October 21, 2012 Sunday Morning, Howell Retreat

Non-duality and mundane illusion of duality, equanimity, non-duality of conditioned and unconditioned; Heart Sutra; Udana 8:3; Flight of the Garuda; Primordial Purity and All Ground

Aaron: ...(paraphrasing the question) The question is about duality and non-duality with experience of emotions and thoughts. When is it about me; when is it about others or is it always about both? Is there or is there not a self and other?

Picture an old-fashioned wooden wagon wheel and its hub with spokes. The wheel is carelessly made, the spokes are brittle and the least jarring on the road surface will crack it apart. The road may be a reasonable one, but if the wheel is not well-made, any jostling will break it up. The wheel doesn't know what kind of road it's going to travel on. It only knows that it must be as clear and as stable in itself as it can be.

So then we have a wheel that is very sound, made with perfect care. All the wood is solid; all the joints are well-connected. The wheel rides down a smooth road easily. Then it comes to a pitted and broken road. It has no control over what kind of surface it will roll upon, only its own stability. What will happen to it on that broken road? We only can say that it will endure better than the flimsy wheel.  

The wheel does have a choice, or at least the driver of the cart has a choice. You have a choice. You can interact with very bumpy people. You can interact with smooth people. But most often in your lives, your work leads you to interact with both. There will be bumpy people and situations. You cannot control their bumps, only the stability of your own wheel, so to speak. We do this inner work so that when we meet a bump, the wheel will remain intact and not be broken apart by the bump. And as the wheel holds itself intact and runs over the bumpy road again and again, it wears down the bumps.

Thus there is non-duality, the wheel and the road constantly interact as though one whole, and there is also the mundane realm separation. You are not the world that you roll upon, and yet you also are the world. The deeper the inner work, the more that energy, that smoothness, openness and expansiveness, spread out and inform the world and invite the world to mirror that clarity. Does that answer your question?

Q: I've been looking at equanimity as an expression of non-duality. Could you comment on that, if that's appropriate?

Aaron: Yes. Equanimity is very much an expression of non-duality. Or more directly, equanimity is an expression of the realization of non-duality. If we consider ourselves to be living in a dual world, me against that, we're constantly pulled into the solid separate self, fighting against the presumed “other;” within that separate self, there's no possibility of equanimity. True equanimity arises only with deep understanding of interconnection and that everything is shaped moment by moment by that interconnection.

So we cannot say, “I will have equanimity,” because that ego-centric self really cannot have equanimity. “I invite the expression, the beauty, of equanimity, and offering the invitation, I let go of trying to make it happen and simply invite the conditions that allow for equanimity.” Amongst those conditions, perhaps the most important is the knowledge of non-duality. The knowledge of non-duality, and also the deep dharma insights that whatever has the nature to arise has the nature to cease. This is part of the non-duality. Objects serve as conditions for the arising of other objects, and it just keeps going, because nothing is separate. Everything is feeding into everything else.

Therefore, I as the ego self let go, but love remains present. The intention to bear witness, to hold space, to observe and attend in appropriate ways, that stays. But that doesn't conflict with equanimity.

Q: So equanimity is not just a limited thing; it's more a flowing object?

Aaron: Equanimity is one expression of the Unconditioned. Let us talk about mundane versus supramundane equanimity. Mundane equanimity is grounded on conditions, so it's not true equanimity but the ego doing equanimity. But at a deeper level, there is true equanimity, which is grounded in the supramundane, the Unconditioned. This equanimity is always there but the ego cannot access it. (Q: Thank you.) You're welcome. Thank you for a valuable and deep question. Others?

Q: I am going to be teaching meditation to non-vipassana trainees, people who are mostly beginners. What would you suggest to start with?

Aaron: First, we don't have to call it vipassana. Let's just call it presence. I would suggest that you start by asking your students to be present in the moment's experience, and bring attention to something that's predominant in that experience, perhaps the breath. Something stable-- not just the sound of a passing car or a bird tweeting in the trees. Just be present with it. Teach it exactly in the same way we do here, but drop off the fancy vocabulary. “In this moment, the mind, the body is making contact with some object, perhaps the breath. Know that you're breathing in. Know that you're breathing out. Or the touch of the buttocks on the chair, touching, touching. Be aware of that sensation, touching.” Or a thought may touch the mind. “Touching.”

Then invite them to see how quickly the mind moves to a different object. You could just clap your hands and note, “Here is hearing. You're no longer focused on the breath, or the touch. Hearing. But when the clapping stops, come back to that primary object.” In this way, you start to bring attention to the fact that the nature of the mind is to move, that they are not trying to have a fixed mind. My primary point here is  I assume you do not want to teach a mantra-type, fixed-focus meditation, but a presence meditation  then you must emphasize the movement of mind on the surface and the still place below the surface, and that both can be observed by this ‘presence.'

So from the beginning, point out the movement of the mind and that objects appear and become predominant in the body and then pass away. Ask them to feel some physical sensation in the body, such as an itch or warmth or coldness, and to watch it until it passes away and then come back to the breath. You can use the term ‘primary object'. Introduce the idea of a primary object, and the arising of other objects that become predominant and then pass away. That's step one.

Step two. What is your relationship to what has arisen? If a physical sensation arises and it's uncomfortable, know it's uncomfortable. How do you relate to something that's uncomfortable? Bring this back to your daily life. All through your day different objects arise, some of which are comfortable, some of which are uncomfortable. The question is not whether they will arise. As long as we are in human bodies, they will arise. How do I relate to it? If the intention in meditation is to form a wiser and more compassionate relationship with the world, then it's got to start right there in the sitting. How do I relate to this itch; to that woodpecker pecking on a tree; to that car horn honking? And if I relate in a negative and contracted way, can I watch that contraction also as an object? The woodpecker is no longer predominant even though he's still pecking. The anger is predominant. “He's destroying my meditation.” But what's really blocking the meditation and the quietness is the aversion to the sound.

We can talk more about it, but I would say this is the starting place. Is that sufficient? I'd be happy to talk more with you about it. Will you be teaching this in the next week or two? (Q: Next month.) We will talk. There is a meditation instruction handout. You are welcome to take it and use it for your students.

Q: I was connecting two of the questions, and thinking that in dealing bumpy people, the feeling, “Well that's their thing,” is different than giving them space; not trying to fix them or push them away, but just giving space to the other.

Aaron: “That's their thing” may still be a form of control or fixing and coming from a self. The question is who is giving the space. As long as there's a somebody, there's a fixing or a doing. When in your practice you begin to rest in the space of emptiness, and work with the various arisings of mind and body from that emptiness, then you naturally continue to watch the bumps in the road from the place of emptiness. There's nobody fixing or even attending to, only love holding space; awareness holding space. That brings a very different response from the bumpy road.

Other questions?

Q: Can you please explain more the difference between conditioned and unconditioned? Is conditioned like material, and unconditioned immaterial?

Aaron: Not fully. Conditioned simply means that whatever has arisen arises from conditions, and when the conditions are gone, what has arisen will pass away. The conditions may be the stubbed toe, the rock, the bare foot, the contact, the nerves in the foot; these are all conditions that give rise to the pain. Left alone, eventually the pain will decrease and pass away because the conditions dissolve. If you keep kicking the toe, the pain will persist.

What arose can be a thought. Somebody says something, which is one condition. Your own internal make-up and reaction to what they've said is another condition. Perhaps they've just said, “I don't like this or that,” but you're sensitive to the words and see it as criticism. Tension arises. Certain conditions. The ear organ is present. The words touch as ‘contact.” Then comes consciousness of the contact. Hearing. Hearing consciousness is there. Your own sensitivity is another condition. The person's particular slant on things that led them to speak with anger is a condition. These are all conditions that give rise to tension and to the experience of an unpleasant feeling in the hearer. But all that's happened is some words have been passed.

