It was a warm summer evening. Marie was standing in the kitchen, a glass of cool and refreshing water in her hand, while she gazed through the window with some satisfaction at her nicely maintained garden. That afternoon she’d spent a couple of hours doing everything necessary to keep the garden looking as good and beautiful as possible.
But soon it would be time to eat. Her husband Dan had got in from work about an hour ago and had gone to lie down in the bedroom. It wasn’t that he was unwell in any way but merely in need of a little sleep and rest. He would often work fifty hours a week, or even more if he could, in order to ensure that he and Marie could continue their present lifestyle. They weren’t exactly rich or wealthy and they didn’t live in a particularly large house but nevertheless they had everything they could reasonably need or want.
“Excuse me girl,” smiled Marie softly to their dog, a Golden Retriever, who was lying inconveniently at the bottom of the stairs. Since it graciously declined to move, Marie simply strode over her canine companion and walked upstairs. She was planning to discuss the evening meal with Dan, as earlier they hadn’t been able to make up their mind about what they would have.
Marie had already begun to say her husband’s name as she turned the door handle to enter the bedroom but soon stopped in her tracks, the half formed “Dan” fading instantly from her lips. Everything had changed! The bed was different and in another position, the curtains had been completely altered, the walls a different colour, there were tiles on the floor instead of the usual carpet, unknown paintings adorned the walls, and Dan was nowhere to be seen, nor were any of their possessions and belongings, which had all been replaced by someone else’s.
As she continued to look on in shock, horror, and bewilderment, a woman came into focus. She appeared to be some type of cleaner or hired maid and was dusting the beautiful new bedside table and smoothing the duvet on the new bed.
Marie said nothing since she was too shocked to speak. Then the thought came to her… if the bedroom had suddenly changed and Dan had disappeared, what about everything else? Had all the rest of the house suddenly been transformed into someone else’s house while she had been looking on agog at the bedroom scene? Turning away, she ran across the landing and, relieved to see her purse and a packet of her favourite chewing gum, quickly grabbed them and darted downstairs, intent on getting out of the house before all the rest of her familiar surroundings suddenly became unfamiliar.
“Goldie, come here,” pleaded Marie desperately once she was downstairs, intent on taking her beloved dog with her, although as yet she had no idea of where she was going, other than that she wanted to get out of this house as soon as she could. It seemed that things were slowly beginning to disappear before her very eyes from the downstairs rooms. What was happening? Grabbing hold of the rather unimaginatively named dog by its collar – its lead had vanished from its usual hanging place by the kitchen door – she hastily opened the front door and left the house.
Not even daring to turn back for one last look, she and Goldie began to make their way determinedly along the street, heading in the direction of a small woodland area just a minute’s walk from the house. Marie and Dan had often strolled there, sometimes just by themselves, and other times with Goldie.
Once there, she sat down under the shelter of an old oak tree and held Goldie close to her, lest she lose her as well. Too shocked and disturbed for tears, it now dawned on her that she hadn’t really made any effort to try to locate Dan before running from the house. Perhaps he was still there somewhere, she now wondered, or maybe he too had vanished into thin air, just like everything in their bedroom.
Although it was now after 8pm, the sun was still shining bright and everything still bathed in its warm and sultry light. Catching her breath and gathering her thoughts, Marie now began to slowly suspect that perhaps her strange experience had all been the result of sunstroke or heatstroke from her work in the garden earlier that day. She hadn’t felt ill but maybe she had become excessively overheated nonetheless, unbeknownst to herself at the time, and perhaps that had caused her to hallucinate? After all, what other explanation could there possibly be for what she had seen and experienced?
Slowly and cautiously, Marie and Goldie now made their way back home. “At least it still all looks the same from outside,” said Marie to her treasured pet, who simply looked up at her owner with a puzzled expression. Tentatively opening the front door which she had slammed behind her only a few minutes before, they entered the house. To her inexpressible relief, everything was back to normal!
“Dan!” she shouted. “Dan!”
When no reply came from her husband and with no sign of him downstairs or in the garden, Marie ran upstairs, her heart pounding anxiously.
“Oh there you are!” she cried, as she found Dan just emerging from the bathroom after having a shower.
“Love! What on earth’s wrong with you?” asked Dan, as he took his beloved Marie in his arms. “I thought you were downstairs getting dinner ready but you look as if you’ve been out somewhere. Where have you been?”
