Sacred geometry

Emptiness and Ways of Looking

CRUCIAL NOTE: It is highly unlikely that this talk will be properly or adequately understood without a prior very good working familiarity and competence – both in actual practice and conceptually – with Soulmaking Dharma teachings and practices, as well as with Insight Meditation. Without this background it may be that the talk will in fact be misunderstood, and it is unlikely that the talk will be helpful. Please note too that much of the material in this series of talks (In Psyche’s Orchard) is based on or continues explorations of material laid out in a particular previous series (Four Circles, Four Parables of Stone and Light). In Psyche’s Orchard was recorded by Rob at his home.
Date11th February 2020
Retreat/SeriesIn Psyche's Orchard


Welcome, everyone. What I would like to try to do, hope to be able to do in this short series of talks, is to perhaps extend a little bit some of the lines of inquiry, some of the themes and threads from one of the recent series, Four Circles, Four Parables of Stone and Light,[1] and the themes certainly of ethics -- I would like to extend and explore a little bit that area, that whole domain -- as well as opening up or looking at some more possibilities for imaginal practice, or what imaginal practice and soulmaking might make possible for us as practices; some other questions and reflections on ontology and epistemology; and also on tradition, and how we think of path, and goal, and awakening, and all that.

But I think I want to start -- it makes the most sense to start talking about ontology. But, in fact, ontology or questions and explorations of ontology, the theme of ontology, will be woven throughout these talks. But I want to start a little bit with that. To say what it is, define it very briefly, ontology is actually best, for our purposes, defined as the views and beliefs we have about what is real and what is not real, and what kinds of reality, or what kinds of being different things have. So a dream has a different kind of reality than what we perceive in waking consciousness, we tend to assume. That's an ontology. That's an ontological view right there. So the views and beliefs about what is real, what is not real, what kind of reality and being different things have.

Usually 'ontology,' the word, is used in sort of very philosophical contexts -- a lot of philosophical systems, and sophisticated philosophical analysis. And I mean to include all that, but the reason I'm defining it as 'views and beliefs' is partly because, as I want to emphasize again and again, we're always with an ontology. Whether we philosophize or not, whether we read those kinds of books, whether we think in a certain way or wonder in a certain way about what's real or not real, we always have views and beliefs and conceptual frameworks, conscious or unconscious, operating. So the words 'view' and 'belief' give much more a sense of the sort of immediacy and inevitability of ontology in our lives, and in our practice, in our experience.

And particularly what I want to focus on today is emptiness and the ways of looking approach. So I'll say a few more things about that. The ways of looking approach to emptiness -- which is, if you like, the bulk of what Seeing That Frees[2] is devoted to -- is quite unusual as an approach to emptiness, and certainly as an approach to Dharma. The whole ways of looking approach to Dharma is quite unusual. But it's also unusual as an approach to emptiness. And what I've come to understand is it's quite easy, or quite possible, but actually quite easy and relatively common, for it to be not quite understood in the correct way. People, very understandably, bring to that paradigm -- the ways of looking approach -- perhaps ideas, beliefs, formulations and frameworks that they've encountered elsewhere, read or heard or whatever, even within other Buddhadharma contexts, of course. They bring all that to hearing or reading about the ways of looking approach to emptiness, and some of that other stuff comes in so that what they hear or read about the ways of looking approach is actually a little bit twisted or shaped or shaved, even, to conform to the ideas that they already have. This is a very normal human occurrence and human propensity, something we need to be aware of and take care of in whatever it is we're talking about, or trying to explain, or trying to understand.

So the ways of looking approach -- I've gone into this elsewhere in great detail, and recently on the seminars, the online seminars. I think there was one, the second emptiness seminar there in the last series of ten or eleven.[3] Really understanding: there are two key themes. One is ways of looking. I'm not going to go into this now; I'm just mentioning it. There are ways of looking that we, as human beings, can look at things in different ways, that we have a range there, possibility of flexibility there, possibility of extending that range. And 'ways of looking' means the whole, in any moment, how are we relating to something -- what ideas, conceptions, assumptions, beliefs, reactions, tendencies, likes, dislikes, propensities, emphases, kinds of attention or areas of attention; all that together makes up the way of looking in any moment. And we have the possibility, as human beings, to explore that consciously, and really, as I said, extend that range, play with it, discover new ways of looking, develop them, etc.

So one concept is ways of looking. The second concept is fabrication. And one realizes that different ways of looking have different, if you like, amounts and kinds and levels of what we call 'clinging' wrapped up in them. 'Clinging' is a word that I use very elastically. It means, obviously, what it tends to mean to most people -- something very gross, really gripping on to something, not wanting to let go, in a very obvious or even dramatic way -- all the way down to something really, really subtle. I've explained all this before; I'm not going to go into a lot of detail now. But different ways of looking have different amounts, kinds, levels of clinging to them.

And that clinging turns out to be extremely important in determining what is fabricated in perception through the way of looking. In other words, a way of looking shapes, forms, fabricates what we then perceive. I look at something in this way, and I have that whole relationship with it. I see it, perceive it, sense it differently than when I look at it in another way. And one of the key constituents there of the way of looking is the clinging, because dependent on the clinging, the degree of fabrication -- not just of how much suffering there is, fabrication of suffering, which, of course, is a key emphasis and inquiry in Buddhist practice; not just the fabrication of suffering, but also the fabrication of self, other, world, time, space, the whole show, the whole magic show of perception, is dependent on the kinds, amounts, and levels of clinging involved.

And so really what the ways of looking approach is is taking those two ideas -- ways of looking and fabrication; maybe a third idea, clinging, as we've just said, and exploring what that is and what it involves at different levels, what might it involve -- and just exploring them, and seeing what's possible. What can I understand about fabrication here? How can I extend and develop my ways of looking? What does clinging involve at different levels? And through that, understanding something about the fabricated nature of things -- of all things, all phenomena, all experience, all appearance. It's a very deep, beautiful exploration. And then, at a certain point, going even beyond the notion of fabrication when one sees that time is empty, and fabrication is empty, and that opens up a whole other level of the inquiry into emptiness. [9:24] So a very brief summary. I've explained that before. I'm not going to go into it in any more detail.

But I want to kind of just pick up on a few of the possible ways it might be misunderstood or incompletely understood, or, we could say, just fill out the understanding, to hopefully make certain things a bit more clear, if that's possible. Because sometimes it has happened -- quite a few times -- that someone has been quite excited about the whole ways of looking approach, and exploring it, and have found it very valuable, but then they say something or write something that makes it clear that they haven't really understood the sort of radicality of it, or the fundamentality of it, or just how pervasive it is, how pervasively it applies as an idea. So what can be quite common is for someone to say, "I play with my ways of looking. I practise that way," or even if they're a teacher, "I teach ways of looking. But then I tell people, perhaps at the end of the class, or at the end of the course, or whatever it is, 'Now you can rest from ways of looking.'" Or "I do that in my practice. I play with different ways of looking. I explore it. It's exciting. It's wonderful. But then I like to just be. I just like to rest from any way of looking," etc.

So if someone says something like that, it really means they haven't understood that it's impossible to have a moment of consciousness, a moment of perceiving anything, of experiencing anything, a moment of anything appearing without there being a way of looking. We cannot rest from a way of looking. Actually, not even the Unfabricated, not even a cessation of perception of feeling is really, technically, a rest from a way of looking. Anything we see, sense, anything we sense at all, anything we experience at all, is always experienced through a way of looking. Now, of course, we may or may not realize that. We may or may not be conscious of what the way of looking is at any time. We may or may not be deliberately playing with the way of looking. But there is always a way of looking. So it's not possible to let go of ways of looking.

Now, this isn't just a little pernickety sort of point, because if one doesn't understand that, one actually has undermined the whole structure of the ways of looking approach. It can no longer function in a profoundly and widely liberative, liberating way. If one has just converted the phrase 'ways of looking' to 'ways of practising,' and there's this kind of way of practising, or this practice and that practice, and it's just gathered practices (which one might find very powerful, very helpful), but then there's a time where I'm just resting from all that, and that time of resting from all that assumes, in this kind of not-quite-understanding of the approach, that time of resting then assumes that there's a possibility of not having a way of looking in any moment, that has great implications for our understanding of the nature of perception, of fabrication, of reality, of emptiness. It limits it hugely.

So that's one thing that's very, very important. A second thing, minor thing, and I actually mentioned it the other day in a talk, but I'll say it here as well: although it's not possible to rest from a way of looking in any moment of consciousness, it is possible, however, to rest from deliberately practising a way of looking. So I might be practising a certain way of looking -- anicca, or anattā, or 'fabricated,' whatever it is -- and then I might decide to rest from that. Or I might move from that way of looking, that deliberate way of looking, to practise another way of looking. The important thing is that I cannot rest completely from ways of looking, but also that it's actually important to move between ways of looking, and pay attention to what happens when I move between ways of looking. Whether I just rest from any deliberate way of looking, and then I just fall back into a kind of default mode of way of looking, or whether I switch from one deliberate way of looking to another way of looking, it's actually important to see the effects, the changes wrought on perception by changing ways of looking, either to the default one or to another deliberate one -- so through the contrast between what I perceive, what I experience between this way of looking and the other way of looking.

