passive voice

IMG_0083aBangkok: No taxis available at the airport, and all trains into town are seriously crowded. I am one of a very large number of individuals caught in the rush on a Friday evening. Somebody said later it’s because all the international schools start again on Monday. No other way, it’s decided for me, okay, I accept, I am subject to the system, the public transport system and I have no control over it. I am being ‘taken’, it’s about the process, rather than any particular person controlling the process. 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 better to not do that…. There’s not a ‘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), and I came across an interesting post about this the other day [Link to: Just A Little Dust].

The ‘self’ is absent. Sounds are heard, food is tasted, the chill wind of September is felt upon the skin. And there’s nobody there that feels it, unless I consciously put together an identity composite, in which case I feel the chill (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 works’ 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 means of an industrial process and somehow the ‘me’ part of it is not there like it used to be. The lens inside my left eye is made of plastic, there’s a particular clarity in the colours, the quality of light and a fascination with the way plastic surfaces refract the light; plastic food wrapping, mineral water bottles, car windscreens. 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 Thais 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 reality. A couple of hours and I’m at Morchit BTS near Chatuchak standing in the rain and D comes to get me in the car. The thought arises, the car is driven but there is no driver….

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 ‘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]

 

plasticity

190320131769Chiang Mai: Holding the inverted eye-dropper bottle close to the eye, head back and squeeze a drop… it goes in, blink, and overflows, trickles out of the corner of the eye down the cheek like a tear drop and falls into the ear. I wipe it away with a tissue – the action triggers a memory, something emotional. I have new vision now, eye surgery for cataracts. The left eye is done, the right eye will be operated on next month. I’m seeing everything with such clarity; hard to believe the natural process of seeing that I’ve taken for granted all these years now involves a plastic lens. I see the world refracted through a man-made device and it doesn’t make any difference – well it does make a difference, of course, it’s very much better. My glasses don’t do anything any more; in the good eye the lens distorts vision, in the bad eye it enhances some things but it’s dull, blurred and yellowish in colour. I’ve had an overhaul – like taking the car to the garage to have new parts fitted. Or it’s how the system gets updated, the latest version is now installed. I feel renewed.

There’s this plasticity about the human body (and mind) that allows all kinds of changes to take place. I’m a Buddhist and I’m inspired by the thought that things can adapt, evolve, move on. It feels like there’s no such thing as getting stuck with anything or any state of mind, because we can learn to ‘unstick’ from it. In the same way, we can study a new subject; we put our minds to it, get interested in it and learn how it works. If I’m stuck with something, I’m attached to that thing in a strange kind of way; a locked-in response to adversity – more of a driven, unaware action than something done knowingly, mindfully. It’s a deluded attachment to habituality and I’m inspired by the very real possibility of working towards being free of this; acting always in awareness, seeing clearly.

Metaphors like ‘clouded vision’ describe tanha, habitual craving for something thought to be deservedly earned because of the endured hardship seemingly required to get there, unaware that one gets lost in the getting-there and there’s no end to it. Because I don’t normally understand things as they truly are, usually it’s how they’re seen habitually, I choose to see everything according to what’s already known; apperception, understanding newly observed data in terms of past experience. Before I get stuck in the delusion that it’s unavoidably like this, an opportunity arises to escape the cycle at Step 7 vedana in the paticcasamuppada (Cycle of Dependent Origination). Interrupt the causality sequence, go to the door leading to the emergency exit, aware that in the Buddhist sense of ‘no-self’, the habituality of mind’s perception of itself as the central actor in its own world, personality-view (sakkaya-ditthi), is the root of the problem. Step out of the cycle and I’m free…

Then later that night, walking to 7-eleven to get a few grocery items and I leave my glasses at home because they don’t help – I’ve worn glasses for most of my adult life and this is the first time I’m going out without them and at night time too. It’s been raining, there’s the glare of car headlights, and street lights reflected in large puddles. Only a short walk and arriving there, I notice some of the tiles on the floor of the lobby forecourt at the supermarket are shiny, glossy, and these must be new ones, replacements for the ones that were damaged? Why am I seeing this? I cover the good eye and look at the tiles with the old eye, no it can’t be seen, but I can see them with the good eye. It’s a repair I’d not have noticed before. People must think I’m acting strangely, better move along. So many discoveries about the world, and I’m stumbling around like this, seeing everything for the first time…

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‘Instead of starting with a perception or a conception of anything, the Buddha established a way based on awareness, or awakened attention. This is an immanent act in the present. It is sati-sampajañña, an intuitive awareness that allows the consciousness to be with the present moment. With this attention, you begin to explore personality-view (sakkaya-ditthi) in terms of the perceptions you attach to as yourself.’ [Ajahn Sumedho, The Problem of Personality]

Upper photo: Interior of Chiang Mai songteaw (public transport vehicle). Lower photo: Night Market, Chiang Mai

 

the beholder

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Bangkok: The world seems different, everything suddenly seen in clear three-dimensionality. Reflected light, rich, deep colours and a strange familiarity, objects in the environment 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 anaesthetic is enough, or general if you feel claustrophobic about the covers over the face. 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 at the world, I find 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 colours, reds mostly, and an overall bright clear blueness in the white areas. It has the quality of an iPad screen, retina display, high density pixels merge into one – an extraordinary brightness.

Faces of friends and family are seen as if for the first time. I notice small expressions now I didn’t know were there, maybe because everybody is looking at my new eye, intense 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, a curious 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. Can it really be so? ‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ (Margaret Wolfe Hungerford). The expression always seemed a bit mean and divisive to me, ‘I’ think it’s beautiful but ‘you’ might think it’s not; beauty becomes a matter of opinion… In Buddhism, the ‘beholder’ sees the world and identifies the self, ‘me’. If ‘I’ am inside the body, in ‘here’, I must be separate from everything else out ‘there’, isolated, alone, anxious – wrong view a fundamental error. The attachment to a perceived self and craving for it to become real, creates suffering. Language has a naming function, creating an apparent identity. Anything that is stated is always missing the point because of these characteristics of language. Better to think of it in terms of what it is not, rather than what it is: ‘… 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)]

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Photo image: Skyline at Ploenchit Bangkok.