In my churchless frame of mind, it's rare that I can get very far into a book with some religious overtones before I start using my highlighter to make question marks in the margins.
The book I'm reading now, As It Is by Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, was bought because I was curious to learn more about one of the Dzogchen/Buddhist teachers mentioned in Sam Harris' Waking Up book -- which I like a lot.
(But which also has some question marks in the margins; just a few, though.)
I'll write about what appeals to me in As It Is in another blog post. Buddhism gets a lot right about reality, so long as the supernatural aspects of Buddhist teachings are stripped out. The doctrine of no-self and no-soul is very much in accord with modern neuroscience, for example.
Since Buddhist philosophy emanates from pre-scientific times, it's surprising that Buddhism gets so much right about how the mind works. However, it also gets quite a bit wrong, as evidenced by these quotations from As It Is that I read this morning.
Better to be like a mirror, letting reflections occur in the state of rigpa [knowledge of original wakefulness] without fixating on anything. That is the state of suchness.
...To reflect the pure development stage, first be a bright mirror. First understand, then experience, then realize. Try first of all to be a good mirror, a mind essence mirror, a rigpa mirror.
Suchness. I don't like that word. Back in 2010 I wrote "My main gripe with Buddhist meditation." Here's some excerpts that apply to the As It Is book also.
Bare knowing. Actually happening. Just as they are. Inner life naked. As they truly are.
Many Buddhists actually believe this stuff, that through their many hours of meditation they're able to enter into an experience of suchness and thus so'ness -- which supposedly is an awareness of things as they are, not as they seem to be to deluded minds like you and I have (I'm assuming you aren't an enlightened Buddhist practitioner; if you think you are, congratulations).
Every human being, without exception, knows reality through his or her own idiosyncratic brain filters. Experience leads us to see things in a certain way, then our seeing feeds back into our experience in a never-ending cycle.
I do believe that meditation and other forms of mental training can help us become more aware of what's going on in both our inner and outer world. However, these awarenesses are of reality as we know it, not reality as it is nakedly, purely, actually.
Nine years later, I believe what I said above even more strongly. This is basic neuroscience: the mind/brain actively constructs reality; it doesn't passively reflect reality.
The description of the episode on the PBS website shows that Buddhism may be correct about many things regarding the mind, but viewing the mind as a mirror isn't one of them.
Dr. Eagleman takes viewers on an extraordinary journey that explores how the brain, locked in silence and darkness without direct access to the world, conjures up the rich and beautiful world we all take for granted.
‘What is Reality?’ begins with the astonishing fact that this technicolor multi-sensory experience we are having is a convincing illusion conjured up for us by our brains.
In the outside world there is no color, no sound, no smell. These are all constructions of the brain. Instead, there is electromagnetic radiation, air compression waves, and aromatic molecules all of which are interpreted by the brain as color, sound and smell.
Cutting edge graphics show that data from the outside are rendered into electrochemical signals inside the brain, which map meaningfully onto physical reality. Our experience of reality is an electrochemical rendition of the world outside. It is not a faithful rendition.
Visual illusions are reminders that what’s important to the brain is not being faithful to ‘reality’ but being able to perceive just enough so that we can navigate successfully through it. The brain leaves a lot out of its beautiful rendition of the physical world, a fact that Dr Eagleman reveals using experiments, and street demonstrations.
We meet the men and women whose experiences of reality reveal important clues about how the brain constructs our own reality, including the Alcatraz prisoner who was locked in the notorious ‘Dark Hole’ for 29 days, and yet experienced richly colorful moments of reality.
His experience, along with those who have experienced total sensory deprivation show us that even when sensory input to the brain stops, the show still goes on. Why? Because, amazingly, our senses – eyes, ears, skin, nose - only modulate an internally generated simulation of what the brain expects is out there. This so-called ‘internal model of reality’ allows us to move through the world, recognizing it rather than constructing it anew, moment by moment.
We meet a man who is blind despite the fact that he has eyes that can see. His story reveals that it’s the brain that sees, not our eyes. A woman with schizophrenia, whose psychotic episodes were her reality, emphasizes the fact that whatever our brains tell us is out there, we believe it.
We have no way to get beyond what our brains allow us to perceive. Like the rest of the animal kingdom, we inhabit a miniscule slice of reality, and yet we believe it to be the whole picture.
Eagleman also explores time, and takes a look at how – and why - the brain alters its perception of time, depending on the situation we find ourselves in. Time, it turns out, is not an absolute to the brain.
Each one of our brains is different, and so is the reality it produces. What is reality? It’s whatever your brain tells you it is.