The point I was making the other day in a talk was this way of practising insight meditation, based on ways of looking, is not so dependent on "Keep the continuity going. Okay, eighteen, maybe twenty hours a day of continuous mindfulness, and through that, the mindfulness accumulates a kind of intensity and pervasiveness which allows it to see reality as it is, or pierce through illusion to see reality." Here, we actually need to rest from deliberate ways of looking at times or change them in order to see the contrast, because it's the contrast, it's seeing the contrast, the differences wrought in perception by different ways of looking, that bring me the insight.

Or, connected to that, or a modification of that, sometimes you hear or read someone -- maybe not using the language of 'ways of looking'; maybe using the language of 'lenses,' and 'the lens of anattā, seeing things as not me, not mine,' or 'the lens of impermanence,' and they're using that kind of flexibility of ways of looking with a slightly different language, but then they drop back into talking about 'being with what is,' or 'the way things really are.' And it's clear that what they mean by 'the way things really are' is not emptiness. They don't mean emptiness, the emptiness of any real way things are. They don't mean that the way things really are is they're not any real way -- as if all these lenses, or the couple or two or three lenses that they've sort of described and practised with and put out there, are kind of, well, superficial levels, above a level where it's possible to 'be with what is,' supposedly, and 'the way things really are,' as if there's another mode of being that is not a lens, or as if there's a particular lens that is the lens that reveals 'the way things really are,' whether that's bare attention, or just papañca-free sort of vividness of reality.

There's a similar kind of misunderstanding, a similar kind of truncating of the whole possibility of deepening insight, a similar kind of roadblock in the road of deeper insight there, because one has assumed there's a 'what is.' One has assumed an end of fabrication somewhere that's not the end of fabrication, has assumed a lens that will show me how things 'really are.' There's a privileged lens, if one is using that language, a privileged way of looking -- not understanding that one can possibly travel the road of emptiness, exploring emptiness, beyond any notion of 'what is' or 'the way things really are.' There is no independent reality, independent of a way of looking, of a lens. So we're just left with lenses, ways of looking. So this, too, betrays a kind of similarly limited understanding, or even a misunderstanding; kind of a limited use of this approach. It's really significant. Very, very significant.

Or another version of this sort of thing, this sort of misunderstanding, very limited understanding, and really problematic understanding happens when someone talks about ways of looking, emptiness, no real way things are, just ways of looking, and then says something like, "All there really is is a flux, or a flow, out of which the way of looking shapes this or that perception or appearance. All there really is is a flux or flow," and don't actually explain a flux or flow of what. But the problem, really, is in the "All there really is is a flow, a flux of something or other, and a flux, a flow, is a process, something that happens in time." So again, there is something that's assumed to be a reality, independent of a way of looking: this basic flux or flow, and time in which flux or flow must happen. Flux or flow must happen in time. And it's out of that basic reality that a way of looking then shapes this or that, more familiar objects of experience that we know.

But again, it's limiting, it's truncating the process of insight, truncating and limiting the possible depth of insight. Time is also empty. Time arises through ways of looking. Take away the clinging enough, take away the avijjā enough, time is not there. Time does not get fabricated. So there's a real danger there, again, that practising ways of looking with such an understanding, harbouring in the background this "All there really is is a flux or flow" of whatever, practising ways of looking that way will not lead to an opening to the actual Unfabricated because it's staying entrenched in and clinging to a notion of time as something basically existing, really existing. It may even be the amount of unfabricating that can happen with such a view in the background, even if it's not in the foreground, even if it's not clearly articulated, it may be that practising under the umbrella of such a view, or having that view in the background, actually brings pretty limited unfabricating through practice. So, very significant. Quite dangerous, in a way, in terms of the way they will really confine our openings, our understandings, and really our sense of what emptiness is -- of how far practice can go, but really of what emptiness is, and thus of what reality is.

Okay. So that's a couple of things that are really important. Second thing. This is a bit more subtle, but sometimes people, when they're talking about their insight practice, or reporting their insight practice to me, and perhaps they've come from another tradition, they might use the language of "drilling down through illusion," or of "seeing through self," for example: "I see through self, or I see through a certain manifestation of the meditator ego" or something. And that language of 'seeing through' is very different than the language implied by a ways of looking approach, which is more 'seeing as.'

For example, when I practise the anattā way of looking, when I practise the anattā view, I'm seeing *as "*This phenomenon, this experience, this thing is not me, not mine." I'm seeing it as not me, not mine, rather than as me or mine. I'm not seeing through it. The important thing here is 'seeing through,' the phrase 'seeing through,' the idea 'to see through something,' to me, has certain implications and assumptions wrapped up in it, as does the phrase 'drill down.' It has certain implications and assumptions, including an implicit realism: "I'm seeing through. I'm seeing through the illusion, seeing through this veil to something else, which is the reality that is veiled." Again, it might sound pernickety, but that's actually fundamentally different in terms of the presupposition of what we are doing and how we are approaching understanding emptiness, how we are approaching this inquiry and exploration into emptiness. Fundamentally different than the language of 'seeing as.'

'Seeing through,' as I said, has certain implications and a certain kind of realism, a certain assumed reality implicit in it, as does the phrase 'drill down.' [23:59] 'Seeing as,' to me, just implies that there are a range of ways of looking whose effects on perception interest me, and whose effects on perception, particularly regarding fabrication and dependent arising and the implicit emptiness of all that, that interests me. I can see it as this -- this pain, this physical thing, this phenomenon. I can see it as this; I can see it as that. I can look in this way; I can look in that way. And that's different than 'seeing through.'

Similarly, the language can be quite similar -- and again, this is something I said the other day, but it bears repeating, I think. You know, that word 'fabrication' wasn't so popular a number of years ago, and I'm aware that some people have picked up that word now, or re-picked it up; perhaps they used it ages ago. And because it's a Pali word, and a good translation of the word saṅkhāra or saṅkhata is 'fabricated,' people thinking about Dharma, or teaching Dharma, or thinking about their own practice will very commonly agree it's an important concept. After all, the Buddha uses it. It's right there in the wheel of dependent arising. It's right there regularly in the Pali Canon. And they think of fabrication as, "This is an important concept. Fabrication is an important concept, and kind of seeing through the fabricated or whatever is important." For instance, one very common idea would be, "What's fabricated is papañca in the common sense -- proliferation, making a fuss, getting in a tizzy over something, catastrophizing, etc., blowing things up out of all proportion. That's all fabrication. And when we let go of that through mindfulness and bare attention and equanimity, we're actually not fabricating. We're in contact with the Unfabricated. So mindfulness, bare attention, equanimity are ways of looking, modes of looking that reveal the Unfabricated -- just things as they are."

So then a person might, at the same time, be interested in the concept of fabrication, agree it's an important concept. Whether they use the word 'unfabricated' or not, they might implicitly agree there is an Unfabricated, a perception that we can be in contact with, that can be revealed to us. But they have no interest in the mystical depth of the Unfabricated as I would understand it, as something beyond any sense of subject, object, space, time, awareness, etc., beyond all phenomena. They have no interest in that kind of deep, mystical Unfabricated, or it feels irrelevant to life as we know it, or it's only for some people who are into that. But this, holding all those views together would, in a strange way, be making a kind of arbitrary and artificial distinction between everyday life, or Life, and what is mystical, because this concept of fabrication, or rather, of fabricating, the possibility of fabricating, is actually one strand. It's one strand of fabricating. In the ways of looking approach that I would like to support and make clearer, we're not actually presupposing what the end of fabrication is. I'm not deciding in advance, "Fabrication stops at a kind of bare, pristine reality of things appearing to me," or "It stops on the kind of view that most people would agree on when they're not in papañca or not in a tizzy." Papañca is a Pali word, actually used, itself, at a lot of different levels. It has come to be used really at a much more gross level.

So that's just one end of the spectrum of fabricating. Papañca is very gross fabricating. But if we follow this idea of clinging deeper and deeper, and keep the idea, just withhold any presupposition or any quick deciding on where fabrication ends, so fabrication itself is an open concept -- let's find out. Through exploring ways of looking, through getting more skilled at letting go of subtler and subtler and deeper and more refined levels of clinging, let's just see where this process of fabrication stops and where the Unfabricated is. It's actually just one spectrum. And to me, it goes all the way from papañca through everyday, normal perception, through quieter sort of more pristine awareness of that, and then through a whole series of fading. All this is one spectrum. And that series of fading, as I said, goes all the way down to the fading, the unfabricating of any sense of subject, any sense of object, any sense of space or time or consciousness or anything like that.

