Today is Sunday, December 1, 2019. Welcome to Day 1 of the 2019 Bodhi Season! Bodhi Day is on Sunday, December 8, 2019.
Today we talk about the 1st item of the Eightfold Path, Awakened View. That is, seeing the world as it really is, not as we usually do through the constraints of our primate brain.
If you’re new to this site, please see the links at the bottom of this post to catch up on where we’re at so far for Bodhi Season 2019.
All eight items of the Eightfold Path form an indivisible unit of knowledge that enables us to be free from suffering while living in the context of Life and Earth. This is analogous to all the components of scuba gear as a whole having the function of allowing us to explore the underwater world. Scuba gear doesn’t work at all if any component is missing.
However, we could consider the 1st item, Awakened View, to be the keystone item. Without the ability to see the Universe as it really is, none of the other items will be of help. Awakened View is to a Buddhist as a microscope is to a microbiologist and a telescope to an astronomer. There are certainly more aspects to being a microbiologist than having a microscope, but you’re very screwed without one.
Awakened View is so important that the Heart Sutra is really a deep dive into just this one item. In fact, there are branches of Buddhism that arguably center around the Heart Sutra. The TLDR (too-long, didn’t read) version of the Heart Sutra goes:
- Everything is in constant flux, constantly changing. A contemporary of the Buddha, Heraclitus, noted that we never step in the same river twice.
- Because everything is constantly changing, everything is impermanent. Things appear permanent and “real” to us because we’re perceiving everything through our brain that sees only a tiny fragment of space and time.
- Because everything is in constant change and thus impermanent, we should concentrate our awareness on what is right here, right now. Diffusion of our awareness over a past that is gone and futures that have not come will leave us stuck to the ground.
If that TLDR version spoke to you, you’re more than half way there! Please read the story of my own Heart-Sutra-centric Bodhi Day experience two years ago, The Other Shore.
The Monkey Brain and the Gift of Sentience Combo
Monkey brain with the Gift of Sentience … good golly … sounds like trouble … but that’s us!
The promise of our monkey brain is that if all humans pretty much act within a certain span of characteristics, enough of us will prosper long enough to produce a new generation of us. It’s not hard to abide by those rules since they are pretty much wired into us. But sometime a few million years ago a seed of sentience encoded itself into us. That seed of sentience has since grown into our Gift of Sentience … which really has been a pain in the ass.
Our monkey/primate brain is masterful at living the primate life. The primate brain can be a primate and nothing else. A deer can be just a deer, and an eagle can be just an eagle. The primate brain is a quality we still need since it’s a quality peculiar to Life on Earth – our Earthly “street smarts”. Earth is where our physical bodies live and will die. But that masterful primate brain holds back our Gift of Sentience as our Gift of Sentience reaches out to be more than a primate.
The Gift of Sentience enables within us Original Thought, the ability to shape the world around us and contemplate meanings beyond the confines of a system as it is. It short-cuts the really slow but elegant mechanism of evolution by magnitudes. However, we are forever responsible for maintaining whatever we humans make with our sentient ingenuity. The constant change of the Universe is relentless, meaning all things are impermanent. Unless we ourselves keep up the maintenance of our inventions ourselves, it will all eventually be plowed right back into the dust from which it came.
Therein lies the problem, the root of our suffering – all our hard work, things we made because we want them, things we care about, dissolves before us as we desperately struggle to preserve it. We think the fruit of our original thoughts to be part of us, and the primate brain’s instinct for survival battles feverishly to save it.
Is it possible to ignore that primate brain so we can see the Universe as it really is? Can we live our lives on Earth, not just through the lens of a creature of Earth, but creatures of the Universe?
In the Weeds of Reality
The Wise Men and the Elephant metaphor has become a fashionable buzz-word thing in corporate culture lately. Usually when a cross-functional team meets and encounters difficulty, someone quips that we’re all blind people feeling different parts of a huge elephant, with no one fully aware of the “elephantness” of what is before us. It’s such a powerful thing to say that from then on you’re deemed the “smartest guy in the room” … ha!
The Wise Men and the Elephant metaphor does indeed capture the essence of Awakened View very well. We live in the Universe, yet our primate brains experience a small plot of land on a small planet over the course of a mere few decades. If I were to use an analogy of Bill Gates giving me a penny out of his vast fortune, that would be a mind-boggling underestimation of how small a piece of the Universe we primates get to know.
