Seeing That Frees
Part 1: Orientations
Chapter 1: The Path of Emptiness is a Journey of Insight
Our lives, at least a times, involve suffering (dukkha). (1st Noble Truth)
Looking closer the Buddha pointed out that all this dukkha has craving and clinging as a cause. (2nd Noble Truth)
But then begs the question: Why do we crave?
Craving is based on a fundamental mistake in the way we see and intuitively sense our selves and the whole world of inner and outer phenomenon.
We feel and take for granted that selves and things are as real as they seem to be. That they exist as they appear to in a substantial way, in and of themselves.
We feel that a thing has an inherent existence - that its existence, its being, inheres in itself alone.
Believing then that this real self can really gain or lose real things or experiences which have real qualities, grasping and aversion, and thus dukkha, arise inevitably.
At least for now let's define emptiness as: the absence of this inherent existence.
- Consider a wooden chair thrown onto a big fire.
- The chair begins to burn.
- The gradually deforms and falls apart, slowly turning to ashes.
- At what point exactly is it no longer a chair?
- Its chair-ness is given by the mind, and does not reside in it independently of the mind.
Emptiness teachings, however, extend the principle of this example to all phenomena.
"The world has no own-nature".
This mistaken seeing is the deepest level of what the Buddha calls the ignorance or fundamental delusion.
To the degree, depth and comprehensiveness that we can realise the emptiness, the illusory nature of phenomena, to that degree, depth and comprehensiveness is freedom then available to us.
- Imagine that one day when out walking you turn a street corner and suddenly hear a loud and menacing growling nearby.
- A ferocious and hungry-looking tiger appears in front of you seemingly about to leap.
- The distress of a reaction of terror there would be quite understandable.
- But on closer inspection you notice that this tiger is not real, that it is actually a holographic projection with accompanying sound recording from a nearby hologram projector.
- The fear and the problem simply dissolve.
On encountering such teachings, it is easy to assume that their message and their implications are of existential meaninglessness, undermine ethical concern and passionate care for the world.
Or that the world of things, once their illusion is exposed, will appear to us as somehow dreary, and we will disconnect.
To say that all things are void, however is not to say that they don't exist at all.
Emptiness is not nihilism.
Clearly and undeniably there are appearances of things and those appearances follow reliable laws and function in terms of predictable cause and effect.
It turns out, rather, that to see that something is empty is to see that is is beyond the categories of 'existing' or 'not existing'.
Apparently as your insight into these teachings deepens, we become, as a matter of course, more easily moved to concern for the world, and more sensitive to ethics and the consequences of our actions. But he doesn't explain why this is the case?
Not only does seeing into emptiness bring a rare and crucial freedom, sweet relief, joy, and love, there is in the seeing of it more and more a sense of beauty, of mystery. It becomes in itself a mystical understanding.
We uncover a dimension of wonder in things that we hadn't known before, because the voidness of things is something truly magical when experienced deeply.
"Truly empty, [hence] unfathomable existence."
"True emptiness equals wondrous being."
Chapter 2: Emptiness, Fabrication and Dependent Arising
All appearances are fabricated by the mind.
It is this dependence of all phenomena on the mind that is most significant and that needs to be understood.
Acknowledging dependency on causes and conditions will only sometimes bring a release of clinging.
The world of inner and outer phenomena is, in some very important sense, ‘fabricated’ by the mind, so that it is somehow illusory, not real in the way that we assume, and not independent of the mind that fabricates it.
Our default sense of things, our habitual mode of perception, is to project inherent existence onto phenomena, not to see their emptiness deeply.
All phenomena, all experiences, are fabricated by the mind.
It is not that while everything else is fabricated by the mind, the mind itself is somehow real, a really existing basis for the fabrication.
The mind, whether conceived as mental processes or “Awareness” even the awareness that we can know as vast and unperturbed, that seems natural and effortless - is also fabricated in the process. We find, in the end, that there is no “ground” to fabrication.
Chapter 3: “All is Void!” - Initial Reactions, and responses
“If I do eventually see there’s no self, that nothing’s real, won’t I then feel that there’s no point to anything?”
Start with small amounts of emptiness. Then if the desired result.. build up more.
We need to start where it is relatively easy for us and then build on those foundations, extending the range and the depth of our penetrative insights, and developing the seeing in this way.
As we begin to experience the liberating effects of insight and the heart is touched, the whole process starts to take on a momentum of its own.
Part 2: Tools and Provisions
Chapter 4: What is ‘Insight’?
Insight is any realisation, understanding, or way of seeing things that brings, to any degree, a dissolution of, or a decrease in, dukkha.
Insight, then, may loosely be described as any ‘seeing’ that frees.
Two modes of insight practice.
- Arising spontaneously as you were being mindfully present with something. You have an insight. There is an aha moment. Suddenly or gradually you see something, you realise something and it makes a difference to the dukkha.
- Insight itself if more a starting point, a cause, more itself the method. You deliberately attempt to sustain a ‘way of looking’ at experience.
Being repeated, the insight is more likely to be gradually absorbed and to become rooted in the heart’s understanding in ways that can make a long-term difference.
With the maturing of insight into dependent arising and fabrication one realises that this perceived dichotomy between ‘being’ and ‘doing’, though it might at first seem and feel self-evident, is in fact essentially mistaken and based on a false impression.
It rests on three basic and connected assumptions:
- That there actually is an objective reality that we can and should ‘be with’.
- That anything other than the awareness ‘simply knowing’ or innocently, naturally ‘receiving’ this ‘reality’ is somehow a laboured and artificially constructed state.
- That since a state of ‘being’ is these assumed to be a state of ‘non-doing’ and so to involve no effort, self will not be constructed there. This is in contrast to states more obviously involving intention, which are assumed to construct self.
Whenever there is any experience at all, there is always some fabricating, which is a kind of ‘doing’.
And as an element of this fabricating, there is always a way of looking too. We construct, through our way of looking, what we experience.
Sooner or later we come to realise that perhaps the most fundamental, and most fundamentally important, fact about any experience is that it depends on the way of looking. That is to say, it is empty.
We mostly have a habit of looking in ways that contribute to dukkha.
Insight meditation, indeed perhaps even the whole of the Dharma, could be conceived, very broadly, as the cultivation of ways of looking that lessen dukkha, that liberate.
Meditation thus becomes a journey of experimenting: with freeing ways of looking; and in particular with ways of looking that withdraw, undermine, or dissolve various elements in the mind and heart that contribute to fabrication.
- A gradually deepening inquiry into fabrication - of the self and of all experience.
We begin by noticing the range of variability in our perceptions of self and the world.
What, though, is the “real” way any thing is?
And I realise too, moreover, that I cannot find or arrive at a way of looking that reveals how a thing really is in itself.
- Realising the impossibility of inherent existence.
Here we are engaging in a thorough search for the self or for the essence of any thing.
In these kinds of practices, the way of looking hunts for, and then exposes the lack of, inherent existence in one or all phenomena.
- Intuitive Wisdom
Sometimes the perspective opens up dramatically and very forcefully; at other times much more faintly - perhaps we feel a subtle quality that infuses appearances with a suggestion, a whisper, of their voidness, or even of a kind of silence, a transcendent and mystical dimension.
Chapter 5: Samadhi and its Place in Insight Practice
Often this word samadhi is translated as ‘concentration’.
Instead here we will emphasise that what characterises states of samadhi is some degree of collectedness and unification of mind and body in a sense of well-being.
Samadhi supports the deepening and maturing of insight.
First, as the Buddha pointed out, a mind that has cultivated some samadhi has more malleability. It is more able to look at things in different ways, finds it much easier to learn and develop novel approaches and practices, and can move between these with more agility.
Second, the spectrum of deepening samadhi is also a spectrum of deepening refinement of consciousness.
One very significant benefit is that the “softness” of such heart qualities helps prevent the insight practice from getting “brittle” and too intense, and the energies from becoming unbalanced in ways that can be counterproductive
Modes of Attention
Probing and receiving - The attention can work in a way where it ‘moves toward’ that point and probes it, penetrating that small area of sensation, like an arrow or a laser beam.
Playing with the intensity of attention - We can discover a continuum of what could be called the ‘intensity’ of the attention.
Sensitive to the whole body - we can focus primarily on the wider field of feeling of the whole body. This can be the sole focus of attention.
Encouraging feelings of well-being
Gently work at nurturing a sense of comfort, pleasure, or well-being in the body.
Tune in to the more pleasant frequencies of feeling that are perceivable.
We can imagine the subtle body as a body of radiant light.
A fluid balance between samadhi and insight
It is the balance of samadhi and insight work that is important and so potentially powerful. Too much samadhi relative to insight practice, and the mind may lose its desire then to contemplate or analyse or shift ways of looking. Too much insight practice relative to samadhi usually tends to enervate the mind and the energetic system.
Part 3: Setting Out
Chapter 6: Emptiness that’s Easy to See
The whole area of social conventions is one in which we can experience all kinds of suffering. Yet often with just a little reflection we can recognise the emptiness of some convention that we have reified, and this realisation can bring some freedom.
It is quite easy to see that countries, for instance, do not have the kind of inherent existence that we as a species seem so readily to believe and feel they have. A country only exists because of human agreement; it is a human convention.
We can often attach our sense of self-worth to that which is held as valuable by our society. Myopically caught up in all this, it can be very hard to realise that the culture of this particular time and place is valuing one ability more than others.
Meditation: Opening to freedom and strength through reflection
Ask yourself if that are any values or beliefs that you have absorbed from the culture and from your social environment that are contributing to suffering of some sort that might be questionable.
See if it is possible to reflect in a way that challenges this belief, or that recognises it is not inherently true.
Notice, allow, and feel as fully as you can any emotional and energetic responses to what you see, and notice also the mental responses.
Seeing the Holes in Things
The roles we have in life are concepts, agreements (again) between human beings, and yet so often we can over-identify with them, or let them define us. We are then even more likely to fail to see their lack of solidity.
A retreat is another example where it can be easy to solidify a perception of something and then struggle with it. Focusing too much on the perceived differences between ‘being on retreat’ and ‘everyday life’’, we might feel either imprisoned in the form - the structure, schedule, and way of being - on a retreat, or become attached to that form and then have trouble letting it go and leaving at the end.
Meditation: Beginning deconstruction
When you find yourself feeling somehow imprisoned in a situation, or grasping unhelpfully at something that is not present, see if you can look within and around you in a way that ‘deconstructs’ your world into its aggregate appearances of sights, sounds, smells, tastes, physical sensations, and mental and emotional experiences.
Play and experiment with this way of looking until it feels that some of the oppressive solidity has lessened and you can sense some spaciousness has opened in the perception.
”What Was That All About?!”
From the perspective of a more balanced mind state, we wonder what the big deal was. Maybe whatever it was that we had been so humourlessly fixated on, and that had loomed so large in consciousness, doesn’t seem so important now.
We see that we were caught up in a way of looking that cast our view of our self and of some thing or other in rigid moulds, and in a way that brought dukkha.
Meditation: Investigating what is being fabricated through the hindrances
Notice what hindrances are present, and when they are absent.
a) Is the mind believing a story about something or about yourself? If so what is the story?
b) Whether or not there is a story, how is this mind state affecting perceptions right now?
Whenever there is any grasping or aversion towards something, indeed whenever any hindrances are present, the mind is, to some degree or other, in a contracted state. It has, so to speak, been sucked in to some perception, some object of consciousness, has shrunk and tightened around it.
We can notice this contraction, this constriction of the mental space, in relation to both internal and external phenomena.
The clinging mind contracts around some experience, and then, because the mind space is shrunken, the object of that grasping or aversion takes up proportionately more of the space in the mind.
It can be very helpful, when the awareness is unwisely sucked in in this way, to pay attention deliberately to a sense of space.
Meditation: Beginning to notice space
Be sensitive to how a contracted mind feels. Can you feel the dukkha of this?
Then see if you can deliberately pay attention to space, or deliberately include an awareness of space in your attention. Attending to the sense of actual physical space can be very helpful.
Chapter 7: An Understanding of Mindfulness
Staying at Contact
In any moment, without a certain amount of mindfulness, there can often be a tendency for the attention to get dragged into the associations, reactivity, and stories that a simple stimulus might trigger for us.
When we practise mindfulness we try to hold or return attention to the ‘initial, basic’ experiences that arise at the contact of the sense doors with the sense objects.
The mind also has a tendency to overlay a veil of concepts, abstractions and images ‘on top of’ our ‘basic’ experience.
‘Bare attention’ practices aim to remain with the more ‘basic’ data presented by the senses.
Close mindfulness can show that the mind joins the fragmented ‘dots’ of momentary experience, and thus fabricates some ‘bigger’ and more solid-seeming experience.
The bigger and more solid an experience seems, the greater the clinging and the dukkha it involves.
Although it can be useful to think of mindfulness as ‘being with things as they really are’, it is in fact more accurate, and more helpful for our purposes, to understand basic mindfulness practice as a way of looking that merely fabricates a little less than our habitual ways of looking.
Chapter 8:Eyes Wide Open: Seeing Causes and Conditions
Blame is an extreme example of our instinctual way of seeing, which tends to focus on, and solidify, the perception of self.
Seeing only in terms of self, and habitually placing self at centre stage of whatever situation or event transpired, it is not recognising and including in its understanding the wider confluence of conditions that give rise to anything at all in the world.
What we can practise then, at first after an event that we are seeing with blame, is a ‘re-viewing’, a looking again in a different manner, in a way that takes at least some of the suffering out of it.
We can search for and acknowledge the force of what we might call the ‘present, inner’ conditions - the states of mind, beliefs, perceptions, etc. that were active within us at the time.
Likewise, it will be helpful to ponder the ‘past, inner’ conditions - for example, states or habits of the citta set up within us before the event.
Also ‘present, outer’ and ‘past, outer’.
With reflection the assumption or view that some effect or outcome is due to just one cause can seem quite naive.
The way of looking is always a significant condition
Practice: ending blame through recognising the confluence of conditions.
Chapter 9: Stories, Personalities, Liberations
Sometimes seeing in terms of self is the most appropriate way of seeing, and the one that relieves the dukkha of a particular situation most satisfactorily.
It is frequently the case that in circles prioritising meditation we can come to regard any and all stories as something to be dropped and avoided. The question, as always though, is whether this narrative that I am entertaining is helpful or not.
Stories are, in fact, a finally inevitable dimension of our existence. And at an important level they matter greatly in giving our life its meanings and directions.
Being locked into a story, however, believing that this narrative and the fantasy of self-identity that it involves are ultimately true, - that is the problem.
Imprisoned in self-definitions
We can, and do, of course define ourselves in all sorts of ways (socio-political, human, existential, etc.) and at all sorts of levels.
It is the personality-definitions adopted, however, when believed in too completely and taken too rigidly that can often be a source of the most palpable sense of suffering and constriction, both acute and chronic.
If, for instance, I am clinging tightly and rigidly to a self-definition that I am an angry person, then sustaining attention carefully I cannot help but notice that there are times when I am not angry.