So if it's one spectrum, one inquiry into fabrication and how we can let go of fabrication, why has a person drawn the line where they have? They need to somehow justify that. If you drawn the line at just, "It's what appears when we agree with most of the other people on the planet about what is real," or "It's what appears when things look really shiny and clear," as they will with a kind of bright mindfulness, it's just a point on that spectrum of non-fabricating. So where exactly do you draw the line, and why exactly have you drawn the line there? Again, the principle of fabrication, clinging, and fading here, it's one principle, and it's the same principle that a person is drawing on when they say "Fabrication is an important concept, and papañca is what's fabrication, and we want to unfabricate that, get rid of that so we can be with what's Unfabricated." It's the same principle, but it's one spectrum continuing much, much deeper than that. It's only presuppositions, essentially unquestioned reality assumptions, that one is dragging in to what's really, as I said, one spectrum, and therefore a coherent system, coherent principle: fabrication, clinging, and fading. It's one system, a coherent system. And then one is dividing that spectrum, either arbitrarily or just in line with my presuppositions, dividing what was coherent and undivided, a continuous spectrum, and, in some way, by dividing it, actually making it incoherent. Now, one can do that. Of course one can. But it's just, what's the justification? It seems to me one would need a pretty strong, philosophically worked out justification if you're going to do that, because one makes something that was coherent incoherent.

[32:02] And similarly, if we're on these sort of minor misunderstandings, a little bit related to something we said earlier today, sometimes someone reports to me, "I'm trying to get rid of the usual, relentless sense of self." And that's actually how they're approaching their meditative practice. And again, they might have heard some teachings, or picked up a book or something, and have sort of twisted the intention, or distorted the intention -- very understandable -- to trying to get rid, even momentarily, of the usual, relentless sense of self. "Oh, I'm trying to unfabricate something. I'm trying to get rid of something." That intention, to try to get rid, even if it's just for a moment, to have a moment taste free of the usual, relentless sense of self, that may be either, again, from an idea that's being dragged in about the reality of no-self -- very common and understandable to understand what we're doing in emptiness explorations as "We want to see that what's real is that there is no self," and then one's taking that idea -- wherever one has heard it, or read it, or misunderstood it, or whatever it is -- one's taking that idea and bringing that in, so then I'm trying to 'get rid of' this usual sense of self.

So it may be dragging an idea in, a habitual idea, a common idea that the reality is that there is no self -- that's the ontological truth of things, is that the self has no reality, or that what is real is no-self. So one may be coming from an idea, and/or it may be coming from an aversion, or even a neurosis, a sort of aversion to oneself and the sense of self or the kinds of ways that the self arises. So this is really not helpful. Aversion will certainly not help in the whole investigation. If aversion is there unconsciously, it won't help in the investigation of ways of looking and fabrication and emptiness. And if it's there driving things, it will tend to actually just fabricate more. But also it's not helpful because the understanding is wrong. One has dragged in another understanding, another assumption about reality and truth that is different than the assumptions that ground the ways of looking approach into emptiness.

Some of this will be obvious for some of you, and some will seem not obvious at all, and a bit like hair-splitting, but actually really, really important. And you will see it in the fruits, because if these sort of basic grounding ideas are not correct or they're limited, they will be limiting, and what they deliver in terms of the way the whole meditation exploration opens up, and what it delivers, and the degree of unfabricating it delivers, and the degree of understanding emptiness that it delivers, that will all be limited because some kind of basic assumptions are getting in the way or distorting things or limiting things.

When we talk about ways of looking, as I said, what are we talking about? We're talking about the whole collection or weave, as I said, of what's involved in the relationship with anything that one's experiencing in any moment. So the tendency to grasp, or hold on, or push away to whatever degree -- clinging, in that obvious sense; the appropriation of self, the assumptions about its reality; all kinds of other assumptions; the ideas, the conceptual frameworks; the belief in time -- all that is woven into the way of looking. When we practise ways of looking, what we're really doing is taking certain elements of that whole collection of what's in a way of looking in any moment, just focusing on certain elements and changing them. So the example we used earlier was anattā, 'not me, not mine.' The habitual way of looking -- without thinking about it, without it being a conscious action in the mind, or something we can even often realize is going on, certainly without it being verbal -- is 'me, mine, me, mine,' to this experience, that experience, this object, or whatever.

What we're doing when we practise the anattā way of looking is we're just changing that, changing that to 'not me, not mine.' And this 'not me, not mine' is something that's very, very lightly held in the way of looking, or, you could say, inserted into the way of looking -- actually, we're removing the usual 'me, mine.' And very, very lightly and delicately, it's there in the way of looking. The way of looking itself is -- well, we'll come back to that. Ways of looking, as we practise them, have subtexts, so that when we say 'empty,' for example, as a way of looking -- we don't really say it; we might say it just as a whisper in the mind, or we look at something and look at it as 'empty.' That's practising a way of looking. But what that means, we could write an essay on it, or a book, even: what does it mean? We're not going through all that every time, but it has to be implicitly woven into the way of looking when we look at things as empty.

So the subtext, if you like -- what I sometimes call the 'small print' of a way of looking -- is often very complex, and it has to be held very, very lightly. It's implicit there in the way of looking. If we return to the anattā way of looking and actually just focus on something, it was interesting -- I was talking to someone the other day, so this just serves as a good example. They had moved on from practising the anattā way of looking with, for example, body sensations, and thoughts, and mind states, and things like that. They had actually moved on to what's usually more difficult: to a stage of anattā practice where one's regarding awareness itself, the consciousness itself, as anattā, as 'not me, not mine.' And in the course of the conversation, it became clear that the subtext here is a little more complex.

So what's involved here? This person was aware that it meant there's no doing of awareness. So for them, what the anattā of awareness, what was the only thing that was in their anattā way of looking when they turned it on awareness was that there's no doing of awareness -- which actually means there's no agency. So they needed to have that language, I think, just slightly altered. It's not that there's no doing; it's that there's no one doing it. It's not that there's no effort and no doing, because later on, one really begins to understand, at a very deep level in practice, at a deep level, you see that any moment of experience, any moment of appearance and perception, or any arising of any phenomena at all involves doing on the part of the subject. It's not non-doing. It's the fact that, we could say, there's no agent. There's no agency. It's not me doing. The effort and the doing that go with awareness are not me, not mine. So that's one thing that he needed a little bit expanding, because what he was finding was, unlike when he did anattā practice, anattā way of looking on other phenomena (it worked quite well with the fading and the release of dukkha, etc.), here, when he was trying to do the anattā of awareness, it seemed to be quite limited. So we were finding out why. It was because there wasn't enough in his way of looking when he looked at awareness and said anattā, or looked at it with the view anattā, rather.

So it's not that there's no doing of awareness; it's that there's no agency. That was one thing. But he was also missing two other factors. One is that there's no possession of awareness. It's not mine. So there's no entity of self that owns this awareness, of which the awareness makes up a part of this self, this entity. Also, thirdly, there's no identification with awareness. The awareness, the consciousness, is not me. So we have no possession, no identification, and no agency, for example. If you want a little acronym, if this is helpful, you can think: there's no PIA. There's no PIA. That understanding is tacitly wrapped up in and it's present in the subtext of just attending to the sense of awareness and looking at it as anattā.

Like I said, even there, even before we get onto "it's empty in itself," or "empty, empty," even there, with the anattā of awareness, what's involved in the subtext is actually fairly complex, and it needs to be woven in and understood as part of the way of [looking], in the way of looking. The way of looking needs to have that understanding in it. This -- not just the details there, but the general principle -- is very important.

[43:08] So this business with ways of looking is really, you know, we're not talking about something abstract. We're talking about practice, and it's really an art, and in some cases very subtle and delicate art and skill that we need to develop. It's not just going to [snaps fingers] happen like that. And it's certainly not abstract. Do you know for yourself, firsthand, the effect of sensing something through the lens of a way of looking where you're regarding it as empty, compared to what happens when you're sensing something through a way of looking that just automatically, as a default, just regards it as real, as inherently existing? These two have massively different effects on perception. When you're really regarding something through a lens that really understands its emptiness, it's profound fading that happens. Of course, we know, we move in the world, and only very little fading happens when we're essentially practising unconsciously and automatically and by habit the view that comes out of what the Buddha would call avijjā -- ignorance, delusion -- which assumes the reality, the inherent existence of phenomena.

So we're not talking about something abstract here when we talk about ontology, and ways of looking, and all that business, and emptiness. We're really talking about practices which are real arts to develop. If one just tries it, it's unlikely that will have any effect, to just regard things as empty or not real, unless it really means something -- I'm very clear what it means, and I have ground or reason. If I just regard something as empty while I'm paying attention to it, unless that word, 'empty,' really means something, and unless I have really good grounds or reasons to believe that it's empty, based on my experience, based on something, an understanding, an insight that I've really consolidated through practice, it won't do anything. It's just a word. You might as well say 'octopus' or something.

So these ways of looking need to be understood by us: what does it mean? What's involved? What's the subtext in that way of looking? And we need to have confidence in that subtext, in what it means. I have confidence. There's a real grounding in my being. There's real reason why I can sense something, pay attention to something, and at the same time as I'm paying attention to it, regard it as empty. That has to be based on a clear understanding and a solid, consolidated foundation of understanding through experience: I know it's empty. I know why it's empty. I know why I think it's empty, why I know it's empty.

