Sound & Light ResonancesAll meditation practices use a support—at least initially—upon which you focus your attention. This is done in order to keep your mind in check. It is through the slowing down and even pausing of mental “chatter” that the common health-related benefits, including tranquillity in the face of stress, and improved concentration are obtained. These are the most sought after results of meditation, and most mindfulness meditators today are happy with those results. Mindfulness meditation is quick, it’s easy, and it’s productive… so why not?

Mindfulness meditation uses different types of phenomena as the “support” for the practice. The support is that which you focus your attention on in a mindful manner. The breath is the most frequently used, but really any phenomenon will suffice as they are equally beneficial. Through the effort to focus the attention, you can calm your mind.

But there are other types of meditation, with other goals. Most of these other goals are directed at various aspects of enlightenment, via a progression of insights gained through the meditation technique.

And then, of course, there are the various types of yoga which are based upon physical movement and postures. Here too, the goal today is mostly in health benefits, including improved range of motion, balance, body awareness, and flexibility. Interestingly, yoga was originally an important entryway into an advanced type of meditation. It was also referred to as “yoga” and was specifically called “Nadanusandhana,” and it was said that it was the ultimate goal of all the other yoga practices.

That name comes from the root Sanskrit word “Nāda” meaning sound, but in this case the sound in question was characterized as Anāhata Nāda—unstruck sound. It is said that this is experienced by many that practice yoga. This unstruck sound is not heard in the common sense of hearing, but within the mind, as this sound is awakened within by the yogic practices. Nadanusandhana is a meditation practice that uses these unstruck sounds to further progress on the path to enlightenment.

But this is only one type of practice that uses these unstruck sounds. The Four Elements Sound Yoga is another kind of practice that use the unstruck sounds, and is unrelated to Hatha yoga practices. The name of this practice includes the word “yoga,” however, because it specifically makes use of union with the unstruck sounds—in a particular way—in order to catalyze fundamental changes in you, the practitioner.

Thus this meditation practice is notable for two things: first, it does not use a physical phenomenon as a support, and second, its result goes beyond the body-related benefits of mindfulness meditation and basic yoga practices.

The particular support used in this practice has been used in different ways in many spiritual and religious traditions. Unfortunately, each use has earned it a different name. So besides the already mentioned “Anāhata Nāda,” it is also called: Chönyid kyi rangdra (or Chos Nyid Kyi Rang Sgra), Dharmata Swayambhu Nada, Divine Tremoring, Eternal Sound, Inner Sound, Music of the Spheres, Primordial Sound, Sacred Sound, Shabda, Sound of Creation, Sound of Silence (also Thunder of Silence), Soundless Sound, Transcendental Sound, Unborn Sound, Unstruck Sound, and The Word of God.

And I have added my own name because this practice is not presented here in relation to any doctrinal system, but has been specifically reframed to focus on the practice and its result, which are not in any way dependent on a doctrinal system to understand. Thus I call the support of the Four Elements practice: autogenous resonances.

The Four Elements Sound Yoga is an advanced meditation practice that uses these autogenous resonances in a specific way to catalyze particular changes in the practitioner.

In Tibetan Buddhism, these autogenous resonances are known to be the self-arising sound of the naturing of Dharmata. The Dharmata is the intrinsic nature of reality. These sounds then are the reverberations, or resonances, arising from the naturing of everything.

In Hindu traditions, in which these autogenous resonances are known as the Anāhata Nāda, they are described in many ways, and are sometimes presented as “vibrations” (also “tremoring”).

However, it is confusing to think of these “sounds” as vibrations because vibrations require space, time, and the movement of something, but the Anāhata Nāda is “unstruck,” and the Dharmata is “timeless,” and its essence is “empty,” i.e., both are commonly presented as non-physical, non-spatial, non-temporal, and non-substantial. How then is there vibration?

Because this practice is presented outside of any particular doctrinal system, including that of the current physicalist view of a material reality, all unnecessary complications have been distilled out it.

Instead, see these autogenous resonances as what is noticed when you turn your attention inward and away from all outward phenomena. This “inward” turn does not mean just inside you, because then it would be limited to the whoosh of blood, the thumping of your heart, the gurgles of your digestion, and the cracks and gratings of bones. Rather, this “inward” turn is into your mind, and it employs that which is interpreted as sound by your mind.

The more you place your attention, without straining, on these autogenous resonances in your mind, the more developed they become over time. And since they do not block each other, the more developed they become, the richer the experience becomes, as they are all present to your awareness together.

The different kinds of resonances are often described in relation to the different centers and flows of your “subtle energetic body,” a term that is let stand here because of its recognized effective and practical use in Acupuncture, Traditional Chinese Medicine, Medical Chi Gong, and of course, Yoga. So what you are really doing as you develop these resonances is gathering yourself into a harmonious whole. Great tranquillity comes from this, and that is the first benefit to be derived from using this support and this practice.

Initially, these resonances are not apparent, or very subtle, and require a great deal of patience to access. Meditation is sometimes described as “listening to the silence between thoughts,” and our effort in meditation is rightfully directed towards consciously increasing the periods of such silence. And yet, silence is heard, even though there is no phenomenon that is causing a sound. In the same way, these autogenous resonances are heard even though there is no source for them. They are self-arising, uncreated, and not dependent or contingent on any external or internal cause.

There is one important difference between this support and all others that is crucial, however. In the Buddhist Surangama Sutra, the Bodhisattva Manjushri, who is associated with transcendent wisdom, explains that this support, since it is not a contingent or compounded (caused) phenomenon as all others are, it is continuous in the sense that it does not arise and pass away as the breath does, and as normal sounds do. It is therefore always present when we turn to it.

All other supports, such as the breath, are discontinuous, and thus one reaches a point where, in order to proceed further and accomplish greater concentration leading to enlightenment, one needs the presence of Dharma teachings and/or an enlightened teacher to overcome their discontinuous nature. This is why, according to the Surangama Sutra, all Buddhas reach enlightenment through the use of this support alone.

However, we can just say that these resonances are important because of this one fact: they bring our attention onto the fundamental and essential nature of the mind itself—and this leads directly to enlightenment.

There are two renowned changes that are catalyzed by this practice, which I can attest to based upon my own use of it, that I’ll mention: One is a remarkable ability to be patient. Very little fazes you, and you have a seemingly limitless equanimity when dealing with difficult situations.

The second change is much more remarkable and is attested to in every tradition where this support has been used—it changes you so that you begin to manifest “great compassion.” This is called “mahākaruṇā” in Sanskrit, and it is well-known in Buddhism and Hindu traditions. In brief, you become self-less and your every act sublimates into the ultimate compassionate response to whatever situation confronts you. Loving-kindness becomes an automatic response, unclouded by any unbalanced self-interest—thus your compassion is equally balanced between yourself and others.

In short, compassionate virtue is the effect of using this support.

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How does the fact of Impermanence arise? Is it based on a memory of what was, something which is no longer, being used to compute a difference? Some people say that is the case because how else could we notice that something has changed? They point to memory as proof that some things do endure, arguing that memory undermines the Buddhist “doctrine” of Impermanence.

But this assertion is misleading, if taken seriously, on two counts: the Buddha spoke about his direct experience of the fact of impermanence, not a conceptual idea he thought up to create a doctrine, and although Impermanence, as a Buddhist doctrine, is taught and discussed by others, the purpose of such teaching is to clarify a common meditation experience—the fact of Impermanence—in order to show the logical impossibility of permanence. This logical impossibility is an insight that is gained through contemplation of the direct meditational experiences. In this way, we students don’t have to spend our lives assuring ourselves that each and every thing in the Universe is, in fact, impermanent.

Secondly, the idea that memories endure is not a truly valid statement even in the world of science. Scientists studying memories have found that memories are a most creative affair, morphing over time and with each recalling, until they bear little resemblance to an actual event. Like everything else, memories are impermanent, making the very idea of them a bit self-oxymoronic. They are just a different kind of conditioned experience that arises as we “recall” them.