Freeing the expressions of self
What do I tend to miss or ignore when I look at myself?
What quality within me, or what aspect of myself, am I assuming is the reason for this behaviour (or this thought, or this mood)?
What do I stifle within myself?
It is not a sign of spiritual growth to have the personality dampened down, or blanched to some kind of uniform ideal.
Chapter 10: Dependent Origination (1)
Your boss has asked you to give a presentation at work tomorrow for a group of your more senior colleagues.
The idea of tomorrow’s encounter fills you with dread. That dread, even before the actual experience, is already dukkha of course.
Ignorance (avijja): a way of looking at your situation that is ignorant of - and ignores - this process of the arising, and possible ceasing, of dukkha.
Belief in this story generates expectations (sankhara) of how you will be seen and treated tomorrow. Unchecked, they fuel fear, and you begin to imagine tomorrow’s humiliation over and over in your mind - consciousness contracting around the obsessive thinking and the fantasies.
This, together with the fear, causes contraction, tension, and other unpleasant changes in the state of the body and the mind. There is contact: in the sense sphere of the mind,3 with the thoughts and imaginings; and in the sense sphere of the body, with the experience of tension and fear as it plays out in the body. Both of these instances of contact involve unpleasant vedana.
Now, the instinctual reaction to unpleasant vedana is aversion - wanting to get rid of these feelings, or distract oneself from them. This aversion is a form of craving.
All this supports becoming: shaped by the clinging, there is the desire to not be one who is shamed, and the mind starts groping toward some decision about what to do.
Depending on which of the strands involved in the clinging are strongest, a particular direction of becoming emerges and gathers momentum.
You pick up the phone and leave a message saying you’re sick and won’t be in tomorrow. This now is birth. An action taken.
But although you feel briefly better, this relieved self that has just been born and constructed contains within it the seeds of its own instability. For now you can’t seem to evade thoughts of self-judgment that start to creep in for the course you have taken. So that soon there is the death of this self, together with pain and distress.
Unfortunately, in the pain that now ensues, tendencies to view yourself as inadequate have been reinforced.
Of sub-loops and manifold connections
It would be more accurate if we added the realisation that any link can feed into and reinforce any other link, so that all kinds of sub-loops and vicious cycles can occur.
A Map for Relieving Dukkha
Dependent origination offers not only a description of the tangles we get into, but also multiple possibilities for untangling and lessening dukkha.
Recognising sankhara (patterns and tendencies of reaction, view, expectation)
Attending to craving and to vedanta: Two strategies
The experience of craving itself is an experience of dukkha. It is unpleasant. The mind feels uncomfortable in the prison of its obsession, or unpleasantly contracted around that to which it is clinging.
One can learn, however, to tolerate the pressure and tension of craving, by mindfully allowing it the space to wax and then wane.
A second possibility involves stationing the attention on the actual experience of vedana, moment to moment.
Self and Phenomena: A Mutual Construction
We can see that self-construction depends on some thing being reacted to, made an issue of, or viewed in certain ways. Self-construction always relies on clinging, on reactivity and view, with regard to some thing.
The more one probes, the more one realises that the links are not really referring to separate entities or phenomena. Instead, they are overlapping and interpenetrating; they are not self-existent. And this very fact will be part of realising deeper levels of emptiness.
Part 4: On Deepening Roads
Chapter 11: The Experience of Self Beyond Personality
With every state of the citta there will be a way the self - along with the body, and the citta - is felt and sensed.
We can call this aspect of the perception of self the sense of self or the self-sense.
When we feel embarrassed or afraid, for example, the sense of self tends to feel more contracted, more solid, and also more separate from others and from the world.
There is a spectrum or continuum to our self-sense.
There is always a sense of self, to some degree, whenever there is any experience of any thing.
Practice: Noticing the sense of self
The Five Aggregates
rupa - ‘body’, ‘matter’ or ‘materiality’.
vedana - ‘sensation’ but specifically ‘feeling-tone’ of sensations. i.e. the quality in any experience of pleasantness, unpleasantness etc.
samjna - ‘perception’
samsara - ‘mental formations’
vijnana - ‘consciousness’
Possible conceptions of self
Included in this list of five aggregates are all the phenomena of existence with which we might conceivably identify or which we might assume a possession of.
Sometimes we may feel or conceive of the self as one or more of the aggregates.
We identify with the body at times as ourselves, or we identify with the mind, or with one aspect of the mind such as emotion or intelligence - we feel and think that is who we are.
The innate conception of self
We can notice on inspection that very often we tend to intuitively conceive of the self as somehow the controller of the aggregates of body and mind.
We might also conceive at times of the self as the totality of the aggregates, as if the self is the sum of its parts, or a collection of elements.
Then there can also be a conception, and a strong sense in meditation or at other times, that actually ‘all is one’ - there is only one, cosmic, self.
Chapter 12: Three More Liberating Ways of Looking - Anicca
Anicca means inconstancy, instability, impermanence.
This is a practice of deliberately and repeatedly attending to the appearances and disappearances, the changing nature of things.
Noticing Anicca at a relatively gross level
Take time to reflect and remember the many different states that the citta moved through in the course of that day.
This way of looking lessens our sometimes semiconscious fear that we may be trapped in any state and it lessens too a tendency to try to hang on to a state when it is not appropriate.
Practice: Awareness of change at an everyday level
Regularly take some time at the end of the day to view the day’s experiences from the perspective of anicca. Carefully recollect and acknowledge the changes and shifting phases that occurred.
Perceiving Moment-to-Moment Impermanence
Prioritise the noticing of impermanence and fluctuation in phenomena from one moment to the next, and the next.
We attempt to remain focus on this sense of flux. This shifting of the textures of appearances.
Consider a gong that is struck: the sound rings, and then eventually fades. The sound’s attenuation and disappearance should be viewed through the lens of anicca - recognised and felt as an instance of impermanence. But close attention can also be brought to the sound itself, and in particular to the fluctuations in the texture of the sound.
Including the distracted mind
If the mind is distracted away from tuning into the moment-to-moment change in the quality of the sound, then, just as with any other object of focus, the attention can simply be brought back to the shifting of the patterning of sound.
Attention can be both narrow and broad
With this example we can see how the attention can be deliberately directed at, and remain focused on, the impermanence in, and of, any one sound.
We are also able to open out a wider space of attention, and let the awareness receive whatever is in that wider field.
Other objects: the sensations of the body and other physical senses
Similarly with the sense sphere of bodily sensation: it is possible to direct the attention to one particular area in the body, or we can open attention out to envelop the whole body at once.
Likewise, of course, with taste and smell.
It is useful to deliberately focus on the impermanence in vedana. This is the pleasant, unpleasant and neutral sensations that occur when our internal sense organs come into contact with external objects.
Attention to the impermanence of though is better left to times when there is a degree of samadhi present.
It is helpful to first spend some time focusing on the whole body at once, tuned in to the anicca of the body sensations.
When this feels stable as a contemplation, and you can feel the ease and freedom this supports, the attention can be opened out further to also include sounds and their impermanence, together with, the body sensations and their impermanence. This space of awareness, once it is settled, will effortlessly begin to reveal the anicca of though in a similar way.
Another mental object whose impermanence it may be fruitful to notice deliberately is intention. For instance, at the end of a walking meditation path, or standing by a door ready to turn the handle, one can remain attentive to the arising of the intention to take the first step, or to raise the hand.
The totality of objects
You can also practise opening up the attention to the impermanence in the totality of experience. Simply, and more freely, tune into the changing nature of whatever is noticed in the whole of awareness.
There is too the possibility of recognising and tuning into the anicca of consciousness. Doing this requires more subtlety of attention.
The Pali word for consciousness or awareness is vinnana. Literally, this means ‘knowing’: to be conscious or aware is to know some object in at least one of the senses.
Usually when we see or hear or cognise anything in the senses, most of our attention is on the object perceived as an object. Yet at any moment of awareness, there is also present, as a natural and effortless aspect of that awareness, a simple knowing that we are aware.
Rather than viewing the experience, the perception, in a moment primarily as an object then, at times we can try to view it and to get a sense of it primarily as a moment of knowing.
More to Mention about Seeing Moment-to-moment Anicca
Some practitioners find, at times, that repeating inwardly, a word such as ‘anicca’, ‘impermanence’ or ‘inconstancy’ during this practice helps to keep the attention attuned to change moment to moment.
Noting like this can function more as a general reminder to guide and tune the intention and attention.
No need to press for a perception of more rapidity
We do not need to force an awakes of a more and more rapid rate of change, or a quicker and quicker tempo of the appearing and disappearing of phenomena.
Anicca and the ultimate truth
The purpose of the contemplation of impermanence is not to uncover some ultimately true level of reality comprised of the smallest possible indivisible atoms of sensation or experience.
Nor, likewise, is it to come to a conclusion that the true nature of existence is some kind of ‘flow’ and thus that the experience as ‘flow’ is an experience of what is ultimately real.
It has rather two main purposes:
- Attention to anicca should, for the most part, organically and effortlessly engender a letting go, a release of clinging in the moment that we are engaged in it. And this letting go brings a sense of freedom.
- This practice should also furnish a degree of insight into emptiness and fabrication. It offers a simple entry point to begin to see the emptiness of self at a certain level. If sustained attention to the totality of phenomena reveals nothing that is fixed, that does not change, where then is this self whose essence we intuitively feel as somehow unchanging?
Practice: Attending to anicca moment to moment
For a part or for the whole of a meditation session, or continuing as you move about your day, practice sustained attention on the moment-to-moment changing that you notice in objects.
Take time to familiarise yourself with contemplating the impermanence of phenomena in this way in each of the six sense spheres.
The Heart’s Responses to Impermanence
Generally this way of looking should bring some sense of release and unburdening, of freedom, peace and even joy.
At times we may feel poignancy - it may evoke in us a sense of melancholy, or sometimes fear or existential anxiety.
It seems important, though, to be able, and willing, to open the heart to the pathos of anicca, to accommodate, and to care for, these feelings.
For what we do in fact eventually seek through this practice is an understanding of things that goes beyond the notion of their being permanent or impermanent. Such insight is not in order to take away our humanity but to open another dimension of perspective on existence, one that liberates more radically.
Of Death and Vast Time
The contemplation of our death, for instance, of the fact that we are bound to die one day, is an immensely valuable practice for all kinds of reasons, and certainly counts as a valuable contemplation of anicca.
Deliberately view this present moment’s experience with a simultaneous awareness of the certainty of our death.
Practice: Viewing experience from the perspective of death and vast time
Reflect on the fact of your birth and death. Consider the vastness of time and space that surrounds your life, and that also surrounds this moment’s experience.
Chapter 13: Three More Liberating Ways of Looking - Dukkha
The second characteristic, dukkha, will be divided into two possible ways of looking that are related.
Dukkha - Method 1
Phenomena are dukkha, that is, unsatisfactory, in part because they are impermanent, finite and unreliable.
They cannot provide lasting satisfaction or fulfilment, even when they are lovely.
Sustaining a way of looking, moment to moment, that regards phenomena as ‘unsatisfactory’, organically engenders some degree of letting go - of release of craving - in that very moment.
Holy discontent and holy disinterest
For many people, to regard all things as unsatisfactory might at first appear to express a somewhat life-denying attitude. In practice as a way of looking this should not be the case at all.
When we meditatively regard things as unsatisfactory, at that time we are sustaining a view that could be called one of holy discontent with almost everything. This is categorically not an attitude of aversion towards things, of trying to push them away, of disgust or repulsion.
It is much more a natural letting go in the moment that comes from viewing things as unsatisfactory, a lessening of the compulsive and deep-rooted tendencies to constantly pick phenomena up, grasp them, fuss over them, or try to get rid of them.
Practice: viewing phenomena as dukkha moment to moment
Once you have developed a little familiarity with the anicca practice - particularly at the everyday and moment to moment levels. You can begin to play at times with a slight transformation of that way of looking, sustaining a meditative view of phenomenal moment to moment as unsatisfactory.
Dukkha - Method 2
In order to enable this second method, we may first have to become sensitive to the relationship in that moment with the particular phenomena in attention. How do we actually know when craving is present?
The body can reveal the presence of clinging, because any grasping or aversion will be mirrored in a palpable feeling, usually of contraction or tensing either in a particular area of the body or in the whole body sense.
Another way that craving is signalled is through a sense of contraction, or shrinking, of the space of awareness.
When clinging is noticed in any of these ways, this practice involves easing that clinging as an organic next step. We are relaxing our relationship with a phenomena.
One interesting way of releasing clinging is made possible through taking advantage of the metal dependence of bodily contraction and clinging. Relaxing the physical contraction can often relax the clinging.
Using other ways of looking
Another option, when we are aware of grasping or aversion, is to tune into the sense of impermanence in some way, to bring attention to the rapid moment-to-moment disappearance and dissolution of phenomena.
An alternative approach: fully allowing, welcoming
We can adopt a way of looking wherein we draw attention to sense objects, then shift to a mode of relating that allows them, that welcomes their presence in this moment as totally as possible.
A quiet and sparse mental repetition - “allowing”, “welcoming” or “opening” can support this attitude.
Allowing the experience of a though, or the experience of the sensations of tiredness, to arise, means instead that craving’s push and pull with these phenomena is reduced.
With repeated practice in this way of looking, we are more and more able to release craving, and to sustain a relationship with phenomenal that attempts to let go moment to moment.
As we do so, we witness and feel clearly how the sense of dukkha is eliminated from experience exactly to the degree that craving is calmed.
Less craving -> Less dukkha
Dukkha depends on craving: it comes primarily form our relationship with experience, not from the experience itself.
We begin to see that things in themselves are not inherently problematic. They are empty of problem.
Deepening into subtlety
Letting go moment to moment through this way of looking the citta will normally grow more calm.
This relative calmness of the citta may allow a greater degree of sensitivity to more subtle levels of clinging of which we had previously been unaware.
Craving and the emptiness of self
This way of looking also furnishes insights into the fabrication of self.
As grasping and aversion clearly wax and wane in this practice, it becomes quite evident that the self-sense, too, is dependent on clinging.
We can witness the sense of self moving up and down a continuum of self. When there is more push and pull with regard to phenomena, this tends to fabricate more sense of self. With less clinging, less self is built.
What is the perception of self that accords with the truth? How am I really?
With exposure to the way clinging and its relaxation move the self-sense up and down the spectrum, we begin to understand that there is no real or objective way we are. How the ‘I’ arise, the perceptions of my self, are dependent, empty of existing inherently.
We begin to understand, palpably, and first-hand, how the sense of self is a fabrication, is empty.
Self-sense we have been saying is dependent on clinging. But clinging is dependent of self-sense.
Grasping and aversion are the normal, automatic expression of the self and its self-interest. And in fact, the more constructed the sense of self, the more the grasping and aversion that result.
Which then comes first, the clinging or the self? Are they really separate things existing inherently, on their own and independently?
Practice: Relaxing the relationship with phenomena
Practice developing sensitivity to the presence of clinging.
See if it is possible to gently relax that clinging.
You can experiment with different means of doing this:
- by simply intending to let go in relationship to that phenomena
- by relaxing the bodily contraction that accompanies clinging
- by allowing, welcoming or opening to the phenomena as fully as possible
- by tuning in to the moment to moment disappearance and dissolution
- by regarding the phenomena as unsatisfactory
- by any other means you may discover for yourself.
In order to deepen insight further, it is necessary to pay careful attention in practice to the effects of this and other ways of looking not only on the sense of self ad dukkha but also on the perception of objects and on their vedana.
Chapter 14: Three More Liberating Ways of Looking - Anatta
Our habitual way of looking at existence, influence by avijja (ignorance), involves identification with the aggregates as ‘me’ or ‘mine’.
We usually feel either that we are the body or the mind, or we feel that they are somehow ours, belonging to the self.
We could moment to moment delicately label phenomena as ‘anatta’, ‘not-self’ or ‘not me, not mine’.
Developing the anatto practice
It can be interesting to extend this way of looking to external things too, such as material possessions.
You can sustain attention, in actuality or in imagination, on the house or apartment where you live, on your car perhaps, your watch, your clothes, you phone, or anything else and recognise, whatever the conventional legal relationship with these items, that they are also, at another level, not you and yours.
We can likewise practice regarding even our loved ones - partners, friends and family - at times in this way.
The material body
The aggregate of rupa, the body as material form, should also be worked with in this manner. The body as a whole, or parts of the body may be focused on and deliberately viewed as anatta.
The perspective can sometimes shift as a result of sustaining mindfulness - in this case on the body as material body.
Gradually expanding the range of practice
It is imperative to ascertain and work first with the group of phenomena from which it feels easiest to disidentify.
It is often easiest at first, to sustain a disidentification with the body sensations.
Step by step other phenomena can be included - separately, or at the same time - in the way of looking.
The materiality of the body may feel straightforward. Vedana can typically be included quite soon after one is able to dwell for a while experiencing the freedom that comes from misidentifying with body sensations. This often forms a helpful platform to begin to view thoughts also as not-self. Emotions may be regarded this way to of course. Perceptions and intentions may be more subtle, and so may require more samadhi or practice.
Letting go of the identification with consciousness is generally much more subtle and will not be possible until a facility has been more firmly established in letting go off identification with a wider range of the grosser aggregates.
Sometimes a practitioner may hold a consciously articulated view that identifies self with ‘the witness’ or with awareness in any of its manifestations; oftentimes, though, such identification happens intuitively, automatically, and without recognition.
Learning to view any perception also as a ‘moment of knowing’ rather than only as an object, may then make it more possible to view consciousness as anatta.
Instead of as self, or as belonging to self, we can regard any awareness through a lens that sees simply: ‘There is knowing (of this or that)’.
Even more subtle phenomena
Perhaps even more subtle that this is the possibility of becoming aware of the moment-to-moment intention to pay attention to any object.
Such subtle intention will become apparent most easily when the citta is relatively still.
Some Tips and Reflections about Anatta Meditation
As with anicca and dukkha practices, we can work sustaining attention and the anatto view on one phenomenon, on one sense sphere, or on the totality of experience.
Two possible perceptions
Sustaining a simple and direct view of ‘not me, not mine’ with regard to all phenomena will, sooner or later, likely result in a perception of them as arising out of nothingness, floating in space somehow and disappearing back into this nothingness.
Alternatively, one could see that phenomena arise, in the moment, not from or as the self, but as coming together of many, even infinite conditions, none of which are self either.
They are both immensely helpful ways of seeing phenomena and that both should be cultivated.
Skilful responses to aversion and grasping
We can actually view the clinging itself - the very grasping aversion and even identification as ‘not me, not mine’.
The curious problem of the ‘kink in the carpet’
Many times when sustaining this way of looking on one of the aggregates, you may notice that the self-identification has simply moved elsewhere temporarily. This is actually not a problem at all.
Knowing that it is not necessary, at that moment, to try eliminate whatever other identification or self of self is residually present, it can also be important to enjoy whatever sense of release arises from viewing even a limited range of phenomena as not self.
Working with the Sense of Release in Insight Practice
When employed as ways of looking the three characteristics have great power in practice.
Since they are ways of letting go, of realising clinging, they will naturally lead to a sense of freedom, relief, and release, of joy, peace, stillness, or spaciousness.
- We may simply acknowledge that these feelings and perceptions have arisen in the citta while continuing to regard as anicca, dukkha or anatto some other phenomenon that is present.
- We ay begin to pay more attention to the quality of well-being in the body and mind that accompanies this release with the intention of inclining the citta more into a state of samadhi.
- We may sustain the insight way of looking, moment to moment on the very perception of well-being, in any of its manifestations - regarding it too as anicca, dukkha and anatta.
Practice: Seeing what is external as ‘not mine’
Practice: Regarding the aggregates as anatta
Of Fear and Loathing in Emptiness Practices
It is quite common for any way of looking that effects profound letting go to stimulate also a degree of fear at first, or at times when its practice moves to different levels.
This is certainly not always the case, but when it is, often it is simply that we are unfamiliar with the new territory of perception opened up through letting go, and unsure if we can trust it.
The world of things can seem to lose its solidity, for instance, and a sense of empty, sometimes vast, expansiveness can often open up.
It may also be for some that a state of less self-fabrication, as a felt loss or disappearing of the sense of self, is interpreted as an annihilation and brings up associations with death and dying that trigger fear.
First it is important to retain a sense of being in control of the process in meditation.
Second, samadhi and met have a very important function with respect to fear, in colouring consciousness with positive qualities that soften the fear-oriented perception; and also in providing, in ways that generally feel safe, a parallel gradual familiarisation with states of less fabrication.
Third, we can help the familiarisation process through the way we direct attention. For it is typically the case that when fear arises in meditation, the attention is pulled into that fear in a way that is not helpful.
Three Characteristics: three avenues of insight unfolding
We should also point out to that the different practices often tend to develop in different ways.
In fact the anicca practice, although enormously helpful, actually has limits built into it, since through its very view it tends to reinforce a subtle degree of reification - at least at the levels of elemental, momentary phenomena and of time.
Some meditators find they eventually arrive at a stage where the second dukkha method feels limited too in its own way. The practice may reach a point where any residual grasping seems to subtle to notice or to release.
Of the three characteristics, perhaps the anatto practice is the most powerful and the one that can be taken most deeply.
In time it is possible, when desired, to sustain a view of phenomena through a lens that combines all three ways of looking implicitly at once, repeatedly letting them go moment to moment because they are anicca, dukkha and anatta.
Chapter 15: Emptiness and Awareness (1)
Practising the kinds of release of clinging that any of the three characteristics views involved, one very common possibility is that the sense of consciousness begins to become more noticeable.
Through an attitude of holy disinterest, a perception of awareness as a vast and clear space in which all appearances are contained may naturally begin to emerge.
Consciousness can now seem less localised, more pervading, like the open space of the sky.
As it opens and becomes more steady, it can seem more and more that all phenomena appear to emerge out of this space of awareness, abide for a time, and then disappear back into it, while the space itself can have a sense of profound stillness, of imperturbability, to it.
The space of awareness as a kind of ground of being can begin to become even more prominent. Various subtly delightful qualities that seem inherent in the space can be appreciated. It may seem to sparkle with a joyous aliveness, for instance, or express an unshakeable and unfathomable peace; there may be a quality of eternity, of timelessness, that it seems to possess; it may appear luminous, or be radiant somehow, or it can be dark, imbued with mystery and a sense of the infinite.
In time, phenomena may also start to lose their sense of substantiality, appearing less solid in the moment. They can seem to be merely impressions in awareness, something like reflections on the surface of a lake.
The stillness and space of awareness can also begin to pervade and permeate everything that arises, so that all things seem to be made of the same ‘stuff’, the same ethereal ‘substance’, as awareness.
Then it matters even less what appearances arise. There may naturally be a sense of oneness, of unity of all things, that emerges, perhaps gradually, at this point. Every thing appears then, mystically, as having the nature of awareness. And this awareness seems to have very little to do with personality; it seems more as if one has opening into something universal, shared and available to all.
This sense of a vastness of awareness may occur through practising with the three characteristics. It may also emerge naturally, and become more accessible, from deeper states of samadhi.
You may also gently seek to repeat them, to incline perception back to them, and consolidate them as a new base for insight. With repeated practice, such perceptions can become relatively easy to access and can eventually be re-established fairly quickly simply by remembering them.
How to encourage this kind of opening:
- Work with a more spacious attention from the beginning. Practice three characteristics while focusing on the totality of phenomenon.
- Open listening meditation can be helpful too. Paying attention to the totality of sounds and allowing them to come and go, may naturally aid in the awareness opening up more spatially.
- You should experiment practising with the eyes open as well as closed. Paying attention the the sense of visual space - particularly at first to a more vast space such as the sky can also greatly assist an expansion of the awareness.
- Sometimes a perception of open space may be kick-started by imagining it. You can imagine the mind like a vast, clear sky containing and allowing all phenomena within it.
The sense of space that opens up through practice may be vast, or even infinite, at times.
Beginning to inquire into experiences
When the perception opens in the kinds of ways described earlier, the tremendous sense of peace, freedom and beauty it may involve can often affect a meditator profoundly. It can be very tempting then to suppose that what is experienced is somehow ultimate.
A practitioner might assume (s)he has arrived at the deepest level of understanding.
It may be too that the space of awareness itself is reified in various ways. Even before a perception such as oneness emerges fully, the sense of the unshakeable vastness of awareness, its mystery and its endless capacity to accurate all things, can be awe-inspiring.
Perhaps it is surmised to be truly transcendent, truly free of all conditions that arise in it. The notions of emptiness and the space of awareness may get equated, so that the space of awareness itself is regarded as ‘Emptiness’.
Similarly, because the experience of the space seems to accord with various descriptions one might have heard or read, it is also relatively common for this awareness to come to be referred to, for example, as the ‘Ground of Being’, the ‘Cosmic Consciousness’, ‘Big Mind’, ‘The One Mind’, ’The Absolute’, ‘ The Unconditioned’ or ‘The unfabricated’. And since a sense of divinity permeates experience, a practitioner may begin to speak in theistic terms.
What unites them is the belief in the inherent existence of this space; and often too a belief in its status as an ultimate object of realisation.
Although a meditator may actually be served by becoming attached to such views for a while, clinging to the belief that it is ultimate may well prevent further insight.
Even in the very loveliness of the space, though, is a hint that it is not ultimate. With more practice, a meditator may experience the space that opens up as possessing at different times different qualities that all seem inherent to it.
We have been exploring, and guiding perception towards, the quality of awareness. But it is possible that the character of the space expresses more a mystical silence, or an infinite love permeating the universe, or similarly compassion, or joy; or it may manifest simply as an unshakeable peace, without seeming to be awareness at all.
One might simply want to asset that the ultimate has many qualities inherent in it. But it is quite possible for a meditator eventually to discover also how to colour the space in any of these ways, as (s)he chooses, and this discovery begins to cast some serious doubt on the notion that any of them are ultimate. Seeing this fabricating of perception or oneself, the assumption that any of these spaces is unconditioned begins to be undermined, and their status, rather, as perceptions are still fabricated begins to become more obvious.
This vastness awareness is still an object in awareness
There is another perhaps cruder way of moving beyond this objectification of the space of awareness.
We can consider that this kind of sense of a vast space of awareness cannot be awareness itself. In the sorts of experiences described, it is still in fact a perception, an object of awareness.
This may release any clinging in that moment to a view that reifies the sense of awareness.
An alternative approach: no difference in substance
There are actually a number of related approaches that engage the sense of awareness as a way of letting go.
Some have the advantage that may be practised with an attention focused more narrowly on one object, as well as with a spacious and more inclusive attention.
Rather than focusing on the sense of awareness itself though, one can focus, moment to moment, on this sense of an absence of a difference in substance between awareness and experiences.
Instead of a vast and unchanging consciousness as before, the view here is a continuum of moments of consciousness having both a knowing and a known aspect. Being regarded as essentially two aspects of the same moment of consciousness, the knowing (consciousness) and the known (the perceptual object) can be seen to lack any essential difference, and this lack of essential difference may be sensed or remembered, and then tuned into.
What is empty in this view is the duality between awareness and matter, or, more fully, between awareness and both inner and outer phenomena.
This emptiness of difference that is repeatedly focused on and sustained as a meditative view actually constitutes a slightly more subtle object of focus that the sense of awareness.
Partly for this reason, and partly because in its way of looking it is not so much supporting that sense of awareness as a kind of ‘ground’, this approach will typically have an even lighter feel than the vastness of consciousness.
A few points about practising this second method
The key to this way of looking is to recognise that what is seen or experienced is just that - an experience - and then to see it that way - as an experience, a perception - rather than in the usual way of looking, which carries with it the imputation of a solid object ‘out there’.
You may also want to experiment with modulating the intensity of the way of looking in any moment.
In any moment of experience, whatever object is perceived, the knowing consciousness of that object cannot arise without the perception of that object. Nor can the perception of the object arise before the knowing consciousness of it.
There cannot be such a thing as a perceiving consciousness with no object of perception, just as there cannot be such as thing as a perceived object without a perceiving consciousness.
The notion of separate, truly existing objects, both outer and inner, is argued to be an unnecessary and erroneous mental construct.
Practice: ‘No difference in substance’
Hold an object in attention while recognising that what is actually perceived is a perception, an experience. Notice how this affects the experience.
A Skilful Use of Views
That inner and outer phenomena are ultimately of the nature of awareness could be construed behaves as a very crude and elementary version of ‘Mind Only’ Buddhist philosophy.
Awareness too is a product, fabricated by fundamental delusion and sankhara.
We will come to see that there are much more sophisticated and profound understandings from which it could likewise be said that phenomena are ‘nothing by mind’ - that they are fabricated by the mind.
It is the reification of awareness in various ways that eventually constitutes the greater obstacle to deeper insight and liberation, and that must therefore be seen through sooner or later.
The second approach introduced in this chapter does not immediately lend itself to the view of awareness as some kind of eternal ‘ground of being’. One may imagine that it does not reify awareness. But it is quite possible that this stream of moments of consciousness is assumed to be truly existent, the moments of consciousness themselves taken in some way to be fundamentally real.
Two opposite views - both powerful, both helpful
Whether phenomena are regarded as being of the same substance as consciousness, or whether awareness is regarded as other than, and free of, its objects, both views tend to reify awareness.
Event hough it may be regarded nominally as ‘not a thing’, because it is not materially substantial, an intuitive belief in the inherent existence of awareness has not been destroyed yet. Nevertheless, this fundamental omission does not alter the fact that both views may be ways of looking that support a great deal of letting go, of freedom, peace and heart opening.
Maturing through practice
Practising the views described in this chapter, however, can wield enough power to begin to shift the deeply held, normal views of reality, and so move toward more ultimate insight.
