On Anatta (No-Self), Emptiness, Maha and Ordinariness, and Spontaneous Perfection
Article written by: Thusness/PasserBy
Wonder why but of late, the topic on anatta kept surfacing in forums. Perhaps 'yuan' (condition) has arisen. -:) I will just jot down some thoughts on my experiences of ‘no-self’. A casual sharing, nothing authoritative.
The 2 stanzas below are pivotal in leading me to the direct experience of no-self. Although they appear to convey the same stuff about anatta, meditating on these 2 stanzas can yield 2 very different experiential insights -- one on the emptiness aspect and the other, the non-dual luminosity aspect. The insights that arise from these experiences are very illuminating as they contradict so much our ordinary understanding of what awareness is.
There is thinking, no thinker
There is hearing, no hearer
There is seeing, no seer
In thinking, just thoughts
In hearing, just sounds
In seeing, just forms, shapes and colors.
Before proceeding any further, it is of absolute importance to know that there is no way the stanzas can be correctly understood by way of inference, logical deduction or induction. Not that there is something mystical or transcendental about the stanzas but simply the way of mental chattering is a 'wrong approach'. The right technique is through 'vipassana' or any more direct and attentive bare mode of observation that allows the seeing of things as they are. Just a casual note, such mode of knowing turns natural when non-dual insight matures, before that it can be quite 'efforting'.
On the first stanza
The two most obvious experiences from this initial glimpse of the first stanza is the lack of doer-ship and the direct insight of the absence of an agent. These 2 experiences are key for my phase 5 of the 7 phases of insights.
1. The lack of doer-ship that links and co-ordinates experiences.
Without the 'I' that links, phenomena (thoughts, sound, feelings and so on and so forth) appear bubble-like, floating and manifesting freely, spontaneously and boundlessly. With the absence of the doer-ship also comes a deep sense of freedom and transparency. Ironical as it may sound but it's true experientially. We will not have the right understanding when we hold too tightly 'inherent' view. It is amazing how 'inherent' view prevents us from seeing freedom as no-doership, interdependence and interconnectedness, luminosity and non-dual presence.
2. The direct insight of the absence of an agent.In this case, there is a direct recognition that there is “no agent”. Just one thought then another thought. So it is always thought watching thought rather than a watcher watching thought. However the gist of this realization is skewed towards a spontaneous liberating experience and a vague glimpse of the empty nature of phenomena -- that is, the transient phenomena being bubble-like and ephemeral, nothing substantial or solid. At this phase we should not misunderstand that we have experienced thoroughly the ‘empty’ nature of phenomena and awareness, although there is this temptation to think we have. -:)
Depending on the conditions of an individual, it may not be obvious that it is “always thought watching thought rather than a watcher watching thought.” or "the watcher is that thought." Because this is the key insight and a step that cannot afford to be wrong along the path of liberation, I cannot help but with some disrespectful tone say,
For those masters that taught,
“Let thoughts arise and subside,
See the background mirror as perfect and be unaffected.”
With all due respect, they have just “blah” something nice but deluded.
See that there is no one behind thoughts.
First, one thought then another thought.
With deepening insight it will later be revealed,
Always just this, One Thought!
Non-arising, luminous yet empty!
And this is the whole purpose of anatta. To thoroughly see through that this background does not exist in actuality. What exists is a stream, action or karma. There is no doer or anything being done, there is only doing; No meditator nor meditation, only meditating. From a letting go perspective, "a watcher watching thought" will create the impression that a watcher is allowing thoughts to arise and subside while itself being unaffected. This is an illusion; it is 'holding' in disguise as 'letting go'. When we realized that there is no background from start, reality will present itself as one whole letting go. With practice, ‘intention’ dwindles with the maturing of insight and ‘doing’ will be gradually experienced as mere spontaneous happening as if universe is doing the work. With the some pointers from 'dependent origination', we can then penetrate further to see this happening as a sheer expression of everything interacting with everything coming into being. In fact, if we do not reify ‘universe’, it is just that -- an expression of interdependent arising that is just right wherever and whenever is.
Understanding this, practice is simply opening to whatever is.
For this mere happening is just right wherever and whenever is.
Though no place can be called home it is everywhere home.
When experience matures in the practice of great ease,
The experience is Maha! Great, miraculous and bliss.
In mundane activities of seeing, eating and tasting,
When expressed poetically is as if the entire universe meditating.
Whatever said and expressed are really all different flavors,
Of this everything of everything dependently originating,
As this moment of vivid shimmering.
By then it is clear that the transient phenomena is already happening in the perfect way; unwinding what must be unwinded, manifesting what must be manifested and subsides when it is time to go. There is no problem with this transient happening, the only problem is having an ‘extra mirror’, a reification due to the power of the mind to abstract. The mirror is not perfect; it is the happening that is perfect. The mirror appears to be perfect only to a dualistic and inherent view.
Our deeply held inherent and dualistic view has very subtly and unknowingly personified the "luminous aspect" into the watcher and discarded the "emptiness aspect" as the transient phenomena. The key challenge of practice is then to clearly see that luminosity and emptiness are one and inseparable, they have never and can never be separated.
On the second stanza
For the second stanza, the focus is on the vivid, pristine-ness of transience phenomena. Thoughts, sounds and all transient are indistinguishable from Awareness. There is no-experiencer-experience split, only one seamless spontaneous experience arising as thinker/thoughts, hearer/sounds, feeler/feelings and so on. In hearing, hearer and sound are indistinguishably one. For anyone that is familiar with the “I AM” experience, that pure sense of existence, that powerful experience of presence that makes one feel so real, is unforgettable. When the background is gone, all foreground phenomena reveal themselves as Presence. It is like naturally 'vipassanic' throughout or simply put, naked in awareness. From the hissing sound of PC, to the vibration of the moving MRT train, to the sensation when the feet touches the ground, all these experiences are crystal clear, no less “I AM” than “I AM”. The Presence is still fully present, nothing is denied. -:)
Division of subject and object is merely an assumption.
Thus someone giving up and something to be given up is an illusion.
When self becomes more and more transparent,
Likewise phenomena become more and more luminous.
In thorough transparency all happening are pristinely and vividly clear.
Obviousness throughout, aliveness everywhere!
It will be obvious by then that only the deeply held dualistic view is obscuring our insight into this experiential fact. In actual experience, there is just the crystal clarity of phenomena manifesting. Maturing this experience, the mind-body dissolves into mere non-dual luminosity and all phenomena are experientially understood as the manifestation of this non-dual luminous presence -- the key insight leading to the realization that "All is Mind".
After this, not to be too overwhelmed or over-claimed what is more than necessary; rather investigate further. Does this non-dual luminosity exhibits any characteristic of self-nature that is independent, unchanging and permanent? A practitioner can still get stuck for quite sometimes solidifying non-dual presence unknowingly. This is leaving marks of the 'One mirror' as described in the stage 4 of the 7 phases of my insights. Although experience is non-dual, the insight of emptiness is still not there. Though the dualistic bond has loosened sufficiently, the 'inherent' view remains strong.
When the 'subject' is gone, experience becomes non-dual but we forgotten about the 'object'. When object is further emptied, we see Dharmakaya. Do See clearly that for the case of a ‘subject’ that is first penetrated, it is a mere label collating the 5 aggregates but for the next level that is to be negated, it is the Presence that we are emptying -- not a label but the very presence itself that is non-dual in nature.
For sincere Buddhist practitioners that have matured non-dual insight, they may prompt themselves why is there a need for Buddha to put so much emphasis on dependent origination if non-dual presence is final? The experience is still as Vedantic, more 'Brahman' than 'Sunyata'. This 'solidity of non-dual presence' must be broken with the help of dependent origination and emptiness. Knowing this a practitioner can then progress to understand the empty (dependently originated) nature of non-dual presence. It is a further refining of anatta experience according to the first stanza.
As for those "I AMness" practitioners, it is very common for them after non-dual insight to stay in non-dual presence. They find delight in 'chop wood, carry water' and 'spring comes, grass grows by its own'. Nothing much can be stressed; the experience do appear to be final. Hopefully 'yuan' (condition) can arise for these practitioners to see this subtle mark that prevent the seeing.
If we observe thought and ask where does thought arise, how does it arise, what is ‘thought’ like. 'Thought' will reveal its nature is empty -- vividly present yet completely un-locatable. It is very important not to infer, think or conceptualise but feel with our entire being this ‘ungraspability’ and 'unlocatability'. It seems to reside 'somewhere' but there is no way to locate it. It is just an impression of somewhere "there" but never "there". Similarly “here-ness” and “now-ness” are merely impressions formed by sensations, aggregates of causes and conditions, nothing inherently ‘there’; equally empty like ‘selfness’.
This ungraspable and unlocatable empty nature is not only peculiar to ‘thought’. All experiences or sensations are like that -- vividly present yet insubstantial, un-graspable, spontaneous, un-locatable.
If we were to observe a red flower that is so vivid, clear and right in front us, the “redness” only appears to “belong” to the flower, it is in actuality not so. Vision of red does not arise in all animal species (dogs cannot perceive colours) nor is the “redness” an inherent attribute of the mind. If given a “quantum eyesight” to look into the atomic structure, there is similarly no attribute “redness” anywhere found, only almost complete space/void with no perceivable shapes and forms. Whatever appearances are dependently arisen, and hence is empty of any inherent existence or fixed attributes, shapes, form, or “redness” -- merely luminous yet empty, mere appearances without inherent/objective existence.
Likewise when standing in front of a burning fire pit, the entire phenomena of ‘fire’, the burning heat, the whole sensation of ‘hotness’ that are so vividly present and seem so real but when examined they are also not inherently “there” -- merely dependently manifest whenever conditions are there. It is amazing how dualistic and inherent views have caged seamless experience in a who-where-when construct.
All experiences are empty. They are like sky flowers, like painting on the surface of a pond. There is no way to point to a moment of experience and say this is ‘in’ and that is ‘out’. All ‘in’ are as ‘out’; to awareness seamless experience is all there is. It is not the mirror or pond that is important but that process of illusion-like phenomenon of the paint shimmering on the surface of the pond; like an illusion but not an illusion, like a dream but not a dream. This is the ground of all experiences.
Yet this ‘ungraspability and unlocatabilty’ nature is not all there is; there is also this Maha, this great without boundaries feeling of 'interconnectedness'. When someone hits a bell, the person, the stick, the bell, the vibration of the air, the ears and then the magically appearance of sound -- ’Tongsss…re-sounding…’ is all a seamless one happening, one experience. When breathing, it is just this one whole entire breath; it is all causes and conditions coming together to give rise to this entire sensation of breath as if the whole of universe is doing this breathing. The significance of this Maha experience is not in words; in my opinion, without this experience, there is no true experience of 'interconnectedness' and non-dual presence is incomplete.
The experience of our empty nature is a very different from that of non-dual oneness. ‘Distance’ for example is overcome in non-dual oneness by seeing through the illusory aspect of subject/object division and resulted in a one non-dual presence. It is seeing all as just ‘This’ but experiencing Emptiness breaks the boundary through its empty ungraspable and unlocatable nature.
There is no need for a ‘where-place' or a ‘when-time' or a ‘who-I' when we penetrate deeply into this nature. When hearing sound, sound is neither ‘in here’ nor ‘out there’, it is where it is and gone! All centers and reference points dissolve with the wisdom that manifestation dependently originates and hence empty. The experience creates an "always right wherever and whenever is" sensation. A sensation of home everywhere though nowhere can be called home. Experiencing the emptiness nature of presence, a sincere practitioner becomes clear that indeed the non-dual presence is leaving a subtle mark; seeing its nature as empty, the last mark that solidifies experiences dissolves. It feels cool because presence is made more present and effortless. We then move from "vivid non-dual presence" into "though vividly and non-dually present, it is nothing real, empty!".
On Maha and Ordinariness
The experience of Maha may sound as if one is going after certain sort of experience and appears to be in contradiction with the 'ordinariness of enlightenment' promoted in Zen Buddhism. This is not true and in fact, without this experience, non-dual is incomplete. This section is not about Maha as a stage to achieve but to see that Sunyata is Maha in nature. In Maha, one does not feel self, one 'feels' universe; one does not feel 'Brahman' but feels 'interconnectedness'; one does not feel 'helplessness' due to 'dependence and interconnection' but feels great without boundary, spontaneous and marvelous. Now lets get back to 'ordinariness'.
Ordinariness has always been Taoism’s forte. In Zen we also see the importance of this being depicted in those enlightenment models like Tozan’s 5 ranks and the The Ten Oxherding Pictures. But ordinariness must only be understood that non-dual and the Maha world of suchness is nothing beyond. There is no beyond realm to arrive at and never a separated state from our ordinary daily world; rather it is to bring this primordial, original and untainted experience of non-dual and Maha experience into the most mundane activities. If this experience is not found in most mundane and ordinary activities then practitioners have not matured their understandings and practices.
Before Maha experience has always been rare occurrence in the natural state and was treated as a passing trend that comes and goes. Inducing the experience often involves concentration on repeatedly doing some task for a short period of time for example,
If we were to breathe in and out, in and out…till there is simply this entire sensation of breath, just breath as all causes and conditions coming into this moment of manifestation.
If we were to focus on the sensation of stepping, the sensation of hardness, just the sensation of the hardness, till there is simply this entire sensation ‘hardness’ when the feet touches the ground, just this ‘hardness’ as all causes and conditions coming into this moment of manifestation.
If we were to focus on hearing someone hitting a bell, the stick, the bell, the vibration of the air, the ears all coming together for this sensation of sound to arise, we will have Maha experience.
However ever since incorporating the teaching of dependent origination into non-dual presence, over the years it has become more ‘accessible’ but never has this been understood as a ground state. There seems to be a predictable relationship of seeing interdependent arising and emptiness on the experience of non-dual presence.
A week ago, the clear experience of Maha dawned and became quite effortless and at the same time there is a direct realization that it is also a natural state. In Sunyata, Maha is natural and must be fully factored into the path of experiencing whatever arises. Nevertheless Maha as a ground state requires the maturing of non-dual experience; we cannot feel entirely as the interconnectedness of everything coming spontaneously into being as this moment of vivid manifestation with a divided mind.
The universe is this arising thought.
The universe is this arising sound.
Just this magnificent arising!
Homage to all arising.
On Spontaneous Perfection
Lastly, when these 2 experiences inter-permeate, what is really needed is simply to experience whatever arises openly and unreservedly. It may sound simple but do not underestimate this simple path; even aeon lives of practices cannot touch the depth of its profundity.
In fact all the subsections -- “On Stanza One”, “On Stanza Two”, “On Emptiness”, there is already certain emphasis of the natural way. With regards to the natural way, I must say that spontaneous presence and experiencing whatever arises openly, unreservedly and fearlessly is not the 'path' of any tradition or religion -- Be it Zen, Mahamudra, Dzogchen, Advaita, Taoism or Buddhism. In fact the natural way is the 'path' of Tao but Taoism cannot claim monopoly over the 'path' simply because it has a longer history. My experience is that any sincere practitioner after maturing non-dual experiences will eventually come to this automatically and naturally. It is like in the blood, there is no other way than the natural way.
That said, the natural and spontaneous way is often misrepresented. It should not be taken to mean that there is no need to do anything or practice is unnecessary. Rather it is the deepest insight of a practitioner that after cycles and cycles of refining his insights on the aspect of anatta, emptiness and dependent origination, he suddenly realized that anatta is a seal and non-dual luminosity and emptiness have always been ‘the ground’ of all experiences. Practice then shift from ‘concentrative’ to ‘effortless’ mode and for this it requires the complete pervading of non-dual and emptiness insights into our entire being like how “dualistic and inherent views” has invaded consciousness.
In any case, care must be taken not to make our empty and luminous nature into a metaphysical essence. I will end with a comment I wrote in another blog Luminous Emptiness as it summarizes pretty well what that I have written.
The degree of “un-contrivance”,
Is the degree of how unreserved and fearless we open to whatever is.
For whatever arises is mind, always seen, heard, tasted and experienced.
What that is not seen, not heard and not experienced,
Is our conceptual idea of what mind is.
Whenever we objectify the “brilliance, the pristine-ness” into an entity that is formless,
It becomes an object of grasp that prevents the seeing of the “forms”,
the texture and the fabric of awareness.
The tendency to objectify is subtle,
we let go of 'selfness' yet unknowingly grasped ‘nowness’ and ‘hereness’.
Whatever arises merely dependently originates, needless of who, where and when.
All experiences are equal, luminous yet empty of self-nature.
Though empty it has not in anyway denied its vivid luminosity.
Liberation is experiencing mind as it is.
Self-Liberation is the thorough insight that this liberation is always and already is;
Spontaneously present, naturally perfected!
We should not treat the insight of emptiness as 'higher' than that of non-dual luminosity. It is just different insights dawning due to differing conditions. To some practitioners, the insight of our empty nature comes before non-dual luminosity.