reality construct

POSTCARD#328: Rutnin Eye Hospital, Bangkok: I’ve had eye surgery for cataracts and there’s a protective eye shield with cotton wadding taped over my right eye, a newer version of part of the eye mechanism has just been installed; I’ve had an upgrade. But the eye has to stay covered today, so I can’t see anything, except when the nurses take off the shield and I get a brief glimpse; they give me eye-drops then it’s covered again. A great flood of liquid in the eye, slight taste in the mouth as it drains through the tear duct into the back of the throat; swallowing my tears, gulp, gulp…

They take the eye shield off the next day. I go downstairs, through the outpatients department to the exit. The décor in the waiting area is in shades of lime green and ice blue – the colours are amazing. Unexpected. Outside, there’s a completely clear perception of distance for the first time in many years. Fascinating. I’m distracted by colour and movement at the edge of vision, face turns in that direction, curiosity – an involuntary response. Head spinning like a child or a small animal, noticing all kinds of things. Sense organs filter incoming information. In my case, visual data enters through implanted intraocular lenses (IOLs). I see the world and assume it exists exactly as I perceive it, but I know the lens implant has, to some extent, created my version of the world; perception is subjective, reality is a construct in the mind. I can see a wide range of colours around me, where insects see ultraviolet, reptiles see infrared, and cats and dogs see the world in only two colours. Viewed in this way, the world is suddenly endowed with great mystery; ask any question about this reality, and it takes you to a different place entirely.

Out of the exit, into the taxi, on to the highway system and step into a world that looks like it’s been Photo-shopped, high resolution, multi-pixel display. Astonishment! If there comes a time in the future when I’m no longer able to see it in this way because the novelty of it has gone and consciousness doesn’t regard it as special anymore, then I can return here, read this post and remember how wonderful it was…

‘Normally we human beings assume the world ‘out there’ exists just as we perceive it (by way of eye, ear, nose, tongue and physical contact) but if we consider these sense organs, it must become apparent to us that the world ‘out there’ is really dependent on our particular modes of perception. For instance, the human eye limits conditions, by its very structure, the objects we see. It is well known that a bee can see, as a colour, ultraviolet but we have no idea what such a colour looks like nor, of course, can we find any words to describe it. It follows therefore that our sense organs being differently constructed from that of a bee (or any other non-human being), our world “out there” is not necessarily the world as it really is.’ [Phra Khantipalo, ‘Buddhism Explained’ 1965]


Reflections on an earlier post

the eye ‘I’ metaphor

POSTCARD#327: Bangkok: Completed the cataract surgery in one eye, and waiting now for the second one, thus going around in a one-eyed condition. What I’m seeing through the right eye is a wonderful enhancement, a brightened-up version of everything… hard to believe. Close the right eye, look through the left and the world is a dull, indistinct, old, yellowed photograph. Just to confirm this, I close the left eye and look through the right again and it’s like the Nat Geo channel, as clear as the iPhone X 458 pixels per inch; the techno-device metaphor used to describe physical reality.

The world is an analogy, a figure of speech, a conceptual metaphor. In my case the lens in one eye is a tiny piece of sophisticated plastic – in the same way, someone might have an artificial leg, or a dental crown. No difference, except that you walk around with an artificial leg, you chew with a dental crown but I’m seeing the world through this artificial lens. The artificial lens is a functioning part of the cognitive process.

Light passes through the lens, images appear, mind considers all this, based on received experience of similar images and selects a file, saying, ‘what you see is like this’. It resembles something that’s familiar, so I re-cognize it, and that’s what it becomes – whether it is really what I think it is, or not. The metaphor pushes the whole thing over the edge; one thing becomes another. There’s that thing out there and ‘me’ in here, looking at it; ‘I’ am on the receiving end, therefore conscious experience ‘is’ individual identity: ‘I think, therefore I am. “cogito ergo sum”

The assumption is that the ‘self’ is a fixed reality and everything coming through the senses is real; sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, cognition – and it’s all coming to (((me))). I like it, I want it, I want more of it, or I hate it, I don’t want it. This is how it is, I get all the joy but also the pain, the good and the bad, love and hate, heaven and hell – thus I have to spend a major part of my life (maybe many lifetimes) having to cope with these polarizations that I accidentally created, thinking I was doing the right thing.

