Sacred geometry

What is Awakening? (Part 1)

PLEASE NOTE: 'The Mirrored Gates' is a set of talks (recorded by Rob from his home) attempting to clarify, elaborate on, and open up further the concepts, practices, and possibilities explained in previous talks on imaginal practice. Some working familiarity with those previous teachings will provide a helpful foundation for this new set; but a good understanding of and experiential facility with practices of emptiness, samatha, the emotional/energy body, mettā, and mindfulness is necessary and presumed, without which these new teachings may be confusing and difficult to comprehend.
Date5th January 2018
Retreat/SeriesThe Mirrored Gates


In this next talk, now, I would like to explore a little bit the question, "What is awakening?", and explore a little bit the experiences and ideas of what 'enlightenment,' 'liberation,' 'awakening' might mean, can be. And again, I hope that it's helpful. I hope that it's helpful for you. Some of it will be similar to previous talks on this retreat. Some will be, I guess, kind of teacherly advice, or information, or clarification, or outlining possibilities, or pointing out, indicating possibilities for us as human beings, as practitioners. And alongside all that, again, I'm partly hoping just to open up the discourse around this, and open up our thinking around these notions: awakening, enlightenment, liberation (using them interchangeably for now, those terms). And opening up also our questioning around that.

And if you listen, you will hear that there are actually several questions interwoven. In the questions that I'm opening up, there are several questions, and they are connected. They weave in and out of each other. So teaching, as I'm pretty sure I've said before, for me, is always contextual. You know, teaching happens in a context. It's informed and conditioned by that context. It has to be. So in a way, it's conveying what a teacher has received from the tradition, from different traditions, from their teachers, in all different forms, and from all different directions, perhaps. It's a conveying, also, of what one has discovered for oneself, and the possibilities there, and what might be helpful from one's own experience. And it's also, of course, a response to the student, or students, or what has been coming from the students towards the teacher, or what is witnessed there.

So as I said, I really hope this is helpful. And sometimes, a teaching is helpful only at a certain time, at a certain point in one's practice. It might be that we hear certain teachings, and it's just not the right time for us to hear those teachings. They don't impress us, we don't understand them, they don't make much sense, or they just seem silly to us, or it doesn't fit with another idea we're more favouring at that time. So really, whether it's helpful also depends on whether it's the right time to hear a certain teaching at a time in your life, in the development of your practice, in your journey, etc.

So what is awakening? If one, again, listens [to] or reads different teachers, or listens to practitioners, or asks a range of teachers or practitioners, "What is awakening? What is enlightenment? What is liberation? What does it mean to you?", you will surely get, these days, a very wide range of answers, a very wide range of notions and responses there. And you will also encounter many practitioners who don't really think about the notion at all. It's not in their vocabulary, or they make very little reference to it, or perhaps it only really means, "Moments of mindfulness are moments of wakefulness. Therefore they are moments of awakening." And it's not really in their map, in their orientation. They're not really referring to it, and it's not really a reference point for their practice, and for their thinking and discourse, etc.

But there is really a wide range. I mean, perhaps, in Buddhist circles, because of the centrality of the Four Noble Truths (which we've been discussing a little bit in the previous talks), dukkha, and then the third truth, the ending of dukkha, the cessation of dukkha, liberation or freedom from suffering might be the commonest sort of nutshell response to this question of, "What does awakening mean?" But then that just begs, for me, the next question: what does that mean? 'Freedom from suffering,' 'liberation from suffering.' What does that mean? What would it look like? What do you mean by 'suffering'? What kind of suffering?

So to me, just that much is interesting -- the fact that there's now such a wide range. And I've touched on this before. That social fact, if you like, is very interesting to me. And it marks our age, and it marks the Dharma in our age. It marks the Insight Meditation community as well. I'm going to talk now about this kind of stuff. And obviously, I can't help but communicate some of my thinking on the subject, or my current thinking, and my current approach. And of course, that's going to be conditioned by, reflective of, an outcome of, my journey with all this, obviously. But it's not about me, and I want to hopefully say enough that opens up this territory for anyone. [7:05] But obviously, it's going to be reflective of and informed by how I have related to this question in the past, which has, along with other factors, conditioned how I'm relating to it right now.

But I don't mean to communicate anything final. So I don't mean to give you a categorical, final, authoritative answer to "What is awakening?" And in a way, that's part of the very point that I want to communicate. The relationship, the way we relate to the notion of awakening, the idea we have of it -- it evolves, or I would say (this is, again, a point of view) it should evolve, and it should be open to questioning. Is it open to questioning, the notion that we have of awakening? Is it more that the very question, or the journey we have with the notion of awakening and what that might be, is open-ended? So right there, it's quite a perhaps different point of view (I'll come back to this), a different point of view than one might have encountered or be used to. So I don't want to be communicating a final "this is how it is," a dogma. But, of course, much of what I say will be inevitably influenced by my history with this question, my experience with practice, and my current way I tend to relate to it in approach and thinking.

