Fantasia: The Nature of Perception

We love to build fantasies in our minds; creations of pleasure, hope, judgement, regret, etc. We spend endless hours lost in these daydreams. Few people give this habit any serious examination; most would feel that it is harmless enough. If we consider it to any depth, however, some surprises can be found in store.
The Buddha certainly seemed to feel that it was more than a passing thought. He said:

It is in this fathom-long body, with its perceptions and its mind, that I describe the world, the origin of the world.
(Sam. Nikaya II, 36; also Ang. Nikaya IV, 46)
The origin of the world. How could that be? How could we think up the world? Oddly enough this is what present day psychology states:
[From a] . . . superstructure of ideas or . . . gestalt of relationships . . . are derived various concepts and functions, some of which are . . . self, world, other people, time, space, logic, purpose, various inhibitions, conscious fears, and defences.
239-40 Tart, Charles T.; Altered States of Conciousness: A Book of Readings. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. New York, 1969
What are they talking about? The self and the world seem to be more than a thought. How could they be simply a concept?
Many people have observed that the human mind loves patterns or forms and enjoys creating them. In developing infants there is a preference for staring at complex patterns rather than simple ones or listening to rhythms instead of random noises. New technology can observe the attempts of the eye to seek out shapes and forms within other shapes and forms that have already been identified. This urge to find new patterns exists in all the senses.

It is possible to see this tendency in our present moment. Figure 1 is a neutral grid of dots. If we stare at it for some time the natural movement of the mind will attempt to create patterns within it. There is no obvious pattern here except for a number of dots equally spaced but the mind does not read it in this way. It will attempt to view this as different forms; vertical rows, horizontal rows, squares, diagonals and rectangles. If we keep looking we can actually experience the frustrated attempts to create forms and identify them but in this situation they cannot be sustained.

Another example of our pattern making concerns `how' we create an object. We produce forms against a background. That is, we choose a pattern against the background of another pattern (or patterns) to create a shape which we can then identify (name). In the same way we find patterns of sound, physical sensations, taste, smell, and `objects' in the mind. It's a particular sound against the background of silence or other noise; a particular physical sensation against the background of a general sense of the body; and so on. All of these eventually become mental shapes in the background space of the mind.

In figure 2 the background is not so clear, therefore the shapes are unstable. One moment we see a black goblet against a white background and the next moment we see two white faces staring at each other against a black background. We cannot see these different objects at the same time. Literally we create two worlds from this one basic sensation.
Even in a situation where the object does stand out against a background the mind still has great joy in seeking various forms with different meanings.
In figure 3 do you see a bird looking left? If those are ears instead of a beak do you see a rabbit looking right?
And in figure 4 do you see an old woman with a big nose; her mouth pulled down close to her fur coat? Or do you see the cheek of a young woman instead of a nose and, instead of a mouth, a choker on a long beautiful neck?

In these situations we can actually experience the mind leaping about; trying to create forms and give them various names. Obviously they aren't any of these things, they are simply marks on paper. But what about that idea? When we were born we would not have known these were marks on paper. We had to learn that. We had to learn to identify forms that we would call paper and forms that we call marks. Obviously that's what consciousness does. But what about that pattern? When we were born we didn't know any ‘thing' called `consciousness'. We had to learn to divide a pattern of some kind from all the other possible patterns of sensation and name it `consciousness'.

Wherever we are our eyes go to certain visual patterns (objects) that we like or dislike and we ignore all other visual sensations. Our ears hear certain sound patterns that we like or dislike and ignore the others. We sit lost in these mental patterns: patterns of physical sensation; of tastes; of smells; of solid, stable patterns; patterns of movement, energy, space and relationships between patterns. Even patterns of emptiness; ideas of no form, no `thingness'. All of these become forms in the mind. We sit lost in our `knowledge' thinking these limited experiences are some absolute reality.

As children our lives were mystery, wonder, and delight. There was relative innocence and vulnerability. As we mature, the mind chooses a pattern here, a form there; labelling, comparing, judging, always remembering; building its fortress of forms, names, images, concepts, views and opinions. We rarely see what is. Instead we are locked in this fortress, an interpretation, one particular arrangement of patterns, one particular view, one well-worn habit.

With this in mind it is worth considering the Buddha's teaching:

It is in this fathom-long body, with its perceptions and its mind, that I describe the world, the origin of the world.
Sam. Nikaya II 36; Ang. Nikaya IV 48

Name and form is the necessary condition for the sixfold body base . . .
Consciousness is the necessary condition for name and form . . .
but name and form is the necessary condition for consciousness . . .
This consciousness turns back upon itself; it does not extend beyond name and form.
Sam. Nikaya, 65

No matter what concept of self arises, the fact is always other than the concept.
Udana III 10

. . . types of self arise as though they were true . . . but this field of views is the thicket of views, the wilderness of views, the contortion of views, the vacillation of views.
Maj. Nikaya 2

Perceptions such as `I am', `I am not', `I will be', `I will not be', `I will have form', `I will not have form', `I will have perceptions', `I will not have perceptions', `I will neither have nor not have perceptions'; monks, are an affliction, an ulcer, a dart. By transcending these perceptions one is a muni, a peaceful one.
Monks, the muni is not born, does not age, does not die, is not confused, he does not yearn.
Maj. Nikaya III, 246

. . . feelings, thoughts, perceptions still arise in an awakened one but he knows them for what they are.
Maj. Nikaya 123

Some people view life as `consciousness' in a `body' in an external `world'. Scientists have viewed it as atoms and molecules, lines of force, pure energy. Some religions view it as mind itself. Can we come to understand these views, this machine of thought? In meditation we can experience these perceptions as passing sensations, not absolute realities, and in that awareness is the experience of essential freedom; not formed, not bound, not controlled. Stepping out of perception to know perception for what it is. In meditation we experience the release from our worlds. The Buddha's word for this was mindfulness. In this ‘fullness' mind, which is not fragmented or conflicted, the perceptions and thoughts are part of that fullness but they do not blindly take control.

The Buddha asked us to understand views, to see their limitations and to experience the freedom of not attaching to them. We can use them wisely for the necessities of living and we can let them go. In his thoroughness he cautioned us against attaching to even his own teaching which he described as a raft for crossing a river of pain. He warned us against picking up the raft and carrying it around on our heads.

So, back to the grid of dots. If I ask you "Is this a group of vertical rows?" you would say "Yes", because it can be perceived in that way. If I asked "Is this a group of horizontal rows?" you would say "Yes", because it can be perceived that way. "Is it triangles or diagonal rows?" - "Yes". What is it really? It depends on how you look at it.

Venerable Sunnato

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