Enlightenment through Koans, just join the dots and a picture emerges.
A Koan is a story or a question that encourages the listener to reframe their view of reality; see things from a different angle.
I often found such devices incredibly useful when teaching high school students. The idea is to shake their paradigm so that they can begin to see that it is just that, a way of seeing, a stage if you like, with all its props and back drops in place to enable them to maintain a particular view of how the universe is. There is a plethora of objective facts out there, but we can’t use them. We need just enough dots to join together into a picture that we can deal with; if you have too many dots, you can’t see anything but dots and no picture emerges. So the mind ignores all those dots it can’t join into the picture it expects to see. The koans create a doubt in the adequacy of our perception to apprehend reality without it being passed through the filters of our language and logic.
An ancient Taoist Master told his disciples how he awoke from a lucid dream and explained to them that he had dreamt he was a butterfly. The koan he offered them was “How do I know I’m a man who dreamt he was a butterfly rather that a butterfly dreaming he is a man”? Descartes offered a similar problem with the thought that he could be an ephemeral spirit in a vacuum being fed the sensations of this apparent life, by a malicious demon. Philosophers by the middle of the last century wondered if a brain could be kept alive in a vat, plugged into a super computer, being fed a data set of a virtual world. Nagel wondered if we could know what it was like to be a bat. And of course, film makers had a lot of fun with The Matrix series. All these stories offer the same thought experiment, creating doubt in the adequacy of our perception to apprehend objective reality. One can always fall back on denying the problem, it has its own psychological force field that repels us, makes us want to step aside from it, as if our magnetic north pushes against the north end of the problem and we simple want to avoid it. But if one is brave enough to; if one presses one’s mind hard against an impenetrable koan, then like a word repeated until meaningless, the surface meaning of the language slips away, logic tilts and the doubt may suddenly coalesce, and the habitual mental constructs, by means of which you have been fabricating the world you thought existed as a fixed objective fact independent of your mind, becomes in an instant evident, and you realise something breathtakingly fresh about the way the world exists. That is, you know almost nothing, and what you think you know, is merely your perception.
So, existence is a ridiculously large number of dots. Dots empty of meaning. We, the observer, select which dots to notice and then draw the lines that construct a picture we can fit to our paradigm, our preconceived view of the world. Our culture causes some dots to be noteworthy and our karma offers us the line picture.
All phenomena are contingent (what may exist not contingently is a more religious than philosophical question) on the causes and conditions that brought them into existence, the parts that constitute them now and (this is the bit I’m concerned with here) the predisposition of the mind that perceives the phenomenon.
That predisposition is directed by our karma. For those without the background, let me explain simply. Karma is not fate, luck or chance or any of the silly ideas that circulate. A simple way for those with a Western upbringing to understand karma is to see it as the continuously developing effect of our mental habits formed by our past actions of body, speech and thought. It forces us to perceive things through the filter of our experience. If we change our behaviour, our actions, speech and thought, then gradually our world will change; or at least the way we perceive it, which is actually the same thing. If we act honourably or virtuously the world becomes a more beautiful place to us as our habit of thought creates appropriate expectations in line with our thinking and the picture we expect to see emerges from the available dots. If we act cruelly or selfishly, the world similarly becomes uglier. If you are constantly looking for ways to con and defraud others, you will assume they are doing the same and be constantly alert for it. What a sad paranoid existence.
No phenomenon has an objective real nature that is not contingent upon the karma of the observer.
We see a tiny part of the visible light spectrum; we hear a tiny part of the available sounds. We can’t see the microwaves, the radio waves, the x rays, Wi-Fi or the ultra violet. We can’t hear the sounds that dogs, bats or elephants can, I can’t even hear the stuff teenagers can. If we didn’t have hearing, we wouldn’t even know there was stuff to hear or not hear. What are the senses that we don’t even know we don’t have? Why can’t I feel the magnetic patterns of the Earth and other people? Why can’t I see the energy fields that all living things have around them?
My wife just commented on the terrible smell of incense in my office (Palo Santo I think it is called) which is odd because I was just thinking what a nice smell. Is it a different smell we are smelling? My wife has a peculiar ability; she sees slightly different colours with each eye. One eye puts a green/blue tint on the world and the other a pink/orange tint. Each perception can only be measured relative to each other and I have no idea how what I see compares to either of her eyes, or to anyone else’s of course.
A group of friends are on a road trip crossing a vast dry wasteland, in Colorado or Nevada perhaps. The foot well in the front of the car is full of supplies and to get at the bag of nuts near the bottom of this jumble of stuff, the young lady in the front props a bottle of juice on the dash for a moment. The bottle wobbles, she reaches for it with hands full of snacks and it gets knocked out of the window. Though she swears in exasperation, the other friends laugh; they have plenty after all, and in a moment she laughs too. The girl in the back sees the bottle flying backwards as it passes her window and disappears behind them. There’s a guy at the roadside, down on his luck, who had been trying to hitch a lift, and who was only a few sips of fluid away from organ failure. He sees the bottle flying forwards, though loosing speed relative to the car it fell from. As it is several hours before a couple in a motor home stop to give him a lift and a welcome break from the sun, the bottle almost certainly saves his life.
She had been a division manager in this dead-end department in a faceless corporation for nearly twenty years. The technology and interior design concepts had changed and the open plan area had become a labyrinth of cardboard cubicles in which hopeless young fools came and went, serving their time like battery chickens. This morning an annoyingly cocky young idiot tried his sycophancy on her, “Nice dress Mrs. P.” She had no idea yet what he wanted from her, but if he thought he could butter her up with flattery, he was in for a shock; whatever the request he put in later was for, she’d knock it back.
He’d been thrilled to get this highly prestigious position. As all other departments related to this one, he’d be well placed to hear of any promotions anywhere in the world. The advantage of working for such a huge multinational corporation was the endless career possibilities. After starting in the basement with only artificial lighting, he loved the expanse of daylight that flooded around the high ceilings. Giving each person a cubicle so they had privacy and didn’t feel overlooked, made the working environment perfect. He thought Mrs. P looked more depressed than usual, so automatically, as was his nature, looked for something nice to say that wasn‘t too personal and inappropriate, from someone his age. He thought about the things he knew his mother would like to hear. Mrs. Ps dress was notably better than the drab stuff she normally wore and actually made her look years younger. “Nice dress Mrs. P” he said, and assumed she’d feel cheered up, then without another thought, got to his work station.
There is a story of a sword master who had been instructing his students on how to use a combination of good technique & speed to beat a stronger opponent, to use speed & strength to beat a more skilled opponent and technique & strength to beat a faster opponent. One student asked the master, “But what if you faced a man who was faster, stronger and more skilled than you”? The master raised an eyebrow as if the thought had never occurred to him and replied simply, “I’d cut his head off for being a damned liar”.
Every one of us experiences the universe from an unique angle dependent on our paradigm, karma etc. I can only see the view from here and you can only see the view from there. I only see what my language, logic and past experiences predispose me to see. In the vast array of dots, I join together the ones that create a picture that I anticipate, all be it unconsciously. Occasionally I experience a Gestalt switch and the beautiful young girl becomes an ugly hag, or vice versa (If that makes no sense, Google it) but mostly I’m stuck inside my own paradigm; the way I see it. Enlightenment begins when you can understand that there are as many views of the universe as there are people to observe and none of them are more than subjective interpretations. Ultimately, we can hope to raise our viewpoint until we see from many angles.
We can’t not have a tint to our glasses. But we can be aware that there is a tint and we can understand that others have a different tint. We can, given time and deliberate effort, learn how to choose the tint that we see everything through.