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For the Chinese translation of this article, see 论无我,空性,摩诃与平凡,和自然圆满

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Two Types of Nondual Contemplation after I AM
+A and -A Emptiness

(Last Updated: 14th March 2009)

Article written by: Thusness/PasserBy

Wonder why but of late, the topic on anatta kept surfacing in forums. Perhaps 'yuan' (condition) has arisen. -:) I will just jot down some thoughts on my experiences of ‘no-self’. A casual sharing, nothing authoritative.

The 2 stanzas below are pivotal in leading me to the direct experience of no-self. Although they appear to convey the same stuff about anatta, meditating on these 2 stanzas can yield 2 very different experiential insights -- one on the emptiness aspect and the other, the non-dual luminosity aspect. The insights that arise from these experiences are very illuminating as they contradict so much our ordinary understanding of what awareness is.

  • There is thinking, no thinker
    There is hearing, no hearer
    There is seeing, no seer

  • In thinking, just thoughts
    In hearing, just sounds
    In seeing, just forms, shapes and colors.

  • Before proceeding any further, it is of absolute importance to know that there is no way the stanzas can be correctly understood by way of inference, logical deduction or induction. Not that there is something mystical or transcendental about the stanzas but simply the way of mental chattering is a 'wrong approach'. The right technique is through 'vipassana' or any more direct and attentive bare mode of observation that allows the seeing of things as they are. Just a casual note, such mode of knowing turns natural when non-dual insight matures, before that it can be quite 'efforting'.
    On the first stanza

    The two most obvious experiences from this initial glimpse of the first stanza is the lack of doer-ship and the direct insight of the absence of an agent. These 2 experiences are key for my phase 5 of the 7 phases of insights.

    1. The lack of doer-ship that links and co-ordinates experiences.
    Without the 'I' that links, phenomena (thoughts, sound, feelings and so on and so forth) appear bubble-like, floating and manifesting freely, spontaneously and boundlessly. With the absence of the doer-ship also comes a deep sense of freedom and transparency. Ironical as it may sound but it's true experientially. We will not have the right understanding when we hold too tightly 'inherent' view. It is amazing how 'inherent' view prevents us from seeing freedom as no-doership, interdependence and interconnectedness, luminosity and non-dual presence.

    2. The direct insight of the absence of an agent.
    In this case, there is a direct recognition that there is “no agent”. Just one thought then another thought. So it is always thought watching thought rather than a watcher watching thought. However the gist of this realization is skewed towards a spontaneous liberating experience and a vague glimpse of the empty nature of phenomena -- that is, the transient phenomena being bubble-like and ephemeral, nothing substantial or solid. At this phase we should not misunderstand that we have experienced thoroughly the ‘empty’ nature of phenomena and awareness, although there is this temptation to think we have. -:)

    Depending on the conditions of an individual, it may not be obvious that it is “always thought watching thought rather than a watcher watching thought.” or "the watcher is that thought." Because this is the key insight and a step that cannot afford to be wrong along the path of liberation, I cannot help but with some disrespectful tone say,

    For those masters that taught,
    “Let thoughts arise and subside,
    See the background mirror as perfect and be unaffected.”
    With all due respect, they have just “blah” something nice but deluded.


    See that there is no one behind thoughts.
    First, one thought then another thought.
    With deepening insight it will later be revealed,
    Always just this, One Thought!
    Non-arising, luminous yet empty!
    And this is the whole purpose of anatta. To thoroughly see through that this background does not exist in actuality. What exists is a stream, action or karma. There is no doer or anything being done, there is only doing; No meditator nor meditation, only meditating. From a letting go perspective, "a watcher watching thought" will create the impression that a watcher is allowing thoughts to arise and subside while itself being unaffected. This is an illusion; it is 'holding' in disguise as 'letting go'. When we realized that there is no background from start, reality will present itself as one whole letting go. With practice, ‘intention’ dwindles with the maturing of insight and ‘doing’ will be gradually experienced as mere spontaneous happening as if universe is doing the work. With the some pointers from 'dependent origination', we can then penetrate further to see this happening as a sheer expression of everything interacting with everything coming into being. In fact, if we do not reify ‘universe’, it is just that -- an expression of interdependent arising that is just right wherever and whenever is.

    Understanding this, practice is simply opening to whatever is.
    For this mere happening is just right wherever and whenever is.
    Though no place can be called home it is everywhere home.

    When experience matures in the practice of great ease,
    The experience is Maha! Great, miraculous and bliss.
    In mundane activities of seeing, eating and tasting,
    When expressed poetically is as if the entire universe meditating.

    Whatever said and expressed are really all different flavors,
    Of this everything of everything dependently originating,
    As this moment of vivid shimmering.
    By then it is clear that the transient phenomena is already happening in the perfect way; unwinding what must be unwinded, manifesting what must be manifested and subsides when it is time to go. There is no problem with this transient happening, the only problem is having an ‘extra mirror’, a reification due to the power of the mind to abstract. The mirror is not perfect; it is the happening that is perfect. The mirror appears to be perfect only to a dualistic and inherent view.

    Our deeply held inherent and dualistic view has very subtly and unknowingly personified the "luminous aspect" into the watcher and discarded the "emptiness aspect" as the transient phenomena. The key challenge of practice is then to clearly see that luminosity and emptiness are one and inseparable, they have never and can never be separated.

    On the second stanza

    For the second stanza, the focus is on the vivid, pristine-ness of transience phenomena. Thoughts, sounds and all transient are indistinguishable from Awareness. There is no-experiencer-experience split, only one seamless spontaneous experience arising as thinker/thoughts, hearer/sounds, feeler/feelings and so on. In hearing, hearer and sound are indistinguishably one. For anyone that is familiar with the “I AM” experience, that pure sense of existence, that powerful experience of presence that makes one feel so real, is unforgettable. When the background is gone, all foreground phenomena reveal themselves as Presence. It is like naturally 'vipassanic' throughout or simply put, naked in awareness. From the hissing sound of PC, to the vibration of the moving MRT train, to the sensation when the feet touches the ground, all these experiences are crystal clear, no less “I AM” than “I AM”. The Presence is still fully present, nothing is denied. -:)

    Division of subject and object is merely an assumption.
    Thus someone giving up and something to be given up is an illusion.
    When self becomes more and more transparent,
    Likewise phenomena become more and more luminous.
    In thorough transparency all happening are pristinely and vividly clear.
    Obviousness throughout, aliveness everywhere!
    It will be obvious by then that only the deeply held dualistic view is obscuring our insight into this experiential fact. In actual experience, there is just the crystal clarity of phenomena manifesting. Maturing this experience, the mind-body dissolves into mere non-dual luminosity and all phenomena are experientially understood as the manifestation of this non-dual luminous presence -- the key insight leading to the realization that "All is Mind".

    After this, not to be too overwhelmed or over-claimed what is more than necessary; rather investigate further. Does this non-dual luminosity exhibits any characteristic of self-nature that is independent, unchanging and permanent? A practitioner can still get stuck for quite sometimes solidifying non-dual presence unknowingly. This is leaving marks of the 'One mirror' as described in the stage 4 of the 7 phases of my insights. Although experience is non-dual, the insight of emptiness is still not there. Though the dualistic bond has loosened sufficiently, the 'inherent' view remains strong.

    When the 'subject' is gone, experience becomes non-dual but we forgotten about the 'object'. When object is further emptied, we see Dharmakaya.
    Do See clearly that for the case of a ‘subject’ that is first penetrated, it is a mere label collating the 5 aggregates but for the next level that is to be negated, it is the Presence that we are emptying -- not a label but the very presence itself that is non-dual in nature.

    For sincere Buddhist practitioners that have matured non-dual insight, they may prompt themselves why is there a need for Buddha to put so much emphasis on dependent origination if non-dual presence is final? The experience is still as Vedantic, more 'Brahman' than 'Sunyata'. This 'solidity of non-dual presence' must be broken with the help of dependent origination and emptiness. Knowing this a practitioner can then progress to understand the empty (dependently originated) nature of non-dual presence. It is a further refining of anatta experience according to the first stanza.

    As for those "I AMness" practitioners, it is very common for them after non-dual insight to stay in non-dual presence. They find delight in 'chop wood, carry water' and 'spring comes, grass grows by its own'. Nothing much can be stressed; the experience do appear to be final. Hopefully 'yuan' (condition) can arise for these practitioners to see this subtle mark that prevent the seeing.
    On Emptiness

    If we observe thought and ask where does thought arise, how does it arise, what is ‘thought’ like. 'Thought' will reveal its nature is empty -- vividly present yet completely un-locatable. It is very important not to infer, think or conceptualise but feel with our entire being this ‘ungraspability’ and 'unlocatability'. It seems to reside 'somewhere' but there is no way to locate it. It is just an impression of somewhere "there" but never "there". Similarly “here-ness” and “now-ness” are merely impressions formed by sensations, aggregates of causes and conditions, nothing inherently ‘there’; equally empty like ‘selfness’.

    This ungraspable and unlocatable empty nature is not only peculiar to ‘thought’. All experiences or sensations are like that -- vividly present yet insubstantial, un-graspable, spontaneous, un-locatable.

    If we were to observe a red flower that is so vivid, clear and right in front of us, the “redness” only appears to “belong” to the flower, it is in actuality not so. Vision of red does not arise in all animal species (dogs cannot perceive colours) nor is the “redness” an inherent attribute of the mind. If given a “quantum eyesight” to look into the atomic structure, there is similarly no attribute “redness” anywhere found, only almost complete space/void with no perceivable shapes and forms. Whatever appearances are dependently arisen, and hence is empty of any inherent existence or fixed attributes, shapes, form, or “redness” -- merely luminous yet empty, mere appearances without inherent/objective existence.

    Likewise when standing in front of a burning fire pit, the entire phenomena of ‘fire’, the burning heat, the whole sensation of ‘hotness’ that are so vividly present and seem so real but when examined they are also not inherently “there” -- merely dependently manifest whenever conditions are there. It is amazing how dualistic and inherent views have caged seamless experience in a who-where-when construct.

    All experiences are empty. They are like sky flowers, like painting on the surface of a pond. There is no way to point to a moment of experience and say this is ‘in’ and that is ‘out’. All ‘in’ are as ‘out’; to awareness seamless experience is all there is. It is not the mirror or pond that is important but that process of illusion-like phenomenon of the paint shimmering on the surface of the pond; like an illusion but not an illusion, like a dream but not a dream. This is the ground of all experiences.

    Yet this ‘ungraspability and unlocatabilty’ nature is not all there is; there is also this Maha, this great without boundaries feeling of 'interconnectedness'. When someone hits a bell, the person, the stick, the bell, the vibration of the air, the ears and then the magically appearance of sound -- ’Tongsss…re-sounding…’ is all a seamless one happening, one experience. When breathing, it is just this one whole entire breath; it is all causes and conditions coming together to give rise to this entire sensation of breath as if the whole of universe is doing this breathing. The significance of this Maha experience is not in words; in my opinion, without this experience, there is no true experience of 'interconnectedness' and non-dual presence is incomplete.

    The experience of our empty nature is a very different from that of non-dual oneness. ‘Distance’ for example is overcome in non-dual oneness by seeing through the illusory aspect of subject/object division and resulted in a one non-dual presence. It is seeing all as just ‘This’ but experiencing Emptiness breaks the boundary through its empty ungraspable and unlocatable nature.

    There is no need for a ‘where-place' or a ‘when-time' or a ‘who-I' when we penetrate deeply into this nature. When hearing sound, sound is neither ‘in here’ nor ‘out there’, it is where it is and gone! All centers and reference points dissolve with the wisdom that manifestation dependently originates and hence empty. The experience creates an "always right wherever and whenever is" sensation. A sensation of home everywhere though nowhere can be called home. Experiencing the emptiness nature of presence, a sincere practitioner becomes clear that indeed the non-dual presence is leaving a subtle mark; seeing its nature as empty, the last mark that solidifies experiences dissolves. It feels cool because presence is made more present and effortless. We then move from "vivid non-dual presence" into "though vividly and non-dually present, it is nothing real, empty!".
    On Maha and Ordinariness

    The experience of Maha may sound as if one is going after certain sort of experience and appears to be in contradiction with the 'ordinariness of enlightenment' promoted in Zen Buddhism. This is not true and in fact, without this experience, non-dual is incomplete. This section is not about Maha as a stage to achieve but to see that Sunyata is Maha in nature. In Maha, one does not feel self, one 'feels' universe; one does not feel 'Brahman' but feels 'interconnectedness'; one does not feel 'helplessness' due to 'dependence and interconnection' but feels great without boundary, spontaneous and marvelous. Now lets get back to 'ordinariness'.

