Sunday, 27 December 2015

The Good, The True and The Beautiful

The above illustration is not great art, but it’s unlikely that it was intended to be. Its meaning and value lie not in the stereotyped figures, but in the event that it depicts: the newly-awakened Buddha’s teaching of the Middle Way and the Four Noble Truths to the five ascetics in the Deer Park near Varanasi. The aim of the picture is to bring that occasion to the mind in a graphic rather then verbal way. Placed on a wall, it forms an integral part of a shrine room – with Buddha-images on altars which encourage devotion to, and recollection of, the Triple Gem. Although it lacks originality, for that purpose it is adequate.

Of course this picture isn’t an accurate rendition of that cardinal event in the Deer Park. The Buddha, who had spent months living in the wilderness and then walking from Bodh-Gaya, would not have arrived in neatly pleated robes. The ascetics would not have been identical in appearance or look well-fed and well-groomed; their seating arrangement is artificial, etc. However an accurate representation is not the point; in fact there would be no point in such a representation, as the purpose of the illustration is to support devotion, not for a historical record. Actually the illustration might have worked better if the artist had followed the classic tradition of murals with their prescribed conventional forms and lack of perspective. Then we would realize we’re in another reality. As it is, the imagery is awkward because it wavers between being symbolic and following the ‘realist’ conventions established in the Italian Renaissance.

The Renaissance was a humanist movement; that is, it promoted a 'this-world' rather then ‘religious’ focus on reality. In terms of the arts, it presented human beings as they looked and in settings that were of the world visible to the contemporary eye. Perhaps the single most important shift in terms of painting was the establishment, by Filippo Brunelleschi around 1420 CE, of the laws of perspective. The effect of all this was to bring the sacred down to earth. Nearly two centuries later, Galileo (who had previously taught perspective in his career as an art teacher) abolished the earth-centred cosmos (and unwittingly undermined heaven at the same time). The skill of precise measurement through devices and machines established modern science, which moved away from religion and became the supreme arbiter of reality. ‘Objective’ reality was born. You could observe it through a telescope. 'Objective reality' means that a number of people can stand apart from or outside the object, measure the object, and arrive at the same consistent results: the object is ten metres high or weighs five kilograms. Through such findings we can comprehend the observed world and, through experimentation and ingenious inventions, make use of it. It’s a human-centric universe and an egalitarian one: no higher or transcendent way of apprehending reality is acknowledged. So although God was allowed to survive for a few subsequent centuries, He had to become an architect or an engineer to do so. Rationality, with its methods of defining experience by means of artificial measuring devices, became the supreme arbiter of reality.

Well, Einstein made some adjustments to that scheme: Relativity Theory presented a material universe in which space and time were no longer neutral constants, but formed ‘spacetime’ – a curved medium that warped in accordance with gravitational forces. Experiments showed that matter affects how spacetime bends – time slows down in the presence of gravity – and the curvature of spacetime affects how matter moves.  So the old forms of measurement became relative, dependent on velocity and gravitation. The straight line was abolished, and the laws of perspective became only relatively true. Quantum theory went a step further: it made our apparent reality even more relative through the proposition that the act of measurement intrudes on and affects that which is measured – meaning that there is no such thing as objective reality. You can’t stand outside reality and measure it – which, when it’s expressed like that, makes perfect and obvious sense. However, despite this so-far unassailable truth, the momentum that the measuring sciences created still pertains, and we speak of objective reality, and of ‘being objective’. We recoil from the idea that what we perceive is, and can only be, a subjective interpretation. We base our lives, politics and national narratives on (disputed) 'facts', and regard the intellect as the supreme human function. Of course, its findings and methods work quite ‘well’ – in terms of the material and measurable domain that it takes to be reality; and its offspring, technology, rules our lives.

Technology makes the created material world compliant to our wishes, and exploitable for our economic gain. And most of us now live in a world that is measured, probed, and used according to the priorities that secular humanism has established. The earth is not sacred, the cosmos is not a domain of wonder and reverence; they are ours to explore at will and turn to our apparent advantage whenever we can. We live in cities insulated from natural processes where our lives and social infrastructures are run by complex equipment. We delight in vehicles that can move our bodies around, and devices that can bring any aspect of the ‘real’ world to our screens. And if that’s not enough, then technology will provide us with fantasies to feed our senses on. This amazing power should bring us happiness, meaning, and a world of peace and plenty. It doesn’t.

It doesn’t because it doesn’t nourish something vital: the measureless, immaterial reality that isn’t apprehended through the five external senses or the thinking mind. This includes moral balance; awareness that transcends the changing display of thoughts, emotions and sensations; and the domain of happiness, peace and liberation. A dogmatic scientist either denies that there is such a reality, or configures it as a phenomenon generated by the brain, or by neuro-chemicals. However, although the mind-set that adheres to a single-faceted material reality can order, flatten and bomb the material world – and in its benign aspects mend our bodies and anaesthetise our pain – it cannot create moral balance, peace of mind or liberation. So after a few centuries of scientific and technological progress, we are at risk of so severely misusing the earth as to make large parts of it unliveable by the end of the century. And even now, the best and bravest solutions to the environmental crisis still rely on rational, technological solutions. The view is that we can tweak our lifestyle, change from coal to solar, create a few National Parks and continue on the same trajectory of an economic growth that hinges on our ability to dominate and exploit. Meanwhile, the human of the developed world is highly likely to be suffering from stress and depression.

