Sunday, February 22, 2009

Pie in the Mouth


In probing the layers of human physiology and psychology, Paul Broks, neuropsychologist/philosopher, leads us through a haunting journey in his book Into the Silent Land. It is hard not to be stunned by reading his dissecting view of what it means to be human. We take so many things for granted. That, which is basically inanimate “meat,” can and routinely does animate with consciousness, cognition, imagination, feelings and every other aspect of our condition seems to float by as a given. This fundamental mystery is so ingrained into our being that it goes unnoticed, but not by Broks.

He asks alarming and provocative questions such as “Am I out there or in here?” when he portrays an imaginary man with a transparent skull, watching in a mirror his own brain functions. He notices, for us all, that the world exists inside the tissue residing between our ears. And when the tissue is carefully examined, no world, no mind, no ego/self, no soul, no perceptual capacities, nor consciousness—nothing but inanimate meat is found. Unable to locate, what we all take for granted, he suggests that we are neither “in here” nor “out there,” maybe somewhere between the space between the in and the out, and maybe nowhere at all.

Yet here I am writing these words, and there you are reading them and so it has always been. We are nowhere and we are everywhere. Not to be found yet fully here. We are like holograms; mind manifestations, which appear or vanish when we are plugged in or out. The inescapable conclusion that arises from such a probe is that we are spirit. No other sensible conclusion is possible. This great mystery has puzzled and confounded humans since the dawn of time, thousands of years before there was the science of neurophysiology or neuropsycholgy. How is it possible that we function as we do, out of what is basically meat? The answer remains hidden beneath veils of mystery.

Anyone familiar with the Heart Sutra can’t help but observe the coincidence between Broks probe and the message contained in the sutra—that there is both delusion and non-delusion. There are human aspects rooted in illusion (which have no substantial reality) and there is the realm of all-pervasive, ever-present perfect peace which is, itself formless and void but nevertheless the well-spring of our existence. There is nothing to be found nor attained in the meat. And because of this “...The Bodhisattva relying on Prajnaparamita has no obstruction in his mind.” Prajna (wisdom)+ Paramita (perfection) means perfect wisdom. Such enlightenment comes with the acceptance of this great mystery, that there is nothing to be found yet we exist as manifestations of what we call God. That is the great mystery, not the animated meat!

And what is of equal fascination is how the Western mind grapples with this mystery versus how the Eastern mind does. Whereas the Eastern mind accepts the mystery as a given, the Western mind wants to probe beyond and explain the mystery—to understand it. To western thinking it is extraordinarily difficult to set the matter to rest, to drop it and just let it be. To Zen, a “nose” is not a nose (the convention of N_O_S_E) but rather the tweak of the object that lies between the eyes. Zen wishes us to wake up and feel the tweak—to move beyond all conventions, abstractions and models—and savor life as it is rather than to describe or understand it. “If one reaches the point where understanding fails, this is not such a tragedy: it is simply a reminder to stop thinking and start looking. Perhaps there is nothing to figure out after all: perhaps we only need to wake up.” (Zen and the Birds of Appetite)

To Zen, even conventions such as “The Void,” “God” and “Self” are not to be understood but are rather to be experienced. Such a thrust moves us beyond holographic understandings, beyond ideas and beliefs systems—conventions about life—into the realm of life itself. Zen is about pie in the mouth, savored on the tongue instead of a perfect description of the pie that exists only in the holograms of our mind.
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