In my opinion, the most significant parallel between A Course in Miracles and Buddhism is that both state, in no uncertain terms, that the world is an illusion.
A wise man, recognizing that the world is but an illusion, does not act as if it is real, so he escapes the suffering. – The Buddha
We live in illusion and the appearance of things. There is a reality. We are that reality. When you understand this, you see that you are nothing, and being nothing, you are everything. That is all. – Kalu Rinpoche
Pursah: What’s the central thought the Course attempts to teach?
Gary: There is no world.
Pursah: I’m sorry. I didn’t quite hear that.
Gary: There is no world.
Pursah: That’s right. And it doesn’t say, “There is no world, yeah, but maybe.” It says,
“There is no world! This is the central thought the Course attempts to teach.” (Lesson 132, p.6)
That’s a definitive statement, Gary.
pg. 95, Your Immortal Reality, Gary Renard
For the majority of readers – unless you are already a long-time student of the Course, and / or have had familiarity with Buddhism and Hinduism – this will be a difficult concept to accept. Indeed, you will not hear any popular religious or spiritual teacher, even in the ACIM community, emphasizing this important concept – the masses do not like to be challenged!
In 1847, a Hungarian doctor called Ignaz Semmelweis working in a maternity hospital observed that the death rate due to infection of mothers and babies was much higher in wards run by doctors than that of wards run by midwives. During this period, 30 years before the germ theory of disease was discovered, and as shocking as it sounds to us, doctors went from one patient to the next without washing their hands. Semmelweis, despite ridicule and opposition, introduced compulsory handwashing for everyone entering the maternal wards and with it came a drastic reduction in infection-related deaths.
If we do not know what the problem is, we cannot treat it. If our fundamental paradigm is inaccurate, just like doctors in the 1850s, we are bound to make drastic errors. But once we come across a new paradigm that makes sense, that is more in alignment with how it really is, only then, can we start on a proper footing.
Most of us are able to accept that all of us are One and that forgiveness is generally a good idea. But to truly grok the idea of Oneness and to deeply internalize the practice of true forgiveness, to make it a habit as close and as dear to us as breathing itself, to do it at every time our peace of mind is disturbed – no matter if we feel mildly slighted or if a loved one is killed – we need to understand the why. No, we will not be able to practice forgiveness the way Jesus did if we do not accept the dreamlike nature of the world. (On a side note, Semmelweis was shunned, dismissed as insane and eventually died in a mental hospital. Oh, the joys of being a revolutionary…)
We cannot expect to make significant spiritual progress if we are overly attached to the material world of form.
Personally, this was not a concept which was shocking to me, as I had come into contact with Buddhism about 2 years before I came to the Course. (Writing this now, it seems strange how it all worked out for me in my life!) Also, my experiences with the Law of Attraction had given me some insight as to just how dream-like this ‘real world’ is.
Dzogchen is the central, non-dual teaching of the Nyingma school. (Nyingma is the oldest of the four main schools of Tibetian Buddhism) Dzogchen teaches that our perceived reality is considered to be unreal. From Wikipedia:
“According to contemporary teacher Chögyal Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche, all appearances perceived during the whole life of an individual, through all senses, including sounds, smells, tastes and tactile sensations in their totality, are like a big dream. It is claimed that, on careful examination, the dream of life and regular nightly dreams are not very different, and that in their essential nature there is no difference between them.”
Taking the idea of the external world being an illusion into its logical extension – we see that the concept of the ‘self’ is also an illusion. There is really no division between the inner and the outer world – the self, existing in the world of phenomena, is but another phenomenon itself.
…the self does not exist in isolation from other phenomena. The self experiences phenomena. It is affected by unawareness (ignorance) and thus experiences deceptive appearances of the phenomena of samsara.
The Four Indian Buddhist Tenet Systems Regarding Illusion: A Practical Approach
For many, the concept of the world being a dream will seem nihilistic, however in truth – it is the complete opposite. It is in this idea that our liberation lies. It also means that we can start to live life with a lot less hang-ups and a lot less guilt. We can stop beating ourselves up. We can stop being so serious all the time and let our hair down a little. We can let go of our inner limitations based on our self-perceptions and the limitations society has imposed upon us. We are born free and will always will be.
