Bodhi Day is about the realization that enlightenment is the omnipresent understanding that our human perception presents a highly-distorted reality. Our human perception distorts what is a continuous and eternal process into fragments of things and time. We see the Universe as a graph of symbols and relationships.
This symbolic-based human perception isn’t a flaw, but a trait which serves a useful purpose. As we software folks say, “It’s not a bug, it’s a feature.” This feature is the primary power for a model of creature called homo sapiens applied in a quasi-eternal continuous process called Life on Earth.
The problem is that our self-awareness only knows this way of seeing. The labeling of things is pounded into our heads well before our earliest memory – mama, dahdah, toy, puppy, etc. We even “pass down” this symbolic method to our A.I. systems. For example, those that isolate faces in a photo, then further isolate features to identify particular people.
The enlightened can readily see what’s on the other side of the fragmented view experienced through the lens of our sapience. As we can remove our sun glasses when it’s no longer glaringly sunny, we may like to switch off our symbolic-thinking “glasses” when our spirit needs a break from “Earthyness”.
This isn’t such an exotic notion these days. We have several popularized ways that we do it such as “being in the Zone”, “mindfulness”, and the “thinking fast and slow (System 1 and 2) thing”. But Zen isn’t about looking towards such methods as a way to improve skill performance. It’s a method to see the Universe as it really is.
To set expectations, Enlightenment does not equate to any “success” for our Earthly lives. Enlightenment isn’t a silver bullet that solves your worldly problem. It relieves your suffering, your dukkha. It equates to a genuine understanding that all is well. It is the elimination of suffering by knowing that all you see through the lens of sapience isn’t real.
Bite of the Apple
I see an apple hanging from a tree. There is now a snapshot of it encoded throughout the neurons and synapses of my brain. I can even reach out to pick it. My eyes see it and my fingers feel it. There is yet another snapshot encoded in my brain. I bite into it (after wiping off the kaolin clay). I hear the crunch as well as experience the smell and taste the apple. My brain took a few more snapshots related to the apple, building an increasingly stronger case for its realness.
These snapshots encoded in my brain are in some ways richer and in some ways poorer than the jpg picture of the apple shown above. The jpg snapshot above is richer than my brain snapshots in that my brain didn’t record every minute detail of every leaf or every spot of kaolin clay. Nor the exact variegation of the red, green, and yellow of the apple skin.
My brain recorded just an abstraction of salient points. Later, my brain can reconstruct the experience to a practical degree. In fact, it’s doing exactly that as I write these very words. It’s enough for my brain to know I like Criterion apples and know of a pleasant way to obtain them.
On the other hand, the jpg snapshot is poorer than my brain snapshots in that it didn’t capture any of the sounds, the surroundings, who I was with, the three other families picking apples nearby, our pleasant moods enjoying time at the u-pick, the squally Fall weather, the larger number of apples rotting on the ground (and all that implies), and the impending Thanksgiving doom of the nearby turkeys we had just fed rotten apples to. Critically, it doesn’t capture the other angles of the apple nor the minutes before or after. Meaning, there is no clue as to what comes next.
Digression: Yes, technically I stole the apple from the organic farmer. But I had to taste it to determine if it was worth picking a basketful of it. It would have been a funny Zen moment had Farm Security pulled up in their golf cart and banned us for life. For the Eternal Fishnu, that’s a REALLY long time.
The jpg of the apple supplements the information contained in the snapshots encoded in my brain. When I look at the jpg, my abstract memories are filled in with high-fidelity details which I subconsciously I thought was there all along.
To reconstruct an even richer recollection, I could return to the farm, talk to the proprietors. Perhaps the same families might be there and we could further reconstruct the time. We could all stand around reminiscing about our visits last Fall.
After a while, the group of acquaintances comes to a consensus of what that day was like. The group believes it to be real and factual because the consensus emerged from artifacts across a few brains, pictures from last Fall still on their iPhones, and countless artifacts from the actual scene of the incident. The all concur about the story.
How real is that story now that more than one person shares the same memories and agrees on it? Is an assembled jigsaw puzzle anything more than a jigsaw puzzle? Are a sequence of video frames watched in quick succession more than a sequence of frames?
In a philosophical stretch, perhaps the story is real, but it’s a highly-curated dashboard, not “reality”. The story was constructed from a pitifully small subset of the information involved with the whole event.
