Looking and Seeing
What is the difference between looking and seeing?
Seeing is experiencing a visual sensation, which is direct and immediate. Sensations may be experienced as pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral, but it is not a conscious choice. Give a young child a taste of something sour, like lemon juice, and the child makes a face. Give them a taste of something sweet and there is a different response. These responses are pre-conceptual. There are no words, concepts, or thinking when we are realizing sensation.
We look outside our window and experience a world of visual sensation. We see something we perceive as a tree; and the perception gives rise to a thought, “The tree looks dry.” Then a series of thoughts and impressions can follow, “I’m going outside and set up a soaker hose for that poor tree.”
All of this happens in a heartbeat, but there is actually a process occurring, which is described by one of the core teachings of Buddhism: the five skandhas. “Skandha” means group, heap or aggregate, and the five skandhas can be translated as form, sensation, perception, mental formations, and consciousness. Each skandha is a collection that gives rise to the next one: A collection of forms gives rise to sensation. A collection of sensations gives rise to perception and so on. The teaching of the five skandhas shows the arising of consciousness as the product of the interaction of the skandhas.
We summarize our experience: “I looked at the tree in the front yard and realized it needs watering.” In this case, a wordless sensation has given rise to the world of common human experience: words, concepts, thoughts, memories, emotions, etc. The spectrum of self-conscious human experience arises in one moment.
Mahayana Buddhism teaches that the skandhas are inherently empty; they have no independent or fixed existence. Our self arises and disappears as a byproduct of the interaction of the skandhas. Tathagata Zen, in particular, views the skandhas as the product of innumerable interactions of the primary dharma activities—expansion and contraction, continually unifying and separating. The endless and uncountable interactions of expansion and contraction manifest as the form, matter, or “stuff” of our world. This is the raw material of the universe, whether it is atoms, quarks, strings, or something yet to be determined. To see a tree requires the interaction of a tree, light reflecting from it, and a functioning eye to see the tree. The tree, light, and eye are all different manifestations of form. When they interact in a suitable way, there is sensation. Similarly, a combination of sensations can give rise to a recognition that these sensations are distinct from surrounding sensations; this is perception. “A tree.”
Each skandha simultaneously arises from a suitable combination of previous skandhas. Self and world arise from the skandhas, but the origin of the skandhas is dharma activity, which is empty, selfless, and impermanent.
When we see this dynamic series of activities unfolding in real time, rather than through memory or reflection or analysis, we can step free from unconsciously acting out our conclusions. This may not seem important when we’re considering watering a tree, but it could save us a load of trouble when we see our partner talking to someone at a party and our chronic jealous streak flares up.
The teaching of the five skandhas presents the Buddhist view of how self and world arise, and it is presented in a way that we can investigate through our own experience. This investigation is important; as long as our understanding remains merely theoretical it will be difficult to dissolve our attachment to self.
During meditation, we can investigate the skandhas with a calm mind and clear awareness. Repeatedly examining our experience undermines the conventional belief in self. Examination reveals how our thoughts and emotions arise from circumstances, and challenges our belief in the self-as-agent, who we believe is directing our inner world: We can no longer identify ourselves as simply our thoughts and emotions. In fact, it brings into question our belief in a monolithic, continuous self, since our inner world clearly arises and disappears in the flow of experience. Meditation is a uniquely powerful method for transforming our understanding of our self.
As we investigate, we may discover a distinction between sensation, perception, and the skandhas that follow. This distinction is crucial. It is the difference between seeing someone and looking at them. When we “see” someone, we perceive the arising of form and sensation, in the very moment they happen. Sensations arise prior to language and concepts. Immediate perception is the clear recognition of sensation. There is no possessive pronoun in perception. Perception is the spontaneous separation of sensation into the triple world. “Seeing” is the timeless cycle of sensation and perception, immediate, and free from attachment to subsequent mental formations.
Perception brings recognition. The multiple sensations of experience are parsed into tree, cloud, John or Sally. Perceptions distinguish people or things from the surroundings. This is the origin of discrimination, which in turn gives birth to concepts about our experience. This discriminating is “pure.” It is simple recognition, free of description or evaluation. The thoughts, impressions, feelings of attraction or repulsion, and other mental responses that arise with recognition are the fourth skandha, mental formations.
“Looking” at someone, however, goes beyond form, sensation, and perception. Looking emphasizes the self-centric activities of mental formations and consciousness. Seeing is free of our subjective mind, while looking emphasizes the impressions, judgments, and interpretations of subjective mind. When we “look” at someone or something, we cover up the experience of seeing with a layer of subjective impressions. Seeing is immediate; looking is secondary.
The more we identify with our subjective mind, the more we will emphasize our thoughts and emotions, and the more we will confuse them with the experience itself. As we move away from immediacy, and towards our interpretations, it becomes harder to genuinely connect with the other person or situation. By the time we are adults, we are usually skillful in interpreting what we see, or hear, and do it so quickly that we don’t even notice. Occasionally, we trip over our misunderstandings, but it usually takes a big mistake, a failed relationship perhaps, before we question our whole approach to relating. Life as we interpret it is not life as it arises. Relationship as we interpret it isn’t truly relationship.
Just as seeing is different from looking, hearing is different from listening, and feeling is different from touching. If we are committed to making genuine relationship with someone, then we must see, hear, and feel the person.
The common view of relationship is that it is like a ping-pong game. Person A says something to Person B, who listens and responds. Then “B” serves to “A” and the game is on, each one giving and receiving in turn, pushing and pulling. Each person is an agent, considering how he or she will respond to the other person. This view of relationship is rooted in self.
However, if we apply the teaching of the skandhas to relationship we arrive at a different understanding. Then, our first responsibility is to sense the other person, clearly and without preconception. We must see, hear, and feel the person as he or she is, and the moment as it is. If we are not attached to our subjective impressions above everything else, we can allow these sensations all the way in. We are moved by what we see, hear, and feel.
To do this, we must stay with the seeing, hearing, and feeling as they occur. We must value the clear sensing of this moment over the interpretations and assessments that will undoubtedly arise afterward. These impressions are not the problem; it is our fierce allegiance to them that gets us in trouble. To truly relate with someone, we must let go of our self attachment.
At first, this may seem awkward, unnatural. If we are not trying to figure what to “do,” we may feel at a loss, but as we learn to dissolve more deeply into seeing, hearing, and feeling our relationships, the need to figure out how to respond disappears. Our realization of relationship grows. There is a response, but it is not something we must plan. We still have our perceptions, impressions, and consciousness. They inform the situation, but they no longer define it. We do not need to choreograph the relationship.
Our response is clear from the relationship, the interaction of our self and the other person. It does not come from the calculations of our subjective self. The more we give ourselves to seeing, hearing and feeling, the clearer our response will be, arising naturally, spontaneously, in accord with the person and situation.
When the relationship is full and clear, then self and other disappear into relationship. The relationship responds to itself. This is the dynamic activity of complete relationship. This is what happens when we see, rather than look.