It is in this concept that we are able to throw off our shackles of how we have defined our ‘self’, not the little “i” of the ego, but the “I” of the two word phrase in which many of the spiritual masters of the world have summed up all wisdom:
There is no way to say it gently: Our ‘life’ on earth has no inherent meaning. It is our Real Life in Heaven that we really want, that we really need, that really has Meaning. What we think is our life and our ‘self’ is nothing but a collection of mental constructs – a combination of sex, race, nationality, age, function, overlaid with a set of personal preferences and idiosyncrasies based on social imprinting.
When we first ask what the term “self” actually refers to, confusion sets in immediately. If we look up the word “self” in a dictionary, we find that it’s generally defined as “not other”. What is “other,” then? “Not self.” This doesn’t get us anywhere.
We can see that the term “self” refers to the existence of a supposed entity that doesn’t change. When you say, “When I was six years old, I was in first grade,” the “I” refers to something that must have been the same at the age of six as it is now. If it isn’t the same, then what in the world does “I” refer to? And if the entity is the same, what’s the same about it? Its appearance? It’s memory? The cells that make up its body? (Indeed, what now does “it” refer to?) All of these have changed drastically over the years, and continue to change now. To assume the existence of the self, an “I,” is to assume the existence of something that has not changed, that has remained itself through all these intervening years. And if the thing in question – the “I” – has changed, in what manner can it still be itself? To change would mean it has become something else.
It’s impossible for anything to remain itself and yet change. But this is precisely the thing we can’t find – a self that doesn’t change. For that matter, as we have seen, we can’t find anything that doesn’t change. In fact, we can’t find any solid thing at all.
Whatever you can point to – a physical thing, a person, a thought, an emotion – all are without self. All of them change. Even memory shows nothing but flux and change. There’s nothing, no component of mind or body, that isn’t in constant flux. Whether we talk about our physical body, or the bodies of the natural world – animals, plants, stones, lakes, raindrops, stars – or the objects of our purposeful world – chairs, windows, milk cartons, and sewing needles – we find nothing but flux and change. Every atom, every minuscule part of the universe, is nothing other than movement and change. The same is true of our mental experience, our feelings, thoughts, and images.
pg. 127, Buddhism Plain and Simple, Steve Hagen
Now, as the crowning achievement in its grand scheme, the ego makes – drum roll, please – the body. This allows the ego to permit into your awareness, almost exclusively, only those things which testify to the reality of its cherished illusion. Yet the body itself is just another part of the illusion, and to ask it to explain the illusion to you is no different than asking the illusion to explain itself – and of course the ego is more than happy to furnish you with its answers. The Disappearance of the Universe, pg. 143
Creation: not what you think…
The next obvious question is – if this is a dream, when who is the dreamer? Who created this illusion? Who are we?
A Course in Miracles is crystal clear on the ‘origins’ of the illusion – it is not a creation of God:
The world you see is an illusion of a world. God did not create it, for what He creates must be eternal as Himself. Yet there is nothing in the world you see that will endure forever. Some things will last in time a little while longer than others. But the time will come when all things visible will have an end. C-4.1., A Course in Miracles
For many, including myself, this is at last a coherent and sensible answer to the perennial question – How could God (who is obviously perfect and eternal, by self-definition), in his perfection, create an imperfect, ephemeral world? How could He / She / It have created a world full of suffering, destruction, war and famine? The answer is clear: he could not have.
(For more clarification on the nature of God and the subject of Creation, please see these two articles:
In particular, we see the many similarities in the myth of the arising of the dream in the Buddhist context:
If we were to borrow a western expression, we could say that “in the beginning” things were going along quite well. At some point, however, there was a loss of confidence in the way things were going. There was a kind of primordial panic which produced confusion about what was happening. Rather than acknowledging this loss of confidence, there was an identification with the panic and confusion. Ego began to form. This is known as the first skandha, the skandha of form.
