Instant Enlightenment

The unlocked second chapter introduces us to “the enlightened”. Throughout this work I will use “enlightened” or “enlightenment” instead of “the sage” or “the superior man”, more usual translations of sheng4 ren2. The usual translations suggest an elderly male authority where what I intend is a form of awareness accessible to anyone.

But the word enlightenment has its own problems. It is used by many different philosophies and religions. There are also historical events such as the French and English Enlightenments of the 18th century. So we need to distinguish the sense of this word in what follows.

Speaking as an elderly male myself presents another danger. Enlightenment is not a state for me to claim as an authority or for you to aspire to attain. The Chinese Zen Master Zhaozhou provided a koan that addresses this.

Monk: Master, is enlightenment difficult to attain?

Zhaozhou: All words lead to choice or to understanding. I’m not in the world of understanding. Isn’t that what you’re trying to attain?

Monk: If you’re not in the world of understanding is there nothing to attain?

Zhaozhou: I don’t know.

Monk: If you say you don’t know then how can you say you’re not in the world of understanding?

Zhaozhou: I answered because you asked. Now go away.

The key to this Alice-like dialog is in the phrase “I don’t know”. “I don’t know” here does not mean Zhaozhou has failed to answer. It means that enlightenment is not something to attain, but to choose, and choosing it involves doing something other than knowing.

In what follows we will see this monk’s confusion echoed again and again. The world of understanding is what the Hindus call the Veil of Maya and the Discordians the Black Iron Prison. It is best known in the west by an allegory given in book 7 of Plato’s The Republic.

Plato’s Cave

One day Dr Jill Bolte Taylor awoke with a stroke. She described her experience in perhaps the most extraordinary TED talk of them all. If you don’t have 18 minutes to spare there’s a briefer mashup of this on youtube:

How can a stroke – or in other cases a drug, a tragedy, a religious ritual, an insoluble dilemma – open someone to such an experience of universal mind? Assuming this connection is not a delusion, is it accessible to a healthy mind? To your own mind?

There is passion and anguish in Dr Taylor’s description of her experience, both in the matter of her recollection and in her struggle to render it accessible using the metaphors available to her as a neuroanatomist. She uses a cadaver’s brain as the ground of her metaphor and describes intelligence outside in. Despite her transforming experience, this seems to draw us back into Plato’s Cave.

This allegory likens intelligence to a prisoner watching shadows thrown by a fire onto the wall of a cave. The prisoner is never permitted to turn to see the source of light or the true forms that cast the shadows. Plato suggests real things cannot be directly experienced, only reasoned about by their shadows, that they exist in an ideal world that we as prisoners can never visit.

Plato’s disciple Aristotle softened this to suggest that his universal forms only exist within physical substances. But Aristotle continued to regard these things as accessible only by sensory shadows. Two thousand years later Descartes suggested a physical embodiment for the cave – that the real world connects with our immaterial world through the pineal gland in the brain.

In the 20th century Karl Popper combined Plato and Descartes’ conceptions into a system of 3 worlds. The physical world represented by physics, the mental world represented by experience, and the Platonic world represented by mathematics. Roger Penrose draws Popper’s three worlds quite literally:

The Platonic world here is clearly imaginary. Chaos theory places sharp limits on what can be predicted. Computability theory places sharp limits on what can be calculated. And Goedel‘s theorems prove that any attempt to provide a consistent axiomatic system to underpin mathematics will fail. So mathematics should only be regarded as a language, not a world. That leaves us with just two.

Now the measurement relationship between mental and physical worlds is influenced by quantum effects that extend throughout spacetime. The subject and object of sensation are inextricably, non-locally linked. This connection is not a matter of energy but quantum correlation. Chaos theory ensures that, although non-local correlations occur on imperceptible scales, they ramify on all scales. So Schroedinger’s Cat demonstrates there can be no physical world distinct from a mental world.

Furthermore, if the brain did contain a collage representing the present moment, we would face the homunculus fallacy – homunculus being greek for “little man”. Dennett calls this the Cartesian Theatre. Jill Taylor’s enormous collage must be interpreted to have any effect, implying an inner observer whose experience must form another collage to be interpreted by a still smaller observer, and so ad infinitum.

