You can see right through to the bottom.

January 9, 2018 § Leave a comment

Most believe that the senses do a fairly good job of presenting us with what is actually ‘out there’ in the real world. But the brain doesn’t just reproduce what the senses give it. It reworks it into a conceptual experience.

Back in the 19th and early part of the 20th Centuries, astronomers identified faint objects in the night sky that they called “nebulae” because of their fuzzy appearance. During those times the idea of a galaxy, and that our sun was part of one, wasn’t part of the astronomer’s conceptual framework. It was only in the 1920’s that their existence was established by better telescopes and the nebulae determined to be galaxies.

In the 1950’s astronomers identified numerous objects whose spectrums were found to be markedly red-shifted, indicating the objects were flying away from us at speeds up to 40% or more of that of light. A debate began among astronomers. Were these quasi-stellar objects red-shifted by deep gravitational wells? Did some form of antimatter or a white hole end of a wormhole cause it? The answer came in the 1970’s after more data was collected and conceptual models were sufficiently developed. These quasars, as they were called, were extremely distant galaxies whose red-shift was caused by space itself expanding over great distances.

In the above two instances we find the science of the day unable to explain phenomena that is later determined to be a specific thing or class of things. It is tempting to believe that these ‘things’ were always there as they are known today, and that astronomers just needed better instruments to see them. But to identify them there also had to be a refinement of concepts and, in some cases, the development of new concepts that built upon the accepted conceptual framework of the time. All of which implies that if we used different concepts then our experience would also be different.

Today astronomers have a new mystery called dark matter to fit into their conceptual framework. A few have proposed that the solution is to rework the present framework, i.e., rewrite the general laws of relativity, so that dark matter can be discounted. Most reject this approach out of a belief that dark matter does exist, even though they have never directly observed it. Another thing science cannot yet ‘see’ is dark energy; a hypothetical energy of an unknown type that astronomers believe is responsible for the observed acceleration of the universe. How we come to experience dark matter and dark energy will eventually depend on the concepts science develops to know them.

In his book, “You Have To Say Something: Manifesting Zen Insight,” Dainin Katagiri writes, “Like physics and biology, Buddhism is an attempt to study things as they are. But in Buddhism, particularly in Zen, what we study is something more than what appears as objects to our minds.”

“More than what appears as objects to our minds” is the object as it is before given conceptual form. It is, in effect, formlessness. Or, if you prefer, it is a sea of constantly changing energy existing in n-dimensional space, where n is an unknown quantity.

Zazen, states Katagiri, is the way to study this formless sea of energy. It is the way to know things “before we conceptualize about them” and “before we fall into thought.” Where the scientist finds a fuzzy object or a quasi-stellar object, he studies it in order to develop more and better concepts. But in zazen we just stay in that first moment of discovery without looking for any idea beyond it. By just being here, we learn to see the interconnectedness of everything. We see the Whole.

There are many advantages to conceptual thinking. From it come the many scientific advances that make our lives easier. But concepts also leave us feeling separate and alone in a world of solid parts that seem to work against each other and us. If, however, we were to practice staying in the first moment, i.e., the present moment, we would learn to see right through to the bottom of our concepts to know Reality as it really is in its numberless dimensions.

The Chinese poet Han-shan wrote,

The clear water sparkles like crystal,

You can see through it easily, right to the bottom.

My mind is free from every thought,

Nothing in the myriad realms can move it.

Since it cannot be wantonly roused,

Forever and forever it will stay unchanged.

When you have learned to know in this way

You will know there is no inside or out!

From Cold Mountain: 100 Poems by the Tang Poet Han-shan


The Extended Now

December 31, 2017 § Leave a comment

The previous post touched upon our human experience as a conceptual experience. This means that the brain doesn’t just replay what the senses record, it takes that raw material and processes it into familiar, steady concepts. No matter what form a hat takes, for example, it is always a hat. Yet if we were to put sandals on our head, so efficient is the system of conceptualizing that we would not be confused. Sandals are sandals. Hats are hats.