And secondly, and related to what I said earlier, you know, we're not talking about big, chunky, gross sort of philosophical ramblings, sort of rumbling through the mind. We're not talking about thinking about things. We're talking about a way of looking. These understandings, these convictions, these clarities are very, very kind of subtly woven into the way of looking, so that the way of looking itself is very, very delicate, very, very agile. We're actually sensing things that way. We're not, like, busy thinking about some philosophy. And that ability to convert essentially clear philosophical understanding, based on experience, into a very delicate and agile and kind of subtle way of looking, way of sensing something in any of the six senses. That takes practice to develop, usually -- I mean, almost always.

But I would say, you know, I wonder if there's anything in life, anything in existence, anything that we could spend our time developing in the interval between birth and death, if there's anything more worth it than developing ways of looking. If I want the fullest, deepest, widest liberation, I think that comes through liberating ways of looking, the liberation of ways of looking, the development of ways of looking and of a range of ways of looking, because that will open up this whole territory of emptiness, etc. We could say, in the end, what liberation is, as well as the liberation of suffering, it's the liberation of ways of looking. In other words, ways of looking become available to us. We're not imprisoned. We're not constrained. There's the liberation from the prison of only certain fixed ways of looking at things, only certain fixed relationships with the world and perceptions of self, other, world, time, etc. So full liberation is a liberation of ways of looking, liberation into accessibility of ways of looking. And, of course, that enables more liberation from suffering.

But even more, if I want the fullest, deepest, widest love -- not just liberation, but if I want the fullest, deepest, widest love, then if I follow that love, if I follow the eros, if I follow the mettā, and I pay attention to the ways of looking it naturally opens, and then I practise those ways of looking, what that does is it increases the mettā, increases the eros. And because of that, the eros-psyche-logos dynamic, the soulmaking dynamic, is ignited further, galvanized further, opens further. There's more eros, but more psyche and logos -- we can translate that as image. There's more sense of things -- the sense of things opens up. They show us more aspects. We can see, sense levels of them, other perceptions of them, psyche. And logos, the whole idea, the whole conception of things -- the perception and the conception, psyche and logos -- the perception and conception of things opens up. And in that opening up of psyche and logos, of perception and conception, idea of things, then that can stimulate the eros even more. There are more ways of looking opened up, etc. The whole thing opens up through following the ways of looking that we find out are there when there's eros, when there is mettā or karuṇā, etc., and then developing those ways of looking, it opens up further, further, further, further. I've explained that many times. It's in the Ecology of Love series of talks,[4] how the whole eros-psyche-logos dynamic works, the soulmaking dynamic works in the opening up of love, basically, to whole other levels, whole other domains, whole other spread, range.

So if we want the fullest, deepest, widest liberation -- ways of looking. If we want the fullest, deepest, widest love -- ways of looking. If we want also the fullest, deepest, widest meaningfulness and beauty in our existence, in our life, the sense of meaningfulness and beauty, if we want that to be the fullest, the richest, the deepest, the widest. Again, trusting that perception of meaningfulness and beauty enough to discern: what are the ways of looking that are there when those senses are around, of meaningfulness and beauty? And there will be many. And then practising them. What that does, again, it will open up further the sense of soulmaking. Meaningfulness and beauty are integral to soulmaking. And that will open up further the sense of beauty, etc., and suggest, open up more ways of looking. This is all just part, again, of how the soulmaking dynamic works.

As a general principle here, if we want something -- whether it's to understand emptiness, whether it's liberation, whether it's love, whether it's soulmaking -- we need to practise ways of looking that lead to that, practise ways of looking in ways that lead to that, to understanding emptiness, to a sense of liberation, to love, or to a sense of soulmaking. And then what those ways of looking deliver -- understanding emptiness, liberation, love, or soulmaking -- those deliverances will also open us to more ways of looking, or deliver to us also a greater range of ways of looking. We practise ways of looking as powerful ways to open to what it is that we want, whatever that is, whatever we want deeply -- emptiness understanding, liberation, love, soulmaking dynamic, soulmaking in general -- and then we let that opening that the ways of looking have delivered, we let that, or it will, open up more ways of looking. That's how the soulmaking dynamic works. It's how liberation works. It's how an understanding of emptiness works. Practise ways of looking to get X, and then let X deliver to us, suggest to us, open for us even more ways of looking. Sometimes I think there's nothing more worthwhile in life than developing the whole notion and idea of ways of looking.

[55:38] Okay. So if we just revisit this point, it's quite easy to hear about the ways of looking approach, and hear about emptiness, and how they relate, and jump to certain conclusions before we've practised it, or get off on the wrong foot in our understanding. So a few things here, and particularly with regard to ethics. Someone might hear the teachings about emptiness and start, so to speak, at the end, as if they're being asked to believe something, which is that everything, all things are empty. And they might hear that or read it: "All things are absolutely empty." And then they've forgotten about the whole ways of looking thing, and da-da-da, and they just interpret as if they're being asked to believe something -- that all things are empty -- whereas that's a conclusion.

So in practice, we don't start by believing anything like that. We don't start with the conclusion, because someone who would start in such a way would, understandably, have the concern then, "But then I wouldn't care, or nothing would matter. And what about ethics and that sort of thing, if everything is empty?" They're trying to understand it from their sort of usual, conventional point of view, without really understanding it, which can only really come about through practice. Rather, we start with these two notions that I mentioned before -- start with that there is the possibility of a range of ways of looking. That's part of what it is to have a human mind and heart, a human citta. And secondly, that we explore the fabrication of suffering, of self and other, etc., through different ways of looking. And that exploration, as I said, is an open-ended experiential and experimental inquiry, without predeciding the limit of fabrication (in other words, without predeciding that fabrication just ends here, thank you very much, and it doesn't go down to all that deep fading business and that mystical stuff) -- without predeciding that, or without predeciding that everything is empty and everything is an illusion. Even though we might be told that may be the conclusion, we don't know what that means yet, and it would be silly to start with a conclusion that we don't really understand. Let's keep it open and find out. Just take those two ideas -- the possibility of flexibility of ways of looking and the extension of that range, and this idea of the fabrication of suffering, self, and other -- and then open-ended, experimental, experiential inquiry, without predeciding either way.

That should allay, to a certain extent, someone's fears around, "Well, you're asking me to believe this, that everything is empty, and that, to me, implies that I'm not going to care, or nothing matters, or ethics won't matter," etc. But a few more things it's important to say here. Emptiness ways of looking -- in other words, ways of looking that see something or see experience, phenomena, objects to some level or other as empty -- any emptiness way of looking is just a way of looking which we can pick up and put down. In other words, it's not an ultimate truth. It's not somewhere to park your way of looking, as if we could, forever, and stay in a certain way of looking. The whole thing is flexible, and it needs to keep a range and flexibility. We pick up and put down emptiness ways of looking, so that sometimes we want to put down emptiness ways of looking and pick up a reified view of self, of other, of suffering, of this or that, of some ethical situation -- even of something like responsibility in an ethical misdemeanour.

So how do we decide whether we pick up what we pick up and put down in terms of a way of looking? Well, we're responsive to what's needed. And in Buddhadharma, we base our choice of way of looking in any moment on what reduces suffering. In Soulmaking Dharma, our choice is based on what opens up the soulmaking. If we're basing it on the reduction of suffering, it's of self, of other, and world. But emptiness ways of looking are things we pick up and put down. They're not, "Now I'm going to all the time be in this emptiness way of looking, or this view of the emptiness of all things, and I'm sort of stuck there, and how will the ethics come in?", and things like that. So that's a second point, very important.

A third point, again, relates to the fact that understanding emptiness or exploring emptiness through the ways of looking approach is probably more unusual, and what's more common, perhaps, is that emptiness is equated not with the kind of understanding that comes out of the whole journey through the ways of looking approach, but rather, emptiness is equated with either sort of a big empty space in which appear just insubstantial objects, and there's not much self or personality, it seems, or much doing. And that's often someone's understanding of emptiness. Or a second understanding can be: emptiness kind of refers to just a sort of machine-like process of the aggregates, the five aggregates of being -- body, vedanā, perception, mental formations, and consciousness -- and what's really empty is the self. Here, 'emptiness' means 'impermanence' -- impermanent because there is just the impermanent, moment-to-moment arising and passing of that process of the aggregates in time, a bit like a machine, and that's what emptiness means to some people, or that's a common view.

So either it's a big, empty space of insubstantiality, not much self, not much doing (it seems), or it's this kind of emptiness of the self which actually reduces to a kind of impermanent nature of the aggregates as a process in time. But neither of those two understandings or views of emptiness has any obvious connection with dependent arising, nor does it easily bring out the connection with dependent arising and also with karma (which are two sides of the same thing, dependent arising and karma). So those two views of emptiness, the connection is not obvious. However, one of the sort of reasons one might want to explore emptiness through the ways of looking and fabrication paradigm is that, if we start with those notions (ways of looking and fabrication), then dependent arising is woven in always, right from the beginning. That's totally what we're exploring, what we're paying attention to. Dependent on this way of looking, dependent on this mind state, attitude, relationship (that's all woven into the way of looking), dependent on this way of looking, then suffering and self and other and world arise and appear a lot, a little, or like this, or like that -- dependent on the way of looking. Dependent arising is woven into it.

