All Suffering Is Born from Wrong Perceptions
Photo by Jay Randhawa

All Suffering Is Born from Wrong Perceptions

Discussion date: Thu, Jan 11, 2024 at our weekly Thursday evening practice

Dear Still Water Friends,

When I was asked to facilitate Dharma sharing on January 11th, I took some time to choose a topic. I’ve found that a useful question to ask myself is, “What’s going on in my life right now?” I hope that if I talk about challenges I’m encountering and how my practice is helping me deal with them, this may resonate with and be helpful to others. After a few days, the topic “clear seeing” rose to the top.

This topic bubbled up because for the past couple of months I’ve been struggling with my vision. I recently had cataracts removed from both eyes that were interfering with my ability to drive safely. Cataracts are areas of the eye’s lens that become opaque and can’t be seen through, and it’s not uncommon for older people to get them. The surgical procedure involves removing the eye’s natural lens and implanting a clear synthetic lens in its place.

After a few weeks of recovery, I have very good distance vision and more light coming into my eyes. I’m seeing more clearly, although I’ll still need corrective eyeglasses to see up close. Going through eye surgery has led me to think about other ways of seeing – seeing with the mind and the heart. How is my spiritual vision? Am I seeing reality clearly? Am I perceiving things as they are and not as I’d like them to be?

Perception is an important concept in Buddhism, and Thay (Thich Nhat Hanh) discusses it in many of his books. Perceptions is one of the five aggregates, or skandhas, that make up a human being, along with form (body), feelings, mental formations, and consciousness. In The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, Thay writes:

The source of our perception, our way of seeing, lies in our store consciousness. If ten people look at a cloud, there will be ten different perceptions of it. Whether it is perceived as a dog, a hammer, or a coat depends on our mind – our sadness, our memories, our anger. Our perceptions carry with them all the errors of subjectivity. Then we praise, blame, condemn, or complain depending on our perceptions. But our perceptions are made of our afflictions – craving, anger, ignorance, wrong views, and prejudice. Whether we are happy or we suffer depends largely on our perceptions. It is important to look deeply at our perceptions and know their source

In Understanding Our Mind, Thay explains the three modes, or fields, of perception: direct perception, perception as representation, and perception as mere images. Direct perception lets us get in touch with things-in-themselves, free from distortion and delusions. The Sanskrit term tathātā >is often translated as “suchness” or “reality as it is.” If we could always, in every moment, perceive the suchness of everything we encounter, we would already be enlightened! When we experience something with one of our five sense organs (eye, ear, nose, tongue, or body), before our thinking mind swings into action to name the experience and compare it to other experiences, we are practicing direct perception. Our minds are capable of perceiving in this way but we more often perceive via the other two modes.

“Perception as representation” happens when we interact not with an object itself but with an image of the object. One example Thay uses is a table. We all know what a table is, so when we encounter one, our mind immediately recognizes and names it based on our prior experience of tables. We perceive the “generic table” our mind generates rather than the table as it is in reality. When we do this with people, falling in love with the idealized image we have of someone rather than the real flesh-and-blood person, the consequences can be more serious than with tables.

When we engage in “perception as mere images,” we don’t even need the stimulus of an object; our mind generates images out of itself, as when we see and interact with objects in dreams or through visualization. Although the term “mere images” may sound dismissive, visualization can be useful in helping us deepen our understanding. In Buddha Mind, Buddha Body, Thay writes:

Suppose you visualize a Buddha. In a way, the Buddha in you is a mere image. But the mere image of the Buddha can help you to concentrate and help you to touch the real substantive Buddha, namely concentration, understanding, and compassion.

After explaining the three modes of perception in Understanding Our Mind, Thay makes this rather sobering observation:

All images, whether we perceive them in the mode of representations or the mode of mere images, are false. They are not a direct perception of things-in-themselves. … We live much more in the world of representations and mere images than in the world of things-in-themselves. Our consciousness rarely touches reality. We imprison ourselves in our own distorted images of reality.

I understand this passage to mean that most of the time, I’m not seeing reality clearly at all; I’m living in an alternate reality that my mind is generating, and it is largely a reflection of my habit energies and afflictions, of ideas and emotions handed down to me by my ancestors, culture, and society that I may not even be aware of. Is this a reason to despair?

Clearly not, because we have the practice that Thay has given us,  a lifeboat that can save us from sinking into despair. In The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, Thay writes:

Practicing mindfulness, concentration, and deep looking, we can discover the errors of our perceptions and free ourselves from fear and clinging. All suffering is born from wrong perceptions. Understanding, the fruit of meditation, can dissolve our wrong perceptions and liberate us.

Working on this announcement has led me to think about how I can practice to have fewer misperceptions — or, at least, so that I can recognize a perception as a misperception. One is to ask myself often, “Am I sure?” Thay says this is such a useful practice that we should write it on a large piece of paper and hang it where we can see it every day. (Sometimes he says to write it on a small piece of paper and put it in our pocket so we can take it out and read it often.)

Part of Thay’s practice is to become aware of and befriend our habit energies, our habitual patterns of thought and action. Recognizing that one of my habit energies is anxiety, I can examine my perceptions in light of this tendency. I know I am prone to perceiving things in a distorted way because of my habit of being anxious.

Thay teaches that a notion of something is different from an insight. I may have an intellectual understanding of interbeing and impermanence, but only if I diligently practice mindfulness and concentration can these notions become insights. I know that the insights of interbeing and impermanence will enable me to perceive more clearly more often, and this knowledge strengthens my aspiration to practice.

Sometimes – probably often — I may be unsure if I’m perceiving a situation clearly. I can turn to and rely on the sangha for guidance. It’s a great help to be able to ask a trusted sangha friend for their view of a situation. I might say, “Look, this happened, and I’m suffering because of it. This is how I perceive it; how do you see it?”

On Thursday evening, after our sitting meditation, we’ll have time to explore our experiences of handling our perceptions and misperceptions. Here are some questions we may like to consider:

  • When have you perceived something and then found out that your perception was incorrect?
  • What did you learn from that experience?
  • How do you practice to increase your ability to see more clearly?

We hope you can join us.

With appreciation,
Connie Anderson

in: Dharma Topics
Discussion Date: Thu, Jan 11, 2024


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