“Now suppose, monks, that a magician or magician’s apprentice were to hold a magic show at a crossroads, and a man with good eyesight were to see it, observe it and reflect on it radically. Even as he sees it, ponders over it and reflects on it radically, he would find it empty, void, without substance: for what substance could there be in a magic show?
“In the same way, any consciousness—past, future, or present; internal or external; blatant or subtle; common or sublime; far or near—a monk sees, observes and reflects on it radically. And even as he sees it, ponders over it and reflects on it radically, he would find it empty, void, without substance: for what substance could there be in consciousness?
…That is what the Blessed One said.
Having said that, the One Well-Gone, the Teacher, said further:
Form is like a mass of foam;
And feeling, but an airy bubble;
Perception is like a mirage;
And fabrications, a banana tree;
Consciousness is a magic show,
A juggler’s trick entire
All these smilies have been taught
by the ‘Kinsman of the Sun’.”
— Phena Sutta (Saṃyutta Nikāya III 142)
The Parable of the Magic Show
A famous magician whose miraculous performances you have thoroughly enjoyed on many occasions is back in your town. News of his arrival has spread far and wide, and eager crowds are filling the large hall where he is due to perform.
You too buy a ticket and enter the hall. There is a scramble for seats, but you are not keen on securing one, for you have entered with a different purpose. You have had a bright idea to outwit the magician—to play a trick on him yourself. So you cut through the throng and stealthily creep into a concealed corner of the stage.
The magician enters through dark curtains, clad in his pitch-black suit. Black boxes containing his secret stock-in-trade are onstage. You watch from your vantage point as the performance begins.
As you observe every movement of your favorite magician with sharp eyes, one after another you begin to discover the secrets behind his ‘breathtaking miracles’: the hidden holes and false bottoms in his magic boxes, the counterfeits and secret pockets, the hidden strings and buttons pulled and pressed under cover of waving his magic wand.
Very soon you are able to see through his bag of wily tricks so well that you are able to predict the next ‘surprise’ well in advance. Since now you can anticipate his ‘surprises’ they no longer surprise you. His tricks no longer trick you. His ‘magic’ has lost its magic for you. It no longer kindles your imagination as it had in the past.
The magician’s ‘hocus-pocus’ and ‘abracadabra’, his grand gestures and magic wand now cannot interest or excite you, for you know them now for what they are: meaningless distractions. The whole performance is revealed to be an empty show, a vast hoax, a treachery.
In utter disgust, you turn away from it to gaze at the audience below. And what a sight! A sea of craned necks; eyes that gaze in blind admiration; moths that gape in dumb appreciation; ‘Ah!’s and ‘Oh!’s and whistles of speechless amazement.
You witness a strange admixture of tragedy and comedy that you could have enjoyed instead of the magic show, but for the fact that you yourself were in that same sorry plight on many previous occasions. Moved by compassion for the illusioned crowd, you frown at the magician as he chuckles with a cynical grin at every applause from his admirers. “How is it,” you wonder, “that I have been deceived for so long by this crook of a magician?” You are fed up with all this and swear to yourself: “Never will I waste my time and money on such empty shows—never again!”
In due course the show ends and the crowd makes for the exit. You slip out of your hiding place unseen and mingle. Outside, you spot a friend you know to be a keen admirer of this magician. You try to avoid him, not wishing to embarrass him with your unusual observations, but too late —he has already seen you. Soon you find yourself listening to a vivid commentary on the wonders of the magic show, as your friend relives the moments of the ‘bliss of ignorance’ he had just been enjoying. Before long he discovers that you are quite reserved about the show, and wonders how you could be so.
“Why so glum? You were in the hall, weren’t you?” “Yes, I was.”
“Then were you sleeping?”
“Maybe you weren’t watching closely.”
“No, I was watching all right—maybe too closely.”
“You claim you were watching, but you don’t seem to have enjoyed the show.”
“No, I did see the magician’s performance. In fact, I saw it so well that I missed the show!”
Your friend looks at you strangely and walks away, shaking his head.
For a more complete discussion of this metaphor, listen to Podcast #12: Magic of the Mind.