So we have no mental world distinct from the physical world. We are left where we started – with one world. Escher illustrates this reality beautifully in his lithograph refutation of Plato, “Three Worlds”:

Escher’s trees stand for Plato’s universal forms. They cast their shadows on the surface of a pond rather than the wall of a cave. On this surface float leaves, Aristotle’s physical instances of the forms. Beneath the surface, populating its mental world with images of the leaves, a catfish. For a frozen moment the three worlds are just as as Plato and Popper suggest.

But the leaves on the surface of the pond penetrate it to be eaten by microbes and worms. The fish consumes these and the trees grow from its faeces to evolve new generations of leaves, each subtly more suited to the nutrition of microbes, worms, fish and the trees themselves.  The physical surface of the lake is not a parade of inaccessible forms but a permeable membrane for living process. The fish is no prisoner facing away from the light, but a fractal whose scales echo the form of the receding leaves. And the light is not Plato’s mystic fire but the thermodynamic sun expending its finite enthalpy to power all the behaviours in the picture. Escher has exploded Plato’s cave by filling it with life.

Chuang Tzu’s Fish

Lao Tzu’s successor Chuang Tzu relates a conversation he had with his friend Hui Tzu by the edge of such a pond:

Chuang Tzu: “Look at the fish darting about. How happy they are!”

Hui Tzu: “You’re not a fish. How do you know they’re happy?”

Chuang Tzu: “You’re not me. How do you know what I know?”

Hui Tzu: “If I, not being you, cannot know what you know, then you, not being a fish, cannot know what they know”.

Chuang Tzu: “You asked me how I knew the fish were happy. So you knew that I knew.”

How does Chuang Tzu know? I wrote this dialog as it plays in my mind. Having read it, in your mind Chuang Tzu knows the fish are happy. It is very likely that this conversation with Hui Tzu never happened, that neither he nor Chuang Tzu had any historical existence. Yet this question exists in your mind now: “how do you know?”

This is not a play on words. It is the kind of riddle that Zen calls a koan. If Chuang Tzu had been Zhaozhou a thousand years later he might have finished his story with “Mu”, the word meaning “your question is a crack in your reality”. But Zhaozhou’s Mu hadn’t been invented yet and Chuang Tzu’s answer is the more telling.

It is easy to treat such a koan as a diversion, something to puzzle about intellectually. But treat this question the same way you would an inquiry about how you see. You would point at your eyes and open them wide. In the same way can you locate and open the organ that knows?

Say like Jill Taylor you point your finger at your brain. But then that’s not really your finger, is it? Just its shadow in your mind. And not really your brain, either. Just what you know about it, another shadow. Try again. This time, try from the inside out. Somehow you know. Knowing is something you do. How?

There is another koan that embodies this challenge. It is a very simple one, the very first a zen apprentice attempts upon entering a monastery. It was created in the 18th century by Hakuin Ekaku, “the demon dwelling in the cave“.

You know the sound of two hands clapping. Tell me: what is the sound of one hand?

As I said any koan can be regarded as a meaningless trifle; like a puzzle you pick up at a bazaar and discard unsolved. But the point of this koan is its resonance within your mind. Taken internally it can become something like the famous Red Pill in the movie “The Matrix”. It can’t do anything for you unless you swallow it. And then this small and disarming question assumes power to change who you are.

To make that a little easier to get at I should explain that there really is a sound. You last heard it when you were an infant, before you had learned to clap, before you made any distinction between sounds and sights and feelings. Reality was all jumbled together until, one day, waving your infant hands about aimlessly, you happened to clap. And suddenly there was before the clap and after, the music of clapping and the silence between claps, yourself clapping and others not clapping … the walls of Plato’s Cave, the bars of the Black Iron Prison snapping into place.

But the sound of the one hand is still here. If you listen very hard for it you can hear it. Ignore every other sound. There is no other sound like it. It is not the tinnitus in your ears or the silence or your breathing. It is the sound of the feeling in one hand. And when you hear it you have found a crack in your reality, a way out of your cave.

