The painting was George Seurat’s Neo-impressionist work A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, his famous scene of Parisians in a waterside park. As my eye scanned the canvas, jumping from boats to people to clouds, it caught on a tree.
Here were no seamless bands of color, no blended patches of tint as in so many other paintings. The tree was made up of countless specks—a smattering of separate orange, yellow, and blue dots. The boats on the water, the people on the lawn, their faces and clothes—all were a sprinkling of motes, as if the canvas had been caught out in a rain of paint.
Out of the blue, I remembered the ascetic Bahiya, who asked the Buddha to teach him the path leading to happiness. “When seeing,” the Buddha said, “just see; when hearing, just hear; when knowing, just know; and when thinking, just think.” (Udana 1.10) It was all in how you looked at it. The Bahiya text is deceptively simple. In one sense, it means: Don’t daydream. Pay full attention to what you’re seeing. But there’s more to these words than you might think. Or maybe less.
I did a double take when my meditation teacher, Achan Sobin Namto, explained the deeper meaning of this attention practice. “If we could focus precisely on the present moment…,” he once wrote, “the eye would not be able to identify objects coming into the area of perception.” Ultimately, he said, following the Bahiya formula meant to see mere color instead of recognizing what you were looking at. It was possible to do this because there was a split-second time lag between (1) sensing the bare image and (2) recognition. (The same applies to perceiving sound, smell, taste, touch, and mental phenomena such as feeling.) If mindfulness were quick enough, you could catch the moment of bare seeing.
Wait a minute—had I heard right? “So if I really stay in the present moment,” I asked, “I’ll see a cup in front of me and not recognize it?”
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