But perhaps it is worthwhile to examine this idea that we must compare each moment of experience to a memory of the past in order to notice change, ignoring what was just said. Wouldn’t that mean that we experience an event only through the memory of what is no longer the case, and not the fact of the event itself as it happens? Would there even be a “fact” at all? How would a memory of this current event be created, if it can only be experienced in terms of what it replaced? Doesn’t that mean our conscious experiences, dependent as they would be on comparison to a memory in order for us to know that something changed, could never begin? Where would we inherit the necessary starting memory from to get the ball rolling? A magical encoding of DNA? Some backstory breathed into us by God? A random image created by our personal chemistries? Are any of these ideas coherent enough to justify the validity of this most unsupportable of hypotheses? And perhaps most importantly, if it were true, Freedom would always already be undone by the tyranny of that primordial event. Or, our conscious experience would just be a logical impossibility in its absence.

Let’s consider this: How do we experience music? Is it, again, in the remembrance of the previous note only that a new note is known? This would make music, not a flowing composition, but more like a repetitive stutter, unable to scale so much as echo incessantly.

When a piece of music is played, as when an event occurs, it is not the memory of what was replaced that gives rise to an experience that is sensed. It is in the experience of the new arriving, and not the old passing away, that the fact of the event is known. Known the way we recognize an old friend coming around a corner. Sure, sometimes we’re wrong, but the fact of the arrival of someone coming around the corner is instantly noted.

How could a memory return during this performance, if our attention is focused on the new event? We could elicit the replay of a remembered moment—a prior note—but not until the new event was already over, or ignored. What then would we be comparing the remembered event to? Whatever was there is already gone. And where would the memory of the new event obtain its content, if the event is past, having been unattended to while we fumbled around in the dark looking for old memories? We only have one focus of attention, even when we are “multitasking” it (a truly misleading modern expression—”being distracted” is so much more accurate).

A musical note arises, not as a fait accompli, but as a quickening, a stirring, a reverberation gathering force, rising harmonics interplaying. We sense motion, activity, and change, directly, and not the stillness of static states. Change is not due to the freezing of actions and comparing them statically over time. We sense impermanence directly, not through a mentally constructed zoetropic succession of vivisected “things” or “states” into which we must compute the motion of change—that is what a machine must do, laboriously churning through its code, or mechanical motions—not us. A scientist attentively slices life into segments hoping to see how they go together, blind to the fact of life itself, and to the incompatibility of time-slices to harbor it.

How do we sense this flowing impermanence? We sense the rising edge of the event, which is always happening, never a “happened,” and happening always already—an unending gathering of force, a slipping into view, into earshot, rising unceasingly into that liminal threshold of awareness that we call Now, which is timelessly present, beyond the notions of permanence and impermanence, and serving as the base counterfactual of both.

Everything is in motion, even our “memories” of events that we believe are true records of what was, hardly noticing the sneaky way memories themselves are in motion, forever moving away from what may have happened. This is because we don’t do compares of static things, we experience impermanence directly. It’s what we do. It’s not a doctrine of Impermanence, it’s the fact of impermanence, and that is what we need to see for ourselves.

But this has all been an argument proceeding from the fundamental mistake of a dualistic perspective, which is an understanding that experience somehow encompasses an interior witnessing of external events. Thus the difficulty arises: how does this happen? And false explanations, in all their diversity, arise. Even the best, is incorrect when it asserts a structure of “insides” and “outsides” encompassing “experience” of “things in motion.” Reality is a “inside” without any “outside,” totally simple—the “liminal threshold of awareness” is an expression formulated out of abstractions, necessitated by our insistence on the truth of dualistic perspectives.

These dualistic perspectives, that we all develop, are like horizons demarcating boundaries and borders that exist in our intellect as understandings, but aren’t truly the separations we make them out to be. These horizons are hiding the unfounded assumptions that give rise to our dualistic perspectives, leaving the boundaries between things seemingly self-supporting in our exasperated dismissals of calls to question them. But Liberation is not some far-off state, it is simply the clearing out of these unfounded understandings so that we can clearly see what is real and what is imagined.

Our most fundamental failure is to not recognize the true nature of all manifested experience, and that failure occurs first and foremost when we fail to see how conscious experiences—of the “senses” as well as the “intellect”—arise. We do not experience “sensed” external phenomena, nor do we “think” thoughts. Sound, color, tastes, smells, touches, and cognition are living interior experiences, not of something exterior to us—sound exists solely in the mind, for example, conditioned and mediated by our body, which may be said to be separate from everything else around it in the spacial realm, but that is one of our false horizons.

Sound also arises in the mind in the absence of external conditions, nakedly exposing the true nature of mind in all it’s glory. The “exterior world” has only the quick changes in pressure that condition the arousal of an intimate experience of sound via their impacting the  body. To confuse the two is to denature our lived experience—sound—while elevating quantitative abstractions—”sound waves”—to the stature of being truly experienced.

It doesn’t matter whether someone is there in a forest when a tree falls, or not, a tree falling makes no sound. The idea that it does conflates the realm of experience with the activity of an eviscerated realm of dead abstractions.

And my earlier use of the expression, “arising in the liminal threshold of Awareness,” is a bespoke failure to notice that nothing truly manifests, that there is no thing to be called “Awareness,” and the “liminal threshold” is simply a way to poetically describe the active epistemological moment of absolute freedom and clarity which we call “Now,” and which are the hallmarks of complete and total wisdom, which we fail to grasp because “grasping it” is the mechanism that leads us astray. Recognition is not grasping—it’s clarity—and that compassionate, loving glance of recognition is all that is “happening.” Memory is just more of the same—impermanent and without any self-existence—not the basis of anything.

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Children quickly learn that they have a mind. This is the name they give to the source from which, and the venue in which, their thoughts occur. Later, they learn that this mind is where perceptions and feelings occur too.

When the self is seen to have no placement, no identity, and no enduring quality at all, the mind is sometimes elevated to Mind, and the error of a “greater Self” can occur. But if the self has no true reality, how can it be a place or thing from which, and in which thoughts, perceptions, and feelings occur? Yet we still call it mind, or Mind, because the discerning faculty of reason needs something positive to hold onto because we can’t understand what we cannot grasp.

By “grasp” I mean literally to take hold of something. The insight that there is no enduring self leaves us in a state of unknowing, unable to grasp hold of something with our mind and say, “Yes, this! This is what truly is.” It becomes awkward to speak of “our mind,” yet how else to say it? And because the discerning faculty of reason needs something positive to hold onto, we give a name to that missing self—“emptiness.”

An absence is such a positive thing. Look closely at this. We notice that something we thought was there, is not there, and rather than say nothing, we mark this fact with a word. Our faculty of reason then has something positive to think about. And when all things are similarly seen to lack an intrinsic reality, we also say they are empty of an intrinsic self-nature and we name this general absence, establishing the doctrine of “Emptiness.”

Yet even though there is no mind, thoughts, perceptions, and feelings still occur. We can call this occurrence whatever we like: we can still call it mind, as many do, but we should realize we are no longer talking about a thing, but an activity. An activity is understood to not have a self, as verbs are not seen as nouns or names. Even so, we learn early in life that all actions have an actor that is responsible because we need to place the blame.

Pay attention here because this error carries into our predilection to over-emphasize “Emptiness” by applying it to activities that occur, saying that they are empty of an intrinsic self-nature. In the vernacular: Duh! Our faculty of reason is well-trained to always hold an actor responsible for activities that occur. But there is no actor, no ground, no nature, no source. That’s what Emptiness reminds us of, and that is all it means.

But our faculty of reason needs something positive to hold onto, and Emptiness is like a super weapon destroying everything in its path. Besides we’re kids and love our toys, so “Emptiness” becomes the source of all things. What? This noticed lack of something is not the presence of something else. “Emptiness” is a place-holder for what we used to assume was there, but isn’t, and nothing more.

But notice that thoughts, feelings, and perceptions still occur. Amazing. This is called Suchness, not Emptiness. “Suchness” marks the presencing (arising, manifesting, appearing, showing up) of these thoughts, perceptions, and feelings. And if we are attentive, we quickly realize that there still is no mind-thing, no self-thing, and no other-things, yet even so, we can still call these occurrences mind, although technically they should be called “minding.” I prefer to use “naturing” myself, but most people just stare blankly at me when I do that.

But many fall into the trap of immediately forgetting what they recently knew, and see Suchness as some thing(s), and reactively apply their secret weapon, Emptiness, to Suchness, to make the things go away. But there are no things, and no need to bring out the big gun anymore. Our old patterns of thought are leading us astray.