So even something like generosity becomes a way of looking. When I'm generous, the self, other, world arise a certain way. I feel myself a certain way. If I really practise generosity, if I really am very generous and open-hearted, then I'll notice something about how self, other, world appear, if I really take it on as an inquiry -- and also that suffering gets reduced through generosity, in the now, in the giving. I mean, of course, you can have some suffering because you've given so much that then I'm afraid, etc., but generally speaking, [when] one really explores it over time with wisdom, one sees that basically generosity becomes -- we could call it a way of looking; you see how expansive that term is. But when there's generosity, I sense things, I sense self, other, world a certain way, and suffering is reduced. When there's the opposite, the absence of generosity -- when there's, let's say, stinginess -- then self, other, world get fabricated very differently: more separate, more contracted, more hard, more solid, and suffering increases.

So in this way of working with emptiness, the ways of looking approach and fabrication approach to emptiness, then ethics is integrated into emptiness right from the beginning. It's unavoidable. The approach integrates karma into our understanding of emptiness unavoidably. We see it. We know it. We feel it firsthand. And as we go deeper, we see the world is different dependent on the way of looking.

Those other two understandings of emptiness that I mentioned briefly -- the sort of big space insubstantiality, and the sort of moment-to-moment arising and passing of the aggregates -- it's possible, or rather it's more possible, that they can lead to a kind of moral nihilism. One might assume, "Well, there's no self there. Therefore there will be no selfishness." There's no self in that machine-like process of the aggregates in time, momentary arising and passing, nor is there much self in that big, empty space. With less self, there's less selfishness, so one might think, "Oh, they should help with morality," and maybe they will. But neither actually is there much of a world there, and the effects of ways of looking and of actions kind of get dissolved and not noticed in that big space or in the kind of microscopic, myopic attention to the momentary arising and passing.

And then it might well be that ethics needs supplementation by a separate teaching, separate teaching about sīla, because it's not quite clear what these understandings of emptiness have to do with ethics. There's also the case a lot in the Tibetan tradition how they emphasize repeatedly the importance of ethics almost as a separate domain than the understanding of emptiness. It's like it gets re-emphasized, as if "Don't forget about karma. Karma's more important than śūnyatā," the Dalai Lama would say. So sometimes, because either their approach to emptiness is not coming through the ways of looking, fabrication, and dependent arising paradigm -- it's coming through an analytical approach, where one just analyses logically to see that things can have no inherent existence, or it's coming through some level of a big space approach to emptiness -- and then those two approaches, too, will need this kind of supplementary teachings on ethics because it's not at all obvious what the connection is and there's a danger of nihilism. It's not wrapped up, the way appearances arise dependently and arise as this or that, as well as suffering, nor the fact of arising, that it arises dependently on the way of looking. No clinging, no arising. No avijjā, no arising. But in the ways of looking/fabrication approach, the ways of looking approach to emptiness, there may be no need for extra ethical teaching in terms of basic ethics, because experience through the practice teaches ethics and karma, again, through inquiry into ways of looking, fabrication, and dependent arising. It's right there.

I remember interviews, really quite some years ago. Someone came in for the interview, and as part of it, he said, "Well, you know, this view you have about the non-reality of things and emptiness, that really needs challenging," and he was a bit concerned about it, but he couldn't quite make the challenge himself. He said, "It's just not right. It's not right." Now, I know that he was very concerned about things like climate change. I can't remember how the conversation panned out, because he had never practised ways of looking, etc., so I don't remember actually what I said. But it would have been worth his while to actually look, for example, among Dharma teachers: who are the ones who seem like they're not really engaged very much in social justice issues or environmental issues? This is what he cared about. If you have that notion of the emptiness of things, "It's dangerous to any kind of care for climate," etc. -- now, he knew that I was very concerned with climate, and I was very active, etc., so he should have, rather, I think, asked the question, "How is it that you can believe that, about the emptiness of things, and still be so dedicated to climate issues, and environmental issues, and working on that, and trying to raise consciousness about that?" That would have been probably a more appropriate question.

But if one looks, who is it who thinks, practises, teaches, talks in terms of the deepest and most comprehensive emptiness, and are they people with deeply engaged practices? In other words, their conception and practice of the Dharma extends to engagement with social justice and ecological issues, etc. And the ones who don't, who have a most realist view -- contrary to the sort of easy assumption that this person was making, "If we don't have a realist view, it will be a problem." Actually look at the practitioners, etc., writers, teachers who seem to espouse a very realist view, and see what's happening in their engagement. [1:12:10] Even if someone doesn't totally, firsthand, get the whole deep and comprehensive emptiness thing, if they're drawn to it, it will still guide their philosophy and what they aspire to and realize in practice. So you can compare that way.

In other words, to put the whole thing better: the fact of this coexisting of the deep, thorough emptiness view, the coexisting of that with a radical and long-term commitment to engagement should have led to a questioning of his fears and assumptions that emptiness would give rise to moral nihilism, I would say. Also, we might just reflect -- I'm going to talk more about ethics in the future, but we might reflect a little bit, it would be wise to reflect that it's not so much non-reification or seeing the emptiness of things that leads to a lack of care of ethics. One might assume that, again, as this person did. But really, it's a reification that leads to crime -- a reification of self as a centre of gravity of acquisition, and of other: "I want that object, that thing, a real thing that's going to give me something." That's what leads to crime and unethical behaviour. It's a reification of self and "what I want," the objects that I want. With non-reification of self and other, the impulses to criminally acquire or unethically acquire things decreases. That would be another reflection. I will come back to talk more about ethics later on.

So it's very easy to misunderstand, or only partially understand, as I said, or to drag other assumptions into this whole understanding of emptiness, and this whole approach to emptiness, and ways of looking approach. Bertrand Russell -- I read this the other day; I'm not sure what the context is, whether he meant this deliberately about someone that had written something about what he had written. He sounds a little ticked off, and it sounds quite judgmental. But he said,

A stupid man's report of what a clever man says can never be accurate, because he unconsciously translates what he hears into something he can understand.

So yeah, don't know the context. It does sound a bit judgmental, etc. But I think the more general point is well-taken, that it's easy, as human beings, for us to read or hear something that's subtle and sophisticated and actually just squeeze it into a box of what we can already understand or what we already know. We chop bits off. We shave bits off. We turn things around, squeeze them, change their relationship so that it can fit into the box of what we can understand and what we can already know.

So this business of emptiness is deep and subtle business. And there's been, in the history of Buddhism, a lot of care around emptiness teachings, and also, we should say, with tantric and Vajrayāna teachings -- a lot of care about who they're given to, and how we need to set them up, etc. The tantric teachings have parallels, similarities at least, with Soulmaking Dharma teachings. It's similar. Do we really need to take care that both the emptiness and the soulmaking, in this case, is not misunderstood, distorted, twisted, only partially understood, only understood at a very superficial level, that we've not got sloppy with all that? I do think so. And through the history of the Buddhadharma, through millennia, there's been, until very recently, a lot of care around how and when teachings are given and disseminated.

I think I've said this before, but it's possible for us to be sloppy in our understanding of emptiness. It's subtle and it's sophisticated, and it runs very, very deep. So, for example -- I think I've said this before -- we say, "What does emptiness mean?" It means that there is no real way anything is. That fact of emptiness, that meaning of emptiness, that there is no real way anything is, it does not entail that a thing can be anything. There's no real way anything is, but it doesn't mean that a thing can be anything. Or, if we put it in a slightly different way, the fact that there is no way a thing really is does not imply that there is no way it really isn't. So it's not just saying, "Oh, things are empty. Therefore anything can be anything, or a thing can be anything." Subtle and sophisticated. So I really think it's important not to be sloppy with all this business about emptiness. We're talking about a very refined understanding. That Middle Way of emptiness is really a razor's edge. It's really a very fine line between nihilism and realism. We need to take care not to be sloppy.

Some people say -- again, this is not so much sloppiness, but just a little more precision is needed. I've heard several times someone say, some people say, "We need to understand emptiness before we practise Soulmaking Dharma, because otherwise we're going to reify. We're going to reify the images." A couple of things here. First of all, not necessarily. And I don't think James Hillman was reifying his images. Very much the sense I get from reading him was that he was really interested in that territory of 'as if,' what we could call 'neither real nor not real,' or 'the imaginal Middle Way.' And I don't think he had any training in emptiness or Buddhist philosophy or anything like that. It's more almost an aesthetic disposition, more an intuitive understanding of what the imaginal involves.

