Most of us feel that we know ourselves through and through, but in fact, we do not. Because we do not, we have difficulty deciding how to make human relations go smoothly. As often as not, what we actually do has the opposite effect from what we intended.
One afternoon a fly strayed into my laboratory at the university. After a trip or two around the room, he alighted on the window glass and began to beat his wings frantically. Outside, it was a warm day in May. The fly could see the clear blue sky through the window and obviously could not comprehend what was preventing him from flying outdoors. The transparent glass was not perceptible to him even though he was pressing himself against it with all his might.
The window was partly open—the fly had flown in through it in the first place. But now the poor creature was so determined to exit through the glass that he did not even think of backing off and taking another look. Taking pity on him, I brushed him toward the open part, but a little later, after I had read another page or two in my book, I glanced up and saw that he was back where he had been before, pushing frantically against the glass. Eventually, he exhausted himself and fell dead to the window sill.
People make the same sort of error all the time. We have sufficient visual capacity not to be fooled by transparent glass or plastic walls, but we are extremely prone to the belief that nothing exists in this world save that which we ourselves see. How obtuse! The natural environment in which we live contains an infinitude of objects that our eyes cannot see.
The teaching of the Buddha warns us not to be misled by what we see with our eyes, hear with our ears, or taste with our tongues. The impressions we receive from our five senses tend to make us ignore the truth that underlies the appearance.
On the opposite side of every front, there is a back; on the opposite side of every back, there is a front. One cannot exist without the other. Yet human beings invariably tend to see only the front and to assume that this is all that exists. What is worse, we base our actions on this partial view.
When we push, we must not forget that pulling might be an alternative method. Unfortunately, we do in fact forget. When we have a viewpoint, we must not forget that other people have viewpoints too. Unfortunately, we do in fact forget. Every human being is subject to the illusion that his is the only existence in the world.
Neither we ourselves nor the world around us can be saved unless we learn to see both sides of things, learn to pull as well as push, and learn to maintain a broad and lofty view of the truth. Such, I believe, is the teaching of the Buddha.
This excerpt was adapted from Masahiro Mori’s 1974 book, The Buddha in the Robot: A Robot Engineer’s Thoughts on Science and Religion. Read another excerpt from the book on whether robots have buddhanature, here.