On Reality

This morning I took the garbage out, as I do every Saturday morning. There was the sky. There were clouds, mountains, trees, rocks, roads, my car. birds singing, the rice fields, our vegetable garden, my neighbour bringing home a dead wild boar. This is physical reality. The world I see and all its objects, space and time exists. I verify it independently. And you can come verify it as well. The world where you are now reading this is the same but different part of the physical world. I can, if I want to, come to you and verify it independently as well. Few would argue that this is not the world, not real.

Outside my house, as I said, are rocks. The one particular rock that I picked up this morning is real. It existed with the ground, vegetable garden, mountain, clouds, sky. But does the rock “know” of its existence and the physical reality it belongs to? Let me put it down – both physically and metaphorically – for the moment and come back to it later in this post.

There is a physical reality. But how do I know it? I know the reality through my senses and perception of it. There is no other way for me to have knowledge of it. The senses, my, eyes, ears, nose, skin and tongue give me the sensory data, and my brain saves and processes this sensory data to let me know of its existence.

Suppose there was a person who was born without any senses (no eyes, ears, nose, skin or tongue) but with a brain. Would this person know anything of the reality? Now let us suppose there was another person who was born with all the senses but without a brain. Would this second person know anything of the reality as well?

Yes, there is a physical reality. And in the reality there are objects which can know the world and objects which cannot know it. These objects have been called variously throughout history as animate/inanimate, sentient/non-sentient, etc. I prefer either observing/unobserving or perceptient/non-percpetient objects. I am perceptient. The rock outside my house is non-perceptient. There are a multitude of objects out there. They are either perceptient or non-perceptient. I can perceive the existence of perceptient and non-perceptient objects. Others can perceive them (and me as a perceptient object) as well. The rock has no such understanding of the reality. Note, this does not make me “better than” or “superior to” the rock, only that I am different from it, as far as objects are concerned. The non-perceptibility of the reality is the rock’s characteristic. The perceptibility of the reality is a characteristic of my being.

Senses precede sensation, and sensation must precede perception. And perception limits and informs my understanding of the reality. I act and make decisions (inferences) in accordance to my understanding of the reality. Knowledge is the sum of perceptions, inferences and actions of a perceptient object. The rock outside my house cannot know the reality. It perceives nothing, makes no inferences and does not act volitionally.

The physical reality is made up of objects, perceptient and non-perceptient. It includes space which separates the objects, and time in which objects interact within the space. The interaction is complex. To not look at this complexity is to ignore the reality, to ignore space, objects and time.

Generally, I do not like to make analogies but I will make one here because analogies make concepts easier to understand. Furthermore, the ability to make analogies is a characteristic particular to the perceptient object that I am – a human being.

Chess is a game with a physical reality and rules. In the physical space of eight-squres by eight-squares and thirty-two pieces (sixteen to each side) is the game played. There are five different pieces (king, queen, bishop, knight and rook) and the pawn (the pawn is not called a “piece” for some reason). each piece and pawn has its own particular characteristic. The objective of chess is to win the game by checkmating the opposition king. The minimum needed to play chess are 1) to have a chess set, 2) to have a playing partner, and 3) to know its rules. Yet, having these conditions do not make for an interesting and entertaining game. Knowing how to win – the strategies and tactics of the game – knowing how to interact meaningfully in the reality is what is needed.

Defining observing objects

I am an observing object. I observe the objective reality. I observe that I observe, and I observe that I am observed.

Defining Objects

There are numerous objects in the world. They are of two general types – observing and unobserving objects. I am an observing object. I interact with the space and objects as an object. I therefore mark time by interaction and by observing this time.

Defining The World

The world is the objective reality, the collection of independently existing things – space, objects and time. Space is a special kind of object. Time is the interaction of space and objects.

Band-aid Philosophy

It would be very wrong to think we are objective beings able to be absolutely impartial. No amount of trying will we ever reach complete objectivity. We view everything from the very bodies we inhabit never being able to leave it as much as believe we can. Imagining that we do is of course possible but in reality that imagined objectivity is coloured by the entire experience of being who I am. To exactly know who or what I am is an impossible project. We must not exactly give up on this but to let the mystery be just that, a eternal mystery. Only then will be content and be able to move on. To accept that we contain and never cease to perform value-judgements is the first step to move onto understanding ourselves, others and other things. We must always ask what are our values and how did we arrive to them. Only then can some of the problems of the world can be, like a band-aid to temporarily cover a wound, imperfectly solved. We can only hope for band-aids. We should celebrate the band-aids.

Life as a lay practitioner in a Zen Temple

In 1990, I entered Bukkokuji, a Zen temple in Obama City, Japan. This temple was in the heartland of Soto Zen Buddhism which had been introduced from China 1,200 years ago.

