The Object in Western Philosophy

“Objects” in Western philosophy refer inclusively to anything that is apprehended by the mind: sensations, perceptions, feelings, thoughts, concepts, and ideas. They include beliefs, interpretations, assumptions, theories, images, fantasies, dreams, and anything else that is a product of the mind.

Implicit by definition as well as in the structure of language, the object is what is experienced and the subject is who does the experiencing. The subject of experience is thus separated from its mental object. This “subject-object dualism” creates problems for how to give a coherent account of the relation between the two. The question “Who is experiencing?” is one conundrum. (“Who?” also poses interesting issues about subjectivity, taken up in the previous chapter.) A complex set of questions about “What?” also comes into play. Is inside fundamentally different in substance from outside (external reality)? Is there such a thing as “objective reality”—reality that is independent of the perceiver or observer?

Attempts in Western philosophy to solve these philosophical dilemmas have given rise to a number of different theories/conceptualizations about these fundamental issues: materialism, idealism, etc.1 A full discussion of the philosophical implications goes well beyond the scope of the present chapter (Wallace, 2003). For our purposes here, the philosophical object is understood to be any sensation, perception, concept, or idea that is noticed in experience. Such objects of mind, “mental objects,” have no sensory properties, no mass, and no location.

The Buddhist Object

In essence, the Buddha’s core teachings about the mind are stated in the opening verse of the Dhammapada, a classic Buddhist text: all experience is mind made, preceded by mind and led by mind (Fronsdal, 2005). The premises of Buddhist psychology are spelled out in the Abhidhamma, the part of the Pali Canon that descriptively catalogues the varieties of mental experience (Olendzki, 2010).2

The basic objects of mind recognized in Buddhism are identical to those described in Western philosophy: sensations, perceptions, feelings, thoughts, concepts or ideas in the mind, and so forth. Buddhist psychology spells out how basic elements of experience—“aggregates”—combine to form the stream of subjective experience. What is most fundamental in the Buddhist approach is its focus on the importance of becoming aware of how experience is constructed. For this reason, it teaches a method for seeing the construction of experience as it happens.

The fundamental nature of the mind, as taught in Buddhism, is to know different experiences in each moment. The mind is said to know itself only through moment-to-moment experiences as they arise—i.e. through mental objects; it is nothing other than these successive objects of mind (Gunaratana, 2012). The Buddhist view is that the subject and the object of experience cannot be separated. There is no “subject” at all apart from the object of experience, nor vice versa. In other words, the Buddhist mind is not predicated on subject-object duality.3

Buddhism recognizes many different mental states as well as altered states of consciousness brought about during periods of strong concentration. Awareness deepens as the mind becomes increasingly unified and balanced. One aspect of such deepening is increasing awareness of awareness: awareness of the background state of awareness, which underlies subjective experience. Background awareness—referred to here as Awareness with capital A—may be thought of as a space that “contains” mental objects. Awareness of Awareness is one of the intended consequences of mindfulness meditation practice. It is a state of deep stillness and awareness of now.4

Although Awareness is essentially ineffable, it can be conveyed to some extent through poetry and metaphor. For example, it has been described as “the sound of silence” (Sumedho, 2007). In another metaphor, this essence of mind is likened to an infinitely reflecting mirror, perfectly clear and luminous: it is not possible to distinguish between the surface of the mirror and what is reflected in it, and we cannot say whether the image seen is “in” the mirror or “in” the world. Along the same lines, in Zen it is said that essential mind is like the moon reflected on water: the moon does not get wet, the water isn’t broken, and the reflection occurs equally in the vast expanse of a mountain lake or a drop of water. Even the whole moon, the whole sky, rests perfectly in a single dewdrop on the grass.

In this poetic language can be found inklings of deeper truth. As Hokusai says in the lines of poetry that open this book, there is no end to what can be seen. Though the deep nature of mind is essentially empty of anything, the emptiness contains infinite possibilities for the manifestation of experience. It is a space of potentiality that we cannot grasp intellectually, but whose qualities we can explore by deliberately focusing on experience as it arises from moment to moment. By learning to engage attention in certain specific ways—through meditation, contemplation, and self-reflection—we can deepen direct experience and intuitive awareness of the nature of mind.

The intention in meditative practice is to learn to relax and let go into experience, and also to develop a quality of consciousness which is clear and unified. Such a mind, it is said, is diamond-like in its capacity to reflect experience, and the more the mind can be stilled, the more clearly and deeply reality can be seen.

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