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In Nondual Wisdom, What Is Real and What Is Unreal?

by Thomas Razzeto

For an easy-to-print Adobe Acrobat PDF version of this essay, click here.

Key point

Many people incorrectly think that illusions are “unreal.” In other words, they think that illusions don’t exist at all. But an illusion is something that exists in a deceptive way. This misunderstanding is one reason why there is so much confusion about this subject.

So in this essay, I will cover what is an illusion, what is real, and what is unreal. I will also talk about why some people say that the world is relatively real and why they say that God (Source-Awareness) is Absolutely Real. So let’s jump in and see what we find.

What is unreal?

Okay, let’s cover the easiest question first: What is unreal? I like to use an example that is meant to be humorous to help you remember it. Here it is: The pink elephant in your pocket is unreal. It does not exist. Yes, of course, you are now thinking about a pink elephant in your pocket, but let’s be clear. That is just a thought and it only exists in your mind. That is where you witness it. And still there is no pink elephant in your pocket. That is completely unreal. It does not exist. This is very simple.

An illusion is something that exists in a deceptive way

As I have already mentioned, an illusion is something that exists in a misleading way. We witness something that seems to prove that a particular idea is true even though that idea is false. The correct understanding of something is different from our initial understanding. For example, throughout the day, the sun seems to travel across the sky. And yet, as you already know, it is the spinning of the earth that creates the apparent motion of the sun traveling across the sky. So the idea that the motion that we witness is due to the motion of the sun is false.

And here’s an important point: All good illusions are persistent. Even after we learn about the spinning of the earth, it will still seems as if the sun is moving across the sky. We won’t suddenly begin to feel the spinning of the earth with our bodies just because we figured out what is really going on. So even after we discover the truth about the situation, it will still seem as if the false idea is true.

By the way, I think it’s okay to talk from the perspective of the illusion. For example, it is fine to use the word “sunset” even though this implies that the sun is moving (setting). You are just speaking about the apparent motion of the sun and we all know what you mean. You don’t have to explain the whole story.

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But notice how frequently people talk about an illusion and then later reveal that they think it is something that does not exist at all. This often happens when people talk about time. They might say something like “Time is an illusion,” and then a minute or two later, they will add “Well, since time does not exist, we shouldn’t worry about it” (or whatever). See the slip-up? That is not the correct understanding of an illusion. Usually I am pretty relaxed about how people speak but for this subject, there are some important benefits in being more precise.

A similar thing happens when people talk about movies and dreams. You hear them say, “Oh, thank God it wasn’t real. It was just a dream!” Or “That was just a movie. It wasn’t real.” Of course we all know that the content of the movie is a fabricated fictional story. But the movie itself is certainly real. If the movie did not exist, we would not be able to watch it. This is why I think it is much better to say that a movie is real as a movie and that a dream is real as a dream.

Obviously, with a movie, there is a layer of pretending. If the movie is about a murder, the real police will not show up and arrest the actor since no one was actually killed. It was just an act of pretending. And notice that even though this acting role really exists when the actor adopts it, it can be dropped at any time. This means that all acting roles are nonessential to the actors since the actors will continue to exist and not lose anything essential when the roles are dropped. But of course those roles are essential to the movie since the movie would not exist if all the roles were dropped.

Notice that dreams and movies are both experientially real. In fact, this is the way that everything that has been created is real. We can experience a tree, a mountain, a thought, a dream, a movie and so forth. Now here’s an important point. While all of creation is experientially real, Source-Awareness cannot be experienced. It is completely imperceptible in every way. But this does not mean that it is not real. Let’s go into this a bit more.

God and creation – One Reality, not two

Please allow me start this section with some of my opinions and definitions.

God is Source-Awareness. God is not an object or a thing and cannot be perceived in any way whatsoever. This Awareness perceives but it cannot be perceived. God has two capacities: the capacity to perceive and the capacity to create what it perceives. Hence the term Source-Awareness. And this is what you are fundamentally. This is all you are fundamentally.

And yet there’s more to what you are. Through the miracle of creation, this formless Source-Awareness paradoxically arises as the form we see all around us. And this is what you are in a nonfundamental way since nothing in creation is essential to what you are as pure Awareness.

The world can be said to be an illusion since it exists in a deceptive way. It seems to exist all on its own but this is because the Creator is completely imperceptible. Yet if it were not for this unseen Creator permeating all of creation and giving it substance, creation would not exist. This is why you hear some Hindu teachers say that “the world as world is unreal” and yet “world as God (Brahman) is real.” If you think of the world as existing all on its own without God, you entertain a false idea. But if you think that God arises as the world while still transcending it, well then, now you have it.

Now, it also seems to me that a teaching from long ago was simply that the world was an illusion. But I think this was later incorrectly translated as “unreal” and this has been a source of great confusion ever since. Yes, the world is an illusion but it is also real.

Source-Awareness is real (often stated as “Real”) and yet it cannot be experienced. But you don’t need to experience it directly in order to learn the truth about it. This wisdom comes about, not through observation and logic, but instead, through a spiritual, intuitive awakening.

Source-Awareness exits as this unchanging capacity to perceive. It exists before time and outside of space as the unchanging Source of time, space and everything else. This is why Source-Awareness is said to be Absolutely Real.

All of creation is ever-changing and can only be known through experience, which is a relative process that involves the observer (formless Source-Awareness), the process of observing, and finally, the object which is observed. This is why all of creation is said to be relatively real.

You may have heard of Nirguna Brahman (Reality without qualities, Source-Awareness) and Saguna Brahman (Reality with qualities, all of creation). When we understand that Source-Awareness arises as all of creation, just like the actor arising as the character, we understand that there is only one Reality.

God and creation are one Reality, not two. This is why this wisdom is said to be “nondual.” (More about that here.)

Now, not only is all of creation an illusion, but the person you appear to be is also an illusion. Yes, of course the person exists but it exists in a deceptive way. It looks as if you exist fundamentally as that person, as that separate, mortal, sentient, physical being. That is the false idea pointed to by our common daily experience. While that idea is not true, it is still important not to fall into the misunderstanding that the person does not exist or that you do not exist. Of course you exist and so does the person. But you do not exist fundamentally as the person.

Here’s what I like to say:

You exist fundamnetally as the Actor, Source-Awareness, the one, uncreated, formless Divine Essence. This is your fundamental identity.

Your nonfundamental identity is the totality of created reality, the stage, the props and all the characters. This is what you are through the process of creation.

And your functional identity is the combination of the Actor and the one character (the person) you appear to be.

All of creation is thoroughly divine since God is not merely infinitely intimate with all of creation, God is creation.

It is God who is arising as everyOne and it is God who is doing everything. How wondrous!

I have essays on my website that go into all of this in more detail. Here are links to two of them:

The Loving Heart of Enlightenment
A summary overview of spiritual awakening in simple, clear English
3 pages

Anatta – “Not Self” Rather Than “No Self”
3 pages

Take your time with this material. While it is not complicated, it is very different from the way things seem to be and it takes a while for it to sink in both cognitively and intuitively. In my opinion, it can take lifetimes for this wisdom to come alive within your soul in its deepest intuitive form. So no rush and no worries.

The End

In truth, I honor your divine nature.

Thanks for visiting, Thomas Razzeto

Written October 10, 2017. Edited for clarity on April 17, 2023.

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