Also See: The Trouble With Agency (Newer Version)
Agency implies an agent that is doing something. If there is no agent, there can be no agency.
Agency, of course, is the action or intervention of a thing, or person, to produce an effect. But what happens if there is nothing that has an inherent self-existence? For some reason, although this is a normal and fairly early meditative insight that comes as a result of a direct meditative experience, it is often overlooked that if there is nothing with an inherent self-existence, then there is nothing that can be the cause, or agent, of any change.¹
To say that language can’t capture the truth is even more true when silly things are being stated. So when someone talks about “causes and conditions” in the same breath, they are being silly because these are not the same, and do not operate in the same way.
A cause is that which makes a thing happen. It implies an agent and its agency. The agent is the cause, and its agency is the action or intervention that it performs to effectuate something in, or to, something else.
But if there is nothing that has an inherent self-existence there can be no agents, and thus no agency.
A condition, on the other hand, is that which only opens the possibility of something happening. But conditions can never cause anything to happen, therefore, they are neither an agent nor have agency, and in fact, are never directly anything at all (because, as I mentioned, this is a rather early meditative insight that comes as a result of a direct meditative experience of the lack of an inherent self-existence — thus no “self” — in anything).
So try to make sense of conditions, not as any kind of interaction between entities, not even in a metaphorical sense. Instead, think of how a seed grows. The sun doesn’t cause the seed to grow, any more than rain does, or the soil, or all the bacteria, nutrients, animals, and other plants do. Yet, for the seed to grow, all of those conditions need to be right, including the condition of the seed being present.
As to what causes the seed to grow, well, just let the idea of causes go because there is nothing to be the cause. Understand instead that when the right conditions needed for the seed to germinate are present, the possibility of genesis is present, but what actually happens is uncaused by any, or even all, of the contributing factors that open up the possibility of it happening.
If you divest your life of any sense of “things” inherent in it, you will find yourself at a loss as to how what does happen arises. In fact, it is not always the case that people think that they are responsible for what arises in their lives. Some think it is God doing it, in which case it is either God’s grace or God’s punishment. Others think it is random chance doing it. There is even a mental illness that is specifically diagnosed for the presence of a belief that everything that happens is being caused by one’s self. However, there is another way to account for what happens, a way that doesn’t require God, or Random Chance, or even an omnific self doing it.
But the real issue here is not how to account for why what happens occurs, but rather to account for spontaneity — for when things just happen, and can’t happen in any causal way. Because if you settle on the idea that all things are caused, and there is something that is not caused, and in fact, cannot be caused, then you have a problem in your understanding.
On the other hand, if you settle on the understanding that everything that occurs, does so spontaneously based upon the possibilities that current conditions open up, then even if the same thing happens in every case, it can still be spontaneous, i.e., uncaused. It could be happening spontaneously in a reflexive response to those conditions, and not in a creatively spontaneous way. These are both spontaneous and, thus, uncaused, even though something particular happens every time.
Perhaps this surprises you. But think about all the things you thought were going to happen in your life that didn’t, and all the things that did happen that you never saw coming! When we think we are doing something, what we are doing is conflating the opening of possibilities in our life with one’s directly causing whatever does show up in our life to happen.
For example, you may pursue a college degree, but that doesn’t cause you to get a better paying job, it only makes it possible. Getting a better paying job may happen as a result of the preparations that you focused on, hoping for happy results — and the possibilities those preparations opened up — but you don’t get a better paying job because of your actions, or your hopes.
However, it’s not the case that our efforts are useless or inconsequential. Instead, this is about our confusion regarding what requires our effort — and that is specifically our decision to turn our concerted attention towards something, or to turn away from it. We may want a better paying job, but unless we turn our attention towards opening the possibility of that happening, it will most likely not happen. I would not go so far as to say it won’t happen because what does arise is often surprising, and is limited only by what is possible — and it’s always possible that you might get a better paying job, although that is normally not assured.
