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Shambhala Sun | July 2013

Through the Gateway of the Senses

When we cleanse our perceptions of grasping and attachment, we experience a universe that is infinite, awakened, and full of delight. FRANCESCA FREMANTLE on sight, sound, touch, and other miracles.

William Blake famously wrote: “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite, for man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern.”

That purified perception, looking out into the “immense world of delight” that Blake communicated to us through his paintings and poetry, sounds very much like the sacred vision practiced in Vajrayana Buddhism, the experience of everything around us as a pure land. It is a realm beyond our ordinary senses, yet one which our intuition instinctively recognizes, and which comes upon us from time to time like a gift.

How is it that we have become separated from this realm, so much so that spirituality is often thought to be unrelated to sensory experience, or even opposed to it? A Dzogchen poem tells us: “Appearances are not mistaken; error comes through grasping.” In other words, the senses and sense-objects are no problem.

Texts such as these describe how mind can either rest in the awakened state of openness, clarity, and sensitivity, or suddenly feel afraid of such vastness, seeing itself as separate. This is said to occur “in the beginning,” but it is taking place at the most subtle and hidden level of our mind at every instant.

This is the root of all confusion, the moment in which grasping arises. Grasping is both internal and external. Internally, it creates the sense of an unchanging “I.” externally, it projects the concept of “other,” seeing everything as a challenge to its existence, either a threat to be overcome, an object of desire to be seized, or some- thing to be ignored in the hope that it will go away.

Having deceived ourselves into believing in the existence of ego as subject, we project a world of objects. In the late Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s graphic expression,we have “solidified space.” Instead, he suggests, we could dance with space as our partner. In this dance we ourselves are part of the ever-changing magical display of appearances, ungraspable, transparent, and luminous as rainbows, which arise spontaneously and unceasingly as the creative activity of space.

The buddhas, who remain always in this state, do not need the senses; they experience directly with jnana, the five wisdoms. These include the ability to see everything throughout all of space and time simultaneously, as in a mirror, and at the same time to focus on each individual part of the display.

For us, though, the senses are part of our manifestation as sentient beings, and, in the way we normally experience them, they are obstructions to genuine knowledge. Trungpa Rinpoche called them “unnecessary complications of existence.” Yet he wrote of another way of experiencing, in which:

All the miracles of sight, sound, and mind
Are the five wisdoms and the five buddhas.

For the doors of perception can be cleansed. Blake said, “The whole creation will be consumed and appear infinite and holy, whereas it now appears finite and corrupt. This will come to pass by an improvement of sensual enjoyment.” He gives us a clue as to how this can be accomplished in his much-loved verse:

He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy,
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sunrise.

Infinity. Eternity. These are the words Blake uses to point toward an indescribable state where space and time collapse. Space (or place): the sense of location, direction, and distance. Time: the sense of flowing from the past to the future. These are powerful basic assumptions that we make about the world, but that in fact only limit our knowledge.

For we do not really know what the world is at all. We each create our own world through our sense perceptions and mind, with all its conditioning, memories, expectations, reactions, and so forth. When we look at a tree, we do not actually see a tree. We know only our own experience of it, arising from the complex physical processes of sight and the equally complex operations of our mind. A “tree” is a concept of our human consciousness. Blake would have seen its spiritual form, perhaps as an angel; this is an intermediate level, corresponding to the Buddhist sambhogakaya imagery. Behind that is the ultimate level, the totally mysterious and ungraspable aspect of openness, the inherent nonexistence of all that seems to exist.

Yet it is only through the senses that we can penetrate beyond the surface appearance of things. The Buddha himself gave a meditation on the senses to the wanderer Bahiya:

In the seen, there is only the seen,
In the heard, there is only the heard,
In the sensed, there is only the sensed,
In the cognized, there is only the cognized. 

Meditating in this way, the Buddha said, Bahiya should realize that “There is no thing here ... no thing there... nor in any place between the two. This alone is the end of suffering.” There is no longer the illusion of a grasping ego, nor any object that can be grasped. There is simply pure perception itself—“the miracles of sight, sound, and mind” that are the living expression of the primordial awakened state.

We can begin to move ourselves in this direction by focusing on the simplicity and immediacy of our perceptions—just the bare experience of sound, color, shape, smell, taste, and bodily sensation. Then we can notice the ways in which we obscure this directness: how we immediately label every sensation (how unsettling we find it to catch a glimpse of something and have no idea what it is!); how we continually react with attachment, aversion, or indifference to whatever occurs; how our expectations and preconceptions affect what we perceive; and how habituation dulls our responses.

