Form is the wave and emptiness is the water. So,
“form is emptiness, emptiness is form” is like “wave is
water, water is wave” . . . A wave on the ocean has a
beginning and an end, a birth and a death. But
Avalokitesvara tells us that the wave is empty. The
wave is full of water, but it is empty of a separate self.
A wave is a form which has been made possible
thanks to the existence of wind and water. If a wave
only sees its form, with its beginning and end, it will
be afraid of birth and death. But if the wave sees that
it is water, identifies itself with the water, then it will
be emancipated from birth and death. Each wave is
born and is going to die, but the water is free from
birth and death.
THICH NHAT HANH
A seminal moment in Western philosophy occurred when Rene´ Descartes declared, “Cogito Ergo Sum” (I think therefore I am). The good Dr Phil pointed out to me long ago that Descartes had missed something important. Descartes should have been aware that he was more than his thoughts. His thoughts appeared in his “theatre of mind” and his unique attribute was that he was able to observe his “theatre of mind”. This is the characteristic of self-aware human beings – that not only do they have thoughts but they are aware of those thoughts which as far as we can discern is not the case with other animals. In Eastern wisdom traditions, the faculty we have to observe the contents of mind is called “The Witness” and is regarded as the seat of spirituality.
And of course this ability to observe the contents of mind is not an inconsequential thing. In conventional thinking our self-awareness creates our notion of “mind”. And consequently once we have a concept of mind we immediately have to confront two apparent realms of existence – an external world (the “world out there”) and an internal world (the “world in here”).
To most of us that seems an obvious dichotomy. All our worries and emotional reactions obviously belong to the world “in here” and all the material things like other people, trees, dogs, ice-creams and high-rise buildings belong to the world “out there”.
But if we take a little time to consider how we become aware of the world “out there” we might need to modify our beliefs.
Our knowledge of the physical world (the world “out there”) comes to us from sensory perceptions. We see things; we smell things; we hear things; we feel things and so on. But those sensory perceptions that inform us about the physical world are transferred to and portrayed in our minds. So what we think we “know” about the so-called external world is a tapestry that our sense perceptions have painted in our minds. If the world “out there” actually exists we can only “know” it through the representation that exists in our mind built up by our sensory perceptions. Consequently the only things we can know for sure are what we experience in our inner world. And unfortunately for those of rationalistic scientific bent, this is subjective knowledge.
We also know that our sensory perception is limited. We can, for example, only perceive a limited part of the spectrum of electromagnetic radiation. We can see the visible spectrum of light but we can’t see infra-red or X-rays, for example. Our other sensory perceptions are also constrained. We can’t hear, for example, the high frequency sounds that bat use to echo-locate.
(Aldous Huxley believed that the brain was a “reducing valve” that curtailed our sensory perception to something our cognitive power could handle without being overwhelmed.)
It is obvious then that our perception of the world “out there” is a particularly constrained one. In this regard our map of the external world that we construct in our internal world is limited. Hence our perception of reality is necessarily vastly incomplete.
As I pointed out in a previous essay, materialists believe that everything there is must somehow be a manifestation of matter. But it seems seriously to strain credulity to believe that out of inert matter consciousness could arise. This is often referred to by scientists and philosophers as the “hard problem”.
Bernard Kastrop is a scientist who writes extensively about metaphysics and the philosophy of mind.
He summarises the “hard problem” thus:
The problem is this: according to current state-of-the-art materialism, the primary element of reality is a relatively small set of fundamental subatomic particles described in the so-called ‘Standard Model of Physics’. These particles are referred to as ‘ontological primitives’: they are materialism’s basic building blocks for constructing everything else in nature, from galaxies to chairs, to you and me. In other words we should be able to construct explanations for every object or phenomenon in nature in terms of the dynamics of these subatomic particles; how they move and interact with one another. The problem is that materialism ordinarily assumes these subatomic particles lack consciousness. So how do you get consciousness merely by arranging ‘dead’ subatomic particles together?
So materialists would argue that ‘mind’ resides in the brain. They believe that some special quality of the complexity of the neural connections delivers us consciousness. That to me is the inverse of the real truth. I am more than confident that the mind does not reside in the brain but in fact the brain resides in the mind.
So if we cut to the chase, it seems to me that the essential stuff of the universe is not matter at all, but consciousness (mind). (Later I will describe the error that results in partitioning the world in this way.)
We know from quantum physics material phenomena are influenced by human observers. Indeed we know that without a conscious observer many physical phenomena at the quantum level are indeterminate. To realise a material outcome, requires the intervention of a conscious observer. Does not this suggest that instead of matter manifesting as consciousness, the real truth is that consciousness manifests as matter?
If you were to be pernickety about this you might reverse the above argument and enquire how could something as substantial as matter derive from something as ephemeral as mind? But then I would point out to you that the manifestation of matter, as I explained above, only occurs in our mind. Indeed the only things that we can possibly be aware of present themselves in the theatre of mind. If there is indeed a world “out there” all we can know about it is the map we create of it in the world “in here”. You might ask, do we then dream matter up? Well in a sense we do. In your own, personal dreams when asleep, you do so all the time.
