“I Am Unable To See Things As They Really Are” __ begun with a curiosity and critical view on the first satellite launches, the moon landing, and the ongoing migration project to other planets, most likely the moon. The project concluded as a visual media installation with a real-time performance.
There are two reasons that I am interested in exploring the moon. Firstly, because the invention of the telescope led to the desire to see far and more which then led to the realization of the current moon conquest. The fact that the desire to “see” is directly related to the desire to “take” seems to be a key aspect in this context. The second reason is that it currently seems inevitable that we will migrate to the moon or to other planets in few hundreds years. These two points raises the question: “Are we humans or earthlings?”-Paul Virilio writes in his book, L’Art à perte de vue, 2005, "This is a contemporary question about the finiteness and the end of the planet Earth, which witnessed of being born from its soil, and a question of national politics as well as a question of art.1”- In other words, we may ask if this time of change is of our primordial identity. And I tried to approach this question from a Buddhist perspective and ultimately to visualize it into an art project.
In the Buddhist scriptures, it is said that human life is an ocean of suffering, and the cause of suffering derives from “ignorance.” In Buddhism, ignorance is the root of dichotomy or duality between subject and object, between self and other. It is because of not seeing things as they really are. It is, in other words, failing to understand the truth about life, that is impermanence and interdependent origination.
Interdependent origination is a view of understanding the world in Buddhism. This is a theory that explains the creation and change of the world. According to this theory, the world does not exist as formed reality but only as a process, and everything in the world are interdependent on and relates to each other and nothing in themselves. In other words, things and phenomena are a series of causal relationships, but there is no permanent essence in the continual creations and changes. (The Highest Happiness, p.68)2. It contradicts visually centred modern epistemologies found in the West and has a different perspective from Cartesian dualism with its notion that “self”, which is soul or spirit, can be defined in the absence of the body. What I would like to point out here is that these two Western philosophical perspectives presuppose the existence of a permanent being or self.
Because the concept of “self” arises in the idea of permanent and independent self, it detaches body from mind and estranges the other from the self. And it constituted a world of dichotomy, that is, a relative world, in which subject and object are separate. In the relative world, the subject tries to “judge” the object. “Judgement” in Korean is “판가름”means “divide the size.” To be subjective needs cutting itself out of the whole in order to establish self-consciousness and further to cut the object. The concepts that we commonly know, such as beautiful, ugly, happy, unhappy, valuable, cheap, etc., are subjective judgments that have merely relative connotations based on the dichotomous viewpoint.
In the aesthetics and art that particularly deal with “beauty”, one of the relative concepts, the subject and the object are distinguished more clearly, as we see on the Albrecht Dürer's woodcut which is the best known illustration of the Renaissance theory of linear perspective.
Figure 1. A draftsman drawing a nude from Albrecht Dürer, Remediation:Understanding of New Media, MIT Press, 2000. (original source: Unterweysung der Messung, Nutemberg, 1538.)
The image shows this Western traditional way of seeing is based entirely on dichotomy in which subject and object are separate. And the subject as a viewer is male, and female as an object is seen by and through his “clinical” gaze. It states that linear perspective is created by male gaze that maintains women as objects to be analyzed and controlled excluding them form full participation as subjects. (Bolter & Grusin)3. And Alberti's technical perspective, joined with Descartes' philosophical dualism, constituted “Cartesian Perspectivalism,'' which stayed for a long time as a way of seeing that characterized Western culture at least until the coming of modernism in the twentieth century, (Martin Jay, 1988)4 when Freud and Jung revealed human unconsciousness or subconsciousness which intensified and widen the view of the world. Since then, although Cartesian dualism is rejected by many theorist,. we still do not seem to break out of this deeply rooted dichotomy.
By comparison with Cartesian dualism, the Buddhist teaching of independent origination denies the concept of “I” which is perceived as self. Because having the idea of such “self” detaches from and apposes to the people and things around us, it causes suffering in mind. In Buddhism, the world is neither being nor non-being, that is, ‘not-self,’ therefore, it is an “absolute world” in which there is no subject-object separation. “Absolute” in Korean, “절대적”means “being split up with an object” or “being cut off from an object.” Hence, in the absolute world, there is no object neither subject, and all judgments and concepts, including the idea of self, but become equal as undivided at all.
There is, however, an interesting intersection of Cartesian dualism and Buddhism, that is, both place great emphasis on “mind” which directs to contrary conclusion.
