Seeing Three Domains – Illusory, Empirical World, and Absolute

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Will Joel Friedman, Ph.D. is a seasoned clinician with experience working with adults, couples, families, adolescents and older children since 1976. His aim ...Read More

Without Clarity, Confusion Reigns—With Clarity, Direction is Obvious

The three realms of the illusory, the empirical world, and the Absolute are endlessly confused, provoking arguments, emotional reactions, and more fog and static. To clearly reveal and fully see these three realms can be most serviceable and illuminating. Without clarity, confusion reigns; with clarity, direction is obvious. In ancient Indian Upanishad scriptures, these three levels of reality are described as dream, transactional and Absolute.


The Illusory—”Life is But a Dream”

Once upon a time, I, Chuang-tzu, dreamt I was a butterfly, flittering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly…suddenly I awoke… Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly dreaming I am a man.

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The foolish reject what they see, not what they think; the wise reject what they think, not what they see.
—Huang Po

Would you dare awaken within the ego’s mesmerizing dream and fear-driven drama to listen to your distinct contribution as a sacred being, a molecule in the mind and heart of God? When we misidentify with the imaginary ego and indulge in negative evaluations and false comparisons, we concoct a recipe for misery and suffering. For the ego, petty differences are perceived as inferior or superior, then turn threatening and fear inducing, which further leads to defensiveness, anger, condemnation and attack. The barbarians are at the gate and the lunatics are running the asylum all at once!

Playwright George Bernard Shaw deadpanned: “I don’t know if there are men on the moon, but if there are, they must be using the earth as their lunatic asylum.” What if there is nothing “there”, “no thing” and no separation? Gertrude Stein once quipped, upon learning that her birth home in Oakland, California had been torn down, “There is no there, there!” Given the ego has no independent existence, is non-existent, and knows nothing of Presence, there is no here, here for the ego either! Isn’t it amazingly bizarre just how often getting “there” captivates and overwhelms being “here”!

Of course, life is always here, there is no there. It is always now, there is no then. The term “path”, when it describes spiritual development, is often misunderstood, given that a path takes us from “here” to “there.” Actually, unveiling and revealing Original Nature involves no “path” or “journey” at all, no “becoming” or “growing”, no “going” from here to here, now to now, Love to Love and Self to Self as life abides peacefully in Awareness itself, the True Home. David Carse describes this “gateless gate”:

There is a recurring archetypal image that appears often in dreams and myths, in fantasy and science fiction stories. A traveler arrives at a great wall. After much searching he finds a door, a gate in the wall. When he opens the gate and steps through, he finds himself in a world, a universe, which is different from the one he came from but somehow familiar; the same universe, but somehow very different. When he turns around to look back through the gate at the place he came from, he sees that not only is there no gate, there is no wall. Not only is there no going back, but he has not come from anywhere. Thus it is with awakening: there is no wall, no separation between a ‘here’ and a ‘there.’ In a sense there has been a going beyond, yet that beyond is not other than here already. This is ‘the gateless gate,’ and ‘I’ has always been here. Where else? 1

Using every ploy from belief to doubt, and from fear to punishment, the donkey that is “you” moves forward in the hope of nibbling the lifelike juicy carrot. But when you briefly catch it, it is only lifeless plastic that offers neither nutrition nor satisfaction.

If the inquiry is made whether mind exists, it will be found that mind does not exist. That is control of the mind. Otherwise if the mind is taken to exist and one seeks to control it, it amounts to the mind controlling the mind just like a thief turning out as a policeman to catch the thief that is himself. One who asks himself ‘Who am I’ and ‘Where am I’ though existing all the while as the Self, is like the drunken man who enquires about his own identity and whereabouts.
—Sri Ramana Maharshi, Thus Spake Ramana, 23 & 35

Would you appoint Dracula the head of the blood bank? Does it make any sense to appoint industry executives to governmental agencies to help regulate those same industries? The quotes by Ramana Maharshi show the absurdity of the mind attempting to police itself. The thief and drunken man, metaphors for the false “I” ego, when “seen through” scoot away and disappear. Seng T’san wisely observes: “Seeking the Mind within the mind, is this not the greatest of all mistakes?” The imaginary ego is incapable of surrender to True Nature, so it takes the will or self to surrender the fictive ego. It is purely the will or self that asserts true choice, a clear-eyed prerogative, a committed stand and present-vision. The ego will not walk away from us; we can only walk away from the ego and everything we think we know in this world, thereby returning to Essential Being.