But secondly and more importantly, the non-reification of images, or not reifying images, involves more than just seeing that they're empty. It involves the recognition of their different ontological status than the ontological status of conventionally agreed-upon objects or material things or emotions. So emptiness is something that applies to all objects, yes? Like I said at the beginning, it applies to [knocks on desk]. This solid desk is empty of inherent existence, but [so] is the dream your daughter had of a monster chasing her that came out from under her bed, as it applies to an imaginal image in meditation. Emptiness applies to all objects. It's not enough of an ontological assessment here. What we need to do is understand that an image, an imaginal image, has a different ontological status. It's not just that it's empty. It has a different ontological status than conventionally agreed-upon, for example, material objects. So if that lion in the image wants to rip me apart and eat me and devour me, I understand in the meditation that there is a different ontological status than were it a real lion there. But they're both empty. So there's something we need to understand a bit more precisely here. It's not just the fact of emptiness that allows us to navigate imaginal practice. Different ontological status of images and conventional objects, but both empty.

When it comes to emptiness practice -- and something I've said, I think, recently, but I want to highlight it again -- I think eros is really needed. We really need to be erotically curious about emptiness and the practice; passionately interested and excited, even. You know, the necessity of eros for practice -- actually, the necessity of eros in life, and in helping with all kinds of things -- is something we should emphasize. I think of someone I know. She's probably 85, and she has never trained her mind in meditation. Not interested in any of all that. She's 85, and she has some physical dukkha, but a fair amount of mental dukkha in relationship to her physical dukkha and other things. But she has never trained her mind. So, you know, her reactivity is going to be more than someone who has trained their mind through mindfulness and meditation, and she's got lots of habits of the citta, habits of the way she relates to things, etc., that are not going to really help, that will actually increase her dukkha.

So you'd think, "Okay, mindfulness will help her. Training in mindfulness will help her." And undoubtedly it will. But I have a question: is it mindfulness that would help her the most? Because this person is also, I would say, not actually deeply interested in anything. I've known her for quite some years, and I would say that she's never really been deeply interested in anything. So she's been happy enough in her life, etc., and periods of less happy and all that, and now she's getting old. She is old. There's more mental dukkha. But is it the mindfulness that would actually help her most? Because she's not, also, deeply interested in anything. There's very little, in other words, eros in her life. Eros, too, this deep interest in something, that would give her life soulfulness, meaningfulness, beauty, vitality, and in that would there be an increase in well-being and happiness? Which is the more important ingredient, the mindfulness or the eros?

The eros is really, really important in life, in relationship to suffering. Yes, it cuts, but without it, a life without eros will inevitably have some form of depression in it. To get back to what I was saying before, I think emptiness practices need to be fuelled by eros, by a kind of -- what do we call it? -- erotic curiosity and excitement, or they will be much more profoundly and widely helpful and liberating if one is really interested in emptiness, excited and passionate about it, loves it, loves exploring it, instead of emptiness and emptiness practices just being a set of techniques to reduce suffering -- which they can be regarded as: "Yeah, look at this this way. Practise this way of looking, and there will be much less suffering." But if they're just related to as a set of techniques to reduce suffering and decrease unhelpful cognitive patterns, I don't think we're going to get all the wide, deep, liberating juice out of it. And actually, we could say that with any practice: mindfulness, mettā, generosity, compassion. We need eros for that practice.

In the Mahāyāna suttas -- I'm pretty sure it's from the different Prajñāpāramitā suttas, but maybe other places as well -- they say things like, "A bodhisattva only teaches emptiness to those whose hair stands on end when they hear about it, they're so excited, or they shed tears of joy or being moved, even if they don't understand it." It's only to those people -- i.e. the teachings of emptiness and the practice of emptiness are not being set or received in fertile ground if it's coming with an "Oh, I should practise emptiness. My Dharma friends are into it, or they say it's the best thing. Emptiness is the best, or emptiness is necessary. You can't be a proper practitioner if you don't practise. Or it's advanced, so my ego gets a certain boost or gratification in practising that level of teachings or whatever." All that will be a dry soil, an unfertile soil. Practice of emptiness, practices of emptiness, inquiry into emptiness, exploration of it needs eros, absolutely, I think, to be really fertile. It's the juice. It's the moisture, the water in the soil that allows it to be fertile.

[1:27:31] And it's that eros that also will prevent us being sloppy with it. We're not satisfied -- the eros wants to go [to] a more refined understanding, a more subtle understanding, a more careful and precise understanding of emptiness. So again, care with the sloppiness. Care, as well, as I said before in regard to the ethics question, care not to start with a conclusion about emptiness. So I had a question from someone a while ago that ended up on my desk, and they were asking about trauma. They were saying, "Well, in your book, Seeing That Frees, or the book Seeing That Frees is basically saying that trauma is empty," whereas there was another book they were reading, and it was basically saying that trauma is real, and it's neurologically wired, and it's a real, physical fact, and the phrase they used was "the body keeps the score" or something, "the body keeps score." So you get these two views: either it's empty (which was attributed to, "That's what Seeing That Frees, that's what Rob is saying. It's just empty"), or this other view, "It's a real thing. It's an absolutely real thing, and it's real because it's neurologically wired. You can't get away from the physical reality of that."

So why not, why not, why not just bring a bit more care and openness and subtlety to the investigation here? This is a really, really important investigation. Why not acknowledge some dependence? There must be at least some dependence of the experience of trauma on factors in the present, okay? So here's this traumatic event, or series of events -- maybe even a series over a long time -- and just acknowledge that how that arises for me, its effect in the present, how it comes up in the present, depends on factors in the present. It depends whether it's met by love, met by warmth, met by spaciousness, or whether it's met by harshness, and judgmentalism, and contraction, and all kinds of other assumptions, and all kinds of things. There's some dependence. We must know -- everyone must agree on that. The experience of trauma, how I actually experience it in this moment, depends to some extent on factors in the present. And maybe just start with that, without assuming either of those other extreme views -- "Rob says trauma is empty," or the extreme view of "It's a real thing. The body keeps the score. It's an absolutely hardwired, real thing." That's not what I'm saying, by the way, that one extreme view. It's not what Seeing That Frees says or the way it approaches it, anyway.

But why not just start with, acknowledge there's some dependency of the actual experience of trauma on factors in the present? The experience of trauma depends, to some degree, on factors in the present. Just start with that, and then keep exploring -- exploring with practice and with ways of looking, without presupposing either extreme view, or, again, presupposing how much or where is the limit of the effect of conditions in the present on trauma. Same principle. Keep it open. Keep it an investigation. Don't jump to either a realist or a nihilist view, what the Buddha called extreme views. The Middle Way is the middle between extreme views. What else is trauma, after all, but an experience? We don't talk about trauma if it's gone completely and there's no experience, it has no effects whatsoever in the present. Trauma is its effects in the present, so that's what we're talking about. This is really, really important. You're just starting with the idea, a very gentle, open idea: "I don't know. It must be somewhat dependent on present factors. This experience of trauma must be somewhat dependent on factors in the present. Let's find out how much." That would be a ways of looking approach in the way I would teach it. So find out. Find out. Just keep going.

And if you come to an "Absolutely, that's it," okay. But find out. Because it also might be the case -- just pursuing this particular theme around trauma -- that other factors are at play here. So again, rather than argue between absolute and abstract views, rather than argue between two views that are kind of absolute, "It's like this. It's like that," and that may be actually quite abstract -- again, they're abstract; by that, I mean they're taken as positions by belief rather than an experiential inquiry. So rather than argue between two views that are kind of extreme, absolute, or abstract with regard to trauma -- either that it's an inherently existent, unbudgeable reality of the body and nervous system on the one hand, or that it's empty on the other hand -- it would be much more helpful to start with what should be quite obvious: that trauma will be experienced, as I said, very differently, and have very different effects, dependent on the attitudes, habit patterns, and habit patterns of mind, heart, will, soul, and relationality that accompany it.

And those habit patterns might have been already established as habits before the occurrence of the traumatic incidents. This person might already have had, before this traumatic series of incidents, might already have had a quite strong tendency to aversion. Might already have entrenched, unfortunately, a habit towards what we might call laziness; a habit towards easily collapsing, as well, psychically, in terms of herself, in terms of her strength and power and uprightness. Might also, unfortunately, have a lack of wisdom. And what became habitual might be an avoidance of challenge, an avoidance of the unpleasant, might have been inculcated as a habit into the life, into the mind and the being. Might have developed, in many areas, a weak will, and yet, in other areas, a kind of stubborn will. All these, all these kind of pre-constituted habits and factors, may be part of determining, more than the actual traumatic incident itself, may be part of determining how the trauma and its effects play out in her life over decades. It's not so much the trauma; it's the fact that those traumatic incidents landed in a soil that was already teeming with not-so-helpful ingredients, and they were habitual ingredients. So when the trauma 'comes up' again, so to speak -- which, again, is already presupposing a notion -- when it 'comes up' again, it meets those same unhelpful habits, and it plays out in the soil of those unhelpful habits, and they create a really much more difficult soup. So which bit's the trauma? Which bit's the pre-existing habit that was developed?

