reflections on identity and awareness

Beyond Awareness

reflections on identity and awareness

Last edited May 6, 2021

The Four Stages of Insight into Identity


I Am


Initially, at stage one, the invitation is to see that there is an awareness that observes everything – internal or external – without getting involved. Some call it the witness, the observer, the seer, consciousness, awareness, etc. Some call it God. This awareness is what we truly are, what “I” is. It’s not the body or the mind; it is not a person or a self, but it is detachedly aware of everything – body, mind and world. The universe comes and goes, like reflections in a mirror, while awareness remains unchanged. The main spiritual blockages (perception of duality and inherency) are both still in place, for there is clearly a separation between awareness and the objects it perceives; there is also a sense of essence, independence or ultimate status concerning awareness. There is, however, a major displacement of identity – from the forms of body, mind and world to the formlessness of awareness.


One Mind


One is then, at stage two, invited to see that what is observed is, in fact, not separate from the pure awareness that observes it. The so-called external world is, indeed, nothing other than modulations in the observing awareness, like waves in the ocean. The sense of duality is dissolved here, since the appearances are essentially of the nature of awareness. However, there is a tendency to see awareness as independent of the appearances. The appearances depend on awareness, like waves on the ocean, but not the other way around – awareness can exist without its objects, as the ocean can exist without the arising of waves. Moreover, even in the presence of waves, the deepest layers of water are not disturbed and always remain “peaceful” and “unmanifest”. So too, it is believed that awareness, in its deepest sense, is unaffected by the manifesting appearances, always remaining, in some transcending way, “unmanifest” and “unknowable” as a background, despite its profound non-duality with the foreground of appearances. If seen clearly, the stage of ONE MIND still retains part of the duality inherent to the insight into I AM.




In the two previous stages, the sense of personal identity, the small “I”, was questioned and transcended. What the “I” really is, is the impersonal and inconceivable awareness that, in the first case, observes all phenomena and, in the second, is the substance of all phenomena. First, in the realization of I AM, where “I” is seen as pure consciousness, one severs the identification with the body, mind and world – the realm of forms in general. Second, in the realization of ONE MIND, where “I” is seen as the substance of body, mind and world, one dissolves the sense of duality between observer and observed, between awareness and experience. Moreover, one drains the sense of physicality, solidity and materiality out of the perceived world. All is, in fact, awareness – insubstantial and fleeting, despite awareness itself being permanent and unchanging.


At this third stage, ANATTA, one is invited into questioning, not the sense of personal identity – the small “I”, – but the sense of impersonal identity – the big “I”, – awareness itself. If I AM and ONE MIND can be seen as subscribing to a “no-self” type of teaching, ANATTA can be seen as putting forth a “no-self/Self” view. The notion of a background awareness that remains unchanged, despite the dance of appearances happening in the foreground, is deconstructed. It is understood that any sense of a background awareness is nothing but a foreground subtle object; that the connection between awareness and appearances, if they are to be truly non-dual, implies that no separation or distinction can exist between awareness itself and the appearances arising in it; that a background awareness either is forever unexperiencable (and thus imaginary) or experiencable (and thus a foreground object); that if there is a background awareness residing beyond experience, and is therefore unaware of any experience, such “unaware awareness” is not, in any way, a viable type of awareness.


What’s left is the luminous display of the foreground, the transience of appearances. No background is possible or needed to make sense of experience. Awareness is no longer seen as unchanging or independent, but as the mere clarity or luminosity intrinsic to the show of appearances itself. What happens here is that, for the first time in this model, the sense of identity, small or big, is questioned. Although the sense of duality or separation is often seen as the main blockage to spiritual understanding, the sense of inherency, or essential existence, is subtler and more pervasive – and thus harder to eradicate and deeper in its repercussions.




Nonetheless, the absence of background and the exclusivity of foreground can be seen under two different lights. One can understand that there is no awareness outside or beyond the display of luminous experience, but still see the foreground as pertaining or making reference to some kind singular field of awareness. Although awareness morphs with the ever-changing flow of experience – and is therefore not seen as unchanging, independent and stable in its own identity, – it is still seen as retaining some type of consistency, being always the same “unitary” awareness. It is like an ever-changing hologram that, despite its transience, is always the same hologram, not to be mistaken for “another” hologram somewhere else. It feels as luminous experience is enveloped within or pervaded by some type of ever-changing, but consistent, awareness. The simplest way to express this point is to say that, despite the flux of appearances, all of them arise as the same awareness. If I see an apple and an orange resting on top of the same table, I assume they are arising in, or as, the same awareness. Only the foreground exists, but it’s “one foreground” and, implicitly, “my” foreground.


Another reading of the “no background” principle, subtler and far more liberating than the first, is one that deconstructs the sense of foreground as retaining some essential consistency, despite its utter transience. After all, if through the emptiness reasonings one analyzes and refutes any possibility of unchanging intrinsicality (temporal identity) or singularity (spatial identity), then what could serve as the base for positing the foreground as pertaining or making reference to some specific or singular ground? What could make the display of foreground luminosity belong to some changing, though consistent, awareness?


The sense that the foreground belongs to the same singular awareness is equivalent to seeing such awareness as separate from the appearances – and thus an instance of the I AM stage; and the sense that the foreground amounts to "one fluid awareness", or "one big sphere of transient sentience", is equivalent to seeing it as one singular event – as thus an instance of ONE MIND.