Is the snapshot below the sangha of the Rubber Ducky Buddha of Joliet? Or is it of a number of ducks, a half-frozen pond, and a couple of trees?
Consider that the vast majority of the information was stripped out of this photo – the sounds, the surroundings, the direction of things. No photo or even video is in context, no more than a single quote out of a book.
The photo of the ducks is itself mostly “dead”. If it doesn’t seem dead, that’s because we’ve artificially animated the photo with our sapience. We all know a little about ducks, winter, and sunlight. We project that knowledge onto the photo. But all that projection is just speculation.
Form is Emptiness, Emptiness is Form
The experience of the apple farm just described is real to the symbolic-thinking, object-oriented, fancy primates that we gathered for this thought experiment. These fancy primates are participants in a long-running and self-sustaining complex process our sapience labels as Life on Earth. The complex process called Life on Earth is itself just a human-recognized concept carved out from “thee Complex Process”. For a complex process (lower-case), there are no real objects, just dynamically ethereal phenomena.
From our symbolic-thinking point of view, we can understand how complex processes are rather ethereal to some extent. When we feel a breeze, it is an object captured by our brains, just like the apple captured by my brain. But a breeze is a very amorphous object without clear boundaries in space and time. When and where does the breeze begin and end? How do we “draw a box” around the air that that involved? Are the things the breeze passed through part of the breeze? It should be since the breeze would be different had it not passed through those objects. How did those object get there?
My daily service begins with a line taught to me by the Eternal Fishnu: Everything is a process. Things seem real because it changes slower than the process of our minds. That statement is the switch from my human experience of symbolic sapience to that of a phenomenon of the Universe. It’s like the entry into a judo dojo where judo begins and all else if left outside.
In the photo of Chimney Rock below, there is the very slow-moving process of the rock formations and the faster moving clouds. Both change slower than the process of my mind. When my mind experiences them through my senses, they persist, therefore they are real – at least for my human mind.
Things that change faster than the process of our minds are ghostly, faintly noticed if at all. They don’t register as anything real because our brains mechanically do not detect it.
Our symbolic thinking is what enables we sapient humans to invent powerful algorithms through logic, abstraction, probability, and cause and effect. These algorithms are the complicated processes upon which build tools to better hunt, to use to build even more complicated tools (which often spit out less complicated things), and to shape an environment as we envision.
Most importantly, through our symbolic thinking, we ponder our self-awareness as well as recognizing self-awareness in others. We are things interacting with other things, resulting in other things.
We take snapshots of whatever we encounter and they are arranged in our brain as vast networks of cause and effect. We predict what will happen beforehand, so that we can avoid it or strategize a way to change the outcome. But our plans hardly ever works out as intended, particularly beyond all but the shortest term.
Boxes and Borders
We humans have a relentless need to break things up into hierarchies of “manageable chunks”, categorize the chunks (assign symbolic names), and count how many there are. For most of human history, if we ever thought about water beyond its wetness or air beyond its etherealness, we thought it to be continuous substances. Then we figured out all matter, from air to rocks, is made of very tiny parts.
Later, we even think light, gravity, and space itself are made up of tiny parts as well. It is satisfying to our relentless need to containerize and label things. Physics is the epitome of our symbolic thinking. We think ourselves to have been naïve and silly to not have realized this for so long. But is it really naïve? Does this mastery of symbolic thinking bring us closer to or further from reality?
Our gift of sapience enables us to survive in lush forests, deserts, and tundras, protect ourselves from much larger, faster, and stronger creatures (as well as the microscopic ones), and to effectively farm some of them in a scalable manner. It is our super power. None of those environments or creatures were a match for our sapience super-charging our merely “good enough” size, speed, strength, and other “good enough” items on the evolutionary checklist.
We’ve extended our gift of sapience, intended to enable us to craft tools, to contorting an explanation of phenomenon that’s most likely beyond the capability of our brains. We’re so well-trained with the success of our symbolic, object-oriented framework that our ability to see the reality of the Universe has atrophied to not much more than a metaphorical appendix. Dogs and cats we keep as pets are better at seeing reality than we are.
Most of the calculations we use to build the wonderful toys of our society are approximations. For example, measurements for anything looking like a circle is an approximation because we don’t have an exact value for pi. There are many other such fundamental constants which are approximations, leading to answers that are just approximations.
We build approximate things from other approximate things and those approximations eventually compound to eventually bite us in the ass.