Suchness has no source, nor even an absence of source. There is no ground, no place, and no time for Suchness, and no need for any of that. There is no emptiness for Suchness either, because it doesn’t apply—doing so is a “category error” in philosophical parlance. It’s unfortunate that we had to make a noun out of that which presents, calling it “Suchness,” just because our faculty of reason needs something positive to hold onto, because Suchness—or Naturing as I like to say because that’s a verb, not a noun—is not a thing, and not even a collection of things—it’s activity, presencing. Remember what was done here.

Where would “it” occur? Where does that which shows up appear? When we talk about the “space-like” expanse of appearances, we are not affirming the existence of Space. Go sit by a Buddhist Stupa and learn the lesson it presents in the form of the Bindu-Nada that is placed atop it. The Bindu is the non-dimensional point from which all appearances manifest. Note its specific denial of spatial characteristics—it isn’t anything at all. The Nada, the vibrations, or reverberations, are the appearances emanating from that non-manifest point. I call it the event horizon. Say what you will about the appearances, but say nothing about how they show up.

So please note that Emptiness is not Suchness, and is not the nature of anything. We can say it is the essence of Suchness, elevating the absence of what we thought was there in the appearances to the stature of the absolute source of all, but that is just overkill and so wrong. It’s useful for a while, to break old patterns of thought, but it has the nasty effect of retarding progress. Suchness presents as forms (otherwise there would be no distinguishing anything), and Forms are empty of any intrinsic self-nature. But Emptiness—that positive absence the mind can grasp hold of—is form also. It’s the positive trace of the absence we notice, created by the mind so that it has something to grasp hold of. Repeat after me: “Forms are empty, Emptiness is form.” This will remind us that “emptiness” is just an idea that took hold when we noticed we were originally wrong about everything.

The nature of Suchness is Pure Spontaneous Presence. And I feel the need to again remind you that Suchness is not a thing, (it) presents as activity. And the nature of that activity is not something else, it’s the essential quality of the activity called Suchness. So Pure Spontaneous Presence is not a thing either. It’s a description of the salient characteristics of the activity that is presenting. It defines nothing, because there is nothing to define. As Garab Dorje said:

“Transcending all discrimination in its arising, Transcending all discrimination in its release.”

And as Jigme Lingpa said:

“While safeguarding the continuity of the wonderful intrinsic perfection of our existential presence, if the thought “the nature of pure presence is empty” springs up in the rational mind, by ascribing an objective focus of emptiness to pure presence, buddha is precluded.”

Forms are empty, Emptiness is form.


Featured image: Boy looking at Xmas toys in shop window, public domain. Creator: Bain News Service. Courtesy of US Library of Congress. 

Prose 2 Responses so far

img_6131How does something have a nature, an essence, if it is not a thing, that is, that stays for a spell?

And if it is something, how do we understand it to have a nature? Is it not something else, this nature? Something so much more imposing and weighty, that we search longingly to find… it?

And what is a quality, this thing we call an essence? Does naming an absence give meaning to nothing at all? What a waste of time, if it is not. Does “emptiness” have a meaning in the absence of no thing at all?

Appearances are more than sleight-of-hand and stage makeup. After all they do show up. And for our pleasure, more often than not, such is the character of this troop.

But a stage that is not a stage?
Lights, camera, and action that are not exactly what they appear to be? (But how do we say they are nothing at all?!?)

No wonder we are confused. How do you grasp nothing? We need something to take hold of! So let’s invent a time and place, with ample seating and friendly chatter, and await the appearences of the troop that is to show up, with trumpets blaring, drums thumping, and bells all ringing—such a spectacle. While waiting, we can read the latest physical theories, because they suddenly feel weighty. And be entertained by the clown who imparts their importance upon an audience listening inattentively, being dazzled by the display.

And beneath it all, pure presencing presents, and that is all. What else is there to do?

Awesome beauty beheld, the five-star review.

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We all have a sense of self. And to be clear, I mean that you and I see ourselves as separate individuals. I’m going to assert that you and I are not separate, anymore than your toes are separate, which means that although they seem to be separate, and each has a different name, they are all part of your foot, each toe being inseparable from the foot it is a part of. And it is the same with you and I, and everyone and everything else. Yet we are beyond assemblages. We are not parts of something bigger than ourselves, we are necessarily inseparable from the whole of reality because we have no independent selves.

These distinctions we make, breaking things down into parts and separating one from another, is useful in a practical way, but misleading because we convince ourselves over time that the distinctions are true rather than just useful. But they are not true because they lack a basis upon which they can be truly made. And yet, we have a visceral feeling that leads us—universally—to believe that we are independent beings. Why is that?

Wisdom traditions say it is because of ignorance. But they are focused on the belief, and skip over the visceral feeling. Perhaps that is because, even after having seen through the erroneous belief of our being separate beings with a true self, both intellectually and experientially, that visceral feeling, unattached to any belief, still arises—universally—and that makes it doubtful that it is just ignorance. Yet how useful a support for contemplative practice that feeling can be! What an astounding leap-over one can experience when suddenly realizing what that visceral feeling truly arises from—what conditions within experience so completely impose such a feeling universally, but which we misunderstand because of our belief in our own separateness!

The purpose of this essay is to talk about the Buddhist doctrine of Anattā, although not strictly from a Buddhist perspective. I want to discuss this from the view of the meditative and contemplative insights that I have gained that relate to this doctrine, but I don’t want you to think that I am misrepresenting Buddhist thought as my own, nor do I want to claim that what I am about to say is authentic Buddhist doctrine. You’ll have to decide if what I have to say has any merit at all.

What I am going to essentially say is this: as the Buddha seems to have said, there is “no self” anywhere, and I see this as having much more far-reaching consequences than is commonly comprehended. And as the Buddha seems also to have said, anything that you identify with as a self isn’t, and I have come to understand that this, in a very important way, applies even to the visceral feeling that we all have that we are separate individuals, because all that we experience is “not self.” But let me stress the intended meaning of that last sentence: even the visceral feeling that we are separate individuals is incorrectly understood because we are misunderstanding the source of that visceral feeling—we believe it arises from within us, since we assume we are independent beings, and yet, since we truly are not independent beings it cannot be arising from within us, thus it is not evidence of our having an independent self, it is evidence of something else entirely.

What will be important to understand from all of this is: we are not mistaken about having this visceral feeling of being an enduring individual, we are mistaken in our belief that it is evidence of being an enduring individual. That visceral feeling of an enduring existence throughout our lives, like anything else you think is “self,” is similarly “not self,” being, instead, other than self, something that needs further explanation. So it’s not an illusory feeling that we each feel. Instead, our thoughts about it are misguided, leading us to an illusory belief. This feeling arises naturally from the structural presence of reality showing through in all of our daily experiences. It is this structural presence that we viscerally feel and misguidedly interpret as the self-existence of our selves.

You see, we’re not idiots to think we are enduring individuals, we are simply misguided in our efforts to define that which is enduring because we start from the belief that we are individuals, and that colors our entire thought process. The truth, that we might be confounding this visceral feeling with a mere belief, doesn’t occur to us because an independent self is the actuality we have always assumed to be true, and it is so engrained in our thought processes and language that we continue from that perspective even after we know that it isn’t the truth. This is how our ignorance leads us to a false conclusion.

The Causes of Suffering

So to begin, there seem to be many parts to you and I, and like our toes, each part has a name and we can describe them sufficiently clearly that you and I will have a close idea of what the other means. But we are not just body parts, nor a body alone. We viscerally feel something that is truly us, something that endures throughout our life, even if we cannot name it or place where it is amongst all the parts and pieces that make us up. You and I, taken together, are related like that too. There is something that endures between us, even if we have never met, though it is less sure than that visceral feeling of self. Identify it as you like, calling it family, tribe, community, country, species, home world, political party, language spoken, one’s culture, or school attended… it’s a history of relations that we accrue through our lives that contribute also to defining us.

And each of those parts of us, as well as each relationship we have or have had, are a source of suffering. We can break a toe and that is suffering. We can lose a family member and that is suffering. We can fight a war with another culture and that is suffering. We can harm our home world and that is suffering. The loss of anything that we have identified ourselves with is a source of suffering for us. The fear of loss is also suffering for us. When something good happens, we are happy, and, counting on the continuation of that happiness while knowing that nothing lasts forever, we are moved to fear the loss of our happiness, so we suffer.