Buddhists say this is not it. Thoughts can exist in the absence of a guiding “self” – obvious to anyone engaged in the practice of Buddhist meditation: cogito ergo non sum! What can I do about it? How to be free of it, to not be a slave to it? In some circumstances, taking an indirect approach means simply the intention to be mindful is enough, sufficient to disengage from the automatic reaction. Not caught up in the experience of it, one step removed, just knowing that this is how it is; that’s all. Knowing it takes the place of not knowing it. Step by step, experiencing how to do it… words cannot go any further.

“Emphasis is laid on the principle that this (same) thought-complex is an aggregate or combination of such factors, and nothing more… there is no permanent entity or self which acquires the states”. [From a footnote in the English translation of the Dhamma Sangani, by Caroline Rhys Davids, 1900] Explained further in the Atthasalini, a 5th century commentary by Buddhaghosa: “… here there are only states: no permanent being, no soul is known. These are mere states without essence, without a guiding principle… there is nothing else whatever, neither a being, nor an individuality, nor a man, nor a person.”


Reflections on an earlier post

untitled

POSTCARD#326: Chiang Mai: Blinking in the bright light of the laptop screen in the darkness of 05.00 hours… the present moment – even if I’m living in a dream where it’s always yesterday or tomorrow or next week, the present moment catches up with it and everything becomes ‘now’ again.

Internet connection is slow… in the tab it says, ‘untitled’ and in the toolbar it says, ‘about: blank’. There is only this blindingly white open space, like a car headlight where the page should be. I have to wait for it, balanced on the edge of ‘now’… an unstated presence, anticipation of it filling my vision with beautiful colour.

The emptiness of the white screen triggers the letting-go thing – not getting caught in any stressed state, and a great easefulness comes, spreading through the neck, shoulders and facial muscles. Just this sense of letting things be as they are. It’s like a deep inbreath, filling the chest cavity from top to bottom, and the long outbreath becoming a ribbon of road in a landscape, reaching out there to a vanishing point on the horizon.

Some time after that, the page loads but I don’t notice it because it’s changed to something else, another episode, and a different story… cessation, THE END, no layers or filters.

Holding the question, and trying to understand what that sort of thing might possibly be, is enough to begin to know it; to know that all that’s left are events and situations immediately associated with mind states as they arise – seeing this with mindfulness (and whatever it takes) to allow it all to unfold, to arise, to be here and to fall away, no holding.

…(it) is not an effort to achieve something. It is a state of effortlessness. It is a state of no-action. It is a state of tremendous passivity, receptivity. You are not doing anything, you are not thinking anything, you are not planning for anything, you are not doing yoga exercises, and you are not doing any technique, any method — you are simply existing, just existing. And in that very moment… the sudden realization that all is as it should be…’ Osho


Photo: Steam clouds at a Power Plant in NZ, by Louk Vreeswijk
This was a reflection on an earlier post titled: Strange Familiarity

‘here’

POSTCARD#325: Bangkok. It’s not anywhere, it’s not everywhere, or somewhere out there… it’s about being ‘here’. It’s not no-where… it’s now-here. We’re all ‘here’, situated in various parts of the world, in different time zones. We are all ‘here’, each and every one of us, individually contemplating our own experience of circumstances associated with being ‘here.’ Blogging is a good medium for this kind of thing because, just being ‘here’ is the presentation, it’s what everybody is talking about or describing, one way or another.

Here’s something a blogging friend said: ‘…the awareness looking out of our eyes as a five year old is the awareness that’s looking out of our eyes now.’ When I read that sentence it had a curious effect; there was an instant understanding of what being ‘here’ means. Then the next thought was, what is ‘the awareness’? It’s a good question, I was told, keep on asking it…. Is it this? Is it that? Is it like trying to understand something? Like the ancient Pali/Sanskrit term: sati-sampajañña, (clear comprehension), what does that mean? I’m thinking of some kind of desired state of understanding but I can’t see that because I’m too engaged with the idea of it. So, I’ll never find clear comprehension because every time I think I’ve found it, the confusion just jumps up in its place and I’m trying to get that out of the way, in order to continue my search for clear comprehension. Eventually it falls into place, knowing clear comprehension means understanding the confusion in my head.

