May 22, 2010, Stone House Retreat, Aaron's Dharma Talk

Saturday, Stone House Retreat, outside Durham, NC
Aaron's Dharma Talk

Keywords: the Unconditioned, dependent origination, kuttara/lokuttara citta

Aaron: My blessings and love to you all. I am Aaron. Thank you for this opportunity to share of myself with you tonight. Today there have been some questions and some discussion about the relationship of conditioned to unconditioned, so let's explore that topic.

First, there is this conditioned realm. By that I mean this world in which objects arise out of conditions and cease when the conditions pass away. Certain atmospheric conditions bring some rain. Then wind comes and blows some clouds away and the clear sky shows through. The cook in the kitchen prepares a delicious meal, you eat it, and at the end of the meal you feel full. All this has arisen from conditions.

Beyond the conditioned realm the Buddha speaks of the Unconditioned, that is, that which is beyond conditions and therefore, does not arise and cease. Addressing a group of monks, he says, "Monks, there is an Unborn, Undying, Unchanging, Uncreated. If it were not so, there would be no reason for our lives."

In his teaching he's asking people to be aware of the entire conditioned realm but saying, "That's not it. Liberation is not in this world of conditions." We also have to know the Unconditioned, and to know the Unconditioned we have to see how they come together.

John asked me earlier, what is my experience of the Unconditioned? I can't really tell you that. It would be meaningless to you. It would, pardon me for saying this, but it would be like describing a rainbow to a blind person. However, I can give you some clues because you are not fully blind but are learning how to see.

Imagine if you were a fish and lived in the greatest depths of the ocean where no daylight ever penetrated, and a rumor came to you: "If you go up, higher up to shallower water, you see light."

"What is light?"

"Well I can't tell you but if you go up there, you'll see it."

So you begin to swim up. Let's pretend that your eyes are able to transition from the darkness to the light. Gradually, above you, you see something that's not black and dark as you're accustomed. You get 200 meters from the top and there's a soft light coming through from far above you. What is it?

You watch it for awhile and then you go down and tell your friends, this is how it is: when you get up there it's still dark but you see this ceiling of light. Everything is a different color and you see differently.

You go back to explore it further but this time instead of 200 meters you come 10 meters from the top. You can see through the surface of the water a bit and you see a disc, a source of light. You think, "That's the sun that people have talked about. That's it! I've actually seen the sun!" But of course you're still quite a ways down. You're only seeing an expression of the sun.

And you see impressions of trees hanging over the banks of the water in which you're swimming; you think that must be what they talk about when they talk about things on land. "I don't know what land is but those long arms must be land." You go down and you tell everybody, "This is what the sun is like. This is what land is like." But you've never really touched the sun or touched land.

Finally you get to the point where your nose touches the surface and one day you leap through. There's just a moment when you see everything on the other side of this barrier, and then you fall back in again. "What did you see?" "I saw the sun! I saw it directly, not filtered through the water! I saw trees! I saw them directly!" You go down and tell everybody how it was and soon thousands of fish are up there leaping out of the water to see this wonder.

You're not content with that moment of seeing so you evolve. You develop lungs and breathing apparatus and some legs and one day you actually climb yourself out of the water and look around, no longer dependent on the water for survival. You look at the sun, you look at the trees, you dig into the earth, but the sun especially mesmerizes you. "This is it, this is the sun."

For some time you're content until one day in your travels you meet a man that has an emblem that says "NASA" across his shirt. You ask him, "What does that mean?"

"Well, I was an astronaut."

"What does that mean?"

"I flew on a spaceship out of Earth's atmosphere. I flew toward the sun."

"You mean I can go higher? You mean there's more?"

So you become the first fish astronaut.

Remember, you've evolved; you have arms and legs. You ride in the spaceship up beyond the Earth's atmosphere. Now you're seeing the sun in still a different way, but you still do not have a direct experience of the sun.

Now, of course no sentient being could survive being tossed into the heart of the sun; all we can know of the sun is its expressions as light and heat. The further out we go, the less filter there is of the sun. At first there was the deep water, then the shallow water, then the Earth's atmosphere, and then you move beyond the Earth's atmosphere. With each step you get a clearer understanding of the nature of the sun.