Today we also see more and more clearly that our ideas about being separate individuals leads us to suffer: we see other races and nationalities as different from ourselves and fear them or push them away or ridicule their oddities (from us), and this leads to endless strife and suffering. We see ourselves separate from our home world and call everything other than ourselves “the environment,” and concerned about our own safety and self-continuation, we inflict damage uncaringly upon the environment and ultimately damage ourselves. This is all suffering too.

So all the ways we try to identify what is us and who we are so that we know distinctly what is ourselves and what is other, causes us suffering.

A Way Out of Suffering

A great insight into curing that suffering was to see that the things we think are a part of us, or an aspect of us, or what makes us unique and separate from everyone and everything else, are not that enduring aspect of ourselves that we so viscerally feel. In fact, none of those qualities and relations endure, so how could they be that enduring self we viscerally know ourselves to be? And in the same way, that whole web of relationships between us and others, between us and things, even between us and ideas we have, such as our political point of view at any moment, do not endure, so how can they be that enduring self we viscerally know ourselves to be? This great insight probably came to many people over the course of humanity’s existence, some of whom we know, like the Buddha, others who are lost to us. The Buddha understood this as “not self,” or “no self.” Like everything that anyone says, there is a wide variety of interpretations about what was meant, and even those who hold to one or the other senses disagree with others who use the same interpretation, but take it in a slightly different way.

For example, some who hold to the “no self” interpretation understand it as referring only to themselves and others like themselves, and perhaps to non-humans, but certainly not to inanimate objects or abstract ideas. For example, there is an innate belief that many hold onto, that something must be the cause of any change. It’s called agency, and agency requires an agent to effectuate the change. So for there to be change there must be something that causes the change, either in itself or in something else.

The trouble with this is, even inanimate objects, and abstract ideas, are differentiated from other inanimate objects and abstract ideas, and in order to distinguish them, they need to have qualities (“that black rock”) or relations (“the rock in front of you”) that can be used to differentiate them. And in order to have qualities or relations, they must have a kind of self. Philosophers call this “substance,” or “identity” (a kind of self-sameness) and the philosophical difference between matter and substance is that substance has a particular form and identity, while matter is just the possibility of having form and identity. Thus, to clarify, we live in a substantial world, not a material world, under the standard view, because substance is actual and matter is potential, at least philosophically. And identity is equivalent roughly to a self, and like our own search for what makes us an enduring and unique individual, philosophers have never been able to put their fingers on what it is that makes up an identity that distinguishes anything over the long term.

The issue here is, if there is no self anywhere, that should hold universally, and not just for some artificial distinction that we make. Why? Because if there is no self anywhere, there can be no separation, and if there is no separation, there can be no true distinctions made. Thus any attempt to limit the reach of the “no self” insight arises out of ignorance of its full meaning. So when we are trying to explain things, we cannot rely upon agents to cause anything to happen, nor to base any distinction upon.

The ultimate essence of all of our experience is that all of it is empty of any intrinsic self-nature. Even speaking of “self-nature” is erroneous because there is nothing that corresponds to either “self” or “nature.” This doesn’t mean there is nothing at all. How could that be since we are experiencing our lives? It means that our existing language, and our cognitive processes, being infused with this understanding of separate existence, are faulty. And necessarily so, because ultimately, what is there to base a description upon? Even saying that “the ultimate essence of all of our experience is that all of it is empty of any intrinsic self-nature” is wrong because it is attempting to describe the ineffable.

And for those that hold to the “no self” interpretation, there is also the troubling tendency to understand the negation of self as the total absence of anything at all because there seems to be an implied affirmation of absence—“no self” taken as “is nothing,” rather than as “is no thing.” Thus, someone with this understanding will ask questions like “who is suffering?” or will say things like “there is no one to understand nothing,” as if “no self” means complete absence of individual experience (i.e. it’s all a complete illusion, including that it is happening). But “no self” doesn’t mean “nothing” anymore than “not self” means that what is being pointed to is a complete illusion.

Thus for the “not self” interpretation, the danger is in equating the application of the doctrine to all of that which one tries to identify as one’s self to mean that all of that, including that most central visceral feeling of being an enduring individual, is illusory, or nothing at all. I’ll illustrate this a different way. One day you and I are out walking through town, and I point to a fellow sitting alone at a café table. “Look, that’s John. He’s not happy.” I say. “Oh,” you respond, “So he feels nothing at all!” Wrong. There are many things he may be feeling… he’s just not feeling happy at the moment.

Note well, however, that if “not self” means “this is not your self” then it will conflict with “no self” in a subtle way because while denying it is your self, you are affirming it is some thing, just not your self. This is why grasping onto these things is such a cause of suffering. But this can’t be! There is no self anywhere, so “not self” needfully must mean “no this is not something separate and enduring thus it is not my self, nor a self at all!” Only in this way will the truth be uncovered. (It) Is not a thing, not nothing, not self, otherwise than self.

The goal here is to see that “no self” must apply universally, and “not self” means “otherwise than a self.” This way we can clearly note the subtle perspective that is always present in experience, which is always localized, and which would be an error not to notice, and more importantly, the structural presence of reality in all experience that spontaneously arises, which lays the conditions for this visceral feeling of being an enduring individual to arise in us. Understanding it this way, saves the appearances of experience from the extinction of the extreme views of eternalism and nihilism.

But, Trouble in Paradise

The trouble with the insight of the Buddha, as usually taught, is that it is so contradictory to what we viscerally feel that we have real difficulty integrating this truth into our understanding. It is well-known in wisdom traditions that if you perform a self-inquiry and go through the process of examining everything that you think you are, you will find that none of them endure, and even worse, not only don’t they endure, they are not even really essential to you being you! And if it wasn’t for that visceral certainty that is always with us, this kind of self-inquiry would probably do us much long-term good.

This is something that you can perform for yourself if you sincerely try, and doing so often leads to a blissful state once you find yourself suddenly free of everything that has caused you to worry, or to fear the loss of, or even found the need to criticize or admire about yourself or others. All that suffering suddenly dissipates and you float in a sea of bliss… until that visceral sense of an enduring existence reasserts itself and you start questioning once again what it is that endures, that is always present in your life. And often, as it seems to be, this can be the onset of a very dark period for most people, during which they can lose hope of ever working it out, of ever knowing the truth, of there even being a truth. It has been called “the Dark Night.”

A Path to Clarity

I want to explain how both understandings of Anattā come together naturally, and to do that I need to explain why the negation in that word needfully means something different than the way it is commonly understood when used to say “no self” than when it is used to say “not self.”

You see, there are different types of negation. Sometimes negation affirms an absence, as “no self” does, sometimes it implies the opposite, as “not sighted” implies “blind,” and sometimes it just denies without affirming anything else, other than that it is not nothing, as my John example pointed out.

Using that last type of negation to understand Anattā implies that anything that you believe to be essentially a self is something other than an entity that has an intrinsic and enduring self-nature, but it is not nothing.

This is important because it means that we are confused about the fundamental character of that visceral feeling of having an enduring self, not because the visceral feeling is caused by our “ignorance” in trying to find the source of that feeling, but because the visceral feeling arises from something other than our having an intrinsic self. In other words, we are confused, and for a good reason, not idiots. I find that comforting, as you might also, because it means that while all my early attempts to identify what was essentially me had been misdirected, the effort wasn’t worthless. That visceral feeling does arise—strongly—in each of us at every moment of our lives, so more importantly, it means that it is ok to attend to it without being forced to deny that which is so real to us, labeling it “ignorance” while trying to smile and make-believe we don’t feel it anymore.

What the change in our understanding of the effect of the negation of self doesn’t do though is to explain why that feeling does arise. It just points out that it is not a self lurking somewhere in the hidden depths of our being, nor anywhere else, that gives rise to the feeling. There is some reason other than this, other than a self somewhere, that gives rise to this feeling. But let’s go a little deeper into the specifics first, before moving on to that.

Continuing Reverberations

If there is no self anywhere, to what could qualities be attributed, and relations attached to? For me to say “myself” is a reflexive relation that cannot have any meaning if I have no self, but since there is no self anywhere, it also means referring to myself can’t have any meaning at all because there is no “thing” anywhere to have the relation or to be related to. That latter point might seem obvious given the lack of self anywhere, but I’m saying it because we have that visceral feeling of being a self to clarify, and this is important to the process.

