There Is No Seeing Clearly

These days, “after Dallas,” I’ve been thinking a lot about bias – this thing we are supposed to overcome, the root of so much suffering and destruction in our country and world.  And I’ve been thinking about it in terms of the classical Yogacara teachings of Vasubandhu and the great Chinese monk Xuanzang, whose “Treatise on the Establishment of Mind Only” (Chengweishilun) is the basis of the Japanese Hosso Sect.  I think that these teachings have something really interesting and important to offer to the conversation about bias, and it’s something that resonates across Buddhist schools and teaching lineages.  I’d say it gets at the essence of Zen, too.

In a nutshell:  No one is unbiased.  No one sees clearly.

Or, at least, pretty much only a Buddha is unbiased.  Only a Buddha sees clearly.

And by “Buddha” I don’t mean the Zenny “you and all beings are Buddha” kind of Buddha, much less the ultra-Zenny “rocks and tiles are Buddha” kind of Buddha.  I mean the Ten Stages Buddha, the Three Great Kalpas to attain Buddha, the Mahayana Buddha, the Buddha that if you are reading this you most certainly, I guarantee, are not.

When I purify myself of every single hindrance, every single slight tangle of emotion or worldview – then, just maybe then, I’ll see things clearly.  In the meantime, forget it.  Really forget it.  I am NOT seeing clearly.  Not even close.  Never.

No!  Not even that one time… when the world suddenly crystalized crisp and perfect and clear as a still lake.  Even that time, and the ones like it, I was not seeing clearly.

And I most certainly am not seeing clearly right now.

It’d be good to admit this.  It’d be good, if nothing else, to see just this one point clearly.

 

I’m finding this principle of radical and thoroughgoing humility all over the teachings, but especially in two little details of Yogacara.

The first has to do with the deep and quiet workings of the unconscious “I-making” mind, the manas or seventh consciousness.  This deep mind, always hidden, functions constantly to divide.  Diligently and patiently, carefully and thoroughly, without missing a beat or even a sliver of opportunity, it divides me and you, subject and object, grasper and grasped.  All day and all night, manas cuts.  By the time we are conscious of “a world,” or even a moment of color, a sound, a flash – that world is already divided.

Sure we can see the world in more or less divided and deluded ways, more or less tainted by our ideas about how things are supposed to be.  We can work on seeing more clearly, on mistaking the rope for a snake a little less often, and we can even succeed in some measure.  This is our practice, our effort, and it’s worthwhile.  It matters a lot, in fact.  Sometimes it might make the difference between life and death.

But however much we succeed in our conscious work of clearing the mind of its biases, the manas remains.  No matter the insidious prejudices and views we manage to identify and overturn, the manas is still there working, cutting up the world, and, along with its partner the eighth consciousness, shaping it to our habits of seeing and being.  Unless we’ve achieved Buddhahood, or pretty close to it at least, we aren’t free of this basic dividing.  We aren’t free of me and you, us and them.

 

Along with this constant, hidden manas, the other detail I’m turning over is the teaching that the five consciousnesses – seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching – never operate in the absence of the thinking consciousness, the manovijñana or sixth consciousness.  It may be that there is some direct perception – I perceive immediately that color, that sound, that flash – but it’s never in consciousness without some supports.  There is always along with it the operation of the thinking mind, and that thinking mind can’t help but to color it, nudge it, name it.  Even if just barely.

According to these teachings, I have never seen something directly, just as it is.

Never!  Not even that time, or that other time.

It is possible that once or twice the thinking was just the most miniscule thread, made just the most miniscule impact on that flood of “red” that hit the eye, that flood of “d minor” that filled the ears, that moment we’d swear we saw something, felt something directly.  Impartially.  Just as it was.  Without prejudice or bias.

But however much it seemed that we were for a moment “unbiased,” in fact manas was there, cutting the moment into “me” and “it.”  And the thinking mind was there, offering its commentary, putting the event on the right shelf in the pantry of our delusion.