    Ordinariness has always been Taoism’s forte. In Zen we also see the importance of this being depicted in those enlightenment models like Tozan’s 5 ranks and the The Ten Oxherding Pictures. But ordinariness must only be understood that non-dual and the Maha world of suchness is nothing beyond. There is no beyond realm to arrive at and never a separated state from our ordinary daily world; rather it is to bring this primordial, original and untainted experience of non-dual and Maha experience into the most mundane activities. If this experience is not found in most mundane and ordinary activities then practitioners have not matured their understandings and practices.

    Before Maha experience has always been rare occurrence in the natural state and was treated as a passing trend that comes and goes. Inducing the experience often involves concentration on repeatedly doing some task for a short period of time for example,

    If we were to breathe in and out, in and out…till there is simply this entire sensation of breath, just breath as all causes and conditions coming into this moment of manifestation.

    If we were to focus on the sensation of stepping, the sensation of hardness, just the sensation of the hardness, till there is simply this entire sensation ‘hardness’ when the feet touches the ground, just this ‘hardness’ as all causes and conditions coming into this moment of manifestation.

    If we were to focus on hearing someone hitting a bell, the stick, the bell, the vibration of the air, the ears all coming together for this sensation of sound to arise, we will have Maha experience.

    However ever since incorporating the teaching of dependent origination into non-dual presence, over the years it has become more ‘accessible’ but never has this been understood as a ground state. There seems to be a predictable relationship of seeing interdependent arising and emptiness on the experience of non-dual presence.

    A week ago, the clear experience of Maha dawned and became quite effortless and at the same time there is a direct realization that it is also a natural state. In Sunyata, Maha is natural and must be fully factored into the path of experiencing whatever arises. Nevertheless Maha as a ground state requires the maturing of non-dual experience; we cannot feel entirely as the interconnectedness of everything coming spontaneously into being as this moment of vivid manifestation with a divided mind.

    The universe is this arising thought.
    The universe is this arising sound.
    Just this magnificent arising!
    Is Tao.
    Homage to all arising.


    On Spontaneous Perfection

    Lastly, when these 2 experiences inter-permeate, what is really needed is simply to experience whatever arises openly and unreservedly. It may sound simple but do not underestimate this simple path; even aeon lives of practices cannot touch the depth of its profundity.

    In fact all the subsections -- “On Stanza One”, “On Stanza Two”, “On Emptiness”, there is already certain emphasis of the natural way. With regards to the natural way, I must say that spontaneous presence and experiencing whatever arises openly, unreservedly and fearlessly is not the 'path' of any tradition or religion -- Be it Zen, Mahamudra, Dzogchen, Advaita, Taoism or Buddhism. In fact the natural way is the 'path' of Tao but Taoism cannot claim monopoly over the 'path' simply because it has a longer history. My experience is that any sincere practitioner after maturing non-dual experiences will eventually come to this automatically and naturally. It is like in the blood, there is no other way than the natural way.

    That said, the natural and spontaneous way is often misrepresented. It should not be taken to mean that there is no need to do anything or practice is unnecessary. Rather it is the deepest insight of a practitioner that after cycles and cycles of refining his insights on the aspect of anatta, emptiness and dependent origination, he suddenly realized that anatta is a seal and non-dual luminosity and emptiness have always been ‘the ground’ of all experiences. Practice then shift from ‘concentrative’ to ‘effortless’ mode and for this it requires the complete pervading of non-dual and emptiness insights into our entire being like how “dualistic and inherent views” has invaded consciousness.

    In any case, care must be taken not to make our empty and luminous nature into a metaphysical essence. I will end with a comment I wrote in another blog Luminous Emptiness as it summarizes pretty well what I have written.

    The degree of “un-contrivance”,
    Is the degree of how unreserved and fearless we open to whatever is.
    For whatever arises is mind, always seen, heard, tasted and experienced.
    What that is not seen, not heard and not experienced,
    Is our conceptual idea of what mind is.

    Whenever we objectify the “brilliance, the pristine-ness” into an entity that is formless,
    It becomes an object of grasp that prevents the seeing of the “forms”,
    the texture and the fabric of awareness.
    The tendency to objectify is subtle,
    we let go of 'selfness' yet unknowingly grasped ‘nowness’ and ‘hereness’.
    Whatever arises merely dependently originates, needless of who, where and when.

    All experiences are equal, luminous yet empty of self-nature.
    Though empty it has not in anyway denied its vivid luminosity.

    Liberation is experiencing mind as it is.
    Self-Liberation is the thorough insight that this liberation is always and already is;
    Spontaneously present, naturally perfected!
    We should not treat the insight of emptiness as 'higher' than that of non-dual luminosity. It is just different insights dawning due to differing conditions. To some practitioners, the insight of our empty nature comes before non-dual luminosity.

    For a more detailed conceptual understanding of Emptiness, do read the article "Non-Dual Emptiness" by Dr. Greg Goode.


    Update 2020 by Soh:

    Here are some related quotes to this article.

    “To me anatta stanza is still the best trigger… lol.  It allows us to clearly see anatta is the natural state. Always is and effortlessly so. It shows "how ignorance" blinds and creates misconceptions of separation and substantiality of what we called "things and phenomena".


    And realising the view is all pointing to this truth of anatta from top to bottom of how the mind confuses and mistakens conventional existence as true and real.  Dependent origination and emptiness are the raft to balance and neutralize all mind-made conventionalities, so that the mind can rest in natural ease and balance, seeing all arising as spontaneously perfected.” - John Tan, 2019


    “Insight that 'anatta' is a seal and not a stage must arise to further progress into the 'effortless' mode. That is, anatta is the ground of all experiences and has always been so, no I. In seeing, always only seen, in hearing always only sound and in thinking, always only thoughts. No effort required and never was there an 'I'.” - John Tan, 2009


    You need to contemplate on anatta correctly as mentioned by (seeing anatta as dharma seal rather than merely a state of no mind)” – Soh, 2020

    Without thorough breakthrough of both stanzas of anatta 1 and 2, there is no thorough or clear realization of anatta proper in AtR definition. Although the 2nd was clearer to me in the beginning breakthrough in October 2010, the 1st stanza shortly became clearer in the following months and dissolving further grounding, including a very subtle grounding to a Here/Now as well as any subtle remaining referencing to Mind (although that is already largely dissolved, a very subtle unseen tendency was seen and dissolved later).” – Soh, 2020


    “TD Unmanifest

    3h ·

    I have found that in my practice that emptying the subject to be “easier” than emptying the object. So in AtR parlance, working on the first stanza vs. the second.