If there is no self anywhere then that means (if you examine what was just said) that there is no thing that can have any qualities at all, and no relations to anything at all. Yet we assign qualities all the time to things and people. Look, we even distinguish “things” from “people,” giving them different fundamental, or essential, qualities! Doing so is practical and helpful. But how is it done?

If there is no self anywhere and no things exist to which qualities can be attributed or relations attached, and thus all that we experience is impossible, perhaps the problem is that we are holding onto the idea that without a self there is nothing at all. That what we experience is just a mirage. Thus “not self” would not be true, only “no self” in a nihilistic sense. “Not self” means “otherwise than a self, but not nothing.” You might say that there is an illusory self and illusory qualities and relations that are illusorily attached or attributed to the illusory self, but that is just mental gymnastics with no useful value. We’re looking for the truth here, not mental gymnastics. Even a mirage is a “thing.”

But if there is no self anywhere, then there can be no separation anywhere, thus a relation is really just a possibly useful meta connection from one set of highlighted qualities to another set of highlighted qualities of the wholeness of reality. It’s not true, it’s just useful. But, you should then ask, what is a quality? A quality is a name we give to a distinction. Without a separate self, we might be just a set of qualities. They aren’t essential to who we are, because there is no self to have essential qualities, but maybe that’s all we really are—a set of inessential qualities that change over time.

This alternative definition of Anattā from “no self,” to “not self,” presents a different possibility. Basically, it says that anything we can come up with to describe ourselves, or justify our identity, or even evidence our relations to others and other things do not exist on their own, but they do exist—not in a real sense, but as manifested experience. That there is nothing independent and self-existent in experience, but the content of experience is formal, meaning has qualities, and because there are these distinctions, even though there is no separation anywhere in reality, we can distinguish between qualities.

But if that was all that “not self” meant, it wouldn’t similarly hold the sense of “no self,” and that is a very important part of the understanding, and by “understanding” I mean understanding why we universally feel we are a self. So this alternative sense of “not” means that anything that shows up is something other than a self existent entity. Remember what I said though! If there are no self-existent entities (selves) than nothing can have a quality or aspect, and nothing could have any relation either to “its self” or to anything else, and our entire living experience collapses. This is why some people say this is all just an illusion, or a dream—but they are working from an incomplete understanding. Even dreams and illusions have parts and qualities.

The goal is not to fall into an extreme view that cuts off parts of our experience, invalidating them, or just jettisoning them without a proper resolution. So we need to find a way for Anattā to not mean either the extreme of non-existence of self, nor the extreme of real existence of self. We need to find an ”other than” self-existence for our visceral experience of self, while at the same time understanding that nothing has a self. Or to put it more gently, we need to find why we go so wrong as to have this idea of selfhood at all!

In another essay I will delve deeper into what has been uncovered in my meditative practice regarding both a subtle perspective that is always at play in experience and the structural presence within experience, both of which together condition the universal arousal of that visceral feeling of self-existence.

Prose 7 Responses so far

MellowYellowQuestion: What leads one to the realization that there is truly only one sense, not five or six as we normally understand experience?

Answer: One way that this realization arises is out of the process of “turning hearing around,” which is both a deconstruction of the subtle structuring of experience that is normally overlooked, and ultimately a direct experience.

Even though we may understand the emptiness of thoughts and other sensations, which arise without any intrinsic self-reality, and though we may also have direct non-conceptual experiences, what is still present is the perspective, even if there is no inferred, actual, or imagined observer/knower involved. This is the normal perspective that we all have, because it is our familiar way of experiencing things. So, in hearing something that is arising impersonally, we still understand it to be “heard,” even if we know there is no one to hear, nothing to hear, etc. But instead of taking that perspective, turn it around: “you,” which is that perspective even when it is stripped of all the concretions of ego and identify, is still a false structure. “You” are confusing, through a subtle structuring of direct experience, what is actually happening. “You” are doing this because you understand hearing to be structured as a perception, therefore encompassing something perceived and the perception of it.

Sound is a manifesting experience that is empty of an intrinsic self-nature like everything that manifests is. You neither create it, nor hear it in a dualistic sense. Instead it is experienced because all that is manifesting is the process of knowing. This knowing is not self-centered, so all the problems of shared knowledge are not present, but a perspective still exists. So which way, truly, should the perspective be pointing? From an illusory “you” that, lacking an intrinsic self-nature, isn’t real at all, toward a “sound” that is just as illusory? Or from the source of the manifestation towards the manifestation? That latter perspective is our normal perspective turned around. When we realized that there is no “me” or ego “here” we forgot to realign our more fundamental understandings of perceiving and experiencing, leaving this subtle error to trip us up, and leading to a proliferation of identified types of perceptions and senses.

Once you understand that there has been that subtle misunderstanding of the experience of hearing sound, every time you experience sound, note the error and force yourself to understand “sound” as just something arising in mind, and by that I mean being selflessly natured, so really not having a source at all. Done with some dedication, suddenly you will experience it directly, without effort, because that is how it truly is. And once you have that direct experience you will understand that all of the senses are like this, and they will all collapse into the only sense there truly is—selfless naturing, which is the process of knowing.

It’s easiest to do this with hearing “unstruck sound,” in my experience, because the overpowering attraction of a source, like a tree falling in a forest, is absent with “unstruck sound” which has no source in what is manifested.

Unstruck sound has been referred to in many ways, even by me. Some of them are: unborn sound, Anahata Nada, Chönyid kyi rangdra, Dharmata Swayambhu Nada, Divine Tremoring, Shabd, Eternal Sound, Music of the Spheres, Primordial Sound, Sound of Creation, Soundless Sound, the Word of God, Autogenous Resonance, and others.

Question: It is difficult to comprehend that sound isn’t dependent on a source. How can this be?

Answer: In my experience, there are two ways that sounds can arise: as sympathetic resonances in the mind based upon manifest conditions, and autogenous resonances in the mind. I use the word “resonance” so as not to confuse what I am speaking of with normal “sounds” that we understand we hear in a dualistic sense, and the difference between sympathetic and autogenous must be fleshed out below. But note that the word “autogenous” is being used, not because its meaning is accurate, but because, properly understood, it’s meaning can be clearly intuited. Once one clarifies their understanding, the “auto-“ prefix is seen not as indicating a relation to a self-entity, but to the “essence of self-less naturing,” i.e. “emptiness.” So, onward…

Since everything is empty of an intrinsic self-nature, everything that arises does so spontaneously and uncaused. I experience a self-less (actor or agent-less) naturing and mindfully do not infer a cause or source of that naturing as many do, because that is intellect trying to impose rational order on our understanding. Thus, for me, there is nothing to be known apart from this naturing, and that necessarily includes the understanding that there is no entity such as a “nature” that is naturing.

In all cases, this naturing is the event-horizon between the intelligible—all that we experience, and which can be puzzled out, to make sense of—and what is beyond the intelligible. And of what is beyond the intelligible, there is nothing that can truthfully be said, although interpretive explanations abound in religious and spiritual traditions. But the fact that the naturing itself, as well as what is natured, is intelligible, at least in some respects, provides a hook into a more subtle understanding, as I will explain. By this I mean, for example, that we can note that what manifests is coherent—things go together—so we can say something like: “this naturing, while spontaneous and uncaused, is conditioned by what has already manifested.”

First, this naturing is viscerally known. It’s not a knowing of something, and it’s not a knowing by someone, it’s just an awake/aware naturing, so while ultimately empty of selfhood, it is also ultimately pregnant with infinite possibility of visceral presence.  If this was not the case, then nothing would or could be known, given that what manifests has no intrinsic self-nature, and reality is an inside without an outside, so there are no other forces, causes, actors, etc. at play here.

But in our experience, it is noted that what arises is somehow coherent with what is already the case. At least, that is how intellect orders experience. I understand our idea of “time” to be just such an ordering placed upon what appears in the eternal (i.e. timeless) Now, in which there is no time, so no past, no future, no present—only presence. I have noted that the coherence is not the result of causality, but of conditioned freedom, thus what arises is coherent with the range of possibility opened up by what is manifest Now, but it is not caused directly by it—how could that be, since there is no “it” and no separation, nor “self-causality,” and thus without such bounds, there can be surprise, novelty, range, awesome serendipity, etc.

