Originally posted on 05-19-07:
I ended yesterday’s post mentioning the importance of distinguishing fantasy from reality, which brings up a really big question: What is reality?
Which reminds me of the current installment of Visual Dharma on Tricycle’s web site, a video of a talk by Nyogen Yeo Roshi called “Seeing Through the Illusion.” He talks specifically about the kinds of illusion that are unavoidably built into language. A favorite subject of mine, so I’ll quote myself from an essay on free will:
Another benefit of language is that it allows us to unite groups of things with one term rather than having to refer to them by naming all their constituent parts. This benefit has a shortcoming in that it simulates a kind of unity that may not do justice to the true complexity of that to which it refers. It leads to our thinking that words refer to objects when no true object exists. The classic example of this objectification, this blurring of complexity, is the case of the visitor being given a tour of a “university” who complained that he had only seen a bunch of buildings. In fact, you cannot see a university, which might properly be considered to include not only the campus, but the instructors and staff, the students, the curriculum, and the history.
So one kind of illusion that arises, almost constantly, is in seeing “things” when what we are looking at or thinking about is a process or a summary of phenomena that is much more complex than language can describe. Language necessarily simplifies, and a more rigorous view of reality requires keeping that in mind.
The Roshi also makes a sweeping gesture to encompass his field of view and says that “all this” is illusory. Although it may not be what he intended, what that suggests to me is the limits of our perceptual apparatus.
Which brings to mind a book I read for the first time a few months ago by Robert Anton Wilson, called Quantum Psychology: How Brain Software Programs You & Your World. (In getting that link I saw that he died in January, and strangely, I felt a sense of loss I didn’t feel when my own father died.) He says, “…we see that most animals perceive as accurate a reality-tunnel of their local habitat as will statistically allow most members of that species to survive long enough to reproduce. No animal, including the domesticated primate, can smugly assume the world revealed/created by its senses and brain equals in all respects the real world or the ‘only real world.'”(p. 92)
So part of “seeing through the illusion” is to recognize that our perceptual apparatus is limited in its abilities. Even though our perceptual realm has been vastly expanded by technology, our initial capabilities limit the kinds of things we can even imagine looking for.
Not only are we limited in this way, but the limits of our sensory systems limit the kind of reality we can conceive of. For example, our technology allows us to measure certain behaviors of light that are particle-like, and others that are wave-like, but our brains have no way of conceiving a “thing” that would have both those kinds of behaviors. If this is true of light, a phenomenon we are capable of seeing, it suggests that there may be other phenomena whose very existence we can’t conceive.
Given all these considerations, it becomes clear that the totality of reality is likely to be much more than the limited realm we can perceive and think about, and to think otherwise is illusory.
This doesn’t mean that our reality is, in fact, unreal, or altogether illusory. Our perceptual reality is close enough to “the real thing” to give us what we need to know to survive on this planet for a few billion years—in one form or another. If you put your hand in the fire it will probably hurt.
But our perceptual/conceptual reality has its limits—visual illusions being one of the most fun examples—and appreciating those limits can improve our sense of humor. It can also help us to deal with our suffering more effectively, and eliminate much of it.
How Real Is This