Blur the line between self and landscape. Look up at the sky. Sky is invisible space and yet it appears colorful and radiant, a medium for light and for seeing.

Skyland, shining and all- encompassing, presents some perceptual problems. Just like the landscape, sky isn’t easily “placeable:” it is near and far, figure and ground, all at once! Moreover, as the source of light, we see with it, not at it. It is not an object of perception, per se; it is the nature of perception itself. Merleau-Ponty (1964) puts it well: “we do not so much see the sky as we see in it.” Related to the “mind-body problem,” the sky-earth problem persists in ecology and landscape theory (Ingold 2011; Elkin 2007). We can ponder the question, “Is the sky a part of the landscape,” forever. Likewise, we can ask, “is the landscape a part of the sky?” And to which, if either, do we belong? Earth is a tiny marble floating in an ocean of space, but from its surface, earth is ‘below,’ unmoving, while sky moves in the realm ‘above.’

Skylight determines the color of the landscape, and it reaches from the horizon to the eyeballs and beyond. Emerson uses it as an analogy for the We: “From within or from behind, a light shines through us upon things, and makes us aware that we are nothing, but the light is all.” Sky and seeing and Seer run into each other for a moment up there in the light. Ingold puts it well: open your eyes, and find yourself, almost literally, ‘in the open’. This phrase captures the magic, and delirium, of vision: we live in visual space from the inside, we inhabit it, yet that space is always already outside, open to the horizon, boundless. When we see sky, the boundary between inside and outside, or between self and world, dissolves. Merleau-Ponty: “I am the sky itself as it is drawn together and unified, and as it begins to exist for itself; my consciousness is saturated with this limitless blue.”

The Chinese translation of the Heart Sutra: “Color is not other than sky; sky is not other than color. Color is exactly sky; sky is exactly color” expresses this paradox. Sky and color refer to emptiness and form, or what we might call “heaven” and “earth.” In this sense, “space,” “light,” “color,” “sky,” and “I can see,” all have the same meaning. Sight’s dependence of sky reminds me of Meister Eckhart’s revelation: “The eyes through which I see God are the same eyes through which God sees me”. Ingold puts it another way: “Sky is openness or transparency itself, sheer luminosity, against which things stand out by virtue of their opacity or closure” (2000: 264).

Western phenomenology of religion operates with the notion that the self has a “glassy essence” (Rorty 1979; Vesquez 2013). Dzogchen teachers refer to the nature of the mind similarly as a clear light that appears to be whatever it is on. Seeing with the sky is similar to William James’s 1882 observation: “The first time we see light, we are it rather than see it.” Bille and Sorensen (2007): Light — from old English leoht, meaning luminous, from Indo-European leuk, to shine, to see…– has been studied as lumen — light as external, objective matter — and lux — light as subjective, and interior; as sight and mental sensation.

Sky metaphors structure conceptions of “higher” selves, and higher potentials. Sogyal Rinpoche in his lectures on dying says, “Giving up ego is like loosing the clouds but gaining the sky.” Rilke’s vision: “Ah, not to be cut off, not through the slightest partition shut out from the law of the stars. The inner — what is it? If not intensified sky, hurled through with birds and deep with the winds of homecoming.” Japanese phenomenologist Hiroshi Ichikawa says people experience themselves more as a lit-up space of subjectivity and fluid spirit than as a heavy, meaty, objective body. Drew Leder also explains this phenomenon at length in his book, “The Absent Body.” Our bodies are pushed into the background, out of our attentive minds, and are only foregrounded when they are not working properly. For the most part, we are what Rilke says: intensified skies. Ichikiawa might call the sky a fundamental structure.

This goes against the popular Western notion that our bodies are physical, material objects, and we, our collective spirit, are one with our bodies. In “The Body as Spirit” (1975), Ichikawa demonstrates the fundamental unity between body and spirit not by reducing the body to spirit, but by phenomenologically describing the lived, human body (Nagatomo, 1986). The Japanese person, who is generally a mix between Shinto, Buddhist, and Atheist, feels, as their bodies, like they are subjective light-spaces. Does this experience apply to our Western, colonized bodies as well? Is it a sign of all postcolonial bodies, considering Ichikawa, the Japanese people, Buddhism, and Asia are all heavily Westernized? Or is sky associations with heaven consciousness universal because mouth-anus, above-below, sky-earth, and light-dark experiences are universal? How do we really feel ourselves? Following this living experience of incarnation, Japanese spirituality then hinges on conceptions of higher selves, wider selves, and on an ever-present, clear and spacious “Buddha Nature.” How does the Christian tradition hinge on sky-experince?

Painter and Professor of Art