In the West we suffer from the creator-god condition; God made the world so the world and God must be two separate things. God is an object and I’m on shaky ground here, I can’t let go, I have to hold on indefinitely. All the clutter and stuff and mental goings-on and stumbling over all the indistinct, half-seen, misunderstood truths – believing that this is what life is about. Not able to see that it just doesn’t matter what kind of story is showing on the screen, it’s all created by the mind, arising and ceasing, dependent on causes and conditions and the karmic outcome of past events.

God is a subject, a subjective state, the mind doesn’t create awareness, mind is contained in the awareness. It’s something like, there’s ‘awareness’ but I think I can’t see it. And thinking I can’t see it, is another mind moment that exists temporarily in awareness. Awareness is a subjective state, and a lifetime can be used up in getting to know everything there is to know about what that means and in whatever context, and wherever that leads. It’s all ‘here’.

“To many, meditation suggests a process of relaxation to find peace and stillness within. But from the Buddhist perspective it is not a contrived effort to make oneself peaceful; it is a process of seeing accurately, so that we can step out of our fundamental confusion. All our sufferings, in life and death, are caused by this fundamental confusion that prevents us recognizing our true nature.” [There’s More to Dying Than Death, by Lama Shenpen Hookham]


observations on an earlier post, ‘being here’

 

how it is

POSTCARD#324: Bangkok airport: Arriving from Chiang Mai, all trains into town are seriously crowded and no taxis available anywhere at the airport. Therefore I become the Crowd, one of a very large number of individuals caught in the rush on a Friday evening. Somebody later said it’s because all the international schools start again on Monday. Whatever, go with the crowd, it’s decided for me, I accept. I am subject to the public transport System, I am being ‘taken’, it’s about the process, rather than any particular person controlling the process. For different reasons, I could create a Controller in my imagination, like the bosses, the management and blame it all on them/him/her/it, but it’s about the way it works, and there’s no ‘self’ in the equation – the deed is done but there is no doer, using the Passive Voice language function to express the Buddhist Truth of no-self (anatta).

Sounds are heard, food is tasted, and the chill wind of September is felt upon the skin. And the ‘self’ is absent; there’s nobody there that feels it, unless I consciously put together an identity composite, in which case I feel the chill wind of September (Active Voice). Language tells a story, creates a fiction that I can get lost in; only partially aware that it’s a constructed thing and most of the time I’m clinging to a concept of selfhood, an assumed identity. Thankfully, in the Passive Voice, there is no doer, things are done; the cognitive process is about ‘how it is’ rather than ‘what it is’.

The world is seen – I had an eye operation recently and what I didn’t expect was that it turned out to be an opportunity to contemplate this phenomenon of the experiencer. There’s the experience of visual stimuli entering the eye through a lens created by an industrial process and somehow the ‘me’ part of it is not in the place where it used to be. It’s all very new and quite interesting – maybe because I still have the ‘old vision’ in the untreated eye, something to compare it with.

I can see the world through the old eye as well as the new eye. It’s like the linguistic ‘voice’ can be both passive and active and I’ve understood it mostly in the active form; the process of ‘selfing’ is grasped at as an entity and identified with – a controlling thing. In the West it’s a ‘belief’. My difficulty with anatta has been extricating myself from the Judeo-Christian conditioning that assumes the existence of an eternal soul. I notice that Thais, happily, don’t have this problem. Even after 30 years in the East, I still struggle with my Western conditioning; an everlasting identity, the idea of it still lingers; a shadow of ‘self’.

Train moves along and Thai passengers behave with courtesy. I’m suddenly aware how it is in a crowded train in the West and the confusion of ‘self’ that’s going on there. Here it’s about being quietly patient, soon it’s my stop. Night, car headlights reflected in puddles, I’m standing in the rain, feet are soaked and D comes to get me in the car. The thought arises, the car is driven but there is no driver….