However, we need to be cognizant of the fact that the elephant itself is then again simply one stop in a hierarchy of levels of existence. The elephant is just a part of a herd, which is in turn part of an African ecosystem, which in turn is part of Life on Earth. The role at each level is nothing like that of other levels – the role of a herd is nothing like the role of an individual elephant, nor it the role of an ecosystem the same as that of a herd of elephants.
We already understand that well enough. We’ve all played around with Google Maps. Things look very different as we zoom in on someone’s yard and zoom out to a wide area. The problem is that the nature of levels of existence is all too easy to forget as we get to our jobs and focus on our place in the process. It enforces the belief of our existence as a componentized fragment or whatever our ultra-specific corporate job may be.
In the weeds, where our existence is a small fragment of space and time, our minds are encouraged to believe in deterministic processes – machines that work they same way all the time. Our minds witness the machines operating perfectly as expected. But that reliable operation is just an illusion stemming from the luxury of not much happening within a stable little fragment of space and time.
What I mean by “small fragment of space and time” is that we can predict fairly well events within a short time span and in a small area. We can predict what will become of a ball we throw into the ocean over the next few seconds. But it would be much harder to predict what the ball’s fate beyond those few seconds to the next year.
Awakened View is to remember that as we farm our little “plot” of space and time and marvel at its orderliness, if we were to see it from far above, we see how all the other fragments form something that is more than the sum of the fragments. Later, we’ll see that the 7th and 8th item of the Eightfold Path, meditation and concentration, are about the practice of being cognizant of that on a daily basis.
Complicated versus Complex
Very often I hear people use the terms complicated and complex almost interchangeably. Or I hear people think of complex as even messier than merely complicated. The difference between complicated and complex is a critical distinction that is reminiscent of the difference between the world as seen through our primate brain and the world as seen through Awakened View.
A computer, with all its billions of parts, both microscopic (billions of transistors) and macroscopic (fan, jacks, screws), is complicated. The Space Shuttle is complicated. On the other hand, human society, comprised of lots of independently thinking people is chaotic.
In a complicated system, it’s possible to note the state of the machine at some time and predict its state any amount of time in the future with almost perfect precision. We’re attracted to processes because we understand them. We can control them.
We could look at Normal View versus Awakened View as the difference between the science upon which most of our deterministic machines are built (ex. cars and manufacturing plants) versus Chaos Theory.
Chaos Theory is a very big subject and well beyond the scope of this blog. However, for our purposes, we can say that when there are a number (not much more than a few) of seemingly independently moving things, it’s virtually impossible to predict what will happen a short time in the future.
Life on Earth is a Complex Adaptive System, one where mechanisms that adjust to streams of small changes over long periods of time are woven into the process. No controlling hands are required. The trade-off for such a self-maintaining system is the 100% acceptance of constant change and impermanence for control of the outcome.
A good question is: Is there such a place that is not made up of seemingly independent things?
The reality is that everything is dependent upon everything else to some degree, no matter how minuscule. We forget this because we live in a delusion that Life on Earth is just a very complicated machine. It only seems that way because in a small area of time and space, there are far fewer things that can go wrong.
To live in Awakened View, we need to redefine “complicated”. Rather than a complicated machine referring to a collection of dependent parts with predictable behaviors, let’s instead say “a machine predictable enough for practical purposes within a limited scope of space and time”.
Here’s an exercise to keep your Awakened View turned on. Look at something, anything. Then:
- Think of what it does. How is it a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts?
- What will become of it a thousand years from now. A million years from now? A billion? How permanent is the most permanent thing you can find?
- Is it really just a thing? Is it really as static as it appears? How is what you’re seeing a snapshot of a dynamic process and not just a snapshot?
- Are you really seeing that thing? It’s just a bunch of photons picked up by your eyes. All the things you notice, the color, shapes, edges, patterns – it’s just stuff your brain picked out without actually touching it.
Faith and Patience to you!!
Reverend Dukkha Hanamoku
Here’s are my old posts on fishnu.org that I wrote on seeing:
Bodhi Season/Day 2019: