Imagine … taking your son or daughter, or niece or nephew, or younger brother or sister to a magic show. One of the acts performed by the magician is the well-known “sawing a lady in half.”
You and your child-friend watch as the magician opens the coffin-like wooden box, and helps his lovely assistant to lie down in it—with only her head and her feet protruding, on opposite ends.
With The Audience Gasping
Now the magician picks up a saw and—with the audience gasping—saws the box in half. And then, for added flourish, he separates the two halves even more, until everyone can clearly see space between them.
A few seconds later, the two halves of the box are brought together again, the lid is opened—and out steps the fully intact assistant, all smiles and applause.
Amazed, your young friend turns to you and, in all sincerity, asks: “How did the lady survive being sawed in half?”
How would you answer this question?
What makes it a bit tricky, of course, is that there actually isn’t a How—because the lady wasn’t actually sawed in half. Because the premise of the question (viz. that the lady was, in actuality, sawed in half) was faulty, there really isn’t a meaningful answer.
Any answer we might give to our young friend—any theory about how the lady’s two sawed-apart halves became one again—utterly misses the most important point, which is that the apparent separation of her body into two parts was merely an illusion.
To ask the question—How did the lady survive being cut in half? or How did the lady’s bottom half reunite with her top half?—is perfectly reasonable, for a young child at a magic show. Why? Because the child doesn’t yet understand how magical illusion, sleight-of-hand and similar techniques can create the appearance of something that doesn’t actually exist.
From the child’s point of view, the lady was actually cut in half. So the question—How did the lady survive being cut in half?—is natural, and makes perfect sense.
But we can see that offering any answer to this question—that leaves unchallenged its faulty assumptions—will just exacerbate the confusion in our friend’s mind.
There Is No How
And so it is—one might argue—with all interactions, all relationships between apparently-separate phenomena. Any theories about how relationship happens—whether it’s a cause-and-effect relationship, or a form of communication, or a matter of perception—assume an initial separation which does not, in reality, exist.
Any two phenomena whose relationship to one another we are trying to account for are like the two halves of the magician’s assistant: never, in reality, separate from one another.
And this is why it’s so tricky to try to pin down how exactly communication, perception, and causal mechanisms between two phenomena (objects or sentient beings) happens.
Because they’re not actually separate from one another, to ask the question—How does communication, or perception, or a causal relationship between the two happen?—is basically equivalent to the young child asking: How did the lady survive being sawed in half?
There is no actual How, because there are not actually two things. As Ch’an master Hui Neng famously intuited:
Originally there is not one thing.
And making the same point, Hui Neng’s Tibetan friend Milarepa reminds us that:
The true nature of appearances is that
they’ve never been born.
If birth seems to happen, it’s just clinging,
The spinning wheel of existence has neither
a base nor a root.
If there is a base or root, that’s only a
Because separation is not real, neither is the perception, communication, or causal effects between two “things.”
So the most we can say is that mere appearances seemingly relate to and interact with one another.
Like in a dream, illusory characters illusorily perceive, illusorily communicate with, and illusorily influence one another.
And any illusory theories about how such illusory perception, communication or cause-and-effect dynamics happen between or among illusory entities—are no more ultimately real than any answer we might give to the question: How did the lady survive being sawed in half?
Is choosing among various answers to such questions really much different than a magician choosing what kind of saw he or she is going to use, to create the illusion of sawing the woman in half?