The 'Utmost Master': Reality and perception

   "One day many people gathered in the Zen room. Lin-chi was sitting on a high platform and said. 'Inside a wall of pink flesh lives the Utmost Master. All day long this Master goes in and out through the six doors. Do you understand?'

   One monk stood up and asked, 'What is this Utmost Master?'

   Lin-chi got up, ran down the steps, grabbed the monk and shouted, 'Tell me! Tell me!'

   The monk hesitated. Lin-chi flung him away and said, 'This Utmost Master is a lump of shit.'"

- from 'Dropping Ashes on the Buddha: The Teachings of Zen Master Seung Sahn' ed.Stephen Mitchell (1976)

As we have seen in the Vedic Scriptures, it is difficult to perceive reality directly. When we experience the world we do so initially through our senses. We are familiar with our five senses: sight, sound, smell, touch and taste. Indeed, these are the 'six doors' in the story mentioned above (the sixth door, or sense, is often interpreted as the mind in Buddhism).

Most of the time we are aware of these senses, unless we are distracted, so for this reason in the above model I refer to them as the 'overt' domain of perception. However increasingly our contemporary understanding of the body leads us to the conclusion that there are in fact many more senses. I refer to these as our 'subtle' senses.

The Subtle Domain 

Without looking at it, bring your awareness to your left hand, really tune into it; feel your little finger, the next finger along, the middle finger, forefinger, and thumb. Now feel the hand as a whole and gently move the fingers. Sense which position they are in. This is proprioception, the sense of joint position, and it is a subtle sense which we employ all the time without realizing. 

Another such sense is enteroception, the sense of our gut. The whole of our gut is constantly sensing the outside world: detecting toxins, nutrients, complex and simple molecules, and responding accordingly (it practically has its own nervous system). Related to this is the immune system (around two-thirds of which is in the gut) which is constantly detecting the outside world via the 'barriers' of skin, gut and mucous membranes. In what way is the immune system not a sense? Also we have nociception, the sense of harmful or noxious stimuli, or injury, and the neuroendocrine system, the communications network of the body.

The implications of this are profound: namely that there is no part of our body that is not in constant communication with the 'outside' world. To the extent that we are constantly sensing and responding to the world where exactly do we draw the line between 'outside' and 'inside'? Even our genes - the instruction manual built into almost every cell - are constantly 'sensing' the environment and adapting to it.

No Separation

The Ways of Liberation often talk about there being 'no separation' between us and the world, that this separation is just another delusion. Zen tells us that there is no 'outside' and no 'inside'. Our understanding of the body supports this. So where does this idea of separation come from. Why do I feel myself so much to be an isolated individual, separated from the world by my skin, separated even from my own physical being, a mind being carried around by a body?


As soon as I perceive the world, I begin to interpret it. The mental processes kick in straight away. My brain recognizes what I am perceiving, assesses it, evaluates it, plans, responds, looks for more, compares and so on. An ongoing, overlapping, continual process. Some of this is in the overt domain of my awareness; "I know what this is... I can do that... What shall I do?" But very often this interpretation happens so quickly, so subtly, that I am not really aware of it. Moreover, my mind is also continually 'making' the world; daydreaming, planning, ruminating, recalling, fantasizing; thought-forms, vikalpa.

Most of this mental activity is what the ancient Tibetans called 'unskillful' thought; uncontrolled mental processes, leading our minds and attention this way and that, triggering unhelpful emotions, distracting us, and above all deluding us. For above all, the more we are thinking about things, the less we are in touch with the reality of them. It is little wonder that the Zen master in the above story did not have much time for this mind, this 'Utmost Master'!

The Subtle Mind/Body

In the above model I mention the 'survival instinct'. This is a concept coined by Marc Schoen and refers to the deep brain processes that have been crucial to our survival as a species, but which now generate a considerable amount of distress and 'agitance' due to a mismatch between this older brain and our new brain, attempting to interpret an ever faster, increasingly information-heavy world. This fascinating concept will be explored later in another section. 

The central governor is a related concept, again to be explored in more detail elsewhere, which proposes the existence in our brains of a preconscious 'central governor' which basically tells us how much energy we have to spare, how tired we feel, what we can do, what we can't...all of which goes beneath the radar of our awareness. The point of this is that much of our 'reading' of the world is pre-conscious. Preconscious, but not outside of conscious control, for I can still be aware of these processes and with practice even learn to harness them. 

In summary, we have an incredible array of senses with which to perceive the world, but when we begin interpreting the world we can make problems. A lot of our energy can be wasted with unhelpful thought processes and on a deeper level our thinking can trigger changes in our bodies - such as the release of stress hormones - which can harm us over time. 

Original Mind

To break from this reactive, semi-conscious, 'unskilful' state of being I find the Zen idea of 'Original Mind' especially helpful. The Zen Master Seung Sahn whose story begins this article, famously used to begin his lectures by holding aloft his 'zen staff' - a heavy wooden stick - and calling out "Do you see this stick?". He would then slam it down on the table, hard, and call "Do you hear the stick?". Of course most of the audience would already be interpreting 'what a funny stick... does he walk on that... wow, that was loud... has he damaged the table... " and so forth. The point being that 'Original Mind' is hard to sustain. We perceive something, the stick, a tree, a person, a touch, a sound, a smell - but soon this is swamped by our 'thinking about it'. By practicing original mind, we cultivate an open awareness and we give ourselves a little space to just appreciate reality for a bit longer.


  • Whatever it is you are doing, just pause for a moment

  • What comes into your sensory awareness? A particular sound, sight, sensation?

  • Very gently hold your attention on to that perception, notice how it changes

  • If you begin interpreting it, just notice that, and gently bring your awareness back to the sense

  • Practice this for as long or as many times as you wish

  • And remember: gentleness is the key here!

Try it out!






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About The Writer

HC James is from London and worked as a teacher before switching careers to medicine. He currently works as a doctor in a south London Emergency Department and in his spare time visits family in California.   


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