Here's a talk by IMS (Insight Meditation Society) teacher Rob Burbea that Thusness/PasserBy had commented as "It is truly good." , "Amazingly clear." and "Very profound."

I've typed out a transcript of the talk below on Thusness's advise. Also available for audio download.
2009-05-21 Realizing the nature of mind 65:00 Download Stream Order

Through practice we can glimpse a sense of the nature of awareness as something ever present and awesomely vast, and this sense can be cultivated as a profound resource for freedom and peace in our lives. But eventually we must see even beyond this to know the ultimate nature of the mind - empty, completely groundless, and dependently-arisen - a seeing which brings an even deeper freedom. This talk explores some of the ways this realization might be encouraged and developed in meditation.

Insight Meditation Society - Forest Refuge: May 2009 at IMS - Forest Refuge
So I’m aware that in the weeks that I’ve been here, in the talks weekly, there have been a few threads that run through the talks. And so I want to take one of those threads and fill it out a bit, quite a bit actually, explore it and expand it quite a bit. And that is the nature of mind. Or the nature of Awareness. So what does it mean to realize the true nature of Mind, the true nature of Awareness? I’m also aware that everyone here obviously has different practice background. You’ve been doing different practices in the time that you’ve been here, you’ve had exposure to different teachings in your life, etc.
So to some, what we’re talking about tonight will seem very very relevant, very very apropos. To others, it would seem less pertinent right now, less relevant. And if that’s the case, if it doesn’t seem like this is really relevant to my practice right now, I hope that you can just listen. I hope that it’s still interesting. And I hope that one can listen with a sense of possibility, so just listening to it, “ok not right now, but there’s a sense of the possibility of practice, possibility of an avenue to explore in practice.” And one can just listen and file it for later. Just stick it somewhere, I’ll come back to this later. And that’s a totally valid and wonderful way to listen to a Dharma talk.
And actually, I should really, and in another situation I would have devoted three or four or five Dharma talks just to this subject. There’s much more to this than meets the eye, there’s much more to this than meets the eye in terms of depth and enrichment. And yet I’m steaming ahead and doing what’s foolish and try to put it all in one. I hope it’s not too full, and again I hope it’s full enough for the people that have been here and followed the threads, that it can raise some questions.
But more I’m interested in is offering some possibilities – how might one practice to discover the nature of mind? How might one navigate through practice as it deepens, as it evolves, to actually come to that realization and then consolidate that realization, strengthen it.
So some words. Mind, Awareness, That Which Knows, and Consciousness. In this talk tonight, I’m using them all as synonyms. So I’m using them interchangeably, and meaning the same thing by all of them. Sometimes when we talk about mind, my mind is making such a fuss, my mind is so difficult – we actually mean all the realm of thoughts. But you also get in the Dharma talking about Mind, meaning just Awareness or Consciousness. Sometimes, people leave out the word Consciousness, people in Buddhist circles leave out the word Consciousness from that group. And there’s a reason they do that. Partly because the Buddha was a little bit dismissive of consciousness, in the sense it’s just something impermanent, not-self, etc. But actually to leave it out obscures something. It obscures, which I hope it’ll become clear in the talk and I hope it makes sense.
So, different streams of Dharma traditions kind of make a promise, and it’s: if we understand the nature of mind deeply, the nature of awareness, consciousness, etc, deeply, if we really understand that deeply, there is freedom. That’s the promise. And that runs through a lot of different Dharma traditions, a lot of different Buddhist traditions. What I want to explore and what I’m asking right at the beginning is, understand What about the nature of mind, what is it about the nature of awareness that I need to understand? And with that, How? How can I understand that?
So I’m gearing this talk not so much to questions of abstraction or philosophy, that can be very interesting, I think has its place in human’s (?) inquiry. But really talking on a very practice level. We, as meditation practitioners. So often times we don’t really think about the nature of mind. It’s not something we give that much reflection to. Maybe, until we start meditating. And then, maybe we do. Because meditation is a lot about Awareness, a lot about Consciousness.
And at first, perhaps in the beginning years even of practice, the notion of the Mind, or Awareness, as the metaphor of a mirror might feel very apt. And obviously we obviously don’t think that there’s a mirror in us that if we cut open our brain we get to this mirror. But that sense of Awareness is somehow reflecting the world. We have that, even if it’s not a conscious notion, that notion somehow embedded in us: Awareness is something that reflects the world.
And in a way, we can see practice and the devotion to mindfulness and being present and bare attention as a kind of polishing of that mirror to see things as they really are, things as they truly are, to quote the Buddha. And the constant practice to let go of the entanglement in the story, the entanglement in the papanca (conceptual proliferation) and complication, the opinions that we layer onto experience, the pre-conceptions, the views, the images, the likes, the dislikes, all that whole baggage of veil that covers over the actuality of experience. When we have a sense of practice, just patiently polishing the mirror, so that the awareness can reflect things as they really are. And so sometimes, people use the phrase or word “Pure Awareness” and that actually means very different things used in different contexts. But that might be a meaning. Awareness is pure in the sense that it’s free of all that papanchizing complication story, etc.
Having that kind of model or metaphor, whether it’s conscious or unconscious, can bring with it a lot of clarity, a lot of vividness into the experience and I’m sure many of you have felt on retreat or as practice times goes by, the actual imprint of perceptions becomes brighter, more vivid. The actual grass seems greener, the lights seem more colorful, everything stands out, a beautiful aliveness because we’re metaphorically polishing that mirror.
There’s also something else that’s very helpful about the metaphor of the mirror, and it’s just metaphor. If you think about a mirror, a mirror remains unaffected by what passes in front of it and is reflected by it. So I could be absolutely beautiful, I could be monstrously ugly, I could be scary, I could be this or that or radiant or whatever but the mirror is just still and reflecting. And in a way, incorporating that kind of aspect of the metaphor into the practice lends itself towards equanimity, can you see? Because there’s an aspect of the being that’s unaffected. This aspect of mindfulness that’s just unaffected by what passes in front. It’s very very useful.
Now, there’re problems with this and I’m going to come back to this. I’m going to lay out a few possible ways of conceiving the nature of awareness, and then later come back to what the potential problems there are with each of them. So that one with the mirror might be very understandable and useful, certainly at the beginning years, really years of practice, for most people, years. But after much practice or some degrees of practice, a different sense of awareness can begin to be discovered or opened to.
Now, one possibility is through developing the attentiveness, developing the mindfulness in a very sharp way, very focused awareness, very bright attentiveness, microscopic kind of fine awareness and really refining the mindfulness like that. And what happens is that the reality that’s revealed to us through that lens is of a very fastly, rapidly changing reality. Everything like pixels on the screen changing, like sand falling on the surface of a lake, just change, change, change, arising and passing, arising and passing, included in that consciousness. So the sense of consciousness is of rapidly arising moments, moment of consciousness, moment of consciousness, arises in relationship to something. And you find this very commonly in the commentaries to the Pali canon, it’s also a little bit in the Buddha said, but mostly in the commentaries. But again, can be very useful if one can develop that way just from the consistency of mindfulness. In that what it brings, seeing all these impermanence, there’s nothing to hold on to. Everything is just slipping through the fingers, like sand through the fingers, including consciousness, can’t be clung to. And so letting go happens with that. I say theoretically, because actually sometimes that mode of working doesn’t actually bring a letting go, but theoretically it brings a letting go and it certainly has that potential. So that’s another possibility again, with its fruits.
A third one we’ve touched more on in the course of the talks here, and it’s more practicing in the kind of more open out sense – and so awareness kind of opens out into the whole field of experience and phenomena. And this opening out of the practice lends itself to having a sense of awareness as something very spacious. Especially when we talk about silence a little bit. Awareness begins to seem incredibly spacious, vast, unimaginably vast. Now this can be arrived at actually through letting go. So the more we let go in practice, the likelihood of the sense of awareness opening up in this very beautiful way. Very vast awareness, dependent on letting go.
And how do we let go? We could either just focus on letting go, we could focus on the impermanence and then we let go, or we could focus on the Anatta – not me, not mine. That’s the three classic ways of letting go. That sense of vast awareness might also be discovered or arrived at just by kind of practicing in a kind of way that relaxes the attention. So usually we attend to this object and that object, and another object, and another object. But actually relaxing that propensity, and being more interested in the space that opens up, rather than the objects or things in the space. And we say you can rest then in Awareness, instead of going out and doing things with objects, one just rests in that space of Awareness that begins to opens up. This is something one can do with the eyes open, or with the eyes close, actually completely irrelevant. Practice it with the eyes open, practice it with the eyes closed.
One can also arrive at something quite similar in a more focused and less restful way and that is actually focusing in a very alive way in the moment on the sense of awareness itself. All these is practiced, everything that I’ve said so far comes out of practice and kind of tuning the practice in a certain way and a little bit of directing at a certain way and then these senses are discovered. One can actually do it in a more focused way, actually focusing on awareness, it will bring about a slightly different state.
So we can either use analogies to kind of help ourselves open to that sense. So, the night sky. Just vast, black, night sky. And then suddenly, fireworks. Burst of colors. A phenomena. Something is happening in experience. And of course we say, “Wow, look at that, amazing.” Dramatic event, phenomena. And in getting drawn into the object, we lose the sense of the context, we lose the sense of the space, the sky around that thing. Similarly you can say shooting star, phenomena arises out of the space, does its things and then disappears back into it. A cloud moving across the sky. Same thing, a sense of a context, a space, which is Awareness, and the object in it. And giving more attention to the space, the sense of Awareness, than the object.
So, phenomena begin to seem as if they’re arising, passing, and living In Awareness. Which is different from how we usually think of the world – my Awareness is somehow in here, and the world is out there, and there’s some kind of interaction going on. We begin a whole other sense that the world of phenomena has been born, living and dying In Awareness.
Now, I’m going through this very quickly, in other talks we spent more time on this. But this is something incredibly beautiful. If I had more time I would really emphasize that more. Something very very beautiful to open up to. There’s an incredible peace to it. Just the sky, the space, everything belonging to that. Real equanimity comes with it, and a real sense of very deep freedom comes with it. If we practice over and over, and develop that sense of Awareness. Now, someone doing this, might get the sense that Oh, that sky, that Awareness in the sense of a big spaciousness, that’s actually pure in the sense that it’s untainted, unaffected by what arises and disappears and lives in it. So similar to the Sky, shooting stars go through the Sky, fireworks go in the Sky, Sky remains the same. Unaffected. Still. Tranquil. Imperturbable. Vast.
And one might be practicing in this way, and if one does one is usually struck by this. There’s an incredible sense of depth and beauty here. Incredibly striking and attractive place to discover. And if one is practicing, when it’s heard of the Unconditioned, the Buddha talking about the Unconditioned, or the Deathless, and very common for a practitioner to think: this is it! Because it seems unchanging. Doesn’t seem to change. Everything else is arising, living there a while, and then dying back into it. Seems unchanging, and kind of eternal in the sense of lasting forever in some unperturbed way. So one really wonders or decides that it’s unconditional, or wonders.
Again, practice is to be developed. I’m moving a lot of territories tonight, very quickly. Laying out again, possible ways of navigating through this. If one learns to cultivate that space and discover that space and hang out and then sustain and be familiar it, it’s possible that it deepens. It’s possible that the whole sense of it begins to deepen and objects, the phenomena that occur begin to feel as if they’re made of the same substance as the space of awareness. They’re made of the same substance as Awareness. So you might have heard analogies like waves in the oceans. Whatever happens, you, me, this, that, sounds, an event, whatever, it’s all just waves in the Ocean of Being, or the Ocean of Awareness. It’s all just the same substance taking different shapes. Incredibly freeing and useful perspective to open to.
Everything is just an impression in Awareness. And that in that sense, from that perspective we could say, things, the things of the world, all things, all phenomena, all observable phenomena are empty in the sense that they’re not different from empty. They’re empty of being something different from this vast insubstantial substance of Awareness. So things seem empty in that sense, they seem insubstantial, they seem not real in the sense of existing really outside of Awareness in the way that we usually think things do, usually perceive things. Have a whole different perception. With that too, as it deepens of course, there’s a sense of incredible oneness. All is One. And one has heard that in the teachings, different teachings, different traditions.
All is One. And sometimes we use the phrase Non-Duality, they use that in that sense as everything is One. So it seems to tie in very strongly. One has a real sense as this deepens of there being only One Mind. It’s not my mind, your mind, his mind, the dog’s mind, whatever. It’s One Mind. One Vast Mind that encompasses everything. And we hear about that in different teachings, some Buddhist teachings, some non-Buddhist teachings. One Mind, or Cosmic Consciousness, Awareness knowing itself. Everything is the play of Consciousness, but that Consciousness kind of is the Base, it’s somehow self-existent. That’s the Ultimate Reality. And so it’s very easy to have that view, very liberating. Very useful. And these views are not intellectual standpoints. I really like to stress this. They’re not intellectual standpoints. They are views that people come to through practice. So it’s not like someone is figuring out, “da da da da da”… It’s actually through deep and sincere care and practice. This is the practice that can easily, well not so easily, but eventually be come to.
And in that, there’s an incredible beauty, an incredible sense of mystery, that the being opens to. A person who practices in that way a lot, who practices at that level a lot, who cultivates that and looks to cultivate that and learns, develops the skill, the art of really hanging out there a lot, if you meet a person like that, they are going to be really radiant. Very shiny. Very big aura. Very free. And they will feel very free, at quite a deep level quite a lot of the time. They will also probably be quite compassionate. A lot of love there.
The Buddha makes a very marked point on one occasion, I think it was to Ananda, which is never judge someone’s awakening or non-awakening, enlightenment or non-enlightenment by how radiant they seem, by how shiny they seem, by how glowing. Absolutely not the way you discern where someone’s really at in the practice. But to practice at that level will bring that, and to learn people do they develop it as kind of what they’re going for, we’re talking about Buddhists and non-Buddhists, and they learn to hang out there. Incredibly beautiful and incredibly powerful.
So before I kind of go into this in a kind of deeper way, I really like to make a point before I sort of say what’s the problems with these views. I really want to make a point that all of these are to be cultivated, so it’s not that we’re dismissing them out of hand immediately at all. They’re to be cultivated. So we actually want to practice developing these in our practice.
