Imagine the following scenario, or one similar to it from your own experience; or, better yet, just do it—
(1) You are sitting outdoors. You see some birds skittering about; you hear them sing. You notice flowers and grass and trees. The sun is warm, and there is a soft breeze.
You are aware of all this without any thoughts at all, including thoughts of “I” being aware of it. It all just is, in your awareness.
(2) Thoughts spring into your mind. “That’s a mockingbird.” “The sun is warm.” “I’m glad there’s a breeze.” Etc., etc.
—Later, when you recall these moments, do you recall the raw experience, or just your thoughts about it?
(3) Catching yourself thinking, shift your focus to your thoughts. Observe them in the same way as you observed the birds, the grass, the trees; the same way you listened to the birdsong. When you have a thought that begins “I...”, notice how that “I” is also a thought.
Notice how thoughts arise, how they associate with other thoughts, how they might trigger emotional response. How they pass away and are replaced by other rising thoughts, or—there’s a deer just leapt out of the trees!
Spend some time doing this. Especially, again, notice how all your “I” thoughts are themselves thoughts that arise from the same mind-ground.
(4) See if you can shift your focus back to just being aware, without any thoughts at all—including any “I” thoughts. (The point is not to spend all your time into introspection; Zen is not about interiority.)
Now, who/what is that observer that can “observe” both birds and your own thoughts? Who/what is aware of both visual (or other sensory) representations and thoughts and feelings? What is the mind-ground from whence thoughts arise, including thoughts about “I”? (Such as “I am thinking”.)
When you think about “yourself”, who/what is doing that thinking? If you start to answer with, “Well, I think...”—who/what is doing that thinking? When you think about what and how you think, who/what is doing that thinking? Who/what are you—without thinking about it? Is your “I” any more than a bundle of thoughts about. . .what?
A Zen koan: What you’re looking for is what you’re looking with—how then will you find it?
Can you learn not to confuse your conceptualizations with what they conceptualize, names with what they name, thoughts with what is thought about; or emotional response with the stimulus?
I drink a glass of brandy. In that moment, there is no “I” that is separate from drinking the brandy—although, if I am thinking about other things, I may not notice the taste of the brandy at all; but then there is also no “I” in that moment separate from thinking those other things. That is existential non-separability. When I smile, my smile cannot be separated from my face.
There is also in that moment no taste in the brandy except in my tasting of it. Someone else’s taste buds might produce for them a different taste (although since our tasting apparatus is generally similar across the species, the variation may not be great). I am denying neither the chemical make-up of the brandy that induces certain taste-responses, nor the make-up of our tasting apparatus. But my tasting of the brandy (or yours) arises from the interaction of the brandy with my tasting apparatus. That is existential mutuality. It is what Zennists mean when they use the phrase “mutually arising.”
What non-separability and mutuality mean here is just that there are no perceptions which are unaffected by our sensory apparatus and our brains. The question of whether the taste is in the brandy or in myself is existentially meaningless. This is not to deny that there is a reality that continues beyond the bounds of our own bodies; and if our perceptions were not functionally adequate in representing that reality, we would be unlikely to survive.
What it does say is that our perception of reality, and ourselves as part of it, is a kind of participatory affair. That is true for all experience.
We use the grammar of our consciousness to try to decipher the syntax of the cosmos. But that grammar is itself part of that larger syntax, and determined by it. We do not have a view from elsewhere but in it. The quest for meaning is as subject to non-separability and mutuality as is tasting brandy; it is not simply disclosed, we participate in its making.
Back to the birds—
That whole meditative exercise is aimed at only one thing (which is the same thing that Zen koans, or other meditative/contemplative exercises are aimed at): cracking any confusion between the thing and the thought, the non-concept and how we conceptualize it, the raw experience and how we translate it. The raw experience of tathata—the just-so-suchness, of which we inseparably are—is prior to conceptualization, even the concept “I”. It is itself non-conceptual, and all the concepts I use here are only “fingers pointing at the moon.”
And in observing how both perceptions and thoughts (percepts and concepts) arise in our mind (especially all those “I-thoughts” ), one may begin to realize the existential facts of non-separability and mutuality. One may begin to realize that the real I is not separate from the whole, but inescapably entangled with it, whether the ego-complex resists that realization or not. The I is in a sense larger than the “I”, more expansive; it may be more a sense of We than of I-and-it (although that We should not necessarily be “personalized”: you can take it metaphorically).
The experience of tathata in clear-minded awareness is, as it were, a purely empirical affair. Whatever you think about it after is whatever you choose to think about it. First, become familiar with it—that’s all that meditation/contemplation is about. Then at least you will know what it is you’re thinking about, besides just thinking about other thoughts.
What I think about it is this: we arise from the whole (which is the ground of our being just as the mind is the ground of our thoughts); we are inextricably of that whole; and we “return” to it (as if we ever left!), just as a waterdrop falls again into the sea. My philosophical non-dualism is a conclusion I draw from the experience and realization of non-separability and mutuality.
And this whole essay is no more than a background commentary for the koan in bold...