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Consciousness... one or many? (and the answer is maybe yes, and neither)

I have had the pleasure of spending some time with Deep Surface lately, including at the Center for Sacred Sciences this morning, and he asked Joel a really good question.. one that I am sure comes up for most of us sooner or later, and probably over and over in slightly new ways.

(Paraphrased:) There is an apparently separate consciousness here, and there also seems to be apparently separate consciousnesses out there, in other people and animals. What is the relationship between all of these? Is it one, many? If it is one, why does it appear as many?

Joel asked us how many consciousnesses we each have direct experience with, and the answer for all of us was one. He then also helped clarify the difference between awareness itself and its content, the seeing and the seen... the content is many and always changing... different sights, sensations, thoughts, subpersonalities and so on. But the seeing is always one, always the same.

This helped clarify it for me as well, and here is one way to talk about it:

A field of awake emptiness

The Ground of all form is awake emptiness, appearing as a field of awake emptiness throughout space.

Over here, the content of this awake emptiness is from this individual. Over there, from that individual. Over there again, from another individual.

Emptiness is always the same. Simply emptiness. Yet its content is always different. It is different here, over time. And it is different at different points in space, with content arising from different individuals (including all sentient beings.)

So the awake emptiness is one, yet its content is many. And this is also why it can be awake to itself over there, in that individual, and not here, in this individual, and so on. In one individual, it takes itself to be that content, that individual. In another, it has awakened to itself as awake emptiness, recognizing the whole field as nothing other than the same awake emptiness.

One, and many (and neither)

So is it one or many? As usual for me, the answer seems to be "yes."

It is one, in that in our own experience, there is only one. And it is one in that it is the same awake emptiness everywhere (emptiness is emptiness.)

Yet, its contents is of course many, and it appears separate until it awakens to itself as awake emptiness, recognizing the whole field as nothing other than this awake emptiness.

And also, it is such an unusual situation, at least for our minds to grasp, so we cannot really say it is one or many. It is somewhere in between, something a little different, not quite either.

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  • Blogger Tom says so:
    3/19/2007 09:49:00 AM  

    I wonder if the idea of 'emptiness' is necessary and misleading.

    In Ch'an, there is the idea of reflections of the moon on water. We are each a reflection of the moon. The whole, individualized.

    Using light [or the moon] as the analogy, we are something 'substantial.' [Well, at least in this analogy we are visible.] We seem to be at least as real in the world as a rock.

    In my piece for Zen Unbound, "The Light in Enlightenment" I show Zen uses of light, equivalent to how others use emptiness. top

  • Blogger . . . says so:
    3/20/2007 09:05:00 PM  

    Hi Tom,

    Well, the idea of emptiness, as any other idea, is misleading.

    But at the same time, it seems that the word emptiness (or void) is one of the closest ways we can get to describing what is alive in immediate awareness. For me, there is the sense that everything is insubstantial, transparent somehow, is nothing other than awakeness itself, and that it has not base anywhere, no thing that it stands on. It is all suspended, within and as the void.

    When it comes out like this, it is of course words, thoughts, and even ideas. At the same time, it is an attempt (not a very good one) to describe what is very much alive in immediate awareness, here now (not as a philosophical description or argument in any way.)

    Also, at least for me, light or luminosity is one step away from this emptiness. Void is void.

    Another way to describe how it appears is as a hologram, as form without substance, appearance without real reality. top