In the dzogchen tradition there is a priceless saying:
Trust your experience, but keep refining your view.
It may be necessary then, as a stage in practice, for some meditators to reify awareness in any of the senses we have described. We reify continually anyway of course.
Part 5: Of Highways and Byways
Chapter 16: The Relationship with Concepts in Meditation
We human beings are so often painfully entangled in, agitated, and led astray, by thoughts.
But what we finally seek is a freedom in relation to thoughts and the thinking mind. This includes an ability to use thought skilfully in the service of insight.
A practitioner might conceive that “being with things as they are” is the aim of meditation. Often the attempt then is to “not think, just experience”, to dwell in a state of “bare attention”, where perception is “pure”, free of any distortions that thought might add.
But this is only one mode of practice.
The objects of the world can appear almost dazzling in their brightness and clarity at times, and seem so obviously to be just what they are, in and of themselves.
It is just this kind of intuitive realism - the normal confidence in the assumption that a world of objective things exists independently of our minds and their ways of looking - that needs to be overcome.
The delusion of inherent existence is woven right into perception and the way we experience things.
No matter how simple, direct-seeming, clear, and thought-free our experience of things might be, if the subtle sense of inherent existence in that thing is not consciously overturned, avijja is still present.
Emphasising only impermanence may thus sometimes lead to notions of practice and awakening that put the accent on ideals such as ‘going with the flow’ and ‘not knowing’.
Attachment to Simplicity
To try to be more precise in one’s awareness and understanding, and to wrestle with complexity and subtlety, can feel like hard work at times. Simplicity will usually feel easier and more comfortable.
The Transcending of Concepts
We may have encountered a variety of teachings asserting that the actual ultimate truth of things is, in fact, beyond any conceiving, and that the transcending or dropping of concepts is the goal of the path.
When reason and concept are used skilfully in meditation to undermine the conception of inherent existence, those initial concepts and the conceiving mind will then be dissolved in the process too, for there will be nothing left to support them.
Practice/Inquiry: Attitudes to using thought and concepts in meditation
Devote some time, either alone or together with a friend, to carefully exploring and inquiring into your relationship with the use of concepts on the path.
Chapter 17: The Impossible Self
The analytical practices we will describe expose the illusory nature of things, but by a different route.
The anatta practice is a way of looking at phenomena as not-self.
In contrast the sevenfold reasoning is a practice that looks for the self that seems so obviously to have inherent existence.
Originally using an investigation of the relationship of a chariot with its parts to illustrate the deconstruction of the self’s relationship with the aggregates, the sevenfold reasoning can actually be employed to refute the inherent existence of any phenomenon.
The self cannot inherently be:
- the same entity as the aggregates
- other than the aggregates
- in the aggregates
- the aggregates are not in the self somehow
- the self does not possess the aggregates
- it is not the collection of the aggregates
- it is not the shape of the aggregates, nor is it their continuum in time.
Developing a Personal Understanding and Conviction
It is vital to think through each branch for yourself, and to find reasons that convince you. Perhaps some reasons will be filled out, added to, or replaced with other reasons.
If the self had inherent existence, it would have to exist in one of these seven ways. There is no other possibility. That the self is not findable in any of these ways implies that it cannot really exist in the way that it seems too.
Working in Meditation
We must identify what exactly the reasoning is refuting, what the analytical practice is taking aim at. Pay attention to the sense of self.
As an aspect of the experience within this sense, we can recognise how the self feels so obviously real, so independently existent.
Then considering each of the seven possibilities in turn and seeing that none of them is a feasible way for the self to be captures the second step.
The self-sense begins to dissolve right then as we realise that the self is not findable.
We need to focus attention wholeheartedly on the sense and perception of the vacuity of self, and also on its implicit meaning.
If at any time the vacuity’s significance is no longer appreciated, then it is important for that sense to be resurrected, to keep deliberately remembering that this vacuity has the meaning of the emptiness of self.
When the intensity of focus on the vacuity is relaxed, the self-sense reappears, and attention should be paid to how it feels. The self appears again, but there is a knowing of its emptiness to some degree and this sense of it as an empty appearance should be explored, and enjoyed.
Creativity and Fluidity in the Practice
As with any practice, eventually we want to make it our own, and this comes only through familiarity and the willingness to experiment.
Chapter 18: The Dependent Arising of Dualities
Any of the insights and practices that see al phenomena as having the nature of awareness will inevitably then see a certain kind of equality, or sameness, of all things. Sometimes it is proclaimed that all phenomena are of ‘one taste’. The duality between objects and consciousness is seen to be false.
Pain and pleasure, both being awareness in essence, are only apparently, but not essentially, two dissimilar things.
A first option for working with dualities is to simply be aware of them, and to drop investment in them, without actually considering their emptiness.
We can practise, over and over, a dropping of any preference for any pole of any duality that presents itself. Often though, we are not even aware that dualistic conceiving is operating in us.
The arising of even the most subtle dukkha, grasping, or aversion must rest on some perception of duality. Dukkha requires clinging. And when there is clinging, it is always to one pole of a duality: grasping at some thing’s presence and aversive to, or fearful of, its absence; or aversive to a thing’s presence and desiring its absence.
Noticing dukkha and clinging, we can identify what duality we are invested in, and practise a view of ‘no preferences’, ‘not picking and choosing’.
Seeing the Emptiness of Duality
“Do not see fault anywhere”
For ‘fault’ is a dualistic concept. Any ‘fault’ is in dualistic relation to its own absence, or to an instance of something conceived as ‘without fault’.
Recognising the voidness of dualities can melt the notion and perception of ‘faults’. Through sustaining a view which knows that dualities are void the investment in any duality is automatically dropped.
1. Recognising how dualities are fabricated
The emptiness of dualities may be exposed through exploring how their perception is often exaggerated.
For example, when, believing in its real existence, we favour or desire one member of a dualistic pair over its opposite, this craving actually accentuates the very sense of duality for us.
“Make the smallest distinction and heaven and earth are set infinitely apart.”
In a state of restlessness, for instance, the perceived disparity between ‘here’ and ‘there’, and between ‘now’ and ‘later’ grows, and is also given greater significance.
To the extent that restlessness dies down, the apparent differences between ‘here and now’ and ‘there and later’ also die down.
Consider the following opposites: tiredness and brightness of mind; happiness and sadness; calm and agitation; mindfulness and distractedness; illness and health; pain and absence of pain; stillness and movement of mind; aversion and acceptance; grasping and non-grasping; conceiving and non-conceiving; realisation and delusion; wisdom and ignorance; freedom and bondage.
The distinction can seem so real within each pair - one pole desirable and the other to be rejected or somehow overcome.
The mind can so easily seize on and reify these poles, imputing them with inherent and separate existences.
Moreover, in so doing the mind may also fail to see that many of these reified poles have minute holes in them, where they may actually contain their opposites or their absences.
It is possible to regard any such duality through a lens informed by the understanding that the difference is not as stark and real as it seems.
We use a sensitivity to the presence of any dukkha and clinging to alert us to the operation of dualistic conceiving. We can then identify the object of clinging as a pole in some duality. Having identified the duality, we can remember that it is empty, begin to view it as such, and feel the relief and freedom that this view brings.
Practice: Seeing dualities as empty because fabricated
In viewing duality as empty, it is important to understand what we are trying to do and not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Clearly many of the pairs mentioned above actually constitute helpful distinctions, necessary for a genuine deepening of insight.
We therefore need to use them, but to take care in our relating to them.
Eventually, seeing their emptiness will allow a freedom to pick them up or put them aside, to use them without any danger of dukkha or of becoming trapped in them.
2. Understanding the Mutual Dependence of Dualities
We can call dualities into question at an even more fundamental level - through seeing the dependent arising of things which seem to be opposites.
The very notion ‘long’ depends on the notion ‘short’; and equally ‘short’ depends on ‘long’. They arise dependent on each other.
They are meaningless concepts without each other. This will be the case for any thing that exists as a duality with, or in relativity too, something else.
On an intellectual level is may be relatively easy to acknowledge that concepts arising in mutual dependence are empty concepts. On a more intuitive level, however, our belief in the existence of dualistic concepts forms a support for dukkha more basic even than clinging.
We do not only conceive dualities on an intellectual level; through conceiving them intuitively, we perceive them. And this is so even when we perceive without verbally labelling the percept in our mind.
Part 6: Radical Discoveries
Chapter 19: The Fading of Perception
We have seen clearly how dukkha, the sense of self and the apparent substantiality of inner and outer phenomena are all dependent on clinging.
We also explored a little how the sense of duality between things is exacerbated by clinging.
Through many of the insight ways of looking the perception of phenomena will fade to some degree.
There begins to be, in meditation, a melting of appearances, of ‘things’, of objects of perception.
It is crucial to experience many, many times and to reflect on. It is easy to miss the insight here.
Without giving it a second thought, a practitioner may just assume that things disappear ‘because they are impermanent’.
More careful investigation, though, reveals that something more surprising, radical and mysterious is going on here than either of these conclusions suggests: The experience , the perception of a phenomenon, depends on clinging.
For a thing to appear as that thing for consciousness, to be consolidated into an experience, it needs a certain amount of clinging.
A fading of perception is, in a way, just a further loss of substantiality.
It is possible to see this dependency of phenomena on clinging at any level, from the grossest to the most subtle.
When we are swept up in a tantrum about something, for instance, the self-sense certainly becomes more pronounced, but so does the solidity, and also the very prominence, of the thing we are upset about.
All of these perceptions are fabricated less - they are ‘pacified’ - as we calm down.
That the perceptions of certain grosser citta states are dependent on clinging becomes obvious too if you deliberately try, in a state of boredom or fear, to become more bored or more fearful.
We must include as expressions of clinging more than just the palpable push and pull of the mind toward phenomena.
Appropriating phenomena, grasping them as ‘me’ or ‘mine’, even unconsciously, is a form of clinging. And identifying with more subtle phenomena, such as consciousness, is a more subtle form of clinging.
Intuitively conceiving the inherent existence of any thing is also regarded as a form of grasping in the tradition.
One notices in meditation that phenomena fade to the extent that clinging is reduced through any insight way of looking.
At the extremity of the more subtle end of the continuum, in a moment when clinging, identification and grasping at inherent existence are pacified, there is the cessation of perception - the phenomena of the six senses do not appear at all.
Through letting go of clinging more and more totally and deeply, the world of experience fades and ceases; and seeing and understanding this is of great significance.
We may ask: which perception reflects ‘reality’?
Exactly what amount of craving, identification or avijja reveals the ‘real’ thing, the ‘real’ world, the way things ‘really’ are?
We may be tempted to answer that an absence of craving, identification and delusion will reveal the world ‘as it is’.
But equanimity - the dying down of the mind’s push and pull with respect to phenomena - does not reveal a world of things, in their pristine ‘bare actuality’, ‘just as they are’, stripped only of the distortions of ego projections and gross papanca.
We see that without clinging phenomena do not appear at all.
Not only how they appear, but that they appear at all is dependent on the fabricating conditions of clinging.
Cessation can make clear the extent of fabrication - that no phenomenon appears at all nor is anything in itself, without being fabricated by the mind.
There is no objective stance on how a thing is.
The fading of perception implies that the thing-ness of things is dependent on the perceiving mind’s clinging.
We being to realise that we do not have any existence as ‘this’ or ‘that’ independent of mind.
A fuller understanding of dependent origination
Through this meditative experience of fading, it is clear that not only does craving depend on vedana, as in the more commonly received formulation, but also that vedana depends of craving.
A phenomenon in consciousness fades not simply because it is impermanent, but because its appearance is dependent on clinging, and when clinging is reduced enough the appearance is not supported and it dissolves.
Insight into fading brings the possibility of a more powerful way of looking
A practitioner is then able to adopt a meditative way of looking that takes this insight of emptiness as its principal lens, rather than the insight emerging only as a result of other ways of looking.
The tacit understanding that underlies this newly possible view is: â€˜empty because dependent on clinging and avijja.
Emptiness and the Jhanas
In samadhi meditation, after any pain and hindrances subside, there is the arising of pleasure of different kinds, which gradually becomes more and more refined and subtle until the deep end of the third jhana.
The fourth jhana: where the vedanta have become neither pleasant nor unpleasant.
Fifth jhana: the body sense and the perception of form disappear.
Seventh jhana: the sphere of nothingness. Perception of space replaced by nothingness.
What is happening here is most accurately regarded as a progressive non-fabrication of perception.
Progressive states of jhana are fabricated less and less.
It is sometimes claimed that the jhanas in themselves bring no insight.
When emerging from such states as the formless realms the perception of things is often transformed, for a time, in accord with the particular jhana one has just experienced.
The conventional and normal perception of things, though shared by most, is actually fabricated, and is just one way of fabricating perception.
Each jhana and its particular insights have a mutual reciprocity. Particular insights lead to particular jhanas and particular jeans bring and reinforce those particular insights.
The primary insight that emerges from the sphere of nothingness is that ‘there are no things really’, a view that sees the emptiness of things, and not just that they are ‘not me, not mine’, is more likely to belong with this jhana.
Fading Opens Choices
At every stage of fading one potentially has a choice. When for instance an area of bodily discomfort fades, one may choose to focus on and spread the well-being or pleasure that has replaced the discomfort and then stabilise that into a state of some samadhi. Alternatively, one may keep regarding that area of the body with the insight way of looking, and the perception there may fade further down into continuum.
It becomes possible, to a degree, for a meditator to transform, at will, unpleasant vedana into pleasant or neutral.
Seeing Dependent Fading Opens Up Emptiness as the Middle Way
Generally, with a greater degree of fading of both the self-sense and the perception of phenomena there is a greater, and more lovely, sense of liberation and release in the moment.
But at any rate, as familiarity is gained with such experiences of less self and less world we begin to feel immensely nourished by them, and to recognise them as profound resources.
A lack of inherent existence does not imply that a thing is worthless.
Usually this way of practising to see the emptiness of phenomena will not lean over into any kind of nihilism.
Seeing things appear and fade dependently, we cannot conclude that things simply do not exist, are not real at all.
Yet we see clearly firsthand that they do not exist in the way that we had previously assumed.
They do not have the kind of reality they seem to. Witnessing and understanding fabrication, fading, and dependent origination for ourselves opens up the Middle Way.
In this approach to gaining insight into the emptiness of objects, we see their intimate connection with, and non-separation from, the perceiving mind in a way that ensures the heart stays open and connected.
The Freedom of Different Ways of Looking
Not impelled to always pick up and use the view of emptiness, free to look in any of these ways, we are freer, as understanding matures, to respond to any situation in any way that seems most helpful and appropriate.
Chapter 20: Love, Emptiness and the Healing of the Heart
As we practise metta toward someone, for example, our feeling for and perception of them changes.
In the times when the metta is strong, their beauty perhaps more apparent to us, they actually seem more loveable, and even though we may not know them well at all, we feel a kind of deep friendship and bond with them
The normal and understandable tendency to categorise others dependent on whether the self feels it has derived any benefit or harm from them, or whether we identify with them somehow, may be seen to be given too much weight in our conclusions about, or felt sense of, what they are like.
