In the great tradition of Neo standing in the kitchen with the Oracle, amidst the scent of cookies, here’s a passage from Wei Wu Wei’s Why Lazarus Laughed which, as of late, has really been “baking my noodle.”
Questions that Are Not
A good example of a question that is not is: “Do you believe in such-and-such a thing?” In so far as nothing exists, there is nothing to believe in. In so far as you accept the mind-made universe as relatively real, you cannot disbelieve in anything since everything that mind can imagine can put in an appearance.
So then, in relation to the Three Natures Of Existence, what Wei Wu Wei seems here to be proposing is that there is no meaningful difference between the Imaginary and the Dependent Natures.
All phenomena, be they “gross” (i.e. so-called “objects” appearing – to all with functioning sense organs – within an “external world”) or “subtle” (i.e. seemingly individual thoughts, feelings and internal images), are equally illusory, ultimately do not exist, and hence are not to be “believed in” — if our criteria for belief is ultimate existence.
If, on the other hand, we admit as a criteria for belief the relative existence (qua transitory appearance) of gross or subtle phenomena, then nothing that mind can imagine, i.e. can render either as a perception (of a seemingly gross phenomena) or as an internal thought or image (a subtle phenomena) can be excluded from our belief.
In other words, experience consists wholly of Pure Awareness (the Perfectly-Existent Nature) and phenomena appearing as modulations of this Pure Awareness — or, in Taoist lingo: of Tao and the ten-thousand-things.
From the point of view of Pure Awareness, “believing in” appearances of any kind makes no sense, since appearances are neither known nor perceived as anything other than Pure Awareness itself. In Reality, appearances are Unborn. The very notion of “believing in” such-and-such a phenomena presupposes a dualistic split between a person and the phenomena that they do or do not believe in. And the distinction between “gross” or collective phenomena and “subtle” or individual phenomena is itself a phenomena.
As Wei Wu Wei points out, if we accord a “relative reality” to the realm of appearances, to “believe in” a subset of these appearances, and “not believe in” another subset of these appearances, makes no sense, if by “believe in” we mean something like “acknowledge the existence-qua-appearance of.”
Setting aside for the moment instances of “believing in” abstract principles such as wisdom, love, freedom, beauty etc. — which pretty much anyone would agree cannot, in and of themselves, be located as “things” — let’s explore some of the other varieties of “believing in” that we humans are wont to indulge in.
When I say that I “believe in” macro-level objects such as chairs, what does this actually mean? Most likely, it means that I’ve agreed to abide by a certain intersubjective agreement (or a “language game”) according to which a category of appearances, which satisfy certain perceptual/sensory criteria (shape, size, function) are referred to via the label “chair.”
But what if someone were to ask me, “Do you believe in sillas?” or “Do you believe in chaises?” Since I’m fluent neither in Spanish nor in French, I would have no way of answering the question — even though the words “silla” and “chaise” presumably point to more-or-less the same category of appearances as does the word “chair.” So when I say “I believe in chairs” am I affirming a belief in an actual “thing,” or merely in a linguistic/conceptual label?
What about micro-level objects such as atoms, molecules, quarks or strings — entities whose observation depends upon technical enhancement of normal sensory capacities, or which are entirely theoretical, i.e. simply inferred on the basis of mathematical calculations? What does it mean to say, “I believe in atoms” or “I believe in the Pythagorean Theorem”?
Most likely, it means that I’m taking on as an article of faith what someone else has convinced me is indeed the case. I trust the scientists and mathematicians whose laboratory equipment and equations allow them to verify in more direct ways the existence of atoms, molecules, quarks, strings.
If I’m a scientist or mathematician, my “belief in” such entities is probably more along the lines of a non-scientist’s belief in chairs. It’s the product of an intersubjective agreement (or “language game”) according to which a category of (subtle) appearances, which satisfy certain mathematical or assisted-sensory criteria, are referred to via a given name, a linguistic label.
Most of you will be familiar with that fact that Eskimos have many different words for “snow.” And this is true:
“Central Siberian Yupik has 40 such terms, while the Inuit dialect spoken in Canada’s Nunavik region has at least 53, including “matsaaruti,” for wet snow that can be used to ice a sleigh’s runners, and “pukak,” for the crystalline powder snow that looks like salt.”
Similarly, the Sami people of Scandinavia and Russia have 180 words referring to different varieties of ice/snow, along with an almost unbelievable 1,000 different words for reindeer (for instance: a bull with a single, very large testicle is a “busat”).