Of course, I'm speaking with a metaphor here but the Unconditioned in many ways is like this: you keep moving further and further into a knowing of the Unconditioned. At first just the expressions of it of light-- that is, as luminosity, of sound, of energy, of spaciousness, and more.

Then perhaps you have an experience in which the whole physical body seems to dissolve, the ego dissolves, everything seems to dissolve. Then nothing seems to arise or pass away anymore; it's as if you've stepped out of the whole realm of conditions, and there is a vast radiance and a peace beyond understanding, beauty and love.

All these words are used to describe it and yet how can we define those words properly in trying to describe the Unconditioned or the divine? It's a direct experience but there are no words because words are merely labels to help you understand. They are the "fingers pointing toward the moon," but when you know the moon itself, you don't need the fingers anymore.

When you've had this kind of direct experience of the Unconditioned, it changes everything. It would be like... let me use a simple example. You have in your articulation that the sun rises and the sun sets. You understand conceptually that the Earth is simply revolving and rotating and that the sun is not actually moving around the Earth, but it's a concept with which you live. The sun rises; the sun sets.

Now let's say you go out in that spaceship again and you get far enough away from the Earth that you can see the Earth hanging in space, moving, and see how as the Earth rotates, and how the sun hits different faces of the Earth. You realize the sun never rose or set. This is akin to saying, objects arise and they dissolve, and yet nothing really arises or dissolves; everything simply is and it simply arises into your consciousness and dissolves again.

Nothing can exist that does not express out of this ground of being and back into it. This Unborn, Undying, Uncreated, has no limits. Within it is the seed for everything. People call this Unconditioned by different names. God is the familiar one to your Judeo-Christian culture. For Hindus it is Para-atman. Jews don't use the whole word "God," they just say G-d because it's considered so holy that one cannot speak the word. Each religion has its own phrasing of this.

I've been asked so many times , if Buddhism is a non-theistic religion why do I speak about God? Because to me the Unconditioned and that which we call God are not different; they are both the Unborn, Undying, Unchanging, and Uncreated. The words are labels we apply to the reality.

We're not talking here of a puppet master God; that's a created thing, limited. We're talking here of this infinite force of love, creation, intelligence and light in the universe, That Which Is. Depending on the religion in which you are schooled, you give it a different name. There are some wonderful dialogues between people – one that comes to mind is between a Zen master, Robert Aiken, and Brother David Stendl-Rast – talking about this very thing: what is the experience of God or the Unconditioned? (The Ground we Share: 1996) They finally do come to the conclusion, there's no difference; we're just using different vocabulary.

We're not talking about concept here but the direct experience. When you move into that experience, the words "We Are One" take on a whole new meaning.

If I showed these fingers above the paper (Aaron is holding his hand up behind a sheet of paper so only the fingers show) and said these are 4 separate beings – this one's a little guy, this one is fourth, this one is middle, this one is pointer – they've lived in peace for a long time but it seems they're going to have a war with each other and they might kill each other. What are we going to do? They believe they are separate. Can we show them that they are one?

How could this finger make war on that finger? They are one. Yet this is still conceptual to you until you move into the experience, away from everyday consciousness and into the direct experience of the Unconditioned. You begin to see how everything in the conditioned realm is expressing out of the Unconditioned, literally, and falling back into the Unconditioned just as the plants in your garden are all expressing out of the earth and eventually dying and feeding back into the earth, rotting into the soil to nurture the soil and become part of the ground out of which new plants grow. Everything is expressing out of the same place. It's all holy, all divine, all sacred.

You begin to see the sacredness in every conditioned object. You can't look at a fire ant anymore and say, "Oh, we should kill them, they're just fire ants." (Barbara spoke earlier of being bitten by fire ants as she sat by the pond) They're part of creation. We can't look at a weed and say, "Let's kill that one;" it's part of creation. Yes, if the weeds are taking over your garden and you need the garden for your food, you dig out the weeds but not with hatred and despising. You dig them out honoring them, saying, "Thank you but now we need this ground for the tomatoes to grow." You release them back into the soil with thanks, honor them and ask them to nourish the soil. So there's no violence there but co-creation, because everything is sacred.

