we don't need to change how we do conservation, we need to change why we do it

Two Buddhas, Part-6: What is it “Like” to know?

A short selection from Essay Eight in Darwin, Dogen, and the Extremophile Choice. 

Primordial Awareness [the Way] is perfect and all-pervading. How could it be dependent upon practice and realization? The movement of Reality does not need us to give it a push. Do I need to say that it is free from delusion? The vast expanse of Reality can never be darkened by the dust of presumptions. Who then could believe that it needs to be cleaned of such dust to be what it is? It is never separate from where you are, so why scramble around in search of it? —Dogen [1]

The philosopher Thomas Nagel gave us a useful method for addressing subjectivity back in 1974 in an article koanically entitled “What is it Like to be a Bat?” The example of a bat, with its unfamiliar echo-locating sensorium, warns us that there can be many consciousnesses (lol, say this three times fast, then go woo, wooo… See?), perhaps infinitely many, morphing even within individuals: What is it like to be a philosopher, or a comedian? What is it like to be born? To die? To be a sentient being without language? To be a woman (for a man)? To be a man (for a woman)? To be at different times afraid, indifferent, or unshakably calm? To be a swarm of darting bees? To be very, very, very slow? …To be a forest, unbounded?

In the Heart Sutra, Gautama tells us “in emptiness there are no forms, no feelings, no discriminations, no compositional factors, no consciousnesses; no eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind …” [2] and on and on, but you get the idea. Gautama is only saying “this is what it’s like to be empty”. And he goes on to say that it’s from this primordial awareness that all the things on his list, in their different ways, arise; not the other way around. [3] How can there be a proper name for this? As psychologist and Zen teacher Albert Low warns us, “that which knows is not a something. It cannot be found among other things.” [4] Because of this, and because the Nameless will always tug at a gadget lover’s “other hand”, I will continue using a style of argument that asks the reader to be attentive to shifts between the informative and the transformative moods. I would apologize, but I know if I tried to give a scientific account of Man and Nature without the thoroughgoing diversions of this other voice, I would be missing half the story. With luck, the honesty of metaphorical error will help us climb to undiscovered outlooks on humanity. Then again, the attempt might just be foolish. So I will take a cautionary lesson from a well-cited, seldom read, linguistic philosopher, and repeat to myself the following koan at every switch-back:

When Wittgenstein, without broaching the need for silent not-thinking practice, said of his densely written Tractatus: “The book’s point is an ethical one. … My work consists of two parts: the one presented here plus all that I have not written. And it is precisely this second part that is the important one.” [5]

…was he taking too much, or too little, upon himself?

This is the last selection from PART I in the book: Darwin, Dogen, and the Extremophile Choice: Fifty Short Essays on What it Means to be Human in the Natural World


1. Dogen zenji, Eihei. 1986. Fukanzazengi: How Everyone Can Sit. [1227] In Yasuda Joshu roshi and Anzan Hoshin roshi, trans., Progress Into the Ordinary. Ottawa, Wolfville Nova Scotia, Harrow Middlesex: Great Matter Publications. p.1

2. Rinchen, Sonam. 2003 in Ruth Sonam, trans., and ed., The Heart Sutra: An Oral Teaching by Geshe Sonam Rinchen. Ithica, NY: Snow Lion Publications. pp. 55-65 (with commentary), 91.

3. When we try to imagine what it might be like to be aware, without any reference to the senses, of course it’s impossible. But the whole exercise of trying to imagine these other scenarios prods us to see that, even with these, we’re only imagining; we’re not experiencing them. To be honest, I don’t know what it means that “time goes missing” when I’m in deep sleep—maybe this is just what it’s like to be a sleeping brain—but before I took up my practice, like others before me, I was also largely unaware of my ‘unconscious mind’, and now, with a little undivided attention, all but my most obstinately self-ish attitudes disport themselves in plain ‘sight’. When we work with ‘method philosophy’ [See Darwin, Dogen, and the Extremophile Choice, p.31 and beyond.] this “hard problem”, arising as it does out of neurological and other ‘models’, doesn’t get resolved as a model, but it does resolve. Mind, and consciousness, are just object-ive ways of saying suchness. In fact, since we’re seeing Totality here, not separating out this from that, this is just The Way.

4. Low, Albert. 2006. (ed., and commentary) Hakuin on Kensho: The Four Ways of Knowing. Boston: Shambala. p. 20.

5. Edmonds, David and John Eidinow. 2001 (Ecco paperback edition, 2002). Wittgenstein’s Poker: The Story of a Ten Minute Argument Between Two Great Philosophers. New York: Harper Collins. pp. 158-159.

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