Meanwhile, on another front, there is the measureless domain of the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Ariya-Sangha. A practising Buddhist is encouraged to develop the measureless mind/heart through cultivating the qualities of goodwill, compassion, rejoicing in the good, and equanimity. Or to cultivate samādhi to the level of the perception of boundariless space and boundariless consciousness. These point to a very different reality: while measurement refers to quantities, to how things appear in terms of notionally objective measuring tools, the measureless qualifies our subjective experience. To give an analogy: the statement ‘Two plus two equals four’ may be mathematically accurate, but it's meaningless in terms of subjective experience: eating two apples and then watching two kangaroos doesn’t make a meaningful foursome. The quantifiable is the appearance of exteriors – weight, shape, number, speed – and the qualifiable is the manifestation of interiors – such as happiness, respect, trust, ease and harmony. Now these can meet in harmony if they acknowledge each other and are led by wisdom, and this is Dhamma practice: to bring interior meaning and values to the world of separate measurable entities through right view, right effort and right mindfulness. Accordingly, Dhamma practice is summed up by an important qualifier: ‘kalyāna.’ It is, and has to be, ‘kalyāna in the beginning, kalyāna in the middle, kalyāna in the end.’ Kalyāna is often translated as ‘good’ or ‘beautiful’, but with a little reflection, it can also comfortably fit the third word of the Platonic Ideal, ‘the true.’

Firstly kalyāna , is the ‘good’ – it’s about virtue, the quality that aligns the mind to mutual care and respect, and that encourages the ‘we’ sense. It is the ‘beautiful’, in that it aligns awareness to the awe and sensitivity that hushes thought, the ‘thou’ sense that we might experience in Nature, or in deep meditation. And kalyāna is the ‘true’, through an awareness that sees things as they really occur in our consciousness, beyond reference to artificial means of measurement.

For example the presentation afforded by perspective painting isn’t a true presentation of how we see. If you hold your gaze steady, you see a field of vision that is flat and gets fuzzy at the edges. There is no distance, nor are there discrete objects; there's just a visual field of shapes and colours. You will experience a wavering pull towards the centre of that field or towards one relatively small region, which you experience as an object (a person, animal, tree, etc) that stands out from the background. Except that it doesn’t ‘stand out’ – your attention draws it out. Attention (manasikāra) narrows its focus, the rest of the visual field goes fuzzy, and the act of mental contact (phassa) refers to its known images to determine that a particular array of colours represents a person, animal or tree etc. It does so by rapidly tracing the boundary between one colour or tone and another and defining ‘shape’. Shape (rūpa) is instantly referred to the memory of similar shapes and colours – ‘this is like a cow, or a dog or a car.’ So attention and contact add another dimension to the flat visual field: that thin dark shape is a shadow that is being formed by a crease in a three-dimensional object; that flat shape that reminds me of a man has a back (even though I can’t see it right now) and depth. It's your mind as much as your eyes that makes the objects and the relative distance at which they appear. And as in the many examples of ‘trick’ drawings or ‘Magic Eye’ illustrations, the role of focus/attention and of mental interpretation can distort apparent reality, or swing between two conflicting representations. Take another example: much of Picasso’s art defies the conventions whereby a flat painting is held to represent dimensions. In his Cubist work, the features of a human face may be so arranged that the mind can’t create the familiar three-dimensional object. In this way, the painting plays with and challenges conventional representation, and a renewed ‘interior’ experience is the result. But is it real? Picasso was once presented with a photograph by a man insisting that this was how his wife really looked, not as in a Cubist image. The artist took the photo, and, turning it over in his hand, commented: ‘She’s rather small, isn’t she? And flat?’

But as Picasso also said, ‘Art is a lie that tells the truth.’ Or a truth: the truth of representation is that it presents a source of interpretation; and through interpretation, mental or emotional states get generated. Hence campaigning politicians are extremely careful that their physical appearance, their facial gestures and tones of speech carry a popular ‘message’. Suitable representation, as much as, or more than, policies, wins or loses elections. So much for objective appraisal. But, to return to the experience of holding a steady gaze: can you notice that if your gaze is really steady, that it’s hard to see any consistent object? What is experienced instead is a procession of subtly flexing forms that never acquire stasis and therefore defy interpretation. The flat and static reality of the ‘realist’ perspective may be an interpretation that we now conform to, but the truth of conscious experience is that of a radical impermanence in which form appears dependent on  the play of attention and contact. And the perception of impermanence is a basis of Dhamma: because we consequently realize that there is no beautiful thing to desire and no final truth to conceive of. Instead a relationship of calm and dispassion is to be encouraged. Jealousy, grasping, hoarding and attachment to views stop. Truth therefore supports the good.

