The Second Vajra Point: Magical Illusion

The Universe and Beings

Finding Rest in Illusion

An Excerpt from Finding Rest in Illusion

This excerpt provides commentary on the second vajra point in Finding Rest in Illusion, the third book in the Trilogy of Rest. The character of illusion is applied to the entire phenomenal field of both samsara and nirvana. The second vajra point explains that we are like bystanders taken in by illusions conjured up by a magician.

Phenomena are thus revealed as being, in their dreamlike nature, devoid of origin. The root text then explains that they should be understood as a mere, unceasing, illusory display.

1. And thereto also did the Conqueror declare
That all things are like magical illusions,
Explaining that they lack intrinsic being.
Listen! I shall tell you how I have experienced
This quintessential teaching
Of the sūtras, tantras, and the pith instructions.

We find in the Middle-Length Prajñāpāramitā, “Phenomena are like magical illusions. They are not born; they do not cease. They do not come; they do not go.” As it is said in the sūtra entitled the Irreversible Wheel,

Things resemble magical illusions.
Even buddhahood is like a magical illusion.

We also find in the tantra entitled the Terrifying Lightning of Wisdom,

All these illusion-like phenomena
Are merely names. They’re empty of intrinsic being.

This is taught in many of the sūtras and the tantras. On the basis of three kinds of evidence that occurred in my own experience, which itself unfolded in the light of my teacher’s pith instructions, I shall speak of magical illusion classified according to ground, path, and result.

First, the root text explains how hallucinatory appearances occur within the illusion of the ground, a state similar to space:

2. The primordial nature of the mind
Is a spacious, sky-like state
Where primal wisdom is like sun and moon and stars.
And yet when there occurs within this womb of space—
The wondrous sphere of emptiness—
A state of ignorance, conceptualization, dualistic clinging,
The hallucinations of the three worlds
And the six migrations manifest
In the manner of a magical illusion.

The nature of the mind, the self-arisen primordial wisdom, is primordially pure and space-like. Within this state, which does not exist as anything at all, there move the five winds, of which the life-supporting wind is the root. This leads to the manifestation of the self-experience of awareness in the state of luminosity. When this is not recognized, it is misapprehended as an outer universe together with its inner contents, including one’s own body. All this appears variously as a mere magical illusion. As it is said in the tantra entitled the Mirror of Vajrasattva’s Heart, “In various ways, the beings of the three worlds stray from the ground, which in itself is nothing at all.”

But how do these hallucinatory appearances, which are like magical illusions, occur? The root text goes on to say,

3. They appear spontaneously, through the power
Of interdependent causes and conditions—
Just as when a piece of wood or little stone
Is conjured through an incantation
And there appears a magical display,
A horse, an ox, a man or woman,
A mountain or a palace, and the rest.

When a magical illusion is created of horses, oxen, and so on, there is a material cause, namely, a piece of wood or a pebble, and also a condition for the illusion, that is to say, the visual consciousness manipulated through the magic spell. On this basis, a hallucinatory experience of horses and oxen is produced. This manifests as the subjective experience of the mind, arising through the interdependent conjunction of causes and conditions. The hallucinatory appearances of saṃsāra are similar to this.

4. Deluded mind and its habitual tendencies,
Phenomenal existence, the objects of the senses
And the three poisons that fixate on them—
All these occur because of ignorance.
Devoid of real existence, they all appear unceasingly.
They are like conjured apparitions.
From now on be convinced
That they are empty, false reflections.

The underlying cause for all this is awareness itself. The condition, on the other hand, is ignorance, owing to which, awareness is distorted by the duality of the [subjective] apprehender and the apprehended (which thus becomes the object). It is thus that hallucinatory appearances, the universe and its animate contents, appear differently for different kinds of beings. Because of the three poisons, the various realms of saṃsāra, high and low, are experienced and seem real. But it should be understood that in fact they are nothing but false appearances—empty reflections—and that within awareness, the enlightened mind, there is no movement or change. The Samādhirāja-sūtra says,

Just as in the midst of crowds,
The forms displayed by a magician—
Horses, oxen, chariots, and the like—
Appear in various forms yet lack reality,
Understand that all things are like this.

And as the root text goes on to say, the illusions that appear while lacking all intrinsic being are like space.

5. Sure it is that all things in phenomenal existence,
In saṃsāra and nirvāṇa,
Are in their nature equal and they all resemble space.
Understand that all are unborn,
Pure from the beginning.