And if we think otherwise, or would even swear otherwise, let’s consider perhaps that the movement of sixth and seventh consiousnesses may have just been a little too quiet, a little too subtle to register.

Am I sure I saw clearly?  Are you sure you saw clearly?  On what basis are we so sure?  Is that basis outside the realm of influence by manas, by thinking, by expectation, by conditioning?

And to the extent that I still object, that I still really do swear that though I’m not quite yet a Buddha I’ve still once or twice managed this feat of clear seeing, I should consider this too:  Isn’t the position “there is no clear seeing” 100% safer, more solid, more skilfull, and more trustworthy than the alternative?  If we don’t accept that we can’t ever see clearly, what’s to keep up from falling back into that worn-out, war-making delusion that “me, for one, I see clearly!”

 

So I take it back, we can see clearly.  But all we can see clearly is this:  we can never see clearly.

 

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12 thoughts on “There Is No Seeing Clearly

  1. We should remain open to the possibility that no one—not even the Buddha, however wise and intelligent he may have been—has seen clearly, in the sense that a human being can form absolutely accurate picture of the world.

    For millennia various spiritual traditions have been floating idea that there is an absolute reality apart from appearances. The notion has become so much a part of the religious furniture that we hardly give it a thought, much less challenge it.

    It is not just a problem of bias. It goes deep into our biology. As the Buddha himself pointed out, cognition arises from causes and conditions. There are six modes of cognition, and for each there is a corresponding physiological complex of organs, nerves, and neural activity. Although it cannot be denied that we are highly practiced at integrating information from diverse sources, evolution has not equipped us to perceive upper-case “R” Reality, whatever that might be.

    The “things” of the world present themselves to us as a sequence of aspects, out of which we assemble the vision of unitary objects. We never see anything whole, much less the entirely of nature. Moreover, because both “inner” and “outer” conditions are constantly changing, we are constantly scrambling to assemble a coherent picture of the world. We’ve gotten very good at it, and it’s enough to get us through. But it ain’t Reality. Whether we look within or without, we cannot escape the realm of the sense.

    Which is not to deny that there are states, conscious and otherwise, that are free of certain kinds of bias and distortion. However, it is important to recognize that the standards by which we evaluate such states or processes are themselves the products of causes and conditions and therefore subject to the usual constraints. The diverse instances of (relative and contingent) Seeing Clearly transpire in accord with the changing circumstances. It seems to me unlikely that we can do better than that.

    As biologists and philosophers have acknowledged at least since the time of von Uexküll, every species of sentient being has its own perspective as determined by its peculiar sensory apparatus and its movements-through-the-world influenced by its various existential, social, and personal agendas. The ding-an-sich is a comforting abstraction, and the claim that we might enjoy “direct” knowledge of the world, unmediated by the senses, ultimately unintelligible. Like it or not, it’s appearances all the way down.

  2. “Or, at least, pretty much only a Buddha is unbiased. Only a Buddha sees clearly.”

    Can we even say that? Shakyamuni Buddha, after all, had to be goaded into letting women into the sangha, where they nevertheless remained subordinate to the monks. And while even that was radical for the time, that still amounts to a gap between teaching and practice. The buddhas have their blinders too.

  3. Before William of Occham stropped his razor, Ptolemy told the world that everything orbited the earth. After Occham’s Razor, Copernicus suggested otherwise and his more straighforward model of planetary motion prevails to this day.

    Vasubandhu’s Yocacara is of the Ptolemeic era. It posits that everything seems to orbit around the mind of a self, then he suggests we simply dispose of the atomic self by positing mind-only, etc. Voilla! What we think is happening really isn’t! BADA BING!

    Meh. It’s a hard way to go … spinning all those plates … too hard to be of any beneficial use in such matters as the immediate human nature of humans killing the bodies of other humans for the sake of ideas… and the bottom line of this article, I fear, is rather more like pulling the covers over one’s head in a thunderstorm than changing the weather. One really isn’t safer, more solid, more skillful, and trustworthy first by positing then professing one’s ignorance.