    Emptying of the aggregates and dhatus have been very helpful in deepening insight into the annata realization. Working to root out karmic propensities in the residual I, me, mine.

    However, I’m curious about practices that have helped in the same kind of penetration of the object, related to the second stanza and Presence, DO, and emptiness to total exertion.




    Soh Wei Yu

    badge icon

    Both stanzas of anatta are on anatta, not emptiness of aggregates



    TD Unmanifest

    Ah, I mistook this section related to the second stanza to be focused on the aggregates and objects:

    "When the 'subject' is gone, experience becomes non-dual but we forgotten about the 'object'. When object is further emptied, we see Dharmakaya. Do See clearly that for the case of a ‘subject’ that is first penetrated, it is a mere label collating the 5 aggregates but for the next level that is to be negated, it is the Presence that we are emptying -- not a label but the very presence itself that is non-dual in nature."

    It has progressed very well in deepening annata, but I was contemplating from the perspective of objects vs subject. So self/Self continues to be nowhere to be found, and always already so. Objects of awareness can seem "real" where self clearly isn't, only aggregates, etc.


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         · 1h


    Soh Wei Yu

    That is a reminder to apply the insight of no-self to all phenomena.

    The two stanzas target the illusion of self/Self. But it must later be applied to all phenomena to realise twofold emptiness. Like the insight of no wind besides blowing ( ) must then apply to all phenomena, including movement, etc.

    In 2011:

    “I am telling the first and second stanza must go hand in hand to have real insight of anatta even for a start. You must have these 2 aspects of insight in anatta. So what is anatta? Means when you penetrate no-agent, you are effectively developing your direct insight. That is not reifying anything extra. That is direct insight into suchness. So that when you see 'Self', there is nothing but aggregates. When you see 'weather', there is nothing but the changing clouds, rain… when you see 'body', you see changing sensation. When you hear sound, you see the DO [dependent origination], then you see how the 2 fold emptiness are simply one insight and why that leads to 一合相 (yi4 he2 xiang4; one totality/composite of appearance). If there is no insight but cling to words then you missed the essence. That is, the gaining of insight on the 2 stanzas is not to think only of 'Self'” - John Tan, 2011


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    Soh Wei Yu

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    [10:03 PM, 7/27/2020] John Tan: To me subject-action-object is just a structure to help articulate and make sense of the world. I do not see it that way. I see it as total exertion of appearance-conditions, not appearance and conditions.

    [10:10 PM, 7/27/2020] Soh Wei Yu: You are referring to td unmanifest?

    [10:47 PM, 7/27/2020] John Tan: Yes

    [10:49 PM, 7/27/2020] John Tan: If you see object separated from subject or see phenomena apart from mind, no matter how you deconstruct, it is just knowledge. you won't have direct taste of anything.

    [10:52 PM, 7/27/2020] Soh Wei Yu: But not all conditions are appearing right, some are simply intuited or inferred even when unseen.. so they are merely conventional

    [10:53 PM, 7/27/2020] John Tan: Of course, there is no way to know all conditions involved.

    [10:54 PM, 7/27/2020] John Tan: It is simply to say appearance do not just manifest.

    [10:56 PM, 7/27/2020] John Tan: There is also the experience of spaciousness when you go through the process of deconstructing both subject and object...the experience is like mind body drop.

    [11:04 PM, 7/27/2020] John Tan: When you say, the car is empty but you are sitting inside it...what do you mean?

    [11:05 PM, 7/27/2020] John Tan: It is same as no wind is blowing...

    [11:05 PM, 7/27/2020] John Tan: Or lightning flashing

    [11:07 PM, 7/27/2020] John Tan: Or spring goes, summer comes...

    [11:09 PM, 7/27/2020] John Tan: Means you apply the same insight to everything

    [11:09 PM, 7/27/2020] John Tan: Not only the self...

    [11:10 PM, 7/27/2020] John Tan: Even movement

    [11:13 PM, 7/27/2020] John Tan: So your mind is perpetually seeing through constructs, so what happens?

    [11:16 PM, 7/27/2020] John Tan: Tell me when you say car is empty yet you are sitting on it. you see through the construct, then what happened?

    [11:16 PM, 7/27/2020] John Tan: When you see through the wind that is blowing...what happened?

    [11:16 PM, 7/27/2020] John Tan: When you see through summer or weather? What happened?

    [11:17 PM, 7/27/2020] John Tan: Or I say lightning is flashing, when you really see through that lightning...

    [11:19 PM, 7/27/2020] Soh Wei Yu: is just the mere appearance.. no reifications

    [11:19 PM, 7/27/2020] John Tan: Don't think, experience it...

    [11:19 PM, 7/27/2020] John Tan: you are force into non-conceptuality

    [11:21 PM, 7/27/2020] John Tan: Like PCE fact very mindful and watchful when you begin ... you begin to feel the blowing...correct...

    [11:21 PM, 7/27/2020] John Tan: When i say no lightning flashing...u look at the flashing

    [11:24 PM, 7/27/2020] John Tan: Correct? Have you actually practice or pay attention, not just blah out a sentence...

    [11:25 PM, 7/27/2020] John Tan: When you say no summer, you are experiencing the heat, humidity...etc

    [11:26 PM, 7/27/2020] John Tan: Means you see through the construct but you cannot just think

    [11:27 PM, 7/27/2020] John Tan: When I say there is no car, I touch the car... what is it... ....the color...the leather, the wheels...

    [11:28 PM, 7/27/2020] John Tan: If you constantly and perpetually into that ...what happened?

    [11:34 PM, 7/27/2020] John Tan: You are talking about deconstruction of object and phenomena and I am telling you if you see through, what happens...if you only think, you would not understand...

