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Vedanta as a Reflecting Mirror
In Vedanta we often hear the expression that the scripture acts as a reflecting mirror in which we can see ourselves, our psychology, the world and the Creator of the world in a unique light. If you try to see your eyes without the aid of a mirror you cannot do it, even though you know you have eyes because you can see. To “see” one’s self is analogous to trying to see the eyes without the aid of a mirror because the self, awareness, is beyond perception. Because awareness somehow knows that its identification with perception obscures its appreciation of itself, it evolved Vedanta. Vedanta is the “third eye,” the mirror that allows the self to know itself – assuming that it has forgotten who or what it is.
When at first we examine Vedanta we do not usually realize it is a word-mirror. It seems like just another philosophy, a bunch of words trying to tell us something about some unknown distant self, not what it actually is, a revelation of our true nature. We think it is talking to us about who we are when it is actually showing us who we are. Using the mirror of Vedanta in this way, we gain indirect knowledge of who we are but not direct knowledge. Indirect knowledge is “I know awareness, I experience awareness, I am enlightened.” Direct knowledge is “I am awareness.”
If scripture is talking to us, it is inevitable that we will interpret its words. If the mirror of Vedanta works properly, no interpretation is needed. The vision, the vision of non-duality, will automatically interpret reality for us and we will find ourselves free of the need to change things or change ourselves. The words of scripture only function as revelation when they are wielded by a qualified teacher trained in the method of unfoldment. Talking about the self from one’s own personal experience may induce an epiphany in others but it does not amount to a teaching. Self-ignorance is hardwired. Only a comprehensive systematic means of knowledge like Vedanta can erase it completely. Epiphanies may erase it temporarily but it will come back without a complete means of knowledge.
The presence of scripture and a skillful teacher are not enough, however. The student needs to be qualified. The student metaphor is unfortunate because it implies study and the usual idea of study is reading and interpreting what we have read according to our beliefs and opinions. Study may be useful for information but it does not transform one’s vision. It leaves one as one is and adds a few bits of information. The required qualifications for the means of knowledge to work boil down to maturity. A mature person is a discriminating and dispassionate person. Such a person has a disciplined, professional mind which allows him or her to set aside cherished beliefs and opinions and listen with an open mind.
But for self-knowledge to work its magic, it needs to be assimilated. Assimilation is not interpretation. If the mind is open it quickly and effortlessly reaps the benefits of the teaching. When you eat a meal you do not have to think to digest it. It is processed automatically. But if the mind is passionate and attached to its beliefs and opinions it will think it knows what is being communicated and it will not assimilate it – or at best, only partly digest it. You cannot partly digest yourself because the self is a partless whole. Instead of listening to the words, the mind will listen to its reaction to the words and form concepts about the self. An immature mind “gets it” quickly but does not always understand. If your understanding about who you are is based on an interpretation of what you have heard, no matter how inspired you become from it, your life will change but it will eventually change back to what it was before.
Listening is the basic spiritual practice of Vedanta. Actions that flow from fully assimilated knowledge liberate. Those that flow from interpreted knowledge bind. When the mind is passionate it hops from thought to thought. Instead of divining the hidden meaning of the words, it takes the interpreted meaning.
Vedanta is much more than exciting new ideas. If you have heard Vedanta and you run off to hear some other teaching or read some modern spiritual books by newly-minted enlightened beings, you have not been listening. You have been interpreting. If I don’t understand the reflecting function of Vedanta, the mirror that reveals my true nature, I will eventually tire of my study of Vedanta. I will think that I know it and I will set out to use it to somehow make my samsaric life work – or to learn something new. But the subject matter of Vedanta is “me.” I am not new. I am not an airport read that will be discarded in a few hours. I am eternal. I know this fact in some indistinct way or I would not be attracted to Vedanta. But I lack clarity. The gradual growth of clarity is like a photo taken with a film camera being developed. Like the chemicals in the developing tray, the same words may be used over and over but when they are seen as a reflecting medium, the picture of my non-dual nature slowly becomes clearer and clearer.
When I understand the role of the scripture as a reflecting medium I will value the scriptures in the right way. I will willingly expose my mind to the vision that is revealed through them again and again and look in wonder at the emergence of new and unforeseen clarity that embraces me and lifts me beyond my little life and its inevitable sufferings.