This ecstatic moment of sudden enlightenment is so startling it has been given a Japanese name – satori, meaning awakening. But be careful – because the moment you recognise satori, the moment you reflect on it, understand it or know it, you have papered it over and lost it.

Morpheus’s Matrix is Plato’s Cave  and the Bhagavad Gita’s Veil of Maya. Philip K. Dick, upon whose dystopian fantasy The Matrix was based, first called it the Black Iron Prison. He describes it this way in The Zap Gun:

The maze was simple enough in itself, but it represented for its trapped inhabitant an impenetrable barrier. Because the maze was inevitably one jump ahead of its victim. The inhabitant could not win, no matter how fast or how cleverly or how inexhaustibly he scampered, twisted, retreated, tried again, sought the one right combination. He could never escape. He could never find freedom. Because the maze constantly shifted.

Enlightenment is the way out. But you don’t need to join Morpheus or the Discordians. You don’t need to swallow anyone’s red pill. You don’t need a religious conversion or nervous breakdown, as Dick did. You don’t need to have a stroke like Jill Taylor. Or, like Buckminster Fuller, finally decide to throw yourself into a lake.

Unlike The Matrix, this is not a conspiracy or trick that has been played on you by some faceless evil. It is something you have been doing yourself all along. The question “How do you know?”, the sound of the one hand, the moment of choice, these are not suggestions that you give up knowledge or become mindless. These are keys that open a door you cannot know is there. And, unlike The Matrix, where it leads is not down into a rabbit hole, but up out of one.

“A congenial, attractive looking square …”

So enlightenment is like a hidden fourth wall. Bearing this metaphor in mind let’s do something dreadful with it now. Let’s return to the flatland of understanding and do what I said we shouldn’t do. Let’s try to understand what we’re doing when we’re enlightened.

Start by breaking the assumption that intelligence is a function of brains. There can be no separate reality from which information streams, no cave into which it streams, no homunculus watching the collage inside the senses or hiding inside a gland. So … outside in, what is going on?

At its driest, science regards intelligence as a process of (i) classification of stimulus followed by (ii) mapping to response. This is what Gottfried Leibniz regarded as the process of Representation, Jacques Loeb identified as Tropism and B.F. Skinner retitlled Behaviourism.

Leibniz, Loeb and Skinner thought of the fundamental mechanism of intelligence as associative memory.  Valentino Braitenberg broke this down synthetically with his Vehicles, thought experiments that compellingly demonstrate how even fluid and complex behaviours like learning and desire can arise from nothing but simple hardware mappings from sensors to actuators.

No intermediary worlds, Platonic, Mental or otherwise. The state of the mental world is nothing but the state of the whole universe as an intelligent behaviour elicits external and physiological feedback that is experienced as further stimuli. The patterns of these stimuli are classified associatively. The attribution in memory of resulting cycles of behaviour to a person or to a mental world, rather than to the universe as a whole, is merely a compelling illusion, not necessary to the function of intelligence at all. That illusion is Zhaozhou’s world of understanding.

Here Escher helps us once again with his singular picture of the function of intelligence as a process of representation, The Print Gallery.

A man in a gallery observes a picture of the gallery within which he stands. The blank spot with Escher’s signature in the center of this image maps to the entire universe outside the picture – including Escher drawing it and yourself viewing it. Escher is pointing directly to the blind-spot of the minds’ eye. This is the organ of knowing we touched on with the koans of Hakuin, Zhaozhu and Chuang Tzu. If you take The Print Gallery internally as a direction to the egress of Plato’s Cave, it can be regarded as a koan in its own right..

“The vision is incomplete …”

Unfortunately, every time someone opens a way through the Veil of Maya, another someone comes along – most commonly the same person a moment later – and helpfully covers it over again. The world of understanding can hardly tolerate a vacuum. This is Philip Dick’s constantly shifting maze, the lament of Morpheus that no one can be told what the Matrix is.