Through acknowledging just this much dependent arising of our perception, a little space may be opened for looking more mercifully.
I may see too how, in some sense, the other is not separate from my mind. I can only know them through my perception, which will always be coloured in some way.
We can practise choosing to see others - even strangers and those with whom we feel we have difficulty - as “friends”.
Of the world
When qualities such as generosity, metta, and compassion are strong, all perception is coloured. We see beauty everywhere, in other sentient beings, in nature, in the most mundane and ordinary situations and objects.
Thoughts and acts of generosity, for example, sow seeds in the citta - of generosity, and also of related positive qualities - making such qualities more likely to arise spontaneously in the future.
One’s understanding of emptiness needs, sooner or later, to be integrated with one’s understanding of karma.
Seeing the dependent arising of perception in the ways that we have been exploring ensures against a mistaken view that emptiness means ethics and love are irrelevant.
What I perceive is greatly dependent on the state of my citta. And that in determining the qualities that arise in the citta, how I act, how I think, and what I cultivate will all determine what exactly I experience.
Deeper Insights From Love
Once one has some familiarity with directing meter or compassion in the more usual ways. i.e. towards beings and some momentum has gathered to these practices it is possible to practise direction such love toward phenomena.
Kindness to a phenomenon means that it really is welcome, fully accepted. It involves a softening of aversion by definition. They also involve a softening of grasping.
Craving, identification, and avijja - are “builders of the self and the world”. In contrast, metta, compassion, samadhi, equanimity, and even generosity, build less self and less world.
Fading, Fabrication and Healing the Past
Assumptions around emotional healing, and particularly, for instance, notions of purifying the residues of the past through catharsis, may need to be revisited.
Whether inside or outside of a formal session, frequently or only occasionally, experiences of eruptions of difficult physical sensations or difficult emotions at times can be a common feature of meditation practice or other kinds of inner work.
It is frequently tempting to assume that something must be “coming up” from the past.
The associated task might be to patiently allow the storehouse of such imprints from the past to be emptied.
Perhaps fully feeling the difficulty is seen to be what is required for healing.
We notice that abiding in meditation in a state of reduced clinging - for instance in the anatta or dukkha practices - such difficult experiences arise less.
And as described, eventually less and less of anything arises at these times.
It turns out that I only experience a sense of purification when there is aversion or grasping or self-view.
What “comes up” is built - shaped, coloured, and concocted - to a large extent by factors in the citta in the present.
The power of views and belief
In addition to the influence of the citta state, the view that is operating at any time will also be a decisive factor. The very belief in a store of past wounds or a notion of purification actually perpetuates the experience of difficult stuff coming up.
Our view of the past is dependent on the state of the citta in the present.
We begin to realise, at a certain level, the past’s lack of inherent existence.
Open-mindedness and levels of view
To always regard what arises as empty will not be appropriate.
With open-mindedness, curiosity and practice however it is quite possible for us to develop the ability to relate to difficult and painful experiences in different ways at different times.
We may fear acknowledging and opening to what arises as a difficulty from the past, and fear feeling the emotion it involves.
It is a release of our clinging to views, rather than anything else, that actually allows the fullest emotional healing.
Instead of crystallising views of the self, the past, or ‘Life’, we can exercise far-reaching pliability of view and so open up the possibility of a lightness, a tenderness and blessedness to existence.
Chapter 21: Buildings and their Building Blocks, Deconstructed
Meditating on the implications of phenomena fading as clinging is relinquished begins to expose the emptiness of things we have considered more fundamental building blocks, or foundations of existence.
The Illusion of Just Being
Sometimes a practitioner might hold up the concept of ‘just being’ as a goal of practice or a preferable state.
Here, being will usually be conceived in contradistinction to doing, or becoming or both.
The idea of not doing anything in practice - simply allowing awareness to happen naturally and effortlessly. The sense of self will be less grossly inflated through the direction of intention and doing with respect to experience.
What might initially seem, as above, an experience of ‘no self’ is in fact merely an experience of a somewhat less fabricated sense of self.
Would any such experience of “just being” really be an experience of non-doing?
Something has to give me the sense of experiencing being.
The apparent dichotomy between being and doing is in fact illusory. Being is not any more fundamental than doing, because being is doing.
The Emptiness of Clinging, and of Mind States
We should ask next what clinging depends on. Certainly it depends on avijja, fundamental delusion. But it is also impossible for clinging to exist without an object of that very clinging. Clinging needs some thing to cling to. It depends on, and is in fact inseparable from, an object of perception. Clinging, therefore, is dependent on and inseparable from something empty.
Not only is the object empty because it is fabricated, but the very fabricator is empty too.
What was conceived of as a cause, support, or ground for the phenomenon is revealed to be void as well. No ground for the object.
We may contemplate the mutual dependency and emptiness of clinging and objects. In practice this may allow an even more intense fading of perception, and a thrilling and powerfully liberating sense of the groundlessness of phenomena.
We will need to reconsider our notion of citta states too.
Typically we might conceive of equanimity, for instance, as an attitude to, or a relationship with, what is difficult or attractive.
Without an object, can I be said to be equanimous towards a thing?
My anger needs an object. These two, anger and object, are not really separate though.
In fact, the same is true of any state of the citta. It will form one inseparable package with its object. Separate citta states are not findable, nor are objects findable separate from a citta state.
A citta state is also itself an object of perception. Or rather it is a conglomeration of perceptions.
The whole show - citta state and object - forms an inseparable gestalt of empty appearances.
Both states of suffering or states of mystical love are both appearances, ultimately groundless and empty.
As movements of mind, aversion and grasping are not actually separate. Aversion for one thing implies grasping after another.
The Voidness of the Aggregates
Clinging would fall into the category of the fourth aggregate - sankhara or mental formations.
The Buddha taught that all of the aggregates are empty of inherent existence.
To leave the reality of the aggregates unquestioned is to leave the deeper seeds of self-view and dukkha unchallenged.
As long as there is an object of perception it will have a vedana tone inextricably wrapped up with it, even if that tone is neither pleasant nor unpleasant.
Whenever we are conscious of any experience, the object of that consciousness is perception and vedana.
Experience may be conceptually divided up into the aggregates and doing so forms a very helpful guide for practice, but the distinctions are not ultimately real.
Mutual Dependency and the Emptiness of Cause and Effect
We see that perception, vedana and clinging are inseparable, as are vedana, perception and consciousness.
These aggregates are not one thing, but they depend on each other and they arise together.
We might wonder how it is possible that two things can arise together dependent on each other.
Usually when we think of some thing being dependent on some thing else, we consider the latter a cause of the former. But if they are mutually dependent and neither precedes the other in time, which is cause and which effect here?
It is impossible for them to really be town separate inherently existing things if they are never found apart and neither arises before the other; yet nor can they be said to be truly one entity.
The whole mechanism of cause and effect, though appearing and functioning on a conventional level, is also declared to be empty.
Inherently existing cause and effect will be found to be impossible. Cause and effect cannot come into being at the same time, for then one would not have the time to produce the other. The other, the ‘effect’, would already be there.
One may instead want to suggest that the effect exists before the cause, but then that ‘effect’ would have arises without a ‘cause’, which is obviously impossible.
Practice: Contemplating the emptiness of clinging
Reflect on the fact that clinging needs an object. If that object is empty, that means clinging is dependent on something that is empty, illusory. Clinging must then be empty too.
Choose any object present in the moment to hold lightly in attention. Based on conviction from previous practice you can briefly regard it as ‘empty because it is dependent on clinging of different kinds’. Then add to the view the understanding that clinging is empty too, since it depends on this object.
Part 7: Further Adventures, Further Findings
Chapter 22: No Thing
Different Tracks to a Conviction in Emptiness
There is a need to expose the lack of inherent existence from multiple angles in order to give fullness and thoroughness to insight.
Two groups: meditations that explore fabrications and analytical meditations.
The exploration of fabrication we may call a directly phenomenological approach.
Regarding the world of things, all we can ever actually experience is the world of phenomena we perceive. There is never the possibility of knowing precisely how things are ‘in and of themselves’, independent of perceptions.
We typically assume that for the most part we perceive ‘the objective world out there’ exactly as it is.
We begin to see that the whole structure of experience is fabricated.
Analytical meditation on the other hand reaches out in a slightly different way. The various reasonings each prove that the inner and outer things of the world cannot possibly exist in the way they appear to. They cannot have inherent existence.
Many practitioners tend to be drawn to one of these styles of approach more than the other. We each give relative weights of authority to different kinds of knowledge in the quest for truth.
In addition to those practices we have already explored, there are many other skilful ways the emptiness of phenomena can be contemplated.
An inquiry into parts and wholes
It’s clear that without the parts of any thing, there can be no whole.
A thing can be said, therefore, to be dependent on its parts. We can recognise further, though, that the very concepts ‘whole’ and ‘part’ cannot exist independently.
Indeed not just the conception, but the perception of a part, as a part, is dependent on the conception and perception of the whole to which it is seen to belong. Whole and part are mutually dependent.
We saw how the mind stitches the dots together in any experience to fabricate a solidified whole. How many of the dots could possibly be removed or absent and a perception of the whole still remain?
If random moments of the experience of this fear or this illness, for example, were magically changed into more neutral experience, at what proportion of changed moments would we no longer solidify the whole as fear or illness?
The whole is dependent on the mind.
The mind joins the dots to fabricate a whole. The voidness of that whole is evident and there can be some release.
We can recognise too that when there is a sense of a whole, the dots are also themselves interpreted as parts of that whole. As the ‘whole’ is concocted, individual moments of experience or individual spatial points of experience are not perceived discretely, separately from, or independently of, the sense of the whole.
They are given from the intuited impression of the whole a weight and significance that they do not have in themselves.
A moment of pain, for example, will not be felt as just a single, momentary experience without further significance. Rather it will seem heavier and more painful in itself, since it seems to instantiate something heavier and more oppressive - the whole.
We can contemplate that if the whole is void, then the parts that are dependent on that ‘whole’ are dependent on something that is an empty fabrication.
Practice: The Emptiness of parts and wholes
Whenever there is a sense of solidity to a difficulty. See if it is possible to directly view it as ‘empty’ based on the conviction that it is the mind that joins the dots to fabricate a solidified whole.
The Emptiness of the Body and of Material Forms
When probed a little it becomes clear that the body is not as separate from its environment as it seems; its boundaries are not as clear-cut as they appear.
When exactly does the water I drink, or the porridge I eat, become part of my body?
Are the faeces in the bowels and the urine in the bladder part of the body or not? When precisely does a teardrop or a bead of sweat falling from the face stop being part of the body?
What is true of the body is true of all material forms, and we can extent the investigation to include any material thing.
If various parts of a car or a human body were progressively removed, at what point would someone, shown what remains, not consider it a car or a body?
The mind imputes ‘car’ or ‘body’ to a perception.
Deeper teachings stress as well the voidness of matter even at the level of its most elementary and basic building blocks, or indeed however its most fundamental level might be construed.
The Neither-One-Nor-Many Reasoning
We may consider the body, or any material thing at all; or we may consider something like a bodily pain, or the pattern of bodily sensations of an emotion.
With only a little inspection it is clear that none of them is inherently ‘one’, is truly single in nature.
The body has many parts - hair, skin, nails, teeth, kidneys etc. Indeed for any material object, there will be this part and that part. And for any spatial perception, there will be different regions.
Seeing this, we may wish to simply admit instead then that the true nature of these things is manifold. However, for anything to be really ‘many’, there needs to be things that are really ‘one’.
For ‘many’ is, by definition, a collection of ‘ones’. Nothing, though, can be found that is truly singular. A hair, a tooth, a nail - none of those are inherently singular things. An atom of anything also has a nucleus and electrons, it is not essentially one. Anything that occupies space must have parts.
Postulating the existence of a partless particle that would be truly singular will not work. It would be impossible to arrange or amass such artless particles in order to form any thing from them. Having no differentiable sides, other particles could not be arranged either side of it. Such a particle would not be able to bond or interact with other particles in any direction.
Something that is really ‘one’ is impossible.
Since nothing that is truly one can possibly exist, it automatically follows that nothing that is truly many can exist either.
One may want to say simply that a thing is what it is, and we can see it as one or as many. But if something is inherently existent, it means that is has to be how it is inherently, in itself, not dependent on the mind seeing it this way or that.
Practice: Neither one nor many
Take some time to reflect on the neither-one-nor-many argument until it makes sense to you.
Choose an object to view through the lens of this reasoning. It may be the physical body, or any material object, or an area of sensation in the body.
Reflect that it is clearly not ‘one’ for instance because it has parts.
Then see that actually nothing that is really singular could exist. A partless particle is impossible, since nothing could be formed from such particles. If nothing that is really one can be found, this object now scrutinised cannot really be many.
Chapter 23: The Nature of Walking
In walking meditation it is possible to contemplate the emptiness of walking itself.
When we actually try to find ‘walking’ though, it is not so easy. We see that walking is dependent on, and actually inseparable from, a much wider field of conditions than it might seem to be at first.
None of these may be removed to leave an independently existing walking.
This opening of the awareness can at times unfurl a different appreciation, a mystical sense that the whole universe is somehow involved in the walking.
From this perspective, as has already been suggested, emptiness can also mean ‘fullness’. No thing is as small, limited and sharply defined as it seems.
It’s nature is in some ways infinite, full of the totality of other things.
Walking is always in relation, or opposition, to ‘non-walking’. If we are walking extremely slowly in meditation, at what point precisely is it not walking? When exactly does such walking become standing?
The Unfindability of Beginnings and Endings
We may inquire into the beginning of walking. Walking indeed any motion, cannot begin when stationary, since to be stationary is to be unmoving. Nor can motion begin when moving, since any moving thing is already in motion.
Conversely, stopping - the ending of walking - also cannot happen when stationary, nor when moving.
Starting to walk happens is some moment ‘before which there is no movement, but after which there is movement’.
If the whole of that moment involves walking, then walking does not start in that moment.
Either that moment has no duration. Or there must be a portion of that supposed moment when there is no motion, and a portion when there is.
A moment of no duration cannot effectively exist. It would itself have no beginning or ending and that is not possible. In any moment either there is motion or there is not.
Not just walking, but any event or situation, any emotion or state of the citta, any activity at all - whatever involves a process in time can be subjected to this analysis.
Instead of hard edges defining them, events and process can be seen as having more open nature.
The Unfindability of Walking
At any point on a walking meditation path, the section of the path that one has already traversed (A) is not ‘being gone over’. Walking is not occurring there. Nor is the section of the path 9B) that one has not yet traversed ‘being gone over’. On close inspection, walking cannot be found anywhere.
Walking that is past no longer exists. Walking that has not yet taken place does not exist either. One might assume it exists in the present, but that assumption would be problematic too.
