Truth, Ignorance, and the Veil of Maya

Today we’re hitting the third piece of my three part series on the core values, Love, Will, and Truth. I’ve written (and will continue to write) about the notion of Truth at length before, but I feel compelled to continue to do so because it’s so central and critical a concept to understand. Truth is, of course, the highest value in my philosophical system, and the specific idea of Truth (that I explained in my article on the Hindu concept “Sat”) that I’m using is absolutely essential to grasp. We’re going to look at Truth, its opposite, Ignorance, and the illusions that make up the Veil of Maya.

Let’s begin.

As I’ve covered before, my notion of Truth (henceforth denoted with as capital-T Truth) is Aletheia, which is Greek for the “unhidden Truth of reality.” I use this word and this conception as a means of uniting both the subjective concept of truth that religions and philosophers discuss with the (veritas) truth of facts and reality. For a number of reasons (a large one being the mind-body dichotomy), many people seem to operate with a separation between these two concepts. A person who leans towards the metaphysical definition will be heavy into theory (divorced from practice), and a person who leans towards the veritas/factual definition will be more concerned with scientific studies and the tangible, external elements of existence. Solipsism is the former, and behaviorism the latter.

Of course, there is a subjective element to our existence in the objective world (something I cover in the second part of the AION series). While many people are trying to prove that there’s no objective reality, or that our subjective consciousness is an illusion, we have to acknowledge that the two are not contradictory, and that they’re two sides of the same coin. This is the unhidden Truth of reality.

While many people would think that the opposite of the Truth would be a lie, this is actually not the case. Rather, the opposite of the kind of Truth I’m using here (Aletheia) is ignorance. The opposite of veritas would be a lie, just like the opposite of reality would be unreality. Why is the opposite of capital-T-Truth ignorance?

Truth is something we come to by means of the subjective process of understanding and reflection. While I can tell you E=MC2 and you can recite that knowledge if someone asks you what Einstein’s theory of relativity is, that’s not the same as having the sort of intuitive comprehension that comes from genuinely understanding it.

This is where things get interesting.

We are all born in ignorance- in Hinduism and Buddhism, there’s a concept called Maya, meaning “magic” (in the older, more literal use of the word) or “illusion” (in the use more common today). The word is most often found in the phrase “veil of maya,” which refers to the illusions we hold to that constitute our ignorance of the true nature of the world. A surprising number of people treat this as if it means the world is literally an illusion (the modern belief in simulation theory is a recurrence of a much older belief represented here), but that’s not what the meaning is. What this illusion is regarding is the set of false beliefs we hold about our identity and understanding of our Self. Attachment to the petty ego is a part of this delusion, as well as the lack of identification with the unchanging True Self (Atman or Brahman).

The veil of maya is the attachment to the transitory components of our experience- identification with thoughts, feelings, beliefs, opinions, and ideas, rather than with the consciousness that experiences these things- the silent observer that is the True Self. No one is born knowing this distinction, because it’s a state of understanding that must be attained, much like learning to play an instrument is something that requires practice. This actually underscores one of my major objections with the modern educational system– the focus on veritas (testing built on the ability to recite information rather than on the application of understanding) basically propagates the ignorance through the system. It’s like if a doctor only ever read medical textbooks and never actually met a real patient.

Maya has a more insidious element to it. When we’re in the state of ignorance, we don’t understand cause and effect properly. I believe I made this argument somewhere else on this site, but consider a very young child who finds a gun. Because the child is ignorant, it doesn’t know that the gun is dangerous, but if the child shoots someone, they still get shot.

More broadly- the ignorance of the true nature of reality does not excuse one from the consequences of ignorant action.

This is where the notion of karma comes in- karma means both “an action, deed, act, or work” that has been executed, as well as the intent that goes into the action. A lot of people interpret this as some kind of magical or metaphysical force, but in reality karma is simply the understanding of Newton’s third law- for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. There’s also an element of the Hermetic idea that “like attracts like,” though perhaps indirectly.

