Sentience without Sapience

The Rubber Ducky Buddha of Joliet blends in with the fleeting Autumn moment.

If we’re alone in the woods hiking with only nature to capture our attention, our thoughts eventually fade into the background. It’s like conversations people are having in the distance are just a blend of sounds. We can’t stop that guy in our minds (our thoughts) who just won’t shut up. But immersing ourselves into nature, the place in which the human template evolved, at least tunes out that jabbering fool.

That is sentience without sapience. It’s the state of just being. No labels, no plans to stick to, nothing to regret, no worries about life and death or any other desires. We just do whatever our sentient mind compels us to do in the face of what is presented to us.

But those natural woods I hiked in are the exception in this world today, not the rule. The woods are a place carved out of our civilization. We call it a “National Reserve” – a big park. I momentarily lost my sapience at the outer reaches of the park, very early in the morning of a weekday when the park is less like Central Park, and far from others who are there to clammer around the labeled sites. Under those rare conditions, my sapience wasn’t required.

Our ancestors a very long time ago could have gone down a path of becoming big and strong like a bear, fast like pronghorn, or venomous like a rattlesnake. Instead, the pachinko machine of evolution went down the path of sapience. With the super power of symbolic thinking, we built tools, grew food, and thrived.

We thrived so well that it’s incredibly difficult to find a place where sentience dominates over sapience. The automation that enables the scale of humanity today is snuffing out our sentience. It is sapience with no sentience, an artificial intelligence. Sentience is who we are, sapience is just a tool.

However, none of that is “bad”. It’s just a fragment of the Eternal Process. Like all forms, it will pass. But for we sentient beings who are distressed by the enslavement of our sapience, there are ways we can find a vacation of sentience without sapience.

We met a natural bonsai on one of our hikes during our Fall 2022 pilgrimage. We’ve never met one that looks so much like what bonsai enthusiasts strive to emulate. It turns out this natural bonsai is a master of sentience without sapience – not a master of bonsai, but thee Bonsai Spirit.

A natural bonsai we encountered on our sentient and mutedly sapient walk.

The gnarled trunk is that of a being of pure spirit. Blending with change. The twists of the trunk are the invention of simultaneous strength and flexibility. The trunk leans towards the right while the branches on the left extends further out. There is a fully dead trunk on the left, a remnant of a completely different time of its life. All without sapience, just purely blending in with the only valid amount of Yin and Yang.

Buddhists believe all organisms are sentient. All organisms feed themselves, reproduce, and repair. We may see individual organisms but they don’t exist in closed systems. The organisms are not independent agents. Rather, they are all snapshots of a long-running process.

It’s not just a process spanning space and time. It’s also recursive. The cells that make up my sentient human self are individual organisms. They just can’t live alone as they’ve become very needy with each other. Even the cells of my body contain other cells, such as mitochondria. Going the other way, the collection of sentient humans is yet something else.

Some Buddhists even believe all things are sentient. Some would further say all things have a soul. Does the granite next to the natural bonsai have a soul? It may look like a rock, but is it a part of something bigger? Is it a part of the bonsai master?

Is a single bolt of a car engine part of a car? Or a wrench to tighten a nut on a bolt? Every rock and raindrop is part of a very big process.

The sunrise that greeted us each morning during the pilgrimage gave proof of that very big process in which even the granite rock around the Bonsai Spirit is sentient. The granite rock is part of the plate tectonics and volcanism that recycles Life on Earth in the scale of millions of years. Concurrently, the sun refreshes and resets our minds on the daily scale and the Earth on a yearly scale, as advertised by the Fall colors that decorated our hikes.

The sunrise that greeted us each morning during our Fall pilgrimage.

Remember that sapience is just a tool, and that sentience is who we are. While working on your Zen art towards effortless action, you will live this realization, no longer needing to find it only during a 10 minute meditation or a walk in the remote woods. You will see reality.

This short blog is mostly a Zen shoutout to our friends in India for a wonderful Diwali (this coming Monday, October 24, 2022)!!

Faith and Patience,

Reverend Dukkha Hanamoku

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