Motion is defined as a change in position over time. This means that it cannot exist at any exact present moment.
For if the position of an object changed in that moment, that moment would actually be at least two moments - one moment in time when the object was at one position, and another when the object was at a different position.
Resting in, enjoying and consolidating the view
During any analytical meditation, once the analysis has been worked through and has given rise to a vivid sense of the emptiness of the object, it is important to rest for a while in that view of emptiness.
It is vital to enjoy this view, the sense of the magical quality of appearances, or the dissolving or unbinding of perception. Then when the sense of emptiness begins to wear off, the analysis can be repeated.
Practice: Analysing walking and finding it empty
Standing at any point, ready to walk, imagine and carefully consider the beginning of walking. See that it cannot begin in a moment when the body is stationary.
Subtle dukkha, and sweet relief
We would not normally consider, or feel, walking up and down to be dukkha.
Yet as the emptiness of it is seen - either through such analyses or some other means - and the perception of walking begins to be unbound and to open out, there will be a sense of unburdening to some extent, even where we had not actually been conscious of feeling any sense of burden.
When we walk realising that walking lacks inherent existence, the heart can be touched with a sometimes awesome sense of freedom and joy. It recognises, in the very lightness of things that it apprehends, an inexhaustible beauty and wonder.
It is only because we are accustomed to perceiving this in a particular way, and that we have nothing to compare it to, that we do not recognise the dukkha therein.
Beyond Motion, Process and Change
By looking for walking, we can realise that the processes and events of the world, although they appear and function are not ultimately findable. They are empty of inherent existence. Of course, we can regard selves and things as processes. But this will only ever be a helpful way of looking at a conventional level.
It is not the ultimate truth of things. Relative to a more profound view of emptiness, the level of liberation any process view delivers will be limited.
These arguments and ways of looking can be generalised to reveal that not only motion, but change and impermanence are also empty. For without real beginning, real ending, or real movement of transition, impermanence and change cannot be real in the way that we assume.
Chapter 24: Emptiness Views and the Sustenance of Love
Since clinging is a contraction and a kind of tension, any view that releases clinging will lead to feelings of openness and tenderness arising in their place.
Ways of looking which release clinging concoct less self in the moment and, with that, less sense of separation between self and other.
The more we digest a genuine understanding of the voidness of self and of phenomena, the more our capacity for compassion and service, for example, is freed.
We become less afraid of the suffering of the world, and more able to respond without feeling burdened.
But there are also ways we can deliberately bring in the various views of emptiness to support and empower practices like generosity etc.
Opening Love Through Loosening Self-view
Since it is understood now that there is no real way the self is, there is the possibility to imagine ourselves skilfully in different ways that might be helpful.
When we are experiencing dukkha in practice, we could introduce the imagination of oneself as a hero or heroine, a bohisattva, who is willing to endure and open to this discomfort and these difficulties for the sake of all beings.
If I am unwell, for instance, I might deliberately use those very sensations and experiences to imagine that I am dying. In so doing, I might also view the process of death as giving back of ‘my’ aggregates, elements, and constituents to the universe.
It is only when viewed through the lens of self that the vastness of the universe can appear cold, bleak, or oppressively meaningless.
Practice: Deepening meta and compassion by fabricating less self
Spend some time cultivating metta or compassion in your usual way.
When you feel ready, bring in one of the emptiness ways of looking, and gently try to sustain it moment to moment, as you continue directing love to a being.
The View of the Other
We may also turn the emptiness ways of looking toward the other. When there is judgement, ill-will, or anger at another, I might ask: Who am I angry with exactly? My anger requires that I am viewing this other as a solid self.
Considering their body, I find I cannot be angry and their body, or the parts of their body - the spleen or the lungs, the hands or the brain. Whatever part I consider, it does not seem to make sense for me to be angry with that part.
When there is anger or judgement of another the perception of what we share in common with this other is reduced, while the perception of the differences between us is intensified.
Practice: Searching for the object of negative feeling
When there is some kind of negative feeling, such as anger or judgement, toward another, practice holding this person in the attention and asking: “Who exactly am I angry with?”
Practice: Using the aggregates to recognise commonality
Practice viewing and other in terms of the aggregates. As you contemplate each aggregate in the other, recognise at the same time that this aggregate or collection exists also in yourself.
Ways of looking at the other in meta and compassion practices
It is possible too when practicing metta or compassion to make the other, also the object of an insight way of looking.
I may bring in a view of anicca, for instance, by simply holding the knowledge in the heart that this being, to whom I am directing love, is subject to death and subject also to all kinds of uncertainty and change.
Alternatively the moment-to-moment impermanence of the other may be tuned in to as one directs love to them. Then again the view of the other changes. We see their flickering and ephemeral nature, and this opens the flow of compassion.
We could also take as its object beings regarded through a lens which understands that they are ‘empty in nature’.
Practice: Viewing the object of love and compassion in different ways
As you direct metta or compassion, hold lightly in your awareness the knowledge of their mortality. At other times view the other through a lens that sees the momentary nature of their aggregates. You may also view their aggregates as empty of inherent existence.
Voidness and the Spectrum of Love
It is possible to work to sustain a view of both self and other as empty while engaging practices such as metta or compassion.
It may be that the experience deepens to a transcendent sense of non-referential love, love that has no object.
This should not be confused with love for all beings, which takes all beings as its object.
But it becomes clear to us through all this that love too is empty, and that its boundaries with other qualities are not in truth rigidly definable.
Giving and the Emptiness of What is Given
Generosity - the giving of what we value - is for many reasons always lovely, whether mixed with the understanding of voidness or not.
Generosity may take many forms. Certainly, giving in actuality is crucial - of money and material goods, of time, attention and whatever else may be helpful. But there are many forms of giving that can practiced with a meditative imagination.
In the practice of declaring merit we reflect on the beautiful qualities we are cultivating through practice. We see that mindfulness, meta, and samadhi, generosity, wisdom, and the rest all contribute significantly to happiness.
We may - in our minds - offer them, and the experiences of happiness they bring to others.
Exchanging self and other
One of the ways to support a selfless motivation over the long term is by working to cultivate an attitude of the equality of self and other. A vision and feeling that the happiness of others is just as important to me as my own happiness, that they matter equally to me.
This can be augmented in meditation by imagining exchanging the happiness of self and other - giving away one’s happiness to another and taking on suffering so that they might be spared it.
One may sustain a view of the emptiness of the aggregates, while prayerfully offering them to all beings.
Creative play in practice
Any practice involving imaginal giving - such as dedicating merit or exchanging self and other - admits many possible variations. It can be very beneficial to retain a flexibility and fluidity of approach.
Practice: exchanging self and other
When there is a moment of happiness practice tuning in to the experience and offering this happiness or pleasure to others.
Emptiness and Equanimity
Views of emptiness also help love by supporting a degree of equanimity in relation to the suffering of beings.
What seems negative and difficult is not necessarily so in itself, since much that is positive may come from it - if it is met with mindfulness, curiosity, and wisdom, for instance.
There may be occasions when our best efforts have not prevented a particular suffering, and yet some unforeseen blessing or growth of being emerged from the painful situation.
The effects of our actions are thus not simply isolatable as separate entities. They rapidly become mixed, infinite and unknowable.
Part 8: No Traveler, No Journey
Chapter 25: Emptiness and Awareness (2)
What then of awarenesses?
However we conceive it: whether as one of the aggregates, as the collection of the four mental aggregates, or as something other than the aggregates. And whatever we call it - awareness, consciousness, mind, citta, ‘that which knows’. It too is void of inherent existence.
Realising in meditation the voidness of consciousness is an even more subtle affair.
It might be helpful to examine briefly one or two of the more common notions of the nature of mind and of its emptiness, and see just where they are helpful and where they are limited.
Mind as mirror
Once conception of awareness is that it is somehow like a mirror that reflects the objects of the world. A large part of our task in practice would then be to ‘clean’ the mirror so that it might reflect things clearly and truly.
‘Emptiness of Mind’ in this view is sometimes taken to mean a state of no thought. For thoughts would be like spots of dirt on the mirror’s surface, distorting and obscuring the reflection of things.
Two problems with this notion will be immediately clear from all that we have discovered through practice by now.
- Implicit in this idea is the belief in an objective reality reflecting ‘things as they are’.
- There is the assumption that, like a mirror, awareness reflects things effortlessly, passively.
From our more thorough investigation of fabrication though, we have seen that the objects of perception are concocted, through various forms of clinging, to appear as this or that, and that without clinging - which is not passing, but a doing - they are not anything objectively in themselves.
Vast awareness as source of all things
Sometimes when there is a sense of the vastness of awareness, it can seem that this vastness is the transcendent ‘source’ of all other transient phenomena.
Things seem to arise out of, and disappear back into, this space; and this sense of things may be profoundly helpful in supporting equanimity, love and freedom.
Awareness seems free and independent, uninvolved in and unperturbed by the movements and machinations of ‘small mind’, or reactivity and thought.
If one seeks the fullness of insight it is not ultimately helpful to regard awareness or anything else, as the source of appearances.
The way awareness seems at any time is dependent on the way of looking.
Practicing in certain ways, awareness will likely seem vast and imperturbable.
One another occasion, practicing with a narrowly focused attention it is quite possible to have a sense of a consciousness not as vast and imperturbable but as arising and ceasing together with different phenomena with immense rapidity.
This appearance of a vastness of awareness is itself a fabrication. It is not ultimate. Without the support of a certain level of clinging it too will fade.
There is knowing but it is empty of true existence. There is no inherently existing entity - ‘mind’ or ‘awareness’. Nor any truly existing ‘process’ of consciousness.
Stepping-stones to Deeper Insight
Statements that outer objects are ‘mind only’ may be taken at different levels.
Some practitioners may feel comfortable with the insight that all things are of the same substance or nature as awareness.
Others may feel more comfortable with the more sophisticated insight that objects do not exist in themselves without being fabricated by the mind, as explained in other chapters.
How might we realise that mind ‘lacks any essence’. One possibility is through recognising that the mind or awareness cannot be found.
The fact that when we look for the mind we cannot see anything that has colour, shape, or form does not go very far at all in demonstrating its essential unreality.
That a thing is not tangible or visible does not necessarily imply its emptiness.
The mind’s existing as an entity of mere knowing - its non-existence as anything physical, together with its capacity to know objects appearing to it - is in fact only a conception of the nature of mind at a conventional level.
Awareness is void, for it is dependent on what is empty
Maybe it was the buddha’s intention to translate it as a verbal ‘knowing’ rather than a substantive noun such as ‘consciousness’, ‘awareness’, or ‘mind’. Then it points away from the conception of some kind of entity with an ethereal substance that ‘does’ the knowing or ‘is’ aware.
More importantly even ‘knowing’ needs a ‘known’.
Thus awareness is awareness of an appearance, a perception. No matter how subtle or seemingly all-inclusive the perception, or how refined or expansive the awareness seems, without a perception, an object known, ‘knowing’ is meaningless.
Arising simultaneously, there is no time for either to cause the other. Knowing and known, awareness and perception always go together. They cannot be separated so that we have one without the other.
Just as we explored with regard to clinging, consciousness is contingent on, inseparable from, and jointly fabricated with, something that is not really real.
If we have seen deeply the fading of perception for ourselves firsthand, we understand how knowing and known, consciousness and perception, are inextricably bound up together - they are fabricated together, and they fade together.
We may also have seen, as we shall shortly explore, how time - past, present and future - is inseparably fabricated in the process.
We comprehend that rather than any one element, such as awareness, being real while others are fabricated, the whole show is concocted together, like a “magician’s trick”.
Mutual dependency - a mystical groundlessness
The fabrication of any object of experience is also the fabrication of a consciousness.
But clinging, as we explored, is empty and dependent itself on an object of perception. It must also be dependent on consciousness.
Perception, consciousness and clinging thus all lean on each other, without true separation, and without any other basis.
Being mutually dependent, they are all ultimately groundless and empty. Leaning only on each other and fabricated together they are fundamentally groundless and not truly separate.
The whole structure of knowing and known collapses through insight.
If it is pondered well, an experience of the cessation of the six sense consciousnesses can make the emptiness of all consciousness clear.
Practice: Meditating on the mutual emptiness of consciousness and perception
Hold any perception in attention. Introduce the view of that object as empty. As you continue to do so, tune in as well to the sense of consciousness, of ‘knowing’ that goes with the perception in the moment. Gently introduce the understanding that this knowing is dependent on, and inseparable from, an empty known, so that it must also be empty.
Unless we deliberately and thoroughly see for ourselves the emptiness of some thing, it is safe to assume that we are ascribing inherent existence to that phenomenon, whether we realise it or not.
Chapter 26: About Time
So basic to our very sense of the existence of any thing, time intuitively appears to us as having itself an independent reality.
It seems obvious that the flow of time is simply there, absolute, a kind of container for phenomena and events, steadily continuing irrespective of the way of looking, or of what appears or does not appear within it.
Profound insight, though, can see through, melt, rupture, or open out the seeming reality of time.
It would be a shame to live a whole life and to die without tasting the mystery and freedom that come when there is some sense of release from the apparent confines of this relentless and inescapable flow.
Seeing the voidness of time implies and reveals the voidness of awareness too.
A sense of the emptiness of time or its transcending can, if desired, cogently open the doors to the realms of imaginal or tantric practices.
Typically as a meditator learns to settle attention (s)he sees how much the sense of past and future is constructed by thought, and also how much dukkha is wrapped up in thinking about the past and the future.
Inhabiting the present more fully can feel wonderful and vivifying.
But although it can be a helpful way of looking for a while to see that “it’s always the present”, that “only now exists” such notions reify and sometimes eternalise ‘the now’.
Eventually the present needs to be seen through also. Realising the emptiness of all time - past, future and present - is essential to a more radical liberation.
Two analytical meditations
- This moment is neither one nor many
One possible approach is to apply the neither-one-nor-many reasoning to the present moment in meditation.
If any moment really has inherent existence, it has to be one or many. If it is one, then either it is divisible into a beginning, middle, and end, or it is not. If it is divisible, then that one moment is not in fact one but three moments.
The beginning must come before the middle and the end, and so it is really a different moment in time. But if the moment cannot be divided, it must be nonexistent, infinitely small.
Without any differentiation between beginning and end, it would be impossible to arrange such singular moments in order of time, of happening.
Central to our intuitive sense of time is the perception and felt notion that there are portions of time that are existing or happening now, and others that are not; and that these others not now existing fall into two discernible groups - the past, which is gone, and the future, which is yet to come.
Contemplating this moment of consciousness and seeing that this moment has no inherent existence, we automatically see that consciousness lacks inherent existence.
This applies too to whatever phenomena involve and exist in time, since, for any thing to be, it needs a time be ‘in’. Without a reality to the time that it exists in, a phenomenon is without a fundamental basis.
- Diamond slivers
A shard of diamond is said to be able to cut through anything. This present moment of time cannot possible arise from itself. Arising is meaningless for something which already exists; and to exist before it arises is clearly not possible. If it arises from something other, that other would have to be either some other thing, factor, force or energy in the present moment or any past moment.
