Andrew Olendzki has written on papañca ( most often translated as proliferation) and, like much of his work, it is quite good. Showing just what papañca is, its pervasiveness, and that it is just this aspect of our mental experience that we are working with in meditation provides a valuable clarification of practice. It is just here that we find a basis of commonality across all Buddhist traditions. In the Pali Canon, we hear the Buddha say, “In the hearing let there just be hearing…” In Zen, we say, “Take the backward step” from being engulfed in proliferation to “just this.”
All Buddhist meditation has as its purpose, “seeing things as they are,” or as Suzuki Roshi famously put it, “seeing things as it is.” Mr. Olendzki writes, “As the mind moves through the stages of assembling experience, from awareness to perception to conception to proliferation, it moves farther and farther into the realm of micro-construction. At each step we see less of things as they are and more of things as we construe them to be. Meditation practice works to reverse this process.”
I agree with this analysis of the situation and his description of practice up to a point. Too often we speak rather glibly about seeing things “as they are” and Mr. Olendzki’s use of the phrase “awareness itself” creates a kind of new "ghost in the machine" or subtle atman.
Such phrases can lead to a reification of a phenomenon that is better understood as dependently originated. Cognitive science shows us how awareness is constructed at every level. Since we are neural beings, our experience is categorized (constructed or conceptualized) from the cellular level. Categories are part of our experience from the first stage of contact, “the simultaneous coming together of a sense organ, a sense object, and a moment of consciousness that cognizes one by means of the other,” as Mr. Olendzki writes. His further assertion that “This basic awareness is merely an episode of knowing, carrying no content or qualities of its own” goes a bit further than the evidence provides. As George Lakoff and Mark Johnson write in Philosophy In The Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought, a book I believe every practitioner should read – if for no reason other then to be challenged to look deeper into their own concepts – “Categorization is not a purely intellectual matter, occurring after the fact of experience. Rather, the formation and use of categories is the stuff of experience. It is part of what our bodies and brains are constantly engaged in. We cannot, as some meditative traditions suggest, “get beyond” our categories and have a purely uncategorized and unconceptualized experience. Neural beings cannot do that.” (emphasis added)
I do believe that what vipassana meditation can do is get us back out of the “stuff” we add on to the first knowing, but to assume that first knowing is truly “things as they are” is itself an adding on of a thought or conceptualization. This is why I prefer (as more accurate) the translation of the Mahayana poem, “Trust In Mind” that begins “The Great Way is easy for one who is not attached to picking and choosing (preferences)” rather than “The Great Way is easy for one who does not pick and choose (has no preferences).” We seem to pick and choose at the neuronal level before we are even aware that we’ve done so. Even the amoeba categorizes (picks and chooses) the things it encounters into food and nonfood, what it moves toward or moves away from.
We can, I believe, go beyond our attachment to intellectual concepts, but this is not the same as saying we can go beyond all concepts as neural structures that allow us to mentally characterize our categories and reason about them. It is not merely that our bodies and brains determine that we will categorize; they also dictate what kinds of categories we will have and what their structure will be. “In the hearing, let there just be the hearing,” but let us not forget that we have ears (and eyes and so on) that work in certain very definite ways and not in others. Hearing "itself" hears only some things, and not others. There is no hearing "as it is" that is not dependently conditioned. And that is enough to realize in order to live more "freely" in this conditioned world. It is this freedom, and with this understanding, that zen naturalism is practiced.