“All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream.” – Edgar Allen Poe
The world’s spiritual traditions tend to agree with these words Poe wrote in 1849, the year of his death. To Hindus, this world is “maya,” meaning “a magic show, an illusion where things appear to be present but are not what they seem.” (1)
Buddhists call it “samsara,” a Sanskrit word for “wandering through, flowing on, aimless and directionless wandering,” signifying the involuntary cycle of death and rebirth that continues until we grasp the true nature of appearances (2).
Jesus warned his followers that this is not the place to store up riches. In 1999, the Matrix reframed the appearance/reality question for the twenty-first century.
Being spiritual, doesn’t give anyone a pass on consensus reality. As Ram Dass put it, “We have to remember our Buddha nature and our social security number.”
Navigating samsara has never been easy. Truth is hard enough to discover when we are sincere, let alone when we are not. That’s one reason why Buddha placed a special emphasis on truth as a core value. Not lying was one of his Five Precepts. He said, “When anyone feels no shame in telling a deliberate lie, there is no evil, I tell you, they will not do” (3).
The spectacle of our nation’s political and social dysfunction notched up last week when the president tweeted a trio of British, right-wing hate videos, at least one of which had previously been debunked as false, AND the White House press secretary told the world it that didn’t matter if they were real or not (4). That sorry episode has been buried under a new week’s lies, but lets stop for a moment and consider what happened.
It’s safe to assume that all politicians lie, but never, in any historical record I’ve seen, has the spokesperson for a head of state told the world that lies are at the core of her boss’s policies and when he lies, it’s okay.
It’s hard to imagine what past generations would say of president who is a blatant liar, a ruling party that enables him, with a third of the nation (according to the latest polls) that approve of him. Those past generations would probably say we are fucked. They would probably agree with Buddha that there is no evil this president will not do.
Most children seem to have an instinctive understanding of truth and falsehood, at least until conditioning and the example of adults wears it away. Most children, I think, also have an understanding of heroism and a longing to live heroically. Many of us grew up longing for a life with room for truth and heroism. I think those two qualities go together.
In an article called, The Gift of Truth, Tracy Cochran relates that Martin Luther King knew every day that his struggle might cost his life. A pastor who marched beside him said, “He reached a point where he laughed at dying. He made jokes about it..He knew what was important, and he made sure he did it every day” (emphasis added).
We, as a nation have lost our sense of collective truths, our shared points of reference. Sowing such confusion is a classic tactic of would-be tyrants. One of the sure antidotes I know is posing questions like this one at a deep level – do I know, can I remember, what is important?
I do not mean at the level of thoughts, beliefs, concepts, opinions. However important, these are fluid and changeable. I speak of something deeper, more visceral. I mean it in the sense that Jack Kornfield, a long time teacher of Insight or Mindfulness meditation meant it when he asked a student to put away all she had learned of spirituality and look within to ask, “what did she already know that was so certain that even if Jesus and the Buddha were to sit in the same room and say, ‘No, it’s not,’ she could look them straight in the eye and say, ‘Yes, it is.'” (5)
That is a wonderful inquiry! Once you seriously ask the question, you cannot forget it. Sooner or later, an answer will come, and unlike most of the contents of our consciousness, it will not be swept away, but grow and perhaps shift and remain a lodestone that helps us separate what truly matters from what does not.
To have a grasp of the truth, vital and real, at our core is no guarantee against suffering in this world, but it’s an indication that we are becoming real, becoming human. The lies of our would-be overlords cannot so easily rip the truth from our hearts and minds. This is inner, not outer wealth, in contrast to those who have never pursued such a path, those who pursue fleeting things, and who are frightened children with holes in their hearts when the inevitable dark nights of the soul come to visit.
We can learn much by careful contemplation of the truths expressed by wise men and women of the past. Here is one of the truths that Buddha shared, at the end of The Diamond Sutra, as valid now as it was when spoken 2600 years ago. Like all such deep realizations, it puts our own times, hopes, and fears in a different perspective:
Like a tiny drop of dew, or a bubble floating in a stream;
Like a flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
Or a flickering lamp, an illusion, a phantom, or a dream.”
“So is all conditioned existence to be seen.”
Thus spoke Buddha.