Eventually some of these conditions resolve; either time passes and what was heard is days past, or there's some internal change. Seeing your sensitivity, knowing that what was said is not about the speaker but relates to something your mother said to you when you were ten years old, seeing that with clarity and being able to know, “This is not about the present situation. This is about something old.” There is a willingness to let go.  The open heart changes the conditions so that whatever has arisen ceases to arise, or passes away. This is the conditioned realm. It's not necessarily about material vs. immaterial, because thoughts as well as material items are within the conditioned realm.

By the unconditioned, we go into a much deeper place. Again, quoting that sutra from the Buddha (and somebody asked me yesterday what sutra it is, and I would have to research it to find the specific name and number). He was speaking to a group of monks. He said, “There is an Unborn, Undying, Unchanging, Uncreated. If it were not so, there would be no reason for our lives.”  (Udana 8.3)

"There is, monks, an unborn/ unbecome/ unmade/ unfabricated. If there were not that unborn/ unbecome/ unmade/ unfabricated, there would not be the case that emancipation from the born / become/ made/ fabricated would be discerned. But precisely because there is an unborn/ unbecome/ unmade/ unfabricated, emancipation from the born/ become/ made/ fabricated is discerned."

This is not something that can be manifest. If it's unborn and undying, it doesn't manifest and pass away. Therefore it is unconditioned. It is That Which Is. There are many names given to this That Which Is: God or Goddess, Divine, Unconditioned, Ground of Being, the Primordial Purity, an infinite number of names in different cultures or religions. They're all pointing to the same thing, the Unconditioned itself, that which is not manifest because of conditions and therefore cannot pass away.

The beauty of this, of bringing awareness to the existence of this Unconditioned, is that since it does not arise or pass away, it's here with us in this moment and is always within you. There is nothing you need to attain to come to it. You can't create it, because it's already there. You can't destroy it, because it's always there. But you can learn various practices that allow you to rest in that Unconditioned.

The Heart Sutra phrases it this way: (excerpt)

O Sariputra, all dharmas are empty.

They are not born nor annihilated.

They are not defiled nor immaculate.

They do not increase nor decrease.

So in emptiness no form, no feeling, no thought, no impulse, no consciousness.

No eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind;

no form, sound, smell, taste, touch or objects of mind.

No realm of sight; no realm of consciousness.

No ignorance nor extinction of ignorance,

no old age and death, nor extinction of them.

No suffering, no cause of suffering, no path to lead out of suffering;

no knowledge, no attainment, no realization

for there is nothing to attain.

In meditation, as we practice we watch objects arising and passing away. People as they meditate will reach a level of practice where the whole body and the ego seem to become transparent. Sometimes they are completely invisible and we say they have “dissolved” though they are still there as conditioned object, just not visible. This relates to the simultaneity of conditioned and unconditioned.  There is an infinite spaciousness. Sometimes the spaciousness seems filled with some of the expressions of the Unconditioned such as the sound of nada, luminosity, space, energy, equanimity, the open heart. But it's not MY open heart or MY equanimity. You're simply opening into that ground of the Unconditioned. For many people this is a terrifying progression, because people fear, “Will I dissolve? Will I disappear? Will I annihilate myself?” But ego and body remain; there is just no longer identification with them. It is safe to experience this! It is very peaceful to rest in non-self-identification with the conditioned aspects of being. But one must come back to the degree to remain responsible for the body, thoughts, to all the conditioned aggregates.

So we work lovingly and skillfully and patiently with ourselves, and as teachers with our students, to invite them to find the courage to take that leap into that space where there's really no self, no ground, and to find there is something there. It's not a void. We can't call it a something because it's not tangible, but it's also not a void. We can come to know it. There are no words for it. There are thousands of books trying to define it, but none of them can really say what it is. But we can come to know it and to learn how to rest there and center ourselves there and live from that space.