You may dream of place, time, objects, individuals, and so forth. But they are unreal. In your waking state, you experience this world, but that experience arises from your ignorance. It is a prolonged dream, and therefore unreal.
—Shankara, Crest-Jewel of Discrimination

The relative empirical plane of reality can be seen as the ego’s dream of separation, since this relative ephemeral plane is perceived through the ego’s lenses. Thus, the world is merely a projection of the ego. Albert Einstein knew this: “Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.” Children live inside the illusions, whether they be of Santa Claus, the Easter bunny, tooth fairy, Batman, Superman, other super heroes, monsters in the closet as well as driving electric cars and boats that are on tracks. As adults, we cannot return to the illusions of childhood. We cannot “buy into” or give credibility to the illusions, fantasies and dreams once they’re seen for just what they are. Ultimately, in Truth both dream and empirical experiences are unreal, false and illusory.

Philosopher George Berkeley sees physical objects as only existing relative to the mind. The world we see commonly is illusory since it is but a perception of the mind or dream ego, a created or constructed story filled with concepts, beliefs, roles and life experiences, not here-and-now direct awareness. This illusion looks close to the normal sleep state of dreaming with eyes shut, and to the normal waking state with eyes wide open, in which we talk and breath the dream we exist in and are still to awaken from.

Suffering just means you’re having a bad dream. Happiness means you’re having a good dream. Enlightenment means getting out of the dream altogether.
—Jed McKenna, Spiritual Enlightenment—The Damnedest Thing

Whether one is happy in the ego having a good dream, or unhappy in the ego having a bad dream, it is all a dream. The ego’s dream is irreparable given the ego has no interest in healing the separateness it created in the first place. Our Original Nature is outside of the ego’s dream. One can fully wake up from the dream or illusion of separation.

The three natural states of consciousness—normal waking, dreaming, and dreamless deep sleep—comprise the totality of experiences in this relative world. Ranama Maharshi comments that the three states cannot be real; there is only the one state of Consciousness or Awareness free from all thought. What is real, Reality and Awareness persists in all states. Philosopher Ken Wilber proposes nondual unity as a fourth natural “state.” Ramesh Belsekar in A Net of Jewels writes, “Your real state, that of Consciousness itself, continues to exist always and forever, and it is the only Reality.”

Only the ego dreams, with eyes shut or wide open. Once the veil of the ordinary trance of life is punctured, our True Nature is unveiled. Nisargadatta Maharaj writes in I Am That, “When you have seen the dream as a dream, you have done all that needs be done.” Original Nature or Natural Being is called turiva (or Thuriya), a fourth state in Hindu terms, beyond the three states of normal waking, dreaming and deep sleep. Turiva is “thoughtless”, unbounded True Nature, more an original immutable source of thoughts, feelings and experience than a fixed state. From this state of non-dual reality, the world of subjects and objects is perceived as a dream. Natural Being is Pure Absolute Knowledge, Truth fully seen and realized.

Sage Ramana Maharshi describes a fifth “state”—turiyatita—as unconditioned Being and Consciousness. Turiyatita fully transcends being a state at all since it is solely the Self with nothing separate to witness. Beingness interacts on the plane of relative reality in an awareness of how everything is mere appearance within Absolute Reality.

The mind turned inwards is the Self; turned outwards, it becomes the ego and all the world.
—Ramana Maharshi

As long as one allows the illusory ego to make up an endless string of fears, the illusory dream world of delusions and drama keeps on going. The only reason the fictive ego seemingly keeps us imprisoned in a jail cell of malaise and drama is for security and protection. Ironically, the door remains unlocked. We can walk out of this dangerous and risky world, this artificial dream state, at any moment. As author Iris Murdoch observed, “We live in a fantasy world, a world of illusion. The great task in life is to find reality.”

Original Nature is unveiled and revealed once we become aware of the ego’s unreality. Within the broadest illusion of separation—objects existing independently—are two core illusions that, by definition, are not real: (1) our ego-mind’s perception, thinking, believing, identities, roles and stories are real; and, (2) the True Self or Original Nature is unreal. In the ego’s dream, it is subject and object, polarities and opposites that prevail. Every positive uplifting action exactly matches a negative, down-pulling action. To fight, push and damn the ego, or attempt to change, cajole and manipulate the ego, all tactics originating from ego, only strengthens and reinforces it. Free the ego, free yourself. Seeing through self-ignorance to Self-knowledge is to see everything as everything as it is.