All phenomena are by their nature devoid of existence. In themselves, they are like space. The Middle-Length Prajñāpāramitā says, “In themselves, phenomena are like space. One can find in them no center and no boundary.” And likewise we find in the Samādhirāja-sūtra,

All things disintegrate, O Son of the Victorious One,
All existents are primordially empty.
Extremists hold a lesser emptiness.
But there is no debate between the learned and the childish.

In this regard, some say that phenomena are empty by virtue of a preclusion of something that they do not possess 55 but that they are not empty of themselves. 56 This is like saying that the sun is empty of darkness but is not empty of rays of light. This is a lesser kind of emptiness, however, through which no freedom would ever be possible from the belief in the true existence of things. Examined according to the argument of “neither one nor many,” the sun is empty of inherent existence; being thus, it is also empty of rays of light. It is empty and yet it appears. This is the very principle and essence of Madhyamaka, the Middle Way.

This leads to the manifestation of the self-experience of awareness in the state of luminosity.

As the Bodhicittavivaraṇa says,

As fire is by its nature hot
And treacle by its nature sweet,
So too are all phenomena
Said to be empty by their nature.

The Prajñāpāramitā-sūtra says, “Form is empty of form itself.” And the shorter commentary on the Abhisamayālaṃkāra declares,

Since of its very nature every thing is empty,
It’s said that there are twenty kinds of emptiness.

But the fact of being empty does not imply that phenomena are nothing at all. For emptiness is inseparable from appearance. Therefore in emptiness, all phenomena are tenable. It is as Nāgārjuna has said,

Where emptiness is granted
Everything is likewise granted.

Emptiness has many divisions. For example, there is the emptiness of mutual exclusion (as a pillar is empty of being a pot); there is the emptiness of what is not possessed (as in the case of “thing” being empty of “nonthing”); there is the emptiness of specific characteristics (as in the case of rabbit’s horns); and there is emptiness of an intrinsic nature (as in the case of a reflection). All these, however, are no more than the asseverations of philosophers. But here we say that all things in phenomenal existence, in saṃsāra and nirvāṇa, even though they appear to the mind, are, in their own nature, nonexistent. They should be understood as being primordially empty—empty in transcending all ontological extremes. As it is said in the Laṅkāvatāra-sūtra,

Since all things, each and every one,
Are by their nature unoriginate,
They are like space devoid of substance
And stainless in their emptiness.

We also find in the tantra named Questions of Subāhu,

Phenomena are like reflections—
Clear, unsullied, pure,
Ungraspable, ineffable.
Without intrinsic being, they have no abiding.

When one has ascertained that phenomena are empty, one may well go on to ask how saṃsāra manifests within the expanse of emptiness, and how one is to train upon the path, and what is freedom like when one reaches the end of the path.

First the root text gives an answer to this in summary form:

6. Within the nature unoriginate,
Wherein origination manifests,
The illusion of the character [of luminosity]
Is the ground of purification;
The illusion of impurity
Is the stain that should be purified;
The illusion of the skillful method
Is the purifying remedy;
The illusion of primordial wisdom
Is the perfected fruit.
Through the illusion of an example,
The other four are proved with certainty.

Thus it is briefly explained. Now those who are learned bring others to a state of understanding by means of examples. There are four kinds of illusion (that of luminous character and so on), and these occur in four situations: the ultimate pure expanse, the state of straying from this, the purification of delusion, and the perfected result. And so that these four kinds of illusion may be understood, I will first explain their meaning through the illusion of an example [mentioned at the end of the stanza] and will then ascertain the definition of each of them. This example is as follows:

7. By means of an enchantment,
A magical display arises:
A stick and stone appear in form of horse and ox.
Yet at that time the stick and stone themselves
Are neither horse nor ox.
By this example, you should see
That all things, marked by lack of true existence,
Are in themselves but magical displays.
The basis of delusion,
The conditions for delusion and the mode thereof,
The occurrence of delusion as well as its subsiding,
And freedom from delusion in the primal ground—
These correspond respectively to stick and stone,
To the chanting and the working of the spell,
To production of the horse and ox,
Their vanishing, and then the reemergence
Of the stick and stone as previously they were.
By this example thus are step by step explained
The four stages of illusion.

