TThere are a lot of jokes about people who cannot see correctly–the Mr. Magoo films and television programs are a prime example, and before Mr. Magoo the readers of the newspaper “comics” were treated to the vagaries of Weakeyes Yokum in the Li’l Abner comic strip.
But in real life it is no joke, and in the more real life of the spirit it is even less so. Wherefore Buddha assures us in the Dhammapada:
“To see the essence in the unessential and to see the essence as unessential means one can never get to the essence, wandering as one is in the road of wrong intentions” (Dhammapada 11).
Instead of “essence/unessential” Max Muller and Sanderson Beck render it “truth/untruth,” T. Byrom: “true/false” and the Venerable Thanissaro Bhikkhu: “essence/non-essence.” This latter is perhaps preferable to the rendering of John Richards that I am using for this commentary, but the ideas are basically the same: mistaking the real for the unreal and the unreal for the real. Since Buddha avoided abstract metaphysical speculation as much as possible, I think we can be safe in assuming that his words are a focus on our minds and their function and the consequences they incur.
The word “negative” is tossed about a lot, often to mean something we do not like, whatever its real character. (This is particularly the practice of nasty-mouthed “positive” people.) Its essential character, though, is best revealed by a photographic negative. Everything is backwards: what is light is seen as dark, and what is dark is seen as light. So to be truly negative is to see things exactly opposite to what they really are. This is an essential point, for the most common frailty of the egocentric mind is to pretend to see things as of a character different from their actual quality, or to try to make others see them in a manner opposite to how they really are.
But in those cases the truth is known–only being ignored or denied. Buddha, however, is speaking of truly seeing things completely opposite to their reality and believing it fully. This is the situation for all human beings, though in varying degrees, otherwise we would not be human beings, but be living in a higher world than this.
To mistake the unreal for the real and the real for the unreal is a terrible condition that distorts our perception and response to everything we encounter, both inwardly and outwardly, including our own self. Such a condition is absolutely hopeless in and of itself. It is not something that can be turned back on itself for alleviation or extrication. It will lead to nothing but increasing distortion. It must be either destroyed or thoroughly cast off.
As the individual consciousness evolves and becomes further entangled in this mess, there are moments when it is put into total or partial abeyance through outer influences such as the holy atmosphere of a sacred place, person, or object. Words sometimes momentarily shock the individual out of the grip of this dynamic ignorance. Whatever the nature of the outer force or the length of its duration, this clearing away of the mist of delusion cannot be permanent. Consequently such events are almost always completely useless, and many times are taken up by the deluded mind and distorted for further involvement in illusions.
In time, however, the memory of those moments persists and becomes a stimulus from which arises the desire to escape the nets of delusion. For a while that, too, is of little meaning, for the deluded person begins wandering about seeking external factors to free him from his darkness. This is understandable since his moments of temporary sanity have usually come from external contact of some kind.
After a while he either gives up or intuits that freedom must occur from within. Then the hope of freedom dawns. Once the understanding that meditation is the key to the prison is established in his consciousness, then his escape is assured–though he will no doubt have to wander down the byways of worthless (or even destructive) meditation teachers and practices before hitting on the real road out of the tangle. But once he does start on the road it is only a matter of…not time, but eternity.