What is it?

Hyakujo took a jug, put it on the floor, and asked: “Don’t call this a jug, what is it?” The head monk said, “You cannot call it a shoe.” Hyakujo then asked Isan. Isan walked over, kicked over the jug and left.

I must warn you.  This will be a different kind of posting. As you know I have consistently said that the practice of Zen is an intelligent practice; we must use our intelligence when working on a koan.  Zen is not an immaculate conception that has appeared out of nowhere.  The basic questions that Zen asks are: who am I? and what is reality? (Mu) The primary ‘sin’ in Buddhism is ignorance; another way of putting this is that we take for granted what should not be taken for granted.  We ignore our origins: or, as Gurdjieff pointed out, we do not remember ourselves; we ignore ourselves.  Moreover, we naively believe that the world is a ‘thing’ made up of ‘things,’ each of which has an independent existence.

In the koan quoted above, Hyakujo asks what is it? He is not asking simply about the jug. The head monk thought that he was.  The monk felt that ‘something’ was there to which we attach the label ‘jug.’  Therefore, obviously, that something could not also be called a ‘shoe.’  But Hyakujo was asking about the ‘something.’  What is that ‘something;’ indeed what is anything?  Or, more directly, what is reality?  This, one way or another, is the question underlying most of the koans. It is also the question that has challenged some of the greatest thinkers both East and West.   Plato put it this way: “For manifestly you have been long aware of what you mean by ‘being’.   We, however, who used to think we understood it, have now become perplexed.”

Plato’s perplexity is what the masters call the doubt sensation.  However, our problem is not that we cannot find the answer to the question, ‘what is reality?’ The problem is that we cannot find the question. As Plato points out, we have been long aware of what we mean by reality, we take it for granted and do not know how to question it.  When we come to question what am I? or what is MU? we have no idea how to proceed. In this posting I would like to help you find the question, because without it you cannot practice intelligently.

One reason, and possibly the most important reason, why so many great thinkers have failed to answer the question, is that they are, and were, looking for an intellectual answer. This is somewhat like being very hungry and looking for a good menu. Just as we cannot know who or what we are, so we cannot know what ‘being’ or reality is.  The philosopher Kant came to this conclusion and he seemed to be satisfied to say that we do not know. It is like he went in a great circle and arrived back at where he started.

When we practice we are not looking for an intellectual answer.  This is why we should not be daunted by the fact that so many great thinkers have failed. We are the response that we seek.  You may remember the monk who asked a master, “What is my treasure?” The master replied, “Your question is your treasure.”

If I am reality, if I manifest reality with every action  that I take, where does intelligence come in?  Why do I need to think at all?  Will thinking not take me away from the goal? Yes indeed it will.  This is the problem. You think that you are something, you think that you are separate from the world; you think that the world is something made up of somethings… the list is endless.  By saying that you must use your intelligence, I do not mean that you should find correct answers or ways of saying what the world is, or what you are, or what things are. You must use your intelligence to question your assumptions.

Don’t retreat behind excuses like, “Zen says thinking is no good,” or, “I am not an intellectual person,” or “I would prefer to just practice.”  What I am going to ask you to do is hard work, you must use you mind!

“Do we see what is there, or do we see what we believe to be there?” “Is there anything there?” “What happens to the room after I leave it?”  These are all ways of asking “What is reality?”

Let me tell a story to try to show what I mean.

In the sixties, two white policemen shot and killed two black men in a Detroit motel. Author, John Hersey, [1] wrote an account of the incident in a book called The Algiers Motel Incident. He interviewed eight people who were eyewitnesses, and they gave him eight different versions. At the end of the book Hersey summed up what ‘really’ happened, basing his conclusion on what he had been told.

Is his conclusion ‘really’ what happened, or, was Hersey simply offering a ninth version?

Suppose that eight people added up a column of figures, and each arrived at a different total. Then someone comes along and says, “The way to the real total is to add the totals together and divide by eight.” Would this be the right total, or just another total?

If Hersey could not say what happened, then how can we know what did happen? Please do not skip too lightly over the question. If you do you will miss what I want to say.

Most of us would be sure that something happened, and we might believe that if a sufficient number of witnesses were interviewed, what really happened could be uncovered. However, the more people interviewed, the more versions, the more conflicting statements, and the greater difficulty we would have in deciding what really happened.

Can we, then, ever say what really happened? If not, we should surely ask whether indeed anything did ’really’ happen.  It is interesting to note that the finest minds in theoretical physics have asked just his question. One of the most famous of these, the physicist Werner Heisenberg, said, “The term ‘happens’ is restricted to observation.”  In other words, at the sub-atomic level, until an observation is made nothing ‘happens.’ If this is true of the ‘micro’ sub-atomic world, is it also true of our ‘macro’ world? Does a happening depend on there being an observer?  What Heisenberg said must surely suggests that we should not decide too hastily whether or not something ‘happened’ at the Algiers Motel.

In answer to the question, “did anything ’really’ happen?” Heisenberg gives Einstein’s answer to a similar question:[2] “But something must happen, this we cannot doubt. This something need not be described in terms of electrons or waves of light quanta, but unless it is described somehow the task of physics is not completed. It cannot be admitted that it refers to the act of observation only.” (my emphasis) Most of us would agree with this; but what happened?

The problem
A similar problem to the Algiers motel incident has existed ever since humans started to think objectively: what do we mean when we say that the world is real?  The problem can be summed up in two limericks

There was once a man who said “God
Must think it exceedingly odd
If he finds that this tree
Continues to be
When there’s no one about in the Quad”

Someone answered this by saying:

Dear Sir, Your astonishment’s odd
I am always about in the Quad
And that’s why the tree
Will continue to be,
Signed, yours faithfully, God.

If one is not looking at the tree, does it continue to exist? On the face of it one would say, “Of course the tree is always there,” just in the same way that one would say, “Of course something really happened in the Algiers motel incident.” However, we must ask further, “In that case, in what manner is the tree there?” or “In what manner did something happen?” The answer given in the second doggerel says that the tree, and no doubt what happened in the Algiers Motel incident, is in the mind of God. Although, as human beings, we may never ‘really’ know what the tree ultimately is, yet a completely objective viewpoint, which we could call God, could conceivably register what the tree is, and the truth would then be available in the mind of God. The question then must be, “In what manner is the tree in the mind of God?” Or, in a less biblical way of speaking, in what manner is the tree there if we consider it from an entirely objective point of view? When is a tree just a tree?

By asking about the manner of the tree’s existence I mean the following: if I look at a tree from the south and then from the north, the tree appears in a different manner. If I look at it from the south, I see that it is just in front of a barn. Beyond the barn is a landscape of trees, and beyond that there are hills, the sky and clouds. All this must be included in the manner in which I see the tree. If I look at it from the north, I no longer see the barn, and the tree is now some way from a house, which is part of a neighborhood of houses.

You might protest and say, “Yes, but it is still the same tree,” whether seen from the south or from the north.  This, though, is what is in doubt. Is it the ‘same’ tree? Suppose that you close your eyes as you walk from the south to the north; does the tree disappear and reappear when you open your eyes? “No,” you might say, “of course not.” What is it that persists: the tree that you will see from the north or the one that you saw from the south? I might agree with you if you say that the tree does not disappear and that it is still there. However, in what manner is it still there?

If, with your eyes closed, you were to walk around the tree in a circle, and at each degree of the circumference of this circle you opened your eyes and looked at the tree, by the time that you have completed the circle you would have seen 360 ‘trees.’ If a botanist, a carpenter, a hunter, each of whom would have a substantially different point of view, were to walk around with you, 4×360 ‘trees’ would be seen. As you can see we could multiply indefinitely the ‘number of trees’ that are seen. Why should we say that one or other of these points of view is the ‘real’ tree? But, if the real tree cannot be found by adding another point of view, and if we do not want to resort to idealism ––everything is just in the mind––where will we find the real tree?

You might object and say that we are not talking about the tree and the barn, house, sky and cloud, we are just talking about the tree, separate from all of these. If one separates the tree from all that is around it, we can then claim that the tree really is there.  Again this objection misses the point. The question is not whether the tree is there; the question is in what manner is the tree there?  For example, suppose we are hovering above the tree in a helicopter, or lying beneath the tree in its shade.  Or suppose that we are an ant crawling along a branch, or a bird building a nest in the tree. The manner in which the tree exists from each of these viewpoints is different.

As I said, philosophers have been asking this question since the dawn of time.  A recent one, philosopher Christopher Norris, would dismiss my question, ‘in what manner does the tree exist?’ by saying that it [the question] involves “nothing more than a moderate descriptive claim, i.e. that we ’make’ these various worlds by bringing reality under various schemes, versions, descriptions, but only in so far as that reality exists independently of us and our beliefs concerning it.” [my emphasis]

But, this is my point: what is that ‘reality’ that exists independently of us, and our beliefs concerning it? Another way of posing the same problem is, what is the tree without a point of view? or what really happened at the Algiers motel that is not dependant upon any of the witnesses? The first limerick is asking this question. Is it not strange that the tree remains a tree, even when no one is looking at it? Is it not strange that the room continues to exist after you have left it? Is it not strange that something happened, although no one can know what happened beyond what they saw?

The importance of the observer
What all this indicates is that our ‘tree’ is not only a physical object; our ‘tree’ is also the view that we have of it. Let me try to say this in a slightly different way.

When I say the tree is the physical object, this is like saying ‘I know the tree is there’. In other words, I forget the ‘I know,’ and affirm that the tree can stand on its own whether I am there or not. On the other hand, when I say the tree is dependent on the view that I have of it, I say that ‘I know the tree is there.’  This means that in the first case – ‘I know the tree is there’—I pretend that the subject does not exist.  I see the tree Objectively.  When I say that I know the tree is there, the subject is reinserted into the equation as the most important element: the tree is there because I know it is there.  I see the tree Subjectively.

Before we go on I must clear up a confusion that arises because of the way we use the words  ‘objectively’ and ‘subjectively.’  The word ‘subjective’ usually means ‘biased by my prejudices, wishes, and ideas.’  The word ‘objective’ means without my personal bias.  However, when I say that I see the tree ‘subjectively’ I do not mean that I am biased in the way that I see it.  I mean ‘I as Subject’ see the tree.  On the other hand when I say I see the tree objectively, I do not necessarily mean that I see it without bias; I mean I see it as an object.

In order to avoid this confusion I would like to say I see the tree Objectively––with a capital ‘O’––when I mean I see it as an object; I will use objectively – with a small ’o’––when I mean I see it without bias.  In the same way I will use the word Subjectively––capital S —when I refer to seeing something as Subject, and will use subjectively — small ‘s’––when referring to seeing something with bias.  Thus a scientist is being subjective if he says that the only true way to see the world is Objectively.  Furthermore, to say I know the tree is there, is a Subjective statement but I am being objective when I say it.

To continue now with our discussion, for the tree to be as it is when we see it from the south or from the north, it has to be seen in some particular manner. For the tree to be in any particular manner, it has to be seen or known to be in that manner. This, I think, is what an idealist philosopher would mean when saying that ‘seeing is being’ (esse est percipii: to be is to be perceived”).   Very roughly speaking, an idealist is a philosopher who would say that “it is all in the mind”; nothing exists except the product of our mind. There are many Zen Buddhist teachers who seem to think that Buddhism is an idealist philosophy.  However, these people think that seeing and being are identical.  (By the way, when I say ‘seeing is being,’ seeing is still seeing; being is still being.)

The naïve view of most people is that ‘something’ is always there, and we stick a label on it.  This, if you remember is what the monk thought. Together with Hyakujo, I am questioning the ’something that is there.’ I am not, however, suggesting that nothing is there; I am questioning, “In what manner is something there?”

The tree is a tree is a tree says the naïve realist.  Yes, but in what manner is it a tree? Does the realist think of some kind of tree that ‘contains,’ somehow, all possible ways of viewing it?  I asked you to imagine walking around the tree with eyes closed and to open them at every degree of the circle. If you were to do this, your observation would have gaps as you went with eyes closed from one degree to the next. Another theoretical physicist, Erwin Schrödinger, on whose work quantum mechanics is partly based, said, “Observations are to be regarded as discrete, discontinuous events. Between, there are gaps which we cannot fill in.” [3] In my example these “gaps we cannot fill in,” are times when the tree is no longer, as far as we can know, a ‘tree’ because no one is seeing it.  In the quantum world, scientists now recognize that we can no longer dispense with you and me. Without us there is no world. As Goswami, another physicist and author of The Self-Aware Universe,[4]says, “A correlated quantum system has the attribute of a certain unbroken wholeness that includes an observing consciousness. Such a system has an innate wholeness that is non-local and transcends space-time.”

That is something of a jaw-breaker but simply means the following: The tree and I are a correlated system that has the attribute of a whole, which includes me as the observing consciousness. When I look at the tree, I ‘select out,’ I ‘perceive the tree,’ and make a tree that tree. ‘A’ tree and ‘that’ tree are quite different. ‘A’ tree exists only in the imagination as a thought.  Please do reflect on this. Therefore, ‘a’ tree can have any properties that one likes to imagine, including that of being able to make a noise when no one hears it. It is like the smile of Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat, which can, in much the same way, exist independently of the cat.