But, there’s problems with them, when we look into this. So let’s take the mirror one, for example. The notion of a mirror, the metaphor of the mirror as something that gives a true reflection of a real world. There’s a problem with that. I can’t find a stance in consciousness, I can’t find a place from which to look, can’t find a moment of looking, where there’s not something in the Mind, in Awareness, shaping, fabricating, what is perceived. In that moment, in that present moment. So the conditioning factors, they’re not just in the past, they’re in the present as well. So what I see is always being shaped. I cannot find a sort of zero point in the mind. Sometimes we think that’s what mindfulness is, or that’s what equanimity is, it’s actually not. If one actually goes into practice one sees one cannot find that place. This is one of the most fundamental insights of the Buddha, that it’s easy to practice for a long time without going into this, I know we’ve touched on it before in other weeks but it’s so important. If we don’t see this, that what we perceived is being conditioned in the present by how I’m seeing it and relating to it, we’re missing one of the most fundamental and important insights of the Buddha.
We might say, what’s the problem with that vast Awareness? Well, one thing is, it might seem that all phenomena arise in it and die back into it, but what about my actual death? Actual time when I actually (?) over. I have to have a bit of faith that that will just be another event in this Awareness. There’s no way of knowing that. It’s a leap of faith. Is it possible to have such a deep insight that it’s actually not dependent on faith anymore. There’s no sense of needing faith there. So there is so much to this as said in the beginning of the talk, and to beware of answers, I think of all us as practitioners, to beware of answers to what is the ultimate nature of Awareness, etc, that are too easy or too facile. Or also answers to what liberation might be, “it’s just kind of hanging out in that place and realizing that it’s vast.” Beware of answers that are too glib, too facile, too easy.
I feel, and there can be, for practitioners at that point for many times, is a sense of uneasiness at that point. Despite all the beauty, despite all the loveliness and the depth and the freedom that comes from it, at some deep level in the being, there’s a sense of “mm, not quite sure about this”. A real uneasiness. I think that needs to be cultivated, that uneasiness. And one doesn’t stop probing and asking and questioning. I actually remember years ago in my practice being on retreats, and actually quite a long period of time where anytime I met a teacher, I would ask them about this. And get all these different takes, and then try to understand in my practice, trying to understand, and one time feeling that I couldn’t understand it and I wasn’t happy with any of the answers I got. And being so upset with that, that I actually remember being on a retreat at Gaia House and just sitting outside and crying. I think it’s really Ok in the quest for truth, in the quest for liberation that there’s agitation at times. I think it’s a sign of how much we care.
With that Big Space Awareness, the Vast Awareness, it’s the place where most people would tend to stop their inquiry. It’s the most common place nowadays to stop the inquiry. But there’s a lot of assumptions there. A lot of assumptions. One is that Awareness is something simple and passive. In the sense of it’s just there, and it just receives experience. I think this came up in a question and answers or something. Just here, and I hear the bird twitting, I didn’t …, it just comes. Awareness is simple and passive and has a kind of naturalness to it and a kind of natural openness to it, versus what sometimes we use the word “mind” as a very complicated, enmeshed in thoughts, etc.
But is there an assumption that simple means true? So we’re very attracted to simplicity, often times because our lives are very complex, and our thinking minds seem very complex. And simplicity has a very “ah, that’s nice, simple.” Feels soothing. Does it mean that it’s true? These are the kinds of things one really needs to watch out for one’s preconceptions, likes, assumptions. I think it’s really important to bring into practice as much as possible the quality of integrity that there’s a real sense of caring about the truth and not stopping short and keeping the heart alive in its penetrating questioning. Not settling too easy. Really caring and really being careful in one’s inquiry. Part of integrity is a heart movement. Another part of integrity is actually intelligence. It’s actually using one’s intelligence as part of the integrity, part of the care in practice. So not almost like leaving the intelligence outside of practice, outside of our meditation practice. To me this is actually really important. And because we often have a very difficult relationship with thought and with discursive thoughts and the thinking mind, often we jettison the whole of our intelligence as well, as we regard it as something we need to get rid off in practice. That may be a huge mistake at times.
Does there need to be a divorcing of head and heart? So just because my head is getting involved and thinking through stuff, does that mean that my heart has to close down? For a lot of people it does, but that’s just a habit and that doesn’t have to be so. So it might feel better but it’s just a feeling of it feeling better, and as such it doesn’t mean anything about the truth. Again we might have an intuition that the truth is this way, or that Awareness is this way, etc. But in a way, lovely and good and helpful as that can be at times, it’s still just an intuition, needs to be probed, needs to be questioned, needs to be checked out.
