I recently read a short book that was given to me on Buddhism, called What Makes You Not a Buddhist. In each section, the author, Khyentse Norbu, repeatedly urged the reader to not simply intellectualize and then shelve the philosophies he was discussing, but to actually absorb them on a deeper level, let it shape your worldview in such a way that allows you to incorporate it into your daily routine behavior. This stuck with me, because it was echoing a thought that has been taking root in the forefront of my mind for the past three weeks. Before coming to Nepal, my interest in philosophy had always centered around the accumulation of knowledge; even though I have encountered philosophical ideas that I have agreed with or that have altered my opinion, I have never truly attempted to incorporate them into how I choose to live.
One such idea is the inherent subjectiveness of reality. It is a concept that most Western philosophers have addressed in some way or another, so it isn’t a foreign question to me. I did not, however, with my sparse knowledge of Buddhism before this course, know how central it was to the Buddhist worldview. I started to think about this because of a book I plucked from the mini library at the program house my first week in Kathmandu — His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s The Universe in a Single Atom. In it, he explains in simple terms the Buddhist ideas of dependent origination and emptiness — essentially that nothing has an objective independent existence — and allies this worldview with the understanding of the subjectiveness of reality that can be derived from both Einstein’s theory of relativity and the physical paradoxes shown by quantum mechanics. (I won’t even try to explain these concepts in my own words but the Dalai Lama did a fantastic job at dumbing it down). What these essentially boil down to is that everything is relative and that the observer is always an inherent element in what is being observed.
This reminded me of two philosophical considerations I’d read about before — the anthropic principle, which states that the observable universe is how it is because it enabled our own existence as observers, and solipsism, the idea that nothing aside from one’s own mind can be sure to exist, and that everything else could be simply a projection of one’s own subconsciousness. From what I was gathering, two out of the four seals of Buddhism (the Dharma seals) had a lot in common with these ideas of the observer’s role in their own reality.
All this information was beginning to reach a critical mass — assuming nothing is objectively real, independent of how I and the people who have come before me have perceived it, what do I do? Normally, I’d have been content with accepting the truth value of this and filing it away in my brain as I’d done before, continuing on, not actually changing my way of life. But now I don’t feel content to do that. Contemplating the nature of reality is a useless and pretentious waste of time if I’m not going to change how I go about engaging with my reality on a daily basis.
So I arrived at my own interpretation of the subjective nature of reality, one that I’ve begun to try to put into practice during my time here. If how I perceive my reality is the main factor in what that reality is, than I can define mine by what I choose to perceive about the world around me and how I choose to respond to what I perceive. To put this into practice, it was just a matter of choosing to observe and admire things and experiences with strong intent and focus.
I tried it first on a rush hour bus ride to my homestay here in Kathmandu, which tend to be a pretty stressful experience. I focused on letting myself observe the bus as something beautiful. My focus quickly went to the conductor, the guy who does essentially everything but drive the bus. He hangs effortlessly off the vehicle as if it’s not shooting down unevenly paved streets, watching for people flagging him down, with eyes that flit faster than insect wings back into the crowded black hole of the bus. He’s all at once giving five different people their change, shouting out the next stop, and herding people off and on the bus. The eyes and clothes of the passengers shift as he shuffles them. A precarious metal box, four wheels, a detached driver and twenty bumbling strangers become a well-oiled machine under his watch. It’s artful. A snake that keeps shedding his skin.
I think anyone used to the structured city bus system of New York would probably also stare in wonder at the Kathmandu bus situation, so I tried this practice again with an act would be considered far more mundane. I was picking apart mushrooms into thin strips for breakfast one morning. I was standing, facing away from the rest of the kitchen, focusing on my hands, focusing on observing and admiring. I began to marvel at the funky shaped thing in my hand. How I knew that it was — or had recently been — a living thing by its earthy smell, the cold sponginess of its whorls and ridges. How easily it yielded to my fingers, which were also a wonder themselves — unreadable handwriting and butterfingers aside, they still deftly picked apart the mushroom like harpist hands fingering their strings. And the amount of nerve-endings there must be in just the skin of my palms… the kitchen smells like salt, sugar, peanuts, curry, flour. How amazing it is to live in a body that sees, smells, and hears the way this one does!
And on a larger scale, at any moment here I can stop and entertain the electrically overwhelming train of thought of how I came to be here, doing this thing, in this city, in this country, in this part of this planet.
When I choose to understand the nature of reality in this way, I can see that there is an enormous amount of intent that I can and do put into what my reality is. Just the decisive moment in which I say, I choose to enjoy this, to find it wonderful opens my mind to all of these treasures that were not observable before, hidden by my own tendency toward jadedness. There is splendor in everything!
Obviously I can’t just walk around in a perpetual state of awe — I believe we become quickly accustomed to things because it is beneficial for our survival. Not only is it impossible to only see the beauty in everything all the time, it is also dangerous. To not acknowledge that demons like fear, boredom, hopelessness, and hatred live inside us and the people around us stunts our instinct for compassion and empathy. And it’s obviously absurd to suggest turning a blind eye to poverty and the destruction of the environment. I am rather trying to implement a practice of shaping my reality by choosing to perceive beauty in the mundane or the uncomfortable, on the basis of the importance of my role as the observer as a major factor in what I observe. I was inspired to try this by what I have come to see as a central aspect to the Buddhist tradition — implementing your personal philosophies, or your worldview, into every aspect of your life/daily routine. I’ve only just started trying to do this, and it’s hard, and sometimes (most of the time) I forget to stop, to observe, to admire. I just have to keep practicing, though.