In this episode, I will talk about perception and the role it plays in how we experience our reality. Reality is in the eye of the beholder. “Dependent on the eye and forms, eye-consciousness arises…The meeting of the three is contact.”
With contact as a requisite condition, there is feeling. What one feels, one perceives. What one perceives, one thinks about.
Hello, and welcome to another episode of the Secular Buddhism podcast. This is episode number 143. I am your host Noah Rasheta today. I’m going to share some thoughts around the topic of perception.
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In this podcast episode, I thought it would be fun to share some thoughts regarding perception specifically from a Buddhist perspective. If you’ll recall, the Buddhist teaching of the five aggregates. These are form, feeling, perception, mental formations, and consciousness. These five aggregates are the bundles or the heaps that make up who, or perhaps, how we are. And the implication here is that perception plays a key role in how I go about experiencing my reality.
I wanted to correlate all of this with an expression that I’m sure you’ve heard. It’s a common expression that says beauty is in the eye of the beholder. This expression suggests that beauty doesn’t exist on its own, but it arises in the one doing the observing. I think that’s a fascinating thought. I want to correlate this with the expression, with the Buddhist understanding of the role that perception plays in how we experience things.
So all of this started recently with a trip that I was on. I was in Moab. Moab, if you don’t know, is a very scenic place in Utah famous for the arches and several other national parks. The thought that I had while I was there, of course, I’m experiencing Moab from the air, from a paraglider, a powered paraglider. As I was flying through there, I had a similar thought that I’ve had many times while traveling, which is, wow, this is such a beautiful place. And followed pretty closely to the thought that that says people come from all over the world to see this. Then the reminder that any places like that, this one happens to be very unique and beautiful, but all places are.
I remember one time when I was traveling. I was in Bali and I was walking through the rice paddies on a day trip tour. I would see the locals tending to their rice paddies. I remember feeling somewhat overwhelmed by the landscape and the beauty of the place. It just felt like such a neat experience. The thought occurred to me that if I could pick someone from here out of their rice paddy and take them to my home, they would probably have a similar feeling walking through the streets and the trails behind my house and thinking how neat it is to recognize that, again, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and for someone who’s there a local, this scenery, that to a visitor is so unique and so different and so beautiful, to them it’s, just an ordinary day-to-day view.
The same thing happens to me. My normal view where I live may become ordinary and I think I have to go far to experience this beauty, when in reality, that beauty is it’s everywhere because it’s in the eye of the beholder.
So that’s kind of what was going on this past week as I was experiencing the beauty of Moab and I started to formulate all of these thoughts and how they relate to a Buddhist teaching, which is kind of what I want to share with you. When we think of beauty, it’s not just a painting, for example, that you look at and you think, “Wow, what a beautiful painting.”
But we do this with all things, right? Film is a good example. I’m sure you have watched a movie at some point that moved you the tears, right? Maybe it was a message or just the story of the movie that really moved you. Now, with a painting or with a movie, if I were to tell you, “Hey, there is a movie out there that if you watch it, it will profoundly change your life.”
Now, if I tell you what movie that is, it won’t work. You might go watch the movie and say, “That didn’t do it for me. I didn’t like that movie.” I’m sure you’ve experienced this where someone, a friend, will tell you, “You have to go watch this movie. It’s such a good movie.” And they build it up and build it up and then you go watch it. And you’re like, “Yeah, it was all right.” And they’re stunned. “What do you mean it was all right? It’s my favorite movie.” Or backwards. Maybe you had experienced a movie or a song or a painting that you saw in a museum that really moved you and then you try to share that with someone and they just don’t experience it the same way.
I think there’s something to be said about that. With paintings, for example, if I were to tell you, “Hey, the most beautiful painting in the world, the one that you will recognize as the most beautiful, is this one.” I’ll name one, the Mona Lisa. That may not be true. You may go see the Mona Lisa and think, “Nah.” But you watch some other painting in a museum or some other movie in the theater, and you’re like, “Nope, that is the one. That is the best movie in the world, or that is the most beautiful painting I’ve ever seen.”
The reason is because, again, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. As common as that is as an expression, it’s actually a really profound Buddhist teaching. I want to talk about that.
