To my surprise my previous post gave rise to a comment claiming to be Advaitin, yet expressing an opinion that I could hardly see as such. So let’s start with that.
For the purpose of this post it should be enough to say that according to Advaita Vedanta philosophy (the most prominent school of Hindu philosophy) the self we experience is an illusion. What’s real is that Atma, which is the constant witness to all states of consciousness, inhabits a body. The classic statement ‘Tat tvam asi’ is interpreted in this context to mean that ultimately each of us is ‘That’ (tat), one with the Absolute. (*)
To theosophists the phrase ‘unity of observer and observed’ is reminiscent of Jiddu Krishnamurti who once had an experience in which he felt himself one with the farmer in the field, the field itself, the grass, the sun, the sky etc. This mystical experience is what many people are looking for when meditating.
In Buddhism – all forms of Buddhism, as I understand it – there is one way in which there is a union of the observer and the observed: it’s simply that our experienced reality is only there in our consciousness. As I explained last time: Chittamatrins go one step further and say that what’s observed is ONLY there as a product of our consciousness. It’s my karmic seeds that produce the keyboard I’m typing this on, the laptop that records the key-strokes and the table the whole arrangement is sitting on.
But let’s go back to the more simple and realistic basic statement: in what way is the table a product of my consciousness? Well, yes, I experience the table in my consciousness and can never be completely sure that when you come to my house you’ll see the same table. The table is also the product of my karma in the simple sense that it’s dependent on causes and conditions that brought it there. My uncle bought it for my grandmother when she first went into a nursing home. She didn’t need it when she moved out of there and I thought I could use it, so I got it. I choose to use it in it’s present condition after I had a short but severe bout of sciatica last year. The result is a more ergonomic working arrangement.
In other words: the table and all the stuff in my apartment depend on my buying them, getting them, arranging them, not throwing them out. In that very simple but important sense they’re not as independent on me as they seem at first sight. (#)
I used the phrase ‘experienced reality’ above. Think about it for a moment: can you see the stuff about you in any way that escapes your experienced reality? There is probably a table in this room that you’ll see if you visit. In that sense the table is real and independent on my consciousness. However, the table as you see it, is the table as it appears to your consciousness. It may be based on the same table that I see, but precisely what we see is unique to each of us. You may see the dust I overlook, for instance. Or you may be colorblind and see the table in a different hue than I do.
From the perspective of Buddhist philosophy the experience is more important than what we’d call the ‘objective’ reality. After all, what we’re talking about in Buddhism, Hindu philosophy and with Jiddu Krishnamurti as well is how to grow so that we can be happier with ourselves and with others. There’s a ton of good quotes about the observer and the observed in Jiddu Krishnamurti’s teachings in this article, but I’ll quote only the following as having some relationship with our themes for today.
Can I look at a tree without the image of the tree? Which means, can I look without the observer, without the censor? Then what takes place? You are not the tree. That’s a trick of the mind so say, I identify myself with the tree, with you, with god, with this, with that. When there is no movement of identification on the part of the observer, then what takes place? Who creates the space between the tree and you? There is actual space, you understand, there is a distance, it may be a foot, it may be ten feet – the physical distance. We are not talking about the physical distance, but the psychological distance between you and the tree, who has brought this about?
Brockwood Park, 2nd Public Dialogue, September 10, 1970
Since the tree we observe is in our consciousness it’s a good question: what has caused us to feel separate from the tree (as we experience it)?
Sources and notes