The awareness of the ground of delusion is the illusion of [luminous] character. Delusion is not intrinsically present in the ground, but since coemergent ignorance may occur in relation to the ground of delusion, it is possible for delusion to arise, in the same way that although the horse or ox is not perceived [in a stick or stone], it is nevertheless always possible for it to be so—to use the terms of the example given earlier. When awareness rises up from the ultimate expanse as the appearance of the ground, conceptual ignorance manifests as the root of the dualistic structure of apprehended and apprehender. This produces the illusion of impurity (illusory impurity), the stain that is to be purified. Awareness is now obscured by deluded thoughts; this being so, it is in the form of these thoughts that hallucinatory appearances occur, even though they are not actually present. Then, when these hallucinatory appearances are actually perceived, awareness is altered by the duality of apprehended and apprehender, and consequently various forms manifest as the mind’s subjective experience. It is just as when, through the operation of the spell, the actual magical illusion is produced and the stick and stone appear as a horse and an ox.

Subsequently, as one trains in awareness while on the path, the assumption of the true existence of phenomena is curtailed, and this happens through the illusion of skillful means. This corresponds to the ending of the illusory magical charm. Finally, deluded thoughts come to an end, as a result of which hallucinatory appearances and perceptions cease. This is freedom in the primordial state, which occurs when awareness returns to the primordial ground. And this is the illusion of primordial wisdom. The spell, which is the ignorance producing the duality of apprehended and apprehender, is arrested. And the hallucinatory samsaric appearances of horses and oxen consequently cease. And just as the stick and stone reappear when the illusion is dissipated, in the self-experience of awareness there manifest the kāyas and wisdoms, which are the “genuine form” of the ground. This constitutes the immovable, immutable realization, from which there can be no further change. It corresponds to the stick and stone that reappear when the magical illusion is destroyed. This passage reveals the difficult points of the tantras’ immensely powerful vajra words.

Here we say that all things in phenomenal existence, in saṃsāra and nirvāṇa, even though they appear to the mind, are, in their own nature, nonexistent.

Now that the correspondence between the example and the four kinds of illusion has been demonstrated, a definition of each of the latter is given. First,

8. The illusion of the “character,”
The mind’s luminous nature,
Is the ultimate expanse,
The sugatagarbha, ground of cleansing.

Awareness, the enlightened mind, is present from the very beginning, spontaneous and unconditioned. It pervades the whole of saṃsāra and nirvāṇa without diminution or increase, without becoming smaller or greater. As it is said in the Candrapradīpa-sūtra, “The sugatagarbha pervades all beings.” And we find in the Uttaratantra,

Because the kāya of perfect buddhahood is all-pervading,
Because in suchness there is no division,
Because they have potential for enlightenment,
All beings have at all times buddha essence.

The sugatagarbha is sheer luminosity, primordial and immaculate. As the Prajñāpāramitā in Eight Thousand Lines declares, “As for the mind, the mind does not exist. The nature of the mind is luminosity.” And as we find in the Two-Part Hevajra Tantra,

Beings indeed are buddhas,
And yet they are obscured by adventitious veils.
When these have been discarded, they are buddhas.

And the Pramāṇavārttika says,

The nature of the mind is luminosity.
The stains on it are adventitious.

In the condition of sentient beings, the buddha-element, or sugatagarbha, is the defiled buddha-element. This same element, in the condition of the bodhisattvas, is both pure and impure. At the time of buddhahood, it is completely pure. And yet, although it is qualified in these three different ways, in itself it remains unchanging either for better or for worse. It is said in the Uttaratantra,

As impurity, impurity-and-purity,
And utter purity
Are described respectively
Beings, bodhisattvas, tathāgatas.

And in the Sūtrālaṃkāra it is also said,

This suchness is in every being
Without distinction, and yet when it is purified,
[It is tathāgata.]


As it was before, so later it will be.
It is unchanging suchness.

The root text describes the buddha-element, the sugatagarbha, the nature of self-cognizing awareness as follows:

9. Since it is not divided
Into pure and impure,
It’s beyond saṃsāra and the state beyond all pain.
It is the space wherein these different states arise,
The basis whence they manifest
According as one knows or fails to know it as it is.
The sugatagarbha is the primal ground,
The fundamental nature.

Awareness is, in its own nature, neither saṃsāra nor nirvāṇa, for in it there is nothing to be either accomplished or eliminated. As we find in the Ratnakūṭa, “O Kāśyapa, the ultimate expanse, completely pure by nature, is neither saṃsāra nor nirvāṇa. For it is not a truly existing thing.” Within this nature, which does not exist as anything at all, there is a radiance that supplies the ground for unceasing manifestation. If this radiance is recognized for what it is, nirvāṇa ensues; if it is not recognized, the hallucinatory appearances of saṃsāra, which are like magical illusions, arise. As it is said in the Songs of Realization,

The nature of the mind is the sole seed of everything.
Existence and nirvāṇa both emerge from it.

