Seeing is Believing (Not!) - Surangama Sutra, “The Nature of Visual Awareness”

When we look in a mirror, it shows a warped version of ourselves. It flattens us, reverses right and left, and is distorted by our fears and hopes. It doesn’t fully embody our sense of who we are, nor does it necessarily convey how others see us. All our visual images are constricted by the limitations of our visual apparatus as well as tainted by thought and desire. To take the image as the reality is to be corrupted as Ananda was (almost) corrupted by a vision of loveliness when he encountered the Matanga courtesan. Shakyamuni warns Ananda:

“all that you can now see — the mountains, the rivers, the many lands, and the various forms of life— are the result of a disease that has existed in your visual awareness since time without beginning.”

Last week’s dharma talk explored how our thoughts are really unreal. The same is true of all our sense-impressions. The page of words you see at this moment appears as your present reality, but it hides the ink and phosphors, the earth elements, the straight lines and curves which constitute it; you do not see the human sweat which molded it and your sight cannot point to the ideas emerging from it. We all succumb to the disease which deceives us into believing our senses are an accurate bridge between the Big-I mind “inside” us and the world around us. Even in this age of Photoshopped Instagrams we still say “seeing is believing,”
In this section of the Surangama Sutra, Buddha deconstructs our visual delusions in the hope that, by the end of the section, we may begin to see a different way to meditate and glimpse a wider realm of practice. Shakyamuni begins by reminding us: it is the mind that sees, not the eyes. This is no surprise to anyone with a basic knowledge of the neurophysiology of vision: light reflects off objects and passes through the lens of the eye, which bends the rays into an upside-down image projected onto the rods and cones of the retina. There the light-energy is converted into nerve-impulses which criss-cross on their way to the lateral geniculate nucleus and superior colliculus of the midbrain. From there the information is passed to the brain’s occipital lobe where the visual cortex assembles it into a conscious image. We assume the result (what we see) is a reasonably accurate representation “in” our minds of the objects around us. Unless we’re disturbed by some anomaly we usually take visual perception for granted; we have a trusting belief in the reality of our perceptions. This is a shame, because it keeps us from fully appreciating the wondrous nature of vision - and its limitations.
For example, Buddha points out how visual awareness does not move. When we are in a room and turn our head to the right or the left, our visual awareness shows us a stationary room, and we know it is our head moving, not the room. This takes quite a bit of brain processing. Different images of the room are moving across our retina; the brain takes the series of moving images that arise and - with some help from the vestibular system - deduces the lamp at the other end of the room is standing still. It presents this deduction as a stationary image. Conversely, when a series of still images moves rapidly across our retina in a movie theater, the brain fuses the still images into the appearance of movement. These abilities are marvelous - and potentially misleading.
The visual system is not a mechanical translator blindly transferring light onto a film in the brain. We create what we see. In some classical experiments, volunteers were fitted with goggles which turned their world upside-down. When they wore them continuously, they stumbled about for several days, but by the fifth day the image flipped: the volunteers saw the world as once again right-side up. After a while longer wearing the goggles, when they eventually took them off the “real” visual world looked upside down to them, until they re-adapted. The process of adaptation was facilitated by their handling objects - they started “see” first with their hands. The “visual system” does not function in isolation from the rest of the body.
When I was trekking in Nepal, I noticed how visitors relied mostly on their eyes: fearful of falling, they’d look down to the ground and pick their way along the trail. They stumbled frequently. Nepali sherpas and porters, though, looked ahead and all around; their vision was wide, encompassing a bit of the trail but also the entire terrain. Walking long distances barefoot since childhood, their feet had learned to reliably “see” the ground immediately below. They were in their element and rarely, if ever, fell.
In order to see, we must act. Our visual awareness arises through our interactions with the world. The images we see are not mere projections of static icons; the images depict relationships and experiences. Our subjective visual images display ideas about the world, not the world itself.
Shakyamuni points out, visual awareness - like ideas- has neither shape nor extension. When I stand on the Renjo La in Nepal, the image of Mt Everest that appears on my retina is less than an inch tall, but the image that arises in my visual perception has no size or shape. The image does not span my occipital lobe like a projection on a movie screen. Cutting open my brain will not reveal a mini-Everest someplace. The visual images arising in our Big-I minds have no discrete, graspable location or physical form. I see Mt Everest as large because I have the idea of large. From this distance I can contrast it with what’s around it and match it up to my knowing it is more than 29,000 feet high. From another vantage point down on the glacier, an intervening hill blocks my view except for Sagarmatha’s tip, which looks rather small. I won’t really appreciate “29,000 feet high” unless I have the experience of my lungs and legs protesting when I try to climb the peak. Meanwhile, here on Renjo La, if I slip on an ice-covered rock, that rock looms larger than Sagarmatha’s massif. All visual images are only as large as the attention we give to them.
As Buddha says to Ananda, “visual awareness is not a perceived object.…if visual awareness were a perceived object, then would you not be able to see my visual awareness as an object?” As we delve into the relationship between visual awareness and the objects of awareness, we begin to get into deep waters. Buddha proposes a metaphor - one that is often referred to in Zen practice - saying:
Suppose someone is pointing to the moon to show it to another person. That other person, guided by the pointing finger, should now look at the moon. But if he looks instead at the finger, taking it to be the moon, not only does he fail to see the moon, but he is mistaken, too, about the finger.
He has confused the finger, with which someone is pointing to the moon, with the moon, which is being pointed to.
Buddha shakes up our dualistic Big-I minds, teaching that visual awareness is both separate and not separate from objects. He gives an example: “If trees were separate from my awareness, how could I be seeing them? But if the trees were identical to my awareness, how could they still be trees?……Our visual awareness does not have a nature of its own that is distinct from the myriad things. Thus your awareness is not something you can point out [and grasp].”