So contrary to what we have been led to believe all of our lives, there is no such thing as “objective” truth because all we can know is derived from subjective sensory impression on our theatre of mind.
Now the dichotomy that seems to arise by dividing the world between consciousness (mind, observer, “Witness” or whatever) and physical manifestations and events is also the subject of much philosophical and scientific speculation. The cleaving of the world into two parts comprising the observer and the observed is called “primary dualism”. This is an artificial separation which is disputed by both scientists and sages.
Jacob Bronowski in The Common Sense of Science wrote:
Relativity derives essentially from the philosophical analysis which insists that there is not in fact an observer, but the joining of the two in observation ……that event and observer are not separable.
Erwin Schrodinger, founder of Quantum Mechanics, put it bluntly:
Subject and object are only one. The barrier between them cannot be said to have broken down as a result of recent experience in the physical sciences for this barrier does not exist.
So this suggests to me that matter is but an extension of consciousness and both are bound to exist together.
So my own thesis on how the universe works goes something like this. To begin with the underlying creative force is not the interaction of subatomic particles but the manifestation of consciousness. In essence there is only one consciousness, the universal consciousness, which we all, to some extent, share. Conscious humans come into being because little shards of that universal consciousness are separated off from the collective consciousness to be lodged in individuals. Consequently I have a part of consciousness that I cannot share with you. The promotion and defence of that shard is what causes the ego to arise, differentiating myself from you. This is the separation that results in all human dilemmas. This action, in creating identity, leads to fear and human dysfunction.
But nevertheless I still share much of my consciousness with you. Out of our shared consciousness comes a consensus about what the reality of the universe is like. This is where the basic laws of physics are derived. I see a tree in my back garden and when you look you see it too. This is called “consensus” reality. Collectively we agree on gravity, the laws of motion and inertia and the basics of mathematics, and so on.
(When I was younger I often wondered whether what appears to be real is dependent on our capability to imagine it. For example is it possible that before we could envision the world as spheroid in shape might not it have actually been flat? Now that thought should provoke some controversy! But might it not be as the British Poet, Ralph Hodgson suggested that:
Some things have to be believed to be seen.)
So then we all have a broader participation in the universal consciousness out of which our consensus reality is derived. But occasionally some of us seem to have the capacity to access more of the universal consciousness and this is manifest in extreme creativity, intuition, synchronicity and like phenomena.
In allegorical terms it is though we live in a collective dream. But because we each have our own little bit of assigned consciousness we also have dreams that others can’t access – dreams within the dream if you like. (But that little piece of consciousness is still part of the universal consciousness and is accessible to it.) Much of the dream I have in the day, through this mechanism of consensus reality, we all share. But when I dream at night, that occurs in that little bit of consciousness I have roped off from the rest of the world and is not available to you at all.
And when I dream at night my dream manifests itself in concrete terms. I dream of trees, fire engines, other people, purple grapes, yellow oranges and green grass that have substance. I can smell roses and savour wine. In my dreams I can stub my toe, drive my car and eat a watermelon. So, even in my exclusively personal dream I create a physical world. But you can’t access these experiences because this is a manifestation of my personal consciousness.
When I awake in the morning, I wake into another dream that I then largely share with others. So although we share this collective consciousness, I still have the capacity to carve out another small space of my own by virtue of the fact I still have a small piece of consciousness that I can call my own. Consequently I can day dream and conjure up all manner of things in my imagination that are invisible to others.
In essence then, it seems to me that there is only one consciousness, the universal consciousness. But the universal consciousness can be compartmentalised into three segments. Firstly there are the little bits of consciousness (individual, personal consciousness) that we hold to ourselves from which the ego derives. The universal consciousness is cognisant of these pieces of consciousness but other humans are not. Then there is the shared consciousness that all humans access and which underpins our consensus reality (shared consciousness if you will). The rest of the universal consciousness is not generally accessible to us and is often referred to as the unconscious or the subconscious. But even this more arcane portion of the universal consciousness has sometimes been accessed to a small degree by mystics, savants and intuitives.
In a similar vein the neo-Confucians believed that we all have two minds: our human mind and the mind of Heaven with which we were all endowed at birth. Our heavenly mind embodies the li, the heavenly principle and the Way we ought to be, the Dao. Our human mind is that associated with ego. The struggle for the sage is to ensure that the human mind does not overcome the heavenly mind.
Well you might ask is my description of the cosmogony of the universe helpful and how does it relate to conventional beliefs?
Let us go to the big question first. What does such a belief imply for religion? It suggests that the creative force of the universe is the stream of consciousness, or perhaps more appropriately universal consciousness. It is understandable that this is a difficult concept to articulate and as a result our ancestors called it God.
But traditional religion, just like most science, portrays creation as a once-off event whereas creation is an ongoing process which is happening now. The manifestation of consciousness that we call matter will only exist while the universal consciousness allows it. And in reality there is no past and no future, because our notion of reality can only come from sensory experience, and the only sensory experience available to us is what we experience in the present, i.e. now: creation is always with us.