Escher’s ingenious visual koan remained open for fifty years before Hendrik Lenstra, a wonderful Dutch mathematician with great cleverness and all good intentions came and “completed” it.

Lenstra suggests that Escher either could not or would not finish The Print Gallery, that the blank space and signature in the centre are not properly part of the work, but a gap in the work, a place where Escher failed to realise his own vision. He does not see the blank spot as part of the mapping, the ZF empty set or uncarved block, but rather as an infinite regress of the Cartesian Theatre, the Veil of Maya in all its endless complexity.

The idea that Escher, an artist capable of such hyperbolic obsession as this and this could not or would not continue a recursive construction to the absolute resolution limit of his art is simply not credible. Lenstra himself uncovered Escher’s painstaking studies of all parts of The Print Gallery leading up to its execution. It was completed in 1956 while Escher kept working for the next two decades. He didn’t die suddenly with insufficient time to complete this central motif of his art. So it is not nachlass. It was executed exactly as it was conceived.

Ignoring the deeper meaning of The Print Gallery while borrowing its conformal projective method Lentra has nevertheless produced one of the most compelling visualisations of the Black Iron Prison ever created:

Turning away from this complete vision of hell we see enlightenment as a choice you make anew in every moment. The blue pill of Maya is always there. If you regard enlightenment as a state of being that you have attained rather than a choice for you to make, you have swallowed it. And then you will wake up asleep and believe whatever you want to believe. This is why the Zen Buddhists say, “if you meet Buddha in the road, kill him.”

Heinlein’s worms

Enlightenment explodes the distinction between self and other. Robert Heinlein put it this way:

Do you know the old story about the earthworm burrowing along through the soil who encounters another earthworm and at once says, ‘Oh, you’re beautiful! You’re lovelyl Will you marry me?’ and is answered: ‘Don’t be silly! I’m your other end.’ Whenever you encounter any other living thing, man, woman, or stray cat . . . you are simply encountering your ‘other end’.

Imagine yourself as a space-time event, this long pink worm, continuous through the years. It stretches past us here and the cross-section we see appears as a single discrete body. But that is illusion. There is physical continuity to this pink worm, enduring through the years. As a matter of fact there is physical continuity in this concept to all life for these pink worms branch off from other pink worms. In this fashion life is like a vine whose branches intertwine and send out shoots. Only by taking a cross-section of the vine would we fall into the error of believing that the shootlets were discrete individuals.

. . . and the universe is just a little thing we whipped up among us the other night for our entertainment and then agreed to forget the gag.

Did you notice? That’s one of those complete visions again, the blue pill. You’re going to have to get used to passing it up. Here: your body contains the entire living liquid universe. What you see and feel and understand is waves upon the continuous surface of its mind.

Yes, that’s another blue pill. To choose enlightenment, let it go.

The enlightened assume neither thought nor form

Save harmony with the ebb and flow of forms. 

They adapt but do not control forms, 

Accept, but do not own them.

Release, but do not reject them.

4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. "No Apologies Allowed" Weekly Apologetics Cartoons
    Aug 01, 2011 @ 20:37:35

    These are interesting thoughts on a lot of diverse topics. The part that got my attention is where you present things that showcase what seems to be the policy in Zen Buddhism to mock logic. Doesn’t being able to understand a plain statement enough to twist into incomprehensibility show us that such a person is already acquainted with logic, as the witty Zen Buddhists and Daoists often do (Zhuangzi in particular, a favorite of mine, by the way)?

    I mean, if we start by concluding logic is illogical and untrustworthy because it is the invention of humans, by what standard do we 1) reach that conclusion and; 2) reserve the right to judge anyone who uses logic as “unenlightened”? And how do Zen Buddhists distiguish between “enlightenment” and “unenlightenment” anyway?

    I recently encountered a Taiwanese farmer who was a very devout adherent to a bizarre religion. He delighted in giving me a Zen Buddhist-type riddle to exercise my mind (which does need exercising), but I don’t see the point of exercising something when it was obvious that I couldn’t trust the said organ (the mind) since it was operating on logic (I hope).

