Buddhist Cartography: sticks and stones

February 23, 2014 § 7 Comments

autumn effect at argenteuil

Suruga Bay, Azaleas

In previous posts I noted that the left side of the brain uses words to give the world form, an ability of the brain that has long been used by artists.  A painter, for example, may deftly apply colors of emerald green and umber to a white canvas that only suggests an appearance but she knows the viewer’s brain will see it as a “tree”, even if she may not know that this is done with words.

The above two impressionist paintings illustrate how the brain creates form out of the formless.

Claude Monet’s “Autumn Effect at Argtenteuil,” (shown first above) is seen as trees that are reflected in water with a village and clouds in the background.  If, however, the right side of the painting were to be covered, the brain would be hard pressed to interpret the orange oils as trees.

In Lilla Cabot Perry’s “Suraga Bay, Azaleas” (second picture) it’s clear that the blue in the middle is a “mountain” only because we call it a mountain.

In their art, these impressionists used the brain’s ability to assign names and details to create form where there otherwise was none.   But this ability is not limited to the museum.  The brain does this on a continuous basis in every day life.

In my own experience, while walking yesterday, I noticed that the blue at the end of the street, like the blue in Perry’s painting, was a mountain because I called it a mountain. I noticed that details at the end of a hedge that I couldn’t actually see, were being superimposed by my imagination, which took the details of the branches right beside me and “painted” them in further ahead.  And far down the street where my senses reported a black square with two lights, my brain was busily labeling this as the headlights of a car.  And when I came across something I did not recognize, my brain sought vainly to give it a name, so practiced was it in naming things.

Ordinarily, I do not question the names given my perceptions.  Like everyone else, I accept the reality of what I see on a day-to-day basis.  I accept the reality of my primary, inner map.  However, all of us have secondary maps on which we have written other words like, “danger,” “threat,” “irritating,” “good” or “bad.”  These words reflect evaluations of things as they relate to us, evaluations often made in childhood that have never been questioned.

If, with practice, we can see how the brain uses words on our primary maps to give the world form and meaning, we can then begin to transfer that knowledge to the words we’ve written on our secondary maps to see how we’ve made the world “dangerous”, “irritating” or “bad”.  Then we may begin to see that what threatened us in the past is now merely a word we’ve superimposed on the world.  And words, to paraphrase the child’s saying, “can never hurt us.”


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