‘Where water, earth, fire, & wind have no footing; there the stars don’t shine, the sun isn’t visible. There the moon doesn’t appear. There darkness is not found. And when a sage, a Brahman through sagacity, has realized [this] for himself, then from form & formless, from bliss & pain, he is freed.’ [Bāhiya Sutta]


Reflections on an earlier post, ‘passive voice’

that which is seen

POSTCARD#323: Bangkok: After the operation on the right eye, and the world seems different, everything suddenly seen in clear three-dimensionality. Reflected light, rich, deep colors and a strange familiarity of objects, things become somehow known. I’ve seen these things so often before but now seeing them with an expanded awareness. It sounds visionary, you could say revelatory but it’s the result of eye surgery, rather than insight… nonetheless quite astonishing. I have this clarity in one eye only; vision in the other eye is like an old yellowed photo, dull and indistinct.

The operation on that eye will be in October, back to the Rutnin Eye Hospital in Bangkok. The surgeon makes a hole in the eye and puts in a tool that uses ultrasound to emulsify the lens. The lens becomes liquid and is sucked away, then a plastic foldable lens is inserted in the place where the natural lens used to be. That’s it, done. Local anesthetic is enough, or general if you feel claustrophobic about the covers over the face as the procedure is going on. After the op there are different kinds of eye-drops that go on for about three weeks and it feels a bit itchy but that’s all.

I’m amazed that it’s possible to do this; the plasticity of the human body, parts can be taken out, replaced; systems are deconstructed, reconstructed, subject to change. It all supports the idea of anatta: no abiding self. There’s an underlying flexibility about the mind/body organism (namarupa). One example of this is that I have a very refined piece of plastic in my eye instead of a natural lens. And, looking through this at the world, I find there’s an affinity with clear-wrap, cling-film, transparent plastic food packaging – the way the plastic surface refracts the light. In this strong sunlight in Thailand, I notice the reflections on chrome and glass – the clarity is sparkling and beautiful. Also these enhanced colors, reds mostly, and an overall bright clear blueness in the white areas. All this has the quality of an iPad screen, retina display; high-density pixels merge into one – an extraordinary brightness.

At home, curious Thai faces examine my new eye, and I’m looking back at them looking at me, seeing subtleties in their features that I’ve never seen before. It’s all quite new, an extended reality. So, I’ll be going around for the next few weeks, looking at my surroundings and considering the phenomenon that I am experiencing this and the mystery of that which is seen.

‘… the remainderless fading & cessation, renunciation, relinquishment, release, & letting go of that very craving. (the noble truth of the cessation of dukkha)’ [SN 56.11 (dukkha nirodho ariya sacca)]


Photo image: Skyline at Ploenchit Bangkok. Reflections on an earlier post The Beholder

 

submerged in air

POSTCARD#322: Chiang Mai: Sitting at my desk here on the third floor and there’s somebody drilling a hole in the wall somewhere, the sound of it seems to be everywhere. Renovations are going on and there’s been a lot of banging and drilling. It’s a hammer drill in hard concrete this time; the sound is vibrating through the structure of the room and if I lean my head in my hand and elbow on my desk, the vibration is conducted through the bone structure of my arm, and jaw held in hand, clenched teeth and the skull is vibrating. It’s like the hole is being drilled in my head and I’d really like that sound to go away, to not be here. Interesting that it only takes a moment for the mind to create backstory support for this thought, and suddenly I feel totally engaged in it.

Then a child starts crying in another apartment, it’s small voice going on in a seemingly inconsolable way. I can hear the muffled sound of the mother’s voice as well. Yes, I’d be upset too if I was woken up by this kind of noise… and there’s resentment about the noise building up inside me, a very large wave of justified outrage, beginning to take shape. In an instant it’s formed. Who is responsible for this? I’m looking for somebody to be at fault here. Who’s to blame for this? I come from a society conditioned by blaming, searching for the scapegoat. Blame it on somebody – blame it on myself…. then that whole emotional thing disappears as quickly as it arose, because there’s a plane approaching; it’ll fly over in a few seconds. We’re in the flight path here – departing flights from Chiang Mai airport, flying quite low and heavy with fuel. Some are very large passenger jets that go to Singapore and this must be one of them.

In a moment, the immense sound is present, takes over in every conceivable way; everything in the apartment, and outside too, subject to this colossal roaring vibration. The sound doesn’t just deafen, it’s as if we are submerged in air, an epic disaster movie. I can hear the hammer drill and the child crying, but the sounds are so faint. The thinking mind is quiet in the presence of this vast noise; a great chasm opening up in the fabric of reality, getting wider and wider and there’s only the receiving of the experience.