After telling Dan the whole story, she burst into tears, crying uncontrollably without reprieve until at last Dan’s gentle and reassuring kisses soothed her.
“Come on, I’ll show you our bedroom’s the same as normal, just exactly as it should be,” he said. “See?” he smiled confidently, opening the door. But now it was his turn to be shocked. Everything was exactly the same as Marie had described, except that the cleaner or maid had now progressed further and was busily rearranging some framed photographs of people who Marie and Dan had never seen before.
“This is how it was earlier! That’s why I ran out of the house!” explained Marie. “And now if we’re both seeing it then it must be real…it can’t just be down to sunstroke or something like that after all!”
“Excuse me,” called Dan to the woman in the transformed bedroom. But she seemed entirely oblivious and merely carried on with what she was doing.
“Excuse me!” he repeated, this time in a louder voice. It was as if she couldn’t hear, just as it also seemed that she hadn’t even noticed the pair of them standing in the doorway with horrified and bewildered expressions on their faces. Marie suggested he try knocking loudly on the door. Doing so and shouting “Excuse me!” a third time, even louder now, he finally succeeded in getting the woman to pay attention.
“Yes? How can I help you?” she snapped brusquely.
“This is our bedroom,” protested Dan, gesturing with his hands at Marie and himself. “What’s going on with it? And who are you? Who are you cleaning for? What’s happened to our room?”
The woman observed him with a look of pity and bemusement.
“I’m sorry, I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’ve never seen either of you before in my life and I’ve been coming to this house every other day as the cleaner for nearly three years. This is Mr and Mrs Johnson’s bedroom, not yours.”
Dan and Marie, whose surname was not Johnson, looked at each other helplessly. Turning away from the bedroom, they saw that everything else was now rapidly changing. The house was turning into someone else’s house before their very eyes.
“Let’s just get out of here!” yelled Dan, now as afraid as Marie had been earlier. They ran downstairs, just as the carpet on the stairs changed pattern and colour beneath their feet. Goldie was nowhere to be seen. They looked frantically in every room but the dog was missing.
“Look out there in the garden!” cried Marie, pointing towards the kitchen window. There was a dog standing on the top level of the garden, an Alsatian they had never seen before, and as it noticed this unfamiliar pair of humans inside the house it began to bark at them aggressively. Clutching onto each other, so as to hopefully prevent the other from disappearing into thin air, Marie and Dan ran out through the front door and virtually sprinted to that small woodland area in order to gather their thoughts and decide on what to do.
Although they hadn’t planned to do so, they fell asleep that night under the protective shade of the old oak tree. As the moon glistened magically in the night sky, this husband and wife slept in each other’s arms, clinging on desperately to each other even in their sleep.
After a few hours they were awakened by the sense of someone standing near them. Opening their eyes they found an old man standing before them. At least, he seemed old in that he had long flowing white hair, a white beard and a very wise and learned expression, but at the same time there was barely a trace of a wrinkle or line upon his kindly face. For some reason they didn’t feel frightened by the stranger’s presence.
“Everything is illusion in this world and even the world itself is an illusion,” declared the mysterious visitant, before pausing to allow the pair to respond. When they didn’t he continued: “All things come into being and all things go out of being. This very universe came into being and at its appointed time it too will disappear, to eventually appear again after seven eternities. You live here on the objective plane of life and you take your surroundings, your possessions, and everything physical and external for realities…but they are not. The plane of objectivity is the plane of illusion. Only the inner is the real. Appearance is the supreme illusion.”
“What do you mean exactly?” asked Marie.
“Look,” smiled the old man, stretching the index finger of his right hand towards the oak tree, which promptly vanished into thin air. This terrified Dan, who rose quickly to his feet and began looking all around him, demanding to know what had happened to the tree and where it had gone.
“Fear not,” the man assured him, pointing his finger towards the space where the tree had been, whereupon it suddenly reappeared. “I simply mean that everything which is manifested is impermanent and eventually fades away, not to be destroyed or annihilated but to disappear for a time from the plane of objective existence, only to return to it in a new form at some later point in time.”
A thoughtful expression was on Marie’s face. “I suppose we can’t really argue with that,” she confessed. “All of us know deep down that we’re only here for a short while before we have to die and also things can change very quickly like losing a job or losing a house or a relationship breaking up…”
The sage nodded.
