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The World As An Illusion: Berkeley's Philosophy and Mahayana Buddhism by Peter Morrell

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The World As An Illusion: Berkeley's Philosophy and Mahayana Buddhism
by Peter Morrell



Part 1

I am interested in the links between Berkeley's philosophy and Mahayana Buddhism. I would actually say that 'Berkeley without God' would almost perfectly depict the world view of Buddhists, especially the Zen Buddhists.

'Berkeley...who pointed out that if the empiricist analysis is carried through rigorously, then it must be admitted that all qualities that the human mind registers...are ultimately experienced as ideas in the mind, and there can be no conclusive inference whether or not some of those qualities 'genuinely' represent or resemble an outside object...' (Richard Tarnas, 1991, The Passion of the Western Mind, 335)

I would elaborate further here that there is a main parallel between Berkeley and the 'mind-only' school of Buddhism where the world is regarded very largely as a 'mental projection' and that mind as such is regarded as the major pervasive reality. Like Buddha's view, Berkeley taught an idealist view that mind and not matter is the dominant thread in the world.

This also touches upon Berkeley's and Buddha's views about perception and the nature of the sense organs in relation to what we perceive and how. We might well ask to what extent Berkeley's view of vision and the idea of 5 sense consciousnesses in Buddhism show a striking parallel for example? Or are they wholly different views?

I myself am a mixture of Zen and Tibetan Buddhism and have studied its history and development as well. I have been strongly influenced by both. In practice I am a Tibetan Buddhist, while in theory I incline more towards mind-only of Zen. But I regard Tibetan Buddhism as merely 11th century Indian Buddhism geographically transplanted Maybe it is insulting to Tibetans to suggest that they have just preserved Indian Buddhism and not developed their own system. They have done both in fact. It is probably more accurate to just call it Tibetan Buddhism. And they also admixed a lot of Theravada, eg the ethical system is almost entirely Theravada as is their monastic rulebook. I regard Tibetan as the most complete system extant, both as a preserved form of Indian Mahayana and as a fully developed system in its own right.

I am more interested in the Mahayana both as a theoretical system and as a practical applied philosophy as a guide to life. BUT I do not believe the differences are substantially important as the ethical basis of Buddhism is very broad and there is little disagreement within Buddhism over that as a 'living code'.

I will offer some quotes here from the Second Dalai Lama's (1476-1542) short work 'A Raft to Cross the Ocean of Indian Buddhist Thought' which gives a very clear and succinct presentation of the tenets of Hinayana and Mahayana philosophy. It is found in 'The Selected Works of the Second Dalai Lama, Gedun Gyatso', by Glenn H Mullin, 1982, Snow Lion, USA, ISBN 0-937938-28-9 (pp.153-182).

'The definition of a Hinayanist philosopher is a person who expounds Buddhist philosophy within the framework of the belief that the world that appears to us has an external and a real status....no Mahayana philosopher would assert that external phenomena have real existence..' (p.157)

He then divides Hinayanists into two categories - Realists and Sutra Followers.

'The definition of a Realist philosopher is a person who expounds Hinayana philosophy but does not accept the theory of a simultaneous self-cognizing consciousness...this covers adequately the two types of Hinayana philosophers, Realists and Sutra Followers - the latter posit both the existence of a self-cognizing consciousness and a real status to the world that appears around us.' (p.158)
'The definition of a Follower of the Sutra system is a person who expounds Hinayana philosophy while asserting the true existence of the external world and the simultaneous self-cognizing consciousness... the Realists do not accept the existence of the self-cognizing consciousness. (p.164)
'...a Mahayana philosopher is a person who expounds Buddhist philosophy while not accepting the existence of an external world having true existence.' (p.168)

He further divides these Mahayanists into Mind Only (chittamatra) and Middle View (madhyamika) subtypes.

'The definition of a Mind Only philosopher is a person who expounds Mahayana philosophy while not accepting the existence of an external world as an entity other than mind, yet accepting the true existence of the objects of perception.' (p.168-9)
'The definition of the Middle View philosopher is a person who expounds Mahayana philosophy on the premise that nothing, not even the smallest particle of matter has true existence.' (p.173)

He further divides Middle View philosophy into Middle View Substantialists and Middle View Rationalists.