As for that – science is extremely intelligent and useful, but in itself it is not ‘good’. Einstein, on recognizing that his work as a scientist had been the foundation for the development of the atom bomb, commented that, if he’d known in advance how his discoveries would be used, he would have made watches instead. The good is the recognition that all creatures are subjects, they all experience life (and the sentient ones have feeling too). Nothing is an object of my wishes, opinions or perspectives. A tree is a living organism that is processing light, water and air to support atmosphere, soil and wildlife. It is not potential furniture or pulp, or a useless occupant of land that could be pasture. What gives me the right to claim that? – the ignorance whereby the earth has lost fifty percent of its forest, so that climate change and the loss of wildlife and even topsoil (according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation we have only have sixty years of degrading the soil left before it becomes infertile dirt*) are impending realities. On the other hand, the good is the respectful acknowledgement that other creatures have the right to exist in and of themselves, whether I value them or not. Encompassing morality and goodwill, the good is the basis of life, not a legal matter.

Because the good supports the beautiful. That is, when we align our attention to the subjectivity of things, of reality not being a matter of my measuring instruments, views and inclinations, the beautiful is what remains. It is an experience of awe: that reality happens, beyond measurement and my measuring mind. Then, rather than try to reduce existence to a set of equations, our minds stop and open. And we can bow and be gladdened. This ‘stepping back’ (viveka) and gladness (pītī) quietens the mind as it opens into samādhi, the doorway to an increasingly refined set of realities.

Even more important than that is how consciousness, as it aligns to the good, true and the beautiful integrates us: we become generous, willing to share, and worthy of trust; we are free from the consumerism, that, more than war or disease, is wrecking the planet; and we can know deep inner peace. And if consciousness can recognize that all its representations are of less value than its own awareness, it can cease creating them: the consummation of the true, the good and the beautiful, is the Unconditioned. Finally there’s no truth more fulfilling than the mind’s release; and no one can picture that.


  1. I’ve thought for a while now that the Buddha was surely the world’s first scientist. His thinking can be recognized as fundamentally in tune with the scientific method as it exists today: causality, no special elements, no beginning cause, momentariness, and surely trial and error, as he abandoned those practices that weren’t working on his own spiritual quest. He lacked the optical tools to physically look very far into things or very far out at things but his outlook seemed aligned with discovering as much as possible about the world. Of course, he was mostly concerned with looking inwardly, towards the mental causes of dis-ease, but even then his teachings have a ring of science to them, in my opinion. Not to quibble, but I think your statement about Newton abolishing the earth-centered cosmos might be a bit Eurocentric, since the Buddha had already done so many centuries previously. No one outside India knew about it is the only difference.

    I am not so sure about the earth being sacred. It did its best to kill us off after all, in that drought, the Miocene drought. We were reduced to several thousand individuals at one point. It must have been terrifying for those creatures and we surely still feel the consequences today. Seven billion of us stand on the other side of that portal and only a small number can train the mind to forget and forgive the snakes and lions. I don’t think that’s a metaphor either, it’s literally true, although the snakes and lions can take on vastly different guises now. Maybe Gaia is suicidal but lacks agency, and had to create a creature capable of finally finishing her off. Let's hope not.

    Forgive my rambling but I must comment on your last sentence. I’ve found that the genuine results of meditation are always surprising, and totally unexpected. Is that the hallmark of progress? It seems that the mind that asks the question “what is the nature of X?” orders the result to be something along the lines of “the nature of X is Y”. When you can stop discursively ordering the mind around like that the results are always amazing, because we spend so little time in that frame of mind. Isn’t it something like that?

    I hope you are enjoying your life these days.

    1. I think it's possible to hold the Copernican model as a scientific truth ( which has been amended as the Sun is no longer the centre of the universe) and hold a mystical truth, that of consciousness with its many 'worlds' at the same time. When you want to measure quantity and 'external' reality you use science, when you want to measure quality and subjective consciousness, you use meditation, art etc.

      As for the 'sacred'; it's not what a thing 'is' as an objective fact, it's about how we relate to it as unique, measureless and somehow involved with us. Note that in many versions of the sacred, it's not always benign: Jehovah was wrathful and gave Job a very hard time. Still, in the denouement, Job acknowledges that God is just unfathomable and gets all his goods back.

      I'm a Buddhist, so I'm not into theology or Gaia worship, but I do think more respect towards the planet is necessary. And if calling it sacred helps get us out of our egocentric view, then I'll go with that. And of course , with reference to your last point, those same egocentric drives and their ordering the mind around are a hindrance to meditation. Meditation is a means of acknowledging the limits of egocentric view, and abandoning it. Devotion ( to 'the sacred') is also part of doing that. Life is good, thank you!

  2. What a beautiful reflection! When I woke up this morning, I wanted to read something that will open my heart, will help accepting the ups and downs of my working day, something to reflect on. Your reflection and your practice gives me lot of confidence and courage.
    Sadhu Sahdu Sadhu