Q: Buddha nature, same thing?

Aaron: Buddha nature is the same thing. Awakened nature, Buddha nature, Christ consciousness. It doesn't matter what we call it. You can't really name it; it's ineffable. It cannot be named or tied to anything. But it can be directly experienced. And when you experience it, you know. If you had never tasted honey and said to me, “What is honey?”;  if I tried to describe it to you, you would still not know what it was. There are many varieties of honey, and they each have a slightly different taste. But if you taste one tip of your tongue to honey and say, “Ah, that's honey!” then I can say to you, “Well this one is a bit spicier, and that one is a bit sweeter. This one has more orange in it.” But you know now: “This is honey.”

As I said, you can't say, “This is it.” It's unlimited. But you have a sense of what it is. So your meditation practice will lead you into this direct experience of the Unconditioned. One of the ways we approach this is work with pure awareness practice. So we vary the vipassana practice, teaching vipassana but also teaching sitting, eyes open, resting in spaciousness. We distinguish between consciousness, which is more conditioned-- objects like a throbbing in the knee or the hearing of a sound, as a conditioned object-- and the awareness that rests in infinite spaciousness, infinite equanimity, if we might say that. Infinite peacefulness.

There may be an experience of objects arising and ceasing in the conditioned realm, and an experience akin to sitting on the edge of a vast container out of which objects arise and pass away. But there's nothing separate there, really, but the container and just the flow of objects arising and passing away out of this ground.

In some of Barbara's teaching, especially at Emerald Isle and in Venture Fourth, they've been talking in depth about two terms, Primordial Purity and All Ground. These are terms from the Tibetan tradition. The All Ground is that which contains everything, including the Primordial Purity, but also the distortions. The Primordial Purity is actually the container for the All Ground, rather than the other way around. Let me explain that one step further.

If the All Ground were the container, both negative and positive, it would mean there was duality in the world. If the Primordial Purity is the container, and the All Ground rests in the Primordial Purity, then we see first the non-duality out of which dual expression has arisen in this conditioned realm. But as that dual expression dissolves, there's only the Primordial Purity. And it is this experience that your practice takes you to as the direct experience of the Unconditioned.

I know that may have passed over some of your heads. A transcript will be available and you can reflect on it. We must start the sitting now, so let me end here with one last thought.

The Dzogchen poem Flight of the Garuda speaks of this in a very clear way. I will ask Barbara to add it.

Flight of the Garuda, by Lama Shabkar Tsogdruk Rangdrol. song 5 excerpt

During the primordial era before everything, There were no names like “samsara” or “nirvana.”

Everything remained as the primordial ground.

Now hear how awareness manifested from that ground.

As a crystal's own light becomes manifest when hit by the sun, ...

Its spontaneously present luminosity then shone forth like the sun at dawn, And manifested as buddhafields of kayas and wisdoms.

At that time  Dharmakaya Samantabhadra  knew this to be self-display,

And in that very instant the outwardly manifested kayas and wisdoms were dissolved into inner clarity.  Thus he was fully awakened in the original ground of primordial purity.

But we did not recognize the nature of these spontaneously present displays to be self-expressions,...

Then a perception arose, fixating on the luminosity of the ground-displays in a dualistic way. This is known as “conceptual ignorance.”  That was the time we strayed into the narrowness of ignorance and dualistic fixation.

After this, the habitual patterns gradually multiplied, And samsara in its entirety came into existence. The kleshas of the three and five poisons And of the eighty-four thousand kinds then gradually unfolded. Until now we have been experiencing joys and sorrows, spinning around in samsara, As if on a potter's wheel.

Q: Thank you for a very impressive explanation of Unconditioned.

Aaron: You are very welcome. Thank you all for inviting me to be with you.

(session ends)