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"If A Tree Falls In A Forest ..." - Bishop Berkeley Meets Laozi

Tao & The Ten-Thousand-Things

The classic Taoist symbolic representation of the relationship between Tao and the ten-thousand-things -- i.e. between the ultimate, unmanifest Reality and the appearances of the phenomenal world -- is the The Yin-Yang Symbol. Other ways of exploring the dance between the One and the many include: Dongshan’s Five Ranks (a Zen Buddhist map); Transubstantiation (a Christian doctrine); Shantarakshita’s Simultaneous Mind (from Tibetan Buddhism); The Arian Heresy (a Christian theological debate); and mirror metaphors (in both Taoism & Buddhism).

George Berkeley: “If A Tree Falls ...”

Western philosophy offers an interesting segueway into a similar exploration, by way of the work of the 18th-century Anglo-Irish philosopher George Berkeley, who famously wondered: "If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?"

Berkeley’s general thesis was that “to be is to be perceived”: in other words, that perception creates our reality. What we refer to as “physical objects” (including “bodies”) are -- in Berkeley’s formulation -- nothing more than relatively stable patterns of perception, to which we assign names (e.g. “tree” or “cat” or “my body”). So the answer to his question is that if a tree falls and no one hears it, then not only does it not make a sound, but furthermore the tree doesn’t even exist.

On the face of it, this would seem to be a position which gives rise to the rather absurd conclusion that trees go out of existence when no one (i.e. no human) is in the forest perceiving them; and then come back into existence when a human (or perhaps just another sentient being?) is there perceiving them.

Berkeley avoids this conundrum by claiming that one, shall we say Maha-Perceiver -- namely, God -- is perpetually present in the forest (as in all other locations) and, by always perceiving the trees, insures their continuing existence. In other words, by lovingly holding all collections of perceptions within the divine mind, God ensures their continued existence -- and hence the perceived regularity of the "natural world." 

Berkeley’s ingenious (and some would say, rather slippery) escape is rendered in the following pair of limericks:

The Query:

There was a young 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."

The Reply:

"Dear Sir: Your astonishment's odd:
I am always about in the Quad.
And that's why the tree
Continues to be,
Since observed by, Yours faithfully, God."

So basically we have two levels of experience being articulated in Berkeley’s philosophy: (1) the level of an individual human bodymind, in which perception creates reality, i.e. what we perceive, via our human perceptual faculties, fully determines “what exists” for us, experientially; and (2) the Ultimate level, if you will, in which God’s simultaneous perception of all of His creations, ensures the continuous functioning of a shared “natural world.”

Berkeley & Lao Tzu, Having Tea

Now, just for fun, let’s imagine Berkeley awakening one morning, to a fully-conscious recollection of his past life as Laozi (Lao Tzu) -- the founder of Taoism. How might he phrase his philosophical insights, in Taoist terms?

Instead of saying, “God is always here, as the Ultimate Perceiver” -- he might say “the Tao is the One Perceiver -- hearing/seeing/experiencing itself in the multitude of forms, the ten-thousand-things.”

He might then continue by pointing out that this perceptual activity of the Tao is nondualistic: Tao “perceives” the ten-thousand-things in the most intimate of ways, namely by being them -- in the way a mirror “knows/perceives” the reflections, or the ocean “knows/perceives” the waves via its essential identity with them. In other words: there is zero distance between Tao as the Ultimate Perceiver and its “objects” of perception, i.e. the ten-thousand-things.

Tao as the One Perceiver is continuously here -- perceiving each and every one of the ten-thousand-things as they are emanated and withdrawn back into her -- so their collective existence (the yin-yang dance of the manifest world) is perpetually/timelessly insured.

But, one might object, how can I -- via a human bodymind -- actually know directly that Tao as the One Perceiver exists at zero distance (in unspeakable intimacy) with the “objects” of its nondual perception? [the Ultimate reality claim] Or, more immediately, that objects do not exist separate from my (human bodymind) perception of them? [the relative-world claim]

In relation to the latter question, Laozi-qua-Berkeley might ask us to notice that -- from the perspective of human bodymind experience -- sound does not exist, separate from our hearing; sights do not exist, separate from our seeing; tastes do not exist, separate from our tasting; smells do not exist separate from our smelling .... etc. This can easily be established by asking yourself: is it possible to be aware of a “sound” independently of (say prior to) my hearing of it? Is it possible to be aware of a “smell” independently of my smelling of it? And so on .... the basic point being that our projection of an “external world” -- of objects “out there” which we then interact with via the sense-organs of a seemingly individual bodymind -- is a claim that can never be experientially verified. Why? Because such "experiential verification" of, say, a "visual object" can happen only via our seeing of it; and in this moment of seeing there is no "object" separate from the seeing.

In relation to the first question -- how can I actually know directly that Tao as the One Perceiver exists at zero distance (in unspeakable intimacy) with the “objects” of its nondual perception? -- the first step is to turn the light around: to become interested in the “perceiving” function itself, and in particular to see if we can “find” the perceiver (which is also the knower), as an object with a space/time location.

Once we’re convinced that the actual “perceiver” -- that aware Presence actually responsible for what we call “perceiving” -- has no space/time location -- then it becomes relatively straightforward to establish that the distance between this Perceiver and its “objects” of perception is zero:

1. Establishing distance requires two objects, each of which has a space/time location. [granting here, at least provisionally, the seemingly "objective" nature of perceived "objects" -- though in Berkeley's formulation these are understood to be established as nothing other than patterns of perception]

2. But: the Ultimate Knower/Perceiver can never be “found” as an “object” with a space-time location.

3. Which means that: the distance between the Ultimate Perceiver and a given phenomenal “object” is either infinite (if we conceive of the Ultimate Perceiver as being “nowhere”) or it is zero (if we conceive of the Ultimate Perceiver as being “everywhere”).

4. If there were infinite distance between the Perceiver (i.e. if the Perceiver were “nowhere”) and its object, then “perception” -- which implies contact, an embrace of some sort -- could never take place.

So what gets us in the door, so to speak, is something of a technicality -- for this “zero distance” is less a mathematical entity than it is a portal, a quantum leap, if you will, into a timeless, infinite & eternal dimension -- which transcends all concepts, including the concepts of “infinity” and “zero.”

To summarize: Distance can be established between, say, my human bodymind and a tree; but the very concept of distance -- which depends upon identification of separate objects -- collapses when we shift our identity from a seemingly limited bodymind to the Ultimate Knower/Perceiver -- and then attempt to establish a “distance” between this Ultimate Perceiver and a relative-world “object” -- because this Ultimate Knower/Perceiver can never be “found” as an “object” with a space-time location, but in fact penetrates and is the very substance of all phenomenal appearances, in the manner of a mirror being the very substance of the reflections that appear within it.

Garden Of Eden, Realm Of The Immortals

The same mistake that generates the so-called “external world” creates our seeming separation from God -- because the human body we identify with is itself part of this “external world” -- i.e. is simply a pattern of perceptions mistaken for an actually-existent object. Berkeley and Laozi are in agreement that it is only materialist misconceptions that separate humans from God/Tao -- since ultimately the natural world -- the ten-thousand-things -- do not exist independently from God, Tao, Consciousness.

Once we discriminate between objects of perception and the Ultimate Perceiver, returning our identification to the latter; and then establish the non-separation between the Ultimate Knowing/Perceiving function and the human bodymind -- the resonance of this knowing within the human nervous system IS a return to God & the Garden of Eden (the Tao & the joyous realm of the Immortals) all at once -- a re-membering of our true identity as Tao, playfully appearing as a human bodymind.


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