So, what is proposed in this second reading of the insight on ANATTA is that appearances are not known by awareness – as such would reestablish the duality overcome in ONE MIND, along with all the incongruities that come with such duality. Rather, appearances are seen as actually self-luminous. They are not known by anything external to them; they shine naturally of their own accord. When looking at the apple and orange resting on the table, the presence of the apple refers to a somewhat separate instance of “luminosity”, while the orange refers to another instance, or manifestation, of “luminosity”. They are not the same luminosity or the same awareness, because there is no overarching awareness enveloping, controlling, owning or pervading the display of appearances.


In a dream, we may assume that the same mind knows the dream from beginning to end – again, some type of temporal identity, as if stretching over time. Moreover, if we could freeze one single frame of “dream-activity”, we would certainly feel that the dreamscape is known, or pervaded by, the same mind – again, some type of spatial identity, as if stretching three-dimensionally. However, this subtler insight into anatta questions such claims. Not only is the mind dissolving moment-by-moment, which prevents any mind from knowing a dream from beginning to end; but also, there is no central mind permeating, enveloping or being referred to in a single “frame” of luminous experience. Whatever is experienced in a single moment is a mere multiplicity of instances of luminosity, empty of being part of one unified field. Very naturally, the same applies to the waking state.


So, not only there is no background to experience, there is also no unity, consistency or “spreadness” of awareness in the foreground, like the same awareness extends throughout all experience. It’s not that appearances arise in awareness (ONE MIND) or even that awareness arises as appearances (first level of ANATTA). All there is, is the self-shining luminosity of appearances, devoid of any central reference point or ground. This liberates experience from the sense of being a single or unitary event or from simply being “one thing”, as opposed to "other things". Actually, this experience is merely the shape of the universe as it unfolds here and makes absolutely no reference no any unitary owner, container or experiencer. This is not “one experience”, but a naturally occurring multiplicity of luminous activity. It’s not “this experience”, or “my experience”. It’s not even “experience”, as in a singular event. Every object is its own experience, its own luminosity.


Thus, the idea of awareness itself – as a type of mind or knowing subject or principle – is pacified and rendered superfluous. There is no awareness knowing things (I AM), as that would imply an external world and a subsequent internal representational-model. There is also no lasting awareness modulating as things (ONE MIND), as that would mean that some type of permanence or unity pervaded, and was consistent throughout, all appearances. Rather, luminous activities roll on, in total coordination, but in a somewhat independent and de-centralized fashion. With this insight, the grasping into any type of subjectivity, observing principle or background is dropped, like one is falling completely into the objective side. The sense that there is something knowing experience, or itself, is dropped. The very concept of awareness is dropped; reality is self-luminous. The need for any type of subject, or even subjectivity itself, is released. If the stage ONE MIND could be called a “mind-only” type of teaching, ANATTA could be called a “matter-only” one – a luminous “matter”, though.




The emptiness reasonings may now come in handy, as a natural tendency to reify the luminous appearances may arise. Of course, if one has arrived at this level of insight, emptiness reasonings have probably been investigated before. In this specific model of progressive insights into identity, the emptiness/madhyamaka reasonings are very useful when trying to move from the stage of ONE MIND to ANATTA, as usually the former represents an absolutized identitary position resulting from a reified understanding of awareness.


Now that only "luminous activities" are seen as being present, what else is there to do? If the sense of identity is truly dissolved, then there isn't much to do. However, if the luminous appearances are seen as solid and truly existing, then a natural sense of identity may start building up around some of those appearances. If this is the case, one may be returning to square one.


Of course, during the previous investigations, much, if not all, of the solidity of experience and reality has been deconstructed and seen through. In ONE MIND, reality is already seen as insubstantial and immaterial. So, after ANATTA, the tendency to see the luminous activities as solid or permanent is already severely weakened.


No Mind


I never understood how, in the 12 links of Dependent Origination, ignorance and mental dispositions (the first two links) could come before consciousness. How can anything be posited in the absence of consciousness? How can one be ignorant if one is unconscious?


Then I started maturing my insights into anatta. More than awareness being the field of luminous activity as a morphing and transient substance (what I call "entrance into anatta"), awareness is seen as actually not being present at all (what I call "mature anatta"). Awareness is just named in dependence upon the presence of luminous appearances, but it is actually not there – just like there is no actual table covering or spreading over the collection of its parts.


Then I read Daniel Ingram's words:


"Consciousness is implied by sensations, but really there are just sensations. (...) It is [dependent] on ignorance that there are mental formations, and on mental formations depend consciousness, etc. Thus, with the dissolution of ignorance, sensations are just as they are [without consciousness]."


So, there is beginningless reality, in which beginningless ignorance is the first link to arise. Ignorance is nothing more than the presence of deluded mental formations, the second link. Later, due to this presence of ignorant mental formations (delusions), some sensations in the field start to fabricate the sense of a background consciousness that is observing some other sensations. Thus, name and form, the fourth link, arises, due to the split between "internal" sensations assumed as subject and mind and "external" sensations assumed as object and body-world. The progression of the remaining links seems somewhat straightforward.




"Space, awakening mind and enlightenment


Possess the characteristics of non-duality."


~ Nāgārjuna's Bodhicittavivaraṇa, verse 46 cd


This verse, as I read it, seems to be pointing at space, awakening mind and enlightenment as being basically the same – and thus non-dual. But what does it mean to say they are the same? Reading the verse backwards, we first understand that enlightenment, instead of being some external reality or attainment, is nothing but our own awakening mind. Then, further elucidating the nature of our own mind, we realize that our mind is nothing but space itself.