Like many temples it was at the foot of a mountain hidden among residential houses. It is then run by Harada Tangen Roshi (roshi: teacher), a Zen priest, and 20 training monks, half of which are Japanese and half foreigners.

Like most Zen temples it has a main gate, main hall, meditation hall and some support buildings.

Temples are quiet places, and in general supported by the local community. Traditionally, to enter a temple as a training monk one is to make enquiry at the gate and ask for acceptance. The routine is to reject the trainee. This usually lasts for three to four days. During the night he is given isolated lodging in an unused part of the temple, after which he continues to ask for acceptance the next day. Because Bukkokuji accepts foreigners and pay trainees no such hard routine is necessary. An introduction and phone call is all that was necessary.

People lodge together in large traditional tatami (grass mat) rooms. Each person has a space no larger perhaps than a single bed. All belongings are kept next to the bed.

From spring to autumn the daily routine starts at 5:20am. A monk runs around the temple ringing a loud bell. We wash and prepare for a short run and stretching. After stretching we meditate (zazen). Each meditation session is about 40 minutes long. After meditation we do morning recitations. And then breakfast is served. By breakfast it is after 7am.

During the serving of breakfast recitations continue. The typical breakfast (and other meals) consists of rice, soup, beans vegetables and pickled vegetables. Each person is given a personal set of three bowls, chopsticks and a cloth to wrap and store them, to use in the course of their stay at the temple. All meals are eaten in silence. Seconds are allowed.

After all members finish eating we wash our bowls. One-quarter of a cup of hot water is all we use. With a pickle we save from the meal as a sponge we wash all bowls and chopsticks. The hot water, now a kind of broth, can either be drunk or put into a bucket to be later given to vegetation outside.

Before we start work (samu) in the morning we have a short rest or do personal chores like brushing terry or washing clothes. Work in general is to maintain the temple. It could be anything from cleaning, working in the field, to clear out the septic tanks for use as fertiliser. We have a rest then before lunch. After lunch we do more work. And then we have tea where the Roshi-sama (as the master is called by his students) will join us give a talk to encourage us in our goal of enlightenment.

Once in a while Roshi-sama will hold give private guidance (dokusan) to the trainees.

And then before dinner we have evening recitations. After dinner we rest before three sessions of meditation. By the end of mediation it is 9pm. All light go out and all sleep.

This routine is for four days. On the fifth day bath is prepared and generally no work is done but meditation continues. On the 21st of each month a public lecture (teisho) is given by Roshi-sama. Intermittently, monks go out to beg for alms (takuhatsu). This is done as spiritual training as well.

In December, for eight days until the 8th (Buddha’s Enlightenment Day) a special session of meditation (sesshin) is done. Apart from some general cleaning most of the time is spent meditating. Sleep is limited to 3 to 4 hours. And private guidance is given regularly.

The Life of The Buddha

The founder of Buddhism was a historical figure from two-and-a-half millennia ago. Siddhartha Gautama, which is his birth name, was born a prince of the Sakya Clan. He was born in Lumbini, a forest, while his mother, Maya, was returning to her family. With no more reason to continue the journey she returned to Kapilavastu, the capital of the Sakya Kingdom.

All the soothsayers predicted that Siddhartha would either become a great king or a great leader of the world, except one. This lone soothsayer predicted that he would definitely become a great leader of the world. Worried, Siddhartha’s father, Suddhodana, wanted to make sure his son would succeed him as king by sheltering him from ugliness of the world. The king was able to shelter his son until he was 29. Siddhartha was about to marry and to have a son. Finally given some freedom he saw the outside world – reality – for the first time. What is saw was sickness, old age and death, the truth of existence his father had wanted to conceal from him. Siddhartha also saw an ascetic who was radiant with happiness and contentment. Siddhartha wondered how this could be.

Around the time of his son’s birth he had decided to find the truth and happiness which does not rely on the things of the world. He left his palace and comfortable lifestyle to seek and follow the best teacher of the day. Siddhartha, now called Sakyamuni (The Sage of the Sakya Clan), mastered two of the leading ascetics’ teachings in a short time. And was offered successorship, both of which he declined. He left them behind and continued to seek enlightenment on his own. Following a routine of extreme asceticism he slowly wore his body down to the point of dying. Concluding that he may well find enlightenment at the point of death he also realised this would mean nothing if no one can know and find the truth. Siddhartha decided that both decadence and asceticism were unrealistic ways to the goal, and that the only way is one which is neither self-indulgent nor self-deprivating. This is The Middle Way of Buddhism.

At age 35, with his health restored and with full concentration of mind and body he became enlightened, and he, now called The Buddha (The Enlightened One), taught the way to enlightenment to others for the next forty-five years until his death at age 80.