    [11:38 PM, 7/27/2020] Soh Wei Yu: everything is just vibrant spontaneous presence but no subject or object

    [11:39 PM, 7/27/2020] Soh Wei Yu: like i dont see solid objects, but just shimmering vibrant colors as vivid empty presence

    [11:39 PM, 7/27/2020] Soh Wei Yu: and sounds, sensations, etc

    [11:41 PM, 7/27/2020] John Tan: Yes

    [11:42 PM, 7/27/2020] John Tan: Then it depends on the depth of experiencing the sensation or appearances themselves


    TD Unmanifest

    This is very helpful, thank you. I've just returned from a walk, and used these pointers to feel into what is being pointed to. I was too focused on the deconstruction of objects vs feeling / seeing the direct vibrancy. Many thanks Soh

    , and please pass on my thanks to John Tan.


     · Reply

     · 3m”

    The svabhāva is like the core entity which possesses characteristics. Like a telephone pole possesses the characteristic of being tall, cylindrical, made of wood, brown in color and so on. Perceiving svabhāva is perceiving the telephone pole to be an entity, something that owns these characteristics.

    Realizing emptiness is the experiential recognition that there is no entity that possesses these characteristics, there is only the characteristics, and without the entity at the core, those characteristics cease to be characteristics. There is no entity there, no object which sits at a distance or in a location.

    Emptiness is indeed the non-existence of svabhāva, but it is not a true non-existence like that mentioned as the second position in the catuskoti tetralemma. It is the realization that there has never at any point been an entity from the very beginning.

    Is it non-existence? Sort of, as there is no existent entity to be found, and the entity was always a fallacy. But how can something that never arose in the first place actually lack existence? This is how the freedom from extremes is established." - Kyle Dixon, 2022


    There is only sound

    Geovani Geo wrote:

    We hear a sound. The immediate deeply inbuilt conditioning says, "hearing ". But there is a fallacy there. There is only sound. Ultimately, no hearer and no hearing. The same with all other senses. A centralized, or expanded, or zero-dimensional inherent perceiver or aware-er is an illusion.

    Thusness/John Tan:

    Very good.

    Means both stanza is clear.
    In hearing, no hearer.
    In hearing, only sound.  No hearing.
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    Yozan Dirk Mosig

    University of Nebraska at Kearney


    The concept of the self in Western psychology derives primarily from the work of Freud, Jung, and Rogers. To some extent Western formulations of the self evidence a homunculus-like quality lacking in some Eastern conceptions, especially those derived from the Vijnanavada and Zen Buddhist traditions. The Buddhist notion of self circumvents reification, being an impermanent gestalt formed by the interaction of five skandhas or aggregates (form, feelings, perceptions, impulses, consciousness). Each skandha is in turn a transient pattern formed by the interaction of the other four. The fifth skandha includes eight consciousnesses, one of which results in the experience of the ego or self as homunculus, which Buddhist psychology rejects as delusion. Implications for psychotherapy and everyday life are discussed.

    The concept of the Self takes many forms in Western psychology, but invariably involves to some extent a dimension of “thingness,” the reification of a homunculus assumed to reside within the individual, who is the thinker of thoughts, the doer of deeds, and the feeler of feelings. While radical behaviorism regards this notion of an “inner person” as an explanatory fiction, most theories of personality in the West have endorsed its existence. The psychology of Buddhism, on the other hand, rejects the notion of an inner self and proposes a radically different view, where thoughts exist without a thinker, deeds without a doer, and feelings without a feeler. This paper will compare and contrast these differing views emerging from Western and Eastern psychology, and examine their relevance for psychotherapy and everyday life.

    The origins of the notion of an inner self in Western psychology and philosophy are found in the idea of the soul in the Judeo-Christian tradition, which notion was actually derived in part from the writings of Philo, a Jewish theologian, and Plotinus, a pagan neo-Platonic philosopher. The theological dimensions of the concept of soul were elaborated by Augustine of Hippo as well as by Thomas Aquinas, from where it passed into the hands of Rene Descartes, and from there, almost unchanged, but referred to as “mind,” into the realm of 19th and 20th century psychology. Essentially the soul, mind, or self was viewed as an inner substance or entity, different from the body, in charge of volitional processes, essentially a “little man inside of the head,” a homunculus within the individual, ultimately responsible for the person’s thoughts and actions.

    Sigmund Freud (1940) offered a complex model of this inner self in his tripartite analysis of the human personality into id, ego, and superego, which became a distinguishing feature of his psychoanalytic theory. While the unconscious and non-rational id stood for the biological component of the personality, and the superego, another non-rational agency, for the internalized social dimensions of the individual, it was particularly the rational ego, who functioned as the homuncular executor of the personality. The ego in turn served as the model for the self in a number of theories developed by those who wrote in the wake of Freud.

    Alfred Adler (1927) proposed the notion of a “creative self” which interpreted both the innate abilities and the experiential components of the individual, developing a style of life to compensate for perceived inferiorities and achieve a degree of personal competence and superiority under the influence of an innate “social interest” or Gemeinschaftsgefuehl. Karen Horney (1950) distinguished between the “real self” and the “idealized self,” the former being regarded as a unique central inner force common to all people and the latter as a fantasy resulting from social pressures and expectations. According to Horney, the congruence of the “real self” and the “idealized self” is the hallmark of a healthy personality. Erich Fromm (1964) specified unique human needs that must be satisfied in order to achieve self-fulfillment, and argued that no human society had yet been developed that successfully met the needs of the self. Gordon Allport (1961) made an interesting distinction between the self-as-object and the self-as-knower, asserting that the former could be approached with the descriptive tools of psychology while the latter was to remain a subject for philosophical speculation, outside of the realm of science. Since it is the self-as-knower that labels and classifies the characteristics of the self-as-object, it stands for a homunculus whose own inner self cannot be reached without infinite regression into absurdity. It was precisely this inner self that was rejected by B. F. Skinner (1971) and the radical behaviorists as “explanatory fiction.”

    Perhaps it was Carl Gustav Jung (Jacobi, 1942) who provided the most significant expansion of the homuncular thesis in psychology. He did so by distinguishing between the ego as center of consciousness and the self as the emergent integration of the polarities of the personality. With Jung the self, transcending the ego, became ultimately identical with the whole psyche. The self-realization of Jung became the model for the concept of self-actualization in the humanistic psychologies of Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers, and it was the latter who added a phenomenological dimension to the self. Rogers (1951) defined the self as “an organized, fluid, but consistent conceptual pattern of perceptions of characteristics and relationships of the ‘I’ or ‘me,’ together with values attached to these concepts.” However, despite emphasizing a pattern-like notion of the self, his allusions to the “self-structure,” as well as the suggestion that the self can actually revise or modify the structure of the self, retain a homuncular quality, albeit not as sharply drawn as that of his predecessors. The fuzzier Rogerian self does offer some points of commonality with the Eastern conception of the non-self, as will be clear from the discussion that follows.

    Although some Eastern conceptions of the self, most notably those derived from Hinduism, which center on the Vedic notion of the atman or soul, are similar to Western ideas of the self, Buddhist psychology provides a radically different interpretation. The Buddhist notions of the self are derived from the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, better known as Shakyamuni Buddha, or simply Buddha (“the one who is awake”), after his experience of enlightenment under the bodhi tree over 2,500 years ago. The psychological commentaries of the Buddha, collected in the Abhidharma Pitaka, were further elaborated in India by Vasubandhu nine centuries later, providing the basis for the Yogacara or Vijnanavada conceptions of consciousness and the self.

    Reification is the process by which the mind makes a thing (res), or a material object, out of a concept or an abstraction. By extension, it is making a thing out of a form, a shape, a configuration, a Gestalt, a perception, or an image. It is to “thing” an event or a phenomenon, to transform an ongoing, fluid process, into a frozen and static spatial or temporal cross-section of the same, endowing such construction with the qualities of reality and separateness. Vasubandhu understood that every single object differentiated by the mind out of its global and holistic experience is created by this process, including the concept of the individual self, the “I” or “me.” Reifications are little more than delusions, and refer to momentary states remembered from the past experience of the person (whose concept of himself or herself as a separate individual is itself a reification). People constantly act, behave, and live out their lives as if reifications were actually real, separate entities, rather than the delusory constructions of the mind.

    Language has developed as a system of communication for myriads of reified concepts, and consequently consists primarily of reified labels. These labels tend to perpetuate the illusion that reified concepts are actually real, existing objects, for their reality seems to be attested to by the very fact that labels exists for each of them. Language automatically fosters further reifications, in a vicious cycle which prevents the individual from effectively communicating in a non-reifying, nondualistic manner. This is one of the reasons why “ultimate reality” is essentially “ineffable.” As Lao Tze put it, “the tao that can be told is not the real Tao.”

    Buddhist training consists largely of short-circuiting the reification process, by using non-verbal, non labeling experiential practice (such as meditation) to become “awakened” to the “as-it-is-ness” of inexpressible reality. Because of the delusory nature of any labeling process, with its consequent reifications, any attempt to offer a name for the unnamable Reality must always fall short, although sages have offered terms such as Thusness, Tathagatagarba, Buddha Nature, Dharmakaya, Suchness, the Big Self, the Absolute, or the Tao.

    According to Walpola Rahula (1974), “Buddhism stands unique in the history of human thought in denying the existence of a [separate] soul, self, or atman. According to the teaching of the Buddha, the idea of a [personal] self is an imaginary, false belief which has no corresponding reality, and it produces harmful thoughts of “me” and “mine,” selfish desire, craving, attachment, hatred, ill-will, conceit, pride, egoism, and other defilements, impurities and problems. It is the source of all the troubles in the world, from personal conflicts to wars between nations. In short, to this false view can be traced all the evil in the world.”

    It is important to realize what is meant by the “self” rejected by the Buddha as illusory. Not only are human beings declared to lack a soul or self, but so is everything else: rivers, mountains, this paper, and your pencil, all lack a separate self. What this means is that they cannot have any existence except in terms of the interconnected net of causal conditions that made their existence possible. All things (including human beings) are composites, in other words, they are composed of parts, and have no real existence other than as temporary (impermanent) collections of parts. They are essentially patterns, configurations, or Gestalten rather than objectively existing separate entities. They possess no separate essence, self, or soul that could exist by itself, apart from the component parts and conditions.

    Consider, for example, an automobile. Does it have an essence or a “soul” when separated from its component parts? Does it have any real existence apart from its parts? One could try the following mental exercise. Removing one of the tires of the car, one could ask oneself, is this the car? Successively taking away the windshield, a door, a piston, a bolt, the radiator cap, and continuing until the last piece of metal, plastic, glass, or rubber has been removed, one would never find the part which, if removed, transforms what remains into a non-car. Such part, if found, would have represented the essence or the “soul” of the car, and yet it was nowhere to be found. Now all we have is a pile of parts—where is the car? At which point did the car disappear? If we reflect carefully we are left with the realization that there never was a car there—all that was there was a conglomerate of parts temporarily connected in a certain way, so as to result in a particular mode of functioning, and “car” was just a convenient label to designate this working arrangement. The word “car” is nothing but a label for the gestalt formed by the constituent parts, and although it is true (as realized by Wertheimer and the other Gestaltists) that the whole is more than the sum of the parts (one cannot drive sitting on any of the separate parts, or on a random heap of them, but driving is possible when one puts them together in a certain way), it is equally true that a gestalt cannot continue to exist when separated from its parts. The gestalt, the “whole,” cannot exist by itself; it does not have a separate self or “soul.”

    But what about a person? According to Buddhist psychology, what we call a “person” is the composite of five groups of elements or skandhas. The skandhas are form, feelings, perceptions, impulses, and consciousness. Just as an automobile is a temporary collection of car parts, a person is a temporary arrangement of these five aggregates or skandhas. There is no separate, independent self or soul that would be left if we removed form (which includes the body), feelings, perceptions, impulses, and consciousness. While these aggregates are together, the functioning gestalt we call a person exists; if they are removed, the gestalt ceases to be. For this reason, the self can be said to be “empty” of reality when separated from its component aggregates— a view of the self radically different from Western perspectives. But it is not only the self that is empty, and cannot exist by itself; the skandhas themselves are also empty.

    The five skandhas, like everything else, are dependently arisen, and cannot exist by themselves. Take the form of one’s body, for example. What would remain of it, if one removed one’s perception of it, one’s feelings about it, one’s impulses to act on it or with it, and one’s conscious awareness of it? Form is empty of reality when separated from perceptions, feelings, impulses, and consciousness. And what about feelings? They also cannot exist by themselves. Feelings are feelings about something, about one’s body, one’s perceptions, one’s impulses, one’s state of consciousness. The same is true of the remaining skandhas—each one is composed of the other four. They are in a state of interdependent co-origination, they inter-are (Hanh, 1988).