But let's start with this business of how we approach the very notion. So people say 'awakening,' 'enlightenment,' 'liberation,' and, as I said, for some people, they just don't register those words. They just ignore them. For other people, they're really quite alive, or quite charged words. They're quite emotive for us. But one of the things I'm really interested in, and I'd like to start there, is how are we approaching this question of awakening, this notion of awakening? How are we looking at it? How are we relating it? How do we conceive of it?

What intentions are we bringing to this concept of awakening, this idea of awakening, this goal, if you like, of awakening? What, of those intentions, are conscious, and what is perhaps unconscious in the intention? What are the assumptions, and what are the (perhaps, of those assumptions) unconscious assumptions that we bring to this word, this idea, this notion of a goal of awakening? What drives of the being, of the psyche, do we bring there? So this, to me, is where I'd like to start, and one of the really, I think, indispensable questions to try to open up this whole field. How am I approaching it? How are we approaching it? How are we conceiving? What are the intentions, assumptions, drives involved for us? What goes on for us with respect to the idea and the notion of awakening? [10:40] What goes on for us? What goes into that relationship? What goes into that conception and that notion? What are we bringing into it?

I think it's really helpful in this area, really important, and in fact, potentially liberating. In asking, "What is liberation?", and in asking, "What is awakening? What is enlightenment?", etc., it's helpful, important, and potentially liberating to draw attention to and contemplate, or at least consider the possibility that many of us, let's say, will tend to approach the question and the teaching of awakening, enlightenment, liberation, etc., to some extent informed or impressed or driven by two motivations, two kinds of motivation that I would highlight right now. And so the question is: how much is our approach informed by, or motivated by, or shaped, or directed, or limited by these two motivations? How much is our perspective, and then the whole field, shaped, directed, limited, informed by these motivations?

(1) So one is -- this is a question -- one is the wish to measure where we ourselves are on some kind of scale towards awakening. So it's actually, how much is the motivation involved in the way we approach the question of awakening and the goal of awakening, how much is that a kind of ego-measuring wish, if you like, an ego-wish to measure up? Which is actually quite a normal movement and inclination of ego: to measure itself. Ego, or actually self, the self-sense, is conditioned by, is fabricated based on any kind of measurement.

This goes extremely subtle, extremely deep. I can't remember the name of a talk I gave, "Beyond the Measuring Mind" or something.[1] Forgive me, I can't remember it. But really in the subtleties of -- not just in this gross way of when it's really ego and inner critic, which is really important to look at, but also in the very subtle movements, or the very fabrication of perception of object and subject. It's based on measurement. I'm not going to go into that right now, because I've also talked about it a lot before. I think that talk was called "Maya and Nirvana" or something like that. "Beyond the Measuring Mind," something like that, if you're interested. But right now, I want to talk about the grosser level, which is this kind of ego-measurement, the sort of normal movement or inclination of ego. So how much is that a kind of motivation when we relate to and approach the notion of awakening?

(2) And secondly, how much is there a kind of wish or inclination to frame our questioning about awakening within the frameworks given to us by the tradition or traditions we are currently viewing as authoritative? It's an observation I'd like to make: it's not really common to radically question the views and definitions of awakening, enlightenment, liberation, etc., whatever you want to call it, that are handed to us by the traditions that we are currently viewing as authoritative. So in other words, wrapped up with this whole question of "What is awakening?", and how we approach it, is this relationship with authority and tradition, and how free we are to really bring a kind of radical questioning there.

So two questions for us: (1) How much is our approach to awakening, and our approach to even the idea of awakening, what it might be, what it can be -- how much is it motivated, informed, shaped, directed, limited by the tendency of the self or ego to want to measure itself, to measure up? (2) And secondly, by a kind of unquestioned authority of tradition, or a non-questioning of the authority of tradition.

And sometimes those two factors, if you like, combine, of course -- the measuring self and the kind of lack of questioning of the authority of the tradition, in all kinds of ways. And sometimes, you know, it's not one tradition. It's a tradition, like, for example, Pali Canon Buddhism, or even just Insight Meditation tradition. As I said, you'll get different interpretations from different teachers within that tradition. I think it's actually quite healthy. But then the question is (and this is not an easy question to answer): why do I adopt this teacher's interpretation as an authority, and not that teacher? You say, "Well, it makes sense to me." Is it just that? What's going on for us psychologically, in the ways that we relate to authority, and in this case specifically, authority of certain teachers, and then the authority in relationship or around the notion of awakening? So to me, these are really important questions, considerations to open up, to bring to our awareness.

So regarding the first one, the sort of tendency of the ego, the tendency of any self-sense to be built on measurement and the discrimination of measurement, and 'better' or 'worse,' or whatever, and then the tendency of the sort of grosser levels of self-manifestation -- ego, and certainly inner critic and all that -- to be based on self-measurement view. Sometimes a student who's been practising a long while will ask me, "What do you think? What's your take on stream-entry, or the first stage of awakening that the Buddha outlined in the Pali Canon?", or phrase it something like that.

