The Magician’s Illusions



Lama Zopa Rinpoche:

We can further understand  how ignorance hallucinates and projects something that exceeds what is there, by using the analogy of the magician who creates, through the power of potions or mantras, magical illusions in which the people in the audience believe. Their senses become so affected that they hallucinate and believe as real all cities, jeweled diamond palaces, beautiful men, or women, or whatever else is conjured up.[1] Just like that, there is a projection by the mind of ignorance not knowing the ultimate reality of the I, the aggregates, the mind and phenomena. This projection is then believed to be true, and upon this basis, negative labels such as “bad,”—“this is bad,” “that is bad”—are placed upon an object.  Then, due to the belief that this is the object’s actual nature,  anger, jealousy and so forth arise toward it. Or, in the case of the exaggeration that the object is beautiful, together with the belief in that label, attachment arises.

First we apply the label “bad” or “good” and then, on that basis, anger and attachment arise. These minds  project their own view or creation of what that object is—its nature, in other words. But in reality there is no such thing. It has been built upon the [fabricated] object of ignorance and thus upon an object that is not there, just as the magician affects the audience’s senses so that all sorts of illusions appear and are believed in as true.[2]

There are further similarities in the analogy of the magician’s spell and ignorance. Just as the audience does not know that the cause of the hallucinations is the magician’s magic spell, so we don’t realize that ignorance is the cause of illusory appearances we experience. However, by understanding this example we can also very clearly understand that actually there is nothing there. No such thing. Why? Because the very basis of the appearance is not there. It has been conjured, or illusorily-rendered by the view of ignorance.[3]

Now we can appreciate that, though there is application of the psychological method or meditation, of patience and loving kindness as antidotes to anger and attachment, it is only by discovering and seeing that the very basis of what they see and hold is simply an illusion and therefore not in reality there, that we can really remedy them—find their solution. Likewise, only when the magician’s audience realizes they have been affected by the magician’s mantras or spells do they see that they have been tricked. Just as the object that is the basis of their illusory view is not there, neither is the attractive or unattractive object that has been labeled and produced by attachment or anger.


By realizing that their very basis is not there, these negative emotional thoughts are eliminated. No sooner do we know that their object is a hallucination and the product of a wrong conception holding what is not true to be true, then, in the time it takes to snap our fingers, these projections of negative thoughts are seen as empty. These projected objects do not exist at all.


[1] This is a frequent illustration in the Mādhyamika literature. For example: 

Through synonyms such as emptiness, [suchness, final reality] and so forth,
Limitless examples such as likeness with a magician’s illusions, [dreams, mirages] and so forth
And the skilful means of a variety of vehicles,
[Buddha] characterized the meaning of the middle way not abiding [in any gross or subtle extremes].

 Aśvaghosa,  “Essay on the Stages of Cultivating the Ultimate Mind of Enlightenment” quoted in Hopkins, Emptiness Yoga: The Tibetan Middle Way. Edited by Joe. B. Wilson (Ithaca: Snow Lion Publications, 1987, 1995), 60. See also Tsongkhapa’s detailed discussion of illusion-like appearance in Hopkins, Jeffrey Hopkins in Tsong-Kha-Pa’s Final Exposition of Wisdom (Ithaca: Snow Lion Publications, 2008), 75–85 where the example of the magician’s illusions (sgyu ma, māyā) is elaborately detailed. For a contemporary “scientific” account of the twelve classically famous examples of illusion (magical illusions, moon in water, visual distortions, mirages; dreams, echoes, city of gandharvas, optical illusions, rainbows, lightning, water bubbles and reflections in a mirror), see Jan Westerhoff, Twelve Examples of Illusion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010). Specifically regarding a magician’s illusions, see ibid., 9–22.

[2] Jamyang Shepa draws attention to an important demarcation: “Also, with respect to this assertion of phenomena as only imputations, some Tibetans [wrongly] do not accept even worldly trueness and falseness. [It is true that there is no difference between] an illusory horse created by a magician and an actual horse with respect to their existing or not in accordance with how they appear. [Both an illusory horse and an actual horse appear as if they inherently exist, but in fact do not; therefore, they equally do not exist even conventionally in accordance with how they appear.] However, if one does not accept a [worldly] trueness or falseness with respect to whether something does or does not exist, then one contradicts Candrakīrti:

If the world does not harm you, based on the world itself
Refute these [conventionalities].
You and the world debate about these,
And afterwards I will rely on the stronger.”

Hopkins,  Meditation on Emptiness (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1983, 1996), 635–36.  The classic analogy of the magician involves the magician’s “magic spell” affecting (in an occult or drug-like sense) the senses of the audience which become functionally distorted as a consequence. Therefore the example  differs in significant ways  from the contemporary illustration of the  Las Vegas stage magician who trades in clever sleight-of-hand tricks and various optical illusions involving mechanical manipulation of scientific principles, mirrors, hidden trapdoors, light effects, etc. The audience in this case is expecting and happy to be tricked; not for a moment do they take the illusions as real even when, or even especially when they appear to be most so. The import of the classical Buddhist analogy is conveyed if we understand that the audience with mantra-affected senses cannot  know or distinguish (at least while magically-seduced) between what appears and what exists: 

The eyes of those attending a magic show are affected by the magician’s tricks, and through this deception , the audience thinks it sees horses, elephants, and so forth. In a similar way, by going along with the appearance of inherent existence, we exaggerate the status of good and bad phenomena, and are thereby led into desire and hatred and actions accumulating karma. What is not an inherently existent “I” appears to be an inherently existent “I,”and we accept the appearance as given.

 See The Dalai Lama, How to See Yourself, 179. His Holiness indicates, as does Lama Zopa Rinpoche,  the (therapeutic) efficacy of realising  the illusory-like nature of things, especially in terms of quelling emotional disturbance:

Seeing people and things as existing like illusions helps reduce unfavourable emotions, because lust, hatred, and so forth stem from our superimposing qualities—good or bad—on phenomena beyond what they already have. For instance, when we get very angry at someone, we have a strong sense of wretchedness of that person, but later, when we calm down and look at that same person, we may find our earlier perception laughable.

Ibid, 179-80. 

[3] Only imputed (btags tsam, prajñaptimātra). In his Middle-Length Lamrim Tsongkhapa quotes from the Question of Upali Sūtra: “The varied delights of blossoming flowers, the pleasure of the glitter of a golden palace—these (things) have no (intrinsic) function, but are there on the strength of our constructs; the whole cosmos is constructed by force of thought.” See Thurman, ed. Life and Teachings of Tsong Khapa. Translation by Sharpa Tulku, Khamlung Tulku, Alexander Berzin, Jonathan Landaw, Glenn H. Mullin and Robert A. F. Thurman (Dharamsala: Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, 2006),  132. See also Hopkins, Final Exposition, 39, for his translation.

Regarding the meaning of “force of thought,” or  power of thought, Kensur Yeshey Tupden, commenting on the same passage, explains that “All phenomena are posited by the power of thought; in Prāsaṅgika, this is the same as being nominally existent.” He adds, “If one understands the sense in which this system considers phenomena to be (1) posited by thought and (2) only imputed by thought, it becomes easy to identify the conception of inherent existence, which conceives the opposite of this, [because] their being posited by the power of thought is the opposite of inherent existence. To understand this [latter is to reveal] what it means for something to be established by its own nature or from its own side. These [three phrases] have the same meaning. The own-nature (rang bzhin, svabhāva) of phenomena exists, but a thing’s being established by its own nature does not (rang bzhin gyis  min ‘dug). [Similarly], entities (ngo  bo, vastu) exist, but there is no establishment by that entity itself. [This signifies that] phenomena are only posited by the force of thought, not by their own power. They neither stand nor are set up by their own power. They have no power.” See Anne Klein, Path to the Middle: Oral Mādhyamika Philosophy in Tibet. The Spoken Scholarship of Kensur Yeshey Tupden, Commenting on Tsong-kha-pa’s Illumination of (Candrakīrti’s) Thought (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994), 131.



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