So there's a lot to inquire into, and sometimes we're too quick, too sloppy in saying, "Trauma's just empty. Don't look at the past," or just giving it some kind of inherent reality without looking carefully enough at conditions. And it's exactly looking at conditions and what we can do with conditions in the present -- including insight ways of looking, including bringing other factors in -- it's exactly that that's going to help. So "How can I help in the present?" ends up being the same inquiry as "What's inherently existent here?" They go together because of the whole ways of looking approach. In the ways of looking approach, we're interested in what gives rise to more suffering here, what locks suffering into place right now, in this moment, and what decreases suffering. So the whole inquiry into ontology and into reality is totally connected with the inquiry into what's helpful with regard to my suffering.

[1:37:25] Sometimes people, again, have the idea of emptiness as being something very abstract, or not really relevant to their life, but it's really not. Another thing people sometimes -- or it's tempting, and again, very understandably tempting to do, is to equate the understandings of emptiness with the understandings of quantum physics -- so the understanding of the emptiness ways of looking paradigm with the understanding of quantum physics. Again, this is very tempting. There are certainly some really, really interesting parallels, I think, and fruitful parallels, but I think we have to be a little careful here, partly because physics as a discipline can change, and trends in physics can change at any time. What Thomas Kuhn calls 'paradigms' in physics can change at any time, and then change back, etc. So we have to be a little careful with equating the two and then using quantum physics as a sort of, "Our understanding of emptiness depends on quantum physics," or "Our belief in emptiness depends on quantum physics." I know I've talked about it in the past, and I think it's really interesting, but it's more wanting to use those understandings to really shake up and shake loose and challenge the kind of usual assumptions and beliefs about reality, which often boil down to about material reality and the way it must exist independent of the observer in a kind of Cartesian/Newtonian way. I'm really wanting to expose and shake up those assumptions and beliefs in response to what can often be -- and even in the history of the Buddhadharma there's a sense of the outrage at hearing emptiness teachings or the conclusions that a practical exploration of emptiness yields.

So Einstein, as many of you might know, was very, very opposed to the whole implications of quantum physics. This idea that the moon doesn't really exist, or the moon isn't really there until you look at it; it's not there when we aren't looking -- he said that's absurd. That seems to be what quantum mechanics, quantum physics is implying. And in various ways, over many years, he tried to expose the flaws in quantum physics, but every time he failed. At one point, he teamed up with two other guys, Podolsky and Rosen, and they came up with a kind of thought experiment that seemed to really undermine the framework of quantum physics and this idea that things might not exist independently of our way of looking, of our observation. And then, after he died -- yes, it must have been after he died -- a physicist called [John Stewart] Bell came up with a way that one might actually decide whether Einstein was right, or Einstein--Podolsky--Rosen were right, or whether quantum physics was right. I think after Bell died, a guy, a French physicist called Alain Aspect devised an experiment, was actually able to test it, and what it found was two results that are kind of not really arguable with. One is that, in some instances, non-locality is a fact of nature. Two particles are somehow woven together. They can affect each other, or it seems they can affect each other, across massive distances of space instantaneously, faster than the speed of light. In other words, that space isn't quite what it seems to be.

But, interesting as that first one is, the second one for our purposes is that quantum particles do only become 'real,' become only this or that, when we observe them. So this was a result of this experiment by Alain Aspect. Quantum particles are actually only real when we observe them, and Einstein was really clinging to his preferred beliefs regarding reality, regarding nature, regarding the cosmos. Again, there's this, like, how passionate am I about wanting to go deep with these questions? And also the importance of recognizing: what is it that I want to be true? (Which I've talked about a lot before.) Also, I've said this before, but the Schrödinger wave equation is a complex mathematical equation, in abstract mathematical multidimensional space, and, in a way, it describes the -- what could we say? -- it describes what we will see, or the probability of what we will see when we look in certain ways at subatomic particles. When we look, we see some thing, and dependent on how we look, we see this or that, a wave or a particle, etc. But the Schrödinger equation kind of depicts, if you like, what exists when we're not looking, when we're not observing. But it's not really something we could call 'real,' in the sense that it doesn't depict a thing that exists in time. As I said, it's an abstract mathematical equation in multidimensional space. It's as if there's a kind of indefiniteness of matter, an indeterminacy of matter before observation.

So again, there are parallels here to the ways of looking and emptiness understanding that I would like to offer. It's not saying, "There is the complete non-existence of matter. Matter is a complete illusion. It's just a mental projection." Some spiritual teachings say that: "There is no matter. Matter is just purely mind." What the ways of looking and this emptiness approach and other approaches to emptiness stress much more is not that there's nothing there at all, there is no matter, but that it's dependent on the way of looking -- that it forms to be any thing, and what it forms, and where it is, and all that. So there's, again, a parallel between this ways of looking understanding of emptiness and certain quantum physics understandings -- for example, the Schrödinger equation.

Again, it's not that anything can arise because there's no way something is. Because the Schrödinger equation is essentially indeterminate, it just gives probabilities, it doesn't then mean that anything can arise, and it was an electron in one moment, and then when I looked in the next moment it was the Hollywood set of Mary Poppins, or a Boris Johnson speech, or the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia or whatever. It's not the case that anything can come from something. But matter is indeterminate, indefinite before observation. An object, a phenomenon in experience is indeterminate, indefinite. It's the observation, it's the looking, it's the relating to that makes it something, and dependent on how is the way of looking in that moment is what we experience. So there are parallels there with quantum physics.

I said, I think, in one of those Dharma seminars recently -- maybe it was the one on ontology; I can't remember -- that ontology is basic and unavoidable in life. Again, when we talk about ontology and emptiness, we're not talking about abstract philosophies. We're not talking about something that only is really relevant in microscopic, super-advanced physics or whatever. Ontology, views and beliefs about reality, are basic and completely unavoidable in life. As I said, you would have a very different response or different kind of concern if your daughter reported, when she came down for breakfast in the morning, that there was a monster under her bed in the night and it was chasing her -- you would have a very different concern if you just thought, "That's a dream." Maybe some of you would be concerned what it meant about her unconscious and whatever psychological problem she had. But it would be very different from the concern than if you actually thought there was some kind of monster there, or a bear, or a tiger, or a snake or something.

So ontology is just part of our life. In every moment, we're making decisions about what's real and what's not. It's woven into our perception of everything. That's why I said before, if you really practise, and know how to practise with ways of looking, and get to the point where you can engage a way of looking that holds something in attention and regards it as empty, and see what a vast, radical difference that makes to the experience of that thing compared to just the normal way of looking where there is the assumption of the reality of that thing. And that assumption of the reality is just normally woven into our experience. There's always an ontology, an ontological conception. This is part of a larger point about there always being conception. There's always an ontology and an ontological conception woven into the perception of anything. But unless one has experienced holding, in one's way of looking, a different ontological conception, and practising that, and practising with the agility of that, and seeing what it does, one probably doesn't even realize that. One doesn't realize that ontology is woven into perception. But it's inevitable, and it brings with it, of course, a hierarchy of value judgments. I mentioned this the other day in the talk at Gaia House.

Again, relating to your daughter reporting the monster under her bed, our ontological assessment brings in certain value judgments: "What do I need to do?", etc. But in practice, the hierarchy of value judgments that goes with ontology is actually constituted and active in and as practice. So for example, in mindfulness practice, there's the idea communicated, the teaching communicated, that papañca and story and self are somehow not real; they're fabrications. They're less real than what we might encounter as bare sensation, or what is revealed with bare attention, with mindfulness or equanimity, etc. Or in Dzogchen and Mahāmudrā teachings, the nature of mind -- which can be interpreted in all kinds of different ways and at different levels -- is real, whereas this or that other thing is not real or less real. Or in Zen teachings, some Zen teachings, often what we know through thinking and concepts is not real.

So these value judgments, ontological judgments, are wrapped up with value judgments, and they constitute and are active in and as practice. They get reinforced by the teachings, and sort of indirectly by a kind of even non-verbal rhetoric -- if we could even use such a phrase -- without much philosophical or psychological unpacking, explaining, questioning, probing, but it's there. So of course in, let's say, mindfulness teachings, the relationship with image, imagination, and the possible imaginal, will be, "Well, that's not what's there in bare attention and mindfulness. It has a much lesser status. It has a much lower place in the hierarchy of things. Occasionally it might be helpful if a person gets stuck, or it might be helpful for the arising of faith -- you know, imagine the Buddha, or imagine this or that -- or if you just can't do it with mindfulness alone," as if mindfulness alone, that's the real practice: "Real practitioners don't need this second-best use of the imagination, this unreal thing. That's kind of for weaklings or people when you hit a hard spot and you just need a little extra help."

So ontology is inevitable. It brings with it value judgments (not just reality judgments; it's what ontology means). Those reality judgments involve or imply value judgments. And all that's wrapped into practice, often in ways that, as I said, are communicated very, very strongly and repeatedly through different streams of Dharma and different styles of teaching, but not with a lot of real unpacking philosophically and psychologically. We need to be aware of that, I think -- the importance of ontology, the importance of asking into all this. How we approach these questions and these explorations and inquiries into ontology will determine so much of what our practice is and what our practice delivers, what is legitimate and what opens for us.

