When I visit Mexico City, I love to ramble around the Roma neighborhood, now of world renown thanks to Alfonso Cuarón’s nostalgic film about his childhood. I am usually visiting our Triratna Buddhist Center there, which is on Calle Jalapa. Just a block away lies Álvaro Obregón, a straight boulevard with a tree-lined median strip designed for pedestrians. At intervals along this strip, there are full-size bronze replicas of Greek statues, including the Discobolo, or discus thrower, originally sculpted by Myron of Eleutherae (480–440 BCE). It is intriguing to consider that Myron may have been crafting this image around the same time the Buddha sat beneath the Bodhi tree, absorbing his awakening.

 Contemplating the discus thrower, naked but for a modesty-protecting leaf, I am astonished. My mind soars. Who was he? What did he think about? How far could he hurl that discus? Did he win glory in the agōn? The artist, too, dazzles me. What inspired him to sculpt this startling embodiment of masculine beauty? It assails me as a joyous celebration of athletic grace, vitality, and daring.

Reflecting on the Buddha in ancient India, I am reminded of the truism that he “saw things as they really are.” In the Udana, the Buddha exhorts Bahiya of the bark garment, a truth-seeker, to perceive in the seen only the seen, in the heard only the heard, and so on. Based on this advice, Bahiya gains a decisive insight into reality. He becomes a noble one, an arahant.

But what does it mean to see (hear, feel, etc.) things as they really are? It might seem to imply abandoning all interpretive categories and so perceiving just “what is there.” But what might this entail? Is it really desirable or even possible? Is this truly what Buddhist insight consists of? I propose that, far from it, insight relies upon activating the creative imagination, which results in a transformative process of meaning-making.

The prospect of “seeing things as they really are” assumes that our current perception is lacking, flawed, and that it is, moreover, the root cause of our most intractable problems. So what are we missing? The Buddha’s guidance to Bahiya might suggest that we transform ourselves into human surveillance cameras—merely registering sensory input without prioritizing any aspect of it, and without engaging in any interpretation or narrative considered distorting, or prapancha. But such a strategy, even if it were possible, would result in a very limited mode of experiencing, devoid of all the emotions Buddhism encourages—such as metta, karuna, and mudita. Abandoning all interpretation would render us paralyzed, agnosic, incapable of recognizing or valuing anything, unable to fulfill any human purposes. A surveillance camera lacks the discernment to differentiate between a Cezanne masterpiece and my absent-minded doodles.

 In addition, the concept of “seeing things as they really are” might imply that our raw senses offer full access to “what is there.” This is not the case. First, sensory phenomena can never appear fully before us. If we look at the front of a book, for example, we cannot see its back at the same time. Even if we unfold the book to reveal its front and back, we cannot then see its interior. Second, our biological apparatus restricts our sensory possibilities. Consider the sense of smell: a dog’s olfactory sensitivity far outstrips a human’s, allowing it to pick up scents from miles away. Dogs can detect bombs and smell cancer. We do not have these doggy superpowers and never will. Third, looking at anything requires a process of selection and focus. Without this, we are buffeted by the shapes, sounds, and colors to which we are exposed, overwhelmed by the scope and richness of sensory input. In order to “see,” we need to look; we must pay attention to something in particular. If I am to see the “Discobolo,” for instance, I must identify and select it from all the other stimuli around me: the blue sky, the traffic noise, the sea of pedestrians. For it to be meaningful, our perceptual process must frame experience according to a certain intentionality, certain human purposes.

Most of our suffering arises from our imaginative capacities, as does our ability to notice it.

 To grasp what it might mean to “see things as they really are,” let’s review the basic Buddhist account of reality, the account that we are invited to dwell on if we aspire to supramundane insight. The three lakshanas (marks) guide us to contemplate experience through three key features: it involves suffering (dukkha), it is impermanent (anitya), and it lacks a fixed, underlying identity or nature (anatman). It is through understanding that these characteristics underpin our experience that we wake up to reality and enter the stream. However, in their fuller scope, these features are not directly observed; the assimilation of their significance depends upon a reflective analysis of experience. In other words, to “see” the three lakshanas we must activate our creative imagination.