True nature awaits our recognition. When the false self is exposed and seen through, when “it” gets out of the way, original sanity is revealed. What we seek, aim to become and want to attain is already present. There’s no separate “thing,” “body,” “mind,” or “person” in Original Nature. Ever wonder where, when and by whom the gifts are brought to the party of life? Purely by the Beloved, that is, God and Pure Awareness, Himself in the thinnest of disguises. Our search is over—it is here, now and engages everyone. Everyone is the gift, since we all are within the One. Within the very act of giving, everyone is blessed and gifted. Give abundantly, and you are gifted abundantly.

The Empirical World

Man’s task in life is the paradoxical one of realizing his individuality and at the same time transcending it to arrive at the experience of universality. Only the fully developed self can drop the ego.
—Erich Fromm

A fundamental “category error” or confusion of “different levels of analysis” occurs when we confuse the ego’s illusory world with the changing information or relative knowledge of the everyday empirical world with the pure, unchanging knowledge in Absolute Reality. Along with the illusory realm of mental phenomena, the two realms of the empirical world and the Absolute complete the three levels of reality.

On the earthly, empirical plane, reality is transient, relative, and dualistic, thus false, unreal and illusory given that nothing can happen in either the past or future, only in the present. The term This! Points to the manifest dualistic world of forms that is here and now available to perceive in the present. This is an immanent universe consisting of diverse manifestations. Some idea may be more or less true, given various life conditions that come and go. Some action may be more or less fitting, given temporal circumstances that appear and then vanish. Some feeling may appear more or less true, given our body’s response to changing circumstances.

In the material world, the relative truth-value of anything is intimately determined by its context since this is how meaning is established. For example, only in the context of a baseball game or the criminal justice system’s “three strike rule” does saying, “Strike three, you’re out”, make any sense. In this world, phenomena appear and fade, situations change, and everything is in a state of constant unpredictability and impermanence.

Within this relative immanent world of form it is understandable that people will use their intellect to distinguish true from false, fitting from unfitting. All these determinations are in constant flux. Practices and skills are experienced in the relative world and yield purely relative truths. Undoubtedly the greatest danger is to “get stuck” in the ego and its perceived relative world of forms, and simply not see the Absolute.

In the world of duality people appear as separate persons or individuals. Time and space, cause and effect, and the rallying cry of change and progress appear real. Are they? Motivation, needs, goals and plans all seem real enough, don’t they? Certainly, responsibility must be real. A “doer” appears to be doing something real. In worldly duality exists the “dependent I” in “dependent reality”—taking the name and form of the non-dual reality, dependent on Brahman, Oneness, all that exists and the only true reality.

The Absolute Reality

From the viewpoint of absolute truth, what we feel and experience in our ordinary daily life is all delusion.
—Dalai Lama

At the same time the unmanifest, formless, transcendent Absolute Reality is unimaginable, ineffable and numinous. In non-dual reality or Oneness exists the “essential I” in “essential reality”—Atman as the principle of Brahman applied to an apparent person. In this realm abides Absolute Truth that is related to the experience of nirvana, the ending of the imaginary self’s endless reflection on itself, it’s thoughts and desires. That! Points to the nondualistic, formless Absolute Reality transcending words.

The formless, transcendent Absolute Reality is the nondual reality of Oneness, that is, no division, separation or “other.” The plurality of separate “things,” “persons” and “individuals” do not really show up in Absolute Reality. In this realm everything is Presence, Perfection and Stillness with all human activities occurring naturally and spontaneously. Actions show up as unfolding appearances in the “play of the world.” This realm is timeless, spaceless, causeless, formless, boundless, infinite and eternal. This nondual, unmanifest reality is one of “emptiness,” meaning seeing everything just as it is without any distortion, judgment or prejudice. Everything happens by itself and nothing is accomplished or needs to be accomplished by no-one. No “I” or “person” exists here.

