The Root of Existence – Applying the Buddha’s Teaching

Preliminary thoughts
Process of cognition – bare perception
Distortion of perception
Some examples: cops, courts, and personal experience.
Conclusion and bibliography

1 The Root of All Things

This sutra has helped me in coping with mood swings. It may not work for everybody and the example of how I’m applying it may not either, but I put it out there, just in case. With Buddhism, nothing comes easy: there’s a lot of reading and thinking required. It ain’t like just putting your life in God’s hands waiting for him to do your work for you. This is my interpretation, not everything here is in the stura.

Meaning of “All’ in the title:
1. All of personality, all mental states and phenomena that forms it. The root of all things for each person is in our way of cognition: things are the way we perceive them, not the way they really are. Well, read on to see if that interpretation suits you.
2. Personality will be defined later in the sutra.
3. The so-called supra-mundane world or existence (Nirvana) is
excluded from the ‘all’.

Preliminary thoughts (I use them at the end):

  1. Thinking is a relation between the self and the object of perception.
  2. Perception is NOT the same as ‘understanding’.
  3. Experience is always relational: things are not isolated unity; they participate  in a network of relations.
  4. Double characteristic of sense perception
    1. We depend on it for thinking, and yet…
    2. Immediate, spontaneous sense perception is unreliable. For example:
      1. seeing a snake ‘from the corner of the eye’, on further attention it turns out to be a rope;
      2. You see stars twinkling, but they don’t: with information you realize the twinkling you are seeing is an atmospheric impact on your eyes.
      3. This one is mind-boggling: Some of the stars you are ‘seeing’ are already dead: you are watching a transmission-delay, late packet arrival, so to speak.


A: Bare perception: “He perceives earth as earth” is a distortion of thinking.

It seems nonsense to say that perceiving earth as earth is a distortion, but the explanation will make clear that it is precisely our inability to see the distortions introduced in our thinking which causes us so much unnecessary pain, suffering and distress throughout life (unnecessary = our silly acts, verbal or physical, that come to bite us and/or  others in the derriere). The process starts with bare perception.

  1. Bare perception of external object or datum through sense organ (eye, e.g.)
    1. Mere registering of form of the object or datum in a faint and indistinct manner, stripped of any thinking, etc. Just contact between the sense organ (eye from here on) and the object of perception.
    2. It is a ‘first’ impression
      1. Strength of impression
        1. If weak = lacking in interest, the mind will let go of it. E.g. the many objects surrounding us as we walk but are barely perceived, not noticed, not ‘worthy’ of our attention because there are myriad of them.
        2. If strong = it merits sustained attention
          1. the object will become focus of succession of perceptual acts
          2. The object’s prominent features and qualities will become sharper due to strong impact on the sense organ… But the NATURE of the object or datum will NOT necessarily be clear or precise at this point.

  1. Distortion of perception: subjective elements added in the process of bare perception.
    1. the act of perception at the beginning of the process is a superficial, a merely registering the object.
    2. then the object (datum of perception) is given qualities and significance which it doesn’t have in itself but come from subjective imagination, by ‘thinking’.
    3. Distortion of perception means to apprehend in ways contrary to reality. For example, distortion through language = ‘he perceives earth as earth’ also means that the person automatically tags the word ‘earth’ – an abstract concept, an idea – to the form he is perceiving through the visual sense organ. With words come emotions: positive, negative, neutral.
    4. The above process happens so fast that the person takes the unqualified perception together with its added subjective tones and language shortcuts to be the real thing without further inspection. It is at this point that the Buddha says about the person perceiving:
  2. “He perceives earth as earth” = the perception is of a corrupted type, not a true grasp of the nature of the object.

The explanation focuses on the fact that bare perception is normal, even the adding of subjective elements is part of our nature, of our way of cognition. But the person’s first perception is through IGNORANCE of how it works and inattention to his/her reaction to it; and that reaction will bring a concomitant behavior (physical, verbal or mental) appropriate to that wrong perception, with possible negative consequences for self and/or others.

Some examples: cops, courts, and personal experience.

  1. a cop: he sees an object in the hands of a ‘ suspect’ he has just laid eyes on and immediately jumps to a conclusion that it is a gun; is it really or is it a ‘snake’? But here, there may be horrible consequences to the wrong perception: the cop may kill the person that has the ‘ snake’ in the hand and he himself may end up losing his job or suffering the hate of fellow humans. All because of a wrong  perception and knee-jerk reaction to it.
  2. in court: the witness alleges that on his way home he saw the criminal running. When pressed about how the criminal was dressed he said ‘white shirt and dark pants’. Well, says the defense lawyer, were they jeans? ‘I didn’t notice, I wasn’t paying attention’ says he. He was NOT paying ATTENTION; it was bare perception and now he’s trying to fill in the features to make a determination as to what he actually saw: jeans, stretchy pants…? But there may be consequences to his inability to fill in the details: a person may be jailed or set free inappropriately.
  3. in mental health, this is a personal example: I’m leaving my building on my way to the supermarket with thoughts about what I need to buy. There are many objects surrounding me in the street but I ignore them, none of them is strong enough to get my attention. From the corner of my right eye something is strong enough to call my attention, something red, it is  on the line of cars parked by the block which normally I would not notice, one red car: bare attention kicks in. On contact of eye+ car I see it is a Jeep; first thought is ‘how beautiful, my favorite type of car’. I have already given the object qualities it doesn’t have (beautiful, interestingly, is in the eye of the beholder, isn’t it?) it is just an object. I put feelings into the thought: ‘my’ ‘ favorite’ (like and dislikes). From there ‘I wish I had one, maybe I should buy one, but no, I have no money…because I didn’t save…blah, blah, blah…’ and ended up thinking ‘what a loser I am’ and, of course, I immediately got depressed. It took only  a NANO SECOND from the contact of eye and form to bring myself down. But because I had been reading about Buddhist theory of cognition, I was able to catch myself in an act of mindlessness and was able to overcome the depression as I realized where it came from: self-inflicted.

Basically, I applied the preliminary thoughts from the beginning of this post, especially 1 and 3, and followed the process of bare perception…and it WORKED for me, at least at that moment. As long as I can do this at least once a day, that’s progress. It’s a life-long learning process, but the more one practice it, the less problems one will bring to one’s own life or to others. It will help to understand oneself, to be able to apologize when it is morally necessary (to alleviate the discomfort we may have mindlessly caused to a person, not out of evilness, of course).

Next: part two of The Root of All Things
1. The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha – Wisdom Publications 1995
2. The Discourse on The Root of Existence – by Bhikkhu Bodhi
3. The Heart of Buddhist Meditation [bare perception indepth] – Thera

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