The root text then gives an example of how—because it does not exist as anything at all—awareness provides the basis for the arising of anything at all:

10. It is like a limpid looking glass,
The base for the arising of reflected forms,
Which, in the moment when such forms appear,
Does not exist as any one of them.
The surface of the glass
Is neither white nor black,
Yet it provides the base
In which both white and black appear.
Awareness is like this.
And knowing this, you will be skilled in everything.

The pure surface of a mirror does not exist as any of the reflections that appear in it. Yet it is the ground upon which all such reflections appear. And although what appears in it may be white or black, the surface of the mirror is not so. Thanks to such an example, one should understand that awareness, which is similar to a reflecting surface, does not exist as anything at all and yet it provides the basis for the appearance of every kind of manifestation. In the very moment that appearances arise, whether of saṃsāra or of nirvāṇa, awareness itself is not stained or colored by them. It is therefore said of hallucinatory appearances that even though they do arise, awareness is not stained by them, provided it is not impaired by one’s clinging to such appearances. Practitioners who are beyond the acceptance and rejection of sense objects are said to be “great yogis skilled in the natural flow of awareness.” It is as the mighty yogi Tilopa has said,

Appearance does not fetter you; clinging to it does.
Therefore cut your clinging, Nāropa.

And as Śāntideva has proclaimed,

It’s not indeed our purpose to disprove
Experience of sight or sound or knowing.
Our aim is here to undermine the cause of sorrow:
The thought that such phenomena have true existence.

The second [of the four kinds of] illusion is the illusion to be purified.

11. Impure illusions are the false appearance
And perception of saṃsāra—
Occurring through our taking
Dualistically what is nondual.

The hallucinatory appearances of the universe and beings, together with deluded thought patterns, are the stains that obscure the sphere of luminosity, which has the nature of awareness. These deluded thought patterns are the cause, true origins, whence there arises the result, true sufferings [the hallucinatory appearances].64

The third kind of illusion is the illusion of the purification of these stains.

12. The illusion then of skillful means
Thus constitutes the path of remedies.
On the four paths of accumulation,
Joining, seeing, meditation,
The two accumulations
And the practice of two stages
Constitute the means of cleansing.
The stains that should be cleansed
Are thereby swept away like clouds.

The practice of the basic level on the path of accumulation is the implementation of the four close mindfulnesses. The practice of the middle level is the implementation of the four genuine restraints, while training in the four bases of miraculous power is the practice of the greater level. On the path of joining, the five powers are applied through the stages of warmth and peak, while the five irresistible forces are applied on the stages of acceptance and the supreme mundane level. On the path of seeing, one implements the seven elements leading to enlightenment, and on the path of meditation, one follows the eightfold noble path. Therefore, all together, one implements the thirty-seven elements leading to enlightenment, the two accumulations of merit and of wisdom, and the two stages of generation and perfection. It is thus that one journeys along the path to suchness.


55. mi ldan rnam bcad.
56. This seems to be a reference to the zhentong (gzhan stong) view of the Jonangpa school founded by Longchenpa’s contemporary, Dolpopa (1292–1361).
57. See Root Stanzas of the Middle Way, 24:14.
58. ’khrul gzhi’i rig pa. This refers to the appearances of the ground (gzhi snang). See TPQ, Book 2, p. 434n443.
59. rang bzhin sgyu ma.
60. Longchenpa inserts the following scriptural citation by way of illustration: “As we find in the Questions of Bhadra the Magician,

Illusions that appear through karma
Are all the beings who live in the six realms.
Illusions manifesting through conditions
Are like the things reflected in a looking glass.
Illusions that through Dharma manifest
Are all the monks surrounding me.
And I the truly perfect Buddha
Am the illusion bodied forth by primal wisdom.”

Although, in the Tibetan text, this passage is located on the preceding page, its position seems more natural here.
61. 1:27.
62. 1:47.
63. See Shantideva, Way of the Bodhisattva, 6:25.
64. The reference here is to two of the four noble truths, which in the present context are to be understood not as general principles but as classes of phenomena. One therefore speaks not of the truth of suffering but rather of true sufferings, true origins, and so on, referring thereby to the phenomenal world.


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