(Note: Sanskrit or Pali words are highlighted in italics)
Buddhism is conventionally recognised as a religion, but if you talk to Buddhists and philosophers who study this ‘religion’ that label is under much discussion. Some prefer to call it a philosophy of the mind, while the Dalai Lama has called Buddhism to be ‘more than a religion. It is a science of the mind.’ Whether it’s a religion or not is a discussion for another day. What Buddhism certainly has is philosophy, philosophy of the mind specifically.
The whole Buddhist school of philosophy does have merit I’ll give it that, what perked my interest in Buddhism is its unique philosophical approach towards exploring the mind and the theories about it. In this article, there is no argument for whether matter determines mind (materialism), or mind determines matter (idealism), the contents of the article is an informal collection of thoughts I’ve been having in recent months in entertaining this aspect of Buddhist philosophy namely; the mind’s relationship to sensory phenomena.
Though by definition the word appearance means ‘the way that someone or something looks’, the word appearance in this article here doesn’t just mean visual appearances, but all of the sensory impressions which arise from our surroundings that are then presented to the mind. When we’re born, our body (rupa) comes equipped with sense organs, the eyes, ears, tongue e.g. and all the other sensory faculties that’s able to interact with the sensuous world. When sensory stimuli make contact with our sense organs they become our sense-objects. We know that our sensory awareness’ are varied: the eyes seeing visual forms, the ears hearing sounds, the nose smelling odours, the tongue tasting foods and the skin touching tactile objects. When this interaction happens they are made known to our conscious awareness as an appearance, as something arisen. Our sense organs possess form and it’s why we recognise their characteristic shapes, but the particular sensory awareness itself does not have form because its mental (this is the Buddhist philosophical view, not the authors’)
Ever since your birth and during your life onward, your eyes have bared witness to many forms of varying shapes, sizes and colours. Many times your ears have been flooded with all sorts of sounds at varying frequencies. Many times chemical odours have entered the nasal cavity, smells that elicited reactions of being delightful, stinking or neutral. Many times has the taste buds in your tongue discriminated against the foods entering your palate from sumptuous gustatory ecstasies to yucky green vegetables. Yes, there have been many sensory impressions but only a few of these have been filtered through to our memory because they were in some way significant; they may even become a source of nostalgia.
Whether those sensations have been encoded into our memory of not, we have no choice but to receive a plethora of sensory inputs, for day by day so long as we are awake and aware, they are forced into conscious awareness. We did not ask permission to be presented with any of this sensory information but our senses assail us all the time with information from our environment. It cannot be helped but become processed sensory information which then is called an appearance. This is my favourite analogy so far: We are like a house owner forced to receive visitors at our door whether these visitors are welcomed or not.
Sometimes we cannot help but respond to these sensory impressions, whether that be involuntary reflex actions caused by visual impressions suggesting potential dangers such as sudden movements, or if we’re a mother responding to our crying baby or someone calling out to us as we’re walking down the street.
“The trap of sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touch, and mind-objects is the same. They catch us and bind us fast. If you attach to the senses, you’re the same as a fish caught on a hook. – Ajahn Chah”
For an appearance to be received, not only do we have to have minds but we must be in the presence of those sensory impressions for how else can they make contact with the mind. If there is nothing to impress on the senses then the mind has nothing to work on.
Let’s touch on our dominant sense: vision. If we remain standing still in the same location, sooner or later as time goes on something will come into our vicinity of awareness and make its presence known to us, doesn’t matter if this presence is living or not. This is because the world is ever-changing and its contents are in constant movement.
Moreover not only that, but all these appearances or perceptible objects that you are seeing or just saw are, what is called in Buddhism, conditioned phenomena (Saṅkhāra in Sanskrit). Meaning for they to exist they must first have causes and conditions. For example, birth is the cause and condition for the existence of living things. Without causes and conditions, perceptible objects in the world cannot exist as observed phenomena; they will instead be that which never existed and cannot be known to conscious minds because they never had a history to begin with! Let’s lead by example, suppose the causes and conditions for a pet dog never existed i.e. never born, then the prospective owner’s mind in the pet shop could never have made that first contact which is so necessary for any pup to do the ‘puppy dog eyes’ because the dog does not exist! simple!
But is being in the mere presence of something enough to acknowledge reality? Suppose some of your senses were not working, suppose you were both blind and deaf and managed to find yourself in situations. For example, would you be aware of the carnival parade passing you by on the high street or the hearse driving on down the road as partaking in a funeral procession? Would you, sitting on a park bench even be aware of the absurd situation of a man standing on his head with his bare ass out in the air? From your perspective, as far as you would be concerned it would be like these events never took place at all.
If you regained those senses and someone told you about all those events that happened… including the last one. Would you believe, disbelieve or be unsure of their description because, of course, you have no memory of these events, not because you were unconscious, but because no appearance was made to the mind to be stored as memory.
Our sensory organs are the doors which environmental sense impressions must go through to make themselves aware, but if one or more of our sensory organs are unable to work because of injury or disease then it would be likened to a locked door shutting out their respective sensation from conscious awareness.
Next, let’s compare the sensory faculties of human beings to an animal. Let’s pick the domestic cat. Here’s a few facts, cat’s have a maximum hearing frequency around 100,000 hertz, while that of a human is 20,000 hertz. Concerning their sense of smell, they have 200 million odor-sensitive cells in their nasal cavity. Compare this to 5 million odor-sensitive cells in the noses of human beings. In terms of their hearing and sense of smell, cats have superior sensitivity to their environment than human beings. The point in bringing this up is that different animals possess differing degrees of sensitivity in the same environment, so a sound of 60,000 hertz would register as an appearance to a cat but would be oblivious to us.
Wherever you go there you are, because wherever the body goes the mind follows also. Where the body and mind goes so does the possibility of experiencing novel sensory impressions. What comes to mind for this is holiday makers. They just want to ‘get away from it all’ they wish to leave the boring old routine experiences of home behind. This is because experiences all come from sensory impressions.
We should not dismiss appearances as trivial because not only can they cause a reaction from us, as touched upon earlier, but they are able to condition us by forming new memories with new behavioural patterns as a consequence; go ask Pavlov! The mind itself is constantly subject to different objects contacting and conditioning it.
Those of you who are mindfulness practitioners will know that without the judging, evaluating and conceptual mind; there is only appearance.
I’ll end with this question: are the appearances presented to our first-person perspective reality as it really is, or is it a model of reality resulting from our brain processes?