Now, what can the term space be pointing to? The most natural interpretation is that our mind is like space – being empty, vast and naturally unobstructed. Another interpretation, the one being favored here, is that space itself is a mere conceptual construct imposed on what is the mere presence of fluxing phenomena. Although there is actually only phenomena, we conceptually impute space as a way to explain the natural interpenetration of the phenomenological world.


Likewise, our own awakening mind is nothing but the space of appearances, the field of phenomenological activity, the luminous flux of experience. So, mind is imputed or added conceptually onto the mere field of sensate experience.


So, during the spiritual process, the personal identity travels through different positions. We first identity as the "seer", pure awareness – the stage of I AM. Later, we identify as the "seeing", the mere process of knowingness – the stage of ONE MIND. Finally, we rest uncontrivedly as the mere presence of the "seen" – the stage of ANATTA.


Very naturally, after dissolving "seer" and "seeing", the "seen" is actually not an object "seen", as there is no subject performing the act of "seeing", nor is there any principle or process of seeing. The "seen" refers only to the undoubtful presence of luminous activity, beyond the categories of subject/object, internal/external, physical/mental, subjective/objective, self/other, etc.

The insight into 'no mind' is actually wondrous; and the reasonings establishing it seem to follow each other quite naturally and seamlessly.

Mutual Dependency of Knower & Known

First, one has to acknowledge that knower and known are mutually dependent. If awareness (the knower) was independent of appearances (the known), no perception, experience or knowledge could arise. A knower of a truly independent status is not a knower, since it is deprived the characteristics that establish it as a knower – namely, the known appearances. Conversely, a known that is truly independent of a knower is deprived of the principle that establishes it as an object known – namely the knowing awareness.
This is a case of 'sameness or otherness' analysis. Is awareness other than the appearances? If it is, two problems arise: like stated, no experience can arise, since awareness is left without content, due to its independence; moreover, there is nothing establishing awareness as a knowing principle, since, in an independent and formless state, awareness does not actually know anything.
When analyzing the relationship between the self and the aggregates (like in Chandrakirti's sevenfold reasoning), one realizes that the notion of a self is imputed on the presence of the aggregates. It is understood that such a self, if ultimately existing, cannot be either the same or different from the aggregates (which are actually the only two possible options). If the self is the same as the aggregates, it must be many, instead of one, and it must be impermanent and dependent on conditions (which refutes it being an ultimately existing entity). If it is different, it makes no sense to refer to the aggregates as 'mine' or 'I', since they are inherently other and separate; and since the aggregates comprise the whole of experience, such a self [separate from the aggregates] is nothing but an imaginary entity.
The same analysis can be performed on awareness or mind itself. Is awareness the same as, or different from, the appearances? If it is the same, then awareness must be multiple and not a singular entity – which contradicts the [somewhat spiritual] conviction that awareness has a unitary essence; or the appearances must be one – which contradicts every possible observation. If awareness is different from the appearances, one falls into the absurd consequence of having known appearances arising without a knowing principle; and a knowing principle that actually knows no appearance whatsoever.
It should be stated that a truly formless awareness equals absolute nothingness, since it is even devoid of its own knowing potential, lest it would know such potential and not be truly formless. Such nothingness equals non-existence and would entail that out of sheer nothingness something could arise, overthrowing all notions of causality.
When analyzing the aggregates, one finds that ultimately no self exists – the self arises only as mere name, a conceptual construct imposed on the aggregates. Likewise, when analyzing appearances, one finds that ultimately no awareness exists – awareness exists only as mere name, a conceptual construct imposed on the presence of luminous activities.
As the self was analyzed and seen as 'merely labeled', in the same manner the aggregates themselves are analyzed and seen as 'merely labeled', arising in dependence on a designating consciousness. Consciousness designates objects into existence; likewise, due to the presence of objects, consciousness itself is designated into existence.
As awareness was analyzed and seen as 'merely labeled', in the same manner appearances themselves are analyzed and seen as 'merely labeled', arising in dependence on designating conceptual activity. Like the Buddha stated, Name-and-Form depends on Consciousness; Consciousness too depends on Name-and-Form. Appearances depend on awareness which itself depends on appearances. Thus it is seen that both terms – awareness and appearances – are designated on dependence upon sheer luminous activities.

