What Does “The World is an Illusion” Mean?
It does not mean that there isn’t any appearance here. When you see a mirage, it’s not that you’re seeing nothing; you are seeing an appearance; it’s just that you’re not actually seeing an oasis.
The question–“Is the world an illusion?”–really turns on the epistemic status of what’s actually here, of what’s really appearing.
Advaita Vedanta commonly says three things about the illusory nature of the world:
- First, the world is not an entity.
- Second, the world is not independent.
- Third, the world is not permanent.
I. The World Is Not An Entity
Advaita Vedanta begins with an axiom that you’ll need to ponder. It’s that one must investigate whatever is in question by using as one’s “primary datum” direct experience. Vedantins deny beginning with theories, beliefs, hearsay, conjectures, and so on. Whatever, prereflectively, is evident here is what’s “used” in the investigation.
Now, to say that the world is not an entity is to assert that there is no object out there called “the world”; there are only experiences. If you ask, “What is the world?,” you soon find that it’s not some thing but is instead touching, tasting, smelling, seeing, and hearing. In short, when you go looking for the world, what you find is not an object–a thing–but a percept.
II. The World Is Not Independent
And the second claim? Since the world is not an entity, we can, henceforth, reduce it to experience. So, is experience ontologically independent? It is not: all experience is dependent upon awareness.
Ask yourself the question, “Can there be seeing in the absence of awareness? Hearing in the absence of awareness?” And so on. You’ll discover that there can’t be any experience without awareness. Therefore, a necessary condition for an experience to arise is awareness. Hence, all experiences “rest on” something more ontologically basic, a topic we’ll turn to in a moment.
III. The World Is Impermanent
As for the world’s–that is to say, experience’s–impermanence, observe closely any experience and soon enough you’ll realize that it doesn’t last: it rises, it persists for a short while, and it sets. In this sense, it doesn’t qualify as sat, a Sanskrit term which means “reality,” “permanent existence,” or “being.”
Why Does Any Of This Matter?
The fact that, so understood, the world is an illusion is a great pointer for those on a nondual path. It points to what we really want to know: what is awareness (cit) and what is being (sat)? In the early phase (through discrimination), it points us away from the world and toward the Self.