Scientists call this spontaneity, stochastic behavior — it extends all the way down to the quantum level of reality, where it is most obvious. It’s the reason why, for example, a computer needs a “clock,” that coordinates all the stochastic behavior of its electronic components so that the device can actually accomplish the tasks it has been engineered to allow to happen. Notice I didn’t say “make happen,” because sometimes things don’t. And we’ve probably all experienced that — and not just with computers.
Often, in our attempts to make sense of reality, we fall into old habits of thought that arise from an understanding in our heads that “things do stuff.” Exorcising that understanding happens naturally when a certain point in mind-training is reached, but without that direct experience, silliness abounds.
Parmenides, an Ancient “Pre-Socratic” Greek philosopher and shaman, who is sometimes credited with the label of “father of logic” in the West, once wrote a poem about his insights into reality. He didn’t use any pronouns in it, and few, if any, nouns. Smart people, thinking they knew what he meant, supplied a lot of additional wording in the form of pronouns and nouns that made the poem easier to read once it was translated, but also emptied it of the truth Parmenides had gone to great pains to express, because they didn’t understand that his words were an apophatic performance.
Then, once that was done, they realized that Parmenides hadn’t said the “right” thing in the “right” way, so they fixed that too. When Parmenides said: “the same is to perceive as well as wherefore is the perceived” (“ταὐτὸν δ᾽ ἐστὶ νοεῖν τε καὶ οὓνεκέν ἐστι νόημα”), equating the source (or the “wherefore”) of manifest appearances of the world with the faculty of perceiving them, which we call “awareness” today, they clarified it, equating “perceiving” with “thinking,” turning it into a kind of “I think, therefore I am” statement instead: “the same is to think as well as wherefore is the thought upon.” Which was silliness, of course — neither the Greek word for thought, nor for thinking, appears anywhere in Parmenides’ statement.
Parmenides seemed to be saying that it was what we today call awareness, and its focus of attention, which was the condition for that which was known, to be, and his interpreters didn’t like that because they knew that it was our actions, rather than our focused awareness, that makes things happen. So they ignored what Parmenides said, and put their own understanding into his translated words. Treason!
So let’s take the treason of Parmenides’ translators and commentators over two millennia as a suggestion and let’s see if their correction to Parmenide’s statement could even possibly be true. Is it possible to think our thoughts? What do you think?
¹ We live in an age today where “facetalking,” i.e., talking at someone, and only listening to ourselves, is so rampant it is assumed to be normal, so I feel it necessary to point out that although I have said there is nothing that can be the “cause, or agent, of any change,” it will be taken by some that I have just said there is “no change.” That is facilely untrue — both that I said it and that it could be the case.
by James M. Corrigan
ON NATURING AND WHY IT MATTERS
Part Three of REALITY AND EXISTENCE.
We must never forget that a greater self is a greater error: there is just naturing, and the essence of this selfless naturing, is selfless knowing. Thus naturing and knowing are completely synonymous terms. It is not even that naturing and knowing are coextensive, they are one and the same activity. Look within what you experience as you and realize that all that you are cognizing is manifesting presentially, by appearing, being present in the now. Then, look outwards towards your experience of the world and realize that everything you are cognizing is manifesting presentially here as well. It’s still just the same naturing, but it evidences something really important. I’ll let the venerable Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche introduce it:
The I that we are emotionally attached to seems to step back and look
on life, evaluating experience and wishing to avoid suffering.
—Progressive Stages of Meditation on Emptiness.
In a dualistic structure we see experience as the awareness of what is happening, but this cannot be true in the absence of a separate, independent, lasting self, an entity that is you. Yet evaluation occurs, in the same way that phenomena appear, and it is just more naturing. Yet I noticed something more subtle to grasp: the naturing is affective so that the process makes a difference to, or has an affect on what is natured next. I believe this is the true ground or basis for karma as this affectivity conditions what arises.
What happens matters! And this is the reason, I feel, for a needful focus on compassion and self-less loving acceptance of oneself and all that is other than yourself. Merely the movement of attention changes everything. We let advertising move our attention to things we don’t have, leading us to desire them. We focus on memories and thoughts of what has happened, rather than being present. We get stuck going nowhere in our lives, because we try to change what is, and we can’t.
There is nothing other than this. I call it sciomorphogenesis, literally knowing through the generation of form, but you can call it what you like. The important thing is not to think of this manifesting as being anything other than the naturing of all that exists. This naturing is the activity of reality, and at some point you may have the additional meditational insight that nothing that exists can exist separately, apart from this naturing, so that when you speak of reality you encompass it all.
Just please, don’t think of reality as some thing because it is processual rather than substantial. This, then, is my fourth guide: What happens matters. Obscurations of our true naturing, which are also only manifestations conditioned by karma and primordial activity, that which came logically before, can be systematically removed through meditation and the progression of insight that it brings. The idea that “There is no one, so nothing to do” is just another obscuration. The understanding that for something to happen, some actor must do something is a false understanding.
Naturing happens without a thing called Nature doing it. This is hard for us to accept, because we are steeped in the idea that all action needs an actor. When we suddenly realize the lack of an enduring self during meditation, we have an unfortunate habit of creating an understanding that this means there is nothing to do, even while a universe of stuff happening swirls around us! We can’t seem to escape it, except through dedicated meditation, which is a way of quiescing the continual arising of obstructions of our true naturing.
This leads me to my fifth guide: Buddha was correct when he said there was conventional truth and real truth. Our lives unfold and we experience them in a conventional way. Speaking about our life and experiences using conventional language filled with nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, etc. is correct and proper. Why? Because of the conventional truth that we live. If we didn’t have language, and we didn’t have the higher mental functions that defines our species, we would still be living in a conventional world, all beings do. This conventional world structures speech.
We cannot speak about the real because it is directly unknowable, and yet, there are ways to bend language so that it points beyond the conventional truth we live, as Plotinus did in the quote above. But language itself, and the mental formations it is based upon, can never encompass reality, so there is no need to make believe we are speaking from somewhere beyond. Yet, language can, in some impoverished way, help us tell others what happened along our path.
James is a writer, philosopher, contemplative practitioner and theorist, living in the Dordogne region of France, where he runs a Bed & Breakfast. He was formerly a software engineer in New York, as well as a university professor of philosophy where he taught Ethics, Metaphysics, Philosophy of Nature, and meditation. Other LEVEKUNST articles by the same author.
A mirror is not cognizant of what is appearing in it. The opposite of cognizant would be ignorant, or oblivious, or “unaffected by”
The allegory of a mirror is often used to help individuals understand what awareness truly is like. It is said that, like a mirror, awareness reflects all manner of things and yet is never affected by what appears.
Unfortunately, there is a misleading problem lurking within this allegory which instills a very false understanding of awareness in those that take this allegory to heart, in the absence of direct meditational insights of the nature of awareness and of mind. Granted, the misunderstanding is already held to be the truth by most people who have not yet trained their minds, so they find this allegory very acceptable.
While awareness may be like a mirror which is unaffected by what it reflects, awareness isn’t reflecting anything, and in this important way, it is not like a mirror at all. That unaffectedness that is part of this allegory is ultimately true of awareness, but the image of reflections in a mirror is completely misleading.
It is true that a mirror reflects what is before it; but it also reverses that image relative to the viewer. Perhaps we should focus more on that reversal aspect of a mirror’s reflection than we do on its reflectivity, because describing awareness as being like a mirror — even allegorically — conveys an understanding of awareness that is completely opposite that which is necessarily true.
Awareness is not reflective. Images of things are not reflected in awareness. This would imply a dualism of subject and object, which is ok if we are talking about a video camera, or a set of eyes — mundane things, in other words— but it’s not ok when we are speaking of that which can be directly known (imperienced) as the ground or origin of all manifested phenomena, and which is nothing other than the very naturing of all those phenomena. But most of us miss that rather significant bump in the road to enlightened speech, in part because we are taught the allegory before we can counter its false structure with actual insight.
Yet, even in relation to its unaffectedness, this allegory is contrary to our everyday experience and leads us to a proliferation of reified “minds” which are used as necessary explanatory devices to get around the initial error of holding that awareness is unaffected by what appears “in the mirror.” This whole concept of “mind” is a fundamental error which causes us to impose a dualistic structure on a necessarily nondual reality.
Awareness is essentially the aspect of cognizance of the activity of this nondual reality — its responsiveness — and cognizance is not reflectivity. It is what it says: knowing; but not in the normal sense of someone having knowledge of something, especially something abstract, but rather, as a performance in which what is known is shown in the performance. Knowing how to dance is not a set of instructions on how to move — instead, it is the ability to move in certain ways. And having a trained mind is not the accumulation of facts and instructions on how to train your mind, read from some source text — rather, it is having done the practice for some length of time and thereby having accomplished the training of your mind.
So what is it that reality knows? Well, everything — you, me, this planet and the sense of beauty we discover when we see it for what it is, these words, every living thing, even those that we, because of our misunderstanding of reality, call ‘inanimate objects’. This world is the immediate expression of, and the ‘state of awareness’ of, reality — from the entangled perspectives of what is Now.
That idea of reflectivity splits the naturing of this display into two parts and then asserts that one — the awareness of the other part — is not affected by it; yet both are one and only one activity of naturing all that appears. Of course it is affected by the appearances; they are the natural activity of this naturing. It doesn’t mean that this nondual reality is permanently affected by anything at all, as all that appears is impermanent.
Unlike awareness, a mirror is not cognizant of what is appearing in it. The opposite of “cognizant” would be “ignorant,” or “oblivious,” and even “unaffected by,” and that last antonym is exactly what this allegory seems to convey, and is touted for conveying — thus this allegory illustrates the very opposite of awareness’s essential character and confuses all that hear it and try to make sense of what is being said, by imposing a conceptual understanding in the place of a direct imperience of the truth!
Awareness is affected by what it cognizes; unlike a mirror that is “unaffected by” its reflections because it is not cognizant of them — awareness is cognizance in essence and has no other nature.
We are told that awareness is unaffected by what appears in a misleading effort to convey an important point about what is more properly called “pure presence” and this leads me to the first proof that awareness is affected by what appears:
Pure presence is directly known once cognizance of the Now — the Now that is pure presence — is recognized. This recognition is a breakthrough, and the cognizance that marks its arrival is necessarily called awareness. That is to say, the meta-cognitive state that accompanies the direct imperience of the presence that we normally refer to as Now, is nothing other than awareness of the naturing of the appearances arising in that moment of insight. It is pointed out in Dzogchen, for example, that once we become aware of the Now as nothing other than pure presence we are liberated. What is liberated? The cognizant aspect of our naturing — which is what we are referring to when we say “awareness.” This is what is liberated from our normal absorption in the appearances — our forgetting that which we truly are. So what are these appearances? They are the collection of reifications that we hypostatize into our “self” with all that identifies ourself, and to which we have an emotional (egoic) attachment to (i.e., our thoughts, feelings, emotions, sensations, and perceptions).
This reveals that awareness is affected by what appears. How is awareness affected? Three ways: by remaining attentive in approval; by turning away in disapproval; and by remaining neutral, or unattached, so that neither approval or disapproval arises. These two affective responses, and one neutral state, guide, or condition, what can appear next as the coherent natural display of reality.
The second proof that awareness is affected is more subtle, relying on a clarification of exactly how awareness cognizes.
Awareness is not something other than the “presencing” (i.e. naturing) of appearances in the pure presence of the Now. The Now is not a time, and Awareness is not some thing. Awareness is not part of a thing. It is not even an “aspect” of a process — it is the process.
Fortunately, the very word itself, with its “-ness” suffix, signals that it is a conceptual abstraction of some characteristic of something, and that is completely wrong in structure in this case — a dead-giveaway that confusion reigns.
First, there is no entity to have an aspect, and second, because abstracting awareness away, making it a thing-in-itself (which is the linguistic meaning of “-ness”) completely obfuscates that it is not only the essential character of a process, it is the only character of the process, thus it is the process — not some aspect of it.
This is why when awareness is said to be the “ground” of all that arises a subtle erroneous understanding also arises because it is confusing “knowing” for the unknowable “ground” that stands under (understands) the appearances. This may sound like a word game, but what it means is that we can not know the ground, but only the appearances — because the knowing is the appearances.
Effectively, abstracting awareness removes the natural process (from itself), confusing us into thinking that something substantive has been uncovered. And by giving that abstraction substance in our minds we are led directly away from the Truth.
In regard to “pure presence,” awareness corresponds to the arising activity of “presencing,” which is pointed out to us — our first pointing out instruction — as the “knowing” of appearances. Unfortunately, the concept of knowledge is completely dualistic today, so awareness becomes a subject entity and the appearances become an object entity. This very subtle dualism starts the confusion, which snowballs as we go forward.
Pure presence is not something to be known in a positive sense, and is only recognized via this naturing or presencing of appearances Now — the Now being the perspective that we call “self” and take as evidence of the reality of things, but which is not any thing.
Why? Because the essence of pure presence is that (it) is empty of any characteristics or identity, thus there is nothing intelligible at all about (it), and yet, (it) is the presencing of all that appears (note the deficiency of language with its need for a subject in this last group of statements). And it is this point which does not entail awareness in the sense that is normally meant when we use the word “presence” in conjunction with the appearances — what, after all, would there be cognizance of?
Is this Idealism? No. There is no “mind” that is “minding the store” here. No “mind” creating fantasies, nor realities. Certainly no “mind” that is aware. And yet the word “mind” is so often used; but not to denote any actual thing that can be pointed to — it’s used simply to point you away from your foot, brain, and everything in between.
Thus the “purity” that is pointed to is the unknowable ground, since nothing positive can be said (or known) about it — which most mystical religious traditions refer to as “Godhead.” We cannot know if it is a chimerical artifact of our reasoning when we say or understand “Godhead,” or if it is an absolute Truth.
What we may suddenly recognize, however, is the Now in which all appearances present — the appearances that are ephemeral and are void of any inherent self nature, but which are, however, evidential. That is, evidence that can lead us to recognize — when we suddenly notice the “clearing” of the Now (of pure presence) — that the Now is not a time, but is the venue of all that appears.
“Now” is never affected by what appears — what, after all, is there to affect? But “Awareness” is always affected by what is appearing because this abstraction points to the very essence of cognizance, and thus the very essence of the process of naturing, which is always responsive. Or more literally, awareness is the cognizing of appearances now, limiting and guiding the possibility of what can arise “next,” and this is the sum total of the process.
To conflate awareness with pure presence is a mental crutch that conflates knowing with the unknowable — expressing “facts” about that to which no facts apply. When recognized, the Now is known to be pure presence. But pure presence is not a thing — there is no entity in the naturing — so what could be stained by what appears as cognized?
Thus, the problem is that in making awareness something, in the allegory of the mirror, we subtly separate it from the naturing of all appearances — of which it is the only essential character. Then we find the need to prove that it is unaffected by what it cognizes because otherwise there is no “pure” state. Yet we know that the essence of this naturing is cognizance, and cognizance is not the “nature of the naturing of appearances.” Such a construction is mentation gone wild.
In reality there is no entity; so how could there be any entities in the appearances that arise? And these — appearances and reality — are not two things, so why do we make awareness into something that must be kept clean? Perhaps it is only a lack of recognition directly imperienced that provides the fertile soil for the genesis of this confusion.
And finally, if you are not yet convinced, let me ask you: “What do you think happens when you become conscious of something that you have perceived or thought? Where, exactly, is the location of the cognizance that you are trying to describe and how does it come to be?” For in each proposed solution, you will always already have cognizance implied in the structure of your answer, regardless of what you are pointing to.