Author Jan Westerhoff
Publisher Oxford University Press, 2010
ISBN 9780195387353
RRP £18.99
Twelve Examples of Illusion

We wouldn’t normally review a three-year-old book — but this book caught our eye when it was originally published, and we can now delve into it in good faith because the author of Twelve Examples of Illusion returns to Oxford in October.

A beautiful book to behold, the dustjacket reproduces a Japanese print from a woodcut which shows a monkey hanging off a branch, reaching down into a golden disc that is a reflected moon in a pool of water. The second chapter, The Moon in the Water, explains how central the moon is to Tibetan culture, and how a reflected moon becomes symbolic of illusion, and thus error.

The apocryphal story concerns a troupe of monkeys who lower their leader down from a branch, to allow him to scoop up the reflected, illusory moon. He falls into the lake with a great splash, and the reflected moon disappears. The cautionary tale, retold in different ways through Tibetan history, is not to mistake the reflection of something for the object itself.

Leaping ahead into a chapter that opens up into many different, brilliant dimensions, we end up reflecting on a known psychological condition, pareidolia, or the imposition of a pattern on something that is patternless. Different people from different cultures have, historically, insisted that there is a ‘man in the moon’, to say nothing of rabbits, women and cows. We might dismiss this all as folkloric nonsense, but then what of Galileo’s ‘Bohemian crater’, an instance of early modern astronomy? The crater in question was illusory, but it was held to exist.

The author moves on to consider playing-card experiments that conclusively demonstrate how we fill in the blanks with our preconceived notion of reality, insisting that there is a four of hearts when actually we’ve been shown an anomalous card such as the four of spades. Returning to the moon, Westerhoff considers why the moon appears bigger on the horizon than overhead. There are a wealth of scientific explanations, each patiently explained, but the larger moon is mostly, we discover, an instance of optical illusion.

These examples barely scratch the surface of a single chapter. The book is written for the general reader, that much debated sub-species, but it will only reward patient effort and it’s not, in truth, a Kindle-on-the-beach read unless you have the brain of Colin Blakemore or Marcus du Sautoy.

What this book does do is to utilize a plethora of insights from modern science, philosophy, optics, artificial intelligence, geometry, economics and literary theory, to bring alive much older notions of illusion in Tibetan theology. In some respects modern science has re-populated what Tibetan mystics said a long time ago. Tibetan philosophy, on the other hand, gives us another vantage point from which to consider the meaning of the science, and the meaning of our own lives.

For this reviewer, the many instances of illusion are a reminder of what can only be described as a running sore, to whit, the stark difference between a western, Renaissance tradition that credits human beings with a recognizable ‘self’ and a Buddhist philosophy that says that this self is as illusory as a reflected moon.

Of course, there is still the real moon, except that this too is held to be illusory in Buddhist thinking, or at least unfathomable. I might identify a rabbit in the moon, and you a Bohemian crater, but both are fantastical projections. So too are all our convictions about who we are. At this juncture, one thinks of meditation or prayer as a sort of healthy corrective to ego, a reminder that we are relatively insignificant in the scheme of things. But it is much harder to really go the whole hog and say that our constructed sense of self is illusory. It makes a complete mockery of the Christian tradition and all those received notions of a ‘personal’ Saviour, to say nothing of all the Renaissance, humanist and Enlightenment echoes of those assumptions.

The Buddhist path becomes baneful. At the end of a subsequent chapter about the illusion of a mirage in the desert, the point is made that someone who mistakenly thinks the mirage is a freshwater lake might be momentarily happier than someone who knows it cannot be drunk, but the outcome is that both are disappointed: the point is to recognize that there is no lake. It is a crushing realization.

Marrying modern science with Tibetan philosophy is a treacherous project as the author himself acknowledges by printing, at the very back of the book, a review of his own book from a somewhat disgruntled reviewer, writing in the Journal of Indo-Tibetan Studies 27, no.3:

“There is simply no textual evidence that a single Indian or Tibetan writer thought that illusions has twelve different characteristics.”

Westerhoff stands accused, no less, of projecting his own fabrication of what Tibetan wisdom meant, ripping it out of context; projecting his own illusion and falling for a reflected moon. Except that in the final footnote it is noted, mirthfully no doubt,

“The Journal of Indo-Tibetan Studies does not exist. The preceding pages have been written by the author of this book.”

The joke’s on us, fellow readers! But, super-seriously, Westerhoff’s point is not just that we routinely fall for illusions of various kinds, but that it is terribly difficult to know where reflections end and reality begins,

“We can either regard substance as a transcendental reality about which very little can be said, or as an illusory reality about which we can say many things. Whether this choice is a real choice or merely an illusory one I leave it for the reader to decide.”

As, inevitably, do I.