What we can perceive – and therefore know – is limited to objects of consciousness. In the Buddhist teachings, every phenomenon that we can experience is either physical/material or mental. Every object of consciousness is one or the other or these two categories. Physical or material phenomena are rupa; mental phenomena are nama. Everything that we perceive is either rupa or nama. What we ordinarily experience as reality is the interplay of rupa and nama, coming and going, arising and then fading away. They are nonpermanent, effervescent, like the bubbles on the surface of a glass of soda. There is no persisting entity residing at the center of this play of phenomena, no abiding self. There is just consciousness of rupa and nama. On the basis of these two our egoic mind may contrive various illusions and imagined entities as convenient organizing principles – things such as “self,” “other,” “tree,” “rock,” and so forth. But reality is actually simply the continual arising and passing away of material and mental phenomena.
For example, what we experience as a body is a collection of rupas that are constantly arising and falling away very rapidly. The cells that make up this body are constantly changing, being born and dying, and being replaced by new ones in a process of endless replication. And at the subatomic level we know that this apparently solid body is actually mostly empty space, a temporary and fortuitous phase or field of essentially unpredictable energy and motion. The body is an effervescent foaming up and dissolving of rupas. Nothing in it abides. Nothing in it is lasting. It is constantly being born and dying. The idea of the body as an abiding thing is an illusion. It only exists in the appearance of its temporary effervescence in this present moment. Mind creates and maintains this illusion of abiding through persistent projection, through a continual rapid-firing of namas, through the constant churning out of thoughts, ideas, concepts, and assumptions. The “body” continues as long as there are conditions to permit it to arise. But those conditions can be taken away at any time. When those conditions are gone, then the “body” “dies.” The conditions for the appearance of the “body” as “alive” are no longer present, and the conditions for the appearance of the “body” as “dead” arise instead. Eventually the conditions supporting even the appearance of anything resembling a “body” fall away and there is only the material descendants of the “body” to be absorbed into the larger body of the earth, wind, water, and energy that makes up life.
The “body” as a thing – or “trees” or “rocks” as things – is a concept that we can think of. None of these things are real in the ultimate sense. What is real is the interplay of rupa and nama in some instance of consciousness. Understanding this distinction reveals the role of avidya, original ignorance, in our ordinary experience of perception. Perception is not ignorance, but perception of things is ignorance.
The impetus for perception of things is fear and aversion: fear of chaos or confusion, and aversion to that fear. Reality as it is is useless to us. It is just space and energy. It is formless. But ego only cares about what is useful. So reality as it is will simply not do. It is unacceptable. Ego must therefore create an alternate reality – a more useful reality, a reality of things. Things are useful. Things can be tools, they can be allies, they can be threats. They can be categorized and sorted. So ego begins by picking out a purported “outline” that defines the form and shape of things. Ego delineates between objects and their “background.” It develops the useful illusion of depth, and of perspective. Then ego starts trying to create a useful integration of the six separate senses. It matches up sounds and smells and tastes with the forms it has created. It starts to associate ideas and concepts with these forms. It develops an idea of permanence of these forms, or at least their continuity, so that they can continue to be useful. Things not only come into focus as we desire to use them; they come into being. The desire to use, to possess, to own, to control is what creates “things.”
Eventually, we only perceive what is useful. Reality becomes completely full of things and concepts. All the space is gone.
Still, this “reality” of things and concepts that ego has constructed is not perfectly constructed. It is flawed. When we look closely we can see its seams. We can see gaps. Reality as it is cannot be completely contained. It defies all attempts to confine it and reduce it. The experience of reality peeking through the gaps in ego’s reality of things and concepts is wonder. Wonder precisely means not knowing what to make of what’s going on. Wonder is when reality exceeds and defies our concepts, our expectations, our thing-based habits of perception. Wonder is the unraveling of ignorance. We don’t know what to make of it. We don’t know what thing this is. We don’t know what label to use. We don’t know what concept to apply. We don’t know what to say, we don’t know what to think. We are stopped in our tracks. The steamroller of ego comes to a halt for a moment. Often in these moments we look to metaphors and analogies as a way to try to bridge the gap between our concepts and the reality that confronts us. When we are experiencing wonder, suddenly a tree in autumn is no longer a “tree” but tongues of flame. The soaring forest canopy becomes like a living cathedral. Or the reality of what confronts us may be so overwhelming and magnificent – as with the ocean – that we simply sit silent, completely lost and absorbed into the transcendence of this nameless reality. In these moments of wonder, there are no things. There is no sense of making use of anything.