By Christian Peterson, Zen River Sangha member, excerpted from the October 2018 ZRS newsletter
“The world presents itself to us as real. It is, by accounts, a very convincing presentation.”
How many forms of stimuli are there that present themselves to our consciousness, and how many more are possible that we will never be aware of? We have, after all, only five senses and even the five we have are limited in scope. Our ears can only detect a limited range of sound frequencies. Our eyes perceive an even narrower spectrum of light waves. The rest pass through us unnoticed. If there are huge swaths of the light spectrum that never interact with our cornea, how many smells must be all around us that are never delivered to our consciousness by a nose that was forged by a different set of evolutionary imperatives than that of a Bloodhound?
Our conscious awareness – of ourselves, of our environment – is a composite of these stimuli, stored through memory and arranged according to biological precepts that we assume to have a fixed and determinable nature.
And so we have this consciousness but, to the extent that it is shaped by a materially conditioned complex of stimuli and responses it is limited and therefore, to that same extent, it is arbitrary. Consider that it seems perfectly natural, logical even, that after reaching a count of nine we would start again at zero and repeat the process at the next order of magnitude. We do this because we, and most of the people around us, use what’s called a base-ten numeric system. Historians and anthropologists think that the base-ten numeric system was adopted by most of mankind because we have a total of ten digits on our right and left hands. Yet, so ubiquitous is the base-ten system that the “truth” of it seems preordained and final, that it is how the world – the clouds, the moon, and the sun – conduct their business. But in actuality, the base-ten numeric system is no more intrinsic to the mathematical orderliness of the cosmos than any other numeric system. The Sumerians and Babylonians used a base-60 number system. It’s from these civilizations that we get the 360 degree circle and the 60 minute hour. Computers use a base-two numeric system, just ones and zeros. The Mayans used a base-20 numeric system. There is no final “truth” to any of it.
So, when we speak of Logic, Reason, Common Sense, Law, Justice, Mercy, Compassion, Right Understanding and the Eightfold Path, what are we talking about? We all have our own understanding of these things based on our unique experience, even as we acknowledge that they would have been understood differently in other cultures and in distant epochs. And so we have to ask, how would our sense of reason and discernment – and then by extension, how would our moral judgement – change if we had a nose like a Bloodhound, or if we had sonar like a bat or a dolphin? In light of those questions, what is truly meant by “skillful means?”
There is a famous quote often ascribed (incorrectly, it turns out) to Viktor Frankl that goes: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” It’s a nice quote, and I’m sure anyone following the contours of its edict will find some measure of relief from suffering. Indeed, much of our practice involves entering that space through mediation.
But the question that cries for an answer is: If the stimulus is always arbitrarily received, how can our response ever transcend that arbitrariness? The answer, it seems to me, lies in the transformative nature of pure consciousness itself. Earlier I wrote that our consciousness is limited; and this is true so long as we experience it as “our” consciousness. But Consciousness itself (what academics would define as consciousness qua consciousness) is unlimited, and being unlimited it encompasses all possible stimuli, as well as all possible responses.
And so we chant: “Pure Awareness pervades the whole Universe . . .” and the transformation happens when we, “unite with this infinitely compassionate universal life.” Which then evokes “the transformational moment causing all of our masters and mentors . . .”
This is Consciousness uniting with itself – a reconciliation of opposites that were never separate.
By Christian Peterson