A meditation student asks Lama Shenpen for clarification regarding a statement a previous teaching.
A student writes: “I have read the Buddhism Connect teaching e-mail from 24th of March and must confess I am confused. I don’t understand the point being made by the student about the ‘border of a mountain’.
‘There is (evidently) a faculty in myself that makes objects. It delineates, draws contours around parts of being. As in cartography, when I say “this mountain starts here, ends there”. An arbitrary division, in fact the “border of a mountain” cannot be found. This must be, I think, also a part of my being. Distorted and troublesome, if I take its “chunks” to be real and self-originated objects.’
I assume I am missing some subtle point here but surely the mountain exists, albeit impermanently, and the borders are a reality. Could you please give me some guidance here.”
Lama Shenpen: “This is a difficult area I have to admit.
From a certain point of view it is fairly obvious that we make things up from the sense data that is presented to our senses. We see what looks like a mountain (a concept we have already created in our mind from previous experience) and we assume that is what we are seeing.
It might actually simply be a trick of the light, in which case we say ‘Oh it’s not a mountain, it just looked like one’. But in the case where the assumption is correct, that there is a mountain there, that we can approach and climb it and so on.
Is it really the case that there is no mountain there really?
It is true we only have sense data and our interpretation of that data and when we look carefully at that data it is inconclusive.
We never really know directly that the mountain is out there beyond the senses. We deduce it as a fact based on previous experience.
This is all fairly obvious when we stop to think about it but does it really change anything? The mere intellectual knowledge that we don’t directly experience objects out there doesn’t change us much.
However, if we really take this on board and contemplate its significance it becomes clear that we act all the time as if we did know directly objects out there when in fact we are creating them with our mind and often we are creating them in a completely false way which leads to a distorted view on life and our relationships and this is what leads to suffering. In other words we become attached to our ideas about things and try to grasp and own them or try to get rid of them or destroy them, when in fact they are not really there in the way we think they are and we are not really made secure or threatened by them in the way we think we are.
Realising this even on quite a simple level is liberating in a sense. To realise it even more deeply can liberate us from all suffering forever. But it will change us.
As far as the question of the boundary of the mountain is concerned and “chunks” of real and self-originated objects created by delineating objects – well the person writing the question has introduced a whole series of problems into the discourse. I didn’t try to address all these problems in my original answer. I tried to just focus on the main thrust of their question.
Personally I find no problem with arbitrarily delineating objects such as a mountain and labelling it a mountain. This is how I communicate with other people about what I am experiencing. The Buddha did the same. He could point to his own begging bowl, his home town, his disciples and so on. He used concepts and labels to communicate.
Just because you cannot find a boundary between one thing and another doesn’t mean you cannot point to it and communicate about it. It maybe arbitrary where a mountain is taken to begin and end but that doesn’t affect the reality of the mountain (in a certain sense of the word).
Yet there is something very interesting about the fact that we cannot delineate accurately where anything begins and ends. By believing that it is possible to delineate and define objects and that they are out there, we limit our capacity to truly understand the nature of reality.
To truly understand the nature of reality and to be liberated from suffering we have to realise that reality is not analysable in that way. That opens our minds and hearts to its true way of being. The mountain is not a mountain in the mundane sense – there is no limit to what it really is! That is what we are going to discover as we let go of our tendency to grasp at objects as defined and out there.
I hope this helps.”