Your meditation brings you to this knowing. It brings you to the direct experience of the Unconditioned. At first you'll be like the fish who just jumped out of the water for a moment, and said, "Wow! What was that!" Then you jump a bit more. You learn how to stay out of the water for longer, to rest in the Unconditioned for a more stable experience of it. You start to know the Unconditioned and how it relates to the conditioned.

It's here that liberation lies, literally, because one of the first things that you experience is that the anger, fear, hatred, and other strong emotions arise out of the Unconditioned, express because of conditions and die away, and that you don't have to be self-identified with them. You have to take care of them. It's as you're planting your garden, planting your lettuce and spinach with their tiny seeds. And you realize that you had dandelion seeds in your pocket and that as you bent over, they all poured out. It's impossible at this point to tell which are the lettuce seeds and which are the dandelion seeds. You're going to need to watch. When the lettuce grows, you nurture it. When the dandelions grow you say, "This is not the place where you may grow," and you pluck them up.

In the same way you watch anger, fear, greed, and other such emotions. Certain seeds have been planted long ago, the result of much conditioning. You don't have to be afraid of them, you say, "No, I do not choose to enhance anger in this moment but to rest in the spaciousness that sees how anger has arisen from conditions, and not be self-identified with it." And in this way you cut the roots of anger. When there is no more root, there's nothing left to support anger.

Of course it's going to still find little tendrils of roots for quite awhile, you just keep attending to it. Eventually it's gone. Eventually greed is gone, fear is gone, hostility, negative thinking, and so forth, because there are no longer conditions that support their arising. Maybe this will not happen fully in this lifetime. You've got all the time you need; just keep working on it. Know that every root you cut means fewer of these plants of negativity emerging in your consciousness. You just keep gardening, gently.

It's said in the traditional scriptures and teachings that certain of these leaps out of the water to have a direct view of the sun cut certain unwholesome experiences. At a certain point, anger or negativity simply cease to arise. My experience of this is that it's gradual and it takes patience, constant attention, and a very deep commitment to sila, to the precepts. Such eradication of the unwholesome traits is not immediate or automatic. The release grows from a commitment rooted not in fear but in love, a loving intention to do no harm in the world but to nurture all living beings, the deep commitment that all sentient beings be happy and have peace.

Once you deeply hold that commitment and begin to investigate the places where you run counter to the commitment based on your fear and other habitual patterns, then you can start to attend to it lovingly. Gradually the energies fall away. As the roots that held you are cut, the fish can evolve. Now he's a flying fish, he can stay up in the air for quite awhile. The experience of the Unconditioned becomes more and more stable.

I use a specific terminology. We have consciousness, which I think of as mundane consciousness. The sense organs of body or mind touch an object and sense consciousness arises, whether body consciousness or mind consciousness. We begin to see how mind and body, nama and rupa, relate.

Well-known words from the Buddha: "You are what you think. With your thoughts you make the world." What kind of world do you choose? What do you choose to express in that world? You are literally unlimited, when you know that is so. When you think negative thoughts, you create a world of negativity. When you think positive thoughts, there's a different possibility. When you think limiting thoughts such as "I am not good enough or wise enough, caring enough or strong enough," then this is what you present, this is what you believe in. So you live within those limits. Is this what you choose? Or do you choose liberation for yourself and all beings?

When you begin to see these limits and beliefs in them are just thought, not anything with an ultimate reality, you begin to wonder, "Can I transcend this?" That which is aware of anger is not angry. That which is aware of fear is not afraid. Barbara has been working for years with "That which is aware of deafness is not deaf. That which is aware of imbalance is not unbalanced."

There exists conditioned consciousness and what we call pure awareness. Today you discussed nada and luminosity as expressions of the Unconditioned. When you hear nada, you are literally resting in Awareness. What is this Awareness?

