What is being awake?

  1. A Way Inside: red pill, blue pill
  2. The Illusion of a Self
  3. What is being awake?
  4. The Cool Heat of Passion
  5. On Change and Choice
  6. It Is What It Is
  7. Self Responsibility and Waking Up

Synopsis: What is being awake? Learning to see through the dream-state.

what is being awake

I imagine it could strike you as being a bit odd, all this talk of being awake. Because, like… aren’t we? Sure seems that we are.

Philosophers of all stripes have addressed this issue. In the Zen world, we have:

Once upon a time, I, Chuang Chou, dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was Chou. Soon I awaked, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man.

In my book, Half Asleep in the Buddha Hall, I discuss two other versions of this idea. Here’s a sample from that section:

Francis Harold Cook describes the metaphor of Indra’s Net from the perspective of the Huayan School, in the book Hua-Yen Buddhism: The Jewel Net of Indra:

Far away in the heavenly abode of the great god Indra, there is a wonderful net which has been hung by some cunning artificer in such a manner that it stretches out infinitely in all directions.

In accordance with the extravagant tastes of deities, the artificer has hung a single glittering jewel in each “eye” of the net, and since the net itself is infinite in dimension, the jewels are infinite in number. There hang the jewels, glittering like stars in the first magnitude, a wonderful sight to behold.

If we now arbitrarily select one of these jewels for inspection and look closely at it, we will discover that in its polished surface there are reflected all the other jewels in the net, infinite in number.

Not only that, but each of the jewels reflected in this one jewel is also reflecting all the other jewels, so that there is an infinite reflecting process occurring.”

(I am about to play fast and loose with this story—because traditionally Indra’s Net is ‘really’ about interconnection. Or is it?)

As I look into one jewel—‘my jewel’—I believe that it, and it alone, is the ‘real’ jewel. I assume that all of the stuff I see reflected in my jewel is the one and only, infinite reality. I also assume that my jewel contains everything else, and therefore that there is only one perspective. Mine.

This is similar to the story presented in Plato’s Cave.

Imagine prisoners, who have been chained since their childhood deep inside a cave: not only are their limbs immobilized by the chains; their heads are chained in one direction as well so that their gaze is fixed on a wall.

Behind the prisoners is an enormous fire, and between the fire and the prisoners is a raised walkway, along which puppets of various animals, plants, and other things are moved along. The puppets cast shadows on the wall, and the prisoners watch these shadows. When one of the puppet-carriers speaks, an echo against the wall causes the prisoners to believe that the words come from the shadows.

The prisoners engage in what appears to us to be a game: naming the shapes as they come by. This, however, is the only reality that they know, even though they are seeing merely shadows of images. They are thus conditioned to judge the quality of one another by their skill in quickly naming the shapes, and dislike those who play poorly.

Suppose a prisoner is released and compelled to stand up and turn around. At that moment, his eyes will be blinded by the sunlight coming into the cave from its entrance, and the shapes passing by will appear less real than their shadows…

Once enlightened, so to speak, the freed prisoner would not want to return to the cave to free “his fellow bondsmen,” but would be compelled to do so. Another problem lies in the other prisoners not wanting to be freed: descending back into the cave would require that the freed prisoner’s eyes adjust again, and for a time, he would be one of the ones identifying shapes on the wall. His eyes would be swamped by the darkness, and would take time to become acclimated. Therefore, he would not be able to identify the shapes on the wall as well as the other prisoners, making it seem as if his being taken to the surface completely ruined his eyesight. [The Republic bk. VII, 516b‑c; trans. Paul Shorey]

Let’s pick up from where we left things in the last chapter: At the fundamental stage, each person is enmeshed in Indra’s Net. Each looks straight ahead at their jewel, and it appears that it is the only reality, containing everything and everyone. There-fore, the other jewels and ‘jewel lookers’ reflected in an individual jewel seem to be a part of one system.

Lacking another perspective, what we see is what we believe.

It is the same thing for the people in Plato’s Cave. They thought the moving reflections on the wall were both ‘true’ and the ‘real,’ external universe. One man goes out of the cave and sees what’s out there. Excitedly, he rushes back inside and says, “This shadow play on the wall is not real, but rather a pale reflection of what is outside this cave.” He is heard, but not believed—he’s judged delusional, because what he describes would obviate the ‘shadow universe’ right in front of the cave dwellers. The inhabitants are not ready for this paradigm shift, so they go back to staring at the shadows on the wall.

As individuals, we have no way of knowing what others see, although ‘fundamental’ social convention dictates that we pretend that we do. Example: does ‘love’ mean the same to a monk, a spouse, and a spouse-beater? Of course not.

The only way to see the true nature of Indra’s Net is to step back from it, thus seeing all of it. Since by definition it stretches infinitely in all directions, it seems impossible to escape its strands.

The release from the Net happens when you move your focus.

Picture a vast Net. It has infinite stands, which meet and join where the strings cross. These meeting-places are also infinite. At each meeting-place, there is one jewel.

Thus, there are infinite threads, infinite meeting-places, and infinite jewels, extending infinitely.

Got it? OK. Now, each jewel contains a reflection of the en-tire net, stretching infinitely.