Food is another example here. I think the taste resonates really well for me to help understand this notion of the eye of the beholder. If I were to taste something that I really enjoy, I recognize that that’s just me. I can’t help it that this specific thing tastes really good to me.
I remember doing on the 23andMe a DNA test that gives you health traits. I remember reading through there and it had some mention of a gene that I have. I remember the description next to it said that I’m likely to either like or be able to enjoy bitter tastes. It specifically mentioned Brussels sprouts as the example, that you probably like Brussels sprouts or something like that.
I remember thinking how fascinating I actually really do like Brussels sprouts and there are people who don’t like Brussels sprouts at all. It might just be because they don’t have the gene that lets them taste that bitterness. Or backwards. They have the gene that does make them taste the bitterness and that’s why they don’t like it.
I can’t remember, but I remember being pretty fascinated at the thought that it’s just the gene. It’s something that I inherited that makes me like or not like a specific flavor like Brussels sprouts.
If that’s true with something like food, how much more so is that true with other things that we perceive as pleasant or beautiful or unpleasant and ugly? So again, this notion of beauty is in the eye of the beholder and it’s not just beauty. It’s really saying anything that you perceive is in the eye of the beholder. Ugly is in the eye of the beholder. Good is in the eye of the beholder. Bad is in the eye of the beholder.
I love taking this train of thought down the path of the Buddhist understanding of all this, which is what I want to talk about today. The thoughts I’m going to share with you come from the Ball of Honey discourse. It’s called Madhupindika Sutta, the Ball of Honey discourse. Of course, I don’t know if that’s the right pronunciation, but you can Google it. It’s an actual discourse attributed to the Buddha. I’m going to share some thoughts regarding that.
So in the Ball of Honey discourse, we learn about the role that perception plays in our understanding of reality. Perceptions are meanings and they are subjective and dependent upon our sense faculties, which in our case happen to be limited and they also happen to be conditioned.
What do I mean by limited? Well, take sight, for example. The sense organ that does the seeing is the eye. And our eye, the human eye, is limited in distance for example. We can see comfortably a certain distance and then greater than that distance, you need binoculars or a telescope, where other animals like an eagle, for example, or other birds of prey might have the ability to see much greater distances than we do. Therefore, the way that they perceive is different than the way that we perceive.
In terms of color, this is also a fascinating thought. A quick Google search indicates that a healthy human eye has three types of cone cells, each of which can register about 100 different color shades. Therefore, most researchers ballpark the number of colors that we humans can distinguish is about a million.
Now, compared to our measly three-color receptive cones, a mantis shrimp, for example, has 16-color receptive cones. They can detect 10 times more color than a human and probably see more colors than any other animal on the planet. They can see in ultraviolet, in infrared and even polarized light.
So the way a mantis shrimp perceives is very different than the way a human perceives. If you’ve ever seen a picture of the universe from an infrared camera, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Just imagine if you could see an infrared, you would perceive things in a very different way than someone who can’t perceive or see an infrared.
This is just a fascinating understanding of the nature of perception and how it correlates to reality. Think of a dog, for example. A dog can smell much, much greater than we can. A dog can smell drugs in a suitcase. A dog can smell a fire hydrant and know who or what passed by several hours ago. The way it perceives reality is going to be very different from the way that we perceive our reality because of the differences in our sense organs.
Another quick example is a bat. A bat perceives sound in a very different way than we do. A bat can use the sound that they hear and they’ll map, make a mental image of what they here and use that to determine where they are. Now, we don’t do that as humans. That’s just another example of the differences in, in how we perceive.
So back to the Honey Ball discourse, we learn that dependent on the eye and forms, eye consciousness arises. Eye consciousness arises from a sense base, an object and the meeting of the three is what is called contact.
So think of it like this. Well, with contact as the required condition, then there’s feeling and what one feels, one perceives, what one perceives, one thinks about. So what that means is that I have an eye and the eye sees something that’s being seen, the form. So there’s the eye, there’s the form, and then eye consciousness is what arises there. It’s the recognition of what I’m seeing. They go on to talk about this with all the other sense organs, nose, taste, and so on.
But what I want to highlight here is the correlation between the contact, the feeling, the perception, and the thought, because it specifically mentions in here that the moment contact happens, which is the contact between the eye and what the eye is seeing, that eye consciousness is what they call it, the correlation of all those things is called contact. Through contact, feeling happens. Through feeling, perception happens. Through perception, thoughts. So I want to unpack this a little bit.
Again, contact is the eye that does the seeing. The object is the thing that’s being seen. The eye consciousness that arises, in other words the recognition, that the thing that does the seeing is aware now of the object that has been seen. That process, as it happens, gives way to a feeling.
So the feeling, this often depends on the conditioned mind. For example, my mind is conditioned by memories. It’s conditioned by genetics. So again, using genetics as the example, my taste, as taste happens and I’m tasting a Brussels sprout, then the feeling arises of, “I like this. I like this flavor.” Or it could be the opposite. “I don’t like this flavor.”
Now, if I’m talking about, not genetics but let’s say other factors like memories, it could be that I see something and that thing reminds me of something scary. So the feeling that arises is fear or the feeling that arises is aversion. I don’t like this. Or the opposite. There’s a mental association of what I’m seeing to a past experience that was pleasant. So now the feeling that arises is, “Oh, this is pleasant. I want this. I want to approach it. I want to run from it.” So that’s feeling.
So then feeling gives way to perceptions. Perceptions are tricky because they don’t give you an ultimate reality. In other words, they don’t give you an ultimate truth. All they can give you is a subjective readout of where you’re coming from. In other words, all my past experiences and my genetics give me in this specific moment in time the position of I like the Brussels sprout. Or it gives me the opposite. All of my memories, genetics, past experiences, all these things arise to give me in this one moment in time, the position of, I don’t like what I’m seeing, I’m going to run away from it.
So then with that comes thought. I think perhaps we can call thought an opinion or even stronger, a belief. The belief is Brussels sprouts are good, or the belief is snakes are dangerous. I need to run. Or whatever the belief is that suddenly arises through this mental process.
So if this is the mental process that we’re all stuck with all the time, what the Buddha taught is how can this process be ended? Well, through a shift in perception caused by the way that we relate to our feelings. I want to unpack that a little bit more.
So the Ball of Honey discourse starts out with someone asking the Buddha. Someone was out starting his day routine, stretching or something, and asks, “Hey, what do you teach? What is your doctrine?” And the Buddha replied, “The sort of doctrine where one does not keep quarreling with anyone, where perceptions are no longer obsess such as my doctrine, such as what I proclaim.”
And this person goes on and he’s like, “Okay, whatever.”, doesn’t quite understand what any of that means. And later, one of the Buddhist followers, a monk, explains this and goes into greater detail and goes on to explain the correlation between each sense organ and what it’s perceiving. He goes on to say dependent on eye and forms, eye consciousness arises. And also ear and sounds, ear consciousness arises and so on. Nose and smells, tongue and tastes and intellect and ideas.
I really like this teaching because the teaching, the understanding that senses correlate to feelings, which correlate to perception and ultimately correlates to beliefs or positions, taking a position, having a view, having an opinion, then what you can practice through all of this is the idea of non-attachment.
I understand that when something happens and I sense something I’m going to intuitively tend to come up with a view, and I will tend to want to hold onto my view. But it’s as if the Buddha was saying, “I know that about myself, and I know how to release my mind from holding onto the views or beliefs that it will inevitably create as it goes about sensing everything. Because of this, I’m no longer snared in any of these views, opinions and beliefs as they arise in my mental processes.”
To me, this is incredibly fascinating. In the Avengers movie, Dr. Strange, if you’ll recall, he’s able to look into the future and he can see all the possible scenarios and outcomes, and that ability empowers him. I think it’s similar to that where if we are able to see all the possible positions that we can come up with and see the dilemma that we’re in is we’ll see still recognized, but where does that take you?
I think this is the hardest of the doctrine of no quarreling, that the Buddha was talking about. It’s almost as if the Buddha was saying all that action, all that effort of taking a position, where does that take you? It takes you to another place, another position, arguing with people. Why don’t you just come out of needing to have a position to hold onto in the first place?
