The Sanskrit word for ignorance, avidya, literally means darkness.’Vidya’ is seeing, and the prefix is the direct negative.
Understanding that makes it clear that darkness is a metaphor about seeing. In the darkness, we can’t see anything. Apart from the darkness. So darkness is not a metaphor for seeing nothing, it’s seeing just one thing and assuming it is everything.
We think that to become familiar with Buddhism we’re required to become familiar with the whole edifice of doctrines, ideas and controversies, but that’s not true. What we need to do is to become intimate with the metaphors which are used. Not metaphors understood as a kind of encrypted meaning but metaphors as liberative ways of seeing. Not seeing them like a text but seeing them as like a person, capable of infinite engagement and expression.
Because language always fossilises, it is our responsibility as practitioners to attempt, as sincerely as we can, to generate our own ways of expression.
The metaphor of the mirror is a good illustration. We can see that metaphor in doctrinal terms, pointing to the illusoriness of separate phenomena. We can see it as a metaphor for the interpenetration of all things. We can see it as a metaphor for the mind—calm and meditative—able to experience all phenomena as they are, with equanimity.
All these formulations are not wrong but they’re incomplete. They’re incomplete because they do not move our hearts. They stay within a conceptual framework. Like seeing ignorance as a disguised metaphor of sight, we can see the mirror as a metaphor for liberating seeing: the mirror of the Buddha, the mirror of another person, the mirror of a bodhisattva, and the mirror of you, but at some past or future time. All different ways of seeing, not one displacing the other, but all of them within a liberative kaleidoscope of seeing.
It’s not as it were, the person that is liberated into correct seeing, but the seeing is liberated.
It’s that shift, essentially a shift from our conceptual world to an alive experience world, which is the shift that we’re looking for.
That’s why Buddhist truth is often called ‘the inconceivable’. Not because it’s very difficult to understand, but because its purpose is to knock us out with that constructed realm. Until then, it’s as if we’re deaf beings in a world of deaf beings. We cannot hear the voices of the other. And in this world, all movement and vitality has evaporated: we are seeing all beings, but as objects. We see them in the mirror of our mind and we see them in the mirror of our language.
Then suddenly, we start to sing. We can’t hear ourselves sing but we know that something is different within our experience. Something is different. When the world sings back at us, even although we cannot hear this with the mind or with language, we know that something has changed.
Even though we cannot describe it, because we cannot describe it—something has changed.