If you picture yourself staring into a single jewel, which we’ll call “your jewel,” at your place in the Net, it seems that what you are seeing reflected in the jewel’s face is all there is. Right in front of your eyes is one jewel (which is your ‘reality’,) and it is ‘obvious’ (to you!) that your jewel seems to contain everything and everyone.

Now, imagine looking away from what is right in front of you. You now directly experience countless others, staring into their jewels. They do not notice you staring, because the beauty of the infinite Net they see reflected in their jewel transfixes them (as it transfixed you, before you looked away!) You realize, with a jolt, that they think that their jewel contains everything, including you! How can this be? You know that your jewel is the ‘right’ jewel, containing them!

You begin to doubt. Perhaps there is more to this than meets the eye! Your first doubt is that everyone ‘sees’ (believes) the same thing. Second, you begin to question whether you, and you alone, possess the truth, the ‘real’ jewel. You are suddenly aware of infinite perspectives, views, choices, and realities.

You ask, “So which infinite is the real infinite, or does each infinite contain all of the other infinites? And yet, one jewel containing all of the infinites is still one jewel of an infinite number. What if all views, and none, are true? What if all that each jewel is, is part of a larger thing, which I cannot see until I stop staring into my own jewel?”

Head numb yet?

This is a mind experiment you can use to evaluate the ‘fundamentalist’ reality, in which each thinks their rules, their jewel, and their perspective, is ‘true.’ Religions play this game all the time: ‘My guy is the right guy, and your guy is a false prophet!”

Fundamentalists believe that their worldview is ‘infinite, exclusive, and correct.’ You know this because fundamentalists of any stripe are so willing to try to stuff their beliefs down other people’s throats. They puzzle themselves over the inability of others to see things their way. Some are actually more than willing to kill an unbeliever.

At the same time, the ‘others’ that they are trying to cram their views into cannot see anything other than the jewel they are staring into. They will not change because their own jewel, to them, is ‘true,’ and yours is ‘false.’ And they puzzle themselves over your inability to see things their way. They are more than willing to kill you… an unbeliever.

Until you step back. And see the Net. And see the jewels and the infinite possibilities. Then, you begin to grasp that your view is simply a view of a small segment of the whole.

Once you ‘get’ this, you understand the futility of trying to force others to see it your way. And that is wisdom. Therefore, you stop trying! You see that your only task is to turn your head, open your eyes, and see! Once you see the bigger picture, you can choose to be ‘at one’ (present) with that which underlies every-thing, including the Net. This is ‘waking up,’—this is Peck’s Mysticism stage.

Warning: you know you are back to being caught in the Net every time you think or say, “But why can’t they see it? It is so obvious! I am only pointing out their errors because I’m evolved!” You un-catch yourself by living your understanding, rather than delivering a lecture.

Step back and see the Net, as well as what creates and underlies the Net. The energy that underlies the Net and the ‘10,000 things,’ (everything in the known and unknown universes) is what the Taoists call (obviously…) Tao.

Phew! Big section I gave you there. If you haven’t, you really need to read my book, Half Asleep in the Buddha Hall!

For now, let me just say this: the ideas captured above cross millennia and philosophies. The idea of “waking up” has been prevalent forever, and the “waking up” is from illusion. And the chief illusion is that “I” possess truth.

About anything, including about myself.

I was thinking about last week’s article, the gist of which is that what we know about ourselves is actually a patchwork narrative. A selected batch of stories, tenuously stitched together. As long as we recognize this stitched-together-fictional nature, no harm, no foul.

When we insist on it’s truth, we get into trouble.

what is waking up

Waking up is coming to this realization, and at the same time realizing that “everyone and everything” is in the same boat. It’s all butterfly dreams. This is this, and that is that, and none of it is actually anything.

Now, I’m not suggesting that the way we see things isn’t useful… knowing to stop at a stop sign is a good thing! It’s however, a useful fiction. A collective, helpful story.

Where this gets interesting is when we apply this same idea to our beliefs.

Our beliefs are convenient fictions, too. This is easily demonstrable. This week, I watched Sarah Palin endorse Donald Trump. Alternating between gagging and laughing, I none-the-less understood this:


They both think their version of reality is true. Are totally convinced of it. And they think the liberal view is totally wrong. Are totally convinced of it.

But… but… it’s not just them! It’s me, too!

I fall back into Plato’s Cave if I do not “get” that all of us are wrong, right, confused, clear — all at the same time. All stories, all the time. There is nothing here worth killing each other over.

This week, breathe into your stories, and see if you can hold them loosely, and with a bit of humour. Then, try the same thing with someone you disagree with. (Lordy. I’m going to practice with Trump.) Breathe, and hold their beliefs loosely, too.

And then, without rancour or judgement, do the only important thing. Decide how you will act, how you will be, and see if you can do so without making a religion out of it.

Not even the religion of no religion!

About the Author: Wayne C. Allen is the web\‘s Simple Zen Guy. Wayne was a Private Practice Counsellor in Ontario until June of 2013. Wayne is the author of five books, the latest being The. Best. Relationship. Ever. See: –The Phoenix Centre Press

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