Campbell Purton's website

HOME      Publications:      BUDDHISM        COUNSELLING       FOCUSING       PHILOSOPHY

Published in The Middle Way, 75 (2) 2000, pp. 74-80


All the world’s a stage: reflections on the two levels of truth


Campbell Purton


In the Buddhist scriptures we are often told that our everyday world is like a

dream. That neither we nor the world around us is ‘ultimately’ real. This is of

course different from saying that our life is a dream, or that nothing that we

experience is real.  Nevertheless some sort of distinction is being made

between the kind of reality we ascribe to our lives and the kind of reality they

‘ultimately’ have.


In Mahayana Buddhism the distinction is drawn between two ‘levels’ of truth or

reality.  There is first the level of samsara, of ordinary reality,  within which we

make all the distinctions we do make, including those between what, in an

ordinary way,  is real and what is not (for example the distinction between

mirages and real pools of water). And then there is the level of ‘ultimate

reality’, about which little can be said except that the view from ultimate reality

is an ‘enlightened’ view, a way of seeing and being in which there is freedom

from duhkha, from attachment, from the self.


The notion of this ‘ultimate reality’ can seem very elusive, abstract,

philosophical; and its philosophical elucidation has indeed taxed the brains of

the greatest Buddhist thinkers from Nagarjuna onwards.  But it is not just a

philosopher’s notion; it is central to the experience of the Buddhist path.

Without a sense that our ordinary perception of reality is in some way wrong or

distorted, or that somehow we ourselves are in some way wrong or distorted

there would not be that sense of duhkha which is the starting point of the

Buddhist path.


We can sense that there is an important distinction being made between how

we see things and how an enlightened person would see things. This unclear

sense of an important distinction needs to be articulated, to be given a more

distinct form, if it is to be helpful to us.  And that is where the analogy of the

dream comes in. In a dream people and events can seem very real. Dramas

are played out: sometimes wonderful, sometimes terrible, sometimes very

ordinary.  There is this dream reality.  But it is not ‘real reality’.  When we

awaken from a dream we may for a while still feel the joy or the fear that was

there in the dream, then we need to adjust:  I haven’t really won the lottery;

I’m not really going to be executed.   In the dream we are normally identified

with a dream character, and the predicament of this character is what

generates the emotions we may feel on waking. But as we return to waking

consciousness we cease to identify with the dream character, and resume our

real self.


The analogy between dream reality and samsara would then be that just as

we can waken from a dream in which we were identified with an unreal self, so

we can ‘awaken’ from samsara in which we are identified with an unreal self.

The important question is how we are to set about doing this. The dream

analogy suggests that we need to give attention to our dream experience in

the dream, so that we gradually become aware that the dream is a dream.

The development of such awareness of dreams as dreams is seen as an

aspect of mindfulness in some Buddhist traditions, and has been investigated

to some extent scientifically in the West, where such dreams have been

termed lucid dreams’. However the topic of lucid dreams is controversial, and

not everyone has had the experience in question, so the development of the

dream analogy along these lines is not entirely straightforward. What I will do

instead in this article is to change the analogy from that of a dream to that of a

play. I think that a comparison with a play can work as well, in many ways, as

the comparison with a dream, without raising unnecessary complications about

the nature of dreams and lucid dreams.


Before developing this analogy let me draw attention to what may seem a

serious difficulty with both analogies. We are being asked to think of our lives

as like a dream or like a play, and the point of this is to help us to think of our

lives as not having the ‘ultimate’ reality we normally suppose they have.   But

for anyone facing a deep moral dilemma or a personal tragedy, or a life broken

by poverty or illness (or, for that matter, someone contemplating a remarkable

achievement), to be asked to look at things in this way can seem an affront to

the deep seriousness of their situation. It would be monstrous to respond to

someone whose child has just been killed in a road accident with some such

comment as ‘Well, never mind, its all just a dream (a play), you know’.  If we

are not to descend into moral absurdity, the reality of samsara needs to be

fully maintained, even if there is another, ultimate level of truth.  One test of

whether an analogy in this area is a good one will therefore be whether the

analogy can make sense of the seriousness of moral choices and of the joys

and sorrows of samsara, while preserving the other perspective of



Turning now to the play analogy we can  see easily enough how it can

function like the dream analogy.  In the play King Lear is betrayed by two of

his daughters and Gloucester is blinded. Are these tragic events? Of course.