While some suffering may be directly observable, this is limited to basic expressions of physical pain felt within our own bodies. Most of our suffering arises from our imaginative capacities, as does our ability to notice it. Mostly, we can’t directly observe others’ sufferings; instead, we infer them by activating our imaginative capacities. Imaginative identification allows us to intuit that others suffer, because we share the same fragile human condition.

As for the other two lakshanas, our penetration into them arises from our capacity to imagine beyond present awareness. Understanding impermanence, for instance, depends upon our ability to conceive of duration, which we don’t observe directly. It also requires the use of memory and projection to envision the past and future, respectively. Without these imaginative processes, impermanence would have no meaning, and the poet Percy Shelley could not have conjured the following evocative lines:

Worlds on worlds are rolling ever
From creation to decay,
Like the bubbles on a river
Sparkling, bursting, borne away.

It is common to highlight the priority of contemplative analytical practices as a means to come to a fuller understanding of the “reality” of experience. So we may cultivate mindfulness in order to observe our sensations, as demonstrated in exercises like examining a raisin and noting its flavor, supposedly free of our preconceptions about it. Similarly, practices such as dharma-vichaya help us identify and examine our mental states. While these analytical practices can break the patterns of habitual mechanical perception and yield important insights, they rely on the activation of interpretive categories rather than their abandonment. To identify a mental state, we need to have a category by which to classify it. To recognize when anger arises, for instance, we need to have a general idea of what anger feels like.

 In contrast, many other meditation exercises do not follow such an analytical method. The brahma-viharas, for instance, call upon our imaginative capacities to generate mental states that are responsive to the subjectivity of others. This process is indispensable in the development of Buddhist ethics.

Insight possesses an aesthetic, receptive dimension that permits experience to reveal itself, to open out before us, and so maximize our astonishment and wonder.

 To see things as they really are doesn’t mean becoming an indifferent, emotionless register (although there is merit in disentangling ourselves from our intentional investment in experience in order to permit us to revalorize it). Instead, at least in part, it means opening ourselves up to a surfeit of meaning, to the fact that experience is “saturated,” that it constantly overflows our interpretive categories, and so its richness cannot be exhausted. It means opening ourselves to the possibility of astonishment, recognizing that we will never stand apart from and above experience with a bird’s-eye view; rather, we are continually always-already immersed within it. Experience unfolds ever greater depths of meaning and value, inviting us to be receptive to its inexhaustible possibilities. Moreover, seeing things as they really are entails becoming more attuned to other human beings—their sufferings, needs, and aspirations. It lies in a shift toward greater empathy and understanding of the subjective realities of those around us.

To see things as they really are means to recognize, in the words of Jean-Luc Marion, that what can be visible “will never be a closed object, exhaustively seen.” Each viewing is unrepeatable and leaves something yet to be discovered. Insight possesses an aesthetic, receptive dimension that permits experience to reveal itself, to open out before us, and so maximize our astonishment and wonder. This gives way to a kind of sacramental perception.

Returning to the Discobolo, seeing him “as he really is” goes beyond a mere registering of materials that represent human body parts. It means to open oneself to the mystery of human embodiment, to be transported, for a moment, to the lifeworld of ancient Greece, and to be impacted by Myron’s unique perceptual field. While I may never know if Myron saw the world as the Buddha did, I am compelled to admire the Discobolo. Instead of paying attention to my human companion—who contemplates this glorious creation alongside me—I am agasp at this representation of the human form, which overflows and fascinates me. Marion contends that such an image “provokes more vision and summons the look more than the ‘original’ does.” In this way, I am challenged and intrigued by it. Myron’s statue commands my admiration by “drawing onto itself all the glory and confiscating it from everything else.” This process unfolds through the activation and refinement of imagination. Perception, being a meaning-making process, is inherently creative.

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