    The teaching of “dependent origination” is at the core of the Buddha’s teaching or Dharma. In its simplest expression, dependent origination is a law of causality that says “this is, because that is; this is not, because that is not; when this arises, that arises; when this ceases, that ceases.” Despite the apparent simplicity of this formulation, it is a farreaching principle, that leaves nothing untouched, and, in fact, causally connects everything in the universe, for it implies that all phenomena, whether they be external objective events or internal subjective experiences, come into existence depending on causes and conditions without which they could not be. These causes and conditions can themselves be either internal mental states or external events.

    Borrowing an example from Hanh (1988), consider a piece of paper: it can be, because a tree was, since the tree had to be in order to be cut down to make the paper. This same piece of paper, is also because there was rain and sunshine, for without them the tree could not have grown. The same is true for the seed and the fertile soil, and for the logger who cut the tree down, for without them, the tree would not have been there for the paper to be. But for the logger to be, his parents had to be, and the food they consumed, and all the conditions that made their lives possible, and those lives upon which theirs in turn depended, and on, and on. There is no end to this causal interconnectedness. Everything in the universe is connected to this piece of paper through a web of causal conditions. If the component conditions are regarded as elements, we can say that this piece of paper is composed of non-paper elements, or, in other words, that conditions other than the paper itself are necessary for the paper to exist. Stated differently, the paper cannot exist by itself; it lacks a separate self, soul, or essence. The same is true for anything else in the universe, including a person. It is also true of cognitive or mental states, because for every emotion, for every perception, for every thought, there are necessary causal conditions without which they would not have come into being. Everything is dependently arisen, everything exists only if the necessary conditions are there. This means that nothing is ever truly independent or separate from everything else.

    The interconnectedness, or “interbeing,” of everything in the universe, implied in the principle of dependent origination, finds an elegant expression in the metaphor of the jewel net of Indra, in the Buddha’s “Flower Ornament” sermon (Avatamsaka Sutra). In this sutra, the universe is likened to an infinite net, stretching out in all directions, in which at every intersection of two strands is found a precious jewel. Each of these jewels reflects the whole net, so that the entire universe is contained in each part of it (Loy, 1993). The Buddha conceived of the universe as composed of an infinite number of Dharmas, which are described as “point-instants” having infinitesimal extension and only momentary duration, somewhat analogous to the particle-waves of quantum physics (Soeng, 1991).

    The following exercise makes the same point experientially. Close your hand into a fist and look at it. What do you see? A fist. Is it real? It certainly seems to be. Now open your fingers. What happened to the “real” thing called “fist” that was there a moment ago? Where did it go? Now consider your self, your ego. Is it real? Certainly. Or is it? What would remain of it if you removed form, feelings, perceptions, impulses, and consciousness? Just like the term “fist” is a convenient label to designate a particular (and transient) arrangement of the fingers, the term “self” or “I” is nothing but a label for an impermanent arrangement of the skandhas. There is no little man inside of the head, no thinker of thoughts, no doer of deeds, no inner ego or self, other than the temporary gestalt formed by the skandhas. This is the Buddha’s concept of anatta, and this is why the Buddha declared the self an illusion.

    But the concept of anatta does not negate the person, nor does it diminish it. On the contrary, it empowers the individual by erasing the boundaries of separateness that limit the personal ego or self. The person becomes transformed from an isolated and powerless individual struggling against the rest of the world, into an interconnected integral part of the universe. The person’s boundaries dissolve, and the person becomes the universe. This is the realization known as enlightenment, the emergence of the big self, the Self with capital S, which is boundless. In the words of the Zen Master Sekito Kisen (700-790), a sage has no self, yet there is nothing that is not himself (Mosig, 1998).

    This can be grasped best with another metaphor, often found in Buddhist literature. Consider a wave in the ocean. It has no reality separate from the water, and although its form seems to last as it continues to move on the surface of the ocean, it is composed each moment of different water particles. It seems so real, and yet, if we look deeply, we can see that there is no thing called “wave” there at all; all there is, is the movement of the water. The wave has no separate “self,” no reality apart from the water. But now look again: where are the boundaries of the wave? Where does the wave end and the rest of the ocean start? In reality, it has no boundaries, the wave and the ocean are one, the wave is the ocean, and the ocean is the wave—the separation was just an illusion created by our perceptions and by the words we use to describe them. Now stretch your imagination, and assume for a moment that the collection of elements forming the wave had resulted in the phenomenon of consciousness. As long as the wave was unaware of the nature of the ocean, believing itself to be separate and independent of it, it might develop attachments and aversions, fears, jealousies, and worries about its size, its purpose, its importance, its possessions, or its destination. Clearly any such concerns would vanish instantly upon realizing the water-nature of the ocean, and its oneness with it. In the same way, all human problems and suffering disappear when the illusion of a separate self is eliminated.

    The exhilarating and liberating effect of dissolving the illusion of the “I,” “me,” or “self” is reflected in these words by Achaan Chah:

    Hey, listen! There is no one here, just this. No owner, no one to be old, to be young, to be good or bad, weak or strong. . . no one born, and no one to die. . . . When we carry a burden, it is heavy; when there is no one to carry it, there is not a problem in the world! (Kornfield & Breiter, 1985, p. 174)

    Since upon realizing the universal oneness of all, the “selfless Self,” everyone and everything is oneself, this transcendent wisdom generates universal compassion and caring of everyone as oneself. To hurt another becomes to hurt oneself; to help another is to help oneself. True wisdom is automatically manifested as universal compassion, just as true compassion manifests itself as wisdom. Wisdom and compassion are dependently arisen, they “inter-are.” In the final analysis, wisdom is compassion, and compassion is wisdom (Mosig, 1989).

    The psychological insights of the Buddha were explicated by a number of commentators after him. One of the most important ones was Vasubandhu, an oustanding Buddhist scholar living in the 4th century. He was a founder of the school known as the Vijnanavada (“path of knowledge”) or Yogacara (“application of yoga”), and the author of one of the most important books of Buddhist psychology, the Abhidharmakosa.