I’m drawn to these strange moments when there seems to be no thought at all. The mind just stops, and there’s awareness of ‘self’ but there’s no connection with it. Besides, the totality of aircraft noise is waning, as I knew it would, and hammer drill sensory impingement returns. Familiarity of crying child who remains unconsoled and, for a little while, I have to give way to the raging fire of emotion again. The mind is engaged in a kind of intensely gridlocked traffic of thoughts, driven into near collision with other thoughts and backing up, and trying to find a way out of this cramped condition.

Then I sidestep the whole thing. There’s a pause and in the small space that exists I remember the Ajahn saying, “Outside the thinking mind there is the uncreated”. I look around for the pause… it’s still there, a curious extended, stretched-out moment when there’s just no thought at all. It’s getting easier now, the child is not crying anymore. The drilling stops and the silence is overwhelming. Mango trees outside my window; sunlight on leaves, branches move slightly as tiny squirrels squeak and leap around in playfulness.

“Mindfulness is simply being aware of what is happening right now without wishing it were different; enjoying the pleasant without holding on when it changes (which it will); being with the unpleasant without fearing it will always be this way (which it won’t).”[Thich Nhat Hanh]


Photo: Chiang Mai Red Bus, public transport that goes anywhere
Reflections on an earlier post, Uncreated

samsara of stories from a small island

POSTCARD#321: Today is 27 July, the Buddhist Asalha Puja. The day when the Buddha gave his first Dhamma teaching/discussion. So much has changed for me since I first discovered the Buddha in my heart. It was visiting the UK in 2013 that really brought it home, how so much has changed.

London, Covent Garden 2013: Arrival point from Heathrow airport on a flight from Thailand, where I’ve been for more than 30 years – living in someone else’s country, a permanent foreigner. Now finding that it’s been so long since I was in the UK, where I was born, I’ve become a foreigner here too. Separateness, island mentality, a tentative belief in ‘self’ but I’m seeing only the lack of it, and lifetimes used up with searching for completeness. Most people I knew when I was young are gone now… I’m a homeless person, staying in Buddhist monasteries on the way – washing dishes and sitting meditation. Staying in hotels, staying with people I’ve met in Buddhist groups, friends, of friends, kalyanamitra.

All these hotels and other temporary places of residence where nearly everyone I meet is a ‘foreigner’. So many different languages: Italian, Japanese, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and others – this is England but where are the English people? It’s the holiday season, they must be in someone else’s country, being foreigners there too?

It’s true; all the staff in hotels, restaurants and shops are East Europeans. Visitors come here and what they see is a system run by other visitors to England. A picture of England, a picture of reality – when was it not ever like this? Grand statues of eminent Victorians, in South Kensington, a solitary man standing alone, up there on a plinth, pigeons sit on his head.

Splendid isolation, tourists take pictures of each other standing next to the man’s name carved in the stone of the base of the statue’s plinth and up above, there he is, looking over the rooftops at other statues, who are looking back at him – depending on which way they have been placed.

I should know who this eminent Victorian statue man is – I’m British, but have never heard of him. All I see here is a monument to ‘self’, and the grandeur of it escapes me. But it was important to the people of that time; statues, ornate buildings, the opulence and wealth of the Empire (stolen from other countries?) recorded in history by way of these statues. Such a great achievement, such a small country – is it so important? Can’t help thinking it’s all a fiction created by the storytellers of the day about a reality somewhere else, somewhere far away – samsara of stories from a small island.

‘The thought of a self is an error and all existences are as empty as whirling water bubbles, as hollow as the plantain tree. There’s a blowing of the air but no wind that does the blowing. There is no self, there is no transmigration of a self; there are deeds and the continued effect of deeds…’ [Ramesh S. Balsekar, ‘Advaita, the Buddha and the Unbroken Whole’]


The image: Huffington post

a world of our own creation

POSTCARD#321: Chiang Mai Airport: Waiting in departures for the delayed flight to Bangkok. Very crowded and all seats near the gate are taken. Young Americans, Australians, in ‘Hang Out’ mode, sprawled around in the seats, on the floor, wearing nearly nothing at all; long legs, pointed elbows sticking out – a sea of brightly coloured T-shirts, shorts, rubber slippers. In the coffee bar, a forest of exposed limbs, tattooed legs, bosoms, identity obscured behind peaked caps worn down over the eyes, mirror reflecting sunglasses, headphones, iTunes and hunched over their devices, sucking up drinks through a plastic straw, the tubular proboscis of insectoids. Sensory-experience junkies, have to have that input by way of the sense gates.

