The Mystic Eye

The late John Daido Loori, Roshi, was a man of keen intellect. He had a seemingly bottomless depth of knowledge about many things — science, arts, literature, psychology, history, you name it. And, of course, there was that Zen thing as well.

And yet one of Daido’s frequent themes was the trap of intellect. This is from one of Daido Roshi’s dharma talks:

The eye that grasps the universe is beyond both being and non-being, beyond self and no-self. And it is not dependent upon intellectual comprehension. It is here that most of us run into trouble. Whenever we encounter anything, our intellect, the linear rational faculty, shifts into high gear. And it immediately dulls the possibilities of discovery because we’re busy naming, categorizing, analyzing, judging, and processing. The mystic eye sees beyond all that.

Our conventional perception is is grounded in a dualistic and materialist view. We assume there is an external world that is independent from the consciousness that perceives and experiences it.  We relate to the world by labeling, analyzing and manipulating it.  This is the chief cause of our difficulties.

No one is saying there is nothing “out there.” Rather, as I understand it, the appearance of things depends partly on their physical qualities and partly on how our senses and nervous systems “display” them in our brains. For example, a particular configuration of molecules is a “bowl” because that’s how I recognize and affirm it. Put another way, “bowl” exists as “bowl” in my perceptions; but in and of itself, there is just energy, molecules, space. Form is emptiness.

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And, you know, there is nothing “supernatural” about this. If you’ve never seen this astonishing lecture by the neuroscientist Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor on how she experienced a brain hemorrhage, please make the time (less than 19 minutes) to watch the video. It perfectly illustrates this very point.

Dr. Taylor’s hemorrhage impacted her left temporal lobe, which is the part of the brain that judges, categorizes, and creates context. It’s also where the ego hangs out, she says. As brain functions shut down, she realized how much of the “external world” is actually created in the left temporal lobe. She felt like a genie liberated from a bottle, she said, experiencing herself as everything, without boundaries.

Of course, the left temporal lobe is essential to our survival. Without it, tasks such as finding food and avoiding large predators would be impossible. And I’m not going to rest my head on the bowl and pour soup into a pillow. Emptiness is form.

Daido spoke of the “mystic eye.” “Mysticism” is a word people use a lot without appreciating what it actually means, and it can mean several things. There’s a nice online article about the many types of mysticism at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and in this article one definition of mysticism is an “experience granting acquaintance of realities or states of affairs that are of a kind not accessible by way of sense perception, somatosensory modalities, or standard introspection.”

In other words, it’s an experience or perception of reality that is different from the way our senses and intellects normally perceive reality. Religious people often call this a “direct experience of the divine,” but of course for at least some Buddhists the word “divine” is a bit problematic.

Scrolling down the article a bit, we see that one of the common attributes of mystical experience is “ineffability” or “indescribability.” Language is very much a creation of that left temporal lobe, you know. People who have strokes on the left sides of their brains often lose the ability to speak, even though they are just as aware and intelligent in other ways as they ever were.

But it’s important to understand that languages also are calibrated to describe the world created by the left temporal lobe. This is a world that exists in a context of time and place, and which is filled with myriad distinct phenomena. Bypassing that left temporal lobe provides a perspective of reality that is nearly impossible to describe to someone who hasn’t “been there.” Usually, the listener assumes the speaker is either crazy or stupid.

Now, sometimes the speaker is dressed up in a robe or otherwise invested with some kind of authority, so that some listeners may choose to assume he knows something and take him seriously. But when the speaker’s words hit their brains, the first thing they do is put those left temporal lobes to work judging, categorizing, sorting, tagging, contextualizing, etc. etc., based on what they already know and what they’ve personally experienced.

In other words, they try to fit this ineffable thing into a left-temporal-lobe context. If they succeed at all, what they end up with usually is very different from what the guy in the robe was trying to tell them. If Left Temporal Lobe World is all they know of reality, any other way to perceive reality is unimaginable and nonsensical.

This takes us to the Primordial Problem of the Dharma — the “realization” or “enlightenment” of which we speak requires seeing the truth about Left Temporal Lobe World — that, in a way, it’s just a light show, neither real nor not-real. Us included

And this takes us to Buddhist practice and the trap of intellect. We are so accustomed to “knowing” things through our intellects that we assume that’s the only way to “know.” But that brings us to practice. So much of practice is getting the left temporal lobe to shut up, even for a little while. One way to understand practice is that it enables another way of knowing beside an intellectual one.

I was once told that in deep meditation, in the dhyanas, some brain functions are suppressed. I don’t know if science has found this to be true, but it makes sense to me. Further, so many of our practices are more physical than intellectual; bowing, chanting, to be done with whole-body-and-mind attention, as zennies say. These things make no sense, meaning they have no apparent function in left-temporal-lobe reality. Yet, somehow, they work.

The Primordial Problem means that you have to practice Buddhism for at least a little while to begin to appreciate even what it is, never mind realizing the Great Ineffable Whatever. I despair sometimes at the many online articles I stumble into that look at Buddhism as a purely intellectual exercise. And, of course, the authors of these articles are dismissive of everything about Buddhism that doesn’t make sense. Just get rid of that stuff, they say, and it would be so much better.

At this point, those of us who have been in practice for awhile hear alarm bells, and we dash about babbling about babies and bathwater.

But this is an old problem. It is said that the first person the historical Buddha met after his enlightenment asked him what he had realized. And when the Buddha tried to explain, the man laughed at him and walked away.

So, instead of only preaching doctrines about what he had realized, the Buddha taught people to realize for themselves. This makes Buddhism different from most other religions, in which people are presented with doctrines to be accepted on faith. We have doctrines, also, but for us they are more like maps, guiding us to realization. Merely believing in them is pointless. Believing in some doctrine of enlightenment is not enlightenment.

I’ve gone on a bit long, so I will continue this discussion in the next post.

[An earlier version of this post was originally published on Buddhism on October 3, 2010.]

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