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By Ven. Chönyi Taylor
“Your dog smells,” says my granddaughter. “He smells even after you wash him.”
“Well, that’s true, but you smell too.”
“No, I don’t.”
“Of course you do. Everyone has their own smell.”
“Well, my smell is not a BAD smell.”
“That all depends. Your smell may be nice to you, but my dog might not like it. He probably wishes you’d go and roll in some wombat poo.”
“Eeyyooouu. No way.”
“I don’t particularly like that deodorant you use, anyway, but obviously you like it.”
“So can Merlin have his own smell?”
No reply. She is an intelligent girl and gets the thrust of my argument.
It all depends. What smells good to a dog does not smell good to us, and I expect vice versa. If my dog could talk, he would probably agree that one smell is wombat poo and the other smell some flowery deodorant. But there would be big differences in what we might perceive as good or bad.
We may agree that the object on my rug is a smelly dog, but whether the smell or the dog is seen to be good or bad is entirely our own preference. What matters is that having made that preference, a whole lot of implications follow. If we label “bad” then we develop an aversion. If we label “good” then we develop an attraction. Now, having developed an aversion, then other thoughts fall quickly in line:
I don’t like that smell, therefore, I don’t want that dog here; therefore, I want you to send him out, which you won’t; therefore, I have an aversion to you; therefore, I am not going to listen to you. This will make you angry with me, which confirms that I ought to have an aversion to you; which means I will now only see your negative side; which means that though you were once my friend, now you are my enemy; which means that I am alone in this world; which is unfair; which means I feel really sorry for myself …
Smells are interesting things. My dog’s perception of smell is way more sophisticated than mine. It has a richness that we experience through our eyes. Our color sense has countless subtle shades not available to him and he has countless tiny variations in smell not available to us. He constructs his world through smells.
I sometimes wonder what it would be like to negotiate the world by smell instead of sight. Would we identify things by their particular hues of smell? What would happen to our perception of boundaries? Our eye sense easily picks up boundaries and makes things stand out from each other. Smells do not have boundaries; they simply become more and more diluted. Would we lose that sense of separation from things as their smells intertwine as they waft past? Would we sense ourselves as a cloud trailing behind us or blowing in the wind? Would we then view the world as a swirling smellscape in which different smells may sometimes predominate? Would we be immediately aware of how we affect each other as our individual smells drift together like smoke from burning incense? What would happen if we constructed our world mainly through smell?
Imagine that you are blind and deaf, but have an acute sense of smell. What would you recognize in your environment? Would you know when I entered your room? What would you be aware of when traveling on a train or bus? How rich, or poor, would your world become? Until we stop and contemplate like this, we have no idea how strongly our senses affect the way in which we see – or smell – the world.
If things are no longer predominantly rigid, with sharp boundaries, then there is a chance that our minds will not be rigid with sharp boundaries. In a swirling, ever-changing world, impermanence would be obvious. I wonder what would happen to our sense of self and the unchanging rigidity that we project onto it.
Ven. Chönyi Taylor is a registered Foundational Buddhism FPMT teacher and an elder for the Discovering Buddhism at Home Course. She is the author of Enough! A Buddhist Approach to Working with Addictive Patterns (Snow Lion, 2010) and has been published in Mandala, Buddhadharma, Dharma Vision and Sangha Magazine. She is a founding member and member of the training committee of the Australian Association of Buddhist Counsellors and Psychotherapists and an Honorary Lecturer in the Discipline of Psychiatry at Sydney University. In June and July 2013, Ven. Chönyi is teaching two courses at Kopan Monastery in Nepal.
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