Q: That which occurs when we are confronted by all sorts of shapes and forms is called ‘perception’. Can we speak of perception taking place when nothing confronts us?
Q: When something confronts us, it follows that we perceive it, but how can
there be perception when we are confronted by nothing at all?
A: We are now talking of that perception which is independent of there being an object or not. How can that be? The nature of perception being eternal, we go on perceiving whether objects are present or not." Thereby we come to understand that, whereas objects naturally appear and disappear, the nature of perception does neither of those things; and it is the same with all your other senses.
These are a pair of questions asked in Hui Hai’s text called The Zen Teaching of Instantaneous Awakening. The entire text is beautiful in what it presents to the mind and soul.
I was repeatedly called to this paragraph when in my own personal experience I noted something. I was reading a prayer out of printed text. This particular prayer I am familiar with though I don’t know it well enough to recite it by heart. Nevertheless, when I recite it my mind wanders all over the world in places I have perhaps never been an never shall be. But my eyes continue to flow over the text and recite them without my having to be conscious of what I am reading. And once I complete the prayer I re-run the entire episode through my mind to realise that I don’t recall having read a single word though I did recite it all. To play voyeur to the mind is perhaps my most favourite means of passing time.
So here my eyes see though my mind doesn’t seem to see and my tongue recites as if there is a direct connection between eye and tongue. With the mind having seen nothing, it might be inferred that there was nothing to be seen. Nonetheless, the eye did see and the tongue did recite. In other words it was as if nothing confronted me but I still perceived. This is certainly not what Hui Hai is implying but these incidents made me re-think our notion of “mind”, “perception”, “brain”, “sensory organs” etc.