It cannot arise from something existing in the present moment though: being in the same moment, that would be a case of the moment arising from itself, which we have just said is meaningless.
But it cannot arise from a past moment either, since any past moment must have completely disappeared before the present moment can arise.
Practice: This moment is neither one nor many
Focusing on a sense of the present moment - bring into view the understanding that this moment cannot be one, since it must have a beginning, a middle and an end and these must occur at different times.
Practice: Diamond slivers
While maintaining a focus on the present moment consider that it cannot arise caused by itself, since, as described above, that would make no sense.
Consider also that its arising might be caused by something other, and see that that too is not possible.
Consider the 3rd possibility that it arises from both self and other is also not tenable as it would not overcome the deficiencies of each of the first two possibilities.
Reflect on the fourth possibility that it arises independent of any causes and conditions. But the present moment needs the past to have preceded it.
Time and Mutual Dependency
We can consider that just like ‘left’, ‘centre’ and ‘right’, the very notions of ‘past’, ‘present’ and ‘future’ depend on each other. None of these three has any independent existence. Each is meaningless without the others.
Clinging and concoction
That a sense of time is dependent also on clinging is uncovered through our phenomenological inquiry into the fabrication of perception.
We can notice that the sense of time becomes more prominent when there is a degree of craving or aversion to something.
Having to queue when we don’t want to or when we want to be somewhere else. Conversely, when grasping and aversion are relaxed the sense of time becomes much lighter.
As meditation deepens, various experiences of timelessness may be allowed as the perception of time is fabricated less and less, or not at all.
We see for ourselves then a strange truth: all sense of time - of past, of future, and of present - is fabricated by clinging.
Self, things, time
The perceptions of self, of things, and of time all rely on and feed each other.
The sense of time is given substance and significance when substance and significance is given to things, to objects of perception.
We can notice too that the perceived importance of such measurement and comparison is usually for and in reference to a self that is also intuitively conceived to exist in time, and to continue in time.
The perceived importance of such measurement and comparison is usually for and in reference to a self that is also intuitively conceived to exist in time, and to continue in time.
We already know that since it is fabricated through clinging, the self-send requires some thing to be given significance, to be clung to. It also needs a sense and conception of time. At a relatively gross level, we can see that our habit of mentally stretching out into past and future some personal difficulty or prospect of progress intensifies and solidifies the self-sense.
Things, whether they be ‘issues’ or objects, would also have little significance without a conception of time stretching from past through the present to the future.
We can play with the dependencies more deliberately by approaching it from any of the three angles - self, things or time.
Fabricating less sense of self we see how perceptions of things lose their solidity and then fade. But the perception of time can lessen also.
Or when through seeing their voidness the perception of things fades, we may see too how the perception of self and time fade also.
Similarly ways of looking that contemplate the emptiness of time to some extent will be found to calm the fabrication of objects of perception and of self.
At the most fundamental level: self, things and time are mutually dependent on each other, as three sticks might form a somewhat fragile tripod. Co-arising in any moment of perception, none can actually stand alone.
Time is dependent on what is empty
Because of the fundamental duality intuitively and habitually conceived between existence and non-existence, the very perception of any thing in the present subtly and implicitly weaves in a conception of time - at least of present and future.
Where there is a thing, there is immediately implied and intuited the possibility, in time of ‘not that thing’, of its non-existence.
The perception of any thing involves a conception of fundamental duality; and involved in this conception of duality is a conception of time.
Without the potential of comparison and measurement between things - time is not perceivable. A sense of the present comes only with the perception of some thing.
A sense of the present comes only with the perception of some thing.
Any perception of time is dependent on a perception of a thing.
The perceptions and conceptions of time and of other things are wrapped up in, and mutually dependent on each other. Something more astounding, mysterious and profound is implied by their leaning on each other this way. Time and object are essentially inseparable; one cannot be found without the other. It might even be said that time is in some sense an ‘aspect of the object’.
Self can be contemplated as empty since it depends on time and on things, which are both empty. Things can be contemplated as empty because they depend on time and on self, which are both empty. Awareness needs a sense of the present moment. The present, we have seen, is dependent on past and future and also on the perception of an object. Since these are all empty, consciousness must be empty as well.
Beyond ‘Permanent’ and ‘Impermanent’ - The True Nature of Things
Because time is empty, perceptions are, in a sense ‘empty of themselves’. It is not simply that they are conveying ‘objective illusions’. We may ask: does a perception really exist - in one moment or in many? If time is empty, then production, arising, and ceasing must also be empty.
Without an ultimate reality to things or time, neither permanence nor impermanence can be an ultimate truth. A belief in anicca as ultimately true implies, as well as a belief in the ultimate reality of time, a belief in, and a seeing in terms of, the existence and non-existence of things - the two extreme views avoided by the Buddha’s ‘Middle Way’ of emptiness.
If things do not either really exist or really not exist, then an assertion of their impermanence is ultimately untenable.
The voidness of time radically undermines the reality of moments, and makes such a statement essentially meaningless.
The true nature of things is neither permanence nor impermanence. Rather everything - including arising and ceasing - is dependently arisen, and thus empty.
Practice: approaches to the emptiness of time
It is possible to arrive at a realisation of the voidness of time through many different means:
- glimpses of timelessness (through anatta practice)
- analyse a moment of time in relationship to its parts.
- time depends on the perception of things. If they are empty so is time.
Chapter 27: Dependent Origination (2)
We can take our exploration of dependent arising further still.
The illusion of elements of mind
Let’s take a closer look at some of the other mental factors. As well as vedana and perception, these include intention, attention and contact.
They are all involved in any process of cognition, and as we have stated before, in the shaping and fabrication of appearances.
When we inquire into any of these elements we find that they are actually inseparable and mutually dependent.
When we ponder what attention is, for example, we see that it is comprised of intention and consciousness. This is so even for the most fleeting moment of attention.
The intention places or holds the consciousness of an object we might say.
We can see that this intention that goes with attention is actually a mental movement toward some thing, and a grasping, a holding on to some object of perception. Thus it is essentially indistinguishable from the movements of craving and clinging.
The dividing lines between clinging, craving, intention and attention are not clearly or inherently demarcated. The differences between these factors are not fundamental, but only a matter of degree.
We have seen how a sense of time, of this moment, is delineated by the perception of some thing - in other words, by what is known. Since known and knowing are mutually dependent and inseparable, this means that this moment is dependent on knowing. That is time is dependent on consciousness. Consciousness and time, therefore, are mutually dependent and mutually empty.
Contact - defined as the coming together of sense base, sense object and consciousness - is likewise not findable as a separate thing. We need only invoke for example the emptiness of consciousness to realise that contact too must be void.
Sankhara and avijja
What is meant by avijja ‘delusion’ or ‘ignorance’ must encompass a range of mistake intuitions, from a relatively gross lack of understanding to the most subtle and deeply rooted misconceptions. A lack of awareness of the ultimate nature of all things is the deepest level of avijja.
The term sankhara also encompasses a broad range in its meaning. Sankhara referee to the manifestation, through body, speech and mind both of fabrications, that is phenomena that are fabricated, as well as the forces and movements of fabricating.
Subtle dependent origination
When we consider a relatively gross level of avijja - for instance, a lack of clarity about what leads to happiness and what leads to dukkha - it is quite easy to see how such ignorance impels and directs to forces of fabrication that make up sankhara.
Convinced that we need the approval of others in order to be happy, certain intentions, thoughts and ways of looking will be triggered and attention channelled in certain ways on entering into certain situations. Intentions and attention will be determined and propelled to some significant extent by such avijja.
But this is in fact evident at a much more basic and subtle level too. Whenever there is any sense of self, any perception of an object, and any sense of time, there will be intentions, perhaps subtle to maintain, remove, or transform that perception for the sake of self.
The avijja is in the conception - of an object being known by a subject in time. Implicit in this conceiving are various dualities.
No ground, no centre
Examining sankhara and avijja more closely, we find only mutual dependencies, only entities that are empty of inherent existence and lacking true separation.
A sankhara such as the intention to pay attention, for example is dependent on a sense of a subject, no matter how subtle. It is also dependent on a perception and conception of an object; and on a sense of a present and a next moment. Any intention, since it is an intention for something is always in relation to an object and always involves a sense of time.
No matter how finely one probes the mind, no really existing element is arrived at, and thus also none that can serve as a real basis. There is nothing that is not empty.
Wherever we look for some thing to form a building block, a platform for or a constituent of mind, we find only empty phenomena.
In practice any individual element may be picked up and held within a view that comprehends its contingencies, inseparabilities and emptiness.
And ways of looking that contemplate the voidness and groundlessness of all the interpenetrating factors at once can also be sustained.
Practice: Meditating on the voidness of attention and of the elements of mind
Choose a relatively steady object to attend to. Introduce the way of looking that understands that this object depends on this attention and that conversely, this attention depends on this object.
Practice: Meditating on the mutual emptiness of subject, object and time
Choose an object and begin to regard it as empty. Then include also the understanding that mind is also empty. Then you can gently add the contemplation of the emptiness of time and the present moment.
Practice: Contemplating the dependencies of sankhara and consciousness
The mutual dependency of sankhara (intentions) can also be contemplated.
Entering the Mystery of Dependent Co-Arising
We typically assume that some basic entities must truly exist, even if only momentarily and that these basic entities are at least conceivably findable and separable.
The dependent co-arising of things means much more than that they are caused by other things. It means more fully, that things are ultimately unfindable and inconceivable, that they are void, that phenomena have no real existence.
Although we can gain much from a level which interprets the teaching of dependent origination as the operation in time of a rapid and complex mechanism of feedback loops, we have seen through deep practice that dependent arising cannot ultimately be viewed as a process which happens in time.
It would be more deeply true to say that time is, itself, a dependent arising. And since time is a notion so fundamental to our conceiving of the arising and existence of things, such a startling realisation simply short-circuits any conceptually based attempt to fully map out a process of how phenomena arise.
The most profound import of the teaching of dependent origination is not yet reached if there remains a belief in any view that would reduce it finally to a mechanism involving basic elements in time.
Included in a fuller insight is the comprehension that everything is dependently arisen, everything is empty.
Dependent co-origination points to insights beyond the grasp of language, logic and our usual conceptions.
A view which comprehends the emptiness of all phenomena does not, and cannot, give an ultimately coherent explanation of the functioning of conventional reality in conceptual terms.
Any such hypothetical account could only be available from views which reify at least some thing as elementary, including time.
For explanation is not the task of emptiness; liberation is.
Contemplating in meditation the mutual contingency and emptiness of the elements of dependent origination is, in effect, a way of looking with a drastically reduced level of avijja.
The teaching of dependent origination is thus purely a ‘skilful means’. It uses concept and conventionalities, but sets up contemplations of their relationships in ways that eventually melt and transcend those very concepts and perceptions.
Chapter 28: Dependent Cessation - The Unfabricated, The Deathless
Phrases such as ‘cessation of consciousness’ clearly indicate something more than a cessation of only the grosser distortions of consciousness. What the Buddha was describing here is not a state of ‘equanimous objectivity’ with regard to the things of the world - a state of perceiving things ‘purely’ because the accumulated residues, encrustations and biases from the past no longer flow into the present to influence or veil perception.
What is being referred to is a complete fading and cessation of all appearances and of all the elements that make up conventional experience - including all six sensory consciousnesses together with all their associated contacts, vedana, perceptions etc. All are utterly transcended.
An experience wherein conventional perception ceases is not really describable.
Since conceiving and language are based on notions of subject, object and time.
How can what remains when they collapse possibly be conceived by the mind or conveyed in words?
The experience of cessation does not involve the perception of any kind of object.
A sensitivity and subtlety of discernment is needed to navigate the apparent diversity of these statements.
When the emptiness of any object is contemplated intensely in meditation, the object fades. If the vacuity that appears in place of the object is pregnant with the meaning of emptiness, then emptiness can be said to be the object of consciousness at that time.
As the meditation deepens, however, the conceptual and perceptual construction of subject and object, knower and known, begins to collapse and there begins to be a blending of this consciousness and this emptiness.
With the collapse of both subject and object, it cannot be accurate to say that there is a knowing of some thing, or object, by some consciousness. Nevertheless, it can be spoken of this way, as long as we recognise that we are using the language of ‘as though’ - that is, a manner of speaking paralleling the perspective of conventional reality, where consciousness knows an object.
Language and concept, as we have said, necessarily involve notions of subject and object.
Choosing a word such as ‘unbinding’ to translate nirvana may help take the conception away from any kind of object. Similarly, at a certain level at least, it might be more accurate to speak of ‘unfabricating’.
However, conceiving will usually enter quickly and habitually even for a meditator working at this level. Especially when it is a momentary glimpse, an experience of cessation may be interpreted after the fact in terms that conceive of it as a knowing of an unfabricated ‘object’.
Or it may be that the knowing consciousness is assumed to have an inherent existence somehow. Or the insight that led up to the experience might be reified and clung to.
Several passages suggest that there is a fuller liberation when attachment to such conceiving is dissolved through insight.
This ‘consciousness without attribute’ cannot be equated to any of the formless jhanas. Nor can it be equated to the vastness of awareness.
In an experience of a vastness of awareness as we described it, perceptions of time and space are still being fabricated.
The Unfabricated cannot be confined to conceptual and linguistic designations of ‘existing’ or ‘not existing’.
Often we will discover that we do harbour a bias either towards affirming the existence of an Unfabricated or towards denying it.
Two possible spiritual / metaphysical inclinations:
- a spirituality of ‘that’, where the heart is pulled towards a sense of something transcendent.
- a spirituality of ‘this’ where a transcendent is denied and the heart devotes itself to ‘this’, the ‘reality of this moment’.
Those who gravitate towards a religiosity of ‘this’ may assume that those who are drawn toward ‘that’ are afraid of meeting and tolerating the impermanence and existential limitations of ‘this’, of ‘concrete reality’ and very occasionally such suspicions might be accurate.
But one may then cling to a notion that ‘this is it’ out of some sense that this reality is what has to be faced up to.
Or there may be in the sense that ‘this is it’ a great sensibility to the beauty of the particulars of experience revealed by mindfulness in the moment - this sound, this sight, this touch.
Usually woven into that sense, though, are all kinds of often unconscious assumptions about what is real. There may be a hidden clinging to the belief in and prioritising of ‘this’, because transcending it seems as though it would be ‘life-denying’ in some way.
If you have been using practices that make the emptiness of phenomena clear - it is probable that the inclination to consciously espouse a view asserting the reality of ‘this’ will have been considerably weakened.
Cessation and Insight
Whether or not there is a stage of reifying an Unfabricated, we have said before that fading and cessation need most of all to be understood in the context of dependent origination and fabrication - the building of subject, object and time.
It is through these insight ways of looking, which naturally dismantle and dissolve the whole edifice of appearances, that we learn about fabrication and dependent origination.
