Now of course the answer to this question — #2 in the sticking-points and paradoxes section of the previous post – depends entirely upon how we define “real,” and how we define “illusion,” and how we understand the relationship between avidya and maya.
But for now, let’s talk instead about a silver quarter ….
Consider a silver coin, say an old U.S. quarter – when their metallic substance actually was (mostly) silver. We’ll pretend that the quarter is comprised of 100% silver.
The quarter has two sides: heads and tails. The “heads” side of the quarter features an engraving of the head of George Washington. The “tails” side of the quarter features an engraving of an eagle.
Substance & Ornament/Accident
In terms of the engravings, we can consider the “heads” side of the coin and the “tails” side of the coin to be opposites. Though their shared substance is silver, it’s fair to call “heads” and “tails” opposites, and in particular what Aristotle would call contraries: Though they exist along the same spectrum (silver coin) they are on opposite ends of this spectrum. They are mutually exclusive in the sense that when one is present/visible, the other is not.
Would it ever occur to you to consider “heads” and “silver” as opposites? Would it ever occur to you to consider “tails” and “silver” as opposites?
Probably not, and this is good. Why? – Because silver is the substance of the coin, while “heads” (the George Washington engraving) and “tails” (the eagle engraving) are just ornaments: stylistic modulations of the silver. The presence or absence of the engravings has no effect upon the silver, per se. But take away the silver, and neither engraving (“heads” or “tails”) can appear.
Avidya & Absolute Reality
We can use this image of a silver coin with its two sides to help us understand the relationship of avidya (dualistic ignorance) to Absolute Reality.
Let the silver substance of the coin represent Absolute Reality.
Let the “heads” and “tails” of the coin represent seeing and not-seeing Absolute Reality (in the sense of being knowingly aware of or not being knowingly aware of Absolute Reality).
Let “heads” represent the wisdom that sees Absolute Reality: that is able simultaneously to perceive the George Washington engraving and the silver substance of the coin. This is the natural state of the silver, if you will.
Let “tails” represent avidya: dualistic ignorance that fails to see Absolute Reality (and mistakenly identifies with a particular human body-mind). It perceives only the engraving of the eagle, considering it as an autonomous entity; and fails to perceive its true substance as silver. This is a condition that is “accidental” in the sense of it not being the natural state of the silver – similar to how blindness is not the natural condition of an eye (rather it is seeing that is the eye’s natural condition).
Privatives & Positives
So the “heads” and “tails” of wisdom and avidya are opposites in the sense of what Aristotle would call privatives and positives: a natural condition and something other than a natural condition with respect to a given subject.
From the point of view of separating epistemology (theories of knowing) from ontology (theories of being/existence) – we can say that the silver substance of the coin — representing Absolute Reality – is an ontological category. And that the “heads” and “tails” of the coin represent our epistemological status vis-à-vis this ontological reality: i.e. whether or not we are knowingly seeing/recognizing it as such.*
Avidya (aka Patrul Rinpoche’s “incorrect relative”) is simply an engraving/ornament that – via cognitive and emotional obscurations – fails to remain transparent to its silver substance: to Absolute Reality. And just as an engraving could never destroy the silver out of which it is created, so it is that avidya can never destroy Absolute Reality. And just as an engraving upon a silver coin could not exist without the silver, so it is that avidya could not appear were it not for Absolute Reality.
And wisdom in its “correct relative” aspect is the “heads” engraving of George Washington that remains transparent to Absolute Reality (or we might say, to emptiness/dependent-origination). And wisdom as Absolute Reality is the non-separation of “heads” with the silver substance of the coin – which effortlessly encompasses the “tails” (previously appearing as avidya) side also.
Ultimately, Absolute Reality and the seeing/knowing of it are one and the same.
Addendum: For those of you familiar with the rope/snake metaphor, transposing from the coin metaphor can be interesting, beginning with:
- Silver substance of the coin = the rope
- Heads of the coin = seeing a rope
- Tails of the coin = not-seeing a rope, and instead seeing a snake
*Aside: From the point of view of Absolute Reality, “being” and “knowing” are not-separate. In Advaita Vedanta, this understanding is reflected in the description of the Absolute as Sat-Cit-Ananda: Existence-Consciousness-Bliss. In this formulation, Existence=being, and Consciousness=knowing. When experienced directly and clearly understood as not-two, the attendant release of dualistic tension gives rise to Ananda: the body-mind experienced as a field of bliss.
When we (mistakenly) identify with a particular human body-mind, we tend then to assign “knowing” to the body-mind; and project an “external world” — which includes the physical body but not the mind — as the primary locus of “being” or “existence.” Reflective of this division are the philosophical categories of epistemology (the study of knowing) and ontology (the study of being/existence).