Many classic Advaita texts say that the world is an illusion, but does that mean that it is not real? The only reason we have problems with this is that in our culture we believe that reality means physical things. If we think that reality means physical things, then the Caribbean beach that we dream of is not real because it’s not a physical thing. That statement is only true in relation to our belief that only physical things are real. If we don’t start from that premise, try to imagine something that is not real. Everything is real doesn’t mean that everything is real in the way that it appears to be. It doesn’t mean that the world is necessarily a multiplicity and diversity of objects made out of stuff outside consciousness, namely matter. The world may not be that, but whatever the world is, it is real. There is something there. When we when we touch it, there is something here. Whatever that something is must be real. It couldn’t even be experienced if it was not real. The question is not whether the world is real or not. It is absolutely real. The war in Ukraine is real. The Caribbean beach we dream of is real. The suffering we feel is real.
The question is not whether it is real or not. The question is, what is its reality? What does that question mean? It means, not how does it appear to be. It means, what is it really, in spite of the way it appears. The Caribbean beach that we dream of at night is obviously not a Caribbean beach made out of sea and sun and wind and sand. Yet, there is something that is real about the experience. What is it? It is our own mind. There is something real about that. If we go further, our own mind is obviously something that is real. The images that appear are not nothing. If we touch them, metaphorically, if we try to touch the stuff out of which our mind is made, what do we find? Consciousness. Then can we go further back? Is consciousness itself an appearance of something that lies behind it? Can you go further back in your experience than Consciousness? No, we can’t. Consciousness is as far back as we can go. Hence we say, Consciousness is the reality of which everything else is the appearance.
Interestingly, there’s a big misunderstanding contained in some of the traditional Advaita texts. There is the conflation of the idea that the world is an illusion and therefore it is not real. There’s a difference. They mean two completely different things. It’s true to say that the world is an illusion as we normally think of it. Conversely, that doesn’t imply that it’s unreal. People normally think that if something’s an illusion, it’s therefore unreal. Can we honestly say of our experience, that the world is unreal. No, we can’t. Can we honestly look at what’s happening in Ukraine and just say it’s unreal? No way! It’s real. Yes, it’s not what it appears to us.
All illusions have a reality to them and that reality is absolutely real. Moreover, there is nothing to an illusion other than its reality. The landscape we see in a movie is an illusion. Yet, it has a reality to it, relatively speaking the screen. The landscape is not made out of grass and rocks and trees and sky. When we touch it, we don’t find grass and rocks. And we don’t find nothing. We find its reality. The screen. Moreover, all there is to the landscape is the screen. The screen is not buried behind the landscape. The landscape is not veiling the screen. It is our belief that the landscape is a landscape, that makes the screen seem to be unseen. And as soon as we touch the reality of the landscape and realize, oh it is a screen. Then we look at the landscape again and we realize all there is to the landscape is the screen. The landscape doesn’t veil the screen. It shines with the screen as the screen.
So, this world as a multiplicity and diversity of objects made out of matter is an illusion. Still, if we touch the world, if we touch the stuff that the world is made of, if we go to its reality, we recognize its reality; infinite being. Then we come back to the world, and we realize that all there is to the world is its reality. All there is to the world is infinite being. At that point we realized that what we what previously seemed to veil reality, namely the world, now shines with it, as it. Because if the world veiled its reality, the world would have to be something other than its reality. What could it be other than reality? No, it is not the world that veils its reality. It’s our belief that the world is a multiplicity and diversity of objects made out of matter that seems to veil its reality. As soon as that belief is removed, the world that once seemed to conceal its reality, now shines with it. Reality is not buried in some realm behind the world. It is shining as the world. Everything we experience in the world is God’s being shining. Everything! As the Sufis say, wherever you look there is only the face of God.