Are you familiar with the Abhidharma teachings? These are a specific part of the Buddhist scriptures that talk very precisely about different levels and ways of consciousness. Every consciousness needs an object. Eye organ, touching chair; seeing consciousness arises. If there was no organ, there would be no seeing consciousness. If there was no object then seeing consciousness could not arise; there needs to be contact, sense organ to object.

All consciousness is like this. For the mind, to have remembering consciousness there needs to be a memory. For planning consciousness there needs to be a plan. For there to be hearing consciousness there needs to be a sound and the ear organ. These are mundane consciousnesses, conditioned, arising out of conditions, impermanent, not self.

Abhidharma divides consciousness – citta is the Pali word – into mundane and supramundane. Mundane consciousness takes a mundane object. Supramundane consciousness must take a supramundane object, that is, an object that simply is, and does not arise or pass away, for example, the Unconditioned or God or however you're going to name it.

Such consciousness is not linear with mundane on one side and supramundane on the other but simultaneous. It is as if you're in a boat in a lake that has very clear water and the bottom about 20 feet down, but right now some motorboats have been through and stirred dust from the bottom and the wind is blowing so the water is rippled. You can only see a few inches. The clear water is there, the bottom is there, and there are dust and ripples.

But you sit there in your boat without moving for an hour; the motor boats are gone, the dust settles, the wind stops blowing and suddenly you can see the bottom. It's always been there. You're not creating something new, you're simply shifting from, in this situation, seeing only that far to seeing all the way through. In our parallel here, you begin to distinguish between seeing from conditioned consciousness or seeing with pure awareness.

Those of you who hear nada or who use luminosity as a primary object, to some degree you are resting in awareness. It may not be a deep and stable resting in awareness, but you couldn't hear nada or see luminosity unless there was some degree of that pure awareness, that particular citta. The Pali word kuttara citta speaks of mundane consciousness, and lokuttara citta, designates supramundane consciousness. So the supramundane citta are there; it's not something you get but is revealed.

This is why I tell you that you are not going to be enlightened someday after endless years or lifetimes of practice, you are already there, you just haven't realized it yet. Wake up! Know this pure awareness mind, this awakened mind.

Many of you have a belief that before you can know and rest in the awakened mind, you must get rid of the negative expressions of the conditioned mind. The belief is that the pure mind will only be created when all negative thoughts are conquered. This would be like taking this window with some dirt streaks on the outside, and saying, "We've got to break out the window and put in new glass." Ridiculous. The nature of the glass is perfect; we just need to wash off the dirt. When you wash off the dirt, the glass is clear. Keep asking, "What's beyond this edge of my vision?" "What's beyond that surface of the water? I want to see the sun. No, that glimpse isn't enough; I'm going to become a flying fish and then I'm going to become an astronaut. I want to get up there and know it directly." And you will.

You wash off the dirt, so to speak, by attending to the habitual patterns of thought and action that arise; watch them with kindness, with awareness, and know them as impermanent, arising from conditions, subject to decay, not self. You take these arisings less and less personally. You still attend to them, but without fear and contraction. You cannot use that knowing to escape from the conditioned realm. Rather, you use that knowing to return to the conditioned realm with love and to help heal the world by bringing more love into the world.

One who has seen the light has the responsibility to return to the place of darkness and share the light. It's as simple as that. They won't believe you at first. That doesn't make it any less your responsibility.

In the story of the Buddha, he thought after his enlightenment, "Nobody will believe me. Nobody will understand what I'm saying. Maybe I should just rest here in this blissful state knowing I am liberated, and enjoy what I've attained."

But then he thought, "No, that would be selfish. There are some," he put it, "some with just a little dust in their eyes who will be able to see." So he went back to his comrades from earlier in his life and begins to teach them what he had realized and they understood.

You've probably heard the phrase, "Each teach two." It's a phrase I've heard many times in many situations. The highest that you understand, pass it on to 2 other people. If you understand how to respond with kindness to negativity, pass that on to two other people, and then they will pass it on. Nobody's asking you to go out and give dharma talks to a thousand people, just pass it on. You don't have to pass it on as a dharma talk, pass it on as the way you live your life.