I will now shut my eyes, stop my ears, and withdraw all my senses. I will eliminate from my thoughts all images of bodily things, or rather, since this is hardly possible, I will regard all such images as vacuous, false and worthless. I will converse with myself and scrutinise myself more deeply; and in this way I will attempt to achieve, little by little, a more intimate knowledge of myself. [“Third Meditation,” ]5
In the text, Descartes denies his senses in order to reach to entirely secure foundations for knowledge. He concluded that everything was open to doubt except his existence as a necessary condition of this: ‘Cogito, ergo sum’-“I think, therefore, I am.” Descartes assured the mind is the source of thought and developed a dualistic theory regarding mind and matter as separate. In the sense, mind in Cartesian dualism is where man eventually returns to own “self.”
The Buddhist theory of “Not-Self” ends the existence of all reality. Therefore, the ground on which all metaphysics can exist is destroyed. Buddhism is thoroughly anti-metaphysics. Buddhism is phenomenology. The core teaching of Buddhism is nothing but interdependent origination. In Buddhism, causality theory is realism, realism is Substantialism, and Substantialism is phenomenology. Mind and matter and beings and things are mere causal relation and phenomena. This was the key reason that Western philosophy could not understand Buddhism for more than two thousand years. Buddhism began to be understood only from the late 19th century, when Hegelian concept of metaphysics collapsed. It was a long Buddhist hibernation. [Meeting The Dalai Lama and Do-ol, Vol. 1]6
It may sound similar that the mind in Buddhism is considered as the essence of beings and the source of all creations and changes. But what differs from Descartes’ understanding of mind is that mind in Buddhism is not a self or a soul, nor a static entity. It is empty, ever-changing, infinitely manifold and dynamic. Therefore, there is no mind and matter as separate in Buddhism. Korean philosopher Do-ol suggests that the understanding of the Buddhist mind will bring the transcendent non-duality world in which there is neither subject, object, suffering, joy, nor sense of self but the equality of all living beings in peaceful state.
I am aware that Buddhism is often misunderstood as a philosophy that sheds or avoids all painful matters and pursues mere happiness. It is, likewise, the dichotomous view which separates the concept of happiness and unhappiness. In Buddhism, however, the word “suffering” or “pain” originates in Indian word “Dukkha” which refers to the all-embracing emotion including pleasure. Hence, the opposite of “Dukkha” is “Santi” which means peace of mind; serenity, and this is the reason that Buddhism should not be understood as a utopian view of the world which seeks for absolute happiness. Through the Buddhist perspective, therefore, we are able to see things as they really are, rather than simply seeing them as they appear to be. It is not an intellectual or academic exercise, nor indirect knowledge but gain through personal experience and practice.
Buddhist Perspective in Media World
With the widespread commercialization of digital gadgets and media that can be easily used with a little technical information, we are now living in the era of smartphones. This hand-sized device is not a single media but multi media which is open and transparent to all participants. With combination of virtual reality(VR) and augmented reality(AR) technology, participation is free with no restriction of time and space, and information seemingly flows with no disturbance through the Internet. In this media environment, we see ourselves today in and through our available media.7 When we look at a photograph or a perspective painting at a gallery, when we watch a film or a television program, and when we put on the virtual reality helmet, we become the point of view of the media that we engage. This is not to say that our identity is fully determined by media, but rather that we employ media as vehicles for defining both personal and cultural identity. (Bolter & Grusin, ) Therefore, we are able to multiply our selves by altering name, character, even gender in cyberspace. Although I agree with Bolter and Grusin’s theory on remediated self, it is also critical point of today’s over-dominant media circumstances.
While we are physically attempting to escape earth, in favour of a replacement planet, it can seem as though we are attempting to escape our immediate physical surroundings as well as our personal identity to be replaced by flawless self in virtual world. And it seems that we may return to the fundamental question; “who am I?,” with which both Buddhism and Cartesian dualism began, but found disparate answers. Now as we faces with this question, in order to find the answer we may ask whether we are looking outwards or inwards. For this, we need to go beyond identity and self as the Buddhist perspective suggests.
My further research will continue to investigate the transformative properties of media and how it can both diffuse and clarify a more comprehensive understanding of ourselves and our environment. And one more key question remains to be touched on;
“In what ways can I utilize media in order to further understand the Buddhist perspective and therefore, also see things they really are?”
1. Paul Virilio, L’Art à perte de vue, translated by Lee, Jung-ha, (Geonggy-do, Youlhwadang, 2008), 71
2. Beop-jeong, Sutta Nipata, (Seoul, Ire, 1999), 68.
3. Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin, Remediation:Understanding of New Media, (Cambridge, The MIT Press, 2000), 79
5. Rene Descartes, Meditation on First Philosophy with Selections from Objection and Replies, Trans. J . Cottingham. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 1986
6. Do-ol Kim, Yong-ok, Meeting The Dalai Lama and Do-ol, Vol. 1, (Seoul, Tongnamu, 2002), 219
7. Bolter, Grusin, Remediation:Understanding of New Media, (Cambridge, The MIT Press, 2000)