On the other hand, if I talk about that tree, I mean that concrete tree, which includes my seeing it, and which ’I’ see from the south, from a distance of twenty feet and which has a barn and so on behind it. To repeat what Goswami said, “The tree and I are a correlated system that has the attribute of a whole, which includes me as the observing consciousness.” Using the wording that I used above, I could put it this way: “I know that tree is there”, and this can be said in four different ways: common sense says, “I know that tree is there.” The idealist says, “I know that tree is there.” The realist says, “I know that tree is there.”

But there would appear to be yet another way:  “I know that tree is there.”

What happens to ‘a’ tree, and what happens to ‘that tree’ when no one is looking at them, are two vastly different questions. If you ask an idealist, “What happens to ‘a’ tree if no one sees it?” he will answer, “There will be no tree.” A naïve realist will say, “I don’t see the problem. It will still be a tree.” The idealist and realist are, however, dealing with imaginary trees. ‘A’ tree is not ‘a tree,’ that is a real concrete tree, until it is seen as ‘that’ tree. Therefore, one cannot ask what happens to that tree when I no longer look at it, because, let me repeat, that tree includes my seeing it.

We cannot accept the idealist’s solution to our problem. “The tree is only a point of view of a tree.” This solution tells us that the world is like a town in a Hollywood western: all front and no back; all façade and no substance. The drama, uncertainty, and struggle of life, including the struggle to survive, just drain away. We cannot therefore say, as the idealist would, that the tree is entirely dependent upon my seeing it.

Yet I seem to be talking as an idealist when I say,“ ‘A’ tree is not ‘a tree,’ that is, a real concrete tree, until it is seen as ‘that’ tree.” Someone could well ask, “Is that not taking the idealist point of view?” I would say, “Yes, it is.” That same person would then say, “But surely, there has to be a tree that you see!” I would say, “Yes, you’re right.” But that is a realist’s view. Simply to say, however, that they are both right in their own way, or to say that they come from different ways of understanding, or even to take a pragmatic view and say they are complementary, evades this most fundamental and difficult of questions: what is reality?

So, if a tree alone in the forest falls, does it make a noise?  What is Mu?

[1] Hearsey John The Algiers Motel Incident
[2]  Heisenberg, Werner, Physics and Philosophy: The Revolution in Modern Science.  (New York: Harper TorchBooks, 1962)  p. 113/4  
[3] Goswami , Amit (1995) The Self –Aware Universe (Jeremy Tarcher: New York) p 87
[4] ibid p. 117

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9 Responses to What is it?

  1. helmutm says:

    At times we are surprised by ‘direct’ perceptions when they break through gaps in consciousness. They are thought to be pure cognitive events, stripped of all concepts, naked as it were.
    Mr. Low, I am wondering if there is or what is the correspondence between these direct perceptions and the terms you use when you talk about S-s-O-o ?

    • Albert Low says:

      Psychological theories will not help. Buddha asked Ananda, If the bell stops ringing, doo you stop hearing?” When Ananda replied,”Yes,” Buddha chided him. He was telling Ananda,, we do not see with our eyes, we do not hear with our ears.

  2. Words are labels we attach to objects and states of being. We agree to use these labels to order our thoughts enabling us to communicate one with another. An apple is not an apple which is why we call it an apple to distinguish it from all the other things that are not an apple. Nothing is what it seems. A moment of clarity exists when the object, the one observing the object and the experience, merge as one.

    • Albert Low says:

      “Words are labels we attach to objects and states of being,” This, as I said in the blog is the mistake the monk made. Th question is: what are the objects and things to which we attach labels?

      How can object, the one observing the object, and the experience, “merge,” when they are not separate in the first place?

  3. Bob says:

    There is an appearance of the tree (in many different angles), yet there is no one here to observe that appearance. Yet the observation is inseparable from the appearance of the tree – or more bluntly observation is the tree, or observing is the treeing. Inseparability of the observation and observed, however, does not result in a fusion, but an obviousness that reveals the incomprehensibility of reality, which cannot be said to exist or not-exist. Observation seemed to imply distance, physical or temporal, but in reality, there is no distance. Eyes do not see the tree, the tree touchs the very tongue that describe its aged bark.

  4. Roger says:

    Thank Mr Low for your text. I have just a question about your last one

    If it is true for a tree, is-it true for the pactice of the zen and can we do other practice finaly than a appearance of practice?

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