The practice of all the bodhisattvas is never to entertain concepts,
which revolve around dualistic notions of perceiver and perceived,
in the knowledge that all these appearances are but the mind itself,
whilst mind’s own nature is forever beyond the limitations of ideas.
– (#22 of) ‘The 37 Bodhisattva Practices’ (Ngulchu Thogme Zangpo)
‘If a tree falls in a forest, and no one is there to hear it, is there a sound?’ I once asked a friend this classic philosophical and koan-like question through a text message. A few moments later, he replied, ‘I heard it while thinking about it.’ I responded, ‘But I already said there was no one there to hear it. Why did you put yourself there?’ Perhaps this is a trick question that cannot be answered properly with the thinking mind, not unlike trying to ‘not think of a pink elephant’! When my friend read the question, he ‘heard’ the ‘sound’, as his mind moved accordingly to make sense of it by thinking. This is not unlike the case of Zen Master Huineng, who resolved an argument between two monks on whether it was a flag or the wind that was moving – by saying that it was their minds that moved. Movement is so only when perceived by the mind, just as a sound is so only when registered by the mind through hearing. The mind is the prime ‘mover’ of experience, with which we perceive and process sensory inputs.
Does this mean that there was no sound of the falling tree, that the flag and wind did not move at all? Surprisingly, the answer is a definite ‘yes’! A sound is so only when air vibrations reach one’s ears. Since there was no one to receive the vibrations, they were not translated to be sound by anyone. Likewise, movement in space and time is defined as so only when there is perception of displacement. And to do so, one’s perception has to be displaced from stillness – to move. If my friend’s mind did not move, he would not hear a mind-made sound. Similarly, sight is sighted only when light falls upon eyes, smell is smelt only when smelling, taste is tasted only when tasting, touch is a sensation only when touching, thought is thought only when thinking. The world perceived through the senses exists only when sensed. As our sense faculties differ from one to another, though this world is one, it is experienced differently (but sometimes similarly), subjectively and dependent on our karma and perception.
This does not mean that the world does not exist if there is no one to perceive it. An objective world exists beyond our limited senses corrupted by misperception. This means it is quite pointless to argue over relative experiences such as whether a sight is beautiful or ugly, or whether a sound is loud or soft, as these would depend on our varying sensitivities and preferences (attachment and aversion). Also, some beings have less senses, and some with more refined senses. In insight meditation, the thinking mind is silenced, so as to realise the nature of reality by direct non-judgemental mindfulness of whatever transpires. Naked reality is that seen without movements of the mind, which would blur the perception of things as they really are. Direct and pure experience through the senses is enabled. The more silent you are, the more accurately defined will reality be known and seen, without imposition or supposition.
Our mind and the world are connected as one like the ends of a single line, dual as the perceiver and the perceive are really one, without real division of ‘self’ from the world. The perceiver perceived as a separate ‘self’ impairs perception, and is an illusion. It blocks and taints clear perceiving of reality. Meditation helps to dissolve this illusion, by perceiving the workings of perceiving itself, by realising that there is only perceiving without any perceiver. When we truly realise this, we attain the ‘beginner’s mind’ as taught in Zen, that is able to respond instantly, appropriately and selflessly to all experiences without needless mental proliferations based on the illusion of ‘self’. Free from this delusion, we will be able to be fully absorbed, engaged in whatever we are experiencing and doing. This is authentic enlightened living!
If this world perceived with delusion seems ‘real’,
a Pure Land without delusion is even more real.
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