But since awakening is our natural and original state, ego is not nearly as powerful as it thinks it is. our day-to-day experiences are never entirely confused. Although we may perceive the world in a distorted manner, even that distortion points to the reality that lies behind it. Trungpa Rinpoche often spoke of “natural symbolism,” meaning that everything points to this deeper truth of its own being. He said that the universe is always trying to tell us something, but we do not listen. or, as Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote in a Christian context, but in words so beautiful that they surely transcend religious differences:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flare out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed.

We all experience moments of heightened perception, when it seems the universe has a message for us, one that is filled with profound but inexpressible meaning. suddenness, the sense of being taken by surprise, before ego has a chance to put up its barriers, is often important here. Any of the five bodily senses can open this door for us. The sense of smell, in particular, is well-known for arousing deep-buried memories, which, if we let go and do not grasp at them, can open up the dimension of timelessness. such experiences are often intensely emotional, and we should not forget that in Buddhism the mind too is a sense-organ, whose objects are thoughts, feelings, memories, and so forth. These too can act as symbols.

Through the gateway of our senses, we can enter a realm infinitely wider and deeper, where the limitations of time and space dissolve and the whole universe is present in one moment, in one single point.

Forms are released from the constraints of solidity; floating in dimensionless space, they become transparent and interpenetrating.

Colors glow with a power that transforms our ordinary way of seeing, or draw us into limitless depths where the sense of self and other becomes lost.

Music frees itself from the laws of time, suspended in a beginningless and endless stillness, where every tone can sound simultaneously yet individually.

Physical sensation escapes the limits of the personal, so that one cannot tell where one’s own body ends and the body of another, or of the world, begins. We feel that we have touched some essence of pure sensation in itself. Because of our human form, they manifest to us as sound, color, touch and so on, but they really lie beyond the characteristics of the individual senses. The senses are its channels or its messengers, but they cannot contain it.

Marcel Proust is the author who has perhaps written most perceptively about this hidden dimension. In his great novel In Search of Lost Time, all the senses appear in this way. The most famous example is the taste of tea and the little madeleine cake, which eventually leads the narrator into the lost world of his past. He is overwhelmed by the power and mystery of the experience:

No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shiver ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory—this new sensation having had the effect, which love has, of filling me with a precious essence; or rather

This essence was not in me, it was me. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I sensed that it was connected with the taste of the tea and the cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savors, could not, indeed, be of the same nature.

In the final minutes of Tristan and Isolde, Richard Wagner hints at this state in his music and poetry (words that otherwise seem incomprehensible) when Isolde perceives the essence of the dead Tristan as he dissolves into the five elements. First she sees him become a body of light, then she is submerged in waves of sound and billows of sweetly scented air. The senses merge together as she surrenders herself to the waves of pure sensation. she does not know whether to breathe them in, to listen to them, drink them, or dive under them into “the billowing space of the world-breath.”

Isolde’s final words, “highest bliss” (in German, höchste Lust), could even be seen as a translation of the sanskrit mahasukha, a Vajrayana term referring to the “great bliss” of the awakened state. This has nothing to do with our ordinary idea of happiness. It transcends joy and sorrow, pleasure and pain. It is the ultimate form of responsiveness or sensitivity, entirely free from bias toward attachment or aversion. every sensation, every movement of thought and feeling, even those that we normally consider painful, can produce mahasukha. To experience perceptions in this way would be like making love to the world, which is indeed exactly what Wagner’s music suggests.

Experiences such as these are glimpses of awakening, which may reveal themselves to us unexpectedly at any time but which we are unable to stabilize and sustain. Indeed, in our present state, we could not bear such intensity for long. As George Eliot wrote in Middlemarch: “If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.”

That which gives us the greatest joy can become the most powerful means of letting go of grasping. This is why the intensity of sexual pleasure, along with the surrender to the being of another that it requires, is used in Vajrayana as a means to awakening. But at the same time, such experiences can bind us more tightly to delusion, as we grasp at them ever more desperately and try to repeat them, not caring who gets hurt in our search for satisfaction.

Nevertheless, our body, mind, and senses are the only means we have to practice dharma, and to develop sacred vision. Insofar as mahasukha can be experienced by beings in the six realms, it comes through the body and senses. The Hevajra Tantra asks: “Without the body, how could there be bliss? one could not speak of bliss.” Only the element of grasping needs to be abandoned. Then (and only then!), as the Guhyasamaja Tantra says, “By devoting oneself to the enjoyment of all the senses, one can quickly reach buddhahood.”


Though she’d planned to become a nuclear physicist, Francesca Fremantle fell in love with India and began studying Sanskrit. At some point, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche appeared in her life, so she accidentally became a Buddhist and has wondered ever since what that really means. While she notes that some people think of her as a translator of and writer on Buddhism, nowadays she spends most of her time trying to penetrate the mystery of music and is continually amazed to find herself in the illusory role of a dharma teacher.




From the July 2013 Shambhala Sun magazine. To see what else is in this issue, click here.

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