One Versus Many: Reality as a Mosaic is a Mirage

Man looking at a fractured mirror

Today a brief note, to serve as a foundation for a Tibetan form of mental discipline in my next essay. This article will be short, but describes something of how we orient ourselves to the world each day, often without knowing how deeply we do so, and suggests a reflective direction to correct the distortions that it causes.

One often hears of arbitrary social divisions, signaled by the catchphrase, “There are two kinds of people in the world,” followed by a description of the proposed types, for example, ” – those who have children and those who do not.” Any kind of contrast, no matter how random or pointless, will do. “There are three kinds of people in the world: those whose favorite color is blue, those whose favorite color is red, and everybody else.” A comical version of this kind of thinking was presented by this Monty Python skit:

If you don’t think that arbitrary distinctions between invented categories is the cause of endless headaches, think of your tax forms. But the division of knowledge into interlocking slices sometimes has the ring of truth and purpose; science itself is a pyramid built on the structural arrangement of data that lays together like stone bricks. There is no complete explanation for reality in science, even in all the sciences. There are only parts of something whole, and these parts appear divided, classified, synthesized together, standing in some relation to each other. Science lays out a neat mosaic; what’s wrong with that?

But science isn’t reality; it’s only a blueprint, an explanatory system that stands apart from reality and which, like a funhouse mirror, reflects it with varying degrees of fidelity. Reality, unlike science or anything else we might imagine, isn’t divided into anything; its only job is to exist, not to explain. It just Is. We are the butchers, cutting what we see into thin slices to be consumed in a proverbial sandwich of partial truth. Stuck within this view of things, we forget that reality persists despite our apparent knowledge, not because of it. The rational mind creates a lack or vaccum of faith as we overthink reality to the point of absurdity, given that the deeper we look, the less we find there (ironically, empty space is what “fills” the majority of subatomic physics). Indeed, we might best say that “the road to hell is paved with good distinctions,” for, as we continue to split what envelops us into data, categories, and distinctions, we soon find that the Whole itself fails to come into view. By looking further within and inside things, we see less of the Whole. We cannot see the universe through an electron microscope.

Still, at our level, in our experience of time, and in continually adapting ourselves to our environment, it is true that decisions must be made, and any apparent success of our lives depends on how well we can distinguish outcomes and predict consequences. It simply seems we cannot do very well without informed decisions, and so we continuously act and must keep acting through choices that present reality as something that seems built out of relations between things. Isn’t that a mature and responsible way to live?

What is lost is this question: how well do our decisions and the distinctions that frame or sense of reality really serve the consciousness of living within a Whole? By seeing the world as a matrix of choices, relations, and oppositions, we in turn fail to experience it as a totality and are instead forced to live obsessing about parts and components. Every decision slices experience further. What can be done to experience and be more whole with the Whole?

As a succinct alternative, a thought experiment, we might try following fewer distinctions, as these lead to fewer distractions, which in turn lead to fewer desires. Baizhang Huaihai, a Zen master who lived in the 8th century, was once asked about the proper way to practice, to which he replied, “Don’t cling; don’t seek.” The answer came in the form of these two negatives, two indications of what not to do, rather than any instruction of how to act. What Baizhang offered seems confusing and evasive – until we realize that the command “don’t” is the actual task. Zen is not a place you can aim for, navigate toward, or arrive at. When your mind stops acting “mindfully,” Zen comes to you.

百丈懷海 Baizhang Huaihai (720-814)
百丈懷海 Baizhang Huaihai (720-814) (Source)

To be sure, Baizhang didn’t attain Zen mastery without discerning distinctions or without seeking Zen. In fact, he pioneered rules for monastic discipline, the Pure Rules of Huai Hai, which are used today in many Zen monasteries. But his case proves that, if some distinctions, distractions, or desires are worth indulging in, the ones that really work are those that help us transcend them in the first place, and these are recognizable because they give us the experience of a larger universe, not of a world image that, while shrinking and imploding, causes us to go further into it out of anxious concern. That mirage is a distinction borne of ourselves, not reality.

Where Tibetan thought took this form of mental discipline is the topic of our next occasion together. Until then.

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