When somebody approaches you with hostility, you have a choice, to react with hostility or to react with kindness. To choose to react with compassion does not mean to be weak and to allow negativity to steamroll over you. Rather, to choose to respond with compassion often means to say no to negativity, but it's kindness that says no. Increasingly your practice gives you access to that heart of kindness, that clear glass and inner radiance. "No," comes from this source.

This is really the only hope for your world, that enough of you who understand this with increasing clarity will both live it and pass it on. I think there are enough of you ready to do that, so that your world will not only survive but survive well. Are you ready to say no to the unwholesome patterns that you've lived with for so many lifetimes, the patterns of self-centeredness, fear, and greed? You can do it.

There is a direct connection, touching the Unconditioned and resting in the conditioned world. I think of it as a tall pole. Feet are grounded in the earth and the affairs of the conditioned realm, head rests in the heavens. Your whole being becomes the pole, the medium that connects heaven and earth, grounding these high energies and vibrations, and releasing negativity.

As you do this work you literally raise your own energy, your own vibration. You become more and more clear and capable of carrying the highest, purest tone. You become an increasingly clear vehicle for light and love. Basically you've gone out and washed the smudges off the window.

So we have mundane consciousness and we have pure awareness or supramundane consciousness. Your practice at first begins with mundane consciousness, with the breath and watching conditioned or mundane objects arising and passing away. After awhile you start to see the space between the objects, as with the bell that Barbara sounded today, resting in the space after the bell tone died away.

You begin to see that right there with anger is that which is not angry and to know, "I have a choice. I can enhance the anger or I can bring myself to this place of awareness and rest in that which is not angry, taking care of the anger."

I use the terms consciousness and awareness but it doesn't matter what words you use. What's important here is knowing that within you is consciousness of both the mundane and supramundane, and you have the ability to nurture divine consciousness. I don't want to get into semantics. I don't want to get into what I perceive as soul versus pure awareness. The words are not identical in the conventional uses of them. It's not important. They are simply words. When you come into the experience of knowing who and what you truly are, the words won't matter so much. You'll know, "I am that," and you are. And I honor that within each of you ,which is that, the reflection of the highest divinity, the highest radiance and love. You are That.

I told Barbara and John I was going to speak just for 40 minutes and leave 20 minutes for your questions, so I'm going to end the formal talk here and hear what questions you may have.


John: I think everyone got enlightened during the talk and there are no questions!

Aaron: Wonderful! But if there are questions, we'll sit quiet to allow space for them.

Q: I want to thank you for the explanation. It's perfect and just what I needed to hear.

Aaron: Thank you.

Q: I just wanted to follow up on what she said. The fish analogy and the mud on the clear glass, that applies to me. I can clean up the dirt, and I am already clear.

Aaron: The clean glass is already there, and simply by being here at a meditation retreat you are already involved in cleaning off the dirt. Remember, the dirt is simply the result of conditions, impermanent.

Q: How does one consistently keep the glass clean?

Aaron: You cannot keep it clean, you can only consistently involve yourself in paying attention so as to notice when mud accumulates, and hold the commitment to do whatever practices are most supportive to release the mud. Sometimes heart practices, sometimes wisdom practices, sometimes just resting in awareness.

As time goes on you become more skilled at knowing what's needed. There are many practices. The vipassana practice is the one practice I know that will eventually break through all the dirt and show you the clear glass. Other practices will support such purification.

Q: I've been doing the metta meditations very religiously. I've been going to Sharon Salzberg's retreats and just like her I've seen positive results within a week in people's behaviors that I never expected, along with the third eye wisdom meditations that are giving me the wisdom to choose the correct words. So I feel like the double dose is helping me.Is it okay to use many practices?

Aaron: Daughter, there is no one right method. It's like saying that I want to build a shed and I have long boards of wood. Well, shall I use the hand saw or the electric saw to cute them, or an ax? It's not going to be helpful to take a hammer and hack away at the board for a smooth cut, I want to use a saw. But if the board is huge, I may first use an ax to bring it close to the desired size. So I have a big toolbox. If I want to join pieces of wood together, I can't use the saw. Then I have to use the screwdriver or the hammer.

