In the movie, The Truman Show, a TV company orchestrates an elaborate hoax, shaping the entire life of one man, Truman, for the entertainment of an unseen audience. A TV interviewer within the movie asks the creator of the show, Christof, why he thinks that Truman has never come close to discovering the true nature of his world. Christof replies, “We accept the reality of the world with which we’re presented with. It’s as simple as that.”
At the end of the film, Truman, who believes he’s in a real boat, sailing on a real ocean, runs into the edge of the blue sky – merely another part of an elaborate set. The reality as he has known it for 30 some odd years has been literally been pierced and shattered.
What exactly is it that validates our existence as we know it? What makes us so sure that everything that we experience through our sense organs both appear and exist in the way we take them to be and believe them to be right up until the time of our deaths?
The French philosopher Descartes supported the theory of internalism which claimed that “all knowledge yielding conditions are within the psychological state of those who gain knowledge.” This was in contrast to an externalism that held that it was external factors outside the mind which could be conditions of knowledge.
Descartes said that since the only method by which we perceive the external world is through our senses, and that, since the senses are not infallible, we should not consider our concept of knowledge to be infallible.
He further went on to say that if it were possible for knowledge to be described as infallibly true, we’d have to pretend “that an omnipotent, deceitful being is tampering with one’s perception of the universe.” Therefore, for Descartes, the logical thing to do was to question anything that involves the senses.
Through his observations, Descartes came up with his famous one liner: “I think, therefore I am.” He said that the only thing that he could not logically bring himself to doubt was his own existence. Although Descartes could doubt his senses, his body, and the world around him, he could not deny his own existence, because he was able to doubt, and that meant that he must necessarily exist in order to do so.
Descartes received some criticism that he didn’t take his theory or view any further than that – he never found out “who” he was, or “how” he existed.
In the Truman Show, Truman, would still have to exist in order to be deceived. In the end of the movie, Truman asks the creator of the show, “Who am I?” Christof replies, “You’re the star.” “Was nothing real?” “You were real.”
How do we observe or perceive our world?
In the 60’s we had Timothy Leary and LSD. Whether people were dropping acid to get enlightened or just to get high, those who did it invariably came to the same conclusions: the world as we have known it to be – our Truman Show – is not as concrete as we thought it was. While mind-altering drugs altered states of mind for a certain duration of time, nonetheless, once the drug wore off, the concrete world invariably resurfaced.
For most of those hippies, who couldn’t seem to shake off the doubts about their world, their perceptions and their own existence, you could say taking those drugs was the next step on their spiritual inner journeys to discover who they were, how they and their world existed, and what meaning their lives held. And this personal spiritual quest was further heightened with the advent of the Vietnam War, the Watergate break in, Nixon’s resignation, and everything else going on at that time.
With the hippie movement loud and strong, naturally it caught the attention of scientists and researchers, such as Timothy Leary, who not only made studies on the effects of mind-altering drugs but also indulged in them.
With the exception of people who claimed to have had “bad trips,” overall, if you asked 100 hippies about their experience on LSD, you’d get the same rap: You seem to “wake up” and find yourself tripping, and depending on the quality of the acid, and how much you took, you could be tripping for a number of hours before experiencing an actual sensation of coming down and out of that “trip,” that experience.
The personal experiences themselves also tended to be similar: A sensation or feeling of one’s mind being outside of one’s own body; experiencing one’s own mind, especially through heightened states of awareness; and perceiving the external world as a mixture of interdependent colors and shapes, having no real essence.
Timothy Leary, the “father” of LSD, was known for his mantra: You’ve got to turn on, drop out, but then you have to drop back in again. While not anything near what we call Buddhist “middle way,” nonetheless, Leary was attempting to pull people back into a world of some sorts; whether that world was fabricated, mental constructs, real, not real, the idea was not to cling to that mind altering experience, but to drop back in, and go about one’s life, perhaps with a new zeal for life, or perhaps with a new outlook on life – crucially, to drop back in, and not float away.
I think, in retrospect, those hippie days were probably revolutionary. So many people were experimenting with mind altering drugs. People were curious to know more about mind and its functions. Eventually, in the early 70’s, people took off and headed for India, and Nepal, in search of the “truth,” or the real meaning of life.
As a result of their search, they had the karma to meet with some incredible spiritual guides and lamas. They were then able to explore Eastern religions and philosophies in search for the “truth” of who they were at the core, not at a superficial level. For many, meditation and practice then took over where the mind altering drugs left off.
And as a further result of the Hippie Era, more and more studies and research has been done on the mind and its functions, existence and perception. And there are now scientists who have become more willing to sit down and participate in dialogues with His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, and other distinguished individuals, to further open and expand their own knowledge and understanding, and determine how science, Buddhist philosophy and psychology can work together to make for a better world.
Bhikshuni Thubten Munsel has been ordained since 1981 and has studied and practiced extensively. Ven. Munsel is currently studying with Yangsi Rinpoche in the Master’s Program in Buddhist Studies at Maitripa College. She is also a substitute teacher in an after school literacy program in Gresham, Oregon, USA, and works as a transcriber for the Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archives.