So then, the criteria that I use to designate to an appearance the label “snow” are much more general than a Siberian Yupik would use to designate to an appearance the label “pukak.” But now that I’ve learned that “pukak” refers to “crystalline powder snow that looks like salt” — and can, in my mind’s eye, imagine such a thing — can I legitimately claim that my “belief in pukak” is any less valid, any less strong, than my “belief in snow”?
Who knows, the “snow” that I’ve already physically experienced may indeed have been what a Yupik would have called “pukak” — and even if it wasn’t, my capacity now to imagine it renders it just as much a phenomena — just as much an appearance within Pure Awareness — as the snow that I’ve felt dissolving on my face, or forming between my hands into a snowball.
(Setting aside for the moment the question of whether or not the Sami might have a word for a unicorn with a single, very large testicle? 🙂 )
What about the category of appearances generally considered to be “purely imaginary” — such as unicorns? Now who knows when and where it was, that the image of (what would subsequently be named as) a unicorn first appeared on the screen of some human being’s inner eye? Perhaps it was a young Sami child, catching a glimpse, through a misty forest, of a busat who — having lost one of his antlers in an accident or battle — was left with just a single horn? Or a yogi whose vision opened to an astral realm inhabited by fairies and unicorns?
However it happened, unicorns now appear not only as imagined creatures (i.e. subtle phenomena) but also are represented visually in children’s picture-books, in 3-D surround-sound animated films, and as fuzzy stuffed animals. Children wear unicorn-costumes for Halloween, and actors play the part in various stage productions.
So if I say, “I don’t believe in unicorns” what I’m really saying is “I don’t believe that unicorns exist as sentient beings.” And yet, I can’t deny that unicorns appear in all kinds of other guises. They are, indeed, an appearance — just not what I categorize as the “sentient being” flavor of appearance. But, being an appearance, their true substance — no less than that of a reindeer or a busat or a human being — is Pure Awareness, yes?
Mozart’s Piano Sonata In A-Major
As the story goes, symphonies, concertos, sonatas and serenades appeared in their entirety, within the imagination — the mind’s-eye, mind’s-ear, mind’s-heart — of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who then simply had to transcribe them onto a musical score. So we might wonder: Is this kind of “creative download” different from, say, the appearance of a unicorn, in the mind’s eye of a Sami child? Mozart’s imagined Piano Sonata In A-Major was subsequently made actual, given form within a more collective venue — as something others could also experience. Yet isn’t the same true of unicorns: how they now exist in all variety of “actual” forms, as stuffed animals etc.
What does it mean to say that “I believe in Mozart’s Sonata In A-Major”?
And at what point did Mozart himself begin to “believe in” his Piano Sonata In A-Major? When it first appeared to his imagination? When he transcribed its first note, via feather-quill and ink on parchment? When the entire sonata was completely written? When it was first performed in public?
Or was “believing in” utterly foreign to the creative process which birthed the music?
What does it mean to say that I “believe in” gravity? Or that I “believe in” electromagnetism, or in the weak and strong nuclear forces? These would seem to be appearances of a very different type than, say, unicorns or snow or chairs or Mozart’s Piano Sonata In A-Major. While “chairs” and “matsaaruti” (wet snow that can be used to ice a sleigh’s runners) can quite easily be understood as being a product of an intersubjective agreement — i.e. phenomena whose “reality” is merely conceptual — can we say the same about the four fundamental forces of the natural world?
Is gravity etc. a product of our “mind-made universe” — or is it somehow prior to or independent from it? It certainly would seem that the fundamental forces of nature do not depend upon human belief in them, in order to function as such. And that gravity etc. “does its job,” so to speak, quite independently of our mathematical equations descriptive of it.
When I say “I believe in gravity” — this belief is based upon a definition of gravity received from scientific experts, in combination with certain observations (i.e. how apples fall downward instead of upward off of trees). Similarly, electricity appearing in light-bulbs and lightning I take as experiential support for my belief in electromagnetism.
The weak and strong nuclear forces are a bit more difficult to connect with, experientially — so drift into a category more akin to a “belief in atoms.” Presumably, without “atoms” and the weak and strong forces which govern their functioning, this human body (not to mention the vast majority of other phenomena within this universe) would cease to appear. But do I know this experientially?