We have to ask ourselves constantly, what's happening in this moment, in this mind and body? If there's a lot of aversion, constantly, day after day, then metta can be very helpful. If the judging mind is prevalent, metta can be very helpful. However, for some people that are very deep in lovingkindness but feel like they're constantly the victims of others, they may need more wisdom to see how to say no to others abuse. They may need to deepen not in metta but in karuna, compassion, and in the strength of compassion that's able to say no. Or wisdom may be needed, to see that abuse as the expression of the other's conditioning.

There are so many different tools. The person whose mind is all over the place will benefit from chanting or some form of concentration practice. The person whose mind is too focused into one point will benefit from the broader mindfulness practice. This is one advantage to working with a teacher because sometimes the teacher can see where you are more clearly than you can yourself and point out to you.

It's spoken of Ajahn Chah, who was John's teacher, that people asked him, "How come sometimes you say to one person, 'Go left' and another 'Go right'?" so to speak. And he said, "Well, if somebody is about to fall off the right side of the road I say, 'Go left.' If they're about to fall off the left side of the road I say, 'Go right.'" What we seek is balance.

I'm glad your practice is presently rewarding to you. Others?

Q: Aaron, can you say more about how the self is experienced in moments of pure awareness?

Aaron: One begins to see two levels to the self resting in pure awareness, the conditioned and the unconditioned. So one begins to see the aggregates as the conditioned aspect of self, and one begins to see, a radiance is the only term I can use to describe it. A radiance that expresses love, intelligence, or some might call it the soul.

This is the highest aspect; it's the perfectly clean glass. It is not "me" at that point. There's no self-identification with it as, "Oh, that's lovely, that's me, aren't I pretty!" because there's no ego thought that takes it as self. But there's great gratitude for this strength and radiance and beauty, and the intention from a very clear and empty space to use this perceived radiance, intelligence and love for the highest good and service to all beings. This is not the conditioned mind planning, this is just pure awareness, so there's no story of any self involved in it.

For the most part your language doesn't give you this, I hate to call it a division because there's only one, but this seemingly dual expression of the everyday and the supramundane. In the Tibetan teachings they use the word sem for the everyday mind, and rigpa for the pure awareness mind. Rigpa can watch sem. Sem cannot see rigpa. But when you open into rigpa, into pure awareness, you can still watch the small self saying, "Oh, but I wanted the last cookie" with a smile and without needing to grab at the last cookie. There's no sense of self there, just kindness for this human that's still caught up in certain patterns.

So from awareness' perspective, we can watch the everyday self go through its routines, and awareness can say very kindly, as one would say to a child, "No." If there's enough hearing of that awareness mind, then there's no acting out. You don't grab at the last cookie. There's just impulse, "Oh, I'd like that." "Okay, let the impulse go."

We practice this sometimes-- John, will you push me? We watch as somebody pushes, and (sound effect), as opposed to just letting it go by. I don't let him push me over. I sway with it, I dance with it. I don't get caught up in his energy, I just say no.

Q: It seems to me that often when I feel that I'm resting in awareness, the ego comes up and comments. And before I just heard your answer to J's question, I thought that was the end of the pure awareness. Is it?

Aaron: Pure awareness doesn't go anywhere. It's like a blue sky doesn't go anywhere but the clouds come in and you can't see it. Do you then say, "Oh! We'll never have blue sky again! It's gone! Some monster bird came up and swallowed it all."

Q: But the ego comes in...

Aaron: Just note it. "Here is ego. Awareness is temporarily unavailable. I want awareness back!" Ego, tension, wanting: give them a cup of tea. Just sit there with them until they quiet down. Awareness will come back. The clouds will drift away. They will not come back if you're agitated because that simply enhances ego.

We'll end here. Thank you very much for the opportunity to share thoughts with you tonight. My blessings and love.

(session ends)