|Sanskrit manuscript of the Heart Sūtra, |
written in the Siddhaṃ script.
Bibliothèque nationale de France
This little essay started as a discussion of mind/body dualism with a friend. Out discussion then proceeded with a comparison of materialism and idealism. Then my friend made the following point, after I brought up the illusory nature of reality,
"If you feel that physical reality is an illusion, kick a rock as one materialist has argued. That is unless you think the pain you feel is an illusion. That takes an awful lot of denial."
Illusory Nature of Reality
In my opinion, the concept of "illusion" is not well understood in this example. My understanding is that idealism does not deny perceived reality, it simply states that our sensory inputs are quite different from the realization of an objective reality existing outside of our mind. Of course, when we kick a rock we feel pain; idealism does not deny our pain (or any other perceived or imagined sensory phenomena).
Physics Declares No Solid Objects Exist
Physics explains that when we kick a rock we feel pain because of the strong electron-electron repulsion force between the rock and our toe. Physics tells us that the rock and our toe (or any perceived "solid" object) are really just clouds of invisible particles held together by powerful electrical forces and that solid objects are mostly empty space. Therefore physics declares that there exists no such thing as a solid object despite our painful toe. The illusion is the apparent perceived solidity of objects.
With that said, we don't go around saying, "Ouch! The volume of mostly empty space that I perceive as my body just experienced a strong electron-electron repulsion force with the volume of mostly empty space that I perceive as a rock." Practically speaking, we just say "F**k, I just stubbed my toe on a rock!"
What is an electron really? Have you ever seen an electron? If you have not perceived an electron directly using your senses, does it exist outside of your mind?
Do We Live in a Dream?
We perceive apparently external objects and have strong feelings in our dreams, but the objects in our dreams are not objectively real; they do not exist outside of our mind. This is why the illusory nature of reality is often likened to a dream.
Phantom pain is pain that feels like it's coming from a body part that's no longer there. Synesthetes can often “see” music as colors when they hear it, and “taste” textures like “round” or “pointy” when they eat food. The rock that we kicked that caused us pain is mostly empty space. The examples of the illusory nature of the reality perceived by our senses are endless.
We only see 0.0035 percent of the Electromagnetic Truth
As humans we are in many ways limited by what our senses can directly tell us about the universe, that's why scientists invent instrumentation that extends our senses. The entire rainbow of radiation observable to the human eye only makes up a tiny portion of the electromagnetic spectrum – about 0.0035 percent. We are in this way misled by our visual sense. We feel that what we see is "real" and existing outside of ourselves, however even if you trusted your eyes 100% this is only 0.0035 percent of the electromagnetic truth.
Expansive knowledge of the universe has been gathered with the invention of powerful instruments used to explore the microcosm and macrocosm. It is the mind that developed and tested the theories upon which these tools were created. It is the mind that engineered and developed these tools. It is the mind that gathered the data from these tools which then found patterns in the data and developed new theories, more sensitive tools, etc., etc.
Flying on Instrument Readings
Pilots are taught to fly by their instruments and trust the data from their instruments and not their own senses. I underwent some pilot training in the Air Force Academy and experienced first hand how our senses can be easily fooled. For example, lots of disorienting fun can be had by spinning in a chair LOL. In aviation, a graveyard spiral is a type of dangerous spiral dive entered into accidentally by a pilot who is not trained or not proficient in instrument flight when flying in instrument meteorological conditions.
Our survival in this highly technological world is dependent upon our ability to cognize data delivered to us by instrumentation and not by our unaided senses. This is another way to understand the illusory nature of perceived reality. Of course, we must perceive the instrument readings through our senses, however it is the mind that must intervene and draw conclusions from the instrument data in order to decide how best to act.
Science is flying on instrumentation. The enormous amounts of instrument data analyzed on a daily basis by human minds is unimaginable. This instrument data has extended the human neurological system far beyond what can be perceived. Our best knowledge and understanding of conventional truth are conceptual models derived empirically and mathematically by the mind. The mind has elevated our understanding of phenomena and describes with greater and greater accuracy conventional truth.
Two Truths - Conventional and Ultimate
The ever-evolving mind in this way has developed conceptual models of conventional reality far beyond what we can directly perceive. However, I believe that ultimate truth is beyond what even the mind can understand.
The Yogacara school of Mahayana Buddhism investigates the workings of the mind, stating that only the mind or the representations we cognize, really exist. In later Buddhist Mahayana thought, which took an idealistic turn, the unmodified mind came to be seen as a pure consciousness, from which everything arises. This is what makes sense to me.
My friend often talks about what he calls, "Pure Consciousness," but I'm not certain if his meaning is the same as the Mahayana teaching.
The Heart Sutra
The famous statement from the Heart Sutra, "Form is emptiness, emptiness is form," is also relevant. The Heart Sutra is a condensed exposé on the Buddhist Mahayana teaching of the Two Truths doctrine (conventional and ultimate truth). The Two Truths doctrine says that ultimately all phenomena are empty of an unchanging essence. This emptiness is a 'characteristic' of all phenomena, and not a transcendent reality, but also "empty" of an essence of its own.
In the Heart Sutra, Avalokiteśvara (the Buddhist deity of compassion) explains the fundamental emptiness of all phenomena, known as the five aggregates of human existence: form, feeling, volitions, perceptions, and consciousness. This is interpreted according to the Two Truths doctrine as saying that teachings, while accurate descriptions of conventional truth, are mere statements about reality—they are not reality itself—and that they are therefore not applicable to the ultimate truth that is by definition beyond mental understanding.
Perfection of Wisdom Mantra
The Heart Sutra, Perfection of Wisdom mantra in Sanskrit is:
gate gate pāragate pārasaṃgate bodhi svāhā
"gone, gone, gone beyond, gone completely beyond, awaken, rejoice"