Let’s use an example from perceptual psychology to clarify this. When you look at the figure to the left, you probably can see the downward pointing white triangle in the center - - despite the fact that there is nothing there. The appearance of the triangle depends on the three black pie shapes and the placement of three carats (V-shaped lines). Without those shapes, there is no white triangle; but without our visual perception “filling in” the implications, there also would be no white triangle. We cannot grasp the white triangle itself; we cannot grasp our visual perception of it.


The white triangle arises automatically to our conditioned minds. With some effort we can over-ride the conditioned perceptual processing and, by focus ing directly on the pies and carats, “erase” the white triangle.This is a little easier to experience with another example

Here our visual perception of the center of the figure shifts from appearing as the letter “B” to appearing as the number “13.”

With some effort of visual awareness we can “unsee” both “B” and “13” and instead see simply a straight line to the left of two arcs:.

Being aware of how our visual perception is both separate and not separate from things, our visual awareness can both “see” and “not-see” the letters “B” and “13.” In everyday life, sometimes we see things which aren’t there: perhaps you’ve been in a crowded airport terminal and, passing by a gate, were surprised to see a friend’s face. You pause to say hello and realize you’ve mistaken a stranger for your friend. In everyday life, sometimes we don’t see things which are there: perhaps you’ve mislaid your keys, search all over for them, only to eventually discover them where you first started looking; they were there, but you didn’t see them despite their being right in front of your eyes.
Every child knows how to look up, wide-eyed, at an adult who is harping at them and look right through them: a convenient form of seeing not-seeing. This trick can come in handy at a stressful work meeting! More fundamentally, modulating how we see is itself a meditation; it allows us to change our relationship to the world. the beginning of the Dayan Qigong form, we let our eyes go soft and instruct ourselves: “eyes open, seeing nothing” or “eyes open, seeing far” or “eyes open, seeing within.” When we meditate, it’s good to sometimes keep our eyes open, sometimes closed, sometimes half-open or half-closed.
Objects come and go, but visual awareness is not lost and does not perish. Buddha reminds King Prasenajit that although he may have seen the river Ganges when he was three years old, gone away, and returned to see the river Ganges again now that he is sixty-two: “Your Majesty, your face is wrinkled, but the essential nature of your visual awareness itself has not wrinkled.” We might object: probably the King’s eyesight is not as good as it was. Perhaps he has cataracts; perhaps he has gone blind. In either case, his visual perception of the river will be different than it was. His visual awareness, however, does not wrinkle. If his eyes have gotten dim, he will be aware of blurriness; if he has gone blind, he will be aware of being blind. Buddha gives examples of how an eye disease can cause us to see colored rings around bright objects like a lamp; sometimes an atmospheric miasma will cause us to see colored rings around the moon. The distortion is not in the moon or the lamp, nor is the distortion in our awareness - because we know our vision is obscured. In the same way, a key gateway to enlightenment is being aware of how we are deluded.
Closing our eyes and opening them does not interrupt our visual awareness. If we are driving a car and our eyes close from fatigue, we realize our peril and open them. When our eyes are closed when we are asleep, our visual awareness brings up dream images. Incidentally, mostly the same brain structures are activated during dreaming and when we’re awake. The brain does seem to “see” during dreaming. Asleep, the stimuli arise from within and what we see we call “dreams.” When we are awake, our visual awareness brings us the - dream? - images we call “the world.”
The central point here is that visual awareness is not a thing. It is a form of being. Painters and other graphic artists know this: they draw on their visual awareness to convey a broader reality than the one we take for granted. Visual awareness is not a reflection of the world, nor a duplication of it. As Buddha says, “[although] visual awareness is not the wondrous, essential, understanding mind….. it can be compared to a second moon, rather than to a reflection of the moon.”
