Pondering the fact of death, I am reminded that impermanence is a central feature of the world we live in. The phenomenal world — of things and events — is called maya in the dharmic traditions (namely Jain, Hindu, Buddhist & Sikh.)
The world is maya. Many people simply translate it as “ the world is an illusion” but that is incorrect. The world is real. Maya does not mean that the world is unreal or that it is an illusion. It means something like this: the world as we perceive it is not what the world actually is. We cannot directly perceive the reality that is at the foundation of what exists. That reality is given a word — Brahman. Most of us cannot comprehend the Brahman because we are limited beings.
Nama and Rupa
That is, our perception is imperfect or incomplete, and the model of the world we build in our brains is not what the world is. Neti, neti. Not that, not that. Alan Watts explained maya nicely.
. . . the maya doctrine points out, firstly, the impossibility of grasping the actual world in the mind’s net of words and concepts, and, secondly, the fluid character of those very forms which thought attempts to define. The world of facts and events is altogether nama, abstract names, and rupa, fluid form. It escapes both the comprehension of the philosopher and the grasp of the pleasure-seeker like water from a clutching fist. There is even something deceptive in the idea of Brahman as the eternal reality underlying the flux, and of the atman as the divine ground of human consciousness, for in so far as these are concepts they are incapable of grasping the real as any other.
The idea that words are incapable of fully defining reality is a central defining feature of dharmic traditions. We have to use them but we should not confuse them for what they represent. The map, as they say, is not the territory. Words are symbols and they have their utility but if imperfectly understood, they can be a hindrance to the ultimate goal — that of liberation, variously known as moksha or nirvana.
Alan Watts again, on moksha:
Moksha is also understood as liberation from maya—one of the most important words in Indian philosophy, both Hindu and Buddhist. For the manifold world of facts and events is said to be maya, ordinarily understood as an illusion which veils the one underlying reality of Brahman. This gives the impression that moksha is a state of consciousness in which the whole varied world of nature vanishes from sight, merged in a boundless ocean of vaguely luminous space. Such an impression should be dismissed at once, for it implies a duality, an incompatibility, between Brahman and maya which is against the whole principle of Upanishadic philosophy. For Brahman is not One as opposed to Many, not simple as opposed to complex. Brahman is without duality (advaita), which is to say without any opposite since Brahman is not in any class or, for that matter, outside any class.
Now classification is precisely maya. The word is derived from the Sanskrit root matr-, “to measure, form, build, or lay out a plan,” the root from which we obtain such Greco-Latin words as meter, matrix, material, and matter. The fundamental process of measurement is division, . . . Thus the Sanskrit root dva- from which we get the word “divide” is also the root of the Latin duo (two) and the English “dual.”
To say, then, that the world of facts and events is maya is to say that facts and events are terms of measurement rather than realities of nature.
Alan Watts (1915-1973) is a favorite teacher of mine. He explains many basic concepts of Hinduism and Buddhism in terms that I find accessible. Philosophically I place myself in the advaita (non-duality) school, which I think is what unites Hinduism and Buddhism, the two great traditions of India. As Watts puts it, Buddhism is Hinduism stripped for export.