Newsletter... 6-19-02

All the World's a Stage: Reflections on the 'Two Levels of Truth'

by Campbell Purton (Karma Chogyi Gyatso)

The Middle Way
(volume 75:2 p. 74) August 2000

In the Buddhist scriptures we are often told that our everyday world is like
a dream, that neither we nor the world around us is 'ultimately' real. This
is of course different from saying that our life is a dream or that nothing
we experience is real. Nevertheless some sort of distinction is being made
between the kind of reality we ordinarily ascribe to our lives and the kind
of reality they 'ultimately' have.

In Mahayana Buddhism the distinction is drawn between two 'levels' of truth
or reality. There is first the level, of Samsara, of ordinary reality within
which we make all the distinctions we do make, including those between what,
in an ordinary way, is real and what is not (for example, the distinction
between mirages and real pools of water). And then there is the level of
'ultimate reality', about which little can be said except that the view from
'ultimate reality' is an 'enlightened' view, a way of seeing and being in
which there is freedom from Dukkha.

The notion of this 'ultimate reality' can seem very elusive, abstract,
philosophical; and its philosophical elucidation has indeed taxed the brains
of the greatest Buddhist thinkers from Nagarjuna onwards. But it is not just
a philosopher's notion; it is central to the experience of the Buddhist

Without a sense that our ordinary perception of reality is in some way wrong
or distorted, or that somehow we ourselves are in some way wrong or
distorted, there would not be that sense of Dukkha which is the starting
point of Buddhism.

We can sense that there is an important distinction being made between how
we see things and how an enlightened person would see things. This unclear
sense of an important distinction needs to be articulated, to be given a
more distinct form, if it is to be helpful to us. And that is where the
analogy of the dream comes in. In a dream people and events can seem very
real. Dramas are played out - sometimes wonderful, sometimes terrible,
sometimes very ordinary. There is this dream reality. But it is not 'real
reality'. When we awake from a dream we may for a while still feel the joy
or the fear that was there in the dream, but then we begin to adjust: I
haven't really won the lottery; I'm not really going to be executed. In the
dream we are normally identified with a dream character, and the predicament
of this character is what generates the emotions we may feel on waking. But
as we return to waking consciousness we cease to identify with the dream
character and resume our real self.

The analogy between dream reality and Samsara would then be that, just as we
can awake from a dream in which we were identified with an unreal self, so
we can 'awake' from Samsara in which we are identified with an unreal self.
The important question is how we are to set about doing this. The dream
analogy suggests that we need to give attention to our dream experience in
the dream, so that we gradually become aware that the dream is a dream. The
development of such awareness of dreams as dreams is seen as an aspect of
mindfulness in some Buddhist traditions and has been investigated to some
extent scientifically in the West, where such dreams have been termed 'lucid
dreams'. However, the topic of lucid dreams is controversial, and not
everyone has had the experience in question, so the development of the dream
analogy along these lines is not entirely straightforward. What I shall do
instead in this article is to change the analogy from that of a dream to
that of a play. I think that a comparison with a play can work as well, in
many ways, as the comparison with a dream without raising unnecessary
complications about the nature of dreams and lucid dreams.

Before developing this analogy let me draw attention to what may seem a
serious difficulty with both analogies. We are being asked to think of our
lives as like a dream or like a play, and the point of this is to help us to
think of our lives as not having the 'ultimate' reality we normally suppose
they have. But for anyone facing a deep moral dilemma, a personal tragedy or
a life broken by poverty or illness (or, for that matter, someone
contemplating a remarkable achievement), to be asked to look at things in
this way can seem an affront to the deep seriousness of their situation. It
would be monstrous to respond to someone whose child has just been killed in
a road accident with some such comment as 'Well, never mind, it's all just a
dream (a play), you know.' If we are not to descend into moral absurdity,
the reality of Samsara needs to be fully maintained, even if there is
another, 'ultimate' level of truth. One test of whether an analogy in this
area is a good one will therefore be whether the analogy can make sense of
the seriousness of moral choices and of the joys and sorrows of Samsara
while preserving the other perspective, of enlightenment.

Turning now to the analogy of the play, we can see easily enough how it can
function like the dream analogy. In the play King Lear, the king is betrayed
by two of his daughters and Gloucester is blinded. Are these tragic events?
Of course. Are they really tragic? Yes, it really is a tragic play. Do the
actors feel the tragedy (the fear, the anger etc)? Yes, if they are good
actors. But there is a difference between the actor who plays Lear feeling
Lear's bitterness and that actor himself feeling bitter.

Now it is possible for an actor to lose the distinction between himself and
the character he is playing. For example, the actor might in real life be
angry with one of his colleagues, and be angry in connection with a
situation that is closely paralleled by one in a play in which they are both
acting. On stage the actor may find himself hitting his colleague just that
bit harder than required by the situation in the play, and the colleague may
well be aware of what is happening. The distinction between actor and
character gets blurred here. Is the anger 'in the play', is it 'real' or is
it some confused mixture of the two? One could also imagine a scene where
two people fall in love in a play, and then they find that they really have
fallen in love! Were the feelings they had that evening their feelings or
those of the characters in the play? Again, there is a hazy uncertainty

One point to make about these cases is that the blurring of identity between
actor and character in the play is unlikely to be good for either the play
or the actor's real life. The actor who lets his own anger blur with his
character's anger is likely to bring his colleague out of role, with the
colleague wondering what is going on. This is not good for the play. But
also, the actor who blurs his real love with his stage love is likely to
encounter problems in his real-life relationship. How much of it is just
fantasy, he may wonder.