Buddha warns us: “From time without beginning, all beings have mistakenly identified themselves with what they are aware of. Controlled by their experience of perceived objects, they lose track of their fundamental minds…. The essence of visual awareness and what it is aware of cause what seem to be external phenomena to appear….[but] as you see me now, the fundamental, luminous essence of visual awareness is not the wondrous, essential, understanding mind.”
How can we cultivate the “inner eye” of meditation so we do not lose track of our fundamental mind, so we can touch the wondrous, essential, understanding G-B mind even with eyes wide shut? It helps to learn how to see with our whole body-mind. We can see though illusion by letting visual awareness fill our legs and feet, our belly and our heart and mind. Buddha offers simple instructions for this:
Once we add another layer of understanding to our enlightenment, our awareness and what it is aware of become defective. While the awareness that is added to enlightenment is defective, however, the awareness that is the fundamental, enlightened, understanding awareness is not defective.
We don’t need to end delusions; better to do less. When we let go of anything extra we return naturally to our fundamental enlightened understanding, which is not (never was, never will be) deceived.
So the next time you sit down to meditate, don’t try to understand. Don’t observe. Don’t concentrate. Simply refrain from adding anything to the experience, or subtracting anything from it. That’s all. That’s it.

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Two Excerpts from this section of the Surangama Sutra
“The true, wondrous, luminously understanding mind contains the body and everything outside the body — mountains, rivers, sky, the entire world…..Our enlightened nature can be involved with things throughout all ten directions, and yet it remains clear and still. It is eternally present. It neither comes into being nor ceases to be.”

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A dialog between Buddha and Majushri:
Buddha: Visual awareness and visible objects, and objects of mind as well, are like elaborate mirages that appear in space. They have no real existence of their own. Fundamentally, visual awareness and all its conditioned objects are the pure, wondrously understanding enlightenment itself. In enlightenment, how could there be identity or a lack of it?
Mañjuśrī, I now ask you: you are Mañjuśrī…. - is there a Mañjuśrī about whom one can say, ‘That is Mañjuśrī’? Or is there no such Mañjuśrī?”
Mañjuśrī: “Neither, World-Honored One. I am simply Mañjuśrī. There is no one about whom one can say, ‘That is Mañjuśrī.’ Why? If there were, there would be two Mañjuśrīs. Nor is it the case that there is no such Mañjuśrī. In fact, neither the affirmation nor the denial of the statement ‘That is Mañjuśrī’ is true.”
Buddha:“The same is true of the wondrously understanding essence of our visual awareness and also of the objects we observe and of space. All are the wondrously understanding, supreme enlightenment — the pure, perfect, true mind. It is a mistake to consider them as separate….
“Similarly, in the analogy of the second moon, which moon is the one about which one can say, ‘That is the moon,’ and which one is not in fact the moon? Actually, Mañjuśrī, there is really only one moon. We can neither affirm nor deny the statement, ‘That is the moon.’
Therefore, all your various interpretations of visual awareness and visible objects are nothing but delusion, and in the midst of delusion one cannot avoid thinking ‘That is’ and ‘That is not.’ Only from within the true, essential, wondrously understanding, awakened mind can one escape the error of trying to point to what ‘is’ and what ‘is not.’”
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A koan (#88)from the Book of Serenity:

The Surangama scripture says:

When I don’t see, why don’t you see my not seeing?

If you see my not seeing, that is naturally not the characteristic of not seeing.

If you don’t see my not seeing, it’s naturally not a thing
- how could it not be you?


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