What is experienced is always arising in mind (i.e. naturing), and what we experience arises sympathetically (coherently) with current conditions—the state of the universe, so to speak. The perspective, the “I” and the “we,” is what is imposed upon reality by intellect, and intellect is the acquired habits of conceptualization and thought, a kind of karma I suppose, that imposes a narrowing down of focus. That narrowing can be overcome… but that’s another subject.

And in the case of sound, everything up to, but not including, the magical idea that consciousness arises from some quantity, configuration, or function of physical matter, that scientists have observed, holds. Yes, a tree falls and it’s falling conditions the arising of pressure (sound) waves that travel through the air, striking our ears, which are so structured that when the pressure changes condition a vibration in the eardrum, those vibrations condition impulses that move into the brain, which conditions further electrical and chemical activity in the brain, which conditions the arising of sound. But all of those steps, are just intellect imposing ordering upon the dichotomized conditions that are selflessly natured.

So, “sound,” properly speaking, arises only in the naturing (called “mind”) based upon manifest conditions. Sound is thought of as a kind of vibration, but the time and space that vibration requires are also impositions of order by intellect upon this naturing—they are our way of conceptually explaining experience, ordering it, and showing where we have cut things up with our distinguishing thoughts.

What we are trying to do with such orderings is explain what is beyond the event horizon of self-less naturing. But given that we cannot truly succeed, what happens if we just step back and don’t impose an intellectual order? What is “sound?” It can only be the visceral (known) presencing of this self-less naturing, and specifically one kind of presencing that our intellect distinguishes from all other kinds (the concept of “kinds” itself shows this to be the result of intellection). Vision, hearing, taste, touch, smell, and thinking are all just subtle structures of distinctions that intellect imposes on self-less naturing. And light, sound, tastes, kinds of physical touching, and smells, as well as thoughts, are all just distinctions that the ordering intellect imposes upon what selfless naturing is manifesting, in this case pointing to the content of the distinguished experiences.

Thus, what is manifest is intelligible in this way. We can, through habit of thought, whether self-developed or learned, make all these distinctions and order all the conditions and coherency in such a way that we build this whole edifice of a world of separate things somehow interacting together through causal relations. And we do this without intent, thoughtlessly! These habits are the very structuring that we have become so accustomed to.

But there are manifestations for which there are no conditions, such as a source for a particular kind of sound that we can experience. We can distinguish these sounds into kinds, but cannot relate them to any conditions that, such as a tree falling, open the possibility of these sounds arising, so they can be called “unconditioned,” or “unstruck”. And in our normal, sleepy way of being, we don’t even notice them, but in deep meditation we can. And when experienced in meditation, they are called “nimittas,” or “meditation signs,” also “siddhis,” and “charismata,” among other names.

When they are experienced, and clearly so as unconditioned sound, they can be referred to as the “resonances of selfless naturing” as well as all the other names from different traditions that I gave earlier. I call them “autogenous resonances.”

We tend to screen these out of our awareness (i.e. we do not turn our attention to them even when they become apparent), or we immediately think, upon hearing them, that we are ill and run to a doctor for drugs or therapy to make them go away. But being that they are unconditioned, there is no intelligible link between them and current conditions in or around us, and so the intellect can’t jump in and say “over there, over there! that’s where they are coming from” thus imposing a subtle conceptual structuring, and even a dualistic perspective, on what we are experiencing. Thus these are the easiest way to see through the dichotomization of our experiences into kinds of phenomena perceived by kinds of senses, collapsing it all into just self-less naturing, which we habitually call “mind.”

I don’t know if this is helpful, without a direct experience of these sounds. Just stay vigilant and if you notice them, follow them. The trail leads to surprising experiences and insights.

Question: What is this “non-conditioned” referring to? Buddha taught that all that arises does so contingently, which is referred to as “dependent origination” in Buddhism, so doesn’t this go against his teaching?

Answer: No, this doesn’t go against what the Buddha taught. It’s comes out of a subtle point about the truth of Dependent Origination—which is that while what arises originates in dependence upon conditions, this truth is not itself dependent upon anything. Dependent Origination holds independent of conditions—there is no contingency upon which it is or is not true.

And what I am saying reflects a more wholistic understanding than Dependent Origination when it is emphasized out of the context of Emptiness.  Dependent Origination and Emptiness are not two truths, they are two perspectives upon nondual reality. On its own, Dependent Origination could be just a codification of the conceptual idea of Causality, and that is how it is often understood, in my experience with others, given the tendency to speak about “causes and conditions” as if they are they same thing. What I am speaking of as non-conditioned is useful for seeing that sound arises solely in mind, and this insight originates in a direct experience I’ve attained and is not the result of speculative intellection. I am presenting this explanation to overcome the absence of first-hand experience of it, pointing others to the possibility of using unconditioned sound as a meditation support, and its superiority as a support.

So, what is non-conditioned is the naturing itself… this processual unfolding is unborn, timeless, and immortal. There is no condition that allows it to be, or not be. What is conditioned is the contingent arising of coherent manifestation, which is called Dependent Origination. That which is unconditioned can also be found in the spontaneous freedom of naturing—because conditions don’t cause anything to arise, they are merely the conditioning of possibility, so that, what arises is not specifically caused, but is dependent upon the conditions that made it possible for them to arise.

The unconditioned sounds that I speak of arise as the resonance of this naturing in the same fashion as the universal ether, the Akasha, is conventionally understood to be both the medium for vibrational movement (sound), as well as, more subtly, nothing other than the vibrational movement. Thus self-less naturing—“dharmata” in Buddhism—can be directly experienced as resonant sound, as well as the manifested appearances. These unconditioned sounds are the naturing of what manifests, thus we can turn towards the naturing in its bare essence as resonance empty of a cause—the non-conceptual emptiness of all that manifests—or toward the formal, structured experience of all that manifests. This is unconditioned sounds’ importance as a meditational support, and the origin of its power to heal and transform.

Prose 8 Responses so far

Meditation Nimitta

Many people implicitly believe that coming to a complete understanding of reality involves a leap, whether it be an intuition or an insight, or some blissful experience in meditation, or a scientific or philosophical theory based upon the “givens”—those facts of experience that fill our days and our memories, and form the basis of our nervous tensions, phobias, and damaged feelings, as well as our moments of bliss and leaps of intuitive insight and conceptual theorizing. I noticed that the leaps never get one to the finish line. They may get us to a comfortable place, perhaps even a blissful one, but it’s not possible to understand reality this way.

Instead of figuring out how things are, we need to loosen the chains of both conceptual thought and the intelligible appearances that fill our experience, because even though we might be able to come to an understanding of our experiences, that understanding will always separate us from the truth because an understanding creates a something-that-is-understood, even if, through careful movements and keen insights, we never allow a someone-that-understands to arise. The understanding is itself the problem—and it is a huge problem because it is the primordial source of the illusion of separate existence.

I had an experience once in my mid-teens, sitting by a fire my friend and I had built in a weed-and-construction-debris-filled field that had been cleared as part of the construction of the World Trade Center in New York City. We were living in a small shack that we had made out of wooden pallets covered with nylon hosiery fabric found in a pile of garbage from a building that had been cleared out prior to its demolition. Another vagrant, like us, had seen our fire and come up to sit and warm up a little, because the spring evenings were still cold on those city streets, especially when the only meals you had were fetched out of dumpsters behind fast food restaurants (half-eaten food still in wrappers was much more palatable than loose waste from a restaurant). “Grease,” he announced at one point. “Grease is the source of life!” “Cool, man,” I replied. What else could one say? It was my first experience of attachment to an understanding that was less grand than the holder assumed.

The process of coming to an understanding isn’t like getting to the far side of a flat field of information that one leaps over suddenly, it’s a multi-layered lasagna of misunderstandings with the consistency of a bog, that traps us in our many and varied viewpoints, leaving a long, long trail of false halts on our way to our hoped for complete transcendence. This process is founded on the belief that overcoming wrong beliefs by undoing our strong attachment to our conceptual knowledge and focusing instead on the givens, while being “in the moment,” will free us from misconceptions and misunderstandings and will allow us to transcend the factual appearances and “get to the bottom” of it all, in the fashion of a scientist approaching a problem, studying and reflecting. But you should note the way I worded that sentence, making it’s point in the repetition of reliance upon belief. Beliefs aren’t true or false, they are never true, nor false. Instead, they are always wrong to varying degrees, which is their fault, but also, to some degree true, which is their allure. And in many, many cases, the expression “half truths” really overestimates their value.