And sometimes, I find myself actually ... rather than just kind of say what I think or whatever, actually, it seems like there's a more important question that needs to be asked in response, which is: "Why are you asking?" And sometimes I wonder (and sometimes I think it has turned out to be the case -- not in every case at all; I don't want to insist that all), but sometimes, I wonder, is it that you want to feel you've achieved this thing called 'stream-entry,' or this stage, as if, "I want to be one of those. I want to be a stream-enterer. I want to be in that club. I hear people talking. There's these web forums, and people say this"? Or, "I was at a meeting, and people were talking X, Y, and about stream-enterers, and I want to be in that club." Or -- obviously a very related question, but subtly different -- is it that you don't want to think and feel that you're not in that club, that you're not one of those? Very subtly different.

And why? Why? And actually, can we, do we dare to really explore this question? It takes a lot of courage to explore that question. It's quite radical to turn the questioning around that way. Can we explore it vigorously? Sometimes I've sort of brought this up, and a person kind of shrugs it off, or whatever. And sometimes, it's been my sense that, hmm, I think there's a lot more to investigate here.

So I don't mean by this to jump to the other extreme, which sometimes is communicated in certain teachings, of just, "Drop all notions of awakening. Forget about it. It's just an ego-trip. Just don't harm yourself by even asking the question of what it might be, and might it be possible, and how, and all that. Just drop it. Just forget about it. Don't go near it, because by going near that question, you're poking the dragon of the inner critic. The dragon will be awoken and torment you."

But by asking this question -- "Why are you asking, and can you really vigorously explore that?" -- I'm asking it out of kindness. Or when I ask, I ask it out of kindness. But there's also, or in asking it of yourselves, part of the reason for asking it is kindness. Can you get that? If I'm actually chasing something just for the sake of kind of satisfying the unsatisfiable inner critic, or just "getting my stripes, measuring up, finally being good enough" -- that's really unkind, to live a life that way, to pursue practice that way, for one's practice to be shot through with that kind of drive. And so the question is coming -- if one poses it to oneself, or with a friend, where it feels safe to ask that question together with each other, of each other -- it's coming out of kindness. But there's also a lot of boldness and radicality in the questioning. It's kind, but I don't know if you can hear that there's boldness and radicality: "Why am I even asking this question about awakening? What is my relationship with this?" And there are aspects. This is one aspect. There's a whole other level of what we might call 'meta-freedom,' a whole other level of freedom that can open up when we open up our relationship with the very notion of freedom, of liberation, of awakening, enlightenment. And that's partly what I hope to open up a little bit. It's like a whole other level of awakening, a whole other level of freedom. [23:10]

But even asking this question, "Why am I asking?", and asking, "What am I bringing to this question? What are my notions? What's my relationship? What are my intentions?", these are not easy questions. I think they take courage. They take honesty. They take integrity. And they take boldness.

Personally, I am very interested in awakening, enlightenment, liberation -- what that might mean, what it can be. I'm very interested in the possibilities for a human being, possibilities for consciousness, the possibilities for living, for life, for the sense of existence, the possibilities for perception, the breadth, the range, the depth, the possibilities for soul, the possibilities of -- what does a liberation of my action in the world mean? And the possibility, in relation to all this, for society. We talk about awakening, liberation. What might that mean socially? What might it mean for the wider sphere of being and beings? Also very interested in the ideas about it, and notions, and our relationship with it, and our relationship with our ideas about it, as I've just said.

But when someone talks to me in an interview, and sometimes the student might bring it up -- they're feeling this pressure, or this measurement, or this way that things have just gotten really tight and constricted and painful in relation to a question of some kind of achievement on the path, meditative achievement (whether it's awakening, or jhāna, or emptiness, stages of emptiness realization, or whatever it is). When someone's talking to me, one of us -- either it's them or me -- is kind of wondering about how much of the intention is kind of coming from this measuring, wanting to measure up, and how much pressure there is coming from that. Then, often, I feel that, at that point, the most necessary and most interesting piece to explore in the conversation is exactly that. It's the relationship with. Doesn't mean we won't get to the rest of it, and the ideas and the possibilities of what it might mean, and how one might move towards that or open that up, whatever metaphor we might use. But this piece about relationship with, and what comes in in terms of intention and motivation, is a really necessary piece. And oftentimes, it's like, we need to do that before we can go any further. And it's actually quite an interesting piece, I think.

