What is ultimate for one is relative for another, just as one person’s mother is another person’s wife.
Once upon a time there were three umpires refereeing a baseball game.
The first one said, “I call them as they are.”
The second said, “I call ’em as I see ’em.”
And the third umpire declared, “They ain’t nothing ’til I call ’em.”
Vipassana means “to see things clearly.” Like the first umpire, many people wonder if they can see things as they really are. Is this possible? How do people know what’s really going on?
In this article we invite a dialogue about whether the insights that come from vipassana practice are ultimate in nature, or whether they’re tied to the context and meditation techniques of the Theravada tradition. We suggest that insights are colored by the techniques we use and the context in which they are learned. By understanding this, our perceptions about what’s really occurring can be more relative. Then we might be less apt to judge our own and other people’s knowledge as “the truth.”
We challenge the idea that there is a direct means of perceiving our experience which is free from concepts. We will show how dramatically language organizes what is often claimed to be direct perception. Learning to perceive is influenced by the culture in which we live. When particular techniques and concepts are used to teach people to “see clearly,” the students often end up thinking they see the same things.
The question we will explore is: How do we rely on our teachers, society, experience and language to help us decide how clearly we’re seeing? Language, throughout this article, is defined as not only spoken words, but any way words are used to organize sensory data and mental states (e.g., concepts, thoughts, inner dialogues, labels, constructs, feelings, etc.).
Can we rely on other people to reveal how things really are? Consensus has its limitations. Even the teachers we respect in the vipassana tradition have different opinions about the dharma and practice (see Inquiring Mind, Volume 3, Number 1, “Teacher’s Forum” and Yoga Journal, “Awakening of the Mind,” March/April, 1987). Often teachers suggest we look at our own experience to see how things really are.
What is our experience and what does it reveal? Suppose a friend who’s our height stands next to us. A block away she seems much smaller. She shrinks and grows like Alice in Wonderland depending on where either of us stands.
If we assume our friend is not like Alice and that her size stays the same whether she is near or far, then the tiny person down the block couldn’t possibly be her. She’s too small. If, on the other hand, we strongly insist that her size changes, others might call us deluded.
When we add the concept of distance to what we see, we can then say that she’s farther away rather than getting smaller. Can we know what our friend’s size actually is? We need concepts (e.g., distance, size) to interpret our senses effectively.
Let’s shift our focus from vision to sensations. Do sensations provide a reliable measure for what’s going on? At first we may think we can easily distinguish between hot and cold. If we place our hands on a boiling tea kettle, we’ll feel a burning sensation. Yet if we place our hands on a block of ice we may initially also feel a burning sensation. The same feeling can appear under opposite conditions.
Sometimes we even mistake whether a sensation is present or absent. Amputees often claim to experience sensations in nonexistent phantom limbs. After examining these inconsistencies in labeling sensations, how can we know which sensations are real? We might even ask, “What is a sensation?” Is there any way to describe a sensation without resorting to yet another concept? How can you know a hot sensation without a cold one?
Our senses tell us something, but we need concepts to identify what that is. Is there any way we can go beyond concepts to directly perceive our experience? If an experience is beyond concepts we have no way of talking about it. We wouldn’t even know whether we meant the same thing by nonconceptual. Perhaps, in order to be discerned, the nonconceptual requires the conceptual.
The Buddhist story of Genesis is very simple: This is this because that is that.
—Thich Nhat Hanh
You might say that this dilemma reveals the limitations of language, not experience. You may indeed have experiences which can’t be described because there are no concepts to describe them. Nevertheless, you still experience them. One example might be called intuitive perception.
Let’s say an intuition is a spontaneous hunch that later turns out to be true. For example, you see someone at a retreat and have an intuition that you could become good friends or lovers. After the retreat you meet each other, begin to date and eventually get married.
You could say your intuition was correct because it was verified by what had subsequently happened. What if you had the same intuition and, after the first date, you realized that you didn’t feel anything in common with the person?
Now what could you say about your intuition? You might say your intuition was incorrect or not a true intuition. But then how would you know whether other intuitions were reliable since they are not always proven true?
Clear and sweet is my soul, and clear and sweet is all that is not my soul.
Lack one lacks both, and the unseen is proved by the seen,
Til that becomes unseen and receives proof in its turn.
Suppose someone has an intuition that is not subject to any external verification. George, for example, has an intuition that Martha doesn’t really like him. He can’t point to anything in her behavior that supports his intuition. In fact, Martha claims that she does like George and often does nice things for him. He intuits that she doesn’t like him. It’s just something George feels. When Martha asks him why he thinks she doesn’t like him, George says, “It’s just a subtle intuition I have. I don’t think you’re conscious of your hostility.”
Supposedly, George’s intuition is not based on any reasons or noticeable behavior. His intuition justifies itself. He could just as well call it a hunch or belief. By labeling it an intuition he’s made his hunch less challengeable. However, how could he be sure that his intuition was correct? What would he check it against? Wouldn’t some aspect of Martha’s behavior be necessary to confirm his intuition?
If we can’t be sure an intuition is absolutely correct, in what way is it any different than a guess? Aren’t intuitions, like guesses and conceptual hunches, correct or incorrect? If intuition, like our senses, also depends on concepts for its use and interpretation, can we still have an experience that’s beyond concepts? How would we talk about it?
While watching a sunset, Gloria laughs, sighs and cries. Later she throws up her hands and says to her friend, “Words just can’t express how moving that sunset was!” Notice how she supposedly had a wordless experience of the sunset. Nevertheless, she was able to say it was indescribable and moving!
What even gives her the idea that she had a moving experience during the sunset? She wouldn’t necessarily know she’d been moved unless she’d learned to call how she felt a “sunset” or “something happening.” How would she even know that a sunset occurred unless she’d learned how to use the word sunset, and other words such as “end of day,” “golden orange,” “warm light;” and “unrecognizable yet moving feelings?” She needs a category to fit the experience into, or she might not even know. she’s had that experience. In other words, language not only describes the experience, but also organizes her understanding of it. For her, there would be no sunset if she couldn’t already describe it.
If we talk about the sunset (or our feelings) by saying we can’t really describe it (them), we’re still using concepts to describe the indescribable. The indescribable thus becomes a description. Once we accept that all experience depends on language for its interpretation, then can we rely on language to point the way to perceiving things clearly? You may have an interesting dilemma if you think that language actually represents the experience it describes. How is it that many people can describe the same experience so differently? If there are many ways to represent the same experience, whose description will be the most accurate?
If language only partially represents an experience, how could you discuss the actual experience? How would you know that you’d fully described it? There might be more to say. We are left with the tricky question of who possesses the most accurate description of an experience. Like the second umpire, each of us will “call ’em as we see ’em.”
How much do our constructs color how we call ’em? We may indeed have an “experience,” but unless we have a construct for it how can we identify it? Words like ‘I’ “perceive” “something” not only describe a perception, but also imply that there is a “something” that an “I” can “perceive.” Additionally, words like “mindful” and “object” allow us to be mindful of an object. Language not only describes what we see but also provides a ground for what we can see. Like the third umpire, if we don’t call ’em, they ain’t nothing. Or, more to the point, they ain’t no-thing. , You might insist that there are certain objective truths. As students of
You might insist that there are certain objective truths. As students of Theravada Buddhism we are taught that impermanence, suffering and no-self are the basic characteristics of existence. This understanding can help us to realize how futile it is to grasp transient phenomena and to take our self-conceptions too seriously.
Even though the perception of impermanence, suffering and no-self may benefit us, the understanding that these three characteristics are objective truths is not shared by all Buddhist teachers. The great Buddhist teacher Nargarjuna (founder of the Madhyamika school of Buddhism) argued that we can’t absolutely say everything is impermanent.
For example, according to Nargarjuna, if things are impermanent they must have a beginning and an end. If a mental factor like greed arises and completely disappears (even momentarily), how could it reappear? Is the greed which rearises the same or different than the prior greed? What would be the difference between the two? If the greed is the same, how could the previous mental factor of greed be impermanent? Perhaps the greed is permanent and temporarily disappears from our sight like the sun hidden by clouds.
If, however, the new appearance of greed differs from the old one, how would we be able to recognize it? We could only compare it with our memory of the prior greed which no longer exists.
Even a belief as basic as impermanence is a concept that can still be scrutinized. All so-called objective truths are likewise open to a similar kind of logical inquiry. It’s exceedingly difficult to see how anything can be accepted as a truth unless it can withstand such an examination.
I therefore say that I do not see that dharma which could become clear to me as a dharma, or that by which it could become clear, or through which it could become clear, or where in anything could become clear to me concerning anything.
How is our discussion about language relevant to meditation practice? Personally, we have experienced what we call a beneficial clarity from meditation. But, as we see it, that clarity is subjective. We challenge the idea that through meditation we can see things in an unmediated way. As initially mentioned, meditation techniques are acquired in a social context which teaches how to observe and report what is seen. Learning to meditate requires silence and instruction through language. We are taught to observe in a particular way. Teachers gauge the degree to which meditators see clearly by hearing how they report what they observe. In the Mahasi school, meditators report their experiences to their teachers. They develop their concepts of “seeing clearly” through having their reports refined by those teachers. Meditators are trained to see things according to their teachers’ guidelines, not necessarily the way things are.
You think you know yourself when you know what you are. But you never know who you are. The person merely appears to be like the space within the pot appears to have the shape, volume and size of the pot. See that you are not what you believe yourself to be. Fight with all the strength at your disposal against the idea that you are nameable and describable.
It is important to question the very categories we have for “how to look.” By questioning them we might find that these categories point us toward a particular reality, just as measuring a tree in meters yields a result in meters, not quarts. How we look affects what we see. How then can we be neutral observers of a process that includes us?
We are in some kind of context whether we’re sweeping the floor, meditating or becoming enlightened. Each context provides a view. Even if we think we are free from a view that itself can become a view. To the extent that we understand this, we are not as bound by the categories and rules of perception of any particular school of thought. Why limit ourselves to just one view? ”Truth” “beauty,” “freedom,” “suffering” and “happiness” can be described from countless angles.
Emptiness is proclaimed by the victorious one as the refutation of all viewpoints; but those who hold “emptiness” as a viewpoint—the true perceivers have called those “incurables.”
The point is this: People need not take their concepts so absolutely or seriously. Vision requires distance for qualification; sensations are relative to one another; intuition can be disqualified by future events and nonconceptual experiences are hard to talk about.
So those who think they really know what’s going on, or think they don’t, perhaps could think further. If we cannot think or talk about what’s beyond language, then we are confronted with an unfathomable mystery. Explanations stop here. Poetry begins.
Truth cannot be created by speech; It cannot be penetrated by silence.