Impermanence & Multiplicity

Awareness, being inseparable from the appearances, is nothing but appearances themselves. What else could it actually be? This inseparability of awareness and appearances reveals two characteristics that when ascribed to awareness actually show its merely conventional and nominal nature.
First, awareness must collapse or dissolve at every moment as to give rise to the new appearances. Awareness is not reflecting an external reality, since that would entail its independence and the absurd consequences previously stated. Thus, awareness is morphing and shape-shifting into the arising appearances, leaving no changeless remainder – or no section of itself as an immutable essence. This reveals the utter impermanence of awareness, as it changes moment by moment.  It has no temporal identity.
However, one could see the utter impermanence of awareness but still, somehow, see it as 'one awareness' that changes, 'this awareness', a 'singular awareness', a 'unitary awareness', a 'unified awareness', etc. Like a sphere of knowingness, a holographic display of luminosity still retaining some unitary identity or coherence, distinguishing it from 'another' instance of 'luminous activity'.
Yet, what makes this knowing transience 'one awareness'? Like the singular label 'table' is placed upon several objects, conceptually forcing them into a singular entity, so too the presence of innumerable instances of luminosity are conceptually forced into the making of a singular entity called 'mind' or 'awareness'.
Let's imagine that an apple and a banana are placed upon a table. What makes the appearances of red, yellow and brown part of one mind? We have clearly different appearances arising. What validates our conceptual subsuming them into one single substance or experiencer? How could a truly 'singular, unified awareness' give rise to such manifold appearances?
The banana suddenly vanishes. If it was an inherent part of the present mind, the entire mind would collapse in its absence. If it does not collapse, it reveals that the whole field of appearances is not dependent on its specific instances. However, since there is no 'field' of appearances independent of the appearances themselves, we are left with mere appearances that, despite being interdependent, are isolated instances of luminous activity. This reveals awareness'  lack of unitary, or spatial, identity.
Now, if what we have is a display of transient appearances, the sum of which is devoid of any intrinsic identity, what is the label 'awareness' or 'mind' actually pointing to? Like the notion of a self and the aggregates, awareness is a label placed upon a multiplicity of appearances that are all, collectively or individually, not awareness. Neither inside the display of appearances, nor outside of it, is any awareness ever found.
There is no individual awareness, no collective awareness and no universal awareness. One only ever finds (such knowledge is nothing but an arising appearance) the display of luminous activities. Brahman is the world. Nirvana and Samsara are nothing but expressions of Buddha nature, which is nothing but the inseparability of emptiness and appearances.
I walk down the stairs. Very naturally, I feel like I am the same person or entity that was present at the top of the staircase, even after reaching the bottom. I feel like some nucleous, core or essense has remained unchanged throughout that activity of moving. However, there is no entity outside or independent of the very activity of moving – the "mover" is nothing but the movement itself. But if the movement, due to its very functioning, is of the nature of change and fluxing, then no entity can actually remain the same. How could movement take place if, within it, some type of "mover" was to remain unchanged and permanent?
Total dissolution happens at every moment of experience – a totally coordinated reconfiguration of phenomenological data. Yet, all that gets dissolved is the fixed conceptual categories that reified transient activities into static objects and independent entities. Actually, nothing real is dissolved because nothing seen as solid is actually real. All that is ever present is the luminous flux of activity.
As sensations disintegrate, so does the awareness that arose as them.
As thoughts disintegrate, so does the awareness that arose as them.
As perceptions disintegrate, so does the awareness that arose as them.
As body, mind and world disintegrate, so does the awareness that arose as them.
That's the nature of non-dual luminosity – the perfect unity of emptiness and appearances.
Only this is utter freedom.
I'm pointing to something rather simple. Awareness, if we posit such a principle, arises as appearances. There can be no separation or distinction between awareness and appearances, otherwise no knowledge of experience would arise.
So, if appearances dissolve, the awareness that gave rise to them (as them) must dissolve – not into nothingness, but into the next appearance. You look at the sky – awareness arises as blueness. Then you look at the trees – awareness arises as greenness. The instance of "awareness-as-blueness" dissolves or disintegrates into the next instance of "awareness-as-greenness".
So, I'm not advocating shying away from reality into a state of nothingness, but the opposite. When the idea of a fixed and changeless entity, experiencer or awareness is seen through, by realizing the utter transience of it, one has no option but to "become" the field of experience, the whole of reality, fully interpenetrating with all. There is no "I" left, not even awareness as a fixed principle or essence, but only the luminous display of transient phenomena.
I'm actually questioning the ultimate existence of mind/awareness. Conventionally we can say that mind exists. Ultimately, however, mind must be nothing but a label for just another instance of reality itself. The question then becomes, what is reality?
When reality is seen as groundless, empty and unsubstantial, all labels lose their power in an ultimate sense. An indescribable luminosity, intimately known as being empty, is all that arises.
If all is consciousness, consciousness is not other than appearances themselves. And if it is the multiplicity of appearances themselves, there is actually no mind that is established as some unitary and permanent entity or principle.
There is no intrinsic link between the mind arising as red apple here and as green pear there. There is actually no mind, it is merely conceptually designated in dependence on the appearances.
It's like saying that 'all is mind' removes the solidity of appearing objects; and saying that there is 'no mind' removes the identity of the apparent subject. Like a pendulum swinging between the poles of objectivity and subjectivity, emptying both of what are merely conceptual fermentations, leaving appearances as intrinsically neither this (subject) nor that (objects), self-liberated at the spot.
Awareness cannot be independent or separate from the appearances it knows. If it was, there could be no connection between knowing and known – and thus no experience could arise. All perception must be non-dual, despite having [conceptually] implicit in its functioning a subject and an object.
But if awareness is not separate or independent from the appearances that are known, it must be as transient and fluxing as the very appearances that are known. There is no sensible way in which one single thing (in this case the [conceptual] union of awareness and appearances) can have a split nature or a contradictory way of being.
These being the case – that no awareness exists outside of the arising appearances; and that awareness is thus of a transient nature, – it follows that all there ever exists is the self-knowing, self-luminous appearances, free of an observing or knowing subject beyond themselves, meaning that awareness, mind or any knowing principle are merely beliefs imputed on the flow of naturally luminous appearances.
It follows that we are not experiencing an external reality (naive realism), nor a mental representation (scientific materialism), nor even modulations of our own awareness (most non-dual traditions). There is actually no experiencer, no witness, no observer, no center or core, no knower – and no awareness (as awareness is always posited as "that which knows"). Let's allow that to sink in. This is one of the most powerful insights available to us.
What this means is that there isn't even perception going on. There is no one perceiving anything. The dualistic idea of perception itself is merely conceptually constructed and imputed onto pure manifest activity. What appears is reality as it is – as real, authentic and direct as it gets. Luminosity arises naturally and dependently, empty of any duality of knowing and known, mind and matter, inside and outside, subject and object, etc. [Curiously, if one had to choose between the reality of either subject or object, the presence of the "objective world" would be far more undeniable than that of any subjective entity.]
Further investigation must happen as to deeply understand the unestablished, empty and merely transient nature of what appears. This will help clarify the answer to "what is this?". However, the main question of all spiritual traditions, "who/what am I?", is answered when reality is understood as being without any observer, experiencer or entity of any kind and thus free of knowingness itself (and its ideas of "distorted" or "undistorted" perception).
If one refutes the self,
one does not refute the mind or awareness,
since those can exist beyond a personal self.
If one refutes the mind,
one does not refute awareness,
since the latter is believed to transcend the former.
It's only by refuting awareness itself
that one fully liberates the luminous display
from the taints of subjectivity and identity.
I > seeing > something
Of the three,
only one is actually present.
Pick your flavor!
It's interesting how the interpretations of such a simple statement can give rise to so many different spiritual perspectives:
1) Our conventional beliefs state that indeed there are three different things interacting with each other;
2) ''Entry-level'' Advaita, focusing on the I AM (witness), states that the I, the Seer, Pure Awareness is our true identity, while appearances are merely illusory;
3) ''Mature Advaita'' states there is only the seeing, the fluid process of ''selfless'' and ''objectless'' experiencing, despite not so subtle reifications of said awareness;
4) Finally, some approaches point to the mere presence of the "seen", which I'm finding ever more liberating.
In the Bāhiya Sutta, the Buddha said:
"Then, Bāhiya, you should train yourself thus: In reference to the seen, there will be only the seen. In reference to the heard, only the heard. In reference to the sensed, only the sensed. In reference to the cognized, only the cognized. That is how you should train yourself. When for you there will be only the seen in reference to the seen, only the heard in reference to the heard, only the sensed in reference to the sensed, only the cognized in reference to the cognized, then, Bāhiya, there is no you in connection with that. When there is no you in connection with that, there is no you there. When there is no you there, you are neither here nor yonder nor between the two. This, just this, is the end of stress."
The mere presence of the "seen", the activity of luminous appearances, devoid of mind, awareness, subjectivity, center, etc. When there is only the seen, all grasping evaporates. When only the seen is, a subtle and tremendous sense of freedom seems to shine through. Liberation is freedom from grasping, which is nothing but freedom from identity. "In the seen there is only the seen" feels like the most stripped down insight, deconstructing fully all identities – including that of an "objectified seen".
Grasping is identity which is nothing other than reification of appearances into something more than mere empty luminosity. It's such a round, all-encompassing view. It ties with the simplicity of ordinary experience in Zen; and also with the presence of sheer luminousity in Dzogchen. The concept of Maha Ordinariness arises with this view – the Grand Banality of the Present Moment!
This simple moment arises with the authority of the whole cosmos, yet with the freedom of utter ungraspability and emptiness. It's the marvelous dance of the Two Truths, right here, just this. An ever erupting abyss of just this.
This is like a mountain.
This is like space.
Every instant is the Son of God.
The fully authenticated one.
Every instant is the Holy Ghost, free and unsubstantial.
God is but the natural appearance of this;
the Holy Ghost is the emptiness of this;
Christ is but the natural and compassionate activity
that rises from this Union of Appearing Clarity,
Empty Luminosity.
All movements beyond "just the seen"
are conceptual designations,
the concoction of illusory realms,
the weaving of identity
Everything is mind;
mind is empty of inherent existence.
This is the (somewhat usual?) path in Buddhism.
I wonder if this one is equally viable:
Everything is appearances;
Appearances are empty of inherent existence.
This seems particularly interesting to me, because it does away with identity right at the start, since the fluid appearances offer much less opportunity for clinging than the mind. [It may be less intuitive though, and thus more 'advanced'.]
Later, appearances too are seen as dependently originated (through conditions and conceptual designation based on their parts) and thus empty of intrinsic identity.
Another option is to balance these two approaches, by oscillating contemplatively between them and understanding that both labels (mind & appearance) are unaplicable and ultimately to be transcended.
How can an experiencer (an independent and separate entity) actually experience anything? Without the conceptual notion of an experiencer (subject), appearances are relieved of their role as experiences (objects). There are no objects, just appearances whose nature is devoid of any subjectivity or objectivity. Sheer clarity – empty of intrinsic subjectivity or objectivity – is a marvelous thing to behold...
Such a view releases experience of the limitations of subjective clinging and the sufferings of objective craving/aversion. It dissolves the inherent self, simultaneously installing non-duality / non-separation. It's the Great Equalizer!
The ocean IS as transient as the waves. The ocean is a conceptual overlay placed onto mere flowing water – which is also conceptually constructed. Water evaporates, rain falls, ocean reconfigurates. There is no permanent ocean outside of our static concept about it.
Of course, the ocean/wave metaphor has limitations. The ocean has borders – the continents surrounding it, – which in a way makes it look more self-enclosed in a fixed identity. Now imagine that the whole of existence is a mere ocean. All there is, is fluxing water everywhere, no land to be found. Does it still make sense to talk about an ocean? The idea of the 'whole' is actually imputed on the particular instances of flowing water – or ungraspable wet liquidity. It is only a whole from the perspective of someone looking from some higher vantage point. But if the ocean is the entirety of reality there is no higher vantage point. So what is it that posits a 'whole"? Can we feel how cozy, attractive and comfortable the idea of a whole is?
Awareness is like the mere flowing water, the fluxing and impermanent substance of reality. But then it's not different from saying that awareness is the mere luminosity of appearances or experience, not a separate knower, not an independent essence that stands on its own.
<thoughts arise in (and as) awareness>
Thoughts shine freely in open experience. Awareness, not being external or separate, is itself only the thoughts, not a witness. Awareness being itself only the thoughts, their mere substance, it is the mere shine of appearances, transiently rising and falling with them. This is much more freeing than seeing awareness as remaining untouched before, during and after appearances.
<the seen cannot see>
Nothing sees. There is no seeing. What does seeing actually mean? That an entity sees something? That would be duality. That a mind morphs with the shape of some appearance? In that sense, the very morphing mind is reality itself, not a representation of something else. How is that considered seeing if it does not re-present something else? Why not call it a mere morphing mind – transient luminous activity?
The seen cannot see, nor can the seer see, nor can the seeing see. Luminous activity alone is. Can we feel ourselves into the subtlety of this? Utter freedom exploding as merely 'this', beyond any possible duality of entities or natures (seen vs. seeing).
How can a non-dual reality have a dual nature – transient appearances arising and falling in changeless awareness? This is the result of our very innate pull towards the position of the observer, the experiencer, the witness, the I am, the self. This prevents complete freedom, complete lack of identity springing from the insight into the utter transiency of everything. The only essence things have is their lack of essence, or, more clearly, the lack of there being things to begin with.
Things are not actually self-known. They are intrinsically luminous, or self-shining. No knowingness is required. and ultimately, no individual things exist. Individuality is produced by conceptual thought.
Non-dual awareness can have many different readings. What is being proposed is one that dispenses with the notion of awareness itself. Awareness is seen as nothing more than the luminosity intrinsic to the flow of appearances. Why the term awareness then (with all its identitary affiliations and limitations)?
<awareness in the infinite (... ) sense... >
How can something infinite, appearing as myriad forms, be 'one' thing? What makes the awareness arising as the particle in the west universe the same as the awareness arising as the particle in east universe? The fact that the same substance pervades the whole universe doesn't make that substance an essence in the sense of being unchanging or ever-present or transcendent of the things it substantializes.
<awareness and its apparent contents – with nothing coming between them>
If nothing comes in between them, how are they of different natures?
<when we look closely at what is going on here we can acknowledge that there is something called Awareness and also the apparent contents of Awareness.>
Are we actually able of finding an awareness outside of its contents? Or is it merely inferred? Like we say an apple is round, red and juicy. But is there an actual apple outside of the coherent configuration of roundness, redness and juiciness? The apple is the appearance of round, red and juicy. There is no apple as the owner or perceiver or substance of those characteristics. Likewise, there is no deeper reality underlying the mere characteristics present in our experience. The mere luminous display of characteristics is reality itself. Of course, those characteristics are constructed conceptually out of the pure luminous display.
A sentient being is nothing but a conceptual designation placed upon instances of luminous appearance. Wherever and whenever such designations are elaborated, there and then a sentient being is born. Thoughts arise and interpret some luminous activities as consisting of entities. Entities are born out of conceptual activities and are, thus, never other than conceptual activities themselves.
Conceptuality is none other than luminosity itself. Luminous activities building on top of luminous activities give rise to the sense of something existing beyond mere empty luminosity. Empty luminosity is a mere occurrence, lying beyond the limits of existence or non-existence, subjectivity or objectivity, self or other. Since it is beyond names, it is beyond characteristics. With the arising of names, comes the arising of characteristics and thus phenomena. The nature of luminosity is mere empty appearance. It appears because it is empty; it is empty because it appears.
One moves from the small self into the big self, first as the unchanging witnessing awareness, later as the non-dual fluxing principle that is all of reality. At this stage there is no world independent of the observer, since the observer is the world.
Finally, the idea of any kind of observer drops off, along with the belief in some knowing principle that always implies some duality, separation or distinction. All that is left is the naturally present luminous reality, free of being either object or subject.
(However, the deconstruction of the subject side is far more important than the object. The presence of the luminous appearances is undeniable, while the presence of some knowing principle or witnessing awareness is clearly imputed onto experience. So the object is far more undeniable that the subject. Moreover, the temptation of imputing some identity onto the subject is far greater than onto the object – despite the fact that all the characteristics imputed onto the subject are actually objective...)
Reality is empty of
who (any personal identity – a truly existing self),
what (any phenomenal identity – a truly existing phenomenon),
where (any spatial identity – a truly existing space),
when (any temporal identity – a truly existing time),
why (any symbolic identity – a truly existing purpose or meaning),
how (any final way of being – a truly existing emptiness).
Reality transcends all ontological extremes.
There is only dependent designation, only relative truth, mere colective consensus, conventional reality.
Empty luminosity, as a ground, is itself mentally designated, having as its basis of designation appearances themselves. No appearances? No luminosity and no emptiness then. Like it is stated in the Heart Sutra, "Emptiness is not other than form[s]". The groundlessness of reality as mere convention goes full circle.
All there is to reality is convention and agreed upon, relative labels. Like Dzongsar Khyentse Rimpoche says, both ultimate and relative truths are relative truths. The ultimate truth is that of the exclusive existence of conventional and fabricated reality.
The knowing, in a way, owns what is known. Always seems to install a duality between knower and known. That's the problem with positing a knowing principle like mind or awareness. Moreover, knowing always seems to pressupose some kind of center, where the knowing ensues from.
To drop this sense of knower, observer, experiencer, or even awareness or mind itself, is such a release, like being gutted out of some visceral ailment.
There is an evident and clearly manifest luminosity that is free from subjectivity and objectivity, from being mind or matter, from being here or there, from being self or other. It's pure existence, unsubstantial but manifestly clear, empty but naturally present.
People who talk about awareness being like this or that make it into a thing, like they had seen it or experienced it in some way, which would make awareness an object, and not the subject. What is being shown is the absurd consequences of taking awareness to be either one with appearances or independent of the appearances.
If awareness is separate from appearances, it's irrelevant to us creatures of the appearing world; if awareness is one with the appearances, it's nonsense to picture it as any type of self-sustained subjectivity, fixed identity or permanent principle.
There is no experience of awareness coming and going, because there is no experience of awareness [that which knows] at all. All there is is the self-shining realm of unsubstantial, transient appearances.


This experience here
This instance of luminosity
Manifests perfectly
It shines with its own presence
It's sustained by the whole universe
It's the poking finger of the whole of existence
It's luminous, empty and transient
Ever changing but always luminous
If there was any self here
Any independent principle at play
Any fixed nature
Any unchanging functioning
If there was any of those
No universe could enter here
No existence could invade This
No dance would be allowed
No metamorphosis
It's because this self-shining appearance
This fluxing moment of This
Is profoundly devoid of any speck of substantiality or permanence
Because it is utterly empty of essence
One can shake one's head to the sides
And the whole landscape changes
Thoughts of deluded thinking arise
Precisely because there is no fixed landscape
No preferred state
No independent nature
Delusions rise and set
Cravings arise and subside
All luminous activities follow their course
Just because This precious and empty clarity
Is free of any fixation
Naturally liberated from any identity
This moment is the natural birthright of the cosmos
It's the Great Perfection in action
It's the Great Seal of universal activity
It's the indestructible Vajra Body
When the ground shatters
The sky is naturally evident
And the wind brings the songs
Of all the countless Ancestors.



all reality self-liberates spontaneously
  that is the nature of things
  like an all-consuming fire
  nothing lasts as to be anything whatsoever


sensations rising and falling, they naturally liberate
  thus, bodies rise and fall, self-liberating into nothing at all


thoughts appear merely to disappear, naturally liberating
  thus, minds are born and cease at every moment, acting like ghosts


perceptions ever changing and shifting, they naturally dissolve
  thus, worlds appear, transform and vanish, like wisps of air


there is nothing but This
  all-encompassing This
  eternally This
  infinitely This
  despite This being nothing at all


just This, beyond "this" or "that"
  ideas of multiplicity and singleness self-liberate as they arise
  feelings of one and many dance and retire as they emerge


just This here, beyond concepts of "here" or "there"
  not a geographical point in space, merely This appearing
  space itself self-liberates as apparitions collapse


just This now, beyond past, future or present
  time itself releases into the furnace of forgetfulness
  leaving no ashes to proclaim any  "before" nor any "after"


ideas of being a person, an entity, a soul cruising the road of life
  they spontaneously self-liberate


feelings of being an ultimate essence, a supreme source birthing universes
  they too release into the vast sky of Reality


ideas of suffering, separation and bondage
  they spontaneously self-liberate
  feelings of peace, union and liberation
  they too release into the profound ocean of Reality


ideas of illusion, delusion and disillusionment
  they spontaneously self-liberate
  feelings of truth, enlightenment and insight
  they too release into the blazing fire of Reality


ideas of path, practice and perseverance
  they spontaneously self-liberate
  feelings of destination, achievement and transformation
  they too release into the massive mountain of Reality


the vast sky of Reality itself dissipates into liberation
  like an elder's last breath
  the profound ocean of Reality itself evaporates into emptiness
  like a tea cup forgotten in the sun
  the blazing fire of Reality itself fades into oblivion
  like candle's heat in the night's wind
  the massive mountain of Reality itself crumbles into dust
  like a fistful of dirt thrown in the air


no bottom to This
  no ceiling to This
  no north, no south, no east no west
  no up nor down
  no birth nor death
  no eternity nor transiency
  no here nor there


no rain, no sun
  no soil, no breeze
  yet the perfume arises
  search for a flower and all the Heavens turn to dust


when the ground shatters
  the sky naturally explodes
  just This and nothing else



The heart of compassion
Is the intrinsic freedom of anatta & sunyata.
All things are intimately free of fixations,
Which guarantees that even the subtlest delusions
Are already absent like unborn beasts.
Yes, this view is the climax of ordinariness...
Mere conventional activity,
The flux of ordinary things,
Naturally manifest and totally unbound...
It's been staring us in the face all along...
Universal activity, total exertion,
Like a mighty dragon calmly breathing,
Nothing special – yet totally free.
The mighty universe,
Totally interconnected, coordinated and integrated,
In full power giving birth
To nothing more than this mere present moment
Of kitchen and refrigerator humming.
Yes, total exertion is the great wiper,
The big wave crushing on the grasping-view of a personal self...
Luminosity is necessarily empty as to allow exertion.
Luminosity, being exerted, is proved as being empty.
Total Exertion
Meaning Dependent Origination
Meaning Anatta
Meaning Sunyata
Meaning Total Exertion
All the masters,
Have been nothing
But this luminous exertion.