What a competent actor does, obviously enough, is fully to enter the part of
the character he is playing while maintaining a clear background awareness
that this is a play, that what he is doing (on one level) is acting while
what he is doing (on another level) is gouging Gloucester's eyes out.

The Buddhist analogy would be that what an enlightened person, a
bodhisattva, does is fully to enter the life of Samsara while retaining
awareness that this is Samsara and therefore not to be taken with the kind
of seriousness with which an unenlightened person takes it.
This brings us to the moral difficulty which I said faces the dream analogy
and the play analogy equally. For someone to have their eyes gouged out (in
real life) is a terrible thing. What is the appropriate Buddhist response,
if we are to take the play analogy seriously? Or, to put it another way: if
Samsara is like a play, then nothing really serious can happen in Samsara,
yet that seems morally outrageous. It really is a serious matter that people
are tortured, live in crushing poverty and so on. There is an ultimate (i.e.
non-Samsaric) seriousness here. I don't think this can possibly be doubted
in Buddhism. If there were no ultimate seriousness about at least some of
what goes on in Samsara, it would not be a serious matter to seek liberation
at all.

Can the play analogy help us to understand this seemingly paradoxical
situation? I think it can. For notice that however absorbed in their
characters the actors may be, they do not normally lose track of real-world
events that are relevant to their performing well. For instance, if, during
a play, an actor noticed that a cupboard on the stage was about to fall
over, he would probably do something to prevent this happening, something
that didn't interfere with the flow of the play, such as placing a chair
against the cupboard. The actor's (real-life) aim is to render a good
performance of the play, and this requires awareness of real-life situations
and consequences as well as awareness of in-play situations and
consequences. If a colleague playing the part of an ill person really
becomes ill during the play, then the actor may even insist on stopping the

The acting situation which I have just been describing can be seen as an
analogy not for our lives but for the life of a bodhisattva who maintains
awareness on two levels at once and compassionately 'comes out of the play'
in situations which threaten either the play's perform- ance or the
well-being of the actors. The analogy for our lives would be a much more
chaotic sort of play in which events such as the actors getting really angry
with each other on stage or really falling in love on stage keep happening
all the time. Also, we may suppose, the actors when off-stage tend to
continue in their roles and mix these roles with their real-life positions.
Thus we are imagining a situation in which there is a constant blurring of
the distinction between play and reality, with consequent intense pain and
confusion. Further, we can suppose that for most of the time the actors are
not aware of the nature of what the trouble is; they just have an
overwhelming sense that something is terribly wrong.

In such a situation, what can be done? One possibility is that there is an
actor who does know what is wrong, and he or she may be able to get the
others to sit down and reflect on what they are doing, to help them to see
that a distinction needs to be made between play and reality. The other
actors may object to this on the grounds that, in spite of all the chaos,
their lives are full of colour and emotion and that they do not want all
this to be relegated to the level of 'a mere play'. Then the
'bodhisattva-actor' will need to explain further that making the distinction
will not be destructive in the way they imagine. All the life and emotion
and drama of the play will still be there, and will be more clearly and
fully there because it will no longer be confused, and the real life
situation will be much better because it will be recognized for what it is -
the performance of a play.

But what if there is no 'bodhisattva-actor' around? It may still be possible
for the actors to escape from their situation if they simply pause a while
and stay with the painful condition they are in. They could simply stop
doing anything for a bit, reflect, try to see into the nature of their
confusion, to say to themselves simply 'Here is suffering; what are its
roots?' In that way they could come to see that the roots lie in confusion,
in identifying their acting self with their real self, in being attached to
the parts they are playing.

As a result of being taught or through individual reflection, the actors may
now have at least a glimmering of what is wrong. They are still in their
confused state, but they now have some sense that there is another state
which is not confused and that the path towards that other state involves
essentially awareness, the continuing effort to see the play as a play. They
continue to act (after all, acting is what actors do) but they become more
aware that they are acting, and as a result they act better.

Now how are we to apply this analogy? The crucial point seems to involve
trying to take a different view of our life, to see it as 'like a play', in
the sense that we are to adopt a different attitude to ourselves. Instead of
taking an I-involved attitude we are encouraged to take a more 'neutral'
attitude: instead of identifying with our feelings (e.g. 'I am depressed'),
we are encouraged to note our feelings (e.g. 'there is a depressed feeling
here'). In taking this more neutral view we are taking our feelings as more
on a level with those of others. That there is depression is cause for
reflection and efforts to do something about it, but insofar as we succeed
in adopting the neutral attitude we lose the awfulness of it being my
depression; we are no longer sunk in the depression or caught up in the
anger or in whatever the feeling happens to be. Rather than being in that
mood we are looking at it with a kindly interest. This is what is analogous
to the difference between an actress playing the part of a character and
losing herself in the character. It would be misleading to call this a state
of detachment. A good actress is not detached from the character she is
playing; she is very involved. But she doesn't identify with the character
in any serious sense. Similarly, to disidentify with our feelings is not to
become detached from them; it is not, in psychological jargon, to dissociate
from them. It is simply to adopt an attitude to them that is not I-involved.

