Excerpt from The Way of Zen – Alan Watts
“Moksha (liberation) is also understood as liberation from maya – one of the most important words in Indian philosophy, both Hindu and Buddhist. For the manifold world of facts and events is said to be maya, ordinarily understood as an illusion which veils the one underlying reality of Brahman. This gives the impression that moksha is a state of consciousness in which the whole varied world of nature vanishes from sight, merged in a boundless ocean of vaguely luminous space. Such an impression should be dismissed at once, for it implies a duality, an incompatibility, between Brahman and maya which is against the whole principle of Upanishadic philosophy. For Brahman is not One as opposed to Many, not simple as opposed to complex. Brahman is without duality simple as opposed to complex. Brahman is without duality (advaita), which is to say without any opposite since Brahman is not in any class or, for that matter, outside any class.
Now classification is precisely maya. The word is derived from the Sanskrit root matr-, “to measure, form, build, or lay out a plan,” the root from which we obtain such Greco-Latin words as meter, matrix, material, and matter. The fundamental process of measurement is division, whether by drawing a line with the finger, by marking off or by enclosing circles with the span of the hand or dividers, or by sorting grain or liquids into measures (cups). Thus the Sanskrit root dva– from which we get the word “divide” is also the root of the Latin duo (two) and the English “dual.”
To say, then, that the world of facts and events is maya is to say that facts and events are terms of measurement rather than realities of nature. We must, however, expand the concept of measurement to include setting bounds of all kinds, whether by descriptive classification or selective screening. It will thus be easy to see that facts and events are as abstract as lines of latitude or as feet and inches. Consider for a moment that it is impossible to isolate a single fact, all by itself. Facts come in pairs at the very least, for a single body is inconceivable apart from a space in which it hangs. Definition, setting bounds, delineation – these are always acts of division and thus of duality, for as soon as a boundary is defined it has two sides.
This point of view is somewhat startling, and even quite hard to understand, for those long accustomed to think that things, facts, and events are the very building-blocks of the world, the most solid of solid realities. Yet a proper understanding of the maya doctrine is one of the most essential prerequisites for the study of Hinduism and Buddhism, and in trying to grasp its meaning one must try to put aside the various “idealist” philosophies of the West with which it is so often confused – even by modern Indian Vedantists. For the world is not an illusion of the mind in the sense that – to the eyes of the liberated man (jivanmukta) – there is nothing to be seen but a trackless void. He sees the world that we see; but he does not mark it off, measure it, divide it in the same way. He does not look upon it as really or concretely broken down into separate things and it as really or concretely broken down into separate things and events. He sees that the skin may just as well be regarded as what joins us to our environment as what separates us from it. He sees, furthermore, that the skin will be considered as joining only if it has first been considered as separating, or vice versa.
Thus his point of view is not monistic. He does not think that all things are in reality One because, concretely speaking, there never were any “things” to be considered One. To join is as much maya as to separate. For this reason both Hindus and Buddhists prefer to speak of reality as “nondual” rather than “one,” since the concept of one must always be in relation to that of many. The doctrine of maya is therefore a doctrine of relativity. It is saying that things, facts, and events are delineated, not by nature, but by human description, and that the way in which we describe (or divide) them is relative to our varying points of view.
It is easy to see, for example, that an event called the First World War can only rather arbitrarily be said to have begun on August 4, 1914, and to have ended on November 11, 1918. Historians can discover “actual” beginnings of the war long before and “resumptions” of the same strife long after these formal boundaries of the event. For events can divide and merge like blobs of mercury according to the changing fashions of historical description. The boundaries of events are conventional rather than natural, in the sense that a man’s life is said to have begun at the moment of parturition, rather than at conception on the one hand or weaning on the other.
Similarly, it is easy to see the conventional character of things. Ordinarily a human organism is counted as one thing, though from the physiological standpoint it is as many things as it has parts or organs, and from the sociological standpoint it is merely part of a larger thing called a group.
Certainly the world of nature abounds with surfaces and lines, with areas of density and vacuity, which we employ in marking out the boundaries of events and things. But here again, the maya doctrine asserts that these forms (rupa) have no “own-being” or “self-nature” (svabhava): they do not exist in their own right, but only in relation to one another, as a solid cannot be distinguished only in relation to one another, as a solid cannot be distinguished save in relation to a space. In this sense, the solid and the space, the sound and the silence, the existent and the nonexistent, the figure and the ground are inseparable, interdependent, or “mutually arising,” and it is only by maya or conventional division that they may be considered apart from one another.
Indian philosophy also thinks of rupa or form as maya because it is impermanent. Indeed, when Hindu and Buddhist texts speak of the “empty” or “illusory” character of the visible world of nature – as distinct from the conventional world of things – they refer precisely to the impermanence of its forms. Form is flux, and thus maya in the slightly extended sense that it cannot be firmly marked down or grasped. Form is maya when the mind attempts to comprehend and control it in the fixed categories of thought, that is, by means of names (nama) and words. For these are precisely the nouns and verbs by means of which the abstract and conceptual categories of things and events are designated.
To serve their purpose, names and terms must of necessity be fixed and definite like all other units of measurement. But their use is – up to a point – so satisfactory that man is always in danger of confusing his measures with the world so measured, of identifying money with wealth, fixed convention with fluid reality. But to the degree that he identifies himself and his life with these rigid and hollow frames of definition, he condemns himself to the perpetual frustration of one trying to catch water in a sieve. Thus Indian philosophy speaks constantly of the unwisdom of pursuing things, of striving for the permanence of particular entities and events, because it sees in all this nothing more than an infatuation with ghosts, with the abstract measures of the mind (manas).
Maya is, then, usually equated with nama–rupa or “name-and-form,” with the mind’s attempt to grasp the fluid forms of nature in its mesh of fixed classes. But when it is understood that form is ultimately void – in the special sense of ungraspable and immeasurable – the world of form is immediately seen as Brahman rather than maya. The formal world becomes the real world in the moment when it is no longer clutched, in the moment when its changeful fluidity is no longer resisted. Hence it is the very transitoriness of the world which is the sign of its divinity, of its actual identity with the indivisible and immeasurable infinity of Brahman.
This is why the Hindu-Buddhist insistence on the impermanence of the world is not the pessimistic and nihilistic doctrine which Western critics normally suppose it to be. Transitoriness is depressing only to the mind which insists upon trying to grasp. But to the mind which lets go and moves with the flow of change, which becomes, in Zen Buddhist imagery, like a ball in a mountain stream, the sense of transience or emptiness becomes a kind of ecstasy
This is perhaps why, in both East and West, impermanence is so often the theme of the most profound and moving poetry – so much so that the splendor of change shines through even when the poet seems to resent it the most.
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Stated thus — as R. H. Blyth observes — it seems not so bad after all.
In sum, then, the maya doctrine points out, firstly, the impossibility of grasping the actual world in the mind’s net of words and concepts, and, secondly, the fluid character of those very forms which thought attempts to define. The world of facts and events is altogether nama, abstract names, and rupa, fluid form. It escapes both the comprehension of the philosopher and the grasp of the pleasure-seeker like water from a clutching fist. There is even something deceptive in the idea of Brahman as the eternal reality underlying the flux, and of the atman as the divine ground of underlying the flux, and of the atman as the divine ground of human consciousness, for in so far as these are concepts they are as incapable of grasping the real as any other.
It is precisely this realization of the total elusiveness of the world which lies at the root of Buddhism.”
source: Alan Watts, The Way of Zen, p.38 – 43