Through the vast interdependent activities of the entirety of existence comes forth this mere occurrence called "current experience".
Prior to labels, no self arises or could ever exist. All there is, is ungraspable universal activity. After conceptual activities take place, still no self can actually exist, appearances notwithstanding.
The certainty that, nowhere in the visible and invisible infinite chain of reality could an independent entity or principle be found, such certainty has the potential to deeply untangle the knot at the center of the heart.

Feb 2019:

André A. Pais I wrote this a few weeks ago:

At the level of Anatta, reality is...

Vivid (it clearly appears, it is undeniably present);

Unsubstantial (empty of materiality or solidity; and empty of being of the substance of mind or awareness);

Pure (free of subjectivity or objectivity, of duality, of conceptual identity, and *partially* free of deceiving nature);

Mere Appearance (it is mirage-like, unsupported by either background observer or foreground solidity/identity).

What's missing from the above understanding (anatta) is the explicit and direct knowledge of the lack of inherent existence (sunyata).

As was said, mere appearances are partially free of deceiving nature. Like a silent person who says nothing false, appearances affirm no essence of their own. So, stripped of the conceptually imposed inherency, phenomena stand naked and neutral, like a mute person.

However, despite not saying anything false, the silent person is actually not saying anything true either. Likewise, appearances do not naturally reveal their lack of inherent existence. At the level of sunyata, the mere-appearance nature of reality has to be fully pierced as to make explicit its emptiness.

The spiritual process can thus be split into two main sections: the stages (I Am, One Mind and Anatta) leading to the fruit of "mere-appearances"; and the stages leading to the direct perception of emptiness, or suchness.
André A. Pais Another interesting distinction is that between me and mine. Even in the I AM stage, one sees no "me" residing in the foreground. Anatta then is the insight into the lack of a me lurking in the background of experience also. So, no "me" here or there. However, it's easier to see "no me" in experience than it is to see "no mine". To see no mine is deeper, since it fully deconstructs any possibility of some transcendent experiencer (like non-manifest awareness). If I identify as awareness, I may find no me in experience, but still consider it "my experience". In "no mine", I find a deeper freedom and amazement.

Again, it's relevant to say that anatta only points to the fact that there is no background and that, in the foreground, no me or mine is found. For instance, a hand is not me, nor mine. However, we're not necessarily seeing through its identity as a "hand". We're not seeing its imputed, designated and ultimately non-arisen nature. Like Tsongkhapa would say, we're not imposing self, but we're not directly seeing selflessness either. For this, sunyata is required.


    John Tan
    After 3 years, André A. Pais any updates?😜

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    André A. Pais
    Many updates, but it's all nisprapanca, so no talking about it! 😏
    Seriously though, I don't remember the whole of what is in that note, but I remember the shunyata section was just a sketch, because it was still very nebulous to me (I've been wanting to update that for a while, but who cares!). Other things I think I'd disagree, or I'd reformulate, not sure.
    But I like very much the 4 stage model (I got it from Soh's journal), it's simpler and more intuitive to me than the 7 stage (although spontaneous perfection feels relevant - or at least some stage after shunyata).

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  • John Tan
    André A. Pais Maybe interesting to write about the difference between nisprapanca (non-conceptuality) of "no referent found" vs non-conceptuality of a referent found since u briefly mentioned about sevenfold reasonings of Chandra.

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  • John Tan
    Our common understanding is a designation is designated upon a truly existence object. A referent can be found.
    But the unique aspect in Chandrakirti sevenfold reasonings is he not presenting conceptual designation as a "label" of any existence "referent", for upon the sevenfold reasonings, no referent is found.
    It is easy to understand non-conceptuality of existence object where referent is found. But what is non-conceptuality when no referent is found?

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  • André A. Pais
    I'm not sure I'm following...

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  • John Tan
    When I first encountered 7fold reasonings, my first impression is it is very odd to present conceptual designation this way. Y should designation be designated upon a basis of parts? Don't we normally "label" something on a whole object?

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  • André A. Pais
    The 7fold reasoning sees the "chariot" from both perspectives (parts [mainly], but also whole [the collection and shape]).

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  • John Tan
    Yes but whole is dependent on parts, the "dependency" is being established in this case from beginning and that is what made ultimate analysis of neither one nor many, neither sameness nor difference possible.
    However if such "dependency" is not made explicit in the beginning, then analysis will take a very different direction.
    Similarly non-conceptual experience is also different. If a designation is taken as a "label" on a whole object, then non-conceptual experience is simply bare attention yet the object is still solidly there in existence.

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  • Yin Ling
    John Tan i have never see the world in the “chariot” way nor understand non conceptual experience in the way of “chariot” until I learn about the chariot way then a lot of things is seen like a “chariot”. It feels different but I don’t know what is the difference 😂
    Maybe John needs to write something 😝😁

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  • John Tan
    Yin Ling lol🤦. After my projects maybe. This year is a busy year for me.

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