Sometimes, when we go to the texts of different Buddhist traditions, it seems as if, especially the Vast Awareness, it seems we find something in the texts that really corresponds to that. And I can find plenty of references. But this is actually not as simple as it seems. Words can sound very very similar when you get to a certain level in practice, and we say empty or nothingness or vastness or this or that, and it kind of all begin to sound very similar after some point. So it behooves us I think to really be careful not to be sloppy with language in our practice, as it's difficult, as precise as we can, which isn’t easy. And not to throw out words or concepts, because as I said, I can’t remember where it was in one of the talks. If I throw out conceptuality too early, what happens is I’m just left with my default unexamined concepts. I’ve done nothing to really dig them out. I’m just saying concepts are not helpful.
What we also find if you do kind of check out a lot of texts on this is the same words used in very different ways. So when we use words like Awareness is luminous, but it turns out if you really probe that, that luminous actually means empty. Or pure, meaning empty of inherent existence. Doesn’t mean bright in that sense. You wonder why they’re using that word. Or clarity, doesn’t mean clarity in the sense we would usually mean clarity. Or even the word space, funnily enough, doesn’t even mean space in the way we would usually mean space. It’s not easy.
One time the Buddha went to a group of monks and he basically told them not to see Awareness as The Source of all things. So this sense of there being a vast awareness and everything just appears out of that and disappears back into it, beautiful as that is, he told them that’s actually not a skillful way of viewing reality. And that is a very interesting sutta, because it’s one of the only suttas where at the end it doesn’t say the monks rejoiced in his words.
This group of monks didn’t want to hear that. They were quite happy with that level of insight, lovely as it was, and it said the monks did not rejoice in the Buddha’s words. (laughter) And similarly, one runs into this as a teacher, I have to say. This level is so attractive, it has so much of the flavor of something ultimate, that often times people are unbudgeable there.
In the Dzogchen tradition, there’s a very beautiful saying – very simple but very beautiful. And it says, “trust your experience, but keep refining your view.” Trust your experience, but keep refining your view - there’s a lot of wisdom in that, a lot of wisdom. One of my teachers years ago, when I was describing some of these states to him and questioning, “Is this right? Is this real? Doesn’t seem …” And he said to me actually, “Get attached, Rob. Get attached there, slow down, hang out.” Of course, that was very surprising to hear. “Really?”
We need to actually hang out in these states, because through time they work their way into the cells and into the view, and they begin transforming the heart and transforming the view long-term. In terms of freedom, in terms of opening, in terms of love. They really have that power. So it’s interesting. You get different personalities. People who want to park the bus there, and build the house, and arrive and finish there. Not with the kind of agitated impetus to keep questioning. And other people who want to move through too quick, it’s just different personalities. So one needs to get attached but not stop there.
So again, please see all these as in the context of how practice might navigate through all these. Sometimes I really feel that people need to fall in love with those kind of spaces. Something really feels touched so beautifully inside. So, how might a practitioner move on from there? How might one come to a deeper understanding? One might reveal that that’s not quite it. Well, one clue is in the fact that if one really develops one’s practice, it’s actually possible to experience both this sort of rapid arising and disappearing of consciousness that I was talking about, the very fine awareness. It’s actually possible to experience that. And it’s actually possible to experience a very wide, vast, spacious, still awareness. And if you really practice these kind of stuff a lot, then it’s actually possible to have both those experiences in the same sitting. See it one way, or see it another way. And actually to choose which one to have. What does that imply? There’s something right there that is at the core of all these.
Now, sometimes I come across people, I won’t say who, but people who actually then come up with a kind of theory, “Consciousness is what’s called the rapid arising and passing, and you something else called Awareness, which is the vast thing in which consciousness takes place and the Awareness knows the consciousness which knows the object.” It’s kind of this quite complex theory that’s actually just a theory. Might be a perception.
But there’s something here to question. Could it be that Awareness or Consciousness or Mind or whatever name we give it, that Awareness and Perception are inseparable? In other words, when I focus my mind in a certain way, when I focus in a very narrow, microscopic way, I have certain perceptions and I will have certain perceptions and sense of awareness. When I focus my mind, when I use my mind in a different way, I’ll have different kinds of perceptions of things, and with that a different perception or sense of awareness. So the sense of awareness takes on the aspect of perception. We could say Awareness, Consciousness, or whatever you want to call it is bound up with perception. This is at the core, and this is something we want to understand. Doesn’t sound very glamorous at first at all. But this is what we need to understand. So how might I work with this?
Well, one way, shouldn’t say cheap and easy way but um (laughs), one way of doing it is to practice in this vast way. You get the sense of vastness and a sense of awareness as vast. And yet a kind of global sense of awareness. But then kind of introduce the thought subtly, the insight subtly, that the sense of awareness is also so to speak – happening in awareness. In other words that’s just a perception too. And you introduce that, and see what happens. See where it goes. That can be very powerful for some people and very useful. But I don’t think it will give a really full, probably not, a full understanding of the whole picture of what is going on.
