A vibration not unlike the sound of an engine starting echoes through your mind, waking you from your slumber. Groggily, you open your eyes, yet the advent of vision does little to dispel your confusion. This is not my room, you think. Where am I?
Looking around, you appear to be in a vast yet vibrant void, seated upon a bright white disc. At the fringes of the disc, brilliantly colored petals hang down into the ether that surrounds you. In front of you is a man, wearing the robe of a monk and seated in the lotus position. His entire being radiates calmness and presence, like a punctuation mark on each moment.
He looks directly into your eyes. “It is time you learned the rules of the game,” he says.
“What game? Who are you? Am I dreaming?” you reply, unsure of pretty much anything at the moment.
“No time for that,” the man answers. “Soon, you will leave here, and there is much to explain before you go. Please, for your sake, pay attention to what I am about to say.”
Typically, such a cryptic and evasive answer would frustrate you, but the combination of the endless void surrounding you and the aura of the man arouse your curiosity. “Alright,” you ask, “what game are you talking about? Is this like a VR thing?”
“The game has many names, and none. It is the ultimate game, the only game that matters, the game of life itself,” the man replies, his tone somehow full of urgency and warmth at the same time. “You have no choice but to play.”
“Okay…” you respond. “Isn’t that just life? What do you mean by a game? How can life be a game?”
“It is a game,” he answers, with finality, “because you can win.”
“You get out of the game.”
“Get out of the game? You mean like when you die?”
The man smiles slightly, a hint of something in his eyes. “Not exactly,” he says.
A shape materializes in front of you, a horrifying apparition – a demon. Wreathed in flames and smoke, it has a human shape, with claws, fangs, and three baleful eyes. It wears a crown of five human skulls, and seems to somehow crawl with a malevolence that distorts the space around it.
You jump back, terrified. “What is that?!” you yell, unable to look away from the creature’s eyes. They seem to suck you in, while your worst thoughts begin to whisper from the back of your mind.
From his robe, the man pulls out and rings a brass bell. At the sound of the bell, the creature vanishes, leaving behind a faint odor of ozone.
“That was Mara,” the man says, matter-of-factly. “He goes by many other names, too: Lucifer, Satan, the Devil – too many to count. It is his game you are playing. You win when you conquer him. However, if you cannot do so, you will not escape him even when you die.”
“You’re talking about reincarnation?”
“I’m talking about getting out of the game. What you consider death to be is merely just another part of the game. You’ve had many characters, all of which have died. This body, this you, that won’t come back again, but the thing at the base of it – the player of the game – that’s been here a long time.”
At this point, you’re confused, disoriented, and a little shaken from the appearance of whatever that Mara thing was. Unbidden, annoyance rises within you – annoyance at not knowing where you are, annoyance at the cryptic answers you’ve been getting, annoyance at the perpetual calmness of the man seated across from you.
You get up and begin pacing. The man watches you, the same glint in his eye. You open your mouth, ten thousand agitated questions on your tongue – but he cuts you off.
“Ignorance is the cause,” he says.
You explode at this latest cypher, unable to take it any more. “Ignorance is the cause? Excuse me? Cause of what? What are you talking about? Where the hell am I? Is this a dream? What WAS that thing? How do you conquer him? Why can’t you give me any straight answers? Oh, and who on earth are you?”
During your tirade, the man closes his eyes, as if resting. When you finish, he lets out a deep breath, opens them, and looks directly into your eyes. “Ignorance,” he intones “is the cause of your suffering. Please, sit down.”
You sit down.
“As long as you play this game,” he begins, “you are given a character – what you call your body and mind. In reality, this character is as fluid, transient, and impermanent as anything else in this universe, yet you maintain a firm belief that this is YOU, an unchanging, permanent thing. Instead of examining it critically, you unquestioningly accept it, and run around doing all sorts of things to maintain this fiction. Inevitably, though, the holes in the story you create for yourself shine through, whether it’s when you don’t get what you think you want or when you get what you think you don’t want, and this causes you pain. You are ignorant about the true nature of this game, and your resultant attempts to get certain things and avoid others make you suffer, again and again. Thus, ignorance is the cause of your suffering – like the annoyance you feel right now.”
These words shake you, quelling your anger. There is a ring of truth to this, although a part of you finds it ridiculous. Thoughts race through your mind: How can I not be real? What does this mean about the things I like? Should I not want them? After about ten seconds, you settle on a question.
“If I am ignorant about the true nature of my character in this game, then what is the truth? What am I, if not me?”
The man closes his eyes, nods, and smiles. A crown of five skulls, similar to the one worn by the Mara creature, materialize in front of him.
“Your character is made up of five parts, or aggregates,” the man says, eyes closed. “These parts are your physical form, the sensations you experience, the perceptions and thoughts that define these experiences, the actions and decisions you make, and a confused consciousness that is made up of the other four. There is nothing to you besides these five things, and none of them are you.” His voice is sonorous and solemn, as if there is great weight behind his words.
“None of them are me? What do you mean? How can I not be my body? Or my thoughts?”
The man takes a deep breath, and opens his eyes.
“Each one of the five aggregates is transitory, and ultimately empty of any permanent self. Your body is made of atoms that constantly float in and out. Your sensations and feelings are temporary. Your thoughts, even the most deeply ingrained ones, all eventually cease – are you not you when you’re asleep? Your actions start and stop. Your consciousness, being comprised of the other four, is equally insubstantial. These aggregates are all you are, and there is no you in any of them.”