    Unfortunately, Copernican Era Science has also now exhausted its own presupposition in matters such as these by failing to demonstate that the solution to mindless human violence is mindful human violence.

    But there is good news! Charles Darwin and Samuel Morse opened – coincidentally – the gate to a Post-Copernican garden where we need no more to torture Copernicus for answers, much less Vasubandhu.

    We’re past all-of-that or we’d better be soon if all-of-that will not in our lifetimes have made the habitats of our children unsustainable as a natural human life.

    Theirs is no longer the world that organizes itself by universal truths or control of variables – much less by astrology, cave paintings, or body paint – even though there are certain of their elders or atavists who may still do so in cocoons.

    We might do well to note, here, that the so-called Buddha was not a man of his time, but rather a man emerging out of it as an avatar of humankind’s next… and if there is anything that passes for Buddha nature, it must be the human being’s original capacity to leverage possibility, to violate the boundaries of the usual, and to emerge with a more expansive and inclusive point of view. We’ve named that capacity *sapience*… that can both generate and resolve crises as no other species can.

    Whether sapience generates crises or resolves them depends upon how it intends to organize the reality if finds either by the usual rules or by what Thomas Kuhn called “a new way of giving order to data now assembled” or a middle way between them.

    The way of the father is by the usual rules and reinforces resilience. The way of the mother is by a new way of giving order to data now assembled and reinforces adaptivity. The way of the child is to mature at the fulcrum whereat resilience and adaptivity find balance.

    It is the place in a space that Suzuki Roshi named *beginner’s mind* that is neither clear nor unclear … but simply things-as-it-is in all of its paradox, whence to discover that we humans are neither same nor separate, but not-same and not-separate; that our selves are not durable but many in a lifetime and each of its moments, transient and not-separate one from the next; that the whole of human consciousness – the dynamic communion of all of its nodes – is not bound by ideologies but can always allow itself spontaneously to self-organizes within limitlessly expanding horizons an appropriate response.

    When the whole physical world beyond one’s zabuton becomes one’s zafu, Maitreya will sit upon it.

  4. Before William of Occham stropped his razor, Ptolemy told the world that everything orbited the earth. After Occham’s Razor, Copernicus suggested otherwise and his more straighforward model of planetary motion prevails to this day.

    Vasubandhu’s Yocacara is of the Ptolemeic era. It posits that everything seems to orbit around the mind of a self, then he suggests we simply dispose of the atomic self by positing mind-only, etc. Voilla! What we think is happening really isn’t! BADA BING!

    Meh. It’s a hard way to go … spinning all those plates … too hard to be of any beneficial use in such matters as the immediate human nature of humans killing the bodies of other humans for the sake of ideas… and the bottom line of this article, I fear, is rather more like pulling the covers over one’s head in a thunderstorm than changing the weather. One really isn’t safer, more solid, more skillful, and trustworthy first by positing then professing one’s ignorance.

    Unfortunately, Copernican Era Science has also now exhausted its own presupposition in matters such as these by failing to demonstate that the solution to mindless human violence is mindful human violence.

    But there is good news! Charles Darwin and Samuel Morse opened – coincidentally – the gate to a Post-Copernican garden where we need no more to torture Copernicus for answers, much less Vasubandhu.

    We’re past all-of-that or we’d better be soon if all-of-that will not in our lifetimes have made the habitats of our children unsustainable as a natural human life.

    Theirs is no longer the world that organizes itself by universal truths or control of variables – much less by astrology, cave paintings, or body paint – even though there are certain of their elders or atavists who may still do so in cocoons.

    We might do well to note, here, that the so-called Buddha was not a man of his time, but rather a man emerging out of it as an avatar of humankind’s next… and if there is anything that passes for Buddha nature, it must be the human being’s original capacity to leverage possibility, to violate the boundaries of the usual, and to emerge with a more expansive and inclusive point of view. We’ve named that capacity *sapience*… that can both generate and resolve crises as no other species can.

