About Seeing and Looking – A Zen Perspective

Seeing and looking are one but they are not the same. When I talk about ‘seeing’ I am not talking about a perception of an object that you and I perceive. I am talking about that that makes perception possible. This is difficult to talk about, because it refers to a reality that goes beyond appearance. Perhaps an analogy will help. When you go and see a movie you identify with the content, with ‘what’ you see and you are oblivious of the screen on which the movie is projected on. You take the screen for granted in the same way as you take ‘seeing’ for granted. Of course, in practice the two are one and can not be separated.


The ‘what’ is reflected in our images in two ways. One is the way of ‘looking’ and the other one of ‘seeing’. In looking our picture-making expresses our personal view which is conditioned by the environment we have grown up in. The picture on the left has this kind of conventional footprint. We look at it as an object and immediately label and judge it and move on. Labelling helps to recognize everything around us. We can then judge, choose and manipulate what we see to our purpose. I’ll call this ‘looking’ and not ‘seeing’.

Both, ‘looking’ and ‘seeing’ have sense perception in common. But the similarity ends here.

Helmut_141010-18‘Seeing’ happens when we are stopped in our tracks or when we are captured by what we see. It establishes an intimate connection that we can sense in our guts. It is spontaneous and cuts through all the stuff we imagine, feel, worry and think about because it stops our processing machine – our mind. When we no longer ‘look’ at what we see but connect directly with what is in front of us we are contemplating. There is no longer any room for labelling or judging. The picture on the left is a reflection of such a direct experience. If this experience has been authentic one feels alive and creative.

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