'The definition of a Middle View Substantialist is a person who accepts non-inherent existence yet asserts that on the conventional level of truth all objects are inherently existent by their own characteristic presence.' (p.174)
'The definition of a philosopher of the Middle View Rationalist system is an exponent of non-inherent existence who does not accept that even on the conventional level of truth things are established by their inherent self-characteristics.' (p.177)

Hopefully from these quotes we can begin to see the basis for my original remarks about the similarities between Berkeley and Mahayana? It is also of great interest that in both there is a lot of debate about the nature of the sense perception and the nature of the world we experience or construct internally (mentally). They both appear to arrive at a similar final position from radically different starting points and following very different paths.

A further text with much greater detail on these systems is 'Cutting Through Appearances - Practice and Theory of Tibetan Buddhism', by Geshe Lhundup Sopa and Jeffrey Hopkins, Snow Lion, USA, ISBN 0-937938-81-5. This text is based upon two Tibetan treatises and covers the same ground as Herbert V Guenther's Buddhist Philosophy in Theory and Practice, 1971, Penguin Books UK, ISBN 0140213929. Both books rely upon Mipham's 'Summary of Philosophical Systems' and Konchog Jigmay Wangbo's 'Jewel Garland of the Philosophical Systems' and contain translations of those texts. Personally I prefer Lhundup Sopa as it is a more modern translation and easier to understand.

One further question is this: could the idealist 'mind-only' view of Berkeley be substantially different from Mahayana, when the concept of God has been removed? If yes, then in what ways are they different? If no, then on what basis and for what reasons are they indistinguishable? This seems to me to be the central question in comparing them. I find it curious and peculiarly fascinating that two almost identical systems should arise like this without in fact knowing of each other's existence.

I noticed also when looking out some material for this answer, that I possess a few other texts which compare Buddhism with certain Western philosophers, but none which refer to Berkeley. That might start a further dialogue at some point! These texts include 'Buddhist Logic' by Tcherbatsky?; T R V Murti's 'The Central Philosophy of Buddhism' (1960) which is a study of Madhaymika philosophy and includes an interesting discussion of Kant, Hegel, and Bradley; also Antonio T de Nicolas' 'Avatara - the humanisation of philosophy through the Bhagavad Gita' (1976) which contains two good sections: one an extensive essay about problems of contemporary philosophy and at the end a long section discussing Kant, Hegel, Marx, Sartre, Husserl, Moore, Russell, Whitehead, Heidegger -- but unfortunately this is NOT about Buddhism but Gita.

All philosophers have set out ideas which can be applied to life. It is true that some are more practical and applied than others. To what extent they were expressly conceived with that purpose in mind would be hard to determine with certainty. Why would a philosopher devise a system of ideas? What motivation lies behind it? And why would they wish to convey it to others? I think the answer is to show their own development and responses to the world. Also to try and influence the views of others. Is this not a 'therapeutic' motivation? It is partly personal and partly to tell others.

Certainly in Berkeley's case he strived to show the shortcomings of the materialistic philosophy of Descartes and Locke and thus his system IS a practical response to the - in his view - nihilism of materialistic philosophy. So he WAS trying to change people and to divert them away from materialism, and thus to act as a 'therapy' in the very broadest sense. That indeed could be argued as his MAJOR reason for writing anything at all.

I would also say that all philosophies, or 'views' as Buddha would have called them, act as a basis for one's actions, thoughts and words. As we all live or die by our words, actions and thoughts, so the views we hold are certainly 'therapeutic or toxic' in our lives.

Part 2

A second thread arises from the idea of the world being an illusion. This is the purpose or function such a belief could have, and its practical application in one's life, both everyday and spiritual. In Buddhism, there is little doubt that to view the world as an illusion was a conception designed with a specific purpose. It is a spiritual device. One aspect of that purpose was to loosen the ties with the material world (with samsara) and so to encourage practitioners to turn away from the world. Thus, so loosened, one moves closer to the world of spirit. This could also be argued as a reason behind Berkeley's view too.

To see the world as an illusion and combined with altruistic motivation, bodhichitta and very great compassion for other living beings, produces a very pure and joyous view of the world. The conventional basis for this is that knowing the sufferings of others, wishing to care for them and knowing the impermanent nature of things and the inevitability therefore of all suffering, one then combines compassion with a view of the world as illusion, thus converting a grim situation into one of joy, hope and faith, as it is clear that all beings are our friends and always have been, and always will be. I suspect, but cannot as yet show, that a similar view was held by Berkeley, in respect of his overall Christian beliefs. Perhaps an omnipresent and all-embracing God performs, for Berkeley, the same hopeful, joyous and uplifting function as karma, rebirth, compassion all rolled into one, for Mahayana Buddhism?

there are also 5 new but related threads:

  1. advantages of viewing the world as an illusion;
  2. disadvantages of viewing world as a solely material reality;
  3. the narrative of personal experience and general Buddhist tenets;
  4. use of disbelief in reality as a means to loosen the ties with samsara;
  5. the importance of belief in the world as an illusion as a preparation for the generation stage of deity yoga in Vajrayana Buddhism.

These now need to be discussed in greater detail.

1 & 2

Idealists, romantics and religious people of all types tend very predominantly to view the world as having some spiritual element and not being utterly corrupted, nihilistic or material. They choose, indeed they need, to see a mental, spiritual and moral dimension to life - pervading and underlying the raw physical facts of existence given to us by our senses. They also embrace the idea that good will always triumph over evil and they tend to regard the stark facts of materialism with considerable horror. In order to live happily they need to believe there is a spiritual and good, kind backdrop to life and the universe. It is very comforting to believe that hope and joy are justified.

Berkeley is no exception here, except that he might in fact be better regarded as an extreme idealist or extreme spiritualist who not only tended in the general direction of most other idealists and romantics, but who went much further down that road, wholeheartedly believing the world not just to contain a spiritual element, but to actually BE spiritual, shot through and through in its entirety, and matter to be the true illusion. This is a very similar position to that of the Zen monks in the parable about the flapping flag. Uncertain whether the flag was being moved by the wind or the wind by the flag, the monks asked their Master, who settled the dispute by asserting: 'It is neither: mind is moving.' This is regarded as a classic presentation of the mind-only position.

The advantages of believing in the world as non-physical or as an illusion and thus essentially spiritual, are very comforting and indicate a desire to believe in the essential and pervasive 'goodness' of humankind and the world and universe we occupy. Such a view might be difficult to maintain in the light of our frequent battering by bad and unpleasant events that befall folks all the time. These events shake our faith, our hope and our joy and tend to negate our spiritual paradigm. It is similar when trying to love everybody and to regard them all as friends and kind folk when they go and act in an unkind or unfriendly way. The disadvantage for a spiritual person of believing the world to be only physical, is that it appears like a form of mindless nihilism which is unbearably depressing. Such a view makes life most definitely NOT worth living for the romantic idealists and spiritual persons. If materialism were true, such folks would be permanently in a state of profound despair.

Thus it can be argued that Berkeley - and the Mahayanists - simply and neatly sidestep and resolve this huge problem by proposing a theory that the whole world is an effective illusion upon our senses, and that the only reality is an entirely spiritual one. In Berkeley's case, he argues that it is a part of the mind of God and is thus loved by God, seen by God and is part of Him, part of the fabric of his Being. This is a very comforting viewpoint for the Deist. A less romantic alternative perhaps to this view is that of the Mahayana, which does not use the concept of God at all, but still maintains that the world is essentially mental and spiritual rather than physical and that matter is an illusion, a conjuring trick, and thus an aspect of the spirit rather than the reverse. The reverse is, of course, the viewpoint which all materialists seem to adopt, who view mind, consiousness and spirit as products or epiphenomena of matter, and thus illusory.

It is also possible to draw a parallel with pantheistic systems, which, like Berkeley, also embrace the idea of a spiritual universe, but populated not by one God, but by many gods and spirits.

There are other points here which need stressing. An advantage of the view of the world as an illusion is that we become genuinely fearless and relaxed in our life, accepting things as they are, people as they are and delighting in everything that comes along just as it is something which was meant to happen and which certainly contains something for us of value and benefit. We behave as if we are in a dream and as if all events are happenings within a dream. We regard events as no more important than events occurring in a dream. I personally believe this to be one of the most powerful arguments in favour of Mahayana and of Berkeley, and would seize upon this single aspect as of profound importance.

It also enables one to be joyous and to be a friend of everyone. It enables us to develop greater hope and faith in oursleves, others and the world at large. It is unthinkable to even consider a life or world without these qualities of hope, joy and faith. Taken together all these advantages also form a basis for deeper spiritual insights and progress. They form a basis of relaxation and deep calm within one's life, precisely because of the love, joy and contentment which the view engenders within us. Seen in all these various ways, then, we might well conclude that Berkeley is probably the most spiritual and the most profound of all Western philosophers - certainly from a Buddhist perspective.

3. the narrative of personal experience and general Buddhist tenets;

I would allude to my own personal experience in two ways regarding the view that the outer world is best regarded as illusory. The first relates to my initial unhappiness phase which led me towards spiritual paradigms in the first place, and the second relates to my discoverey through art and drawing that the outer world is indeed in certain respects a convincing illusion to the senses.