It occurred to me that holding to the possibility of “complete transcendence,” in the manner given above, is a fool’s errand based on a grave misunderstanding. That field of givens is there before us, and seemingly beckoning in a beguiling way, but only because of our need to understand, and it is this that will lead us to our doom. The truly important insight to be had there, derives from that field of givens’ presence, not from anything situated in that field. And it is the same with our conceptual thought—none of the contents of those thoughts will help us to transcend anything, even if they are the words of a respected teacher, or a world-renowned scientist. Even these words can’t… It is the presence of these thoughts, and words, and facts that is the important point.  And by “presence” I mean presencing, or arising presentially. But don’t form an understanding of that word yet… it will just be a misunderstanding.

The desire to transcend reality is a really weird appetite to have, and yet many of us have it, in one way or another, because we either find our lives to be unsatisfactory or we find ourselves annoyed by the unsettling feeling that we don’t really understand what is going on. It’s unfortunate too that the majority of people blithely live out their lives, never having taken hold of their opportunity to realize something truly important through it. For those that want out, getting to the bottom of things is the only way they can see to get out. But there is no out, no exit, no escape—Reality is an inside without an outside, so you can’t escape. But what you can do is get free of all of your misunderstandings—not by creating new ones, but by loosening the chains of the conceptual as well as the intelligible. But it has to be both of those, or like that vagrant who thought grease was the source of life, you’ll just find yourself in another storyline.

Over the course of my life, I have found that every time I thought I had gotten somewhere by coming to some new understanding, or by changing something about the way I perceived my life, all I had done was change a storyline, exchanging it for a slightly modified one, a storyline more to my liking. I had never been able to change my being in a story. For many on this path, their answer is to be found in not thinking or conceptualizing about what is, just being, just being That. While there is nothing wrong with just being That, it is still a storyline. Why do I say that? Because we hold the implicit assumption that while our conceptual thoughts, ideas, and philosophies color our perceptions with our wants and desires, hopes and dreams, hurts and insults, and dichotomies, we believe that our perceptions are something different, if left alone, something more real than illusions of the mind… And who could fault us for that? After all, some of those perceptions can save our lives!

I’ve heard it said that when we see, we should just see (and not color what we see with hopes, dreams, aversions, fears, doubts, dichotomizations, etc.), and when we hear we should just hear, etc. And by doing that, we free ourselves from our suffering because in those moments there is no self intervening in the process.

Even ignoring the fact that physical suffering from thirst, hunger, pain, age, and disease is still “suffering” even when it is freed from all of our self-colorations, and what we perceive through our senses is always perspectival, so that while there may be no self involved in the perception, there is certainly a perspective limiting the visceral experience to a certain body, the truth is, everything arises empty of intrinsic self-reality, based upon conditions, uncreated and uncaused, as the spontaneous naturing that some call dharmata.

This idea that perception through any sense door is somehow being in contact with something real, or at least “pure” (as in “pure experience”) is an illusion. It is an illusion because there is no thing to be in contact with, there is no entity who can drop the illusion of self-colorations, there isn’t even an entity that natures that which appears—even the Buddhist Dharmakaya is empty of an intrinsic self-nature. What we perceive arises in our “mind,” which is the name we give to that perspective we glom onto because of our confusion and misunderstanding, not realizing what that perspective truly is. So in seeing, there is only the fabrication of form and light. In hearing, there is only the fabrication of sounds, etc. We are never not in intimate “contact” with what is arising because there is and can be no separation in reality, and what arises does so in the mind. So what’s going on?

Literally, what is going on is that we have come to understand that experiences are based upon perceptions, that arise from conditions of some external kind in conjunction with a body with some specific “senses.” Many Buddhists include consciousness of thoughts as a sixth human sense, but a more insightful view is found in those teachings that point out that there is only one sense—that our dichotomization of experience involves a transfer of the source of perceptions from the dharmata (which is not a thing, it’s just the essential character of the activity I am referring to as “naturing”) to some physical equipment inherent in human and non-human lifeforms and their associated mental faculties that are distinguished based upon the kind of physical phenomena that is sensed.

If you are starting to feel that “in naturing, just naturing” than you are well on your way to complete freedom.

Gaining freedom from conceptual thinking is the first step. I did it by noticing how thoughts arise—presentially—based upon conditions, but uncaused by any condition. Being empty of origin, empty of an intrinsic self-nature, how could their content (meaning) be otherwise than empty? And yet, they spontaneously appeared, and that was necessary to see. And see that I did, and you can, through the practice of meditation. But seeing that thoughts are empty of origin, means I am not creating them, and yet, if I focused upon them I found them arising in a coherent stream of thoughts strung together for as long as I attended to them. And if I looked away in another direction towards some other focus, that stream of thoughts changed! All of the words of this essay arose because of the direction of my attention and various manifesting conditions that include a desire to share something that I’ve found. “Authorship” is an exaggeration of an activity that is spontaneously natured, uncaused, by no entity at all. And if that doesn’t take your breath away… but you can’t stop here.

Once we see through conceptual thinking, our next step is not to just “be in the moment” averting our attention away from conceptual thought, it must be to see into this process of self-less naturing. And for that, I didn’t use thoughts, instead I turned my attention towards a phenomenon that had always been there for me to use—the self-arising sounds of the dharmata, which are the resonances of that self-less activity of naturing. I listened to the “sounds” of thoughts arising, as well as my whole being arising, and it was there in those sounds that I came to realize that all of our perceptions arise in exactly the same way—not through some hybrid physical process and half-understood concepts—and that this meant that “pure experiences” were just as empty of intrinsic self-nature, and therefore truth, as any conceptual thoughts that might arise for me. Useful, yes. All of it—thoughts, experiences, understandings—were useful in a practical sense, but wrong in a real sense, thus always lying somewhere between truth and untruth. I had to see through all of it, and in doing so, in direct experience, not “out there” in some kind of illusory world, or even “in here” in a confused mental understanding based on beliefs, but just directly experienced through peeling off all those layers of concepts and understandings, perspectives, and causes, freeing myself from conceptual thought and intelligible appearances. And in the end, there was no “myself” to free. What needed to be done was to unbridle, unimpede, unobstruct, uninhibit, and stop interfering with, the natural and spontaneous inventiveness of this self-less naturing with my wandering attention and its searching for meaning in understandings and ideas, whether based upon experience or not.

It is through concepts that we learn of the problem. It is through conceptual thought that we learn of techniques to overcome the problem. It is by letting concepts go that we free our minds, opening it to other possibilities. It is through the intelligible appearances that we can truly see reality in action. But it is in giving up those intelligible appearances by training our minds to stop wandering aimlessly all over the flowerbed, that we allow the true self-less naturing to appear in all of its awesome beauty. And it is in that, that all the confused thinking and frightening appearances can be seen to be nothing other than what we casually call “our mind,” i.e. self-less naturing—the dharmata.

This is the strategy, half-measures are only tactics in a never-ending story. End the story.

(This has been excerpted from the introduction to my forthcoming book, “Tranquillity’s Secret.”)

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AlexaLiving on another continent from my family, means that often months go by without any quality conversations with anyone, so I was surprised by a text from my goddaughter shortly before 3 am this morning, and touched by its contents. I spent the morning crafting a response to her questions because I felt how important the opportunity was to share with her how I feel, without imposing my ideas on her. I thought I would memorialize my answer by posting it here, because it’s the same answer I would give any young person. I hope you find some value in reading it.

Alexa 2:45 am:

Hi ton ton I have a question for you, 1) In your opinion what is the meaning of life and 2) Do you subscribe to Descartes’ Philosophy… To me life is just what you make of it, but I was curious to see another’s point of view and thought about you 😘😊 I’d love to get your opinion.


Hi Alexa! I’m really happy to discuss these questions with you. Partially because I am a philosopher, but mostly because I love you!

It’s true, what you said, the meaning of life is what we make of it, but if you really think about that answer, you’ll see that it doesn’t really say anything at all about how we would go about judging what that meaning, in the end, was. Are you a good person? A bad person? Have you spent your life enjoying yourself while being rude, nasty, and hurtful to others? Have you spent your time wisely? Or just wasted you time? How would you judge? What standard would you compare your life to?