Mirages & Hallucinations
It’s not unlikely that the first person ever to imagine a unicorn — and to describe out loud this inner seeing — was considered to be a little odd. Today, you’re probably OK so long as you don’t claim to be seeing an “actual living unicorn” in the “real world.” (You might ask: how is claiming to see an “actual living unicorn” in the “real world” different from claiming the existence of “actual things composed of atoms” within an “external world” — and this would be a good question.)
Generally speaking, appearances are given the label “hallucination” or “mirage” or “illusion” or “fantasy” when (so-called) individual phenomena are in stark contrast to more collective phenomena, i.e. when, within a given language-game, a certain person’s perceptions place them outside of the “consensus reality” defined by the group’s intersubjective agreements.
If a Siberian Yupik moved to Colorado, and persisted in her “belief in pukak” (crystalline powder snow that looks like salt) — when no one else in Colorado knew what she was talking about, or could perceive this thing that she claimed to absolutely exist — she may well receive a psychiatric diagnosis, or be considered the “village madwoman.” (Though in Boulder she’d have a decent chance of becoming revered as a saint or shaman.)
Do I believe that Jesus walked on water? That Moses parted the Red Sea? That yogis can fly through the air or walk through walls? That saints can heal the sick with a touch, a glance, a thought?
If we consider these events as images in our minds, then believing in them (in the sense pointed to by Wei Wu Wei) becomes similar to believing in unicorns: anything mind can imagine can “put in an appearance” — and in fact the very imagining of it is already an appearance, albeit a “subtle” or (seemingly) individual rather than “gross” or more collective appearance. And when we take into account what is now known, via western science, about perception — namely, that perceptions of presumed “external objects” happen entirely within the brain and/or mind — the distinction between “perception” and “internal image” becomes less and less clear.
But back to Jesus, Moses, yogis and saints, performing miracles. What we tend to mean when we say “miracle” is an event which seems to defy the laws of nature, or — like hallucinations and illusions — falls outside the bounds of consensus reality, beyond what our intersubjective agreements have deemed as “possible.” The phrase “visionary experience” or “mystical insight” captures a bit of the ambiguity between perception and image — and events considered miraculous perhaps are of the same cloth, particularly when they are witnessed by some but not all who are on the scene.
Here’s an experiment you can try, just for fun: Close your eyes and imagine that you’re holding a lemon in your hand. See its shiny yellow color, and feel its weight, and the texture of its skin. Now imagine placing the lemon on a cutting board, and using a knife to slice it in half, and then into quarters — perhaps now catching a whiff of its tangy-citrus scent. Now imagine picking up one of the lemon-quarters, and biting into it: eating the flesh of the lemon, right out of the skin.
Now, notice (if you’ve done the experiment) if there’s saliva gathering in your mouth? Chances are that there is …. but why, since you didn’t actually eat the lemon?
One fascinating thing about visualization — which modern science has revealed, and which countless people now utilize to their benefit — is that for certain aspects of the human nervous system, there is no difference whatsoever between performing an action “in imagination” vs. performing the action “in real life.” If I want to improve my basketball free-throw shooting, the most effective way to do this is to spend some time visualizing myself shooting (and making!) free-throws, and then to go out onto an actual basketball court, and with my physical body practice the skill I had earlier visualized.
This fluidity between “internal images” and “external perceptions” — aside from just being really interesting — lends credence, once again, to Wei Wu Wei’s suggestion that anything the mind can imagine (including, by the way, various individually- or collectively-conjured religious deities) is just as validly “believed in” as is any apparently “external” object or event.
And what about me? Do I “believe in Elizabeth”? Following Wei Wu Wei’s lead — a la the passage cited at the beginning of this essay — I could answer: In so far as Elizabeth (as a “thing” or “separate-self”) does not truly exist, there is no Elizabeth to believe in, and no “me” to do the believing. In so far as I accept a mind-made (appearance of) Elizabeth as relatively real, I can’t possibly disbelieve it.
From the point of view of the Perfectly-Existent Nature, the Elizabeth character is an illusory appearance whose actual substance is Pure Awareness (which, happily, I AM).
As a mind-made appearance, does Elizabeth most closely resemble a chair, an atom, a flake of snow, a unicorn, Mozart’s Piano Sonata In A-Major, gravity, a hallucination, a miracle, or a visualized piece of lemon that makes your mouth water? Or are human beings, Elizabeth included, in a category all of their own?
Well, I believe this essay has generated more questions than it has answers — maybe that’s why it was so fun to write? Additional questions, and of course answers, are most welcome …..
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