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.