“[N]either time nor place affects the fact that we are common experiencing human beings.” – Hamilton-Blyth, Sue. Early Buddhism: A New Approach: The I of the Beholder (p. 61).
The understanding is cross-cultural and perennial that we don’t live anywhere else but in or as our present experiencing; and that we can at least live well, if not flourish, by minimising our dissociation from present experiencing.
It comes as a surprise to some that what ‘present’ means can be debated; but I’ll leave it imprecise, for now. What’s not so contentious is the importance of sensory experience for flourishing; and, as you have seen, Buddhist culture includes “mental content” as a sensory dimension.
In the following, I refer these sensory dimensions collectively, sometimes as ‘experience,’ and sometimes as ‘experiencing’, and sometimes as ‘lifeworld.’ They represent the range of ‘happenings’ occurring in any moment or situation. Before I give a kind of model – that is, before I detail the ‘seven’ – to aid tracking the happenings of this open and yet precise sphere of Being, I want to give a picture of the power of such models, vis-a-vis death and deathlessness.
This contextualization will briefly introduce:
– the importance of personal experience in the context of Early Buddhist liberation;
– the concept of ‘lifeworld’;
– one’s individual world-within-the-world (loka);
– the nature of sensory life;
– the implicit order in one’s lifeworld (the presence of a greater responsive order, implicit in the ‘All’ of experiencing);
– mindfulness in the context of this non-conceptual aspect of reality, and its the open-ended flow;
– and, the power of Early Buddhism’s invitation to experience ‘space’
That should be enough of an introduction to what you are experiencing right now!
The Importance of Starting from a Non-Manifold Perspective
So, why did I consider this intro necessary, if the various dimensions of sense are here now and verifiable? Because usually we look without a context which would help us see the new. Have you heard about that great experiment about the gorilla on the basketball court (which I would say was an experiment in mindlessness, or mindless ‘relevanting)? It was carried out at Harvard University. (That’s not meant to be harsh, but descriptive of how we are much of the time.)
The experiments asked their subjects to watch a short video (see it here) in which six people pass basketballs around. The subjects were asked to keep a track of the number of passes made by certain of the people in the video. During the ball-passing, a gorilla walked into the middle of the action, faced the camera and beat his chest, then left. Half the people who watched the video, counting the passes, and did not see the gorilla!
Of course, that wouldn’t happen to you and I, would it? Or would it? What are we missing that is right here in front of our noses which we are missing moment to moment? The unbroken flow of experience might be the gorilla in our personal world. The intuitive, holistic dimension of experience is as invisible to the untrained person as that gorilla was to those subjects. What if what is relevant to us is limiting of life-opportunities? Would we know it?
Normally, we experience our various senses as broken up into separate ‘channels.’ However, it’s possible to experience them differently – as undivided; and as a result of such an experience, how we relate to the ‘world’ around is transformed. We realise that the ‘objective world’ and our senses inter-relate in such an inextricable way that we can’t actually tease out where our senses end and the world begins. This is the territory of the insight into interdependence of an everything in everything (ev-eving) kind.
The Nikāya Buddha emphasised that we need to know our sensory experience (including mind-states, remember); because, any sense that there is an objective ‘world’ to be experienced is directly dependent on our six (as he taught them) sensory processes.
The primary focus of Nikāya Buddha’s training was on immediacy, on how each of us perceives our personal world now; because to live wisely, we must know our experiencing as it actually is. His point was that what his teaching had to be tested by each of us, in the laboratory of this very body:
“Practitioners, do you not speak that which is known by yourselves, seen by yourselves, found by yourselves?”
“It is well, Practitioners! You have been instructed by me in this timeless teaching which can be seen here and now and which invites your testing; which leads to the goal [of inner freedom]; and can be understood individually by the intelligent.” – Mahatanhasankhaya Sutta (MN 38)
That’s the first point.
