Twelve Examples of Illusion

Twelve Examples of Illusion

Twelve Examples of Illusion

Twelve Examples of Illusion


Tibetan Buddhist writings frequently state that many of the things we perceive in the world are in fact illusory, as illusory as echoes or mirages. In Twelve Examples of Illusion, Jan Westerhoff offers an engaging look at a dozen illusions - including magic tricks, dreams, rainbows, and reflections in a mirror - showing how these phenomena can give us insight into reality. For instance, he offers a fascinating discussion of optical illusions, such as the wheel of fire (the "wheel" seen when a torch is swung rapidly in a circle), discussing Tibetan explanations of this phenomenon as well as the findings of modern psychology, and significantly clarifying the idea that most phenomena - from chairs to trees - are similar illusions. The book uses a variety of crystal-clear examples drawn from a wide variety of fields, including contemporary philosophy and cognitive science, as wellas the history of science, optics, artificial intelligence, geometry, economics, and literary theory. Throughout, Westerhoff makes both Buddhist philosophical ideas and the latest theories of mind and brain come alive for the general reader.


The town of Śrāvastī, nowadays called Sahet-Mahet, is a thoroughly unremarkable place in northern India where, some not particularly spectacular ruins apart, very little is to be seen.

Nevertheless, two and a half millenia ago some extraordinary events could be witnessed there. This was the time when the Indian prince Siddharta, now, after his enlightenment, known as the Buddha, was staying at Śrāvastī. The gardener of King Prasenajit, a man called Gaṇḍa, had just presented the Buddha with a delicious mango. After eating it the Buddha told Gaṇḍa to plant the seed of the mango fruit. Then

the Teacher washed his hands over the place where the mango had been
planted. The very moment he washed his hands, a mango-tree sprung
up, with stalks as thick as a plow-handle, fifty cubits in height. Five great
branches shot forth, each fifty cubits in length, four to the four cardinal
points and one to the heavens above. Instantly the tree was covered with
flowers and fruits; indeed on one side it bore a cluster of ripe mangoes.
Approaching from behind, the monks picked the ripe mangoes, ate
them, and then withdrew. When the king heard that a mango-tree
so wonderful had sprung up, he gave orders that no one should cut it
down, and posted a guard. Because the tree had been planted by the
gardener Gaṇḍa, it became known as Gaṇḍa’s Mango-tree.

This episode is depicted on a stone relief from Bharhut in Madhya Pradesh dating from the third or second century BCE, known as the Ajatashatru pillar. According to the pictorial conventions of the time the Buddha is not shown in human form but represented by an empty throne. Surrounding him are crowds of worshippers admiring the mango tree so wondrously produced.

What is particularly remarkable about this story is the fact that the miracle displayed here by the Buddha, the so-called “mango trick,” is a piece of magic . . .

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