faith", however, and your notion of "spirituality" in its wide and essentially humanistic sense, we do have common ground. The most useful contribution I can make is by presenting my personal reflections evoked by the theme of your conference: "Inventing Reality". (The qualifier "inventing" provides me with a great deal of comfort because of the variety of ascribable meanings!). I will have achieved my objective if these reflections provide responses, ranging from resonance to considered rejection. Since I have no particular claim to fame I will need to ask your indulgence in order to explain "where I am coming from", as a good Kiwi would say. I have tried with only modest success to lead a life informed by the teachings of the Buddha. For me, the most attractive and, paradoxically, the most daunting aspects of the teaching have been
  • The need for self-reliance and self-discovery, albeit guided by the Buddha's teachings ("Anhahi Attano Natho" or "One is one's own refuge");
  • The injunction to exercise personal choice, based on experience and practice of the teaching;
  • The uniquely Buddhist, existential focus, which could be disturbing without the right tools and without the development of requisite skills.
There have been other indirect influences which have helped me on my way. One was the liberal outlook fostered by my parents, and by my school, Ananda College. Ananda was at the forefront of the revival of Buddhist education in Sri Lanka after 450 years of colonialism. Looking back on my early years, it seems as if a touch of "heresy" (in the original Greek sense of the word) was not merely permitted, but even encouraged! It was a valuable antidote to bigotry, and it encouraged us at a young age to examine ideas. I then had the good fortune to fall in love with a Christian—we are still in love, I thinkQ! Finally, in a somewhat serendipitous way, I discovered Psychiatry, rather late in my career as a doctor. In psychiatry and, in particular in psychotherapy, one is constantly challenged to discover within oneself feelings of Maitreya (loving kindness), Karuna (compassion), Muditha (joy at the success of another) and Upekha (equanimity). Needless to say one does not always succeed.
I shall often rely on Myth, Legend and Narrative to provide foci for our "Reflections". So let me start with three rather well-known stories which illustrate some thematic aspects of Illusion, Reality and Relevance. The first two are Sufi legends as narrated by Idries Shah.
1. The first is well-known and is the story of the Elephant in the Dark. A number of blind people, or sighted people in a totally darkened enclosure, grope and find an elephant. Each touches only a part. Each gives to friends outside a different account of what s/he has come to believe an elephant is like. One thought that it was a fan, having felt the ear; another that it was a pillar, having felt a leg; a third a rope, having felt the tail and so on.
Idries Shah analyses the satirical significance of this story at various levels.
  • It makes fun of scientists and academics who try to explain things through the evidence which they can evaluate, and none other;
  • It laughs at the stupidity of people who come to conclusions on such little evidence;
  • It says at a philosophical level, that man is blind and is trying to assess something great by means of inadequate tools;
  • It says at a religious level, that God is everywhere and everything, and man gives different names to what seem to him to be separate things, but which are in fact parts of some greater whole which he cannot perceive because "he is blind" or "there is no light".
In the next two stories, you will have to invent you own analyses!
2. The Mulla Nasrudin was sent by the King to investigate the lore of various kinds of Eastern mystical teachers. People recounted to him tales of the miracles and the sayings of the founders and great teachers, all long dead, of their schools. When he returned home, Nasrudin submitted his report, which contained the single word "Carrots".
He was called upon to explain himself Nasrudin told the King; "The best part is buried; few know—except the farmer—by the green (above) That there is orange underground; if you don't nurture it, it will deteriorate; there are a great many donkeys associated with it."
3. The third story concerns a disciple of the Buddha named Malunkyaputta and I have adapted it from Rev. Walpola Rahula's narration.
Malunkyaputta asked the Buddha ten classical questions on metaphysical problems and threatened to leave the Order unless he received answers. These included:
  • Is the universe eternal, or is it not eternal?
  • Is the universe finite or is it infinite?
  • Does the Thathagatha (Buddha) exist after death, or does he not exist after death?
The Buddha answered as follows:- "Suppose Malunkyaputta, a man, is wounded by a poisoned arrow and his friends and relatives bring him to a surgeon. Suppose the man should then say: 'I will not let this arrow be taken out until I know who shot me ... what his name and family may be; whether he is tall or short; the kind of bow with which I was shot the kind of bowstring used... etc.' Malunkyaputta, that man would die without knowing any of these things. Similarly, if anyone says 'I will not follow the holy life unless the Buddha answers these questions such as whether the universe is eternal etc' he would die with these questions unanswered. I have not explained them because they are not fundamentally connected with the spiritual life, they are not conducive to aversion, detachment, cessation, tranquillity, penetrative thought, awakening, Nirvana'.
We can hardly regard these sketches of Illusion, Reality and Relevance, as clues of Ariadne while we tread our labyrinthine way. Yet they may serve as an ironic echo of our fooffalls.
In inventing or discovering "Reality" we should consider the following:
  • Who's Reality? (personal meaning?) (inclusive or exclusive?)
  • Which Reality? (reductionist or gestalt?)
  • What can one do with the Reality that has been discovered? (function and relevance?)
I have been reading recently a fascinating book with the intriguing title The End of Science by John Horgan, a well-known science writer. It is not, as one might suspect a doomsday prophecy. On the contrary, it is a paean of Science's triumphs, based on interviews with a galaxy of eminent scientists, many of them Nobel Laureates. They examine the thesis that Science, especially Physics, has approached, or is fast approaching, the end of the road of Great Discoveries—a sort of "ne plus ultra"! The slightly grandiose quality of the thesis aside, it does raise a number of important issues.
The scientific achievements of the last 300 years and, particularly of the 20th Century, have provided us with considerable explanatory power regarding natural phenomena and immense potential for gaining material benefits. As you well know, however, they constitute a double-edged sword. Some years ago, Thomas R. Blackburn summarised it thus in the journal Science (1971):
"We live in a technological culture, and that culture is in trouble. Recent essays that have explored the relationship between modern science and the history and psychology of technological man, have generally concluded that the scientist's quantifying, value-free orientation has left him helpless to avoid (and often a willing partner in) the use of science for exploitative and destructive ends."
I shall only remind you of:
  • "Hiroshima and Nagasaki"
  • "Chernobyl"
  • Naplam and Agent Orange in Vietnam"
  • "Smog"
  • "Hole in the Ozone Layer"
  • "Dumping of nuclear waste"
  • "Genetic cloning paves the way for Super Race"
  • etc. etc. etc.
Another problem, is that the potential for gaining material benefits is not distributed equitably throughout mankind. Some years ago the U.S. Administration gave a fascinating justification, amongst others of course, for intervening militarily in the Middle East. It said that God's gifts to mankind--Oil in this instance--should be accessible to all mankind. The same noble, moral-ethical (dare I say "spiritual"?) principle, does not seem to apply to the benefits to mankind of Science, ironically Man's Gifts to Mankind! Not surprisingly, we need to return to Myth to find a benchmark. Prometheus, stole Fire from the Gods for All Mankind! The exponential growth of scientific knowledge constitutes one aspect of Reality. The lack of a synchronistic development of the spiritual/moral sensibilities of Man gives rise to an Illusion of supposedly righteous behaviour, which however, is dominated consciously or unconsciously by Self-interest.
It is fascinating to note however, the synthesising influence of certain over-arching concepts developed by several great scientists who first became aware of them through their own disciplines. For example:
  • Neils Bohr's and Heisenberg's "concept of complementarity" which emphasised the active role of the scientist who, in the act of making measurements, interact with the observed object—in other words incorporates a sensuous or subjective element.
  • Stephen Hawking's "no-boundary proposal" which led to the view that talking about the beginning and end of the universe was as meaningless as talking about the beginning and end of a sphere! Perhaps the Buddha was right!
They appear to have, at the very least, a metaphorical significance. In the Autumn 1997 issue of the Sea of Faith journal I found the following statement.
"We are an informed network of men and women, some attached to places of worship, some not, who accept the modern view that all the religious faith traditions (Christianity no less than any other) are wholly human creations—and subject to the same critical scrutiny and imaginative re-invention as any other human product ... Our values are not handed to us from on high. They do not come from the gods, not even the god some cultures have named God. Because whatever we mean by God is itself a human creation".
No doubt you have debated and will continue to examine whether this defining statement itself, is Illusion or Reality. I am reminded however, of Rilke:
"What will you do, God, when I die?
When I, your pitcher, broken lie?
When I, your drink, go stale or dry?
I am your garb, the trade you ply,
you lose your meaning, losing me ..."
In a sense, Rilke hints at the relationship between Man and God (or gods), a relationship that has to be examined further if the human psyche, conscious or unconscious, is not to be left with a void. What human needs were fulfilled by Gods? Would "I lose my meaning, losing Him/Her?"
I would like to ask you to reflect a moment on whether the following quotaUon captures a similar sentiment.
"If the nature of Man is man's highest Being, if to be human is his highest existence, then man's love for Man must in practice become the first and highest law. Homo homini Deus est—man's God is MAN. This is the highest law of ethics. THIS IS THE TURNING POINT OF WORLD HISTORY".
Ludwig Feuerbach
As you well know and, not surprisingly, Feuerbach's writings greatly influenced Marx and Engels. We also know that in the Soviet Union, China, Eastern Europe and Cuba as well as in most parts of the non-communist world, "man's God as MAN", has been a God that has faltered if not failed!