So there’s many possibilities to navigate through, but one possibility, we’ve touched on this in here before, is using the practice of not-self, not-me, not-mine. Regarding whatever comes up, regarding whatever phenomena as not-me, not-mine, not-self. And we’ve touched on developing that as a practice. I’m not going to go too much into it again. But including in that seeing the awareness as I said I think in the last talk, seeing awareness or consciousness also as not-me, not-mine, I am not that. This is a practice, as I said in other talks, that we can develop and we want to develop. We really go on a journey with it and we deepen it and develop it.
And what happens potentially when we develop it, and in the moments when we managed to (it might be just an instance or two) unhook the identification from objects or awareness. In those moments, what happens? Well, a number of things can happen. One of them is, the whole experience opens up to a whole other level of freedom, a whole different sense of freedom because at that point there is no identification with either object or subject. There is no identification with any of the five aggregates. So of course there is gonna be a lot of freedom. Feels very free.
But the second thing that will happen if one learns how to hang out there and learns to re-sustain that as a way of looking, and we’ve touched on this as well, so just to repeat: it’s that objects and perceptions begin to fade, because I’m not supporting them by identifying. Objects and perceptions begin to fade, this is so, so crucial an observation in Dharma insight unfolding. Including the perception of space will fade. Now, if I have a notion of awareness as vast, and space itself begins to kind of fade or lose it’s reality. Well, I can’t really call awareness vast because space isn’t something really real. And maybe my notion of awareness as something really vast is actually re-enforcing or reifying a sense of space.
If objects fade completely, completely, completely gone as it really deepens, is what’s left Awareness in the usual sense that we call, that we use that word Awareness? So let’s take a whole big step backwards and actually ask actually the most basic question of all, which often as meditators we don’t really ask, which is, “What on Earth do we mean by Awareness?” So we use that word all the time, just hold on a minute, what do we mean by Awareness, what do we mean by Consciousness?
In English we have a noun, “Awareness”, “Consciousness”, a noun, and nouns have a way of giving something a kind of sense of independent reality – it’s a clock, a thingy. It’s a thingy. And because Awareness or Consciousness is a noun, it seems to be a thing, a thingy. Pali apparently is more of a verb based language. When we think of what Awareness means, well it’s Awareness Of something, rather than Some Thing, some substance, it’s Awareness Of something. Putting it in verb terms, we could say it’s knowing. Consciousness or Awareness means knowing. Now, knowing needs a known, ok. For there to be knowing there has to be something that’s known. And if there’s a known, it needs knowing. So vice versa. Knowing needs a known, and a known needs knowing.
If I followed the not-self practice, or a number of other practices too, it’s not just that at all. If I follow that, I see that the known or otherwise the perceptions or objects are empty, because they don’t kind of exist by themselves. They depend on the identifying and clinging. And I don’t know how they really are, how much clinging reveals the real object. Then in a way the knowing, we could say, is leaning – it needs a known and it’s leaning on something that’s empty, it’s leaning on a vacuum. Do you see this? Knowing needs a known, the known needs knowing. If the known is empty, it’s leaning on nothing. It’s leaning on something that’s empty. We say that it’s groundless or unsupported. Awareness is unsupported, it’s groundless.
So tracing stages, we want to deliberately consolidate the insights, so – objects depend on the mind, so they’re empty, and the mind or consciousness or awareness depends on object so that is empty too, because it’s depending on something that’s empty. Anytime two things are mutually dependent, they have to both be empty. We can go into that but we don’t have time. This groundlessness, this emptiness, this lack of independent existence of Awareness, rather than being a kind of conundrum or a complication, is actually the insight that brings the deepest level of freedom. It’s not anywhere, and it’s not supported by anything, and it’s not anything that supports anything. Empty.
Most people are gonna need to develop that practice in, take this word very lightly, stages. In the sense of gaining conviction first that the object is empty. We’re learning actually how to disidentify and seeing that because of that, things are dependent on that, which means they’re empty. Gaining conviction in that, and moving on, resting on a kind of secure footing in practice. With that, the conviction comes and eventually the conviction that Awareness is empty too comes. And with that, the deepest will (?).
I was gonna drop a little bit more about doing versus not doing in practice because I know it has come up and it came up in a question, but we’re actually going to leave that aside for now.
So taking this one strand that we’ve talked about, it’s just one possibility, one way of going about it. Disidentify. Learning to disidentify. Practicing this disidentification. We said in those moments what can happen is that a much deeper level of freedom opens up. Second thing that can happen is that objects of perceptions begin to fade (very important). A third thing can happen, sometimes. And that is that time, or the sense of time, begins kind of fading or stopping or losing its meaning. Some of you may have had a glimpse of this. The whole notion of past, present, and future and the flow of time or moments of time, it’s seen through. Time can stop. There’s a number of different experiences that are possible, and one can sometimes can get a glimpse of that or it could be a more extended thing. One can feel as if one has a glimpse of eternity but it is not eternity in the sense of something lasting forever. It’s a sense of time not being really the reality of things. One goes beyond that. That’s something we could give a whole talk to, and obviously I’m not going to, but it’s also something that one can develop conviction in, and one should develop conviction.
I’m going to take a little time, because there’s another way in approaching this, and it’s probably gonna be new to most people, I imagine. So one way of looking into this time thing, is through the practice, letting go, letting go, letting go, it could just be through letting go, letting go, letting go, the actual sense of time is seen through. But another way, and it’s actually using reasoning. And this is very popular in some Mahayana schools, the Dalai Lama’s school, the Gelug school, and other schools. So again one has to ask what is the relationship with the thinking, logical mind, and what is the relationship with the reasoning mind, and do we reject that as an avenue of truth?
So, check this out – This moment of consciousness, this moment of awareness, is it inherently one moment or is it actually many moments? If I say this moment of time is one moment, if I say it’s one – in it’s essence it’s one, then either it’s divisible into a beginning, a middle and an end or it’s not. Ok, either it has a beginning, middle and an end or it doesn’t. If it is divisible into beginning, middle and end, that actually means in that one moment it’s actually three moments. Because when so to speak it’s at the beginning, it’s not at the end, and when it’s at the end it’s not at the beginning. Time is here, and then it’s here. It has actually become three moments, it’s not one moment. The beginning must come before the end, so at the time it’s at the beginning it’s not at the end. If we say the moment cannot be divided into beginning, middle and end, then that means it has no beginning and end, which means it’s actually non-existent, it’s infinitely small. No beginning, no end, also means it’s impossible to make a continuum of moments in which anything can happen. So I have to connect the end of this first moment with the beginning of the next one, do you see that, like a chain? It’s actually impossible, you can’t actually arrange moments in order in time, in happening. If I then say, Ok, I’ll say the present moment is actually many moments somehow. But Many is an accumulation of One, One, One, One, together. But we’ve already said one moment can’t exist, so it can’t be many either. It must be either one or many, if it’s something real. It must in its essence be either one or many, but it can’t be either.
I’m aware of going through that very quickly, and I know that for most insight meditators that’s going to sound very alien, that whole approach. It’s, I think extremely powerful, what one can do in practice is to actually hold the sense of the moment in awareness, focus on it, and get used to this reasoning in a way that you can bring it in a very light way, you’re actually contemplating the moment. It can be extremely powerful for some people, extremely powerful.
But either way, whether it’s through letting go or through disidentifying, whether it’s through using this reasoning, we see that time is actually empty. Time is also a kind of fabrication. What happens? What does that imply in terms of Awareness and the reality of Awareness? Awareness as said in the different traditions is unfindable, we can’t find Awareness. You can’t find the Mind. We can’t find Consciousness no matter how much you look for it, in it’s essence. Now, one meaning of that is I can’t see it because it has no form, no shape, no color. It’s formless. And sometimes people again attempted to stop there as a kind of seeing the complete unfindability of consciousness, but there’s more to it than that.
That’s what the Dalai Lama would call, the conventional truth about Awareness. It’s that it doesn’t have a form, and so you can’t see it. But relating to what we said, if there’s nothing real to know, because the objects are empty, because I’ve seen the objects are empty, how can we really talk about a real knowing? There’s nothing real to know. And if there’s no time for the mind or awareness to exist in, how is it really going to exist? So we say Awareness is without essence. But seeing all those reasons why it’s without essence – because of the time, and because the emptiness and fabrication of objects – all of that’s involved there.
So what’s happening in all these is we’re seeing that Awareness completely counterintuitively, is actually something built. And because it’s built, it’s Empty. We build Awareness, and it’s Empty. And the Buddha in a lovely quote, said, “Consciousness, when examined, is empty, void, without substance.” Now if we just stop the quote there, that could sound like the vast, spacious, insubstantial Awareness. But he doesn’t finish there. He goes on to say, “Like a magician’s trick, like an illusion.” In other words there’s some hocus pocus going in the mind, and baadaabim baadaaboom – there’s awareness. And it’s a trick. It doesn’t actually exist as something real. Consciousness, the Buddha says, is like a magician’s trick, like an illusion, and in the formal Dharma language, it lacks inherent existence.
If one goes into this unfabricated, unbuilding, letting go of the building, is there a language for what’s left. Some people use the words “it’s Awareness unbound”, “it’s Awareness not being bound to objects, and space and time”, it's unwrapped itself from all of that. But that Awareness is different than what we ordinarily mean when we use the word Awareness. Because ordinarily, as I said before, means “awareness of”. In everyday language, whether we are conscious of it or not, that’s what we mean by awareness – it’s an awareness of.
So it’s different, different what’s left after we’ve unbuilt everything, from ordinary awareness. In some Zen traditions they have the phrase “No Mind”. That doesn’t mean learning not to think. It actually means this: it’s like a Mind in its essence that doesn’t know anything, that’s not aware of all the things that we’re usually aware of. So there’s a beautiful Zen teacher that I really love, called Huang Po. He doesn’t seem to be that popular at the moment in the West, partly I think because his teaching is almost exclusively edicts on an uncompromisingly deep level. But he’s very fun, I don’t know if he started it, he’s very fun with this language of “No Mind”. He also sometimes uses that inter-changeably with “Pure Mind” or “Real Mind” but they mean the same thing.
Now listen to this, this beautiful quote from him. “This Pure Mind, the people of the world do not awake to it, regarding only that which sees, hears, feels and knows as Mind. Blinded by their own sight, hearing, feeling and knowing, they do not perceive the spiritual brilliance of that truth.” Later on, he says, “Realize that, though Real Mind is expressed in these perceptions (our normal perceptions), it neither forms part of them nor is separate from them.” Incredibly beautiful and profound. Last thing I want to say, I’m aware talking about these stuff, that it lands in very different places for very different reasons for people. And it could seem, I hope it didn’t, but it could seem that all these is almost an hour's worth of quibbling, an hour's worth of sort of petty wrangling about some kind of intellectual something or rather it might seem that way.
But one of the things I want to say is, it’s very easy in the Dharma after a long time of practice, to sort of hear this kind of talk and say, “well, I don’t want to quibble. Does it really matter? It’s all good, you say this, you say that, he says that, it’s all good. Let’s all be friends, and we can all be happy together.” And that kind of attitude again is very popular. I think it’s quite popular in the west. I think contrary to the self-image that we have, we actually don’t like debating with each other and wrangling out these points, we actually don’t like it. We prefer this kind of “it’s all good”, but there’s something that happens if I don’t grapple with these questions. When people in the Dharma look at me from the outside, and if my attitude is you know, “all this is the mind getting into complications and arguing”, if that’s what I say and it’s like I’m not gonna get into that, what it’s gonna look like, what it can look like from the outside is, “there’s someone really peaceful and wise and not engaging in da da da…”
But if I’m not grappling with these questions, although it might look like there’s some peace and freedom here, I don’t think that the deeper level of freedom will be arrived at. Like I said, I think it’s almost inevitable that at points in the unfolding of insights there’s going to be agitation. There’s going to be difficulty, there’s going to be frustration, there’s going to be confusion, there’s going to be a wrestling with these things. That deep freedom won’t be discovered unless we grapple with these stuff at some point in our practice whenever that is. And I hope it doesn’t sound intellectual tonight, it might have, I hope it didn’t. And that’s really not the point. What I really wanted to unfold is something we can see in practice through developing practice in the right ways.
There’s not one way of going about this but there’s ways that will unfold this. And what one sees is that different levels of freedom, unmistakably different levels of freedom open up in one’s experience. Different levels of freedom and release. And going through that, one sees, one understands this building process. Oh, goodness me, this whole structure of reality, what seemed to be a self, and a world and things, and time, and awareness, everything in space, everything I took for granted, is actually built. And I’ve understood that because I’ve gone through it and kind of unbuild it, and unbind it. And then one realizes almost in hind sight that one was either consciously or unconsciously giving things – the things of this world, subtle things and gross things, giving them an inherent existence, seeing them as possessing inherent existence. Ascribing to them an inherent existence.
Usually we unwittingly do that. So a good rule of thumb, (you know we talk about the emptiness of this, the emptiness of that, and the emptiness of all things and blah blah blah) to actually safely assume that you are giving something an inherent existence – in other words not seeing it’s empty, unless you’re really deliberately seeing it's empty. In other words the default mode the mind gives inherent existence to things all the time, and that’s what the Buddha called delusion, the fundamental level of delusion.
The thing I really want to emphasize is the possibility of practice to actually discover this in a real way, a way that can be brought into the life and have an enormous impact in our sense of freedom in life. That’s possible and developable for us in this room as practitioners. It’s just a matter of finding the way for that unbuilding, that unpacking, that seeing of emptiness to happen. That is possible, there’s no reason why it cannot be or shouldn’t be. If we care deeply, as I said if we don’t really want to grapple with it, it’s not like it’s like it’s suddenly gonna be known to us at a heart level. So it’s something really possible for us as practitioners.
Ok, let’s have a bit of quiet together.
2 Responses
  1. Dan Bartlett Says:

    Wow! I found this dharma talk two days ago and thought it was brilliant. Then I come here and you've linked to it as well! Rob is a brilliant teacher, I had a few interviews with him on my last retreat @ Gaia House.

  2. Soh Says:

    Yeah, brilliant talk, it's wonderful you have access to the teacher :)

    Must thank you because I found the talk through your website. (found your site through my site statistics)