My initial phase of unhappiness when 21 years old (I am now 48) became a quest for happiness not relying upon external things but generated from within. I made the (common?) mistake of believing that my internal happiness was largely dependent upon external relationships and factors in the outer world. Failing repeatedly to find such happiness there, led me to conclude that I was searching in the wrong place, and that indeed happiness must be generated from within oneself, as a state of mind or condition of being happy and joyous and content with oneself, and not through changing or pursuing outer conditions. Thus I realised that the importance of the outer world is far less than we think and that thinking or believing that it is important is a (mistaken?) choice we make from our own side and which we generate and invest energy into through choice, not because it is true or because it is the only option. I eventually concluded that the very real joy and bliss of my childhood years - and which I wished to experience again - was not generated from the lovely things which happened to me, but from the delight with which I engaged with the world: it came from within and was part of my nature, not from the outer world.

Second relates to my observations in the late 1970's while drawing and painting, that reality - so-called - disappears when the light fades and therefore all shapes and colours being products of light, thus appear to vanish with the onset of night. I also found it interesting that many 'tricks' used in drawing and painting rely upon creating an illusion of an object by employing tricks of shading and colouring to trick the eye. I observed this so regularly that it seemed like a joke and made me very happy to have discovered it. Knowing these tricks in art is like secret knowledge which mocks one's common-sense view of the visual presentation of the outer world we normally take for granted. It also touches both upon Berkeley's views on vision and upon Buddhism's view that vision is the dominant sense from which we build up our worldview. For me, it again reinforced the 'healthy contempt' for the outer world I had first generated through my initial phase of unhappiness in 1971.

By 'healthy contempt' I mean disengagement from the outer world as a source of one's happiness. While the first led me into reading a lot about Buddhism, the latter led me into a Zen meditation class which I enjoyed immensely. If you consider the following phrase just as a Zen koan and keep it in mind all the time, then great insights can be made. The phrase is 'How is reality any different from a dream?' And 'what difference does it make if they are the same?' It was not possible for me to see any substantial difference between them, thus why bother to pretend that there is a difference? So one can confidently treat the world as if it IS an illusion and use that as a basis for living one's life. That shows contempt not for the world itself, but for the materialist paradigm, maybe!

So to sum up, I think to entertain and thoroughly consider the idea that the world is an illusion is a surprisingly powerful and profound technique which can lead to real spiritual insights and lasting joy and delight both with onself and with the world.

4. the use of disbelief in reality as a means to loosen the ties with samsara;

I would merely repeat the above observations from personal narrative. The fact is that however we develop a 'contempt' for the outer world then we to the same degree begin to loosen our ties with samsara and realise its unsatisfactory nature and the pervasive nature of the misery it contains. Both lead us to embrace paths which do not contain such misery and to moral conduct and lifestyle changes which include the idea that the world is an illusion, etc. If the world is not real then not much that happens in it is of any great interest, worth or consequence - precisely the view of detached indifference recommended by the Sutras.?There is a famous poem by the teacher of the 1st Dalai Lama (Tsong Kha pa) about this very theme which has attracted numerous commentaries.

5. the importance of the belief in the world as an illusion as a preparation for generation stage of deity yoga.

Part 3

Several other threads emerge about the whole theme of the benefits of viewing the world as an illusion or as mental and spiritual rather than physical.

The first thread relates to the 'ultimate holism' viewpoint which avers that the universe and all its contents are not only mental but they are also intimately interconnected, such that all parts are 'illusory' as parts, as all are inextricable parts of a much wider whole totality. Thus nothing can be pulled out or prised free from the vast holistic nexus or matrix which the universe actually is. Also all things being mental rather than physical, spiritual rather than tangible, are intimately interconnected through non-perceivable networks which science cannot detect. This view allows things in the paranormal and fringe to gain entry as part of a much wider and more subtle spiritual nexus rather than the crude materialistic mechanisms and cause and effect chains which are asccepted currently in science as the only reality. What is real is not what is perceivable or physically tangible, but what can be logically shown to be highly likely.

The other thread relates back to Buddhism and psychology. The fact that we sleep at night and awake refreshed seems to support the view that the mind is a spiritual thing refreshed by returning to the spirit world in sleep. During daytime it tends to become burdened and tired and weighed down with the worldly thoughts of our waking life to which it is unsuited and not well adapted. It shows stronger affinities with the spirit and internal consciousness world of meditation and sleep and reverie than it does to matter and the waking world.