So sometimes, or at different points, let's say, for a person, the dominant intention or push, regarding either the whole of practice, or some particular strand of practice, like jhāna practice or emptiness practices or whatever, is to prove oneself. What's going on? "I have to 'prove oneself.'" Is it to myself that I have to prove myself? Is it to others? And who? Is it to a certain teacher or teachers? And as I said, to measure up somehow. And like I said, if this is the case, or even if one of us in the conversation suspects that it is the case, then in my role as a teacher, I actually become more interested in that, at that point, as a necessity to understand and unpack it, and to find freedom from that particularly narrow and painful drive. And that becomes, at that point -- you know, just at that point -- more interesting and more necessary than attaining jhāna, attaining this stage of realization or whatever. [28:09]

If we just dwell a little bit with jhāna practice: the same kind of psychological mechanic, painful psychological mechanics regarding motivation can go on there, as they can in relation to awakening. With long-term practice (I mean, really doing a lot of jhāna practice, and doing it very thoroughly), one sees (I think it's almost unavoidable to see) that, I hope -- it seems pretty obvious that one would see that the attainment of any jhāna is not really dependent on my self. It's dependent on the conditions in the moment. When the conditions are there, when the past and particularly the present conditions are there, then the jhāna, a jhāna, this particular jhāna will arise, or will stabilize, or whatever it is, or will deepen. And it's not really to do with self. It becomes really, really clear when you do a lot of jhāna practice, dipping in and out over a long time, in all sorts of conditions, and bringing a kind of intelligent attention or scrutiny or curiosity, willingness to understand: how is this even working? Why is it that some days it seems to go really well, other days not so well, and everything in between? Or sittings well, or not so well, etc.

So if there's an interest in that, it's kind of unavoidable that one realizes, you know, it's not really that the self is so fantastic and kind of the architect of all this. It's the conditions. And so this kind of dissolves -- this realization dissolves any attempt to use the jhānas to measure up or prove oneself. It's not about oneself. That's not what it depends on.

When, though, there's just been a little practice of the jhānas, and a little sort of success or attainment of the first four jhānas, just a little bit, and then we could say, "Oh, that's -- yep, I've got it, first jhāna, got that. Got the second. Got the third. Got the fourth." And there's this quick sort of ticking-off and getting of one's stripes. Oftentimes, that realization of their dependence on conditions has not become clear yet. It's not mature yet. It's all too quick. I haven't seen. I haven't paid enough attention. I haven't had enough experience there. So one possibility is, you get this strange effect where the practice, just a little bit, has reinforced, unfortunately -- in a way, it actually feels good to the ego, but it's actually reinforced the whole ego-measuring, ego-proving orientation and focus and motivation.

So again, it's like, it's really important to bring a kind of curiosity and intelligence, both to the motivation, both to actually, "Does this even justify being sort of pumped up about achieving this or that?" I actually think, if we just stay with jhānas for a little bit, I actually think a much healthier desire for jhānas and for emptiness experiences is a love of and a curiosity about the depth, those kind of depths of consciousness, of opening, of perception, the beauty there, the nourishment of mystical experiences of various sorts. I think a kind of greed, if you like, if I even dare to use that word, desire for and a love for those depths, and even an attachment to those, and the beauty, and that nourishment, and the love of those mystical depths -- that's a much healthier motivation. [32:33]

Sometimes what happens is a person is afraid of becoming attached to pleasure regarding the jhānas. But I don't think attachment to pleasure -- in itself, it's rarely a problem, in my experience teaching the jhānas. It's rarely a problem. What can look like attachment to pleasure arises predominantly with one or other of two other kind of conditions as a basis. In other words, it looks like there's attachment to pleasure, when actually what's going on is there's -- a root of that seeming attachment to pleasure is actually a chronic avoidance of some kind of psychological or emotional or relational pain, and one is just hiding. Or part of one's motivation -- let's put it that way -- is just there's a chronic avoidance of certain psychological, emotional, or relational pains, or difficulties, or challenges. It's actually not attachment to pleasure.

It's also the case that what looks like attachment to pleasure can only really take root when there isn't a sense of soulmaking, of mystery and beauty in the discovering of the jhānas. The jhānas have become kind of flat, because one hasn't opened up that dimension of soul. They're just kind of pleasant experiences of different degrees. And one isn't, for whatever complex reasons, one isn't really opening up to the sense of mystery and beauty that they can open up for us. There's not really a sense of soulfulness deepening and soulmaking going on there. It's just become about pleasure. And sometimes, that's when the attachment to the jhāna, the attachment to the pleasure, can be actually a motivating force. Because there's nothing else. It's just pleasure. Or it's mostly avoidance, and looks like attachment to pleasure.

The pleasure of jhāna -- if we just even take the first four jhānas -- the pleasure of those jhānas, and the kind of nourishment, fulfilment of the jhānas, far exceeds the pleasure that's available to human beings in the flatly sensed senses, without sensing with soul: just the pleasure of a meal, or the pleasure of the sensations of taste, the pleasure of the sensations of sex or whatever, when it's flatly conceived. The pleasure of jhāna dwarfs those by -- you're talking about totally another realm. But the pleasure of soulmaking, and that kind of dimensionality opening up, the delight of that, and the nourishment of that far exceeds the pleasure of the jhāna when a jhāna is conceived flatly, and felt flatly, when it's just a realm of pleasure, a kind of, "Oh, that's convenient. That's a lot of pleasure. I'll hang out there, in the third jhāna," or whatever it is.

