One late afternoon, I walked over Parliament Hill with two friends and we stopped to gaze at the magnificent sunset. It flowed and changed in every moment, creating a glorious pageant of shapes and colours. I looked around me, and was surprised to see almost no one else was looking at it, and Zena said, ‘If someone could paint it and put it in a gallery, a lot of them would pay to go and see it, but they are not interested in the real thing.’
I began to realise that most people want ‘reality’ mediated for them, and put into a form they can digest, like baby birds being fed predigested food by their parents. We tend to prefer a virtual world to the real one; we like things to be objective. Perhaps we are uncomfortable with the subjective. I remember Ajahn Sumedho saying, ‘True understanding is absolute subjectivity.’ But if you do go to an art gallery or a museum, as I did a few days ago, most of the people there were either taking photos of the objects in front of them or staring at their mobiles. A French friend once said, ‘When you ask people if they have seen this or that on their travels, they open their photo albums, and you know that only the camera really looked at anything.’
The greatest treasure, the independent man of the Way, is within you, is yourself; therefore, to seek it outside is to miss it. And since it is yourself, you need not seek it even within you, for it is the seeker himself, not the object sought. In other words, your true self is always the subject, never an object.’
John C.H. Wu – The golden age of Zen.
So, what has gone wrong? Why are we mistaking the shadow for what cast it, like a child looking for the moon in a puddle instead of in the sky? We have somehow been conditioned to believe that the image is truer than the thing experienced.
There is a wonderful story by Hans Andersen, called ‘The Shadow’. A man’s shadow goes off one day and returns many years later, rich. He offers to take the man round the world, provided the man allows himself to be called ‘the shadow’. All goes well, until they come to a country where the shadow falls in love with a princess and plans to marry her. When the man objects and threatens to tell the princess that the shadow is only that, the shadow has him imprisoned, and the princess later tells her fiancée not to worry, as she has ordered ‘the shadow’s’ execution.
We once believed that we and the land and the trees and the rivers, all belonged together and shared a life in which we all related and had a part in one another’s lives. But if that were true, we couldn’t really own the world, and dominate it and use its resources as casually as we do, because as Richard Powers says, ‘They are not our resources,’ and we waste them at the expense of our own lives. We are all part of what Thich Nhat Hanh calls ‘interbeing’. As the great Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa wrote:
‘It is in us that there are all the lakes and forests
if we see clearly into what we are …’
The Buddha neither accepted that we had been given a world by a god to use as we wish, nor that we and the world were simply part of some biochemical process, whereby the machine ran on till it ran out of fuel. These were not ways of understanding the intuitive reality, but constructs, separating us from understanding the true nature of ourselves and the world we live in. And for that, the various stratagems and evasions would have to be put aside and we would have to look – truly look – at how things are. ‘There is this unmade, this unborn, this unconditioned, and if there were not, there would not be this made, this born, this conditioned, and there would be no release from that. But there is a release.’ And he explained further where we should begin to look, because the Bodhisattva Rohitassa had unsuccessfully searched the world for the solution, and the Buddha wished to explain to him how he should go about it, and he told Rohitassa: ‘It is in this fathom-long form, with its perceptions and thoughts, that there is the world, the origin of the world, the cessation of the world, and the path leading to the cessation of the world.’ As Anais Nin said, referring to the Talmud: ‘We do not see things as they are, but as we are.’
The Buddha’s words refer to the concept of the material world extended in space ‘… but one can never understand the nature of suffering, its arising and ceasing, without fully exploring and “reaching the end” of the virtual world constructed by consciousness and the senses, by perceptions and by feeling. This is an enterprise only accomplished by meditation, by the thorough investigation of phenomena, and by treading the Buddhist path … to awakening.’
Tricycle article – Andrew Olendzki.
We are trying to live the life outside ourselves, rather than the life we already have – the life inside us. We have already exchanged our real lives – our real selves – for a partly virtual existence, and now, thanks to electronic wizardry, swapped even that for a totally virtual existence. We have alienated ourselves from our origin and even our original face! We now live by proxy, with all the disadvantages and unhappiness that entails. We look, but do not see; we hear, but do not listen; we touch, but do not feel. We live in a second-hand version of the world. And even this version of the world is idiosyncratic and reflects what we want and the world the way we want to see it, rather than the way it is. We produce the world around us, but it is an illusion, like producing a rabbit out of a hat.
Meditation progressively frees us from the conditioning and assumptions that go with that picture of the world and allows us to see things at first hand – and to realise their own vivid reality.
I recently visited the botanical gardens at Kew, and saw the trees for the first time as magical living beings, with whom in fact we share 20% of our genes – so we are family! I had not had that experience since I was a child, when I bent down to look at a blue flower in the meadow, and it seemed to fill the whole world. When William Blake asked: ‘Tell me, what is the Material World, and is it dead?’ The other answered, laughing: ‘I’ll sing to you … and show you all alive The World, where every particle of dust breathes forth its joy.’ As Jesus said about the lilies of the field: ‘Even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.’ We are predisposed to see things a certain way and this is made worse by a so-called scientific attitude that regarded human participation with grave suspicion, that is until the 20th century, when quantum physicists put them right. As Wolfgang Pauli, the great physicist, said, ‘It would be the more satisfactory solution, if mind and body could be interpreted as complementary aspects of the same reality.’
Through the course of meditation, the whole way we see the world changes. When we begin, the Zen Masters say, ‘Mountains are mountains, and rivers are rivers.’ Then as we progress, all the certainties begin to fade, the boundaries begin to dissolve, and the ‘mountains are no longer mountains and rivers are no longer rivers,’ we begin to see the interconnection between phenomena. Then finally: ‘Mountains are mountains again, and rivers are rivers again.’ The seer and the seen are at last simply aspects of the Way.
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