Some friends and I have been listening to some teachings by Tibetan Buddhist teacher Tsoknyi Rinpoche and thinking about what the idea of “reality” means. Some reflections I’ve had on this – just a beginning, really – may be interesting to some….
I’m sure our basic, commonsense idea of reality comes from what we perceive with our bodily senses. There are a lot of things out there, like rocks and trees, that are relatively persistent and don’t seem to give a damn about what we think or believe about them. Some prominent English philosopher, whose name was long ago forgotten by me, criticizing an idealistic school of philosophy that said that everything was in the mind, said something like if you doubt the reality of a rock, take off your shoes and kick it hard! My understanding is that various Buddhisms (a Buddhist scholar I know says there’s so much variation from one school of Buddhism to another that it’s really very difficult to talk about Buddhism as if it were a single set of ideas) refer to this ordinary reality, both our immediate sensations of it and our concepts about it, as “relative reality.” That makes sense to me. Given our human nature, having a certain kind of body, senses, and nervous system, and assuming there is an external world around us, our nature strongly, if not almost completely, determines how we experience that external world.
The idea of a real external world, existing independently of my beliefs about it, even if my perception of it is relative to my nature, is very deeply a part of my nature, so it’s hard not to think that it’s real. I’ve gradually come to understand, though, that various Buddhisms have the idea that nothing is real unless it’s (a) unaffected by anything around it and (b) lasts eternally. That’s an incredible idea! Certainly relative reality doesn’t make it. I automatically think the computer I’m writing this on is “real,” e.g., but it’s dependent on a supply of electricity and the correct functioning of its many parts. Change any one of those and it’s no longer a computer in the sense of being able to do anything. Even if we don’t deliberately unplug it or destroy one of its parts, in the course of time things will wear out and so it’s certainly not eternal.
I’m not saying it’s useless or false to have this category of thinking, just that it’s way out there for me, and my automatic ideas of what is “real” conflict with some Buddhist teachings, leading to a lot of confusion on my part.
Then there is the category of “absolute reality.” I can say the words that this must be some very deep aspect of mind, much deeper than ordinary, samsaric (deluded) mind, maybe what’s called “Buddha mind,” but while I can say the words I don’t really have any good understanding of what I mean when I say them. I can reason that some most basic kind of consciousness must exist in order to perceive anything else, even in a relative way, but I’m not sure I know what that means. Maybe when you get “enlightened,” whatever that means, this all makes perfect sense, and meanwhile we live in relative reality with certain inherent confusions.
I find it interesting to compare what modern science has done with what I think the Buddha did. Science started with sensory, ordinary observation of the world around us, looked for regularities and causes in what was seen, and came up with some (initially very rough) theories of what reality was. One of these theories, for example, was the geocentric theory of the universe. If you looked at the heavens with your naked eye, it was obvious everything went around your point of view in a 24-hour cycle, so the earth was the center of the universe. I’m told that this geocentric view of the universe, even though we now consider it false and have replaced by something much better, is quite good enough for practical matters like navigating to any particular part of the world.
Science then took another step beyond ordinary sensory observation. It tried to get clearer, more detailed observations of what went on in the external world. This included things like the invention of telescopes and microscopes, ways of seeing the very distant and the very small which were impossible for our unaided senses. Essential scientific method consists of observing what you’re interested in as carefully as possible, coming up with a logical framework that explains what you have seen, a theory, and, insofar as it’s a valid insight into the way things really are, makes predictions as to what you can see if you observe in other ways. Scientists then go out and test those predictions and either elaborate the basic theory or find it wanting and replace it with something else. So you might say, for example, that we don’t really know that the earth goes around the sun, but that conceptual system fits the actual observations we can make far, far better than the idea that the sun goes around the earth.
Several hundred years of this kind of essential scientific process has led to a very different view of what is real. I look at this computer monitor in front of me, for example, and think that it’s solid, but the best scientific understanding tells me it is almost entirely empty space with super microscopic energetic events (what we used to call particles) taking place within it. To some degree, unaided sensory observation is about what Buddhisms call “relative reality,” while scientific progress is moving in the direction of a more “absolute reality.” Note that I’m drawing a parallel here, but not saying that modern science is finding the same absolute reality as Gautama Buddha found.
My limited understanding of Buddhist history is that Gautama Buddha was trained in the highest levels of accomplishment in the yoga of his time, and while he learned to enter into various altered states of consciousness that way, jhanas, states in which there was no suffering, when he came back out of those altered states (you eventually have to pee and eat something), ordinary suffering returned. The Buddha’s huge breakthrough was to not stay just with the concentrative meditation he had learned from yoga, but to learn to use that kind of concentration to have insights into the way his and everybody else’s minds functioned, and so discover more basic causes of suffering and the path that led to the cessation of suffering. The parallel to essential science is that the Buddha developed a more systematic and powerful way of observing the internal phenomena of consciousness (while Western science focused on the external physical world), and observe things that could then be applied to reduce or eliminate ordinary human suffering. We owe Gautama Buddha a great debt for this gift to humanity!
I’m not a very good meditator, so I can’t claim to have a very clear idea of what enlightenment would be like based on my own experience. But I could say that one of the most valued outcomes of my meditation practice has been time after time where I’ve suddenly had an insight into my samsaric biases. I think I’m doing Vipassana, I’ve sat down with the intention of observing the flow of my experience with concentration, clarity, and equanimity, but time after time I see that I’m actually subtly pushing and pulling on my experience to make it what I think is “good” and avoid it being “bad.” I could certainly see this as my attachments in relative reality getting in the way of approaching absolute reality. That’s not to say that I think “relative reality” is inherently “bad,” this world is where we live and I’m all for living effectively and with wisdom and compassion, but I don’t need any more confusion.
[Much more thinking is called for!]