The questions that follow [in Visions of Knowledge] advocate no particular view. Their assumptions are open to being challenged; their conclusions should be considered provisional. If we ask in ways that are incisive and clear, our questions do not have to lead to answers. In asking openly, we create support for knowledge, and then our inquiry cannot fail.” – Tarthang Tulku, Visions of Knowledge
Openness is a kind of knowing upon which our inquiry can depend. Indeed, openness intrinsically has a fine quality of inquiry. And, the need for openness is applicable, too, when we make statements (as distinct from questions, mentioned in this quote). If we are dwelling openly, our statements – negative or affirmative – can act as prompts for further inquiry; even if that inquiry is only the act of appreciation. Open interchange carries a conversation forward (as the combination of ‘inter-’ and ‘change’ implies).
As a writer of Dharma, I dance between saying what I know to be so and the openness that in itself is not sayable. Although the openness is always present, I have to zig-zag. I am mindful of not turning the saying into some kind of fixed knowledge – which is to create fictions in the service of my self-image. The awareness that this living is open by nature, helps me avoid being dogmatic. (Sometimes I hear the student come into my voice, and I know to pause.)
The dilemma of such knowing is nicely put by the Nikāya Buddha (in the Kālakarāma Sutta): “All the things that people and gods know, I know too. But I don’t conceive of any thing in or behind what is experienced.” (Don’t quote it. This is a summary for our specific purpose; yet, the gist is accurate.) He follows this up with: “This snag I beheld, long ago, upon which humankind is hooked, is impaled, which is: ‘I know, I see, ‘tis truly so.’” How will we live, in ordinary situations, and not be run by our opinions, beliefs, principles, or tenets; that is, by our ‘dogmas’?
If such a radical change of heart is to be optimally secured in humanity – safely come upon, and yet remain fresh in its transformative freedom – whatever is claimed to be ‘true’ or ‘known’ can’t be imposed from without; not by gods, nor culture. For such a change to be a “turning-about in the deepest seat of consciousness” (Lankavatara Sutra), it has to come from directly knowing our experience.
When our senses are not grasped at – and we thoroughly let them be in their own reach and range – there’s a fundamental revolution in knowing, where even to speak of separate senses is not correct. This realization is the fruit of openness. Openness is the way and the fruit. Clearly, this kind of self-knowledge is radically intimate. It’s an open connection to a basic quality of life which is ‘already-always’ available.
(By the way, while reading “seat of consciousness,” how did you register the word ‘seat,’ in yourself, as you read? Did you vaguely imagine it as something static, fixed, or located; as somewhat thing-ish? A solid base? That would be natural, wouldn’t it, to give it spaciality? However, we want to leave such terms open to a process-use, which won’t establish any such ‘seat’ as actually findable. The word ‘seat,’ here, has to mean something active – even vividly living – right? Let’s not freeze the image; because, it points to experience.)
So, what exactly are we directly knowing, such that our fixities – for instance, our constructions: I am here, something is there, and there’s a ‘between’ – dissolve? Traditionally, the Nikāya Buddha named this knowledge that we need to develop as ‘the six’: seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, and cognizing (which has usually been interpreted as knowing mental events). It was, for him, comprehensive:
“What is the All?” he said. “Simply, it’s: the eye & forms, ear & sounds, nose & smells, tongue & tastes, body & tactile sensations, intellect & mental content.”
I’ve expanded them because modern knowledge includes a lot of subtleties. In a recent post, I spoke of them as ‘the eight,’ but now I’m condensing them into seven – “seven domains of sensory life.” The names, by which I hope to encompass all that we currently designate as knowable are: seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, interoception, and symbolizing.
The purpose of the lists is not merely to clarify the known for scientific progress (not in itself an unworthy purpose, of course) but in the Buddhist tradition it has always been for direct self-knowledge. So, next I’ll unpack the ancestral territory that we have available for deepening the inquiry into death, these seven domains of sense. The takeaway from the above paragraphs, though, is to be wary, during this analysis, of foreclosing our inquiry by assuming that our names, and the forms we discern, are the reality of the body. The body doesn’t actually have parts or opposites. It is an open cycle functioning, so our thinking about the body with its body-environment interaction via the linguistic gestures of ‘parts,’ ‘categories’ and other names, is meant to point to movements of an undivided process, an undivided multiplicity.