Llewelyn Powys in The Pathetic Fallacy expressed a related viewpoint in a more lyrical style:
"It has been well said that religion grew out of fear, fear of nature, fear of super-nature, fear of death. We are ever at pains to send up incense clouds so that we can engage in our pushing activities out of the sight of the awful eye of God. As often as we see a dead body we are reminded of our lot and must needs set about chanting, ringing bells, and marching in procession. Like spiders, with express diligence we spin out webs and trust to restore our hardihood behind veils of our own creation. ... The mystery of existence engenders a feeling of awe, and in such 'spiritual' states gods grow up as common as docks in a hedgerow. Such plausible beings offer good service in hours of perplexity. Their assumed existence suggests ready solutions. Our amazement is soothed. All is made dear."
So, does Myth itself, despite its illusory characteristics, contain aspects of reality in a humanly assimilable form? Does Myth fulfil a psychological function, being as it is a representation of the 'collective unconscious' as well as being a repository of generational wisdom? I believe it does. As with Science, old myths are replaced by newer myths, which seek to explain the inexplicable and, more relevantly perhaps, provide anodynes to assuage our human frailties. I shall suggest that Myths have something in common with psychological defenses. Despite their illusoriness they have a partial, transitory, relevance and utility, because the fundamental Realities of human existence are anguishing and strike at the core of our narcissistic Self-image— the yearning for a Self rather than a transient, impermanent, self.
The fear of death is partially relieved by belief in an Eternal Life. What of old age? Marcel Proust said somewhere: "Of all realities, old age is perhaps that of which we retain a purely abstract notion longest in our lives." Is the subliminal sensing of our frailties, and our reluctance to accept them as realities of the human condition, at the core of our common preoccupations with egocentricity, parochialism, the exercise of power over others and—even competitiveness and the meaningless search for invincibility. The Myths and Epic poems of many parts of the world made sure that their Heroes ("Supermen") were all stamped with one blemish which seems in my view to have been a powerful symbol of the realities of the human condition such as the inevitability of death, and the spiritual frailties of the physically powerful. Thus we have the heel of Achilles, the unprotected shoulder of Siegfried, Balder and the mistletoe and most strikingly in the Mahabharata, the supreme warrior Arjuna with Lord Krishna as his charioteer, riven with doubt, not fear, just before the battle. (As you probably know, the dialogue which ensued between Arjuna and Lord Krishna constitutes the Bhagavad Gita—the Song Celestial—revered by the Hindus).
We also have a heroic mythical figure symbolising Feuerbach's "Homo homini Deus est" (man's God is MAN)—Prometheus—half god and half man, but unquestionably committed to the service of man—unquestionably altruistic towards ALL his human fellows, punished by the Gods, but NOT a sinner!
"To suffer woes which hope thinks infinite;
To forgive wrongs darker than death or night;
To defy power which seems omnipotent;
To love and bear; to hope till hope creates
From its own wreck the thing it contemplates;
Neither to change, nor falter, nor repent;
This, like thy glory, Titan, is to be
Good , great, and joyous, beautiful and free;
This is alone Life, Joy, Empire, and Victory!"
Shelley: Prometheus Unbound
Albert Camus in one of his short essays entitled Prometheus in the Underworld provides a different profile which captures his anguish, courage and fortitutde.
"The enchained hero maintains, amid the thunder and lightening of the Gods, his quiet faith in man. This is how he is harder than his rock and more patient than his vulture. More than his rebellion against the gods, it is this long stubbornness which is meaningful for us. It accompanies this admirable determination to separate and exclude nothing, and which always has and always will unite the suffering heart of men and the springtimes of the world".
Let me reflect briefly on the ways in which Illusion and Reality surface in my work as a psychiatrist and in the work of other therapists in the field of mental health.
The patients we see are often anguished in ways that those who do not suffer from such conditions, with the exception of course of their relative and very close friends, cannot even begin to imagine.
The anguish is compounded by the stigma that attaches to their illnesses. These are the starkest of Realities.
If, when, and to the extent that these patients are able to trust their therapists (doctor, nurse, psychologist etc.) an important lever for a positive change is "invented". Trust, at the best of times is fragile, in this context it can only be initiated or sustained if there is a remarkable degree of empathy and understanding—in my view, the essence of Maitreya and Karuna. This is far from easy.
  • Some of the patients have nearly succeeded in killing themselves, because of their suffering, often while in our care;
  • Some of them have killed or maimed others because of anguish and its consequences;
  • Some of them are out of touch with Reality, as previously experienced by themselves and as usually experienced by most people.
  • Others—in fact the vast majority of our patients—suffer from conditions which all of us have experienced to a greater or lesser degree—grief and depression, fear, anxiety.