One of the features of traditional religion that I despise is that most of us are passive receivers of dogma. We come to our religious beliefs virtually as third parties and our beliefs are handed down to us through intermediaries. We accept the beliefs handed to us by our priests and our churches often because of the influence of our families, our racial inheritance and our nationalities. We are afraid to approach any notion of deity directly.
The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein counselled us:
Make sure your religion is a matter between you and God only.
And as Bernard Kastrop (quoted above) states:
So when religious myths are used to legitimise the power of people who place themselves between transcendence and us, the motivations for this must be questioned. When clergy become dictators instead of symbols of, or guides to, our own inner wisdom, something isn’t quite right.
But as I established earlier, the only reality we can know is what we experience. And surely religion is no different. As everything else we have to validate our religion by personal experience and not by passive acceptance of the beliefs of others. Mind you, the beliefs of others can provide guidance to us, but our own belief must be grounded by our own experience.
(After writing the above I remembered the passage in Genesis in the Old Testament when Jacob spent the night wrestling with God in the gorge of Jabbok near the border of Canaan. After this struggle God pronounced that Jacob would henceforth be known as Israel which is translated as “one who wrestled with God”. This seems to me to be a strong allegory in support of coming to our own terms with God. So in an allegorical sense the “chosen people” are those who “wrestle with God” and are not so anointed because of race or accidents of history.
As religious commentator and historian, Karen Armstrong has written:
In almost all cultures, scripture has been one of the tools that men and women have used to apprehend a dimension that transcends their normal lives. They have encountered a reality there that goes beyond their normal experience but endows it with ultimate significance.)
Now one of the prime considerations of religion is bodily death. If the universe works the way I think it does, when a person dies the little bit of consciousness he has circumscribed to himself is released back into the universal consciousness. The ego is extinguished, and our essential essence – our little share of consciousness – returns to the sanctuary of the universal consciousness. In historic times you might forgive our ancestors if they said death enabled us to return to the bosom of our God. (I included the piece from Thich Nhat Hanh at the head of this essay because it provides a nice metaphor for this phenomenon.)
Christianity, and other religious traditions as well, tell us men and women were “created in God’s image”. Now while the fundamentalists and the literalists will try to maintain the physical form of our bodies is identical to that of our Creator, most believers don’t agree. It is hard to conceive of a God with arms and legs, a head, intestines and genitals! Now if we view God as the universal consciousness and the essence of Humankind is our little share of consciousness, then we are born in the image of God, albeit a significantly curtailed one. But in a real sense we are all part of God in the traditional sense.
This is of course not a unique point of view but one that has been repeated in many religions.
In the Upanishads, the Vedic rishis maintained that all things were One and as a result the atman – the sacred core of everybody and everything – was inseparable from the immortal Brahman that sustained the entire cosmos. The essential message of the Upanishads is that the human self is itself divine, wholly inseparable from the ultimate reality (universal consciousness).
What we are inclined to forget is that divine revelation is essentially the revelation of the true nature of ourselves.
Jordan Peterson has pointed out that, “our most important cognitive functions are often embedded in narrative”. This explains the importance of scripture, myth and allegory in understanding the world and our part in it.
We can never know the truth directly but our myths and allegories can give us insights about the truth. I have attempted to provide you with another allegory with which to approach truth but my allegory is no more literally true than biblical scripture, the Rig Vedas, the Upanishads or the many other works on which our religious traditions depend.
But I would also warn that, considering the opinions of our scientists and sages, dividing the world into consciousness (mind), and the physical world (matter), is just another example of the primary dualism. It is exactly the trap that the quantum physicists, Buddhists, Taoists and others have warned us about. It is attempting to split the world between subject and object, observer and the observed and so on. But we know at the deepest level this separation is an illusion.
The famed British physicist, Sir Arthur Eddington explained there were essentially two ways of knowing. He reasoned that when we observed the world through dualism, separating the “knower” from the “known”, we resorted to, what he called “symbolic knowledge”.
We have two kinds of knowledge which I call symbolic knowledge and intimate knowledge. The more customary forms of reasoning have been developed for symbolic knowledge only. The intimate knowledge will not submit codification and analysis or, rather when we attempt to analyse it the intimacy is lost and is replaced by symbolism.
Western intellectual thought has not dealt with the “world itself” because it has confined its explorations to this dualistic mode of knowing working with symbolic representations of the world. This dualistic and symbolic knowledge as Ken Wilber pointed out:
……is at once the brilliance of science and philosophy, for it allows a highly sophisticated and analytical picture of the world itself but however illuminating and detailed these pictures may be, they remain just that – pictures.
Consequently our search for reality is forever doomed to failure. We can never know the world directly and our picture of the world is constrained by the limitations of our sensory organs. But the act of discovery is itself a futile operation because we know that all our attempts to observe reality traps us in the duality dilemma where our separation from the world inevitably changes it.