They do know, though, that the ego of the West is a self-sustaining concept running out of battery and most likely to fizzle out quite soon, impermanence, everything changes. There’s no substance to it, same with all things. This is the Christian God of the West, the one-and-only-God that doesn’t include two thirds of the world’s population because they’re not Christian. It’s like a right wing supremacist movement, same as Muslim extremist groups; there’s a war and both sides pray to God to win. God gets confused, so there’s another war, and another…. Everyone is dying or dead and among the survivors there is one who can see they they’re not talking about God, the Ultimate Reality, what they’re talking about is one of the gods of the conditioned realm. The logic of this is inescapable – how could God be something that one religion has and another doesn’t have? Yes, inescapable but there’s a kind of nobody-at-home look on the faces of my Christian friends when it seems like I’m going to want to try to discuss this point further.

Some people wake up, but some just don’t wake up at all. It gets too complicated and that’s why the Buddha was saying life is difficult enough as it is so let’s not get engaged with the God concept, okay? Attachment to the idea of it becomes a desire in itself and that’s what’s causing the problem. Ultimate reality is so fragile and subtle you can never be absolutely sure you’re not still setting it up so you’re seeing it the way you want it to be, still in the conditioned realm and far from the Truth. The best thing to do is not call it anything, cultivate mindfulness, clear comprehension, discerning awareness and take care; see how that goes…

“… the illusory world is through attachment. We think we all live in the same world as personalities, but every one of us lives in a world of our own creation. We have certain things in common but so much of our life is personal and unique to ourselves. That world we create is not the objective world we believe we’re living in; we’re living in a world of our own creation. That’s why it’s so difficult relating to each other, isn’t it? We’re coming from different worlds – you feel, sometimes, you’re living with a bunch of aliens!” [Ajahn Sumedho, ‘In Awareness There is No Dukkha’]


Photo: Louk Vreeswijk

 

a twinkling diamond light

POSTCARD#320: Bangkok: Remembering North India, Bodh Gaya: 04.00 hours: This is where the Buddha’s enlightenment took place. I’m in a hotel not far from where it happened, the window is open, sitting on a cushion and comfortably watching the breath. There’s a sense of being near the epicentre, ground zero – the sparkling, twinkling diamond light. From here, it spread through everyone who were able to listen, then, in the course of time, reaching out to all parts of the East. Hundreds of thousands of visitors from Tibet, China, Japan, Korea, South East Asia and other places eventually came here to see for themselves, the places where the Buddha walked.

Something I’d really like to do before running to catch the last bus, is to visit all the Buddhist countries in the world. I’ve been to Bodh Gaya, Śrāvastī, and the other sites in North India, where that sparkling diamond light can be seen. All those centuries ago, the presence of the Buddha, – although typically, we have to line up with hundreds of other visitors and shuffle through these neatly restored monuments with a fence all around and guards at the gate to keep out the beggars.

Better just to find a place in the grass comfortably situated in the shade of these huge Pipal trees. How much of this is as it was, 2,600 years ago? I’m seated on the earth, with the others in my group. I am distinctly aware that the Buddha walked near to here when it was called Jeta’s Grove – Thus Have I Heard. The wind gently moves across my face, becomes tangled in the hair on my head. The sensation of the breath gently touching the inner nasal passages, and the consciousness that arises with that feeling – look around, the same blue sky, brown earth, green foliage, even though the objects I see may not be the same as they were then, the process of seeing is the same, received in the ever-present conscious experience – a manifestation of consciousness experiencing itself in that twinkling diamond light.

“Where there is the mind, where there are mental phenomena, mind-consciousness, things to be cognized by mind-consciousness, there a being exists or the description of a being. Where there is no mind, no mental phenomena, no mind-consciousness, there a being does not exist nor any description of a being.” [SN 1.65]


Reflections on an earlier post titled Now As It Was Then