Concepts work so well in making sense of the world that we end up believing that they are the world. But a concept is just an idea, it is not reality. Take, for instance, the concept of time.

A common view of time is that it is like a river with now, or the present moment, being a one-dimensional line that crosses from bank to bank, dividing the past from the future as it moves down the river. Einstein, in his Theory of Special Relativity, challenged that idea. He said that you are at the mid-point of this line and that the further the line extends from you, the wider it becomes. As it widens it begins to include the past and the future in what he called the extended present.

Imagine that you are looking at the Andromeda galaxy through a powerful telescope. Textbooks say that Andromeda is 2.54 million light-years away. So you would be forgiven for thinking that you are looking at the galaxy, as it was that long ago. In fact, because Andromeda is 220,000 light years in diameter, you are seeing light that left the far edge of the galaxy thousands of years before the light left the middle, which, in turn, left before the light left from the front. You are seeing the galaxy’s past and future in a now that extends back 2.54 million years. This zone in which things are neither past nor future is the expanded present.

Let’s take a more down to earth example. Imagine you are sitting in meditation. Before you are a single candle flame lighting a blank wall. Individual photons are racing away from the candle at the speed of light but even at that speed it still takes time to reach your eyes. Photons coming directly from the candle’s flame arrive at your eyes a fraction of a nanosecond before those that bounce off the wall. The result is that what you see at any given moment is a collection of light from different periods of time.

The same is true for all experience. The further across space you look, the further back in time you’re seeing. Even if that time is only measured in nanoseconds you never see the world as it is in some present moment that’s ‘out there’. That is just a concept you created. The reality is that the only place the present moment exists is inside of you. Yet because even that statement implies separation it, too, isn’t accurate. In fact, you and the present moment are identical, for if there were any separation your experience would always lay outside of you where you could never know it!

It may be said that the present moment has an absolute and a relative sense. In the absolute sense the present moment has no duration and so it is a temporal void. Yet when we take the content of any given moment into consideration, we find that it is a collection of inter-related things that happen over time relative to each other. This relative relationship is what gives the present moment a sense of duration or extension. It is in this extended now that all experience unfolds; yet it unfolds in emptiness.


Adding to things cannot be better than nothing.

December 19, 2017 § Leave a comment

“We are always looking outside of what is and looking to make something more than it is…” — Roko Sherry Chayat.

The other night as I watched a special featuring Neil Young, in the top left of the TV screen there appeared a circle of light that I didn’t immediately recognize. In the split second it took to realize that I didn’t know what it was, my brain immediately processed it as the brim of one of the artist’s hats hanging on a metal rack. My mind, as Roko Sherry Chayat intimated, looked beyond the immediate perception and found a concept that would make sense of it. The circle of light was a hat.

The human brain does not simply take the stuff of the senses and recreate it as it is ‘out there.’ Sensory data is processed along side a long list of concepts to see which one makes the most sense of the data in the overall context of the moment. Then it reconstructs the data into what we call experience. The above image catches the mind in this process. Presented with two equal interpretations, the mind switches back and forth between the image of a wine glass and the profiles of two human faces.

An advantage to using concepts is that the mind doesn’t need to keep figuring out what its seeing each time the data changes a little. Once the shifting trapezoidal form in your room is identified as a bed, it becomes a fixed rectangular box. Then, from any angle and any distance viewed, it stays a bed. The same is true of all other experience. Even though the basic sensory stuff is constantly changing, we experience objects as relatively fixed in time and space. Seldom do we notice that our environment is constantly changing, or even consider that space and time are also concepts that we use to organize our experience into a comprehensible form.