So wrapped up in all of this is this question of motivation. What am I wanting, whether it's from jhānic experiences, whether it's from emptiness, whether it's from the whole path, and whether it's from awakening and that whole idea or goal? If my motivation is this kind of proving myself or measuring up somehow, the ego measuring up, I would say that's not a deep motivation. It's not really what I would call an authentic desire. It's not a soul-desire. Let's just say it's not even authentic. It's not a deep desire. It's a superficial psychological mechanism, although the pain can feel like it goes very deep. It's not what I call authentic. It's not really your own. It's somehow put on one socially. This desire to measure up is a kind of social desire.

What do you want? What's your authentic desire for practice, for the path? What kind of awakening do you want? What is the awakening that you seek? What possibilities do you hope for, long for, yearn for? When we talk about or ask this question, "What is awakening?", and we play with that question a little bit, we could approach it by studying various conceptions and statements and differentiations of the notion of awakening -- and we're going to do a little bit of that -- in the Buddhist tradition, as well as other traditions and teachings. And we could also describe the apparent characteristics and lifestyles and personalities of those popularly considered as enlightened. But as well as all that (or even instead of all that, but let's say 'as well'), we could ask this question: what do you want?

But do you see that the answer to "What do you want?" may be -- and may be to a large extent -- informed, conditioned, and even closed in by the study of various conceptions, statements, differentiations of awakening, as we said before, by the Buddhist tradition, by stories and images describing the apparent characteristics, lifestyles, etc., of those popularly considered enlightened, etc. Do you see how that -- what we receive there, again, from authority, or from a sub-culture, or whatever -- actually might shape, inform, direct, and limit the very answers we give ourselves when we ask ourselves what we want? It may shape, limit, inform, and direct what we actually want, or what we feel we want. And of course, if we ask, "What do I want in life? What do I want?", this question is not just about, like, "What do I want life?" What am I wanting in my existence, in this movement of this time that I have between birth and death? What do I want from that? What do I hope for? What do I long for?

And you know, I don't need to tell you this, how much we are assailed, barraged with advertising and images in the culture, pushing, prodding, dragging, harassing us to develop this one or that one, shaping us. And sometimes, you know, we'd like to feel, "Oh, I'm not, you know ... I see through all that." But it's so, so prevalent, and so, so powerful. And sometimes some of that is really obvious, and we can just let go of it easily. We're not pulled in, whereas we might see others pulled in, in our society and culture. But also, that exists in much subtler ways and in other areas of our lives.

I was reading about an indigenous native tribe in the Amazon, and an oil company came -- or was it a damming, people putting up a hydroelectric plant there? I can't remember. They sort of tried to bribe the tribespeople. They said, "We're going to give you these satellite TVs, and alcohol and things." They were not interested in them at all, but they were given them anyway. And because they had the satellite TVs and all this stuff, and then they saw others with all kinds of things, living very different lifestyles -- affluent Western lifestyles, of course; it's what you see on TV -- and they were exposed to corporate advertising, directing and magnifying their desires. And that, over a not very long time, began to just shape what they wanted. And they wanted all that stuff. And that had devastating effects on that region of the Amazon, on the social cohesion and well-being of that tribe, and you can see that just large-scale in the world. [42:56]

The question is, to what degree is "what I want" the product of conditioning? How much of my answer to "what I want" is the product of conditioning of ideas, of images, fantasy? And you know, also, another thing I read in The Guardian: they did some, I don't know what you call it, sort of study in Fiji. This is from a guy called Raoul Martinez, in a book called Creating Freedom. Eating disorders were unheard of there in 1990, and before that, when they did studies of a sort of anthropological or social studies, let's say, in Fiji. In 1995, TV was introduced in Fiji. Most of it was American TV. And it was teeming with food ads -- food ads, you know, all the time on American TV, and all kinds of hamburgers, and sweets, and this and that, and whatever. "Within three years, 12 per cent of teenage girls in Fiji had developed bulimia."[2] So this kind of thing, I mean -- that's really painfully shocking, but you're obviously aware of that kind of conditioning.

But the point I want to say is that we can also be subject to spiritual conditioning, a spiritual influencing of what we want spiritually, by those we come into contact with, by teachers, by authorities, by a Saṅgha, by a book, by what's popular in books, by all of that. And I don't know, for some of you who've been around a while -- I mean, really a while -- and perhaps come across, or been in and out of different Saṅghas, different spiritual communities, and teachers, and fellow practitioners -- I don't know if you wonder, have wondered this as well. But sometimes, in some of the communities -- I don't just mean static communities; I mean just Saṅghas, mobile Saṅghas, even -- that I've moved in and out of over whatever it is, thirty years, I don't know, more than thirty years. Sometimes I just wonder, and I don't know if you wonder this, too, whether there's almost a sense of certain figures in a Saṅgha -- maybe the figures of the more senior students or the teachers -- sometimes sort of, I don't know, semi-consciously kind of inhabiting, or semi-consciously projecting a certain persona, as if almost a kind of -- 'sell' it would be way too strong a word, but kind of projecting it to influence others, in a way.