Are they really tragic? Yes, it really is a tragic play.  Do the actors feel the

tragedy (the fear, the anger, etc)? Yes, ‘if they are good actors.  But there is a

difference between the actor who plays Lear feeling bear’s bitterness, and that

actor himself feeling bitter.


Now it is possible for an actor lose the distinction between himself and the

character he is playing. For example the actor might ‘in real life’ be angry with

one of his colleagues, and be angry in connection with a situation that is

closely paralleled by one in a play in which they are both acting. On stage, the

actor may find himself hitting his colleague just that bit harder than required by

the situation in the play, and the colleague may well be aware of what is

happening.  The distinction between actor and character gets blurred here. Is

the anger ‘in the play’ or is it ‘real’, or is it some contused mix of the two?  One

could also imagine a scene where two people fall in love in a play, and then

they find that they really have fallen in love! Were the feelings they had that

evening their feelings, or those of the characters in the play? Again there is a

hazy uncertainty here.


One point to make about these cases is that the blurring of identity between

actor and character-in-the-play is unlikely to be good for either the play or the

actor’s  real life.  The actor who lets his own anger blur with his character’s

anger is likely to bring his colleague out of role, with the colleague wondering

what is going on. This is not good for the play. But also, the actor who blurs

his real love with his stage love is likely to encounter problems in his real-life

relationship. How much of if is just fantasy, he may wonder.

What a competent actor does, obviously enough, is fully to enter the part of

the character he is playing, while maintaining a clear background awareness

that this is a play, that what he is doing (on one level) is acting, while what he

is doing (on another level) is gouging Gloucester’s eyes out.


The Buddhist analogy would be that what an enlightened person, a

bodhisattva,   does is fully to enter the life of samsara while retaining

awareness that this is samsara, and therefore not to be taken with the kind of

seriousness with which an unenlightened person takes it.


This brings us to the moral difficulty which I said faces the dream analogy and

the play analogy equally. For someone to have their eyes gouged out (in real

life) is a terrible thing.  What is the appropriate Buddhist response, if we are to

take the play analogy seriously?  Or to put it another way the dilemma is this:

If samsara is like a play, then nothing really serious can happen in samsara,

but that seems morally outrageous,   it really is a serious matter that people

are tortured, live in crushing poverty and so on. There is an ultimate (i.e. non-

samsaric) seriousness here.  I don’t think this can possibly be doubted in

Buddhism. If there were no ultimate seriousness about at least some of what

goes on in samsara it would not be a serious matter to seek liberation at all.

Can the play analogy help us to understand this seemingly paradoxical

situation? I think it can. For notice that however absorbed in their characters

actors may be they do not normally lose track of real-world events that are

relevant to their performing well.   For instance, if during a play, an actor

noticed that a cupboard on the stage was about to fall over he would probably

do something to prevent this happening, something that didn’t interfere with

the flow of the play, such as placing a chair against the cupboard. The actor’s

(real-life) aim is to render a good performance of the play, and this requires

awareness of real-life situations and consequences as well as awareness of

in-play situations and consequences.   If a colleague playing the part of an ill

person really becomes ill during the play, then the actor may even insist on

stopping the performance.