Filippo Brunelleschi’s (1377 –1446) invention of linear perspective in art is an example of how the mind invents space. Before Brunelleschi, artists tended to paint flat two-dimensional shapes. His invention of linear perspective gave depth to paintings. Streets and building faded into an imaginary vanishing point. People and things meant to appear in the distance of a canvas, were now correctly proportioned to what was at the front.

Today we might think that people always experienced the world with linear perspective, but is that so? Is it possible that before Brunellechi people didn’t see the world with linear perspective? And if that is so, is it possible that concepts specific to one culture enable its people to experience the world in ways others cannot. And possibly to do things in ways others cannot imagine?

I sometimes wonder if ancient cultures weren’t able to move 30-ton blocks of stone without the giant cranes we’d use today, simply because they conceived of the problem differently. And if the Indigenous belief in dimensions of existence that overlap our own, aren’t what’s responsible for their sightings of lake serpents with horse-shaped heads, ape-like men called Sasquatch and Sky people whose lights they’ve seen in the sky both historically and today.

Modern science, of course, would debunk such things by citing their own conceptual scheme of things. But, as we have seen, concepts change. Even today, some scientific minds are willing to consider (without evidence) the possibility of multiple universes that exist along side our own. And anyone who’s familiar with the quantum world knows that a lot of strange things go on there.

Concepts determine experience. We need only turn off the lights to see that this is so. At night my eyes might only register fuzzy grey lines but overtop of this lies a concept that give these lines the form I call ‘the gate at the top of the stairs.’ And the darkness on either side of me has superimposed over it the concept of the hall I’m standing in. Though my physical eyes can see nothing clearly, my mind’s eye see’s every object in the room as a familiar concept.

Life might be a lot easier if only descriptive concepts like the halls and the gate shaped our experience. But as Chayat said, the mind always wants to make something more. And in the course of adding to things, it creates the concept of a self or an “I” that is having all this experience. And from this come other concepts like the other, separation and dualism that in turn produce suffering as we begin to feel alone, incomplete and vulnerable.

Fortunately, as the Buddha said, there is a way to end suffering. It begins with the recognition that the self is just a concept and concepts are only ideas about Reality. They are not Reality, Itself.

We have lived in a conceptual world for so long that we have forgotten our true nature. To rediscover it, we must release our tight grip on concepts so that we may instead hold them but lightly. That is why Buddhism advocates non-thinking. Non-thinking isn’t the same as not thinking, which is a suppression of thought. Non-thinking is sitting in clear awareness, not filtered or colored by concepts that linger in the background, even the concept of self. Then, we live each day without expectation, desire, clinging or fear. All of which are, in the end, nothing but concepts, themselves.

Change your mind.

August 14, 2014 § Leave a comment

Alberni Street

There need be no thought that the human brain is defective in the mass of humanity. The human brain is actually quite a marvelous instrument that for the most part does what we direct it to do. If we ask it to solve a problem of life, higher mathematics or science, it works tirelessly to accomplish the matter as long as we continue to ask it to do so. Even when our attention is directed elsewhere the brain continues its efforts, sometimes producing a solution to a problem long since forgotten.

It is because we forget that the brain does what we direct it to do that we run into trouble. Take, for instance, the successive traumatic effect war has had on people over the last two hundred years. If we assume, as some do, that trauma can be handed down from generation to generation, then even those who have not been to war may suffer post-traumatic stress handed down by parents who lived through the last century’s major wars. This means the mass of humanity may be working with brains that have been taught to operate according to rules of survival in situations where survival is not an issue. If so, is there any wonder that nation upon nation makes and sells arms in the name of better protecting their interests?

I tend to the notion that as a result of past wars humanity has trained their collective brains to see life as a matter of survival. And because the brain gives a sense of reality to whatever thought it entertains, the mass of humanity have come to believe that, in essence, the “other guy” is a threat that must be defended against.

