Sunday, November 16, 2008

There is only Mind

Rene Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am.”

From Part IV of “A Discourse on Method”:


“… as I then desired to give my attention solely to the search after truth… I ought to reject as absolutely false all opinions in regard to which I could suppose the least ground for doubt, in order to ascertain whether after that there remained aught in my belief that was wholly indubitable.

Accordingly, seeing that our senses sometimes deceive us, I was willing to suppose that there existed nothing really such as they presented to us; and because some men err in reasoning… I, convinced that I was as open to error as any other, rejected as false all the reasonings I had hitherto taken for demonstrations; and finally, when I considered that the very same thoughts (presentations) which we experience when awake may also be experienced when we are asleep, while there is at that time not one of them true, I supposed that all the objects (presentations) that had ever entered into my mind when awake, had in them no more truth than the illusions of my dreams.

But immediately upon this I observed that, whilst I thus wished to think that all was false, it was absolutely necessary that I, who thus thought, should be somewhat; and as I observed that this truth, I think, therefore I am (COGITO ERGO SUM), was so certain and of such evidence that no ground of doubt, however extravagant, could be alleged by the sceptics capable of shaking it, I concluded that I might, without scruple, accept it as the first principle of the philosophy of which I was in search.”


I found Descartes rather ponderous and difficult to read but very interesting. Particularly Part IV in which he continues this process of knowing himself as existent. I am going to take this in a slightly different direction then he did but start at the same point.

All I really know for certain is me. I think. That thought exists. Therefore there is something which thinks that thought. I will call it “I” or “me.”

What else do I know for certain? Nothing. Descartes takes this next step and says he doubts. He then states that doubt is lesser than knowing therefore knowing is a more perfect thing then the imperfection of doubting. He, in thinking, doubts, therefore his combination of knowing (perfection) and doubting (imperfection) is less then perfect, therefore there must be something more perfect then he. He goes on to use this as the basis for his proof of the existence of God (absolute perfection).

My question today is… What of the world, the universe? Is it real? Does it exist? I do not know. I’m not sure I can know. But let’s follow this path and see where it leads.

I have already experienced doubt. In thinking the first thought, the fundamental principle that I exist because I think, what was my very next thought? “Is this true?” Is there a flaw in the logic? Is there a more fundamental truth underlying even this first principle? A review of the logical process concludes that it is correct. There is no flaw. I think, therefore I am. But I have no experienced doubt. So I know that doubt exists.

So what of the rest of what I perceive as reality? Does it exist? I perceive reality. I look down at my hand and perceive it. I call it “my hand” but is it me? It is a part of what I call “my body” but it is not me. It is my hand. I do not have any sense of existing in it. So where do I exist? My sense is that I exist behind my eyes. My eyes appear to be my primary receptors. My sense of touch and my hearing come in somewhere behind vision and my sense of smell lags behind. I do not perceive my self as existing between my ears nor do I perceive my self as existing behind my nose. And I certainly don’t perceive my self as existing spread out throughout my entire body that feels physical sensation.

My mind perceives itself as being I. Mind perceives itself as having a body. Interestingly, Mind does not perceive the brain as being I. The brain, like the heart, eyes, ears, hand, feet, etc are a part of the body in which Mind perceives I as residing.

Sitting here, Mind perceives a world in which its body sits. It perceives a house, a desk, chair, computer, window, a cedar tree outside the window, a field and a hill, clouds, wind, rain, animals, and other people. Do all these things exist? I don’t know. Mind perceives these things therefore I know that they exist as concepts within Mind. My fingertips touch the keyboard so I perceive that both fingertips and keyboard have existence but that perception is within Mind. Consequently it is entirely possible that all of existence is within Mind.

I perceive that there was a Mother. I perceive that there is a Father. I perceive that there are siblings, wife, child, grandchild, in-laws, colleagues, friends, acquaintances, and strangers. I perceive memory and therefore time. I perceive a memory of childhood and that this childhood was real and existent. But, this memory is fragmentary and dreamlike. There is a sense of things forgotten. There is also a sense of this thing called childhood as a driver and shaper of the perceptions of existence of this thing I call “now.”

This leads to two other pieces of knowledge. One direct, one circumstantial. The direct knowledge is that I know “now.” I do not know memory or previous time. I perceive it but I do not know it. I only know the present moment. I know I think. I know I exist because I think and I know that the present moment exists because it is the moment in which I think the thought. I do not know the moment that started me writing this morning. I perceive it as having been but it is past and I do not know it. As recent as it has been I cannot capture it and bring it into the current moment as certain knowledge. I know in this moment that I perceive a memory of that moment and that it is a recent moment but I do not know it as real. I only perceive a memory of it and that perception exists/occurs within Mind.

The circumstantial knowledge is fear. I know an emotional response called fear. I have a memory of a Mother. I have a perception of a memory of the death of this Mother. I have a concept of not ever being able to experience this Mother ever again and that concept is a difficult one that I cannot quite comprehend. I experience another piece of circumstantial knowledge… desire. This difficult concept of not being able to see/experience this Mother is driven by a desire to do just that. Mind tells me this is something that cannot be but unlike virtually all other concepts/perceptions Mind has experienced this one cannot quite be grasped and accepted as truth. But back to fear. I fear that I will forget her. Memory is fragmentary. Memory of childhood in which Mother was the primary feature of the universe that I experienced is mostly faded away into vague dreamlike memories. I fear that the perception of Mother is nothing more than this vague dreamlike stuff. And I know sadness. But I digress.

So there is a perception of time, place, people, history, As close as I am to my family I cannot truly know them in the manner that I know my self as existent. I perceive them. I believe these perceptions are real as I experience them but I do not know them for sure. I only know them as I perceive them. This is true of rocks and mountains, rivers, the sky, moon, weather, people, time, words, concepts, ideas, etc. I can only know what I call reality as Mind perceives it.

In the western tradition we talk of five sense of perception: sight, sound, smell, touch, taste. In Zen Buddhism Mind is added as a sixth sense perceiver. The Heart Sutra says:


No eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind. No color, sound, smell, taste, touch, phenomena. No realm of sight, no realm of consciousness, No ignorance and no end to ignorance.


Normally in the west we do not think of the Mind as a sense organ. But when I thought, “I think, therefore I am,” there was no involvement of eye, ear, nose, tongue, or body. There was only Mind involved. Mind perceives concepts without assistance from the other five senses. At the same time however none of the five truly perceive anything without Mind. They are data collectors but Mind does the processing. Zen Buddhism posits that there are eighteen elements of experience.

sense object...... sense organ.... realm of consciousness
color................ eye................. awareness of color
sound............... ears............... awareness of sound
smell................ nose............... awareness of smell
taste................. tongue........... awareness of taste
touch................ body.............. awareness of touch
object of mind... mind.............. awareness of mental phenomena

If a tree falls in the woods and there is no ear to hear it then it does not make a sound. It makes sound waves but until a receptor of sound waves receives the waves there is no sound. Once the waves are received there is sound but there is no concept of “tree falling in woods” until Mind perceives sound and conceives of the notions of tree, standing, falling, ground, and perhaps additionally woods, direction, distance, potential of danger and whatever else. All of these exist only as mental phenomena. The sense of sound involves the ear but all the rest are mental formations.

And so it is with all of reality. There is only Mind. Let us concede for the moment that there really are other people, that there really is a world and a universe, time, genealogy, and history. They still only exist as Mind perceives them. If there are multiple people perceiving the same moment each perceives it according to the constructions of their own minds.

There is a wonderful story in 101 Zen Stories that I usually reference as a description of the problem of communication but it also is a perfect exhibition of how two people experience the exact same situation completely differently. It’s short. Take a moment to click here and read it.

Two men experience and describe the exact same sequence of events and have two completely different mental conceptions of it. This is the way it always is. This is an extreme example but no two people ever have the exact same mental perceptions of phenomena. It is usually only slightly different but it is always different. Even people that are very close to each other. I’ve had surprising moments when one of my siblings described a shared experience in family life in quite a different manner then I perceived it. Similarly, despite our common upbringing the differences in how we have been experiencing and handling the recent death of our Mother shows stark differences along side commonalities in our perception and processing of this shared experience.

So, even if reality really is real your perception of it and mine are different. Your reality and mine are different. My reality belongs to me and me only. Your reality belongs to you and you only. And a third person has yet a third mental formation of the reality we ostensibly share. Therefore there is no objective reality. There is no there out there. What we perceive as reality only exists in Mind.

1 comment:

Barry said...

My root teacher, Zen Master Seung Sahn, used to laugh about Descartes. He would say, "If you're not thinking, then what?" He would sometimes go on to say, "If you're not thinking, no problem!"

In the Samyutta Nikaya, the Buddha taught an evolved view of the Middle Way - to avoid applying "existence" and "non-existence" to our experience. The Middle Way cut between the two views.

Descartes probably wouldn't have understood - maybe because understanding itself is the problem!

Thanks for your post (also the post on Huangbo!)!

Barry