Our inability to permanently tame complex systems is the sign we’re pushing our symbolic sapience too far. It’s like taking an analogy too far to the point of being ridiculous.
All of our human endeavors are the taming of complex systems. When we limit an endeavor to a carved out scope of space and time (“break it down into manageable chunks”), we enjoy some level of success. We break complex systems down into what seem to be parts and draw boxes around each part. Each of those boxes is reduced to a merely complicated piece – at least within the model in our brains. The reduced complicated system can be tamed because its within the scope of our monkey brains. We’re able to figure out how all the parts work in predictable ways.
We then assemble all of those complicated parts together into what looks like the complex system we started with, if we squint enough. However, things eventually deteriorate, unintended side-effects surprise us, and we end up suffering years with a big tangled ball of Christmas lights.
In fact, it’s our attempts to tame complex systems and our delusion that we’ve won that is the basis of dukkha. We create and build things to make life better. It always comes with some level of manageable maintenance. But instead of being happy with the problem we solved and maintain it, we decide to use the freed time and energy for even more, which requires more effort to maintain.
The way to see through to reality is through the mastery of a skill. Even though our conscious thoughts are symbolic, those who have mastered a skill understand the role of conscious symbolic thinking and flowing execution. High-performing athletes and musicians understand the conscious, attention-centric work that goes into building skill that looks effortless when performed.
The Zen master, Takuan (yes, like the pickled daikon), wrote:
“… when you first notice the sword that is moving to strike you, if you think of meeting that sword just as it is, your mind will stop at the sword in just that position, your own movements will be undone, and you will be cut down by your opponent.” – The Unfettered Mind, Takuan Soho
“Noticing the sword” means our brain has taken a snapshot of that instant in time. An instant later, that sword is somewhere else. It takes a fraction of a second for our brain to recognize something. So when we recognized the placement of the sword, it was actually there a fraction of a second ago. For a good swordsman, it probably took a fraction of a second to have moved the sword somewhere else that’s not very comfortable for his opponent.
A popular judo saying is: Through concentrated effort learn effortless action. Our conscious mind is not what we are. It sees a pattern and through enough effort our brains yield effortless action. It’s from years of purposeful guitar practice that effortless flow appears.
Our conscious mind is a trainer. It’s a shortcut compared to the millions of years it took to carve the Grand Canyon. It an wormhole for evolution.
It’s a little like a machine-learning algorithm that from millions of examples, a model is trained. The model is a succinct reduction of millions of examples to a poetic equation. Through years of conscious, focused effort, whether its thousands of repetitions of osotogari or the C maj scale, our brain coalesces around it to the point where all that effort is reduced to effortless action.
Our brains are just neurons. Individual neurons (or even brain components) have no desires, no regrets, no concerns, no hesitations. The 150+ billion single-celled creatures (neurons and glial cells) that make up my brain adjust to whatever I consciously tell them to do. They eventually fully blend into the flow that is reality, no whining, crying, or screaming. They are actually “dumb but wise”, fully blended into the flow that is reality.
When our action is effortless – there is no thought, fear, or hesitation – we see the Universe as it is, because we are fully immersed in it. We build that capability through a Zen art. By “Zen art”. I don’t mean the traditional Zen arts such as swordsmanship, archery, flower arrangement, calligraphy, or tea ceremony. It’s any skill for which you have the gumption to dedicate a long journey of years of consistent, conscious practice towards. One for which you will transcend Sahara Deserts worth of seemingly little gain. For me it’s been software for the past 44 years. In my old age, I’ve traded in martial arts for guitar.
Two Months Until Bodhi Day
The realization that all that we think, desire, and regret are products of our symbolic thinking leads to the understanding that reality is not remotely analogous to anything our brains think about. This is the same as a field extending through all of space collapsing into a single particle when observed. The symbolic thinking of humans isn’t reality. It is just an aspect of the mechanism of Life on Earth … and a really good super power.
Reality is not made up of parts, it is not a universe of objects and relationships. It is a supremely complex process. If we truly see that, all our worldly concerns no longer will make sense. Those concerns will be as how we now think of the tantrum we threw at five years old when we couldn’t get a silly toy. We can view each of our lives in a role of a supremely elaborate play for which we are uniquely suited. When we can do that, we can enjoy the part and laugh at our follies.
Faith and Patience,
Reverend Dukkha Hanamoku