Clouds, squirrels and my own left hand: On the difference between looking and seeing

In the Flower Sermon, the Buddha gathered his disciples together for a talk on Dharma. Instead of speaking, however, the Buddha simply held up a lotus flower in front of him without saying a word. Everyone in the assembly was trying to make sense of the Buddha’s message, waiting for him to speak. But he never did. The monks were baffled, but one of them, Mahakasyapa, suddenly understood the Buddha’s meaning and smiled (Buddha Weekly).

Something weird started happening with trees a while back. Without warning, where a tree had been, my eyes suddenly encountered strips of shadow and light, texture and dimension, shades and tones. Almost as if I’d developed infrared vision or been reduced to microscopic size and were encountering it from within. I felt myself relating to “tree” from an unmoored point of view, loosened from expectations, mental constructs, and prejudices. Before, I had confidently called it a tree, but in those moments it had transformed into something utterly new and fascinating, a collection of visual sensation I could not recall ever having encountered before.

People talk a lot about meditation and enlightenment, but I want to talk about the clouds and the squirrels and the back of my own left hand. Because although this strange seeing began with a tree, it expanded to other things: puffs of gray/white skittering across a blue expanse; chubby, chattering fur balls darting here and there; a lively, veiny grasper at the end of — is it my own “arm”? And it spread too to other humans. In fact, one day late last summer, in the magic hour or so of golden evening light, I felt myself falling into communion with each person around me. Startlingly deep brown or blue eyes, electric smiles, words so warm and liquid that their content didn’t matter one bit. They were no longer merely just people.

Afterward, I wanted to say: “Did you see how beautiful he was?” Or, “I had never noticed her exquisite radiance until today.” I soon suspected that the transformation had actually originated in me, that it was not attributable either to the glow of the sunset or the people around me. But I think it’s more accurate to say that, as with the trees, I had gotten a glimpse that was less mediated by the everyday subtle and gross expectations of my pre-existing concepts. It felt rare, mystical, and transformative, but anyone who has ever looked in the mirror and felt a momentary jolt of un-recognition knows about the difference between looking and seeing. Anyone who has ever woken into the formless shadow and shape of their bedroom before the mundane descent of the mentalistic gird — briefly at peace, nameless and among the nameless —knows this too.

Western-inflected cultures are generally so committed to agreed-upon, habitual conceptual matrices that we usually consider folks who have abandoned them, even temporarily, to be delusional if not crazy. To be “out of touch with reality” is to have rejected, defied, or somehow skirted the rules and frameworks through which we have been conditioned to make sense of it all. This seems to include some empirical and rationalistic “rules” as well as some aesthetic and ethical ones. On a typical day, then, I do not confront “objective” reality at all. Rather, I encounter the constructs through which that reality is normally made accessible and asimilable to me— that is, as already interpreted to a large degree. Although I may look at the trees and the clouds and the squirrels, and even my own face in the mirror, then, it is rare for me to actually see any of this.

The basic distinction between looking and seeing appears, at least implicitly, in all sorts of philosophies, including in many Western ones. So, for example, anyone who has studied a bit of Kant is probably familiar with the notion that the human experience of empirical reality is mediated/limited/enabled by the structures of our consciousness. But learning about such matters by reading books or sitting in classrooms is itself analogous to looking rather than seeing, or of hearing as opposed to listening. What no conventional, didactic philosophical lesson can teach is that when we cultivate the ability and willingness to see — to truly see, that is, and not just to look — the resulting vision will not simply be “better” or “more.” Rather, we will develop an entirely new, but atavistically familiar relationship to whatever it is we are visually experiencing.

I used to suspect that Mahakaspaya smiled during the Buddha’s flower sermon from a kind of smugness, as we might do when we’re the first to get a joke or see through a trick. Don’t we all relish the satisfaction of having our own intelligence or cleverness confirmed by such realizations? But I no longer believe it was that sort of smile. I think, instead, that it was the smile of a person in love. I now suspect that it may not even be possible to truly see anything or anyone without simultaneously falling in love. Have you too felt the weirdly boundless bliss of REALLY seeing, as a baby or an alien or a poet sees? What if reality is there, not primarily to be looked at and judged, but to be adored? An endless series of one flower after another held up before us, waiting and wanting to be seen.

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