In many instances there are paths that lead to the relief of suffering and one of these is psychotherapy (more correctly, the psychotherapies). Nina Coltart, an English psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, has succinctly portrayed the correlations and similarities between some of the key concepts of psychotherapy and Buddhist teaching and practice. Time does not permit a full discussion. I shall ask you simply to reflect for a moment on the elements of the Eightfold Path
1. Right Understanding (Samma ditthi)
2. Right Thought (Samma sankappa)
3. Right Speech (Samma vaca)
4. Right Action (Samma kammanta)
5. Right Livelihood (Samma ajiva)
6. Right Effort (Samma vayama)
7. Right Mindfulness (Samma sati)
8. Right Concentration (Samma samadhi)
It is best if I let a former patient who was seen by a trainee psychiatrist whom I was supervising, speak of his experiences.
"This is to let you know how things are with us....
Concerning my Parkinsonism, I have been seeing Dr. A. on a monthly basis and he has been trying me on Bromocriptine; he has reduced the Sinemet and this might possibly be reduced further. It has been frightening reducing that, but as I have gone through each reduction and realised that I can still move freely, it has boosted by confidence. I know, however, that I must sometime reach the level beyond which it would be impossible to go without being incapacitated with Parkinsonism. Meanwhile, it is great to have gained some room to move in.
"Shirley" has been a great source of strength in this process. She has been coming to Dr. A. with me and providing another assessment of my progress. Thanks to your help, we can talk quite openly about my Parkinsonism now. Indeed, as a couple, we have been enjoying each other's company immensely. We communicate much better, we are prepared to state when we are under stress at work and to ask for room to move in, and we give each other that room. And we take our free time and make the most of it in sharing many interests we have in common. It has been really good to talk about literature and to attend the odd play. We've been planning an overseas trip and have a savings campaign to that end ... The garden has begun to flourish and it has been fun to plan that together. ... Our walks along the beach have given us some moments of stillness in an otherwise flat-out world ... We have been sponsoring a boy in Morocco—he was a polio ... So, as you can see life is very rich. I had almost given up on living when I first came to see you and even at times thereafter. Now, I know the life will have to be wrung out of me and even then I am not sure that I'll give in! Words don't often fail me—I have always believed in their power—but I can't use words to adequately express my sense of freedom. That is something I feel. It is tied up with the joy and satisfaction I gain from living, the sense of personal strength and identity I have to help me through the bad moments and the far greater sense of charity I have in dealing with others ... "
There are two themes that have kept recurring in these reflections. The flrst1 is the anguish of the human condition. The second, is the paradox of man as hero, despite his human frailties. This was not contrived. I suspect that these themes can inevitably be discerned in any serious consideration of our spiritual values, although sometimes they appear in disguise.
They are very relevant to the Buddha's teaching. Some have perceived it as nihilistic because of a fundamental premise in the teaching, sometimes referred to as the Three Signs of BeingImpermanence or Transience (Anicca), Anguish or the state of "unsatisfactoriness" (Dukka) and No-Self (Anatta). The Venerable Saddhatissa makes the important point that these are not articles of faith but facts of life realised by every searcher after the truth who must perforce reason out each step of the path by himself having recourse to his own experience as the one, sure guide. Hence, the claim that this is a Reality.
It is not my intention to provide an exposition of Buddhist teaching for obvious reasons which I stated at the outset. I shall, however, emphasise two salient issues:
      The Buddha (being Man, not god) gave to humans a gift of a way for the cessation of anguish. This was his teaching and the methods of practice which constitute the Dhamma.
      Is there an issue of
      As far as I am aware the Buddha did not say his teaching was the
      way. It was, however, his well-considered and well-tested prescription. Nevertheless, he once made a memorable statement to his disciples:
"O bikkhus (monks), even this view which is pure and so dear, if you cling to it, if you fondle it, if you are attached to it, then you do not understand that the teaching is similar to a raft, which is for crossing over, and not for getting hold of".
  1. Secondly, it is surely an illusion for us to assume that we, as we are—all of our frailties and foibles intact, can experience Awakening (to use Stephen Batchelor's term)! Yes, the Buddha says "Atthahi Attano Natho"—One is one's own refuge". But there is no doubt that this involves an arduous process of discovery through the "perfecting" of thinking, feeling and behaviour which the Buddha described in the Eightfold Path. He also described the methods for doing so which include "bhavana" often inadequately translated as "meditation"; its meaning is more correctly rendered as the development and perfection of a "mental culture".
I stated at the outset that my aim was to provide "Some Reflections". I would have succeeded if I have raised questions rather than provided answers. If you ask me to speak again at one of your gatherings my task will be considerable easier. I shall probably, like Nasruddin, just say "Carrots"



Quick links