So it depends exactly what the kind of style is, in which kind of Saṅgha. Sometimes, you know, some of them are monastic, and some of them are very non-monastic, and whatever. But there can be, for instance, a kind of image of a sort of jovial, warm, but kind of actually distant or somewhat aloof, affably amused at the world and those who kind of scurry about the world, busy and attached, but with a kind of goodwill in it. And there's something about that persona -- I just wonder; I'm wondering if you have ever wondered this -- as if someone might be unconsciously or semi-consciously, perhaps, inhabiting it or projecting it, and kind of -- yeah, 'selling' it a little bit, through the smile, and through the way one walks, or through the way one stands even in a lunch queue, through the way one's shawl is casually slung over one shoulder, or whatever it is. [47:58]

And you know, it's maybe good to model a certain possibility of, let's say, disinterest, of non-entanglement; good to model a certain archetype, even, of kind of equanimity that's almost aloof. When, though, does it become a kind of fixated image that's, for us, unquestioned and rigid, and it's kind of going on in a way that we're not even quite conscious of it, this pull of us, or this stamping or rigidifying of, "That's what awakening looks like. That's the model"? And without the questioning, and it's got somehow cast a little bit in a kind of unconscious way for us. It's a certain style. But it's a fixated image, even though it might be relatively unconscious, rather than an imaginal image. And again, there's this question: what do you want? What do you want?

So I was having a conversation around awakening, or I was asked, you know -- actually, several people -- kind of similar lines of a conversation, or presenting similar issues around this notion of awakening, around where they were. And I might have asked them, "What do you really want? What do you really want?" And sometimes very easily, the answer that comes back is: "I want the end of suffering." But it doesn't sound, to me, authentic. "I want the end of suffering." And I say, "What suffering?" And the person -- and this has happened several times, in fact -- the person might say, "Well, I'm kind of addicted to food," or something like that. That's actually a relatively common response. And I inquire a little bit what's involved in their addiction to food, and we're really not talking about anything anorexic or bulimic or something. It's just, there's a kind of overindulgence with food. And I wonder, actually, "How much suffering is there from, around this, or with this pattern of food addiction that you're talking about? How much is it really a problem?"

So you say, "I'm really interested in awakening. That's what I'm really going for. What does 'awakening' mean? It means the end of suffering. I really want the end of suffering." But is there really that much suffering in that? People have very good -- well, compared to me, anyone has, but -- very kind of robust digestive systems. They can actually indulge in all kinds of foods and sweets and overeating and stuff, and feel a little bit sluggish, or a tiny amount of indigestion. But it's not really a problem. Is that really what you want? That suffering that you experience around, you know, overindulgence with certain foods? Is that really what's most important to you?

And sometimes I go into this question, and sometimes a person thinks a bit more, and opens it up, and says, "I don't want to be" -- quoting the Buddha, they might say, "I don't want to be an untrained, ordinary, run-of-the-mill person." That's a stock phrase of the Buddha, talking about an unenlightened person or person who hasn't done any practice and progressed on the path. "I don't want to be what the Buddha calls an 'untrained, ordinary, run-of-the-mill person.'" Then, that answer, probing a little deeper, it's like, "Is it really the end of suffering? Are you really that concerned about the suffering that you experience in your life?" Actually, there's not that much suffering, really. There's this problem with food, or whatever. It's not even causing that much difficulty. So probing a little deeper, and they come up with this answer.

So that answer, again, it suggests to me this issue about ego-identification, ego-measurement. "I don't want to be that. I don't want to be in that camp, what the Buddha calls an 'untrained, ordinary, run-of-the-mill person.'" So again, is the motivation coming out of ego and measurement? Or is that motivation -- let's say, that aspect of the motivation or that strand of the motivation -- is it larger than the attraction to actually lessening suffering? In other words, what's the relative dominance of the different motivations? Or is there an attraction to beauty? We haven't even said anything about that yet. (Actually, we did when we talked about the jhānas, but.) What's the relative weighting of these different motivations? If I say, "I don't want to be an untrained, ordinary, run-of-the-mill person," it seems to be voicing, it seems to be indicating that these questions of identification, ego-identification and measurement are actually dominating.