    Whether sapience generates crises or resolves them depends upon how it intends to organize the reality if finds either by the usual rules or by what Thomas Kuhn called “a new way of giving order to data now assembled” or a middle way between them.

    Whether sapience generates crises or resolves them depends upon how it intends to organize the reality if finds either by the usual rules or by what Thomas Kuhn called “a new way of giving order to data now assembled” or a middle way between them.

    The way of the father is by the usual rules and reinforces resilience. The way of the mother is by a new way of giving order to data now assembled and reinforces adaptivity. The way of the child is to mature at the fulcrum whereat resilience and adaptivity find balance.

    It is the place in a space that Suzuki Roshi named *beginner’s mind* that is neither clear nor unclear … but simply things-as-it-is in all of its paradox, whence to discover that we humans are neither same nor separate, but not-same and not-separate; that our selves are not durable but many in a lifetime and each of its moments, transient and not-separate one from the next; that the whole of human consciousness – the dynamic communion of all of its nodes – is not bound by ideologies but can always allow itself spontaneously to self-organizes within limitlessly expanding horizons an appropriate response.

    When the whole physical world beyond one’s zabuton becomes one’s zafu, Maitreya will sit upon it.

  5. Sorry, Jiryu et al, for the duplicates, and the odd writer tags that should have said ‘feralmonk’ … something strange happened with signing in to wordpress.

  6. Godel dealt with the paradoxes, demonstrating that a set of axioms that can generate all that is known to be true within mathematics, for example, will also generate paradoxes; if the axioms don’t generate paradoxes, then all that is known to be true cannot be derived from those axioms. This is baked into what is accepted as the basis of logic, in the mathematical community.

    “all we can see clearly is this: we can never see clearly.” Many of the paradoxes derive from the acceptance of the notion that we can talk about a completed infinity. The set of all sets that does not contain itself; does it contain itself, or not? If there’s nothing that we can see clearly, can we see that clearly?

    The notion of God is a completed infinity; the notion of God results in certain paradoxes.

    Angels on the head of a pin. Let’s talk about action:

    “…I say that determinate thought is action. When one determines, one acts by
    deed, word,or thought.”
    (AN III 415, Vol III pg 294)

    “And what… is the ceasing of action? That ceasing of action by body, speech, and
    mind, by which one contacts freedom,–that is called ‘the ceasing of action’.”
    (SN IV 145, iv pg 85)

    Gautama nearly killed himself, before he remembered his own experience of the happiness associated with cessation, of the happiness associated with the states in which habitual action has ceased. Maybe this is humanity’s darkest hour, the one before the dawn.

  7. The other side of this is that, to say there is “seeing clearly,” or that there is “no seeing clearly,” Buddha or not-Buddha, is totally beside the point. As with the “four propositions” such thinking leads nowhere, like a dog chasing its tale.

    Discriminating and cutting up reality conceptually might be habitual, and most of us indulge in such thinking most of the time. It come with the territory. But I heartily disagree that somehow such “thinking” is always operating in the background, even during moments of clarity and openness, and that it can never be escaped. I’d even go so far as to say that it actually takes some effort to maintain the type thinking that you insist is unavoidable.

    So why do we constantly think in such divisive, dualistic, destructive patterns? Collective pressure? Force of habit? Fear of death and dissolution? I don’t know. But I do know it’s not “humility.”

    • Here’s my reply to James Ford.

      However, and but, I don’t agree that the discriminating, slicing and dicing function, is quite so fundamental as you and Jiryu would have us believe. Granted it is pervasive, but it is also superficial, and dependent on our conceptual, symbolic, discursive, second-hand mind. I think it is a rather recent evolutionary development — one which hopefully will eventually lead back to what is truly fundamental, or else destroy us.

      I do agree, we can’t “analyze” our way into the fundamental. There is no intellectual path to It. Zazen offers something we can actually “do” to stimulate its occurrence, but it still comes as a “gift.” It is the ultimate “humility.”

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