There occurs a moment in every child’s development when she begins to learn that objects do not disappear from existence when she closes her eyes. By playing peek-a-boo she learns object constancy, which psychologists agree is an essential stage of healthy development. Since the mind can only work directly with “that which appears” in experience, it has to build up a perceptual model of “that which exists” behind or beyond the appearances. This is, of course, just a conceptual construction, but one of such usefulness that it stays with us throughout our lives.

One of the radical aspects of Buddhist meditation is that it invites us to suspend the habit of reflexively ascribing existence to everything experienced and return to the perceptual simplicity of a phenomenological view. When we attend merely to what appears, as the famous teaching to Bahiya puts it, then “in the seen there will be just the seen, in the heard just the heard, in the felt just the felt, and in the thought, just the thought.” (Udana 1.10) As even a passing encounter with meditation will demonstrate, it does not take long in this mode for the reality of the external world to dissolve into irrelevance amid a swirling sea of changing phenomena. The appearances are so apparently real, insofar as they arise and pass away with such astonishing immediacy, that the question of whether or not they are “really real” becomes a mere conceptual curiosity, more distracting than meaningful.

This is a radical and unique feature of classical Buddhist thought. It has never been properly understood, nor can it ever be accepted, by those who share what we might call “the ontological assumption”—that there is something real behind the appearances, more primary and important somehow than the appearances themselves. Nowhere is this assumption more interestingly applied than in the matter of consciousness.

When we hear the word consciousness in English, we immediately speculate that there is a person to whom this consciousness belongs, an agent who wields it, or a self that consists of it. Yet early Buddhist texts speak of consciousness only as a process unfolding when certain conditions are met: “In dependence on an organ and an object there arises consciousness.” (Samyutta Nikaya 35.93) Or, more specifically, “When internally the eye is intact and external forms come into its range, and a corresponding conjunction occurs, then the manifestation of a corresponding instance of consciousness occurs.” (Majjhima Nikaya 28)

The role of consciousness is to serve up an appearance, either from the incoming data of the sense doors or from internal channels of memory, imagination, or conception. Backing this appearance up with a constructed sense of reality is a flourish added by perception. Consciousness is merely an event—the awareness of an object— while perception is the fabrication of an accompanying image or interpretive marker. Both are impersonal activities that occur naturally under certain conditions, and both the agent behind consciousness and the reality behind appearances are convenient but illusory concoctions of the mind.

Why is it, then, that there seems to be such an investment in the reality of consciousness? In Hindu terms, the reality (sat) and the consciousness (cit) of God are inextricable from one another; in Judeo-Christian thought the ultimate creator and sustainer of the entire cosmos is a Person; and even in some forms of later Buddhism it looks as if the finger is pointing to the true self behind the apparent self. Unlike any of these, the Buddha seems to have put forward the remarkable idea that consciousness is merely a set of appearances, as empty of essence as a bubble of foam.

The matter of ultimate concern is not what consciousness really is, but rather how it is manifesting. What is the quality of the experience? With what conditioning mental and emotional factors is consciousness arising in this very moment? The self is something enacted, with a supporting role played by consciousness, but with equally important parts provided by the body, feeling, perception, and emotions. Consciousness is shaped by the senses and their corresponding objects, colored by pleasure and pain, textured by the symbolic expressions of perception, and guided by what has been learned in the past, by what is chosen in the present, and by what is acted out in the future. It may all be a show, but its value lies entirely in how well it is performed.

Many say that all religions are ultimately the same, insofar as they are all seeking to discover the true reality behind false appearances. But what if the Buddha was pointing out a very different way of looking at things, one that challenged the most fundamental of all assumptions? His extraordinary insight was that appearances, properly understood as impermanent, interdependent, and unsatisfying, are also devoid of the ontological underpinnings we are used to ascribing to everything in our world. All of it, without exception, is utterly devoid of self.

This may sound like a great loss conceptually, but in experience it is not such a big deal. We are merely suspending a set of habitual perceptual overlays while regarding the phenomena at hand as they are actually presenting in consciousness. “One abides, ardent, mindful and clearly conscious, observing body as body, feelings as feelings, mind as mind, and phenomena as phenomena,” as the classical meditation text puts it. (Majjhima Nikaya 10) When attending very closely to what appears, the issue of what exists does not even come up. I think the Buddha is telling us we are ultimately better off grounded in the experiential actuality of phenomena than in maintaining the illusory framework of its conceptual reality.

To the young child in her crib, it is reassuring to know that mother does not disappear when the child’s eyes are covered. But when she loses her to old age, sickness, and death, as she surely will some day, it can be even more valuable to learn that her own well-being need not depend on her mother’s existence. It is the experience that is comforting, and the quality of a mother’s love for a child can be enacted at any time by closing the eyes and filling the heart with lovingkindness.

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