Also we can say that the rhythm and cycles of day and night are analagous to those of birth and death, being born and dying. Thus the spirit world analogous to night and sleep and pre-birth, while the waking world is analogous to daytime and middle-age. Late afternoon and evening when the mind tires, relate best to old age. Through this type of analogy and observation we can again see abundant support evidence for the view that mind is far more akin to spirit than it is to matter. Thus from this we can again say that it is more likely that matter is an epiphenomenon of spirit/mind rather than the materialistic idea that mind or consciousness is an epiphenomenon of matter. The latter is bordering therefore on the absurd and nihilistic. Thus we can confirm through sound argument the ideas of Erigena and the neo-Platonists and of George Berkeley.

The two final threads on this topic actually relate to the Buddhist path and stem from within Buddhism. Firstly, we can say that the two requirements for the attainment of enlightenment are the accumulations of merit and of wisdom. Enlightenment cannot be attained until these are accumulated. And one final obstruction to omniscience - an aspect of the wisdom store - is the obstruction of ordinariness. This means that one must overcome the view of ourselves and the world as ordinary. One must view those aspects as illusions and cultivate the alternative view that we are already a Buddha and that the world is a Pure Realm, with a palace or residence of a Buddha as our home. This aspect is only found in the Secret Mantra Vehicle, the Vajrayana.

A final aspect can be stated: the world IS essentially an illusion as that is precisely how it is perceived by the mind of an enlightened being, a Buddha. Thus it can be argued that through cultivating the view of the world as like a dream or illusion, prepares us for the final stages of enlightenment, for the attainment of the view of a Buddha. This brings to completion this survey of the illusory nature of the world. However, there still remain several aspects of the comparison between Mahayana and Berkeley which remain unexplored. One of these relates to exploring what Berkeley's view would be like with the God element removed and how what remains might be similar to the Mahayana viewpoint. Another important aspect will involve comparing the senses and perception in both systems.

It is also true/probable that the world is an illusion for the following reasons:

Quotes from S Radhakrishnan, 1931, Indian Philosophy, 2nd edition, Allen & Unwin London:

'Indra seems to have been an empiricist ages before Locke and Berkeley.' vol 1 p.156
'The rotation of the world is consequent on the force of karma and ignorance. There are also passages which support the interpretation that the particulars of the world are individuations of the one reality, which has neither particularity nor individuality. These are forms, which reality assumes, when it becomes an object of knowledge. Wghile the former view dissolves the world into a dream positing nothing behind the flux, the latter reduces the world of knowledge to an appearance of a trans-empirical reality. the latter is more Kantian, while the former is more Berkelyan.' Vol1 pp.380-81

re Vedanta:

'Objects have no existence for themselves, and if they are not the contents of my or your consciousness, they are the contents of the divine consciousness'
'Footnote: Even Berkeley, who is generally charged with subjectivism, postulates a God who perceives the system of the universe, thus offering a home for all those ideas which have no place in the minds of individual thinkers.' Vol2 p.408

again re Vedanta:

'While the world is not the essential truth of Brahman, it is its phenomenal truth, the manner in which we are compelled to regard the real as it presents itself within our finite experience. But all this does not touch the question of the practical reality of the world.'

Footnote: what Berkeley says in another connection holds good of Samkara.

"What therefore becomes of the sun, moon and stars? What must we think of houses, rivers, mountains, trees, stones, nay, even of our bodies? Are all these but so many chimeras and illusions of fancy?...I answer that by the principles premised we are not deprived of any one thing in nature. Whatever we see, feel, hear, or any wise conceive or understand remains secure as ever,a dn is as real as ever. There is a rerum natura, and the distinction between realities and chimeras retyains its full force." Berkeley, Principles of Human Knowledge, p34' (Vol 2, p.584)

Quotes from Mullin, 1982, Selected Works of the Dalai Lama VII, Snow Lion, USA

'All things are free of an ultimate beginning or end.
Were all things to have an inherent existence,
Would it not be absurd to say they are named
According to composition, conditions or causes?' p.37
'Nothing truly existent, all things a great falsity;
Sights and sounds I now understand as scenes in a play.' p.49
'Dream objects in the mind of one drunk with sleep.
The horses and elephants conjured up by a magician,
Only appearances; on those foundations,
Nothing real; merely mental imputations.
Similarly, all things in the world and beyond
Are simply projections of names and thoughts.
Not even the tiniest atom exists by itself,
Independently and in its own right' p.53
'Then when one looks into the face of the world,
Everything is seen as being without an essence.' p.118


Source

By Peter Morrell
homeoint.org