Insight is Empty Too
For some experiences of cessation can become focal points for attachment, both subtle and not so subtle, in a number of ways.
This is understandable. The unbinding and melting of subject, object and time that occurs in cessation can be an awesome and profoundly moving experience.
It is very easy for an element of chasing or pushing for such an experience to creep in to the meditation, sometimes unnoticed.
But of course, as manifestation of clinging at that point it is likely that such pushing will actually prevent a cessation experience.
It is possible to gently remind oneself that it is the understanding of emptiness and dependent origination that is the most important thing.
A little reflection reveals that insight ways of looking are in fact empty too - for many reasons.
Practice: meditating on the emptiness of insight
Choose any object of perception. For a little while sustain any insight way of looking that sees its emptiness. When you feel ready include the awareness of the insight way of looking. Then being to include in the view an understanding of its emptiness too. This may rest on the understanding that it exists in time, but that time is empty.
Part 9: Like a Dream, Like a Magician's Illusion
Chapter 29: Beyond the Beyond
Some of the understanding as they have emerged so far from our observations might set up an orientation wherein appearances are somehow denigrated.
The appearances of the world may be viewed to be essentially the results and manifestations of ignorance. Cessation, on the other hand, might be seen as ultimately more true and desirable.
Although on one level it can certainly be said that dukkha, self and appearances arise in dependence on avijja - like all the other links in the web of dependent origination - is throughly empty also.
While appearances are dependent on delusion, delusion is also dependent on appearances. It only exists with, and in relation to, appearances; and appearances, we know are empty. Avijja is also dependent on consciousness.
Without consciousness there can be no delusion and consciousness too is void.
And of course avijja must also be dependent on time. Like anything else, it needs a time to ‘be in’; and because time is empty, avijja can only be empty.
Rather than regarding appearances as ultimately inferior, when we dwell in a realisation that everything is empty, appearances may appear to us magical, holy even. They are no longer imbued with the sense of the taint of ignorance.
Such insight does not set up merely a return to ordinary unexamined assumptions though.
In their wondrous insubstantiality and their utter lack of any foundation now all appearances may be seen to express a profound and mystical blessedness and even bliss.
For if all the links in the map of dependent origination are empty, and if time, arising and ceasing are also empty, then fabrication and dependent origination themselves must also be empty.
How, after all, could fabrication be something ultimately real, if its elemental building blocks, its results and the time that it happens in are all void?
Fabrication and dependent origination are conceptual constructs that are immensely helpful at a certain level. But they are in fact only relative truths.
What is extraordinary about them is that they have the capability to take the understanding beyond their own meaning in this remarkable way.
They eventually negate even themselves.
If arising and ceasing are empty, and the fabricated is not really fabricated, then cessation also is not really real.
Moreover, posited in duality with the fabricated, the Unfabricated must be void as well.
Many sutras stress the ‘emptiness of the unconditioned’ and the ‘emptiness of the ultimate’.
Understanding all this in a manner that can be brought into our ways of looking opens up an exquisite and profound beauty.
Through this dualistic conception, the world of appearances - the fabricated - will inevitable be demeaned somehow, even subtly, relative to the Unfabricated.
Then we are no longer constrained to seeing some things as being really the product of the ‘fault’ of ignorance, whilst conceiving of another as ‘pure’.
Everything can now be seen to be ‘pure’, wondrously so.
For nothing, ultimately is the product of anything.
No thing is truly fabricated or truly unfabricated. Then also we are no longer constrained to seeing fabricated things as unreal, while regarding the transcendent Unfabricated, wholly ‘Other’ as real.
All can now be seen to be equally ‘unreal’ or ‘real’, equally miraculous. Beauty and truth are everywhere.
Unfolding these understandings and practising them as meditative views can liberate a tremendous joy.
Realising that fabrication, cessation, the fabricated and the Unfabricated are all empty, a conception of nirvana, the goal of the path, as some kind of cessation of appearances and manifestation is no longer ultimately meaningful.
In the later tradition, a ‘non-abiding nirvana’ - an awakening that is neither a dwelling in cessation nor a being mired in reifying the appearances of samsara - is explicitly regarded as the aim of the path, the enlightenment of a Buddha.
Not elevating a removal of appearances, it more fully embodies a non-dual understanding.
In so doing, it leaves open an infinity of possibilities for the expression and activities of compassion.
Through the insight that understands the emptiness of all things without exception the belief in any ultimately real duality between samsara and nirvana collapses.
If craving and ignorance are void, then ultimately whatever is considered a defilement is not really real.
An unremitting exploration of fabrication and dependent arising opens a vision of the world as nirvana - a world of magical appearances, groundless and thoroughly empty yet mystically appearing.
Sometimes in Dhama teachings there is an emphasis on reaching a state of ‘disenchantment’ with the world and with all the things of the world.
The bringing about of this disenchantment is then regarded by some as the purpose of practice
Experiences of disenchantment can often be merely expression of the presence of aversion in the citta, rather than of any great insight.
The sanskrit word samskrta which we have been translating as ‘fabricated’ or ‘concocted’, with all the subtly negative implications of falsity that those translations carry, can also mean ‘consecrated’, ‘sanctified’, ‘hallowed’. For this is the felt sense we have with a certain depth of insight into fabrication.
Skill in view
Even though ignorance, fabrication and cessation are empty, it is still the case that when we actually engage in a way of looking that sees deeply the emptiness of phenomena appearances will fade. There will be at least some degree of movement towards cessation.
It is said that only the non-dual wisdom awareness of a Buddha is able to fully know the emptiness of appearances without those appearances fading.
Only a Buddha can sustain perceptions while thoroughly cognising the voidness of those perceptions.
For all others, even those who have profound understanding and direct experiences of emptiness and cessation, practice must alternate between times of more fading and times when appearances are more manifest.
At times meditators might skilfully incorporate an intentional modulation of the fading of appearances, so that a practitioner decides where to be on the spectrum of fading at a particular time.
If we understood the emptiness of phenomena deeply through experience and also understood the emptiness of ignorance and of fabricating, then a way of looking may be practised which holds these understandings within it, but lightly.
It may well be that such a way of looking is most accessible directly on emerging from more in-depth contemplation of the emptiness of all things - where there has been a considerable fading, but where now there is a re-forming of the world of appearances.
Through the view of this lens the thoroughly empty nature of appearances is acknowledged to a certain extent, but not focused on too intensely.
Things can then still appear. Yet they appear groundless, magical, less substantial.
The deep understanding of their empty and insubstantial nature also the renders appearances much more malleable, more able to be seen, for instance, as ‘radiant’ in their voidness, or even ‘divine’ - without reifying ‘radiance’, ‘divinity’ or the appearances themselves.
Since a Buddha’s mysterious ultimate gnosis somehow unites a full cognising of both appearances and emptiness, a practice which sustains such a view and the possibilities which it opens would be a skilful imitation of a Buddha’s way of looking.
Practice: Viewing appearances, knowing avijja is void
Choose any object of perception, begin to view it through a lens that understands that it is fabricated. Especially the understanding that it is fabricated by avijja. Begin to include in the way of looking the understanding that this avijja operating right now must be empty also.
Practice: Meditating on the emptiness of fabricating
Either focusing more narrowly on one object or working with a wider field of attention, begin to sustain a view that the object of perception is empty. Begin to gradually include in the way of looking the understanding that ignorance, consciousness and time are all empty. Start to include the implication that follows: there is no real arising or ceasing, no thing that is really fabricated and no real source of fabrication.
Chapter 30: Notions of the Ultimate
Reading Buddhist texts and listening to teachings, one typically meets a range of perspectives defining what is ultimate.
One way of clinging to a view of emptiness would be to conceive of it as a thing, a space, or a real, with inherent existence. Such views, though, we have already discounted in discussing notions of the nature of awareness and of the Unfabricated.
Our use too of the concept of emptiness in a more adjectival way, right from the beginning, ensures that the emptiness of emptiness is in fact relatively obvious. For if emptiness always qualifies some phenomenon or other, then it is always dependent on that phenomenon.
Here then, the ultimate view is described as transcending the concepts ‘empty’ and ‘emptiness’. It is the ‘unspeakable, inconceivable, inexpressible perfection of wisdom.’
Sometimes the ultimate truth of things is declared to be their emptiness of inherent existence. But at other times the ultimate is declared to be beyond all assertions and conceptual designations, including emptiness.
We have already said that ways of looking are anyway unavoidable, and that some kind of conceiving is wrapped up in all perceiving.
One possible way of clinging to a view of emptiness might be through an overly rigid adherence to some particular way of looking.
Without emptiness ways of looking a genuinely radical shift in understanding is not usually possible.
Since a conceptual view of emptiness is almost always necessary to approach the non-conceptual ultimate, some schools refer to it as the ‘approximate’ ultimate.
A conceptual view of emptiness is a key that opens up the freedom of the Middle Way beyond all conceptual designations.
Any conceiving or conceptual position at all is regarded as a kind of ‘proliferation’ and any conceptual view as, effectively, a kind of extremity of view that cannot be the authentic middle way.
The coalescence of emptiness and appearances
Within the later tradition, sometimes the ultimate is defined from the perspective of a Buddha’s gnosis (wisdom awareness). Since that gnosis is regarded as the highest wisdom and the ultimate view, the characteristics, contents, and perceptions of that wisdom awareness are taken to determine what is ultimate.
Such an approach has many significant consequences.
It is said that, along with its characteristic of non-conceptuality, a Buddha’s gnosis embodies a completely non-dual realisation of pure emptiness.
In an inconceivable way, ‘subject’ (wisdom awareness) and ‘object’ (emptiness) are totally undifferentiated.
And yet, as we mentioned earlier, despite its utter non-conceptuality and its immovability from a non-dual condition of emptiness this gnosis mysteriously somehow also cognizes appearances.
There is no freedom from delusion to be achieved by dispelling delusion. But because the nature of delusion is totally pure, it has the nature of enlightenment. All phenomena are in this way primordially in the state of enlightenment.
Realising that ignorance is empty enables us to view a world of empty and magical appearances whose essential nature is not different from nirvana.
Moreover, these appearances are not separate form the mind that knows them; and this mind, or awareness, is empty too.
Realising the empty nature of mind actually opens up a profound sense of its mystical nature.
There is knowing, but it is void of inherent existence, without a real centre and not ultimately of time. Being empty, it is essentially free and its nature is beyond all conception.
A way of looking which views awareness this way, and views appearances as empty, magical, and inseparable from it, may be immensely potent.
Certainly it run the risk that awareness is reified at times by the practitioner.
A Buddha’s gnosis, as much as it is something we aiming to develop, is already here and now. It is only that we do not realise it.
The more profound the insights into emptiness, the more the doors to tantric and imaginal practices are opened, and the more one is able to perceive all things as magical, empty and divine.
Chapter 31: An Empowerment of Views
No matter how skilful, any way of looking at appearances which we employ is empty is still in fact a relative view.
Since, for us, there is always at least some conceiving whenever there are appearances, no way of looking at appearances should be clung to as literally being a non-conceptual ultimate view.
Nor should any be clung to as being a kind of window revealing finally ‘true’ appearances, things which are definitively, singular, actually ‘what is’. Insight into emptiness enables different ways of looking’; and different ways of looking bring deepening insight into emptiness.
Through all this, a profound freeing up on the whole sense of existence is possible.
While we have considered now a number of ways in which it is possible to cling to voidness as one journeys on the path of insight, it is undoubtedly also possible, and much more common, to cling to reifications of conventional appearances or to reifications of other aspects of relative truth.
Teaching are not proclaiming that language or cultural assumptions are the primary problem. Nor that reasoning and logic are to be dismissed as unhelpful in the pursuit of freedom.
Although eventually the entire net of concepts is eventually to be transcended.
We use reasoning and logic as tools to make evident that our most basic normal assumptions about things cannot possibly be true.
Emptiness teachings are not saying “Don’t think, just experience”, or ultimately, “Just stay at the moment of contact with things as they are”, for fundamental delusion is woven right into our very experience, or ‘basic’ perception, even when there is no thinking.
Stressing that the conventional existence of the thing is not negated by realization of its emptiness might encourage a beginning practitioner to assume, even tacitly, that some objective basis within a thing remains, somehow separate from, untouched and unaffected by, the emptiness of that thing.
Thus it might be assumed that a part of that thing called its ‘conventional existence’ is not empty.
This leaving of something ‘real’ leaves something to cling to, and a basis for dukkha.
The inclination to somehow grant a level of objective truth to conventional reality is understandable, and such a tendency is not always motivated only by ethical concerns.
We humans seem to possess a hard-to-fracture clinging to the intuitive conviction that there really is something that exists in an independent way, and then want to know what “really” is there.
As we probe, ask, and analyse more deeply, we find only dependency, relativity, emptiness. And whatever the linguistic and conceptual framework of our inquiry, eventually even the clear distinction between conventional and ultimate begins to blur. A bow begins..
A radical opening
Rather than attempting to proffer ultimately coherent explanations of the workings of conventional appearances, and reifying them in the process, what is deemed important is the realisation of the ultimate nature of things.
The relative is what appears, the ultimate is its nature. There are appearances, and these appearances are empty.
What makes a perception valid at one level is its agreement with the perceptions of beings at a similar level. In this view it is understood that we share habitual tendencies to perceive in certain ways, and it is merely the stability of these shared perceptual tendencies that renders a perception valid conventionally at any particular level.
A clinging to wanting to determine what is ‘really and unequivocally there’ on a conventional level simply betrays a mistaken premise of fundamental delusion.
Perhaps we may say, with the Buddha, that some questions do not need answers.
What matters is the freedom and love that comes from realisation of the emptiness of all phenomena.
Still, our inquiry into emptiness involves inquiry into appearances; and since cessation is not regarded as the goal, that inquiry may become a kind of open-ended exploration - of ways of looking and the perceptions of their associated appearances.
It is not the assumed objectivity status of its appearances at a conventional level, but the blessing and liberation that any way of looking effects that becomes the primary criterion for judging it.
The adoption of a core approach of exploring different ways of looking has been concordant with a fundamental and vital insight right from the start.
It is in fact the fundamental openness of things that allows us the possibility to play with ways of looking, and to see their effects on the heart and on perception.
In the end, everything is empty. Heart, appearance, way of looking - these too are void, and actually inseparable.
At this level, it is certainly clear that the state of the citta shapes and colours perception. Understanding all this opens a door. In practice we may, to a degree, shape empty perception in the service of freedom and compassion.
There is space here, and space for reverence and devotion. When we see the void - the open and groundless nature of all things, the inseparability of appearances and emptiness - we recognise anyway just how profound is our participation in the magic of appearances.
Whether fabrication, which is empty, is consciously intended in a certain direction or not, the heart bows to the fathomless wonder and beauty of it all.
It can be touched by an inexhaustible amazement, touched again and again by blessedness and relief.
In knowing fully the thorough voidness of this and that, of then and now, of there and here, this heart opens, over and over in joy, in awe and realise.
Free itself, it knows the essential freedom in everything.