There is hope for humanity and it comes in the form of educating ourselves on the true nature of our brains and reality. We must come to recognize that just because the brain tells us there is a threat, that does not mean there actually is a threat. Just because the brain makes it appear that our beliefs are real, it does not mean that other beliefs are incompatible with our own.  As the Dalai Lama said,

“We all want happiness, not suffering, and as a consequence we have to see if the mind can be transformed. Tibetan Buddhist culture is not just about prayers, reciting mantras and performing rituals, it involves explanations of the nature of reality. We Tibetans have the most comprehensive presentation of what the Buddha taught. We should not feel deprived, but proud of the knowledge we possess. What’s more we don’t need to rely on any other language to access this knowledge because it already exists in Tibetan.  Don’t waste your time getting drunk or gambling. There’s no reason to feel low or demoralized; much better to be confident and optimistic.” (

Transforming our minds is not a matter to be completed in succeeding generations. It is something we can accomplish now. We can retrain our brains to look at reality in its true nature. One step in this process is to see that our brains tend to assign reality to whatever we imagine. Another is to accept the possibility that if we imagine our neighbor to be our enemy, this may not actually be so.

Be confident and optimistic of your ability to change your mind. Be confident and optimistic that you can see reality as it truly is.

“As if.”

August 13, 2014 § Leave a comment

Cat 1209

Watching thoughts arise and fall is rather, should I say it, enlightening?

There doesn’t seem to be any thought that is not assigned some degree of reality. Even when I can positively say that I’m just imagining something, my brain still wants to color it real.

I don’t have any problem with my brain telling me, for example, that the stranger in front of me let a door close before I got there. But when the thought arises that he or she did it “on purpose” and I react with a tinge of resentment, then I have to wonder what good it does for my brain to make even imagined events, seem real?

Long ago it was probably a good survival tactic to have primitive man act “as if” the source of a noise in the nighttime forest was a predator. But today it seems we behave as if anything that offends our self-image is a predatory fact that needs to be acted upon. That the offended one may be the only one who knows an offence has taken place seems to make no difference. There still seems to be a need to act upon this “as if” situation.

When my cat sees something curious, she investigates. If it’s nothing then she licks her paw and walks away. Yet when today’s average person finds nothing in the curious, he or she returns to it again and again thinking something is there that was missed. They’ll buy a lottery ticket, even though they’d have to buy 26 million to have a good chance of winning a major prize. They’ll go to the pub every Friday to have a good time, even though they’ve never woken up the next morning feeling a good time was had. They’ll have the same discussion with their partner, even though it always ends in an argument.

It does seem the average person’s brain is locked into a reality that is neither conducive to happiness nor even real. Yet most everyone acts as if what he or she is doing makes perfect sense.

How is it a cat’s brain works, and ours do not?

Dream Illusion and Transcendental Intelligence

August 5, 2014 § Leave a comment

flower power

Viewed simply, the brain takes input from the senses, processes it and then projects it outward. When creating this projection the brain does not automatically differentiate between objects of the senses and those of thought or imagination. All are seen as possessing some level of reality.

Believing that thought exists independently of the mind (i.e., has self-existence), one lives in a state of dream illusion. It is like a dream because one believes in this thought world’s reality. It is an illusion because this world is false. Humanity, en masse, lives in this world of dream illusion.

An obvious example of dream illusion is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. With PTSD, those who experienced a trauma continue to live “as if” some threat still exists when it has long since passed. But we need not look to extreme mental health disorders to find examples of dream illusion. We need only look inside our own minds.

We live in dream illusion when a first impression becomes the way we see someone for the rest of our lives. We live in dream illusion when an imagined person we’re having an inner conversation with is thought to be the actual person we want to talk to. We live in dream illusion when judgments of right and wrong, good or bad, become our reality. For do we not then react by seeking revenge through anger when we are wronged?  Or become depressed when we judge our self to be bad?