The Absolute transcendent Truth is the natural happiness and bliss of Essential Being. There is only the recognition and clearing of what is false and unreal, illusion and delusion, to reveal what remains—Truth, Knowing, Oneness, what is Real and Reality.

Recognizing the false, the unreal and the illusory is precisely what leads one to the gate of the Living Truth. With purity of heart, you can then live inside of what remains—the Truth and Reality of who you truly are. Then you can build your whole soul for eternity through ingesting and imprinting the qualities of the Divine in your actions every day.

To transcend the relative dualistic world of phenomena is to naturally enter into the Absolute Reality of Wholeness, Unity and Truth. This is the direct approach to Truth that has no inside or outside, stages or practices. Only the One exists—Absolute Reality that naturally expresses Affirmative Knowledge and Truth. The raw material of the relative, with its underlying assumptions, beliefs and expectations, is what blocks awareness of the Absolute. Actually there is no separation. There is no more an inside than an outside since there is only the One, indivisible, inseparable, whole.

Transcendent Absolute Truth or Awareness itself is beyond all knowing, all dualities, and all polarities. It transcends Consciousness, Awareness and Oneness. The Absolute can’t be sought or found, attained or achieved. It’s ever-present right here. Presence cannot be known given that humans cannot be outside of it to ever know it. From the standpoint of Transcendence, I speak through the body since I am not in a body. In this context it begins to make sense to recognize humans as instruments of Awareness.

The realm of the formless Absolute does not come and go and is beyond birth and death. Pain and pleasure as well as pleasing and displeasing life situations are accepted without any need to judge or compare. Once seen, there is no need to let the ego continue the fight or feed doubt about what constitutes relative truth and Absolute Truth. Standing inside and looking from the Absolute, all you gaze upon and experience in the world are nothing but delusions. Here is unchanging, ultimate Truth. Equally, standing inside and looking from the dualistic empirical world, you can say nothing at all about the Absolute given it is beyond words. At best we can point and evoke a sense of the Absolute in words, metaphors and stories.

The Absolute transcendent Truth is the realm of the Divine, the actual and true Reality. Given True Nature is Awareness and Consciousness itself, “you” or the personal self knows nothing on the level of Absolute transcendence. The Divine simply knows existence and itself as This! and That!—Awareness, Consciousness, the total universe.

On no account make a distinction between the Absolute and the sentient world. Whatever Consciousness Is, so also are phenomena.
—Huang Po

All apparent differences and distinctions are quite shallow and superficial for only the inseparable One, Truth and Self are real. The empirical and Absolute planes of reality and truth are not in opposition. These two planes co-exist at all times and are essential to human experience and divine Being. Comedian Lily Tomlin observes, “We’re all in this together—by ourselves.” Just as duality comes out of and co-exists within nonduality, so manifest form comes out of and co-exists within the unmanifest formless. In other words, the relative world of subject and object is nested within the Absolute Reality of undivided Oneness and Being—everyone is actually in both realms all the time!

Sage Nisargadatta Maharaj sees “Consciousness” as operating in the relative worldly realm of immanence and “Awareness” as pointing to the Absolute realm of transcendence. Consciousness is Awareness in action, in time and space. Thus, Awareness becomes consciousness when it has an object in worldly manifestation. One danger is that any approach, technique, or practice that addresses psycho-spiritual and relational growth can also be appropriated by the ego for its hide-and-seek game. Just as you can “get stuck” in the personal, relative world, so you can equally get stuck in the impersonal, absolute realm. Neither can sustain awakening or embodiment. Since the false self/ego is purely one attachment or another, the danger is getting stuck in any fixation, whether it is the fantasies of the illusory, the enchantments of the empirical world or the blissful ethereal heights of the Absolute. All are unreal and distort what is.

Here is the human predicament: dodging bullets, herding cats, surviving and thriving in relative reality and, at the very same time, being present in this moment, seeing through one’s imaginary self to realize and embody being who one truly is, Original Nature in Absolute Reality. One can imprint Original Nature in awareness, word and action, germinating the seed of the soul within and sustaining itself with the Beloved. It is possible to stand at the crossroads of humanity and divinity, with both feet squarely in both realms, as an authentic liberated self, seeing Oneness in everything and everyone.


1. (page 49) David Carse, Perfect Brilliant Stillness: beyond the individual self. Shelburne, VT: Paragate Publishing, 2006, page 74. (No copyright)

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