SUBJECT / OBJECT
Clearly we must be what is perceiving. The body – ours and that of others – is what is being perceived. It is the object of subject. Subject is doing the perceiving; but subject is not itself an object and so is no ‘thing’. Everything is either one or the other – SUBJECT or OBJECT – it can’t be both at the same time. Why? Because if Subject is an object, it could not be the subject of that or any other object. In other words, the perceived (the object) cannot perceive – as Huang Po, quoted above, said millennia ago. There cannot be a perceiver without it ceasing to be subject and becoming an object. So there must be a perceiving which, if you like, is a functioning of Subject – no thing, no object, no entity. Just a happening! We must be what is perceiving – a functioning – and not the perceiver nor what is perceived. Further, what is perceiving must be in a dimension beyond what is being perceived. We perceive the flow of the river from the bank – outside the river. If we are flowing with the river we cannot perceive it, we are part of it. The process of perceiving can only occur ‘outside’ or transcend the perceived world as we know it.
So if Subject is perceiving and we are Subject, what is Subject? The simple answer is – no thing. If it were something it would be object and not subject. At the same time, it is not nothing. It must be the source of everything. Call it Potential if you like, or Mind. More recently, Consciousness has become a popular term to use. All these terms point to a thing, an object that we know it isn’t. The only word that comes near to what we are trying to grasp is ‘I’, which is Pure Subjectivity (Ramana Maharshi called it I-I). And ‘I’ is what we are. All of us can say ‘I’ – all forms of life whether or not they are capable of speech and self-awareness. When we look for it we see nothing. Why? Because it is what is looking and that we can never see. The Sages, some of whose sayings have been quoted above, called it variously – Absence, Void, or Emptiness because there seems to be nothing there when you look for it.
Subject or ‘I’ is the sense of all the concepts that seek to suggest the Ultimate or Absolute like God, Tao, Reality, Self, One Mind, Perfect Unity, Pure Consciousness, Brahman, Buddha-nature and so on. Our conditioning forces us to think of all these concepts as things – which they can never be. Muslims still try to refer to Allah as inconceivable, that is, not an object, but Christians gave that up a long time ago when they made and worshipped representations and icons of their concept of God, thereby reinforcing the idea that there must be some thing out there even if it can’t be seen. At the same time we need to appreciate that this Subjectivity must be impersonal. Pure Subjectivity can have no attributes if it is not to become an object.
If Subject is not an object, then what is an object? A common definition is: “a tangible or visible thing”. This implies that it depends on a sentient being seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, tasting, that is, sensing it – it is some ’thing’ reported by the senses, i.e. a phenomenon, which, according to the Oxford Dictionary, is “an object of a person’s perception”. The philosopher states and the scientist – or at least the physicist – will admit, if pressed, that anything objective can have no ‘entity’ as it depends for its existence on the perceiver and/or the cogniser. Its existence, when not perceived or cognised as a thought or image in mind, is an assumption for which no evidence can be found because our senses are our only means of perceiving the world. Subject does not exist, as we have seen, and Object exists as appearance in mind only. If this proves difficult to get your head around, ponder the exercise that philosophy students are subjected to: when a tree falls down in the forest: does it make a sound? The answer is no, unless there is a living being nearby with the faculty of hearing to turn the energy waves generated into sounds in mind. The cosmos is silent! In the same way, what we believe we see, touch, smell and taste out there (all the senses we use to perceive) is an image in mind, from which, with the help of concepts of space and time, we create our world. As the physicists tell us, all there is out there are force fields of energy and even they are the outcomes of the process of manifestation of the source.
It is, therefore, basic in any exploration of the question ‘What are we?’ to understand that there cannot be any such thing as an object other than an appearance in mind and that is the extent of its factual existence. Nor, likewise, can there be such a thing as a subject, since such a thing would then itself be an object requiring a subject to appear – and so on in perpetual regression. It follows that the appearance of all that is objective (every thing or everything we perceive) is necessarily an objectivisation of whatever is perceiving it, which will be found to be the perceiving itself and, additionally, in the case of the human being, the cognising – the interpretation of whatever is being perceived. This process of perceiving/cognising we call ‘I’ to try to avoid turning it into an object.
And that is all there is to it. The answers to our questions are contained therein. What is left to us is to explore the implications of this (which, after all, is what the Sages were trying to tell us), looking at some pointers to the Truth that we are seeking. But it will be in the knowledge that we can only see concepts, which can never be the Truth. We are the Truth that can never be seen. What we are seeking is what is seeking.
We will be using the words ‘I’ and‘ we’ to mean both what we are and what we think we are, which might be rather confusing. Because all words objectivise, we don’t have a word for what we really are as Subject except ‘I’, so I can only appeal to your ability to use the context to understand to which one I am referring.