“Everything here is finite, temporary, impermanent, subject to change, and constantly changing. Nothing remains exactly the same from one moment to the next. This is what I meant by describing it all as illusion. How can it be considered truly real? It can all serve a purpose but when you become attached to anything in this material world you have fallen under the deluding sway of Maha-Maya – the Great Illusion – and the inevitable result of that is sorrow, fear, and suffering.”
Unexpectedly, Marie began to weep.
“What’s wrong?” asked Dan, embracing her and trying to comfort her.
“It’s Goldie,” she sobbed. “Just like everything else she was only finite, temporary, impermanent and everything else this man just said. But I loved her so much!”
Touched by Marie’s deep and heartfelt love for her canine companion, the old man pressed his palms together in an expression of peace and compassion.
“There is no need to speak of your beloved friend in the past tense,” he assured her. “When you go back to your house you will find her there waiting for you, perfectly well and perfectly happy.”
It transpired that Marie and Dan had been favoured with a very vivid and hard-hitting object lesson of the impermanence and transient, illusory nature of all things. It was now explained to them that they would soon be able to go back home and that they would find everything exactly as it was before and that it would now remain like that.
Dan, breathing a great sigh of relief, had a very pertinent question to put to the mysterious being.
“If this whole universe and everything in it is impermanent, an illusion, then is there actually anything which is real or is there no such thing as reality?”
“Oh, there has to be such a thing as reality Dan!” Marie assured her husband, although she didn’t seem fully sure of what she was saying. They turned away from each other to again look at the Teacher.
“There is That which is infinite,” he began, “That which is absolute, permanent, eternal, unchanging and unchangeable, unmanifested and unmanifestable, from which everything comes, in which everything exists, and into which everything is at last reabsorbed. That is the true Reality. It is only That which can be considered truly Real.”
“And what is that?” asked Dan.
“It sounds like God,” said Marie.
“Some call it God but it is not a Being or a man in the sky. It is LIFE Itself, the One Infinite Divine Life. Who can come anywhere near to adequately describing or defining It, other than to simply say that It is the One Ultimate Essence which underlies all things and that It is the essential nature, the true Self, of every living being?”
“So I am That,” smiled Marie. “And you are That too,” she laughed happily, looking at Dan who had tears in his eyes and a peculiarly serene expression on his face.
“And don’t forget Goldie is That too!” chuckled the old gentleman, adding that when we realise the oneness and divineness of all life and that our true nature is our eternal spiritual nature and not the physical and material, then and then only are we freed from the sufferings, sorrows, and illusions of life.
“You’ve taught us so much in so small an amount of time,” said Marie. “I’m so overwhelmed by it all but so incredibly grateful.”
“Time is an illusion too,” he smiled, his deep brown eyes twinkling in the moonlight.
“Please tell us who you are,” pleaded Dan.
The man’s expression now became more serious, as if he had something even more important to impart than what he had already said.
“I am That which you are,” he stated. “I am simply one who has realised Oneness. Thus gaining my liberation from the otherwise endless round of birth, death, and rebirth, I chose to become a helper of humanity, a servant of suffering mankind. Apart from this I am nothing and no-one.”
And with that he disappeared.
Marie and Dan had never been as happy in their entire lives as they were when they arrived home that night. Everything was back to normal, exactly how it should be, and Goldie was there waiting patiently for them, just as the wise old man had promised. Yet neither of them could help seeing things in a new light now. It was almost impossible to describe but it was as if everything material and objective – even those things which had been their most prized possessions – now seemed somewhat hollow, empty, and transient, which, as Marie reflected, is exactly what they are.
“Dan, I’m just going up to brush my hair!” called Marie, as she began making her way upstairs. She couldn’t help but remember everything she had seen and experienced only several hours previously after going upstairs to discuss the evening meal with Dan but she no longer felt afraid. And she had no reason to be. The bedroom was the same as it had always been except…what was this? There was a small folded piece of paper lying on top of the duvet. Picking it up and unfolding it, Marie read –
If you and your dear husband ever decide to visit the Himalayas, I will be glad to meet you there. I will know when you have arrived and will send one of my disciples to meet you and to bring you to the mountain. There I will teach you more, if you are willing.
Eagerly intent on showing the letter to Dan, Marie began to make her way out of the bedroom, only for the piece of paper to suddenly disappear while she held it in her hand. “Oh well,” she smiled. “Everything is illusion in this world.”