Who's Reality?

Enlightenment through Koans, just join the dots and a picture emerges.

A Koan is a story or a question that encourages the listener to reframe their view of reality; see things from a different angle.

I have found such devices profoundly useful in teaching high school students. The idea is to shake the set of their paradigm so that they can begin to see that it is just that, a set, a stage with all its props and back drops in place to enable them to maintain a particular paradigm. There are a plethora of objective facts out there, but we can’t use them. We need just enough dots to join together into a picture that we can deal with; if you have too many dots, you can’t see anything. So the mind ignores all those it can’t join into the picture it expects to see. The koans create a doubt in the adequacy of our perception to apprehend reality without it being passed through the filters of our language and logic.

An ancient Taoist Master awoke from a lucid dream and explained to his disciples that he had dreamt he was a butterfly. The koan he offered them was “How do I know I’m a man who dreamt he was a butterfly rather that a butterfly dreaming he is a man”? Of course Descartes offered a similar problem with the thought that he could be an ephemeral spirit in a vacuum being fed the sensations of this apparent life, by a malicious demon. Philosophers by the middle of the last century wondered if one could be a brain in a vat, plugged into a super computer, being fed a virtual world data set. Nagel wondered if we could know what it was like to be a bat. And of course film makers had a lot of fun with The Matrix. All these offer the same doubt; the doubt in the adequacy of our perception to apprehend objective reality. One can always fall back on denying the problem, it has its own psychological force field that makes us want to step aside from it, as if our magnetic north pushes against the north end of the problem and we simple want to avoid it. But if one chooses to; if one presses one’s mind hard against an impenetrable koan, then like a word repeated until meaningless, the language slips away, logic tilts and the doubt may suddenly coalesce, and the habitual mental constructs by means of which you have been fabricating the world you thought existed as a fixed objective fact independent of your mind, become in an instant evident, and you realise something breathtakingly fresh about the way the world exists.

So, existence is a ridiculously large number of dots. Dots empty of meaning. We, the observer, select which dots to notice and then draw the lines that construct a picture we can fit to our paradigm, our preconceived view of the world. Our culture causes some dots to be noteworthy and our karma offers us the line picture.

All phenomena are contingent (what may exist not contingently is a more religious than philosophical question) on the causes and conditions that brought them into existence, the parts that constitute them now and (this is the bit I’m concerned with here) the predisposition of the mind that perceives the phenomenon.

That predisposition is directed by our karma. For those without the background, let me explain simply. Karma is not fate, luck or chance or any of the silly ideas that circulate. A simple way for those with a Western upbringing to understand karma is to see it as the continuously developing effect of our mental habits formed by our past actions of body, speech and thought. It forces us to perceive things through the filter of our experience. If we change our behaviour, our actions, speech and thought, then gradually our world will change; or at least the way we perceive it, which is actually the same thing. If we act honourably/virtuously the world becomes a more beautiful place. If we act cruelly the world becomes uglier. If you are constantly looking for ways to con and defraud others, you will assume they are doing the same and be constantly alert for it. What a sad paranoid existence.

No phenomena have objective reality that is not contingent upon the karma of the observer.

We see a tiny part of the visible spectrum; we hear a tiny part of the available sounds. We can’t see the microwaves, the radio waves, the x rays or the ultra violet. We can’t hear the things that dogs, bats or elephants can, (I can’t even hear the stuff teenagers can). If we didn’t have hearing, we wouldn’t even know there was stuff to hear or not hear. What are the senses that we don’t even know we don’t have? Why can’t I feel the magnetic patterns of the Earth and other people? Why can’t I see the energy fields that all living things have around them?

My wife just commented on the terrible smell of fish in the kitchen (I had kippers) which is odd because I was just thinking what a nice smell of fish there was in the kitchen and I can see from the looks on our dogs’ faces that they agree with me. Is it a different smell we are smelling? My wife has a peculiar ability; she sees slightly different colours with each eye.  One eye puts a green/blue tint on the world and the other a pink/orange tint. Each perception can only be measured relative to each other and I have no idea how what I see compares to either of her eyes, or to anyone else’s of course.

Some examples

A Bottle
Some friends are on a road trip crossing a vast dry wasteland, in Colorado or Nevada perhaps. The foot well in the front of the car is full of supplies and to get at the bag of nuts near the bottom of this jumble of stuff, the girl in the front props a bottle of juice on the dash for a moment; it wobbles, she reaches for it with full hands and it gets knocked out of the window. Though she swears in exasperation, the other friends all laugh; they have plenty, and in a moment she laughs too. The girl in the back saw the bottle flying backwards as it passed her window and disappeared behind them. The guy at the roadside, down on his luck, who had been trying to hitch a lift, and who was a few ml of fluid from organ failure, saw the bottle flying forwards, though loosing speed relative to the car it fell from. As it was several hours before a couple in a motor home stopped to give him a lift and a welcome break from the sun, the bottle almost certainly saved his life.

A Compliment
She had been a division manager in this dead end department in a faceless corporation for twenty years. The technology had changed and the open plan area had become a labyrinth of cardboard cubicles in which hopeless young fools came and went, serving their time like battery chickens. This morning an annoyingly cocky young idiot tried his sycophancy on her, “Nice dress Mrs. P” she had no idea yet what he wanted from her, but if he thought he could butter her up with flattery, he was in for a shock; whatever request he put in later she’d knock it back.
He’d been thrilled to get this position. As all other departments related to this one, he’d be well placed to hear of any promotions anywhere in the world. The advantage of working for such a huge multinational was the endless career possibilities. After starting in the basement with only artificial lighting, he loved the expanse of daylight that flooded around the high ceilings. Giving each person a cubicle so they had privacy and didn’t feel overlooked, only made the working environment ideal. He thought Mrs. P looked more depressed than usual, so automatically looked for something nice to say that wasn‘t too personal and inappropriate coming from someone young enough to be her son. With that thought, he realised what would make his mother’s day. The dress was notably better than the drab stuff she normally wore and actually made her look years younger. “Nice dress Mrs. P” He assumed she’d feel cheered up, then without another thought, got to his work station.


There is a story of a sword master who had been instructing his students on how to use technique and speed to beat a stronger opponent, speed and strength to beat a more skilled opponent and technique and strength to beat a faster opponent. A student asked the master, “But what if you faced a man who was faster, stronger and more skilled than you”? The master raised an eyebrow as if the thought had never occurred to him and replied simply, “I’d cut his head off for being a damned liar”.

Every one of us experiences the universe from an unique angle.  I can only see the view from here; not from where you are.  I only see what my language, logic and past experiences predispose me to see.  In the vast array of dots, I join together the ones that create a picture that I can deal with.  Occasionally I experience a Gestalt switch and the beautiful young girl becomes an ugly hag, or vice versa (If that makes no sense, Google it) but mostly I’m stuck inside my own paradigm; the way I see it.  Enlightenment begins when you can understand that there are as many views as people and none of them are more than subjective feelings.  Ultimately we aim to raise our viewpoint until we see from many angles.  

We can learn to choose the tint of our glasses, we can’t not have a tint, but we can be unaware that there is in fact a tint at all.

Jo-Sifu Mark Ringer