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A Snapshot of Special Insight: The Rope-Snake

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When we get involved in the deeper end of Buddhist philosophy, especially in Tibetan Buddhism, we will be introduced to the rope-snake, i.e., a coil of rope on the ground that is misperceived as a snake. By the force of that mis-apprehension, we naturally develop a fear reaction towards the snake, thinking that it is real and dangerous.

However, if we manage to resist the urge to turn around and run, and investigate more closely, then we will realize our mistake–it is a rope and not a snake. Immediately our fear reaction starts to subside.

The analogy is used to illustrate several important parallels with the Buddhist (in particular, the Prasangika Madhyamika) view of ultimate reality of phenomena. I will mention one of them here: on the basis of the rope, we mistakenly perceive an appearance of a snake and we assent to that appearance, believing it to be true. So strong is our conviction in the existence of the snake that it manages to trigger the full range of physiological reactions of fear. Yet, in actuality, the snake is a mere projection from our deluded mind, which has misunderstood reality.

Likewise, in our daily life, we perceive an appearance of, say a beautiful person, on someone and we assent to that appearance, believing that person to be intrinsically beautiful from his/her own side. So strong is our conviction in the existence of that objective beauty that it manages to trigger the full range of physiological and psychological reactions of attachment, wanting, jealousy, self-hatred and so forth. Yet, in actuality, the intrinsically beautiful person is a mere projection from our deluded mind, which has misunderstood reality.

This is not merely philosophy. When our reactions intensify over such appearances, we find ourselves acting on those convictions, for example, going under the knife to bring about changes to our bodily appearance. If the operation goes well, we feel genuinely a sense of happiness and relief. Of course, if it does not go as well as expected, we have an added layer of feelings to deal with.

What would happen if, in spite of the clear appearance of beauty radiating from someone out there, we manage to hold off believing in it 100%? What if we question the obvious and see that our instinctive craving and wanting may be grasping onto the wrong object?

A day may arrive when we have, in full view, an appearance of a very beautiful person, we can still retain an understanding that the perceived beauty is dependent on many factors, some external and some within ourselves.

Would that beautiful person dissolves away like the snake projected on the rope, when we realized the truth? You can tell me when you have arrived.

Written by Wai cheong Kok