The acting situation which I have just been describing can be seen as an

analogy, not for our lives, but for the life of a bodhisattva who maintains

awareness on two levels at once, and compassionately ‘comes out of the play’

in situations which threaten either the play’s performance or the well-being of

the actors. The analogy for our lives would be a much more chaotic sort of

play in which events such as the actors getting really angry with each other on

stage, or really falling in love on stage, keep happening all the time. Also, we

may suppose, the actors when off-stage tend to continue in their roles, and

mix these roles with their real-life positions. Thus we are imagining a situation

in which there is a constant blurring of the distinction between play and reality,

with consequent intense pain and confusion.  Further, we can suppose that

for most of the time the actors are not aware of the nature of what the trouble

is; they just have an overwhelming sense that something is terribly wrong.

In such a situation, what could be done?  One possibility is that there is an

actor who does know what is wrong, and he or she may be able to get the

others to sit down and reflect on what they are doing, to help them to see that

a distinction needs to be made between play and reality.  The other actors

may object to this, on the grounds that in spite of all the chaos their lives are

full of colour and emotion, and that they do not want all this to be relegated to

the level of ‘a mere play’.  Then the ‘bodhisattva-actor’ will need to explain

further that making the distinction will not be\destructive in the way they

imagine.  All the life and emotion and drama of the play will still be there, and

will be more clearly and fully there because it will be no longer confused, and

the real life situation will be much bettter, because it will be recognised for what

it is  -  the performance of a play.


But what if there is no ‘bodhisattva-actor’ around? It may still be possible for

the actors to escape from their situation if they simply pause a while and stay

with the painful condition they are in. They could simply stop doing anything

for a bit, reflect, try to see into the nature of their confusion, to say to

themselves simply ‘Here is suffering, what are its roots?’, and in that way they

could come to see that the roots lie in confusion, in identifying their acting self

with their real self, in being attached to the parts they are playing.

As a result of being taught, or through individual reflection, the actors may now

have at least a glimmering of what is wrong. They are still in their confused

state, but they now have some sense that there is another state which is not

confused, and that the path towards that other state involves essentially

mindfulness, or the continuing effort to see the play as a play.  They continue

to act (after all, acting is what actors do!) but they become more aware that

they are acting, and as result they act better.


Now how are we to apply this analogy? The crucial point seems to involve

trying to take a different view of our life, to see it as ‘like a play’, in the sense

that we are to adopt a different attitude to ourself.  instead of taking an I-

involved attitude we are encouraged to take a more ‘neutral’ attitude, that is,

instead of identifying with our feelings (e.g. ‘I am depressed’) we are

encouraged to note our feelings (e.g. ‘there is a depressed feeling here’). In

taking this more neutral view we are taking our feelings as more on a level

with those of others.  That there is depression is cause for reflection and

efforts to do something about it, but insofar as we succeed in adopting the

‘neutral’ attitude we lose the awfulness of  its being my depression; we are no

longer sunk in the depression, or caught up in the anger, or whatever the

feeling happens to be.   Rather than being in the mood we are looking at it

with a kindly interest.  This is what is analogous to the difference between an

actor playing the part of a character and losing himself in the character.  It

would be misleading to call this a state of detachment. A good actor is not

detached from the character he is playing; he is very involved. But he doesn’t

identify with the character in any serious sense.   Similarly, to disidentify with

our feelings is not to become detached from them; it is not, in psychological

jargon, to dissociate from them. It is simply to adopt an attitude to them that is

not I-involved.


The way we can do this is, of course, what is set out in the basic Buddhist

teachings. We need to stay with our experiences, to register them fully, simply

to  be aware.  This is the essence of shamatha meditation.  But having

stabilised our awareness we then need to bring into awareness the absence of

‘I’.    There is this angry feeling here, but is there anything corresponding to ‘I

am angry’? This looking with a view to seeing the ‘non-I’ nature of our

experience is the essence of vipashyana meditation.  In principle these two

practices are all that is required in order to attain the enlightened (non-I-

involved) attitude.  But at the same time the development of the enlightened

attitude has implications for how we see others.  The more we move into the

non-I-involved attitude the more we place other people’s lives on a par with

our own, the more we see ourselves as sharing a common humanity. Thus

the jewel of ‘compassion’ emerges naturally from the lotus of ‘insight’.  Om

mani padme hum.