Knowing the need to awaken from dream illusion one may begin meditation by trying to stop thought.  But one soon learns that thought is not so easily stilled. So the next step is to simply watch thoughts rise and fall. Still, there are some thoughts that do not fall as easily as they rise. These we can work on by holding them in the awareness and gently seeing them as unreal. The more deep-seated these thoughts, the longer it will take to undermine and weaken them.

As you become better at letting thoughts go, your ability to just observe them will grow. So will your ability to select a thought and examine it without being drawn into the dream illusion it creates. Of course there will still be times when you get caught up in the dream illusion and feel as if all of your work has been for naught. That’s to be expected because meditation is not a linear process. One area of life may have its problems resolved only to have another set of problems take its place. This is the natural ebb and flow of life.  It is to be expected.

Eventually you will find thought taking a back seat and the ground of thought, i.e., consciousness, coming to the fore. This, too, you can examine by asking, “What is its true nature?” “How does this calm, motionless state arise?” “How can it be maintained?” “Where does it go when a thought arises?” “Is there a difference between this and the thought that arises?” “Is there a difference between this and me?”

These questions may seem esoteric at the moment, but when the ground of consciousness comes to the fore it will be natural to examine it with such questions, phrased in your own way.  Examining consciousness in this way is the beginning of transcendental intelligence.

Buddhist Cartography: You Are Here.

April 14, 2014 § 5 Comments

You are here 0264

I was in Stanley Park looking at the park map when my friend asked, “If we are here, then who are these people by the restrooms?”

Site maps often show two figures to indicate restroom facilities while using a marker of some sort to tell us where we are. As these maps emulate the workings of the human brain it should come as no surprise to learn that the brain also has an inner marker that says, “You are here.” What might come as a surprise is that, as with the site map, there isn’t actually any “you” there at the tip of the marker.

Just as the brain creates inner maps of the outer world, so does it create a map of a self that relates to the world. And just as the maps of the outer world are not the actual world, nor is the map of self your actual Self.

Identifying with the map of self has us believing we are such traits as “unreliable,” “worthless” or “bad” when, in fact, our true nature is clear; just as the water of a lake is clear and only reflects the blue of the sky or the green of the forest.

Most of us have been reading our inner maps for so long that we have forgotten our true nature.   Mindfulness and meditation are two practices that train us to turn our attention away from these maps so we may focus, first, on the outer world and, then, our true nature.

In mindfulness we focus our attention on whatever task we are doing at the moment. This turns our attention outward and away from our inner maps. As we progress in this outer focus we become more aware of the inner maps that our brains have superimposed on the world. We begin to see the difference between what “is” going on in the world as opposed to what we “think” is going on.

As part of my practice, I see my inner maps as constructs of the brain that exist only in the brain. I find this a great help in seeing the unreality of thought, as whatever exists in the brain alone can have no real existence in the outer world. This has helped dispel many fears, false beliefs and delusions; and is quite consistent with Tibetan Buddhism where the essential point is to see the world is an illusion.

In meditation the awareness is once again focused away from the inner maps, but this time it is turned back upon itself, i.e., one’s clear, true nature.

Here words become misleading. There is no actual “back” or “upon” in any sense that implies an objective self looking outward at the world. To think there is some person, mind or soul being aware of itself merely replaces one map of self with another, subtler one.

The ultimate form of meditation is Dogen’s shikantaza where one just sits as awareness itself. However, before most of us can “just sit” we need to disengage from our inner maps.   We need to put our maps of self and the world aside.

As I mentioned above, I have found it helpful to see my inner maps as fabrications of the brain. This applies not only to the maps I superimposed over the physical world but to my map of self, as well.

The inner map I have of myself is purely a construct of this brain and body. I did not have this map before incarnating into this body and, upon taking a new form, any new map of self will be just as illusory and impermanent as the one I use now.

Ultimately, self is nothing more than a marker on a map that says, “You are here.”   The only truth of that marker is that it points to emptiness, which is your true nature and your real Self.

Where Am I?

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