Saturday, July 19, 2008
I hate the phrase "the nature of reality" because, sad to say, I heard my father use it too many times to count. Even as a middle-aged person, I'm still tired of the phrase, or more accurately put, my hackles go up when I hear it (and what's a hackle, anyway?)
I have been harboring the delusion that I'm not interested in finding out what the nature of reality is. If this is so, why does zen interest me? I waffle over this issue. Most of the time, my relationship to zen is simply this: sitting in meditation makes me feel good. Sitting with others makes me feel even better. I enjoy reading the Chinese sutras and don't spend much time or thought trying to figure out what they mean. I sit with the ideas, letting them settle into my consciousness. I have some understanding, but it is something I can't articulate well. I feel it in my bones. It makes me smile. I may be completely deluded about my understanding, but I basically don't care.
Yet, I read much that is completely opaque to me and I find that bothersome. I do feel many of the stories about the encounters between students and teachers to be utterly absurd and wonder why they just can't say what they mean in plain language. If Buddhism is supposed to free people of suffering, wouldn't it be more expediant to make the teachings easier to understand? The teachers say it is both easy and hard, or neither or both or that making a distinction between easy and hard proves one doesn't understand a thing. . .and I sigh. Just say it! Why do we have to work so hard?
But this isn't what I meant to write about. I was thinking about how my vision may have inclined me, as a young child, to think about things such as the "nature of reality". Unfortunately, I would not discuss this subject with anyone, especially my father, for whom it has been his tireless favorite subject and companion, for I was afraid of ridicule.
I was born with a lazy left eye. My left eye wandered all over the place, mostly at the furthest point towards the left. Most of the time I saw double and some times (I was told) my brain would just discard my left eye's information and I would see a single image.
My vision gave me an odd perspective on the world at a most formative age. If I was seeing double, I had to ascertain which image was the "real" one. No one told me how to do this and it was an interesting puzzle. I would often use my forefinger to poke at an image to see if my finger touched it or not. Even while writing this, I notice I write "image" instead of writing "the table" or "the cat". Every thing was suspect, in a way. Was it real or not? If you've ever watched television hooked to an antenna, you've probably seen ghost images at times. That is what my vision is like. On the TV, both images are "not real", in a sense, so it's not of any importance to get it right.
Getting it right is very important. If I get it wrong, I may bump into the edge of a door or ram my car into another one. I may go to pick up a pencil and swipe at air. But I don't. I have learned to judge and, unbelievably, considering my vision problems, have spent most of my life doing artwork (like tattooing) where precision is of the utmost importance. I wonder if I overcompensated for my strange sight by being interested in activities that challenged it. Tattooing, technical drawing, lace making, hand sewing - they all require a tremendous amount of accuracy.
As to reality, well, I used to wonder about the very concept of their being a "real image". It seemed to me, at a very young age, that what we saw was a construct in our mind, and in truth, that is so. We see upside-down, and mechanisms of sight (which I can't explain without reading a textbook) turn the image the right way. Is the world upside-down? Maybe so.
I chose to believe that the image that had more opacity was the real image. But I may be wrong. Again, the truth is exactly in the middle. The left view is wrong and the right view is also wrong. The image in the middle is "correct" and three dimensional. But is it really there, in the middle?
Not in my world. For me, reality is always on the right hand side. The left side, now that some of my sight problem has been corrected (and I wear glasses) wanders around quite a bit. In the morning, there's a whole world of images that I mentally discard. After a half an hour or so, my left eye finally wakes up and starts to behave a bit. Then I have to deal with that ghost image.
I do bump into the edges of things. I can't see the edges of things clearly. It's hazy. If there's any danger involved (like standing on the edge of a cliff), I feel quite insecure. I can not be certain where anything stops, so I stay back.
Some people think I'm overly anxiety ridden or wimpy, but they don't see the world like I do. It is reasonable for me to be a bit more nervous at the edge of a canyon than the average person. I had to walk across a board to get on a boat in the Bay of Fundy once and almost fell to my death in a chasm of seaweed. I learned to drive at the age of 30, when I finally felt secure enough to know I could figure out how far the cars on my left were from me. But, I'm still a nervous driver when I get outside my comfort zone. If it's not rural, I shouldn't be trusted with a car.
I remember spending hours looking at small objects on white sheets when I was young. I would first close my left eye and then my right and watch how the image moved. I learned to control my eyes with all sorts of crazy exercises (which gave me a two year long headache). But still, my image of the world is constantly in flux. So, I had thought, for the longest time, that nothing is real. Our minds only interpret, and they do so with varying levels of accuracy. And there is no way that I can see what you see nor you I. So, is reality fixed? Certainly not!
How do you see? Or hear? Or taste, smell or feel? It is not the same as the way I do, or anybody else's. So, how can we say there is one reality?