This brings us back to the ethical issue I have been concerned with.  The

appropriate Buddhist attitude to another’s trouble will not often simply be

‘Never mind, its just a play’, because people’s troubles in samsara often have

an impact on their chances of becoming less I-involved. Unless we are well

on the way to being enlightened already, tragic events and crushing

circumstances can stand in the way of our doing anything to help ourselves.

We often find it hardest to meditate when we most need to. Hence from the

point of view of the value of enlightenment we should do all we can to help

people out of situations which make enlightenment hard to seek.  Such

situations would include for instance intense pain, need, distraction, pressure

(the ‘lower realms’ in the Wheel of Life).  In terms of the play analogy, this is

parallel to an actor’s  concern that the cupboard will fall over.  This is not a

concern in the play but for the good performance of the play. Similarly the

enlightened person’s concern for people’s suffering is not primarily a concern

within samsara but a concern for their opportunities to transcend samsara.

This may seem an over-subtle point, but I think it concerns a real and

important issue about suffering. We know well that not all pain is a bad thing.

Pain can warn us, correct us, make us rethink, and so on. (Duhkha is not

straightforwardly translatable as ‘pain’).  So an enlightened person would not

seek to remove all our pain; what they would seek is our release from

situations that cripple our capacity to seek enlightenment.   What these

situations are, of course, varies enormously from one person to another.

What for one person is the last straw that leads them to despair, is for another

person their life’s greatest challenge.  In some traditional Buddhist texts this

point is made in connection with the notion of ‘the precious human birth’: it is

only if we are born as a human being, and not in barbarous circumstances,

and have the use of our senses, and so on, that we will have the opportunity

to reflect on our lives and their possibilities.  All of this means that taking an

attitude of  ‘It’s just a play’ can be utterly inappropriate. Yes, it is a play, but the

play can only be a good play if circumstances are propitious.  So compassion

in the ordinary sense of helping those in distress is indeed encompassed by

the play analogy.


Finally, let me emphasise something else that is encompassed by the play

analogy. It is that there is reality and value to samsara, in spite of samsara

being, in a sense, illusory.  The play is in one sense an illusion, but it is in

another sense quite real. There really is the play, and the play can be of deep

value.  The problems arise only if we forget it is a play, if we forget that

everything that happens in the play can be seen as events in a play. The play

is an illusion only if it is not seen as a play.  When we see it as a play there is

no illusion involved. There is just the play, and the play is a real play.

In the same way, the analogy suggests, samsara is an illusion only if it is not

seen as samsara.  The enlightened person sees samsara as samsara,

whereas we live in it as if it were ultimate reality, and that is the illusion, not

samsara itself.


Thus as a final touch to the play analogy we might compare another

Shakespearean quotation to a famous remark of Nagarjuna.  Shakespeare

says ‘All the world’s a stage’, but he also says ‘The play’s the thing!’. We

could think of this as meaning that once we see our life as play we can see

how real and valuable and magical it is. Seeing it as a play is seeing it as it

really is.  Hence to see samsara for what it is, is to see it in an enlightened

way; it is to see it as nirvana. In Nagarjuna’s words, ‘Between samsara and

nirvana there is no difference at all’.  This may seem paradoxical, but in the

end there is no more paradox than in the thought that between the play and

the reality of the play there is no difference at all.   The difference comes

entirely in whether we can see the play as a play, or whether we can see

samsara as samsara.


It is of course one thing to say all this but another to experience it.   We are,

most of the time, so caught up in the play that we can’t experience it as a play,

but the Buddhist view is that through the practice of meditation and

mindfulness we can gradually come to see our situation for what it is, and

ultimately free ourselves from the illusion that entraps us.


Return to beginning of paper


HOME      Publications:      BUDDHISM        COUNSELLING       FOCUSING       PHILOSOPHY