The way we can do this is, of course, what is set out in the basic Buddhist
teachings. We need to stay with our experiences, to register them fully,
simply to be aware. This is the essence of Yamatha meditation. But having
stabilized our awareness we then need to bring into awareness the 'absence
of I'. There is this angry feeling here, but is there anything corresponding
to 'I am angry'? This looking with a view to seeing the non-I nature of our
experience is the essence of vipaYyan> meditation. In principle, we are
told, these two practices are all that is required in order to attain the
enlightened (non-I-involved) attitude. But at the same time, the development
of the enlightened attitude has implications for how we see others. The more
we move into the non-I-involved attitude the more we place other people's
lives on a par with our own and the more we see ourselves as sharing a
common humanity. Thus the jewel of 'compassion' emerges naturally from the
lotus of 'insight'. Om mani padme hum.

This brings us back to the ethical issue with which I have been concerned.
The appropriate Buddhist attitude to another's trouble will not often simply
be 'Never mind, it's just a play' because people's troubles in Samsara often
have an impact on their chances of becoming less I-involved. Unless we are
well on the way to being enlightened already, tragic events and crushing
circumstances can stand in the way of our doing anything to help ourselves.
We often find it hardest to meditate when we most need to. Hence from the
point of view of the value of enlightenment, we should do all we can to help
people out of situations which make enlightenment hard to seek. Such
situations would include, for instance, intense pain, need, distraction and
pressure (the 'lower realms' in the Wheel of Life). In terms of the play
analogy, this is parallel to an actor's concern that the cupboard may fall
over. This is not a concern in the play but a concern for the good
performance of the play. Similarly, the enlightened person's concern for
people's suffering is not primarily a concern within Samsara but a concern
for their opportunities to transcend Samsara.

This may seem an over-subtle point, but I think it concerns a real and
important issue about suffering. We know well that not all pain is a bad
thing. Pain can warn us, correct us, make us rethink and so on. ('Dukkha' is
not straightforwardly translatable as 'pain'.) So an enlightened person
would not seek to remove all our pain; what they would seek is our release
from situations that cripple our capacity to seek enlightenment. What these
situations are, of course, varies enormously from one person to another.
What for one person is the last straw that leads them to despair is for
another person their life's greatest challenge. In some traditional Buddhist
texts this point is made in connection with the notion of 'the precious
human birth': it is only if we are born as a human being, and not in
barbarous circumstances, and have the use of our senses and so on, that we
shall have the opportunity to reflect on our lives and their possibilities.
All of this means that taking an attitude of 'It's just a play' can be
utterly inappropriate. Yes, it is a play, but the play can only be a good
play if circumstances are propitious. So compassion in the ordinary sense of
helping those in distress is indeed encompassed by the play analogy.

Finally, let me emphasize something else that is encompassed by the play
analogy. It is that there is reality and value to Samsara in spite of
Samsara being, in a sense, illusory. The play is in one sense an illusion,
but it is in another sense quite real. There really is the play, and the
play can be of deep value. The problems arise only if we forget it is a
play, if we forget that everything that happens in the play can be seen as
events in a play. The play is an illusion only if it is not seen as a play.
When we see it as a play there is no illusion involved. There is just the
play, and the play is a real play.

In the same way, the analogy suggests, Samsara is an illusion only if it is
not seen as Samsara. The enlightened person sees Samsara as Samsara,
whereas we live in it as if it were ultimate reality, and that is the illusion, not
Samsara itself.

Thus, as a final touch to the play analogy, we might compare another
Shakespearean quotation to a famous remark of Nagarjuna. Shakespeare says
'All the world's a stage' but he also says 'The play's the thing'. We could
think of this as meaning that once we see our life as a play, we can see how
real and valuable and magical it is. Seeing it as a play is seeing it as it
really is. Hence to see Samsara for what it is, is to see it in an
enlightened way; it is to see it as Nirvana. In Nagarjuna's words, 'Between
Samsara and Nirvana there is no difference at all.' This may seem
paradoxical, but in the end there is no more paradox than in the thought
that between the play and the reality of the play there is no difference at
all. The difference comes entirely in whether we can see the play as a play,
whether we can see Samsara as Samsara.

It is of course one thing to say all this but another to experience it. We
are, most of the time, so caught up in the play that we can't experience it
as a play, but the Buddhist view is that through the practice of meditation
and awareness, we can gradually come to see our situation for what it is and
ultimately free ourselves from the illusion that entraps us.

The Middle Way August 2000 p. 74 (volume 75: 2)