    According to Vasubandhu, all that can be experienced to exist is “mind only,” or the mental processes of knowing. There is experience, but there is no subject (no atman) having the experience. Vijnana, or “consciousness,” the last of the five skandhas, is a multi-layered concept, including both conscious and unconscious aspects. There are eight consciousnesses, not just one. The first five correspond to the five basic sense fields, and share the same level of depth. They are the consciousnesses of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching. Below is the manovijnana, the integrating basis of the five sense consciousnesses, which has functions such as knowing, evaluating, imagining, conceiving, and judging. It is essentially a perceptual and cognitive processing center. Next comes manas (“mind”), where complex thinking and awareness takes place based on the information processed at the previous level. It is here where the illusion of a subjective “I” or “ego” arises. Being aware of the phenomenon of awareness results in the mistaken notion of an inner perceiver who is having the awareness and who is separate from it. This false sense of self or ego-individuality defiles the first six consciousnesses and is the source of all sort of psychological problems and delusions. Finally comes the vast unconscious alayavijnana, or “storehouse consciousness,” which is the passive or potential ground out of which emerge the other seven consciousnesses. It is the repository of all potential activities of the other consciousnesses. These potentials exist in the form of “seeds” (bija) (Hanh, 1974, Epstein, 1995). These “seeds,” upon development, produce all sorts of mental phenomena. Furthermore, in the alayavijnana, the “seeds” affect each other in various ways. These “seeds” are “watered” by con scious activities, so that, for example, engaging in kind or compassionate thoughts makes the seeds of compassion ripen and grow (i.e., become more powerful), so that it will be easier to think compassionately next time. Allowing oneself to indulge in anger or hatred waters the corresponding seeds, so that it becomes easier to grow angry and to experience hate. This is why mindfulness of thoughts is so important, and why the “right effort” aspect of the Eightfold Path deals with cutting off negative or destructive thoughts as soon as they appear, while nurturing positive ones. This develops positive mental habits rooted in the seeds of the alayavijnana, and has far-reaching effects on the life and well-being of the individual.

    The alayavijnana is a vast unconscious realm, which is often compared to a stream, constantly flowing and renewing itself. If the individual is likened to a wave in the ocean, then the alayavijnana is the unconsciousness (or subconsciousness) of the ocean, providing the continuity of the karmic process. Jung’s collective unconscious is the closest concept in Western psychology, with the archetypes being somewhat analogous to “seeds,” but the Buddhist concept is vaster and more dynamic, allowing as it does for the “seeding” of the unconscious (Hanh, 1991). Although the archetypes in the Jungian collective unconscious manifest themselves in dreams and visions, the individual cannot modify their character. The “seeds” of the alayavijnana, on the other hand, can be made stronger or weaker through selective attentional and reactive phenomena.

    The eight consciousnesses should not be conceived as separate, but rather as eight manifestations or functions of an ongoing process. Think of a room illuminated by seven lightbulbs. The illumination is one ongoing phenomenon, integrating the contributions of the individual bulbs. In this example, the electricity that activates them is the equivalent of the alayavijnana. There are eight consciousnesses, and yet these are ultimately one (Epstein, 1995).

    The psychotherapeutic applications of Eastern and Western psychology have been examined by a number of authors (e.g., Watts, 1961; Goleman, 1981; Loy, 1992). Both aim at effecting a positive change in the mode of functioning and the lifestyle of the individual. However, Western psychotherapy is designed to effect such change in persons experiencing psychological or behavioral disorders, while Eastern disciplines affect primarily the practical everyday life of normal or healthy individuals. Buddhist psychology is concerned with the alleviation of the unnecessary suffering caused by the delusion of the separate self in human beings in general. The delusion of separateness results in cravings, grasping, clinging, greed, selfishness, hatred, fear, feelings of alienation, loneliness, helplessness, and anxiety, which afflict those “healthy” as well as “unhealthy.”

    Western psychotherapy, in its efforts to heal the neurotic individual, attempts to strengthen the ego, or to foster the development of a stronger “self,” and yet it is this very notion of self which Buddhist psychology sees as the root cause of human suffering. Eastern psychotherapy attempts to dissolve the experience of the self-as-separate entity and replace it with a feeling of interconnectedness, the non-self or selfless Self implied in the Buddhist concept of anatta. This radical change is seen as the key to liberation from dukkha, the dissatisfaction and suffering of human existence.

    Nevertheless, it is not enough for the healthy, liberated individual to eliminate the delusion of the separate self. While understanding universal interconnectedness and absolute reality, the emptiness or nothingness of Buddhism, the person needs at the same time to experience reality in the relative sense, where individual identities exist. The integration of the two levels of awareness, the absolute and the relative, is essential for the normal functioning of the healthy human being in society. When crossing the street, it is not enough to contemplate an approaching car and to realize that we are one with it. Although it is true that the car, the road, our bodies, and everything else are nothing more than temporary collections of countless particles (or fluctuations of energy, at the quantum level of analysis) and that all there is, is an ocean of energy, where car, road, and person have no more reality than the transient shape of a wave on the surface of the ocean, unless we act in the relative plane, and get out of the way of the car, the collection of skandhas that allows this awareness to occur will be promptly dissolved. What is needed is appropriate action in the relative world, while maintaining awareness of the big picture. This larger awareness guides the individual in compassionate action, and eliminates unnecessary worries and suffering about impermanent events, which can now be accepted as the momentary contents of reality.

    The different conceptions of the self in Western and Eastern psychology have clear implications for psychotherapy and everyday life. Despite their differences an integration of Western and Eastern approaches may be possible or even necessary. It could be argued that the self needs to be strengthened before it can be abandoned. Culture may play a critical role in this process. The delusion of the separate self is likely to be stronger in individuals raised in individualistic societies, such as those of Europe and America, and may be weaker in collectivistic societies, such as those of China or Japan, where the harmony (wah) of the group takes precedence over the needs of the individual. Western approaches may be extremely valuable in giving the person (primarily in individualistic societies, but to some extent also in collectivistic ones) sufficient self-confidence and maturity to discard egocenteredness. This in turn prepares the individual to transcend the isolation of the separate self through the realization of the universal interconnectedness stressed by Buddhist psychology as the gateway to wisdom and compassion.


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    Author Note

    Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Yozan Dirk Mosig, Department of Psychology, University of Nebraska at Kearney, Kearney, Nebraska 68849. E-mail: