Sacred geometry

Approaching the Dharma: Part One - Unbinding the World

This retreat was jointly taught by Rob Burbea and one or more other Insight Meditation teachers. Here is the full retreat on Dharma Seed
Date18th November 2012
Retreat/SeriesNovember Solitary 2012


Okay, so this morning, in this talk and the next one, I would like to try and draw out a couple of strands that were in the last two talks I gave, and also in the Question and Answer period that were there, and weave them together, extend them, and sort of unfold something over this talk and the next talk. Some of you, a few of you in here I know very well, from practice, and from listening and studying, are familiar with what I'm going to talk about, with what I'm talking about. For others, it might be quite new. So there's perhaps some risk involved in trying to do what I'm going to do. I'm going to take two sessions to do it. Probably I should -- if I were more sensible than I am -- take many more than two. So there's a little bit of risk, but there's kind of a long arc to what I'm saying. There's a twist, twists in the tale of the plot. It's quite a lot to ask to follow that whole arc. But of course now we're recording everything. You're welcome to listen again, and you're also welcome to just press 'delete' in the old cognitive apparatus. You know, it's completely optional, what you do with all this.

Sometimes it's difficult for us as human beings when we hear new ideas, or a new way of looking at something, sometimes we're not so good with that. Oftentimes we notice we quite like to hear what we already know. We like to listen to someone sort of saying something that we agree with, and that we've already got in a box. And sometimes we can actually notice ourselves, when we're hearing something new -- I see this going on quite a lot, all the time -- actually, we take that new thing, we shave a bit off it, scrunch it down a bit, and then try and put it in the framework of the box we already know. And then say, "Oh, actually, I haven't heard anything new. It fits already in there." And so there's a way sometimes we don't hear things. Anyway, that's a whole other subject. I've talked about that elsewhere.

Okay, so, let's start at maybe what sounds like a strange place to start. One day, the Buddha was sitting around with a group of monks. And they were sitting in silence, and he just said:

Listen, monks. I say that the end of the world cannot be known, seen, or reached by travelling. Yet I also say that without reaching the end of the world, there is no making an end to dukkha [no making an end to suffering].[1]

So however much you travel, you're not going to get to the end of the world. But if you don't get to the end of the world, if you don't reach the end of the world, you won't reach the end of dukkha. And having said this, he got up and went inside his little meditation hut and shut the door. [laughs]

And the monks were sitting there, scratching their bald heads, and wondering what that was about. They asked Ānanda. And Ānanda, who was the Buddha's attendant and one of his disciples, said something like, "Well, I think what the Buddha's getting at is that, basically, we have to know -- what is the 'world'? We have to know the end of this world of perception: what we perceive with the eye, with the ears, with the other senses, and with the mind." Somehow, in the ending of all this 'world' -- this is the world, what I perceive -- in the ending of all that, there's some clue about the ending of dukkha.

On another occasion, the Buddha was actually a bit more clear, specifying more clearly. He said:

That dimension [or that sphere] should be known, should be realized, should be understood, where the eye ceases and perception of form fades away. That dimension or sphere should be known, realized, understood, where the ear ceases and the perception of sounds fades away ... where the nose ceases and smells fade away ... where the tongue ceases and taste fades away ... where body ceases and the perception of tactile objects fade away. That dimension or sphere should be known, realized, understood, experienced, where the mind ceases and perception of mental phenomena fade away.[2]

Interesting. Now, let's go slowly here. I don't know. The Buddha seems to be saying, "This needs to be experienced." Has inner critic come up at this point? It might have. "How could I possibly experience something like that when I can't even be with three breaths in a row, or whatever it is?" Or it might seem, "Well, okay, some very, very kind of exalted meditative state. What relevance does that have to do with my life? What on earth has that got to do with me, and my life, and the kind of life I live?"

As I said, I want to unfold something over a very long arc here. So if either of those is a reaction, just wait. Just hold on. Although the Buddha says, "That dimension should be known, experienced," although he's pointing to an experience, in these talks, I don't want to emphasize the attainment of a meditative experience. That's not where I'm going. Rather, something else. There's rather something here to understand about the path and about practice. It's a way of seeing, of conceiving, a framework for what we're doing in practice that might be quite different, that might influence the whole direction and the sense of what we're doing, the way we see what we do.

The Buddha again:

There is what is inferior, there is what is superior, and there is the complete escape from this entire field of perception.[3]

What does that mean? "There is what is inferior." A state of turmoil, a state of anger -- these are, in the Buddha's words, "inferior states" relative to, let's say, states of samādhi, where the mind is open and bright, states of mettā where the mind is open with love and softness. So turmoil and anger -- we're perceiving that state. There's the perception of turmoil or anger. There's also the perception of the world seen through the state of turmoil or anger. So there's the perception of what is inferior. There's the perception of what is superior when you're in a state where there's a lot of mettā, or in a state of deep samādhi, whatever degree that is -- there's the perception of that state. And the Buddha calls the *jhānas "*perception attainments." There's something very key I'm pressing at here. It will come clear over the course of the talks.

So there's the perception of the world through the state of mettā. How does the world seem to me, how does it appear when the heart is full of mettā, bright with mettā? What do other beings look like? What does this building look like? What does nature look like? What do I appear as? The perception of what is inferior, the perception of what is superior, and then the beyond, the complete escape from this entire field of perception.

Another quote from the Buddha:

Where water, earth, fire, and wind have no footing [so in that time, this basically means materiality. It's how they thought of the material world, in terms of the four elements. Where the whole material reality or realm has no footing,] where water, earth, fire, and wind have no footing, there the stars do not shine, the sun is not visible, the moon does not appear, yet darkness is not found. [So nothing is seen there, but it's not dark -- not bright, not dark.] And when a sage, a wise person, a Brahmin, through sagacity [through wisdom], has known this for herself, for himself, then from form and formless, from bliss and pain, she is freed [meaning from the world of form, and from the very refined states of the formless perceptions, where there are infinite expanses of consciousness, etc. From form and formless, from bliss and pain, from all this -- freed].[4]

I just picked a handful of quotes there, but there could be many, many more. The Buddha seems to point repeatedly to some sense of the importance of transcending, transcending this world of perception, this very world of perception that we take so much for granted. And in some senses, also the importance of a 'transcendent,' some transcendent something-or-other. And sometimes he talks about the "cessation of perception and feeling." The cessation of perception and vedanā -- same thing. And that's, again, a meditative attainment that comes very close to full awakening -- to be able to sustain this non-appearance. Sometimes he talks about this 'beyond' as in this quote we just had before. Oftentimes he talks about it in more negative ways: it's not this, it's the absence of perception, it's this faded away, it's that gone, it's not this, it's not that.

Occasionally he talks in the positive. Sometimes he talks about this realm or whatever we want to call it, as "consciousness without feature, without limit," "consciousness without an object." Mostly, it's beyond what we can put into conceptual designations, so he just talks in negatives. Occasionally, he talks in positives.

And Sāriputta, one of his chief disciples, said to be the second only to the Buddha in wisdom, in the depth of his insight, someone asked him, "Well, when everything fades like this, is there something remaining?" And Sāriputta says, "You shouldn't really say that." And then he said, "Well, is there nothing remaining? And Sāriputta said, "Well, you shouldn't really say that either." And then this person asked him, he said, "Well, is there both nothing remaining and something remaining?" And he said, "No, you shouldn't say that either." And then, as a good Indian pundit would ask, "Is there neither something remaining nor nothing remaining?" And you can guess what Sāriputta said. He said, "Well, you shouldn't say that either."[5] It's beyond anything you can say about "there is something" or "there isn't something remaining."

So let's just take a breather here. What's your heart's response to this right now? It might be the inner critic comes in, and so much gets in the way of the sort of genuine responses of the heart. Is there something else, or ...? I don't have any agenda what it should be at all. For me, I'm just curious. But just to check in: what is the heart's response right now? You hear these enigmatic pointers, profound pointers to something very much beyond what we habitually know, what we think of as existence, as life. How does the heart respond? So just to notice that, without saying it should be one thing or another.

This quote about the stars not shining, etc., it's actually from a sutta -- that's a discourse of the Buddha -- that's famous for another reason, funnily enough. That part that I read you is called the udāna. It's the inspired exclamation, inspired utterance, sort of poetic utterance that the Buddha gave. It's actually famous for another reason. I'll tell you the story. [13:53] Some of you will know this sutta, or the bit that's famous at least. So there was a guy called Bāhiya, and he was a hardcore ascetic practising on his own somewhere, and he was very much respected. And he started to wonder one day, "I wonder if I've got it. I wonder if I'm completely awakened."[6]

And the story goes, there was an angel who was somehow related to him, and she intuited his thinking, and appeared to him, and said, "Listen, Bāhiya, you're really not awakened, and not only that, you're not even practising in a way that's going to lead to awakening." And good for him, he listened to that, he was open to that possibility. There was enough humility there, there was enough flexibility in the way he was considering things for him to actually question, "Hmm. Maybe. Maybe there's a different possibility here." And so he asked this angel, deva, devatā, "Where can I find someone who could teach me?" And the angel said to him, "Well, the Buddha," and told him where he was.

And so he walks an enormous distance. He walked, and he arrived to where the Buddha was, and he found a large number of monks doing walking meditation -- up and down, up and down, outside. And he said, "Well, where's ...? I want to meet the Buddha." And so they said, "Well, he's gone for alms, to collect his food in the town." And so he hurried to the town, saw the Buddha, and approached him. And I'll read [it to] you:

Then Bāhiya, hurriedly leaving the grove and entering the town, saw the Blessed One [that's the Buddha] going for alms in Sāvatthi [the town], calm, calming, his senses at peace, his mind at peace, tranquil and poised in the ultimate sense, accomplished, trained, guarded, his senses restrained, the Great One. Seeing him, he approached the Blessed One, and on reaching him, threw himself down with his head at the Blessed One's feet, and said, "Teach me the Dhamma, O Blessed One! Teach me the Dhamma that will be for my long-term welfare and bliss!"

And the Buddha said, "Actually, Bāhiya, this isn't the time. I'm having my lunch." [laughter] Or words to that effect. So Bāhiya asked him a second time. He said -- listen: "But it is hard to know for sure what dangers there may be for the Blessed One's life, or what dangers there may be for mine." It's very moving, just his urgency. It's very touching. "Teach me the Dhamma, O Blessed One. Teach me the Dhamma, O One Well Gone" -- that's an epithet for the Buddha -- "that will be for my long-term welfare and bliss." And again, the Buddha said, "Actually, we're having our lunch." A third time he asked the Buddha -- same thing: "We don't know what will happen. I don't know if you might die or I might die. Teach me, please, now."

Now, apparently, if you ask a Buddha something three times, if they've said no, they have to answer the third time. So that's a handy piece of knowledge in case you ever meet one. [laughter] Okay. So here comes the bit where it's famous, this sutta. So he said:

All right, Bāhiya. Here is how you should train yourself. [Listen to that word: 'train' yourself. "Here is how you should train yourself." The Pali is interesting. There's some wiggle room in the Pali for translations. But let's be conservative.] Here's how you should train yourself: in the seen, there will only be the seen. ["There will just be the seen," you could say, "in reference to the seen." Or "With respect to the seen, there will only be the seen."] In the heard, only the heard. In the sensed [the other senses] only the sensed. In the cognized, only the cognized. That is how you should train yourself. When, for you, there will be only the seen in the seen, only the heard in the heard, only the sensed in the sensed, only the cognized in the cognized, then, Bāhiya [and here's where there's a little wiggle room in the translation] there is no you due to that. When there is no you due to that, there is no you there. When there is no you there, you are neither here nor yonder, nor between the two.

And the words used in that last sentence could also translate -- the words had the association: "You are not in this world, nor in the other world, nor in between. This, just this," the Buddha's saying, "This, just this, is the end of suffering." And it's said -- and this is partly why the sutta is famous -- it's said that, hearing that, Bāhiya got immediately fully awakened, just hearing that. [snaps fingers] Understood something.

So the Buddha then continues to have his lunch. Bāhiya goes off and gets killed by a runaway cow with her calf. And the Buddha comes back, sees Bāhiya's body, and the monks said, "Well, what should we do?", and the Buddha says to the monks, "He was a completely awakened being, he was an arahant, so treat his body with respect." And then comes this utterance about "where the stars do not shine," etc., that I read before.

So there's actually a lot in that story. It's very interesting, with all kinds of resonance. But let's hone it in a little bit. Those instructions -- "Thus you should train yourself. Thus you should train yourself." I remember when I lived in the States, and we had a class for experienced yogis that ran many years once a week. It was a really wonderful experience. And this would come up occasionally. And I'm very aware many of you have heard this before, especially that little section of the instructions. And sometimes it would come up, and the teacher would read it, and several of us, myself included, would find ourselves just, "Okay, really listen then when this is said, and maybe, maybe [laughs] if I really concentrate, and I'm really present, maybe it'll be the same." And of course, it wasn't. Why not? [20:28] Well, there are a lot of reasons why not. But partly, that's what I want to talk about. There are a lot of reasons, but I want to hone in on one.

It can seem, it can seem, when we hear those instructions -- "In the seen, just the seen, in the heard, just the heard," it can seem to point to a practice of 'bare attention,' a practice of finding out, paring down our perceptual process to the 'raw data' of experience: "It's just this, what it is, as it is, in itself, this thing, this sight, this sound. A thing as it is." Whether that's a conscious seeming, or [we're] not really aware that that's what seems to be the message, it can very much seem that way. And so it can sound like an instruction that's about that, about paring down perception, cutting down, cutting out papañca. You know this word, papañca? Complication, weaving in all kinds of associations to what one is actually sensing, bringing in all kinds of associations, the mind spinning and getting woven in a whole intricate thicket of thought, bringing in the story, complicating what's happening with some story, usually about self, ego-proliferation, etc., overlaying issues and concepts on the 'bare data,' and at its worst, just being caught in a complete whirlpool, a vortex of obsession with that, quite disconnected from what is actually going on.

So in some respects, we can hear this, and it's very, very common, I think, to hear that, and it seems to be saying it's a teaching about coming close with bare attention, cutting papañca as much as possible, and so being in the world barely, rawly, directly, freshly. Now, it's not that I don't think that's true; I do think there's some truth in that. It's just that, if it was only that, it makes the udāna, the exclaimed utterance at the end of the sutta a bit perplexing. Why isn't the Buddha uttering a spontaneous poem about how wonderful it is to be in the world with fresh perception and meeting things bright and without any ...? But instead, what he utters is some poem about being completely beyond perception, any perception, any vision, any hearing. So it's strange. It would seem to be, if you read it just as pointing to -- do you understand what I'm saying? Do you understand the anomaly here? It would seem like a complete non-sequitur. What's it doing there?

As I said before, those kinds of pointers from the Buddha to something transcendent, to a transcending, they're all over the place, certainly in the Pali Canon. And if you get to the Mahāyāna, they become almost countless. So for example, the Dharmasaṃgīti Sutta, a Mahāyāna sutta: "When all phenomena are not seen, one sees them perfectly." When all phenomena are not seen, one sees them perfectly. It's not saying, "When you see phenomena just as it is, as it is, fresh and direct, with just the raw data." When all phenomena are not seen, one sees them perfectly. In the Bāhiya Sutta, the phrase in the Pali is diṭṭhe diṭṭhamattaṃ: "In the seen, just the seen." If you look up that word, mattaṃ, actually, it can also mean 'not even,' 'not any.' So it could be, "In the seen, not even the seen." Now, I'm actually not going to push that at all -- don't need to, but just interesting to note.

So the question becomes, with all of this put together, is there more to these instructions than it might first seem? Is there more to it? If the Buddha says "just the seen, only the seen," let's turn it around, turn the whole thing around. Rather than coming in with an assumption of what it is, actually the words 'just' and 'only' imply: without what? If it's 'just,' it must be without something that's usually there. So the question is: without what? Training myself to perceive without what?

And you could say, "Okay, drop the labels." Drop the labels we stick on things: this is a microphone, this is a clock, this is a bell, this is a Dharma talk, this is a whatever. Okay, it's certainly, at some level, it's possible to drop our labels, and the thinking mind always naming everything like that. But why? Why would that be so significant? Is it that significant? What are we aiming for here? Do I have a notion of practice somehow being in the world the way a baby's consciousness is, without labelling things? And that, the Buddha actually pooh-poohed that quite strongly, that notion of, "We're trying to find our way back to a sort of baby consciousness." Sometimes you can drop the labels and the mind feels actually just very confused. Sometimes you drop labels and there is a sense of real freshness. But is freshness where we're going? Is that what the Dharma's all about? Freshness? I mean, freshness is good. It's nice, especially if you don't feel fresh. Then freshness is refreshing. But is that it?

In the instructions, in Bāhiya's instructions, dropping or reducing seems to be really key, seems to be really key, and important, but what? What? And why? What are we dropping, and why are we dropping? So yes, papañca, yes, sometimes labelling. Reactivity, reactivity -- meaning this habit we have of pushing away what we don't like, and trying to hang on or pull towards ourself what we do like. The reactivity -- almost incessant push and pull with experience: "I like it, I want it, I don't like it, I want to get rid of it." Aversion and, in its extreme, hatred, aversion and grasping. That reactivity, that habit of reactivity, it includes measurement and comparison. In other words, wrapped up in the whole process of pushing away and trying to hang on is a whole process of measuring things, measuring this over that: "I like this more than that. I don't like this as much as that." Or "This thing, whatever it is, was nicer yesterday. I hope it's better tomorrow." Measurement and comparison between things, and of a thing in time, between past and future, is wrapped up in reactivity, push and pull, all of that. This is all woven in there.

So here's another quote from the Buddha:

If a practitioner abandons desire for the element of form, abandons desire for the element of vedanā [remember what vedanā means; Caroline talked about it earlier in the retreat], abandons desire for perception, for mental formations, for consciousness, through the abandonment of desire, the support for consciousness is cut off, and there is no basis for consciousness. Consciousness, thus unestablished, not proliferating, not performing any function, is released.[7]

Meaning consciousness not knowing anything, not performing any function. The function of consciousness is to know. "Not knowing anything." In the moment when desire, when the push and pull, the reactivity, the measurement and the comparison is completely quietened, consciousness is released. It doesn't perform any function. It does not know anything. So again, here we get very specific instructions: reduce, let go of desire completely, in any moment, and something transcends ordinary perception.

Another similar quote from the Buddha:

When a monk [a practitioner] has eliminated avijjā [avijjā means 'ignorance' or 'fundamental delusion'; we'll revisit this] and aroused understanding, then, with the fading of this ignorance and the arising of understanding, he/she does not fabricate. [This is complicated. Let's paraphrase:] He does not fabricate a lovely state or an unlovely state, does not create [that's not perceived, it's not created as a perception, a lovely state or an unlovely state]. With the total non-existence of fabricating, from the cessation of fabrications, there is the cessation of consciousness. There is the cessation of perception.[8]

And so it goes. So again, there's the elimination, the removal of something, and the opening to something transcendent, filling out Bāhiya's instructions. So what does it mean? The Buddha says, "Eliminate avijjā, eliminate ignorance." What does that mean? What does this word mean, avijjā? What's he pointing to?

Well, one thing -- and I'm sure you've probably heard this before: it involves the self-concept, the belief in the self as something real. And that translates in perception as regarding things as either 'me' or 'mine.' I look at my body, and I see it's me or mine. I look at even this piece of paper, and I say, "Well, it's mine." I look at whatever -- me, mine, my consciousness, whatever it is. That goes with the self-concept. It's avijjā in action. Me-ing and mine-ing is avijjā in action. Or, more subtly: I am aware of this. I am aware of that sound. I am aware of that sight. Avijjā is the belief in a self that is "the one who is aware," the witness, or who owns this awareness somehow.

Now, this level of avijjā is not necessarily a thought. We don't usually -- well, actually, sometimes we do, but mostly, it operates below the level of thought. I'm looking at the microphone, and I don't need to think, "I am aware of the microphone." That's an intuitive, preverbal sense, assumption, conception (if we link this back to the earlier talks), view. That's woven into my perception pretty much all of the time, unless I find a way for it not to be.

Again, with the instruction, you get this. Nāgārjuna was, if you like, the first Mahāyāna teacher: "One who sees the absence of 'mine' and the absence of I-making does not see*.*" In other words, seeing, if you like, the not-self, the emptiness of the self, does not see. There's, again, this opening beyond ordinary perception, beyond the realm of sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, and mental cognition. This avijjā, a good translation is 'fundamental delusion.' It's kind of at the root, and the Buddha says this view, "I am this" or "I am that" -- it's at the root of papañca. It's at the root of those kind of tangles we get into, this obsession, the vortex: "I am this. I am that," believing that. Clinging to those kind of views is at the root of papañca. You take that away, and papañca, this awful vortex that we get into, that cannot sustain itself.

But the self-sense is also, if you like, driving our reactivity, driving the habit we have of constantly measuring this against that, comparing this against that. When there's a self-sense other than the world, this self-sense automatically, with it, has an investment. Again, avijjā in action: I feel a self. I'm on the lookout for the self. How is this thing going to serve me, this next thing? How will it compare? What can I accumulate for the self? What do I need to keep out? Investment, through the self-view, through the avijjā, manifests as reactivity, measurement, comparison, and when it takes a wrong turning, papañca.

We'll return later to this word, avijjā, because there's more to it than that. There's actually more to it. We'll give it a fuller meaning than just the self and the illusion of the self. But here, weaving all this together, there's something. All these instructions of the Buddha, whether it's to Bāhiya or to the other practitioners in different times: remove something. See if you can take something away in your seeing, hearing, etc. Take something away. And then what? And then there is something. Something opens. You could say, we could say, perception, experience (I use those words interchangeably, perception, experience), experience is like a house of cards. It's not what we think it is. A house of cards, it's very fragile. It's built, it's constructed, it's fabricated. I take away a card, and maybe that structure still stands. I take away enough cards or the right cards, it collapses. Experience/perception is a house of cards.

Actually, that's not a very good analogy. I can't really think of a visual analogy right now, but better to say, all these things that we've enumerated so far -- papañca, reactivity, comparison and measurement, the sense of self -- they are all spectra. In other words, you can have them very, very intensely, very solidly, or a bit less, or a bit less, or a bit less, or a bit less, or a bit less, or a bit less. And we talked about this -- I can't remember when it was, in the Q & A or something -- the self-sense, it's not just an on/off thing: "Oh, I had no self." Or there was, "When I have self, when I'm selfing or not-selfing" -- some people use that language. It's a spectrum. We construct a self very solidly, or a little less so or a little less so, just as we *papañc-*ize a lot or a little less so, we measure a lot. You get the idea? They're all spectra. And as we move, or as the -- language gets difficult. As consciousness moves on this spectrum -- more self, more measurement, more reactivity, or less, up and down this -- to that degree, or with that movement comes not just less self-sense as there's less, but also less perception. Less experience is built. The solidity of things disappears. They start to, more and more, fade. The whole thing is like a slider scale. It all moves together -- the self and the world of perception.

It's also the case that all these factors -- we're talking about them as if they're separate; they're all actually mutually dependent. In other words, like I said, the more solid my sense of self, the more believed in in any moment, the more measurement and reactivity at that time. The more measurement and reactivity of this object that I'm relating to, the more the self-sense. They construct each other. They're, if you like, almost aspects of the same thing, mutually dependent. In Bāhiya's instructions, actually, this is a little bit there. It's like, when the self -- "There is no you due to that" -- and then, "Not in this world, not yonder," because you're not making a thing out of that. The whole thing gets woven together. The whole tapestry of what we call existence, self and the world, gets woven and constructed together. And the Buddha, as ever, is pragmatic. It's training: "Thus should you train yourself." Can you, can we train ourselves to reduce? Reduce these -- what could we call them? -- builders, builders of perception. Reduce these rods, these girders that are sustaining the structure of perception, self, the world, and dukkha. Can we train ourselves to remove them, reduce them? And see what happens, and see what happens. [39:21]

So there's a spectrum. There's a spectrum of all of this, and we could say a spectrum of fabrication, a spectrum of how much perception is being fabricated, experience is being fabricated. Now, actually, anyone can see this. Even a non-meditator can see this. So as a principle, as a way of understanding what's happening, we can actually begin to see that even before we've, you know, sat down for the first time ever to meditate. We see it in our experience. Sometimes we are constructing the self, some object, and issue, and problem, and dukkha, really, really a lot, and sometimes less so. Just moving between a normal state of consciousness and a really, really upset state of consciousness, we're moving on that spectrum.

But to go back to that quote at the beginning: "There is what is inferior, there is what is superior, and there is the complete escape from this entire field of perception." We're talking about a spectrum, a spectrum. I'm going 'down' -- we could say 'up.' He's talking inferior, superior implies 'up.' But you get the message. It's just that a meditator has the capacity of traversing a greater range of this spectrum and seeing more. Seeing more of this building and this not-creating and this solidity-creating, and seeing much less. And one of the blessings in practice is that we get to see much less and much less. Not to live there forever, but to see something.

So this talk, it's not about meditation. It's not about meditation experience. It's a talk about the nature of our existence. There's one thread of insight that a non-meditator can have, and can just start following, this thread, like Theseus. You're following a thread of insight about fabrication. You're just following it deeper and deeper. And the Buddha said, "All phenomena are fabricated." The Pali word is saṅkhata, saṃskṛta in Sanskrit. All phenomena are fabricated. In English, 'fabricated' is a good translation, or 'concocted.' Those two words in English, if English isn't your first language, they have the meaning of something built. They also have the meaning of something false. We say, "It's a fabrication. It's a concoction. It's a lie. It's something illusory." And the Buddha was also pointing to this when he said things are fabricated, saṅkhata. "All and any perception is like a mirage,"[9] he said. All and anything you experience is like a mirage.

And perception, again, it doesn't just mean the label, the labelling: "It's a fish, it's a microphone, it's a clock, it's a whatever it is." But perception rather means 'thing-forming.' We make a thing. The process of making a thing, constructing some thing which then we feel, we perceive. And that can be extremely subtle. No matter how subtle that thing is, it's perception. The Buddha says, "Any and all perception is like a mirage." And he says, right after that, he says, "And any and all consciousness, whether near or far, whether inner or outer, whether gross or subtle, whether inferior or superior, any and all consciousness is like a magician's illusion," like a magician's trick, like the trick of a magician. So perception/experience/object, consciousness/subject: illusion, magic, mirage, any and all. And that can be extremely subtle. Any time there is any sense of a subject knowing any sense of an object, no matter how subtle, in any sense of time ("This is happening now. There is a now"), any of that: illusion, mirage -- including, for instance, the perception of oneness, or a perception of a vast awareness. Mirage, illusion. [44:01]

Let's pause again. How does the heart respond to that? How does the heart respond? Just to notice.

Sometimes when we hear this word, *saṅkhata -- '*fabricated' or 'conditioned,' it's sometimes translated as, or 'compounded,' sometimes it's translated -- which are all good translations, but sometimes the implication or the understanding we get is: "A thing is made from other things," like this microphone is made from, you know, other things that make up the microphone. There's a little bit of foam, and there's this different kind of metal. And then there's some presumably silicon -- whatever inside that's a computer chip, or something, I imagine. So a thing is made from other things.

But the Buddha's saying more than that. Just that things are made from other things -- it's like, well, so what? When we really see that things are saṅkhata, fabricated, there's tremendous freedom there. To say that this microphone is made from other things is like, well, okay. Maybe it's made from so many other wonderful things, and so many rare things -- it's probably not, knowing the Gaia House budget. [laughter] But if it was, that would probably -- it wouldn't guarantee, that knowing that it's fabricated in that sense, being built from other things, would not guarantee my letting go in relation to it. Maybe I get to see it's more precious: "Wow, look at all this rare stuff that it's made from." Maybe I cling to it more. The saṅkhata, that level of understanding won't necessarily lead to freedom. What does it mean to be fabricated, if we use, in inverted commas, 'by the mind'? Experience is fabricated. Phenomena, self, and the world of experience -- fabricated by the mind. And even that mind is fabricated. All of it, the mind and the world: illusion.

Sāriputta said it's like two sheaves of corn. Consciousness and perception are like two sheaves of corn. They lean against each other. Like any analogy, actually, that one is also limited. It's pointing to something. It's actually beyond what you can put into words. Consciousness and perception, subject and object, self and the world, mind and thing, are inseparable in some radical way -- empty, magical. Can't even really find a word for it. Something utterly radical is being pointed to.

So the Buddha uses this word, 'illusion,' but what does it mean? What does it mean to say it's illusion, it's illusory? What does it mean to say something's an illusion? Because clearly, there are appearances. Clearly there are appearances. And clearly -- and this is really important -- actions have consequences. Actions have consequences. So it's not that actions don't have consequences. What appears depends a lot, and it's important to realize: 'empty,' 'fabricated,' 'dependent arising,' 'illusory' -- all these are kind of almost synonyms. They're almost pointing to the same thing. They are, in fact, pointing to the same thing, their deeper meanings. What does it mean to say something's illusory?

One time, a guy called Kaccāyana asked the Buddha about the nature of things. And the Buddha said, responded to him:

That things exist, Kaccāyana, is one extreme. That they do not exist is another. But I, the Tathāgata [that's another name for the Buddha], I accept neither 'is' nor 'is not,' and I proclaim the truth of the Middle Way between 'is' and 'is not.'[10]

Something very subtle is being said about this illusion. [48:22]

And none of this is, you know -- it's not to take some position of being intellectually correct about all this. We need to see this. This is what's possible for us to actually see in meditation. Like I said, it's something that a non-meditator can begin to see, and we can use meditation to see it deeper and deeper and deeper, see this spectrum, see this dependent arising, dependent cessation.

And what happens? When I begin to see these phenomena losing their solidity and fading, then the understanding comes of their fabricated nature, of their empty nature, of their illusory nature. We begin to understand that Middle Way. Then, this whole word, avijjā, 'fundamental delusion,' starts to have a whole other level of meaning. Because it starts to include, or wisdom starts to include the understanding that phenomena are empty, that awareness, mind is empty, as came up in a Q & A, that the 'now' is empty, the 'now' is nothing real. Appearances are illusory, they're empty.

What happens -- if we go back to Bāhiya's instructions, and eventually, gradually, you can plug that level of understanding -- "just the seen" meaning "this is empty." I'm not even unconsciously imputing that it's a real thing -- that's usually woven in our perception -- or that there is a real awareness that knows this real thing. Maybe this is more what Bāhiya heard, what Bāhiya understood. It's a whole other spiralling down of the insight. He was a hardcore practitioner, and maybe he was ready to hear that, ready to intuit that's what the Buddha was getting at.

If you look at it this way -- remember, this is a talk over two things, so I know it's a lot for today, but I actually want to, like I said, unfold something in a bigger picture. What does all this mean? It means meditation, one way of understanding meditation, it becomes (if I use long words now) a radical phenomenological experiment. What does that mean? 'Radical' means 'revolutionary.' This is clearly a revolutionary understanding in the nature of existence. 'Radical' also, in the root etymology, means 'to the root.' Radix is 'root' in Latin. 'To the root' of something, going at the root of existence, of perception. 'Phenomenological' just means I have this world of perception, and I'm just taking that world, without imputing any other metaphysical concepts, even the metaphysical concept that it refers to something real. This is what I'm given as a human being: this perception, this what comes to me. And then the experiment means, actually, I can play with that. And through playing with it, through (going back to Bāhiya's instructions) removing certain things -- like a scientist; actually, more like an artist -- different results, different phenomena are revealed. An understanding is revealed, a radical phenomenological experiment.

So 'experiment' means we have to get in there and play with this, and actually discover for ourselves through what we can know in meditation. It's not just about "the Buddha said this" or "the Buddha said that," and quibbling over some scholastic thing. He taught forty-five years. That's a long time. He's bound to be teaching different things at different levels in response to who's in front of him. So in this experiment, if we see practice this way, as this ongoing experiment, and at this level of phenomena, of experience, with experience, could I actually keep it very open? That's what 'phenomenological' means. Keep open a question. Keep open the question of "What is fabricated?" Keep that just an open, ongoing question.

Clearly, and most people in this hall already know, when I get into papañca, when I get into a real knot in something, and there's self-hatred, and other-hatred, and everything's just tangled, and then you come out of that, and afterwards you say, "Boy, what a fabrication," and you can see, "That wasn't real. I created some kind of illusion." But then we usually want to limit the sense of what is fabricated. It's like, "Well, but this isn't fabricated. This is all real, right?" That's not questioned. What if we keep open this question? Just wait. Let's see. Let's see what the limits to fabrication are. That's the gift of meditation, is that it's a tool, tools, to keep going with this question, keep it open. Is there a limit to what's fabricated? And if so, what kind of limit, and where is it? [knocks on something] Is that real?

We can't live in the transcendent. We can't live without perception, without experience, in these states that the Buddha's pointing to. It's impossible. Life is experience. I need experience. Actually, I can't even live for an extended time without labelling things. We can't live, either, or have a sense of life, without giving things significance -- we do give things significance -- [or] without feeling from various things and beings all kinds of imaginal resonance, some sense that they live in our imagination with an aliveness. We can't live without narrative. We can't have a sense of life without stories. That's all a whole other talk, perhaps. But if that's the case, if I can't live in this transcendent, then what does all this mean that I've been harping on about for almost an hour now? What does it mean? What are we to take from this? What does it imply? Are we just like, "Ugh, whatever," or a shrug from the inner critic, and feel bad, or what?

'Fabricated,' 'concocted' means 'false.' And I see it through meditation and the words as well. A person could say, "Therefore, the Unfabricated is real. The fabricated is what's false. Therefore, this transcendent is what's real." Some people will say that. Other people will say, "No, no, no. This is what's real: this, this touch, this moment of experience, this world of materiality and experience. That's what's real. Anything else is just metaphysics and wishful thinking, etc.," or whatever.

What's your tendency? What's your tendency here? Where do you tend towards for your sense? What's your gravitational pull? To me, it's fascinating to see: what are the tendencies that people have? Are you pulled by this, this world of experience and its seeming beautiful reality, the religion of 'this'? Or are you pulled, are you in a religion of 'that,' of something somehow transcendent? Just to know. Why is it that some people are one way, and some people the other way? Is it fear? Some people say it's fear. "People like the idea of something transcendent because they don't like the idea that actually all this material reality and this experience is going to end at death. So they have the comforting notion of something transcendent." Maybe. Could also be the opposite. Or the other way around, rather: it's like we give life -- and life can only be experience -- we give that a sense of, "This is it. This is something precious." And we give it a capital L: "Life. Life does this. Life, Life, Life." And there's a fear of seeing the illusory nature of life, because Life has become what God used to be.

So fear, as an explanation for why some people choose this and why some that, could go either way, actually. I don't think it's a very good reason. Something is not really understood there in the psychology of what's happening, I think. And again, that's a whole other subject. I think it's important, though, to be aware, and to be honest. Where am I pulled? What do I want to be the answer? What's operating for me in terms of tendencies? Actually, both of these views -- to say, "The Unfabricated, the Deathless, the Unconditioned, whatever you want to call it, is real and this is illusory" -- both that view and the view that "This is real, and anything else is not real" -- both, I would say, involve an incomplete investigation. I haven't gone far enough in understanding something. There's, as I said at the beginning, there's a twist in the tale to all this. I'm taking a long arc, but there's a twist in the tale, something even more remarkable, I would say, even more wondrous and beautiful than either of those two positions.

So I'm going to stop here. And I'm aware, now, I might have landed you in all kinds of places. But I want to unfold something over a long arc, and it has to do, really, with how we're thinking about practice, how we're practising, what to practise, and how to conceive of this whole journey that we're on. And so hopefully, the next time we meet, we can spiral this thing onwards a little bit.

Okay, let's have a bit of quiet together then. [silence]

If you have found your inner critic is arising, please remember what I said at the beginning: not actually talking about experience. I want to unfold a different way of thinking, that's all. It's not so much to do with attaining this or that experience. It's more a way of thinking about the journey.

  1. AN 4:45. ↩︎

  2. SN 35:117. ↩︎

  3. MN 7. ↩︎

  4. Ud 1:10. ↩︎

  5. AN 4:173. ↩︎

  6. Ud 1:10. ↩︎

  7. SN 22:54. ↩︎

  8. MN 38. ↩︎

  9. SN 22:95. ↩︎

  10. SN 12:15. ↩︎

Sacred geometry
Sacred geometry