In a perfect world, we would all seek to move from ignorance to Truth in life, but very often this is not the case. We’re born ignorant, through no fault of our own, but it requires a conscious action on the part of the individual to move towards Truth. Because of the attachment we form to the ignorance-based self-conception we have, it’s actually a fairly difficult and painful process to get rid of these, as we’re emotionally invested in them. The irony of this is that it’s not an inherently hard process to engage in, it’s mainly difficult because we cling to our delusions. If you remember what it was like to figure out Santa wasn’t real, imagine that except the thing that’s not real is what you think is you. This difficulty is multiplied by the fact that a great deal of people who talk about these sorts of things really don’t seem to know what they’re talking about- be very wary of anyone who simply recites the philosophy of another person (or tradition), as well as those who point to specific individuals as saviors or messiah figures, rather than using them as examples to guide the inner work.

There’s a saying I love from Buddhism- “If you meet the Buddha on the road to town, kill him.” What does this mean? This doesn’t literally mean go find the Buddha and kill him, it’s actually something like a joke, meant to point out that you won’t see the Buddha on the road, at least not in the way you were expecting. Why not?

First, you can’t recognize that he’s the Buddha unless you understand what the Buddha is- the road here is the progression towards Truth. When you “meet” the Buddha, you’re reaching the point where he is in attainment. To “kill” him, you have to let go of your attachment to him as a goal, otherwise you won’t be able to move past him. To clarify, this is not a call for actual violence. Rather, it’s along the same lines as “kill your idols,” because you can’t be equal with anyone you idolize, and you can’t surpass anyone who you consider to be beyond you. (There’s a more esoteric interpretation that suggests that if you meet something internally in the act of meditation you consider to be the Buddha, you should destroy it because it’s a delusional thought, but that’s really dependent on your interpretation.)

“We must kill the idols!
Don’t fall prey to seduction.
With single-mindedness,
We must pursue the Truth.

-Be One by Killswitch Engage

There is one truly great danger here- willful ignorance.

Willful ignorance is, in my understanding of it, the place where real evil originates. While there are many things in this world that are horrible, sad, painful, and otherwise unpleasant, I don’t think that most of the bad things that humans do actually come from a place of malice (Hanlon’s Razor applies here). I legitimately believe that most people actually are genuinely ignorant of the consequences of their actions. Most people are fairly solipsistic, and they can’t think too far beyond their own feelings. As a result, when people do things to hurt you, it’s generally only because they didn’t consider how their actions would make you feel, rather than with the intention of causing harm. The irony here is that we take offense and get hurt for the same reason- we can’t imagine the possibility that people weren’t thinking about us when they acted.

It takes a lot of humility to understand that not everything is about you, and it takes a dash of wisdom to accept that fact and forgive others who act in ignorance.

Now, the really concerning possibility is that some people could theoretically know better and still act in ways that hurt others. This is willful ignorance, which I would call true evil. However, if you look at the types of people who perpetrate the truly heinous actions in the world, nearly all of them seem to have horrible upbringings, traumatic childhoods, and other really awful things happen to them. It begs the question of whether these traumas don’t engender the extreme kinds of ignorance necessary to allow a person to exist in such a way that they could be ignorant of the feelings of others, but that’s something I’ll leave you to think about. Remember, many horrible things have been done by people who were “just following orders,” people who never thought of themselves as evil.

The one thing I will say on this note is this-

If ignorance is the source of evil in this world, then we can certainly improve the nature of things by pursuing Truth. I generally believe that this is an individual pursuit, because just as you can lead a horse to water but can’t make him drink, you can lead a man to knowledge but you can’t make him think. What we can do, though, is to live in such a way that we set an example for others, and to teach those who are willing to learn. Have patience with those that are not yet at your level, and always be willing to extend a hand if they need it. Remember, everyone is a teacher if you have the right mentality.

As I quoted in the first article on this site, “Truth is a pathless land.” No other person’s road will get you there, because the Truth is met alone. However, what this does mean is that if you have the right eyes to see, all roads can help point you in the direction of the Truth. Look for the commonalities, and trust no map but the one you draw yourself.

May we all be led beyond the veil of maya, from ignorance to Truth.

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