Because he understood that the way that our sense organs correlate to perceptions and ultimately beliefs and views, to me, this is the heart of this understanding. Understanding this doctrine, you recognize that everything and anything that you can hold onto can’t be ultimate truth. It can’t be absolute truth because it’s just a mental game that’s happening. It’s a mental labeling that’s based on a perception that’s based on where you happen to be in terms of space and time. And space and time is always limited and it’s always subjective. This is as this is because I’m here and because it’s now, but this would be another way if I was there. It was then.
Do you understand that? It correlates very well with the notion of the blind men and the elephant, that where I stand in place and time and what I’m sensing determines how I perceive, which ultimately determines all of my views, all of my opinions and all of my beliefs.
I think that’s why the Buddha said open quote, “This is the end of taking up rods and bladed weapons or arguments, quarrels disputes, accusations, divisive tale bearing, and false speech. This is where these unskillful things cease without remainder, and that is what I teach.” Close quote.
I think it’s interesting that when asked what do you teach, his focus was a doctrine that doesn’t have quarreling. Now, right away, I would think, okay. That means I don’t have to quarrel with others because I understand that my understanding of reality is subjective. It’s based on my sense organs and how I perceive my senses and yours is based on yours and how you perceive. Therefore, I don’t need a quarrel with you.
But I’d like to take that a step further and I would like to imagine that he was implying this doctrine of no quarreling wasn’t just with other people and other positions, because I recognize that all those positions are subjective.
I think he was implying the doctrine of no quarreling happens internally. I don’t need to quarrel with my own views. I’m going to have senses that lead to perceptions, that lead to thoughts, that lead to beliefs, that may contradict other perceptions and other thoughts and other beliefs that I hold.
I hold both of them. The quarreling that happens inside is the quarreling that ends up going away. It goes away through this understanding that everything that arises is dependently arisen. It’s impermanent, and it’s not actually me. It’s the notion of no-self and it passes. So what does that mean? Well, it means there’s no perception for that because through insight into perception, the mind can essentially give up the game of labeling. What it achieves is a sense of liberation and a sense of peace.
I think that’s what the Buddha taught is that if you do the practice that takes you to that, you’ll know this for yourself very much the same way like seeing a beautiful painting and knowing for yourself that it’s beautiful not because someone told you, but because it’s what you perceive. It’s the recognition that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and so is ugliness and so is everything else that we perceive.
What I perceive is in the eye of the person doing the perceiving. That, to me, is a really profound understanding. What is right, what is good, what is beautiful, what is correct, what is incorrect, to a great extent, remains in the eye of the beholder. That, to me, is the essence of what this sutta or what this discourse is about, the Honey Ball, the Honey Ball discourse, or the Ball of Honey discourse.
You can read that one in greater detail on your own if you want to do that. But those were the thoughts that I wanted to share with you. This notion of perception. As you go through life, and I’m doing this myself. As I go through life, and I perceive things and my perception leads to a mental formation that leads to a view, and I take a position and I say, “Yes, this is beautiful.”
My non-attachment, which is the practice says, “This is beautiful, but is it really? Is it really?” Because it is to me, but that doesn’t make it absolute. That makes it subjective because I understand the way senses work. I understand the correlation between my senses and my perceptions and my perceptions and my thoughts and my thoughts and my beliefs and all of that leads me to a position, but I don’t need to defend my position because it’s not a position that I’m invested in. To say this as beautiful is to say this is beautiful to me. Or this is ugly, this is ugly to me. Or this tastes good, this tastes good to me. Or this tastes bad, this just tastes bad to me. It’s not an absolute thing. It’s a relative thing and a subjective thing. That, to me, is the correlation of this expression of the eye of the beholder.
So hopefully you can take all of these thoughts and ideas and apply them somehow to your day-to-day life, your day-to-day experiences, as you go about sensing through your sense organs, sight, smell, hearing, and even touch and mental, mental processes, which I think is a really powerful understanding that helps you to practice non-attachment.
So there you go. Those are my thoughts on this podcast episode topic today on perception and the eye of the beholder. That’s all I have for this episode. I hope you enjoyed it. Until next time.