Five Blind Imams, Six Blind Scholars, and the Doors of Perception
Likely you are familiar with the Sufi parable of the five blind imams and the elephant. As the tale goes, each of the five groped one part of the elephant — tusks, ear, tail, trunk, leg — and came up with a completely different mental picture of the beast and what it was like, and ended up quarreling amongst themselves because all insisted that their’s alone was the true one.
It’s a parable about what Jean Gebser would call “deficient perspectivisation” and also of narcissism, and the parable itself provides a clue to what Gebser also understands as “aperspectival” consciousness, or the overview rather than the point-of-view. Interestingly, the Buddhist parable has six blind scholars instead of five blind imams, and that variation on the tale is quite significant in itself. The imams or scholars are symbols of the physical senses, but Buddhism recognises six rather than five primary senses.
The Thai mural reproduced here shows the six blind men, but also a seventh — the elephant driver. This seventh is “Buddha Mind”.
Along with the traditional five senses — sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch — Buddhism also includes the body-mind as a base sense, or what we call “ego-consciousness” or ego-nature. It is considered to be a constituent part of the sense base of physical existence, among those senses that are attuned to physical reality. So, in effect, the five blind imams or the six blind scholars are the same as William Blake’s “Doors of Perception”, and in Buddhism the body-mind (ego) is also considered a perceiving organ.
Ayatana is the term that translates as “sense-base” or “sense-sphere”, but a better term would be Marshall McLuhan’s “sensorium“, keeping in mind that this sensorium also includes the perceiving ego-consciousness/body-mind. As it turns out, McLuhan’s notion of the “sensorium” is quite parallel to Gebser’s “integrum“.
I suppose it is helpful, in some ways, to think of the body-mind as an additional sense, although it’s probably more correct that it is the aggregate structure of the physical senses. There is also a variant on this. In Thinking and Destiny, Harold Waldwin Percival insists that there are only four physical senses, while the aggregation of the impressions made upon consciousness by the physical senses is called “mind”.
Each physical sense has it’s own associated consciousness structure, according to Buddhist doctrine — visual consciousness, olfactory consciousness, tactual consciousness, gustatory consciousness, auditory consciousness, each being associated with one of the five primary elements — fire, air, earth, water, or space (akasha), respectively (as illustrated in the table in the above link to the “Ayatana” article in Wikipedia). The dominant sense in the sensorium or sensory mix would thus define the “species of consciousness” with which that sense is associated, so Gebser’s own civilisations as structures of consciousness in terms of the archaic, magical, mythical, mental-rational, or integral would not only be associated with one of the primary elements, but also with the dominance of one or another of the physical senses.
In Modernity, the eye has been the dominant organ, along with its associated structure of consciousness — the mental-rational — for the last 500 years, while the sensitivity of the other senses has atrophied somewhat (Nietzsche thought of his “nose” and the sense of smell as his most valuable asset!).
McLuhan believed that the switch from mechanical forms of energy to electronic was also bringing about a shift in the “sensorium” towards an integration of all the senses. Thus the “sensorium” corresponds to what we have been calling the shift from “point-of-view” to “overview” as well, and since each of the senses is associated with a particular structure of consciousness, it follows that there will also be an integration of those structures, through the sensorium, in the form of what Gebser has likewise called “the integrum“, regardless of whether we hold the “sense-base” to be four, five, or six.
This is, I believe, the context for William Blake’s belief that the New Age would be a recovery of sensuality and the cleansing of “the doors of perception” — a kind of “coming to one’s senses”, as it were. A “re-membering” after a dis-memberment in which the senses are unified. Likewise, in Buddhism, the correct training of the organs of perception is an important part of self-overcoming, and that’s represented by the elephant driver or “mahout“, which name seems quite evidently related to “mahatma” or “Great Soul”.
So McLuhan’s Understanding Media and his thoughts on the sensorium also run parallel to Gebser’s interest in the emerging integrum. And much that McLuhan wrote there and on “The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man” is very applicable in coming to appreciate also what Gebser means by “the mental-rational consciousness structure”.