For the Buddha, I would say he was very concerned with this. Again, it's maybe popular these days to say he wasn't interested in that at all, he wasn't a philosopher, da-da-da. But I would say he was very concerned. You know, some people say there are only two suttas in the Pali Canon which address emptiness, and they've got emptiness in the title. It's the Greater and Shorter Discourses on Emptiness[5] or something like that, one of which isn't really about emptiness in any sense at all; it's a strangely given title. Then they say any of this reading back of kind of Mahāyāna versions of emptiness is not what the Buddha originally taught. But that's just, again, a little sloppy, a little lazy. There are so many incidents one could point to in the Pali Canon. A lot of them are in Seeing That Frees. But there are many, many. When Kaccāyana asks the Buddha what is Right View, he says, "What do you teach about Right View?", and the Buddha says,

I teach the Middle Way, the Middle Way between is and is not. That's the middle view. Most people assume it exists (it 'is') or it does not exist (it 'is not') for any phenomena. But I, the Buddha, teach the Middle Way, neither 'is' nor 'is not.'[6]

What does it mean? Well, it means the whole emptiness thing, and it takes a lot to unpack what he means by that, 'neither real nor not real,' 'neither is nor is not.' It takes a lot. But it's right there. And in the many, many explorations of dependent arising and dependent ceasing and dependent origination as a whole, many explanations -- it's right there.

There's a case where Sāriputta is talking to, I think, a monk called Mahā Koṭṭhita, and he tries to explain dependent arising, and he tries to explain how consciousness depends on nāmarūpa. Nāmarūpa means not just body, but the perception of forms, and the perception itself, and attention, and contact, and vedanā, and intention. And Sāriputta explains that depends on consciousness. Perception, vedanā depend on consciousness, and consciousness, Sāriputta goes on to explain, depends on intention, perception, attention. So perception depends on consciousness; consciousness depends on perception. Vedanā depends on consciousness; consciousness depends on vedanā.[7] Mahā Koṭṭhita was like, "Excuse me? What?" Of course it's baffling. But he's pointing to this mutual dependency. It's exactly what we mean by emptiness. These two things -- let's say consciousness and perception -- they're not two, but neither are they one. They're neither one nor two. They're empty. They're mutually empty. They're mutually dependent.

So it's there in lots of places in the Pali Canon. The Buddha was concerned with that, and an understanding of ontology was very much tied to what he meant by 'liberation.' It's there right in his definition of Right View -- one of the definitions of Right View. It's there completely in what he pointed to as the most central insight on his night of awakening, this dependent arising, and particularly the mutual dependent arising of nāmarūpa and consciousness, of perception, vedanā, etc., and consciousness -- their mutual interpenetration, mutual inseparability, mutual dependence. This causes that, but that causes this at the same time. Dependent arising is the thing to understand, the thing that a liberated arahant understands, has penetrated.

And similarly, the Buddha didn't just talk about the anattā of phenomena, that they're not me, not mine; he also uses the word suñña -- they're 'void.' It means something different. They're void in themselves. They're empty in themselves. And he gives different analogies in terms of the aggregates and how they're empty of substance, empty of inherent existence. So it's totally there in the Pali Canon, if one looks for it, knows what to look for.

[1:59:05] But with regard to awakening and emptiness, I think we need to make another point, which I've alluded to several times recently, but I think I'd like to draw it out a bit more. Someone was asking whether they just need to understand emptiness to be liberated, or whether there's a certain amount of psychological work that they need to do as well -- do I need to resolve and understand my psychological stuff? What's interesting is we never seem to hear anything like that in the Pali Canon, about people's self-judgment, or their inner critic, or their incapacity to sustain intimate romantic relationships, or their inability to commit, or their frustration at their own lack of self-expression or inauthenticity or anything like that. It seems there are no reports of that kind of dukkha in the Pali Canon. It's also, interestingly, absent in, for example, the teachings of Ramana Maharshi, or Nisargadatta Maharaj. You just hear these teachings about emptiness or the nature of awareness or that kind of thing.

So why the absence? Is it that, in the time of the Buddha in India, they just had better parenting? Is that what -- so people didn't have psychological issues? Or is it that the sense of self and the expectations of self and of relationship are very different now than they were in the time of the Buddha's India? And in terms of awakening, and the self-view, and penetrating the self-view in the first fetter of stream-entry, we nowadays need and want and expect practices and realizations to address and to decrease or even eradicate that kind of suffering, the suffering around self that comes from a certain set of expectations and a certain self-sense, and certain expectations of self and of relationship. We expect, need, want, practice and realization to address all that.

So I have a question. Do practices and realizations need to be different now? Or is it enough that we can just work with the emptiness? For example, with Nisargadatta and Ramana and those people, they had very different socially constructed senses of self that they had to deal with than we do. Very different socially constructed senses of self they had to deal with in themselves and also in the issues brought to them by seekers and students. And, on top of that, their role and status as kind of constructed by Indian spiritual customs with respect to the guru -- there's a whole kind of way you are, or way you hang out with, or way you talk to the guru. There's a whole kind of relational paradigm there. They have this certain role and status, and it's determined within a certain range how you hang out with them, what you do, what you ask them for, what you expect from them, what the social situation allows, and what their role and status determines.

That meant that they also didn't have to deal with or even encounter a lot of the self-burdens, and self-expectations, and shapes, and relational dynamics, and relational expectations that most of us do. We're expecting this one thing, this insight into emptiness, even if it's the emptiness of everything, to address what may be very different selves, different self-sense, a different socially constructed self that we have nowadays in the West. We have different sufferings, different challenges to address. I can think of -- and probably many of you can think of -- someone or people who seem to have had tremendous depth of practice in the past, whether it's jhānic, samādhi, and emptiness understanding, but they don't seem to have much capacity or skill with, let's say, personal intimacy and personal connection.

Maybe our notion of awakening needs to involve more than just insight, more than just insight into emptiness. Maybe awakening (or enlightenment or liberation) also implies certain skills with respect to the kinds of challenges that we have to address because of the society we live in, and because of the way the self is constructed differently in our society. So yes, emptiness. Yes, it's empty. But I still have to have a certain set of skills. If I realize that everything is empty, but I'm really insensitive in relationship -- my capacity for intimacy, I just don't seem to be able to meet people and navigate that territory in terms of deep connection with people -- is that awakened? Am I satisfied with that? So it might be I do need to work on some of my 'psychological stuff,' if we use that term broadly. And those kinds of skills, as well as the emptiness understanding and skill in emptiness practice, become a part of or aspects of a much larger thing called awakening.

But the emptiness piece delivers a lot. You know, it really delivers a lot, and it really opens up a lot, even if it's not, in itself, the single thing that we can rely on and hope that everything in our life gets taken care of. But it does open a lot of doors, the deeper we go into it. So if we take it very deeply in practice, the Middle Way of emptiness can, for example, open up the conceptual legitimacy and practice possibilities of flexible ways of looking and perceptions, for example, of particular divinities -- not just a universal sense of divinity and sacredness, of universal emptiness, but of particular divinities and particular sacrednesses that we go into with the soulmaking practices. If I go deep enough in emptiness practice, it opens up the conceptual legitimacy for those, and it opens up the practice possibilities as well, for the flexibility of ways of looking and of perception that perceive particular divinity, and not just universal divinity, particular sacrednesses and not just universal ones.

And actually, more broadly, we could say that the realization of deep and comprehensive emptiness, really going deep, we realize there is no ultimately true conceptual framework regarding conventional reality. There is no ultimately true way that we can explain the workings of conventional reality. Again, that doesn't equate to saying, "All conceptual frameworks are equally true or valid," but there is no ultimately true conceptual framework regarding conventional reality. And that understanding comes out of emptiness going very, very deep, and very wide. That then legitimizes and opens up the possibility of a range and a flexibility of conceptual frameworks and ways of looking within conceptual frameworks. It's not just ways of looking, but whole ideas or systems of thought. We can also move between them with the same ease, and flexibility, and agility, and lightness of touch, lightness of holding, as we move between ways of looking. This comes out of deep practice of emptiness. And of course, that, too, is very relevant to Soulmaking Dharma, soulmaking practice. It's one of the things we emphasize quite a lot.

  1. Rob Burbea, Four Circles, Four Parables of Stone and Light [retreat talks] (5 May 2019--17 June 2019),, accessed 10 March 2020. ↩︎

  2. Rob Burbea, Seeing That Frees: Meditations on Emptiness and Dependent Arising (Devon: Hermes Amāra, 2014). ↩︎

  3. Rob Burbea, "Emptiness Clinic II: Group Interview for Those Doing Emptiness Practices" (23 Oct. 2019),, accessed 5 March 2020. ↩︎

  4. Rob Burbea, An Ecology of Love [retreat talks] (21 Dec. 2015),, accessed 6 March 2020. ↩︎

  5. MN 121 and MN 122. ↩︎

  6. SN 12:15. ↩︎

  7. SN 12:67. ↩︎

Sacred geometry
Sacred geometry