    But if you’ve got a second, I’d be curious to here whether or not you personally adhere and practice this type of Zen Buddhism and what benefits you gain from it. How does anything in that kind of philosophical / religious system help you or anyone else? (Feel free to speak from personal experience.)

    Just curious…



  2. Peter Merel
    Aug 01, 2011 @ 23:18:48

    Hi Joshua,

    I rather think that zen is not so much an exercise in logic as in topology. Rather like constructing a Moebius strip. The purpose of the twist is not to mock, but to alter the reality. Two sides become one side. Likewise there is no point in distinguishing “unenlightened” and “enlightened”. You can’t attain enlightenment any more than you can dream yourself awake.

    Whoops, another blue pill. Pretty things, aren’t they?

    I consider logic as a form like the others in Chapter 2, to be accepted and released in harmony with mind. What logic is there in the sound of the one hand? A zen apprentice will bang their logic against it for a long time before they finally just give up and listen to the damned thing.

    As for my experience, I am no monk and I regarded koans intellectually for a long time after I first read about them. I was painfully aware that whatever it was they were about was not something I was getting.

    But that something is quite simple. Zen is neither a philosophy nor a religion. It is an activity like sport or sex – rewarding in its own right. And I have found it very useful when faced with big scary life events to take the fear away and leave calm within which to cope. It’s good against ear-worms – those song snippets that repeat over and over in your head. And other forms of anxiety or habit.

    I don’t think you need to go to a monastery and get whacked with a stick while sitting in zazen for years on end in order to enlighten yourself. That might help, but I think you can get it in your own bed. I hope the unlocked Chapter 52 conveys the method:

    Life is the mother of mind;
    All we know of this mother is her child.
    Let go the child to join the mother
    Empty yourself to join with life.

    When your senses are filled
    And your thoughts busy
    You cannot achieve this connection.

    Still your senses;
    Seal your memories;
    Listen to the empty hand.
    Concentrate on the darkness;
    Find the focus of nothing;
    Follow silence to its source.

    Once discovered, it is never lost;
    It binds you to life.


    • "No Apologies Allowed" Weekly Apologetics Cartoons
      Aug 02, 2011 @ 23:48:27

      That’s a pretty interesting use of koans. Thanks for sharing that, Peter.

      Speaking of translations, let me ask you one last question: Is it even possible to know how correct or incorrect a translation of the Dao De Jing is, in your opinion? If so, how? (Reference all the different renderings and understandings of “dao” that you yourself have noted.)


  3. Peter Merel
    Aug 03, 2011 @ 00:23:43

    I appreciate your cool questions Joshua. Thanks!

    Victor Mair’s observation of philological correspondences between the Bhagavad Gita and the Mawangdui Lao Tzu (I’m inconsistent on system – far from my greatest heresy – preferring whichever spelling hits best on Google) has evoked resounding silence from the academic sinologists. AFAIK I’m the only other translator to take Mair’s discovery seriously.

    If what we have in Lao Tzu was based on the Gita, or on some lost precursor of the Gita, then the “correct” Tao probably hasn’t been written yet. At each cultural turn hundreds of folk produce translations and interpretations of the Tao on the basis of their received texts. Then a dynasty revolves or a dark age falls and the texts that survive are those that were most numerous, or that prompted the most religious effort at conservation. This is a kind of evolutionary collaboration.

    I regard myself as more accountable to collaborators who come after me than those that came before. I try to stick to the received texts – hence the detailed annotations per chapter. But I am not at all afraid to heal what is broken, refactor the overall structure, and clarify what is obscured. What I’m trying to do is to produce a modern Lao Tzu for a modern reader. That’s what any original Lao Tzu was trying to do for readers of his day and age.

    Which is more incorrect – leaving the poem scrambled or taking liberties? The next Unlocked chapter will be 3/12 – parts of chapter 3 bolted onto chapter 12. I’ll explain my reasoning for this but … does such a chimera seem incorrect to you?


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All excerpts from Unlocking The Tao are copyright © 2011 Peter Merel. Please ask permission before you copy, mirror, or adapt this work.
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