And sometimes even then, the psychology is much more -- I think -- is much more complex. So a person's saying, "I don't want to be untrained. I don't want to be like that." But some part of them is really rebelling angrily against the prospect or the demand of training. The Buddha talks about "training a thoroughbred horse," etc., as a metaphor of the development of meditation and practice: sīla, samādhi, paññā. So at the same time, one part of me is wanting this: I want to measure up, and I don't want to be counted as one of those the Buddha calls 'untrained.' And another part of me is rebelling, and angrily, at this demand or even prospect of training. To me, that's interesting. It's like, what is going on there? Can I open this up? Can I actually look at it with honesty, with integrity, with courage, as I said?

So in the absence of a cosmological belief, basically, a cosmological context of 'awakening' meaning 'the ending of rebirth' -- that's a kind of cosmological idea that the Buddha adopted and the Buddha taught: final awakening is the ending of rebirth. The stages of awakening are the movement to the final ending of rebirth in arahantship. So you get a non-returner -- it means you're not born again in this material existence. A once-returner -- you have one more birth, one more rebirth in this material existence. Sotāpanna has a maximum of seven -- that's 'stream-enterer,' sotāpanna is the Pali. A stream-enterer has a maximum of seven.

So the whole thing is this trajectory to end rebirth. It's a cosmological view, as I mentioned in the previous talk, I think. And wrapped up in that view is, there's basically an infinity of suffering awaiting us in endless rebirth. Basically, endless rebirth is equivalent to an infinity of suffering, albeit in a kind of seemingly random roller coaster, up and down, highs and lows, fortune and misfortune, and all that, pain and pleasure. But inevitably the suffering there outweighs the pleasure. And a lot of it will be absolutely brutal. So there's a kind of cosmological view of what awakening is; it's situated in that cosmological view, ending rebirth. In the absence of such a cosmological view -- which is, I think, the case for a lot of people these days; it's not really gripping to them, that whole cosmological view of ending rebirth. "What I'm really trying to do is end rebirth, and not be reborn into the human realm." It's quite the opposite actually. If people believe in rebirth, it's actually quite an attractive notion these days. But anyway, in the absence of such a cosmological belief kind of structuring the larger view of what awakening is, the question comes: again, what is 'awakening' as you conceive it, and why do you want it?

A very easy answer in a Buddhist context is [to] conceive of awakening as the end of suffering. Again, sometimes (in fact, a lot of the time), is that what you really most want? The end of suffering -- is that really what you most want? Now, sometimes, when we have a lot of pain, and we just feel trapped in a lot of pain, whether it's psychological or physical, that can be the dominant thing: "I just want the end of suffering." But when that goes, or when we've seen through that kind of psychological pain, or whatever it is, or rather, for our whole lives, for our whole existence, say, is that really what you want, what you most want -- the end of suffering, the end of dukkha? Is that your greatest desire? Is that really what you're after in practice?

And often, someone is saying that, and it's palpably clear, actually, to both of us, that they don't live like that. They're not living and choosing the end of suffering every day -- far from it! There's lots of suffering in their lives that actually they don't mind too much. It's not such a big deal, a little bit of indigestion, a little bit of sloth and torpor, a little bit of whatever it is. They're kind of, you know, cutting deals with suffering: "I just have this much pleasure, and I accept this much suffering that goes with when I crave that, or I indulge in this." A person's living their life that way. They're saying, "I want the end of suffering." It's not really what's going on. Okay, so "end of suffering" is one way that one might frame it. And it might be a valid answer. My question is just, is it? And if it is, then great. Then that's your orientation. But is it?

A person might say, "Happiness. I want happiness. Awakening is happiness," or somehow tying the notion of awakening in with happiness. I'll just mention this. [laughs] I'm not quite sure what conclusion to make with this, but it made me smile. Maybe you can make your own conclusions. But again, from The Guardian, in December 2016, there was a poll, a nationwide poll in the UK, and it found that -- they asked if people thought, would regard themselves as happy. And that was one of the questions: "Are you happy? Do you consider yourself happy?" And 92 per cent of UK residents said they were happy. [laughs] I think that's very interesting! [1:00:55]

Then they were asked another question. They were asked to estimate how many in the UK would say they were happy. In other words, how many people would answer that question, "Are you happy?", with a 'yes.' What's your estimate of how many in the UK would say they were happy? The average estimate was 47 per cent. [laughs] So 92 per cent said they're happy, and the average of what people think, how many other people are happy -- the average estimate of the percentage of other people that are happy is 47 per cent. I think that's interesting. I'm not quite sure what to conclude from that. It's also, I think -- I don't know if it's just a US statistic or a UK statistic -- one in five people are on antidepressants. I don't know quite how that squares with 92 per cent of people saying they're happy.

So I don't know. Is happiness something that you relate to, or is a goal for you? Or do you feel like you're sold that by some kind of spiritual teaching or psychological teaching? What does it even mean anyway? I mean, I have problems with all these polls, but what does 'happiness' mean? It's a strange word. How are people interpreting it? I mean, to me, it's such a loose word. There's so much range to what that can mean, and so many kinds of happiness, so many shades, and so many discriminations we could make between kinds and degrees of happiness. In a way, one wonders, what was the range in the kind of discrimination and the conception of people that answered?

But anyway, what would it look like? What does it look like to say, "I'm happy"? What does it look like if happiness is a goal? I don't know if that's something that people say. I rarely come across that as an answer. Perhaps it's part of a larger answer (I'm not sure) to what a person wants.

And there are also some considerations around -- again, we're talking about notions of awakening, and how we kind of get locked into what we want, or is it really what we want, and how that's related to notions that we have, and how that's related to what we've been exposed to, and all kinds of things. So as I said, all these questions are interwoven or weaved together. Why is it we often, or it's most common, it seems, to cling to a notion of awakening as some kind of finality? I mean, the Buddha did teach it that way, and most spiritual traditions teach it that way. They convey a sense of, "This is a goal beyond which there is nothing, or there's no further development. This is it. That's the end of awakening. That's the final goal." What's the relationship between finality of a goal, an awakening conceived as some kind of finality, and the self-view, or the tendencies of self-view? So as I alluded to at the beginning and in a previous talk, self-view takes as a scaffold some kind of view of finality with regard to awakening. That very finality becomes a kind of basis, if you like, or support, or scaffolding on which self-view and ego-view can be constructed, fabricated, and oftentimes hardened. I mean 'trained' or 'untrained,' 'ordinary, run-of-the-mill,' or 'not ordinary,' whatever it is. So "I am X."

And that whole kind of black-and-white thinking -- which is also quite characteristic of addiction as well, and also a lot of other difficulties -- but that kind of black-and-white thinking can very much come in, in terms of both self-view and view of goal, view of what awakening is. And they go together. And there's something, I think, important about that. So we tend to think in terms of some kind of final reaching point of awakening. Just as we asked, "What is happiness?", we might also ask: what would the end of suffering look like? The cessation of suffering, cessation of dukkha, what does that look like? How would it manifest? What would it look like? What would it look like to live the end of greed, aversion, and delusion? What does that look like?

Now, again, you get these classical Buddhist terms from the Pali Canon: suffering, nibbāna, Four Noble Truths (each of them), three kilesas, etc. -- very wide interpretation of what they mean. But actually, with any interpretation, I would say, I would still ask: what does it look like? What would it look like to actually live the end of greed, aversion, and delusion, the end of those? Where are you going to draw the line for what 'greed' is?

Some of you will know, my tendency, or my preference, if you like, with regarding what delusion is, is to regard it as a spectrum, and also clinging as a spectrum, so that when we talk about really subtle clinging, or really deep or subtle delusion, they actually are implicated thoroughly into the very fabrication of any and all perception. So that to really be without delusion is also to be, in that moment, without perception. And to be completely without clinging is also to be without perception in that moment. One cannot live that. So where on the spectrum of clinging and delusion am I going to draw the line and say, "This is delusion, but that isn't"?

As we'll get to a little bit: if, actually, one's motivation, when one looks inside and says, "Is it the end of suffering? No, not really. Is it happiness? I'm not sure," and one says, "What is it that I really want? What is it?", and if, through my practice, and for my existence, if the answer, or some of the answers are (which I know will be the case for some of you; it's really your question -- not for me, not for anyone, I think, to tell you what to want), but if the answer is that, actually, "Why am I practising? What am I practising for?", and it's really about, it's the love of exploration. It's the love and the longing for sacredness or sacrednesses opening up. It's the love and the longing for soulfulness. It's the love and the desire for beauty and beauties opening up. It's the interest and the beauty of what we're calling the creation and discovery of self, other, world, and all of that.

If it's actually that, or those kinds of things that are motivating you, why would we not allow the notion of awakening to be open-ended? What's the limit to my love of exploration? What's the limit to the sacrednesses that can open up, or the soulfulness, the soulmaking, the beauty, beauties? What's the limit to the kind of poetic and skilful and soulmaking fabrication of self, other, world, and eros? Would that be okay, to have an open-ended notion of awakening? I've touched on that before, I know, so it won't be new to most of you.

I want to continue, but again, just to sum up, I really want to stress what I feel is really important to unpack, unearth, look at, ask: what is around, for me, and in my relationship to this idea of awakening, and my relation to my practice towards awakening? What's involved in my approach, in my conception, in my relationship, in terms of intention, assumption, drive, etc.? To me, as I said, that question is a question motivated itself by kindness, but it has a lot of boldness in it. Or it can have a lot of boldness in it. In itself, it can actually open up a whole other level of what we might call 'awakening,' 'liberation.'

Let's stop there for now.

  1. Rob Burbea, "Maya and Nirvana (Beyond the Measure of Mind)" (27 Nov. 2008),, accessed 10 June 2020. ↩︎

  2. Raoul Martinez, Creating Freedom: The Lottery of Birth, the Illusion of Consent, and the Fight for Our Future (New York: Pantheon Books, 2016). ↩︎

Sacred geometry
Sacred geometry