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Reality - And What to Do About It

by Kulananda

Reality — And What to Do About It

A Buddhist Look at Life, the Universe, and All That (Part 1)

by Kulananda

A tree falls in the forest. There’s no one to hear it. Does it make a sound?
Sound is an experience. It is not the movement of air. Nor is it the vibration of the
eardrum, or the electrical impulses that the eardrum sends to the brain. Sound is the
experience that these events give rise to. So the answer to our question is un-ambivalent:
no, if there’s no one there to hear it, the experience of sound doesn’t occur. The tree falls
without a sound.

Think about it. As you’re sitting there, reading this, all these soundless events are taking
place all over the world. Trees are falling to forest floors in complete, pin-drop silence.
Now think about the image you’ve just conjured up in your mind: silent trees falling to
the forest floor. What’s wrong with that image? Answer: if there’s no one there to hear
the trees fall, then there’s no one there to see them, taste them, feel them or smell them.
What is actually happening in those forests is not what we thought it was. We had an
image of trees we could see, silently falling. But there was no one to see them either. The
visual image we had is therefore inappropriate, and the same goes for all the other senses.
The truth is, it is totally impossible for us to grasp or even imagine what happened in that
unheard, unseen forest, and the same applies to what is happening right now in the room
next door to the one you’re reading this in. If there’s no sound or any other sense
impression coming from it, what is actually happening in it, right now, is an
unfathomable mystery.

‘Now just hang on a moment,’ you might respond. ‘Perhaps I don’t know exactly what’s
going on in the room next door, but I’m pretty sure that if I walk into it I’ll find chairs, a
table, a floor and a window. It’s not that mysterious!’

Well, I’m not so sure about that. You may well find what you expect in the room next
door, but the world we live in is very much more mysterious than we usually think, as I
hope to show in the course of this article. Let’s do a little more imagining.
Human beings are largely optical creatures. Our eyes give us the biggest part of our
information about the world we inhabit, and our world is made up very largely of sight-
objects. The majority of nouns we use refer to sight-objects: chair, table, car, fridge...
When we think of these things we ‘see’ them in our minds. If I think of the fridge in our
kitchen, I call to mind a large, rectangular white object in my mind’s eye. I don’t think of
its peculiar, intermittent, hum — which I might if I lived predominantly in a world of
sound; and I don’t think of its cool, hard, surface — as I would if my world were based
mainly on touch.

But not all animals perceive the world in the same way we humans do. Take dogs for
example. Rover relies far more on his sense of smell than we do. Imagine you’re sitting
around with a group of friends, having a chat, and Rover comes bounding into the room
and makes a nuisance of himself. He dashes around, sniffing everyone and wagging his
tail energetically. Youre a sensitive kind of person, so you notice that Suzie has stiffened
and is holding herself in a tight, defensive posture. Out, Rover! Come on, out! He doesnt
want to go, so you take hold of his collar, pull him towards the door and shut him out of
the room. Sorry about that! He was just being friendly. He can be a nuisance. . . Suzie
visibly relaxes.

Let’s try and imagine what that was like for Rover. To do that, were going to have to do
some translating from his smell world to our sight world. To begin with, he dashes about
the room, sniffing everyone. That gives him a lot of information about them, including
where some of them have just been. All day, Rover has been running around the
neighbourhood, sniffing. He’s already smelt the lingering trace left by your friend John as
he walked from his house around the corner. Rover also knows that Suzie got off the bus
down the road and walked to your house from there.

John and Suzie left scent traces behind them. To get an optical sense of what Rover
picked up, wed have to imagine that as we move about the world we leave distinctive
light traces behind us. These fade over time, but if we looked wed see Suzie’s light trace
going back to the bus stop and John’s going back to his house. Each of these would be
different. John’s light trace, for example, would contain tantalising glimpses of Janey, his
pet Labrador.

Some people say that dogs know by smell whether or not people are frightened of them.
So to add to the picture, you’ll have to imagine that Suzie shines a cold, fearful blue
when Rover comes bounding up to her, and she only returns to her usual warm orangey
glow when he’s safely out of the room.

It’s a strange world, Rover’s, but not half as strange as that of the duck-billed platypus.
Scientists have only recently discovered the purpose of the large, rubbery bill on the face
of this cuddly, nocturnal, semi-aquatic, insectivorous creature. It’s a sensing device, and a
very accurate one too. Duck-billed platypuses weigh around thirty kilos, and they eat a
third of their own body-weight in aquatic insects every night (ten kilos’ worth). That
makes them pretty effective hunters. This is how they do it: their bill has a number of
sensors in it that pick up the tiny micro-voltages emitted by the movement of insect
muscles. What kind of sense world does that produce?

Imagine a world of darkness in which, when anyone near you moves, their muscles emit
light, making them suddenly appear out of the darkness. But when they fall still, the light
dies away and they disappear. Moving, they appear; still, they vanish. Beings emerge and
vanish all over the place in this world, and they glow in intensity according to their size
and the vigour of their movement.

Now let’s stretch our imaginations still further. Imagine a world inhabited by beings
whose primary mode of perception comes from gamma rays. Gamma rays are a form of
very high frequency radiation that passes straight through objects like us. If you
perceived mainly gamma rays, then the human world, in all its glory, would simply not
exist for you. You would not be able to ‘see’ it at all. To all intents and purposes, it would
just not be there.

Of course I’m not saying that such beings as these exist, but I do want to say that the
universe is a strange and marvellous place, an infinite network of mutually
interpenetrating worlds. Bee worlds, and fly worlds, dog worlds and flee worlds, your
world and my world each of us experiences the world in a unique way, according to the
configuration of our senses.

We tend to think that our human world is normative. It’s ‘the world’, the way things are.
Flies, with their weird, multi-faceted eyes and multiple vision may see it differently to us,
but it’s this world, our world, that they’re seeing differently. For us, our world is the
objective standard of reality. Chairs, tables, floors and windows: these are the real things.
Flies may have a strange take on them, but that’s flies for you. Our world is the real
world.

But it’s not like that. Chairs, tables, floors and windows appear because of the way our
senses work. If our senses worked differently — if we only perceived gamma rays, for
example — they wouldn’t appear at all. It really is all in the mind. As Vasubandhu put it,
sarvam vijñaptimatrakam — ‘everything is mere experience.’

But we don’t like to think of things in that way. We have a deep attachment to the idea
that there is matter out there, ‘stuff’ that is constant, which provides the sense of
continuity we both experience and desire. When they walk into the room next door and
find chairs, a table, windows and (phew!) a floor, most people think it’s because of the
working of ‘matter’, the fixed and concrete underpinning of this otherwise uncertain
world.

But what is matter? If different worlds appear to different beings in dependence on their
sense-configurations, is there anything we can get hold of that underlies all of these
worlds and keeps them together? Well, if there is, we can never experience it. If there is
anything going on out there apart from our experience, we cannot get at it by any direct
means whatsoever. It is a complete mystery.

Before we go any further with this, there is a point that really needs to be stressed. When
I say that there is no objective world we can get hold of apart from our experience, I’m
not denying the nature of that experience itself. Our experience is undeniably our
experience. It is what is. What I am denying is the claim that chairs and tables have a
perceptible objective reality apart from what we experience — that underlying our
experience is some kind of fixed, unchanging matter.

Let’s think about matter for a little while. What is it? What purpose are we trying to get it
to serve? The things we experience are experienced in different ways by different beings. ...

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