So really, the right question is “can life have a meaning?” and to that I would answer “Yes, if you take the opportunity to benefit others” because to me the only real value in life is to be kind to others, compassionate to those who are suffering in some way, and to make it possible for others to have the same opportunity to live, by taking care of our world, not destroying it or abusing it or being selfish about what it provides us, and to allow other species to live without hurting them for stupid or unnecessary or selfish reasons.

I call this “living a good life” and if I succeed in being kind and compassionate and not selfish towards others whether they are human or non-human, then my life will have had a good meaning, because I will have been a good person.

Many people believe there is a purpose for their having been born, many other people believe that is nonsense. The way this comes about is that many people believe there is God (and there are many different understandings of what/who God is) and they believe that God has an intent for creating us and that gives us a purpose in life that we are supposed to figure out.

Many other people do not believe there is God, and they usually just believe that, as Science tells us, there is nothing other than matter and energy, the basic forces like gravity and electromagnetism, and chaotic interactions between the matter and energy under the effects of the basic forces. Because this is all there is, there is no intent behind our being born, and so, no purpose to our lives other than propagating our own species of life.

But there is a third understanding that is different than either of those. It is based on the idea that rather than just believing anything, like in God as religions teach us, or in the vision of reality that Science teaches us, we should instead figure it out ourselves and see what is real and what is just belief. But as you can imagine, this is the hardest path of all because you have to be always aware of where your thoughts and feelings are coming from. Are they just arising from beliefs that you hold because you were told this is the way it is, or have you actually made the effort to see for yourself what is true, and what is merely a belief that someone told you, or that you fell into?

Learning how to do this is called “mind training” and it starts with the practice of meditation, which is often called “mindfulness” because you will find, after you meditate for a while, that most of the time we are very unmindful of why we act or think or feel as we do. When you become mindful about these things, you start to understand a great deal about how fights between people occur, and why we hurt each other’s feelings without meaning to, or even why we might want to hurt someone’s feelings, and how our unmindful way of being is almost like being asleep through our entire life. Mind training is like weight training in a gym, only instead of building muscle tissue, it develops our ability to be awake and aware of everything. This is the path I have followed. And the results of my mind training are in many ways the parts of my character that make you love me the most. Think about that.

Here is an example: you asked about Descartes. If you really pay attention to what he said and how his thoughts were structured, you might see something troubling. He is most famous for saying “I think, therefore I am.” But reflect on that word “think” for a moment. Have you ever said “I think so” to someone? Were you expressing something that was absolutely true, or were you expressing a level of assurance that wasn’t 100%, leaving a possibility of doubt about what you were responding to? And are your thoughts always correct? Or are they sometimes incorrect? I find that on many occasions, thoughts are incorrect, or only partially correct, and rarely totally correct. So if that is true (and this applies even to what I am saying—this is an example of mindfulness of my own thinking as I write to you!) then, the correct understanding of Descartes statement is “He is thinking, so he thinks he is” and that isn’t very convincing at all!

Descartes also did some very unkind and uncompassionate things in his philosophy too. For example, since he was only aware of his own thinking and not that of others, he said he couldn’t be sure that they actually were truly existing or not. This presented him with a difficulty. If he met someone, he didn’t know if they were actually thinking, so he could either assume they were like him and therefore could think, or that they weren’t like him at all and therefore were just some kind of zombie. What was unkind in his philosophy, was that he decided that he would be kind to people and assume that since they were like him, he would believe that they were thinking beings also, but he chose not to see any likeness between himself and non-humans, even though we share so much in how our bodies are structured, like having eyes for instance, and in how we behave, like whimpering or crying  when we are hurt. Since he felt non-human animals were not like us at all he said that their behavior and their expressions of happiness and suffering were the result of purely mechanical actions, so it was ok to hurt animals and make them suffer. I find this incredibly stupid and mean, even for the time when Descartes lived when we knew much less about how our bodies, and those of other animals are formed. So, no, I don’t subscribe to Descartes philosophy.

And by the way, if you meditate, you can notice that in-between thinking, in the pauses between thoughts, you still are there! And that is a very interesting thing to discover.

I’m sorry for the length of this response, Alexa, but what you asked me was really important, and I wanted to explain why it was.

I love you so much. I’ll see you soon!


Prose One Response so far

IMG_5663Agency implies an agent. If there is no agent, there can be no agency. Agency, of course, is the action or intervention of a thing, or person, that produces an effect. To say that language can’t capture the truth is even more true when silly things are being stated. So when someone talks about causes and conditions, they are being silly because these are not the same. A cause is that which makes a thing happen. It implies an agent and agency–a veritable proliferation of sillinesses. A condition is that which opens the possibility of something happening. But conditions can never cause anything to happen because they are neither an agent nor have agency. Perhaps this surprises you. But think about all the things you thought were going to happen in your life that didn’t, and all the things that did that you never saw coming! Scientists call this stochastic behavior–it extends all the way down to the quantum level (and perhaps especially there!). It’s the reason why a computer needs a clock, that coordinates all the stochastic behavior of electronic components so that the device can actually accomplish the tasks it has been engineered to allow to happen. Notice I didn’t say “make happen,” because sometimes things don’t. And we’ve probably all experienced that too.

Often, in our attempts to make sense of reality, we fall into old habits of thought that arise from an understanding in our heads that things do things. Exorcising that understanding happens naturally when a certain point is reached, but without the direct experience, silliness abounds.

Parmenides, an Ancient Greek philosopher once wrote a poem about his insights into reality. He didn’t use any pronouns, and few, if any nouns. Smart people, thinking they knew what he meant, supplied a lot of additional wording that made the poem easier to read, but empty of truth. Then, once that was done, they realized that Parmenides hadn’t said the right thing in the right way, so they fixed that up too. When Parmenides said: “the same: to be and wherefore is intuitive awareness” (“ταὐτὸν δ᾽ ἐστὶ νοεῖν τε καὶ οὓνεκέν ἐστι νόημα”), equating the manifesting appearances and selfless knowing, they clarified it, equating “being” with “thinking,” turning it into a kind of “I think, therefore I am!” statement instead. Silliness. Neither the Greek word for thought, nor for thinking appears anywhere in Parmenides’ statement.

So, try to make sense of conditions, not as any kind of interaction between entities, not even in a metaphorical fashion. Instead, think of how a seed grows. The sun doesn’t cause the seed to grow, any more than rain does, or the soil, or all the bacteria, fungi, animals, and other plants do. Yet, for the seed to grow, all of those conditions need to be right, including the condition of the seed being present.

As to what causes the seed to grow, well, just let the idea of causes go. It involves agents and agency, and they are just silly nonsense. Understand that when the right conditions are present, the possibility of genesis is present, but what actually happens is uncaused.

Now divest that scenario of all sense of things inherent in it. Sunlight isn’t a thing, except as a concept. Neither is water, or soil, or all the life present in soil. These are all just ideas, ways to talk about reality in shorthand. Instead, see an amazing, and coherent presencing of selfless naturing. Don’t even hold onto the idea of a nature, as something doing the naturing. It will cause a cognitive dissonance that will tire you out, but the effort lays a groundwork for the direct experience to come. It’s all just more conditioning, and in this case, it’s called mind training, but it could be called mind conditioning as well, because you are not making anything happen, you are only developing the right conditions for certain experiences to happen.

So remember: there is no mind, instead there is just this awesome and beautiful selfless naturing. Or if you prefer, there is just this awesome and beautiful selfless minding. But no nature and no mind anywhere–just the appearance of awesome beauty.

Reflect on that phrase, “awesome beauty.” Another way of expressing it, that I use, is the visceral essence of selfless loving. But you can just call it bliss instead.

Prose One Response so far

Mandel_zoom_08_satellite_antennaOh, what a plethora of entities are sown
When only the harvest is known
Gathered together, counted and weighted
Packaged and shipped, yet only ever debated.

What source is the genesis?
What does it mean to taste?
Since we are always only ever the chef
Whence comes the critic’s perspective?

“Never apart from being will you find being,”
Parmenides said.
Is being a thing? The same as being a thing?
And what is this awareness that speaks?
Is it a ground, or is it a gerund?

Oh, what a plethora of entities…

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