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Veil of Maya

June 8, 2012

by Stephen Damon

This morning, while browsing through an old book that I had first read thirty five years ago, I found a haunting story about maya, the veiling power of illusion and delusion in Hinduism. In the most ancient Hindu texts, maya is described as a material energy that separates us from our true nature with the illusion of multiplicity. It binds the soul to its attachments, making it impossible for it to return to God.  

In Buddhism, the veil of maya is the delusion of duality. It refers to our fundamental ignorance of our essential nature, which is inseparable from everything else. So we continually vow to end all delusions that separate us from our true nature.  In a sense, this ignorance is the “original sin” of Hinduism and Buddhism.  Here I would note that the name of Shakyamuni Buddha’s mother was Maya!

Narada once asked Krishna, “Lord show me maya.”  Krishna asked Narada to make a trip with him towards a desert, and after walking for several miles, Krishna said, “Narada, I am thirsty; can you fetch some water for me?” Narada went to a nearby village and knocked at a door, which was opened by a beautiful young woman.  At the sight of her, Narada, forgot that his master was waiting in the desert for water.  He forgot everything as he talked to the woman.  They talked all day and night and returned the next day to asks her father for her hand. 

They were married and had children.  After his father-in-law died he inherited all his property and lived a very prosperous life. Thus twelve years passed.   One day a great storm came from the West, which caused the river banks to overflow and flood the village.  In desperation, Narada took hold of his three children and wife and tried to escape the turbulent waters.  But one by one he lost his grip on his children and finally his wife.  He made it to the river bank where he fell down and cried in despair for all that he had lost.  From behind him, came a gentle voice: “My child where is the water?  You went to fetch a pitcher of water, and I have been waiting for you for a half an hour.”  Narada couldn’t believe that the memories of the past twelve years that filled his mind happened in just 30 minutes. Krishna smiled and said, “All this is maya.  All men live like this, but very few have the experience that you now have. Now you must never forget.”

In a short walk to a neighboring village he forgot about his ongoing practice and his intimate relationship to the Lord of the Universe and fell into a deep sleep with dreams of another life.  Anyone who has tried to sit for extended periods of time knows all too well our propensity to create whole worlds out of our imagination in just forty minutes.  During these sittings, Krishna does not awaken us from our dreams.  We awaken ourselves by letting go of our daydreams.

How interesting that the story says that he “lost his grip” on his family. That is, he was forced to do what Zen students try to do: let go of our attachments. Narada may have read books on the idea of maya, and he may have even heard great masters give talks on it, but he still continued to dream because he was holding on tight to his illusions.  He needed to let go and make contact with the part of himself that could experience the way things are.  Krishna knew what was needed.  He understood that Narada had to be put under conditions that would help activate the force of attention. So instead of offering Narada teaching about maya, he sent him off to experience it for himself.  In this way, a teacher will often respond to a student’s question not by repeating an ancient idea but by offering a particular practice that will help him see himself in a new way.

Reading this story I remembered something that one of my teachers told me when I was a very young man.  He said that an old friend of his, who never took his suggestion to start a meditation practice, had recently died.  My teacher said that a day or so before his friend died, he told him, “My life seems like a dream.  Now I see that I should’ve done things differently. I should’ve done something.”  

Today, as I think about these things, I feel very grateful that I have read great books and met teachers who eventually guided me to my Zen practice in which I continually try to do something.  Sometimes that “something” is just sitting, sometimes it is trying to live according to the Bodhisattva precepts.  And sometimes that “something” is just an awareness that I really don’t know what to do.



From → Zen Buddhism

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