If a tree falls

“If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” ― George Berkeley


The Philosopher George Berkeley 300 years ago first posed this question for philosophical analysis. It has been discussed ever since. He posed it in a deep philosophical sense to discern if anything actually exists outside of the observer; that is whether anything exists without a perceiver. Buddhism asserts that there is nothing outside of awareness and that each individual is only pure awareness. So, Buddhism would definitely answer Berkeley’s question that there was no sound. On the other hand, materialism asserts that there is nothing but a physical world. So, a materialist would answer Berkeley’s question that the physical sound occurred regardless of whether someone was there to perceive it or not.


In one sense, sound requires a perceiver, as sound is a psychological experience. The tree falling creates pressure waves in the surrounding air, but these are mere vibrations in the atmosphere. It is only when you insert an observer are these oscillations in air pressure translated into something called a sound. Similarly, are leaves green without a perceiver. No, the experience of green is like a sound a psychological experience. Leaves reflect electromagnetic radiation of a particular frequency. It is only when you insert an observer are these light waves translated into something called green.


This answer, though, would probably have been very dissatisfying to Berkeley as it doesn’t address the deeper question that he was posing. Is there anything beyond experience? Are there physical things outside of ourselves that we are able to experience because of our senses or are things simply constructs occurring within experience without anything actually present outside?


Contemplative practices in general work to quiet the mind of internal chatter so that the individual attains a state of pure experience. Even when thoughts occur the practices involve simply letting the thought itself be simply another experience, letting it rise up and fall away like any other sensory experience. In essence when we are successful in a contemplative practice we have become pure real-time experiencers.


As a real-time experiencer, we hear the pure crash of the fallen tree and we see the pure green of the leaf. In truth, these experiences have no real outside analog. The experiences of sound and green are unique unto themselves and there is nothing physical like it. Just try to describe the sound to a person who was deaf from birth or the color to a person blind from birth. You will quickly note that there is no external referent that you can bring to these peoples’ attention that is even vaguely close to the experiences.


I personally, thoroughly enjoy observing wine connoisseurs attempting to describe the experience of drinking their favorite wine. A complex vocabulary has been developed but it is funny to listen to the struggle to transmit an experience that is only an internal experience to another who hasn’t themselves tasted the wine. “It’s insolent and spunky with overtones of smoke and blackberries with a satiny finish.”


So, what your experiencing in a deep contemplative state, or actually at all times, are completely unique to you as an experiencer, cannot be perceived by anyone else, and has no exact replica in a physical world. That would make you a perceiverless perceiver, an experiencer that cannot be itself experienced, a watcher that cannot be watched. It’s in essence the sound with no one there to hear it.


This does not happen without your awareness. There is nothing here except your awareness. It is what is doing the experiencing, perceiving, watching. So without awareness these things do not exist. There is no sound. There is no green. This in essence answers Berkley’s deeper question. There is nothing without awareness.


So, engage in contemplative practice and see what you truly are, pure awareness.


“Two monks were arguing about the temple flag waving in the wind. One said, “The flag moves.” The other said, “The wind moves.” They argued back and forth but could not agree.

The Sixth Ancestor said, “Gentlemen! It is not the wind that moves; it is not the flag that moves; it is your mind that moves.” The two monks were struck with awe.” – The Mumonkan Case 29, translation by Robert Aitken


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *