Sacred geometry

Approaching the Dharma: Part Two - Liberating Ways of Looking

This retreat was jointly taught by Rob Burbea and one or more other Insight Meditation teachers. Here is the full retreat on Dharma Seed
Date22nd November 2012
Retreat/SeriesNovember Solitary 2012


So I mentioned at the beginning of the talk last time, I want to try, try, and unfold something over quite a long arc over two talks, of which this is the second. And it is a little bit crazy to try and do that. But that's what's happening. In a lot of ways, much of what I'm going to go into today is simpler, perhaps, than last time. And you might think, "Well, why didn't we do the talks the other way around?" We could have. It's just that, what I've found, some of the things I'm going to talk about today, I've put out a little bit to people before, and have noticed that it just doesn't land. And I was wondering whether it's partly because it takes a certain amount of understanding of emptiness, and what we were talking about last time, to actually see the significance of what I'm going to be talking about today. Otherwise it just sounds like, "Yeah, whatever." And still, part of why it's crazy to even be talking about this is because we're not, from the beginning of this kind of retreat, all on the same page of practising in certain ways, which would very much support the kind of inquiry into what I'm talking about over these talks. So that's partly why it's crazy. Other retreats [are] set up where everyone is actually practising in certain ways which open these kinds of understandings over time, so it all doesn't feel like it's pulling in different directions.

I'm aware that it may be difficult for some of you, especially if it's new. I was just reflecting a little bit, personally for myself, thinking, realizing that my -- what would I say? -- favourite books that I've read, whether it's Dharma or psychology or something else, the ones that have had the greatest impact, opened powerfully whole other views or ways of thinking, I've had to re-read them. And often, in some instances, read a section, a few pages, then go back to the beginning of that section, read it again, go onto the next one, and keep going through the book that way, and at the end of the book, go right back and start again. And then go away for a while, digest it, use those kind of ideas, views, thoughts, practise with them. Then come back and read it all again. It all makes more sense. So I'm aware, you know, sometimes when there's a talk and there's a lot of material -- and I know that oftentimes people, we don't, as human beings, hear everything that's said. We hear only a small fraction sometimes. And sometimes understand even less. But how else to communicate things?

Anyway, having said all that, let's start somewhere very simple. I want to talk about insight, in a very simple, very general way, and then weave it into some of what we were talking about last time. So 'insight,' this word 'insight' -- it's not a word the Buddha used that much originally. Of course, now, in our tradition, we use it all the time. If we think about insight, we actually realize, well, I can define it in different ways. It can be defined in different ways. There's no strict, exact definition. That's really not what I want to do now. I want to move away from strict precision, rigidity of thinking. And actually, let's just say something very loose about insight, very loose. What if I throw this out about insight, and say: insight, very loosely, is any realization, any understanding, any way of seeing, we could say, that brings a decrease in dukkha, brings some alleviation, some release of dukkha. Very broad: any realization, understanding, or way of seeing that brings some release of dukkha.

If we say it like that, very loose, very open, it actually lends itself to certain understandings and a certain unfolding, which I'll go into. But let's say a few things about it. First of all, if we say that, it means that insight is not a particular experience that we need to attain, okay? So we're not chasing experiences, or a particular experience. It's not experience that frees. We are not freed through or by an experience. It's through understanding, through the realization of something. That's what frees. So that's always more significant than whatever experience may or may not happen.

The second thing, if you like, the other side of this is, defining insight this way means that insight is not just being mindful, or just knowing. For instance, I can know that I'm suffering. I can know that there's a lot of suffering. I might even know there's a lot of reactivity going on now: I'm really, really reactive, I can feel I'm boiling, there's papañca, etc. I might be mindful that there's a lot of reactivity, there's a lot of papañca, there's a lot of dukkha going on now. That mindfulness does not necessarily qualify as insight unless it actually decreases the dukkha. And you all know from experience, sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn't: "I know I'm suffering. I know I'm reactive. It doesn't seem to do much."

So it may decrease the dukkha or it may not. It depends. What does it depend on? That's the interesting question. What's the factor or factors with the mindfulness that make the difference*, with* the awareness that makes a difference? Something -- to qualify as insight in this -- and I'm not saying this is the correct way; it's just a way of thinking about insight, a possibility. Something in insight cuts, or if we use the language we were using last week, fabricates less dukkha. Something, through that understanding, cuts, undermines, reduces the dukkha, fabricates less dukkha. Also, in this way of talking about it, we say the understanding, the way of seeing, the realization is based on my experience. It's coming out of my experience, that understanding. It's not based on believing that I'm going to be rescued somehow by something or other, something. It's not faith-based, or even faith in someone else's experience. It's my experience that's the ground of that understanding.

Let's just say a couple more general things, and then move into what I want to get at more specifically today. If we say that about insight, it's very loose. It actually makes it very wide as a concept. So we can have personal insights. We see or understand something that brings, in relation to ourselves and my personal patterns, my personal ways of entangling myself in dukkha -- it cuts that. I mean, many possible examples, but for instance, I might have a chronic knot in my throat or heart area. "Deal with this so much. Every day it comes up." Maybe a person says that, and somehow they have made a self-conclusion out of the presence of this knot. Maybe it's conscious. Maybe it's unconscious. "Because I have this persistent knot, it means I'm a closed-hearted person. It means I'm anally retentive. I'm uptight. I'm -- whatever it is -- a contracted person." And with that self-view is a whole other level of tightening, of suffering, of compounding of the dukkha -- extremely painful. And then the insight here, the personal insight is that we see, "Oh, that's an assumption. I'm assuming that because there is this contraction, it means this about self. It's just an assumption." And one sees that, and it starts to make a difference. It starts to unbind that secondary encrustation of dukkha.

So insights can be personal. They can be universal. For example, one becomes suddenly more aware, or gradually more aware: "Wow, everything really is impermanent." And maybe that starts to have a difference. So the universality, it's not just a personal insight. It's a universal insight. These are not strict boundaries between these categories. But we could also say, beyond the universal, there's what we might call ultimate insights, because actually, impermanence is not an ultimate truth. It's not the ultimate truth of things that they are impermanent. And the mind goes, "Well, are you saying they're permanent?" No, they're not permanent either. The ultimate truth of things is that they are neither permanent nor impermanent. There's something beyond the level of impermanence that's being pointed out.

So insights can happen at all these levels, and they all qualify for insight if, in the seeing, in the understanding, they're contributing to the release of dukkha, the release of dis-ease, dissatisfaction. We can keep expanding this concept, and it's like, okay, well, sometimes that reduction of dukkha can happen in the future. I see or understand something now, and it helps me later. I might see -- I've heard it, but then I really understand for myself: "Generosity opens the heart. It brings happiness. It releases dukkha." And I really see and understand that. And that plants the seed for future generosity, which brings the fruit of future happiness, future decrease of dukkha. Or kindness brings happiness, brings openness. And so I say, "I really want to practise kindness." Again, it's investment in the future. The decrease of dukkha comes in the future. Or ethics, the necessity of really caring about ethics as a basis for our happiness and as a basis for protecting ourselves from unnecessary suffering.

The release can come in the future, but it can also come in the present. Right in this moment, when I see something, when I understand something, right in the present there's a release of dukkha, right there. And again, many possible examples. Let's take the example we talked about before: a person who has a persistent contraction in the body, tightness or whatever, and sees that assumption about self, and sees that it's not necessarily true. And right then in that moment of seeing -- [relieved sigh] -- some level of dukkha is released. And the important thing is, we can feel the release in the moment. As you're looking, as you're understanding, the release is palpable in the body and in the mind. And that sense of release accompanies this kind of insight when it brings its fruit in the present. And it shows me that I'm on the right track. Often people come into interviews, and they'll say, "I was doing this and this and this, and it felt really good," and they say, "Is that right? Is that okay?" And I'll say, "Well, trust it. That release, that relief that you're feeling is showing you that you can trust what you're doing, even if you can't find it in a textbook, even if you've never heard it before."

Sometimes a person is not quite sure what they're doing, but the release is telling them, "I better find out what I'm doing, because whatever it is, it's good. It's worth getting clear about." So it's showing me. It's really, really important, that sense of release. It's cementing the sense of, "Where is dukkha? And where is the release from dukkha?" It's making palpable the Four Noble Truths, and getting me clear about which direction to go in, directions to go in.

Okay, so that's all a bit general, but here's the piece I want to take and run with a little bit. So we say insight is any realization, understanding, way of seeing that releases some dukkha, to any degree. Could be a little tiny bit of dukkha, or a really lot of dukkha. It's all insight. Now, probably everyone's had the experience: you're sitting in meditation, being mindful or practising samādhi or whatever it is, or mettā, and "Aha! Aha!" I understand something, some understanding. There's an "Aha!" moment, a realization. It's coming out of the conditions of mindfulness or samādhi or whatever. And we understand something, and that understanding, again, contributes to the lessening of dukkha, either now or in the future. So it's what we might call 'insight as a result.' The result of practice is insight. That's the most common way of thinking about insight.

But what I want to emphasize today is an additional possibility, another mode of thinking about insight, in addition to insight as result. And that's more insight as a starting point, insight as something we can use, we can follow. So, what I mean is -- well, let's give an example. Sitting in meditation again, a lot of mindfulness, maybe it's a longer retreat, etc., and some of you may have had this experience: there's a lot of mindfulness, and perhaps you're aware of the body sensations, and it seems -- maybe just for an instant, maybe for a more extended period -- it seems that, "Oh, these body sensations are just happening. They don't feel like they're mine. They don't feel like they're me." There's an unhooking of the habitual identification with body sensations, or with thoughts, or with emotions, or with whatever else, vedanā, something.

And we have an experience, we could say, of anattā. We have an experience of this phenomenon, whatever it is, as not-self, not me, not mine. It's coming out of the mindfulness. Now, what if it's possible, then, to take that, that little seed, and start using that insight? So there was a result of the mindfulness: the insight, "This is not me, not mine." And then we start using it, and start seeing: can I nudge gently, or incline the way of looking, the way of looking at experience? Maybe it's just body sensations, or just thoughts or whatever, maybe both, maybe something else, and seeing it as anattā, more deliberately as not-self, as not me, not mine. So there's a deliberate sort of encouragement, moment to moment, repeated sustaining of a particular way of looking that has come probably previously spontaneously as a result. So then we're deliberately practising what I would call a 'way of looking.' [17:03]

So listen to the Buddha, actually about this very example: "And what is the perception of not-self?" He's asking a group of monks:

And what is the perception of not-self? Here, a practitioner, having gone to the wilderness, to the shade of a tree, to an empty building [to Gaia House in November], discriminates thus: "The eye is not-self, forms are not-self. The ear is not-self, sounds are not-self. The nose is not-self, aromas are not-self. The tongue and flavours, the body and tactile sensations, the mind and things cognizable with the mind are not-self." [So deliberately looking at things in a different way than usual, deliberately seeing things through a certain lens.] Thus, she or he remains focused [key word: remains focused, repeatedly sustaining -- remains focused] on not-selfness with regard to the six inner and six outer sense media. [That's all the eye and the forms and all that we just went through.] This is called the perception of not-self.[1]

Other examples, he includes consciousness, because in Buddhadharma, consciousnesses definitely are not-self either. And you could do that with -- any way you divide up what we might identify with, you can start looking at it and seeing it differently.

So when I use the phrase 'ways of looking,' I don't mean just 'looking' as in the eyes. I mean the whole way of conceiving, of relating, of perceiving. It's a way of perceiving. As the Buddha says, "What is the perception of not-self?" And then he says, "This is a perception you should train." We're training a perception, or we could say we're training a way of looking. It's quite a different mode of approaching insight and thinking about it.

There are many of these possibilities, many, many, many of these possibilities -- for instance, impermanence. What, right now, if you just become aware of the body sensations in your body? Just let the mindfulness be quite open, and tuning in, opening up to the flickering, the dancing, the coming and going of the body sensations. But the emphasis in the moment is really on seeing the change -- not so much being precise what the sensation is, but really, really change, moment to moment. Coming, going, arising, passing, being born, dying: that's what, repeatedly, the perception, the way of looking, is tuning into. Change, change, change, getting this feel for anicca, change. You could do it with sound as well. There's the patterning, the shifting textures of the voice, and the wind. And instead of precisely noting exactly what they are, just being mindful, actually it's the change, the element of change that we want the attention to really lock into. Really notice, over and over.

If you were to sustain that for a while -- or the anattā one, or many other possibilities -- but let's stay with the impermanence one. Impermanence in a way is, if you like, the simplest for most people. (It's also the least powerful, unfortunately.) But a couple of things would happen. One is that you would probably find over time, or you should find over time that as you sustain this -- in the Buddha's words, you "remain focused" on this fact of change, this experience of change -- letting go starts to happen. [21:40] It's not like we need to tell the mind, "Oh, things are impermanent. Look! Therefore, it would be a good idea to let go." It's not like that. It's almost like in the seeing of the change itself, some intuition -- it's immediate. It's very immediate. Things are changing. I cannot hold on. Let go. So the very way of looking is empowering a letting go at a much deeper level than just simple mindfulness. So the way of looking brings letting go, brings a release of clinging, of grasping, of craving -- automatically.

Another thing that could possibly happen with sustaining that way of looking on impermanence is that you start to see the gaps in things. So for instance, I have a pain in my knee or my back, or an emotion or whatever it is, or sounds. And you start to see, when you look, moment to moment, really close at the impermanence, that it's almost like what we think of as an object is actually made up of discrete moments. So this solidified pain in my knee is actually moments of unpleasant vedanā. And actually, you can begin to get the sense that there are gaps in between them. So this is one kind of de-solidifying of the object. What seems so solid is actually, on closer inspection, when I tune into the anicca, the impermanence, it's actually less solid than it first seemed. The more solid it seems to me, the more I'm going to suffer, or crave, either pushing away or wanting something. When I start to expose or to perceive it's less solid, less craving.

So it's as if the solidity, the perceived solidity of some thing is a necessary basis for dukkha, for craving. And remember, dukkha depends on craving. The more solid, the more I'm going to crave. So this de-solidifying of things -- it's a very elementary way of seeing less solidity, through impermanence, but it actually has an impact on a number of levels. So it's a way of looking that brings release in the moment.

Now, as I said, there are many possibilities. We could also say -- we talked about the anattā, the not-self. Impermanence is called anicca. There are three that go together. Sometimes they're called the 'three characteristics' in the tradition. It's not a word that the Buddha used. But the third one is dukkha. That things, phenomena are dukkha, we could translate as 'unsatisfactory.' Now, one reason why they're unsatisfactory is because they're impermanent. So it can't fulfil me forever. What would it be -- sit, walk, in meditation, stand, whatever it is -- and then the lens that I have on is just, "Unsatisfactory, unsatisfactory." Whatever's coming up -- ugly, beautiful, pleasant, unpleasant, neither, boring, whatever, mundane, far out: "Unsatisfactory, unsatisfactory." Can you feel the letting go in just ...? It's a way of looking: "Unsatisfactory." I know it's unsatisfactory because it's impermanent.

So rather than a rigid philosophical position in relation to existence, it becomes a fluid way of looking, something I can pick up and use. And I start to feel, "Ooh!" -- the unburdening, as I'm looking, the release, the opening, the beauty of it. How surprising! To regard all things as unsatisfactory actually opens up so much beauty in the heart, when it's not taken as a big life philosophy. [25:41]

Or another possibility -- and I think this came up in the Question and Answer period -- to just tune into the aspect of clinging and craving, and when that pull and push is operating. And just sustain, repeat a way of looking that's just letting that go over and over, feeling the clinging, letting it go, feeling the clinging, letting it go. Or sustaining this attitude of allowing, welcoming, radical 100, 150 per cent allowing -- what would that do as a way of looking? Again -- it's a practice; you develop this -- huge release, huge opening, huge beauty that comes. Many possibilities. In a way mindfulness, too, you could see it, in this way of thinking about all this, mindfulness is actually a way of looking at things, or what we have come to call 'mindfulness.' It's a way of looking that has less papañca in it, right? When we're mindful, we're trying to cut all this proliferation and complexity and overlay of all this stuff, right? That's what we teach, from the beginning of a retreat: "Can you be with the thing more directly?" It's a way of looking that involves less papañca. Because it involves less papañca, there's less suffering in the moment.

There's also -- and someone asked this in the Q & A -- there is also, in the way that we talk about mindfulness, a degree, a degree of lessening of reactivity, for sure. Again, because of that, mindfulness is a skilful way of looking. It's one skilful way of looking that, to a degree, lessens suffering in the moment. And as I said before, just sustaining mindfulness can also start to reveal things like an experience of not-self which can then be used, or that things are not-self. Or it can start -- just the close mindfulness can start revealing these gaps in things, this lessening of the solidity. In a way, mettā is a way of looking. We don't usually think about it that way, but mettā is actually -- you could conceive it as a way of looking. And again, what happens if I sustain that as a way of looking, not just at self and other beings, but phenomena too? What happens to the experience? What do I learn? What unfolds in terms of the release of dukkha?

Someone was asking, too, about the nature of awareness. And it could be, again, just from simple mindfulness practice -- as it deepens, as things settle -- that the sense of awareness starts to become more prominent. We don't usually notice it. And then a person begins tuning into it, and can start using that sense of awareness that we're usually not aware of, and start using that to empower the release of suffering in the moment. When the awareness becomes more prominent, the phenomena within the awareness seem less important. They kind of 'belong' to the awareness, coming and going. And the awareness just holds them -- beautiful. Through that, there's a release in relationship to the phenomena.

So these, they're experientially based, using ways of looking that are experientially based. They could come out of meditative experience, could come out of thinking, reflection, logic, could come out of an intuition or intuitions. Any of that can be used. What they have in common -- to say it again -- what they have in common is that they're ways of looking that release, reduce, alleviate suffering, dukkha, in the moment. And they're empowerments. They're a sort of turbocharging of that release, compared to just, say, simple mindfulness practice. So in many of these instances, what was a result, an "insight as a result," can be used as "insight as method." We take this result, I see that it's anattā or whatever, I had this experience, then you start using that as a method.

In a way, when we do that, you could say that there's a kind of shorthand version of the Four Noble Truths going on there. In the present, there's an intimate relationship with dukkha, even if it's very, very subtle dukkha, an intimate relationship with dukkha. Sometimes we have dukkha -- you don't realize that our normal state of consciousness is actually a state of dukkha, until it's released through some more powerful means. And then you look back and you think, "Wow, we actually walk around in a state of contraction most of the time, different degrees of dukkha." But if you take up this way of thinking of insight -- and it's just one possibility -- there's this intimate concern with suffering, dukkha, whatever degree in the moment, and with its causes. And the causes are in the way of looking. It's through the way of looking that we're tightening or consolidating or exacerbating, increasing, proliferating suffering. Usually when there's suffering, habitually we find a way of looking at it that creates more problem or just keeps the suffering locked in place. So rather, what would it be to take up different, skilful ways of looking that actually -- Third Noble Truth -- release, release that suffering? So the way of looking is the equivalent of the Fourth Noble Truth. It's the way. But it's all happening in the present in a very shorthand way.

One fruit that comes out of thinking of things this way is that, what we get to do is we get to repeat insights. Through the repeating and sustaining, you're actually repeating, let's say, the insight of anattā, the insight that these body sensations are not-self. This emotion, this contraction, these thoughts, are not-self. So countless times, you're actually repeating this insight at a certain level, and that's consolidating that insight. It's so rare for an insight to happen once and "Boom, that's the end of it. I don't need to see it again." So repeating it, actually, you can digest it.

For example, again with the anattā, through repetition, through sustaining a way of looking, we're actually consolidating this insight through repetition, that these thoughts are not-self. It's not just a one-off experience that's probably not going to have much power. Seeing it over and over and over, it's going deeper and deeper, the heart is absorbing, digesting these insights -- that these sensations are not-self, and also that this way of looking (whatever it is, anattā, impermanence, whatever), that this is a way of looking that releases suffering. There's double insight there, at least. That's getting consolidated through repetition.

The other, or another fruit here, possibly, would be that then, through the repetition, this insight at a certain level becomes a platform for deeper insights. Other insights, deeper ones that aren't immediately available start to emerge from the repetition of insight at the more rudimentary level. So for example, if we take this "letting everything belong to awareness," it's a way of looking: letting everything belong to awareness, and just repeating that -- very lovely, to stay in that space, to feel the release of that. At a certain point, it matures, and it begins to feel, or to seem, one has the perception that the phenomena arising in this space of awareness -- it's not just that they belong to the awareness; they actually seem to be the same, in inverted commas, 'substance' as awareness. No difference, no difference. The same 'stuff,' if you like. And then the level of release, of beauty, of openness, etc., or freedom, goes to a whole other level. And after a few times, I can maybe start to use that other level as the insight, as the thing that I'm repeating and using. And then maybe it goes deeper. Another possibility emerges.

Or with the anattā -- and we touched on this -- start to develop this capacity or cultivate this seeing of things, this way of looking at phenomena: "Not me, not mine, not-self." Thought, sensations, the whole thing, consciousness, everything -- "Not-self, not-self." First thing that I notice is that there's going to be freedom, that when I do that there's freedom -- lovely. As it deepens, something else starts to happen, which is the very objects that I'm looking at begin to dissolve through the way of looking. Things, phenomena start to fade. The self-sense, too, starts to fade. Self and objects start to basically disappear through the way of looking. And one sees this connection. When I look at things this way, less is fabricated of self and object.

So there's an insight arising there into the whole nature of perception and reality. These things, selves and objects, are empty, they're fabricated. A new insight has emerged. And then that new insight, can start using that insight as a new way of looking. So this, these three characteristics -- sometimes there's so much emphasis on them in the Theravādan system. I would regard them more as avenues than as results. We're not aiming to have, as a final thing, to have insight into the three characteristics of impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and not-self. These are tools. They're avenues. You start following a thread, and it goes deeper and deeper, goes beyond itself. In the Buddha's words, they're trainings, training the perception.

A lot of this is actually quite predictable, believe it or not. And I've done many retreats, longer retreats where, as I said at the beginning, everyone's on the same page. I set people up with certain practices, and let them kind of cook those practices a little bit, come back in a week or so, and I could have on a piece of paper what people will be experiencing. And I ask them what they're experiencing, and they say exactly that. And it'll be what I've said: less suffering, a sense of openness comes, and then things start fading. "Did you notice this?" "Yes, we noticed that." So there's some law of perception, laws of perception operating here. It's as if the way of looking -- we're pulling on a way of looking. It's unbinding something. It's unbinding the dukkha. Or we could say -- now we start connecting to last week's talk -- the very way of looking is removing the fabrication. It's removing the builders, the building blocks, the rafters of the house.

So the way of looking is removing. Rather than adding, it's removing. And this is what we were talking about last time. The way of looking incorporates less aversion, less clinging, less ignorance, less whatever. And with the removal of the -- if we use the ugly word -- 'fabricators,' the builders, the rafters of this house, with the removal of them, we see that there's less fabrication of not only self, but object as well -- self and object. To the degree that I remove this, there's less. And remember, if you do remember from last time, all these things are spectra. They're continua. So self is not an on/off switch. Clinging is not an on/off switch. Dukkha is not an on/off switch. There are degrees of dukkha, we all know: very, very gross, very disturbed, more and more subtle, more and more subtle. The same with self, the same with clinging, the same with perception of things, the experience of things.

All this moves along this spectrum, down this spectrum of fading, together: clinging, dukkha, self, perception, avijjā, ignorance, all of it. Do we arrive at a point, as we start removing, through the way of looking, as I start removing ignorance from the way of looking -- say I start removing this sense of "me, mine" that I habitually do, which is a movement of ignorance, and I take that away -- do I arrive, as I remove ignorance, at a real "way things are"? I finally get down, when I'm not looking at things with any sense of self, I finally get down to the crystalline, precise, raw data of this experience? Absolutely not. That's not what happens. It might be a bandwidth that I feel like I go through. This is what we talked about last time. I won't arrive there at anything. Actually, as the Buddha says in those quotes we gave last time, when the monk, when the practitioner abandons desire, when they abandon avijjā, everything disappears. There's a fading of experience, of perception, of everything that is fabricated, of sensation. That's looking at things with the complete removal of avijjā, with the complete removal of push, pull, reactivity, etc.

So I don't arrive at some bare -- quite the opposite. And if I say, "Well, okay then. Where on that spectrum is the place -- how much clinging, how much avijjā, how much ignorance, how much selfing, reveals the real object, or the real nature of the self?" Do you understand the question? Who's going to say? And if, actually, with no avijjā, nothing appears in that moment, when I'm really looking at things without any avijjā, what am I going to say? All I can say is that it's empty. The nature of things is empty. They're fabricated.

So you use a way of looking, and it reveals this emptiness of things. There is no real way things are. They're fabricated, and I start to understand that. Then I can use that understanding at a deeper level, and I start to use that as a way of looking. And what happens if I start to look at things not as "not me, not mine," but I start to look: "Empty, empty, empty, I know you're empty. I've seen you're empty," and that becomes my way of looking? That's a much more powerful way of looking. You've taken the whole thing to a whole other level, then, in terms of its ability to free in the moment, to release dukkha, to unfabricate.

Some of you weren't here, but in one of the first two talks in the first weeks, you know, I threw out a question. It's hard for a person -- you'd have to believe me, but if there are unconsciously habitual subtle views and conceptions always wrapped up with the perception, which means the experience of anything, if that's always there in the habitual ways of looking, of perceiving -- including mindfulness, including when there's not any thinking -- there are views, conceptions, "me, mine" going on; I'm not thinking it. I'm feeling it. I'm intuiting it. And I don't even realize that I'm doing it. "That thing exists. This is a real awareness knowing that. All this exists." If that's wrapped up in our mindfulness without thinking, how are we going to go beyond it? What possibility, what would open that door? And these views, conceptions -- very subtle -- keep shaping experience the same way. They deliver the same emotions, but even at a more subtle level, they keep fabricating things. How are we going to go beyond it? How are we going to see this profound emptiness of everything?

There are many ways. But in a way, today I'm just giving one possibility of how that is possible, because actually it's quite a conundrum. The very way of looking, the very usual ways of looking at things actually reinforce avijjā and dukkha. So how are we going to unwrap that? As the Buddha said, "Who will untangle this tangle?" And why is that important? It's because the thing, the understanding that frees most profoundly is emptiness. We said this -- I can't remember -- in the first two talks, but we suffer because we think things are real. If I don't think a thing is real, I can't suffer in relation to it. If I know it's not really real, I can't suffer in relationship to it. So it's the understanding, the profound understanding of the emptiness of things -- that's what cuts dukkha at the deepest level. That's why it's important.

It's interesting though, I think -- I feel very privileged, for different reasons. A lot of the teaching that I've done over the years has involved, right from the beginning, has involved discussions, Dharma discussions, with groups of practitioners, experienced and less experienced -- regularly do that, even before I was coming to Gaia House. And I'm very curious, always, to listen to how people, and to draw out of them, "How are you thinking about practice? How are you viewing this whole endeavour? What do you think? What is your sense of what you're up to with all of this?" And what's really common is that people have -- again, it's either explicit or less articulated -- practice is about "being with what is." And we're supposed to "be with" everything, and kind of accept, and sort of try and be in your body, and be nice. [laughs] And that's what practice is about. And so much so, it's such a common understanding that sometimes, I've sort of given talks, and absolutely said this is not what it's about, and afterwards people have said, "So you're saying, basically, be with everything." [laughs] It's a hard one to jiggle. And even just the other day, someone was saying they were feeling some anger. And then they began to reflect on the anger, and the reflection actually helped untangle the anger, and there was some release, and they felt much better. And they were like, "Well, I shouldn't really be doing that, right? Because I'm supposed to just be with it." No! No, we're interested in cutting dukkha, and the deeper we can cut the dukkha, the better.

So mindfulness, again, being with what is, is just one way of looking. It's just one way of looking among many possibilities. The point of the path is an understanding that frees, or understandings that free. That's the thing that's going to have the power. And when you start going a little bit deeper, we need to be careful about the assumptions in notions like mindfulness, or in notions like 'bare attention,' or in notions of 'what is.' Careful of the assumptions. Oftentimes they're hidden. They're not explicit. They are assumptions that reify, that make real what's there.

Similarly, the idea of 'just being' -- it's a very attractive idea if we feel very tired and harassed by all the pressure we put on ourselves, the inner critic, and always trying. Then the idea of 'just being' in meditation is very, very attractive. Again, it can be very skilful, but only as one provisional way of thinking, way of looking, eventually -- because actually, we realize that to be, to exist, to have experience, is to do. It involves a doing. That doing is fabricating. To repeat again: whenever there's perception, whenever there's experience, sensation, no matter how subtle, with or without label -- even the most rapid impermanence you could see -- it's fabricated. It's a fabricated perception. And that fabrication involves doing. It involves doing. We're fabricating through the way of looking. We don't realize it. And there's always a way of looking. So when there's experience, there's always a way of looking. We don't realize this until -- until you go quite deep, we don't think in these terms. But there's always a way of looking. Whenever there's an experience, there's a way of looking at that experience. And that way of looking is fabricating. It's part of fabricating that experience.

One can't live without experience. I can't live at this deep end of the spectrum that the Buddha was talking about, when a practitioner abandons desire, abandons -- then there's the fading of perception. I can't live without experience, perception. Life is perception, experience, and when there is perception/experience, there is always a way of looking. There's always a fabricating. So, "What am I going to fabricate?" becomes a question. What am I going to fabricate?

I want to say, I mentioned briefly last time, there's a twist in the tale to all this that's actually quite profound, and quite beautiful. This whole notion, this idea of fabrication that the Buddha talked about, or the idea of dependent origination -- here we mean a thing, a perception, is dependent on the mind; that's the key dependency, if you remember from the last talk. It actually, as we take it deeper as a thread of insight, starts going beyond itself in the most beautiful way. It starts eating itself as an insight. Because you start to realize, "Things are fabricated by the mind." I start to see that. And then we start to see, actually, this mind, too, however I look at it, if I look at it as a bunch of factors that come together, intention and consciousness and attention or whatever, as the Buddha, or if I think about it just in terms of awareness, pure awareness -- that's fabricated, too, in the process. Something very mysterious is going on. Mind and object get fabricated together. They're both illusory, if you remember from the last talk: mutually dependent, both empty.

It's not like all this is fabricated, and there's something unfabricated creating this fabrication. Something much more mysterious. Take it a step further as well. If that which is fabricated -- things and objects -- are not really real, and if that which fabricates -- the mind -- is not really real, and if one eventually sees time also is empty, is a dependent arising, this whole notion of fabrication dissolves. What is fabricated is not real, what fabricates is not real, the time in which fabrication, dependent arising, happens, is not real. Fabrication is not real. And if fabrication is not real, not really real, then the Unfabricated is not really real. The whole notion of the Unfabricated rests on the notion of the fabricated. The whole thing -- I pull on this thread of insight, and it starts dissolving, and ending up dissolving itself. A thread is not a very good analogy. It's like a snake eating its own tail.

To me, this is part of the genius of the Buddha. He took some concepts, and said if you follow these concepts, if you use them in practice, they actually bring a lot of freedom. And then they start dissolving even themselves. Using these concepts lightly, through practice, to go beyond themselves -- there isn't really fabrication, there isn't really Unfabricated. The whole duality collapses.

So this teaching of dependent origination, fabrication -- it's not really an explanation. (Hannah likes this! [laughs]) It's not really an explanation. It's only an explanation at one level. People say, "I want to understand dependent origination." It means they're putting everything in a box. Yes, at one level. At another level, you see: it unbinds. The whole thing starts dissolving. It's only at a certain level that it's a system to understand things. And then ... beyond words. Something -- I don't know -- magical, awesome, in that.

Then the whole notion of -- remember we talked last time -- we said this word 'fabrication' or 'concoction' in English is good, because it has the second meaning or the implication of something being false, and so kind of a little bit -- what would you say? -- derogatory or negative. "It's just a fabrication. It's not really real." Now with this twist, it starts to not have its negative connotation, because there's nothing really Unfabricated with which to compare it to. There is just mystery, magic, emptiness. It's interesting. If you look up the word in Sanskrit for 'fabricated,' it's saṃskṛta. It's actually the same word for the Sanskrit language. It has three meanings. The first one is Sanskrit language. Second is 'fabricated.' The third, actually, is 'consecrated,' 'made holy.' So it's not really a logical move, but a poetic move. The whole notion of fabrication no longer has its negative connotation.

Actually, you start to see this level, this non-duality, and the whole thing becomes holy. The whole thing becomes magic, all of it. If there's not any real way things are, really in themselves, and this is what all this is saying, then that starts to throw more of the emphasis on the way of looking. The way of looking starts to become much more significant. And you start to realize, "Oh, really it's only that we can pick up and put down different skilful ways of looking." That's what practice becomes. We're picking up and putting down different skilful ways of looking at things, at experience, that bring freedom -- that's what 'skilful' means -- that release dukkha, that bring freedom.

All kinds of possibilities, all kinds of possibilities open up, in the range of ways of looking that are possible -- to be cultivated, not as one-offs, but to be used, cultivated. Now, ways of looking are empty too. It's not that they're real things. But everything gets thrown back to just ways of looking, the beauty of that. So this is why, partly -- just ending now -- this is why I gave the talk this time in this order. I've said to people before, I've said something like, "Insight meditation is using skilful ways of looking that bring freedom." But without all this [laughs], it doesn't have the same significance, perhaps. You start to realize there's a degree of malleability in our perception, in our sense of things, that's way beyond what we might have imagined.

All this is, like I said right at the beginning, in the first of these two talks, all this is completely optional. You know, it's just one possible way of conceiving of practice. I'm not saying it's the way, or this is right and everything else isn't. I'm not saying that at all. It's just one possible way of conceiving. All it needs, though, to start moving down these kind of avenues, all one needs is just to realize that different ways of looking are possible. It's possible to look at self and experience in different ways. And see that these ways of looking are actually experimentable with and cultivatable. I can develop different ways of looking. And see what happens. That's the 'experiment' bit. See what happens when I cultivate or develop this particular way of looking or that way of looking. And see -- you could turn it around -- see what stops happening, or what starts to happen less, and then stops happening, if we put it in the negative, just by developing a particular avenue, a way of looking. See the effects on dukkha, on the release of dukkha, on the self-sense in the moment -- on dukkha, on the self-sense, on perception and experience.

So they're practices. And if we experiment, you can see, one can see, there's a skilful unbinding of the knots of dukkha through the ways of looking as they're developed. They fabricate less dukkha. And they also begin to unfold, reveal, layers and layers of radical, deeper understanding -- deeper and deeper. So it's a possibility, as a way of conceiving, as a way of moving and understanding what one's doing, and developing practice -- a very powerful possibility.

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

  1. AN 10:60. ↩︎

Sacred geometry
Sacred geometry