After the identification with confusion, ego begins to explore how it feels about the formation of this experience. If we like the experience, we try to draw it in. If we dislike it, we try to push it away, or destroy it. If we feel neutral about it, we just ignore it. The way we feel about the experience is called the skandha of form; what we try to do about it is known as the skandha of impulse/perception.
The next stage is to try to identify, or label the experience. If we can put it into a category, we can manipulate it better. Then we would have a whole bag of tricks to use on it. This is the skandha of concept. The final step in the birth of ego, is called the skandha of consciousness.
Ego begins to churn thoughts and emotions around and around. This makes ego feel solid and real. The churning around and around is called samsara — literally, to whirl about. The way ego feels about its situation (skandha of feeling) determines which of the six realms of existence it creates for itself.
An Overview of Buddhism by Mike Butler
While there are some traditions / teachings in Buddhism which are non-dual, eg. Zen and Dzogchen, it would not be fair to say that Buddhism is a non-dual teaching per se. Neither does Buddhism have a concept of God. (Although some might interpret pointers to nondual states such as ‘no-self’, ‘emptiness’, ‘primordial state’, ‘the Tathagata’ to be the same thing.)
While Buddhism does not contradict the metaphysics of A Course in Miracles, Buddhism is less concerned with the subjects of God and Creation (of the world / dream) than it is about alleviating suffering and ultimate liberation. Buddhism is a very practical philosophy, and is not concerned with explaining what is unexplainable. On fourteen questions, pertaining to the existence of the world in time and space:
The Buddha remained silent when asked these fourteen questions. He described them as a net and refused to be drawn into such a net of theories, speculations, and dogmas. He said that it was because he was free of bondage to all theories and dogmas that he had attained liberation. Such speculations, he said, are attended by fever, unease, bewilderment, and suffering, and it is by freeing oneself of them that one achieves liberation.
The fourteen questions imply two basic attitudes toward the world. The Buddha speaks of these two attitudes in his dialogue with Mahakashyapa, when he says that there are two basic views, the view of existence and the view of nonexistence. He said that people are accustomed to think in these terms, and that as long as they remain entangled in these two views they will not attain liberation.
Wikipedia – 14 Unanswerable Questions
While A Course in Miracles describes the dynamics of the arising of the false world and the nature of God in much greater detail than Buddhism, it has the same stance with regards to trying to answer the unanswerable:
This is not a course in philosophical speculation, nor is it concerned with precise terminology. It is concerned only with Atonement, or the correction of perception. The means of the Atonement is forgiveness. The structure of “individual consciousness” is essentially irrelevant because it is a concept representing the “original error” or the “original sin.” To study the error itself does not lead to correction, if you are indeed to succeed in overlooking the error. And it is just this process of overlooking at which the course aims. C-in.1. A Course in Miracles
This course remains within the ego framework, where it is needed. It is not concerned with what is beyond all error because it is planned only to set the direction towards it. Therefore it uses words, which are symbolic, and cannot express what lies beyond symbols. It is merely the ego that questions because it is only the ego that doubts. The course merely gives another answer, once a question has been raised. However, this answer does not attempt to resort to inventiveness or ingenuity. These are attributes of the ego. The course is simple. It has one function and one goal. Only in that does it remain wholly consistent because only that can be consistent. C-in.3. A Course in Miracles
The ego will demand many answers that this course does not give. It does not recognize as questions the mere form of a question to which an answer is impossible. The ego may ask, “How did the impossible occur?”, “To what did the impossible happen?”, and may ask this in many forms. Yet there is no answer; only an experience. Seek only this, and do not let theology delay you. C-in.4. A Course in Miracles
In terms of explaining the mysteries of life and creation, A Course in Miracles and Buddhism take a similar stance – that there is little point in getting intellectually mired into subjects which will never yield any meaningful and purposeful answers. Like sailors on a sinking ship, there is little point in speculating in what caused the ship to sink – what matters is that we organise a plan to rescue ourselves.