Without past, present, future; empty awake mind.
Neuroscientists and Zen Masters agree: the not so conscious cognitive activity of the human mind is about 90 percent self-centered—I, Me, Mine—and about 90 percent negative: Aversion; fear, anxiety, anger, hostility, hatred, and Attraction; egoic desire, greed, pride, guilt, regret—all of it arising from self-centered human “ignorance” (avidya, hamartia/sin). Yet even here kind, gentle Christ/Buddha Wisdom Mind is always present. Alas, as Jesus told, “you do not see it”. Hard to be happy hanging out in such negative mindstates. Please recall that human happiness is the direct result of our present mindstate, not in some future awareness state. Likewise unhappiness. We cannot become happy later. But we can be happy now. So we train the mind in awareness management.
The Self and The Two Truths. The mahasiddhas and masters of our great Primordial Wisdom Tradition have told it: the ultimate nature of this all too real relative self-ego-I is a mind-created illusion to which we desperately cling, lest we cease to exist. It seems we are bound by an atavistic ontopathological fear of non-existence which has become the dominate trope of our physically embodied lives, ruled by an unruly fearful self-ego-I. Yet, before we were born, no problem at all. An old Zen koan: “Who were you before your parents met?” No self, no fear. No fear, no anger. Peace of mind.
Narcissistic ego-I, our self-sense, is alive and well in the dualistic, objective spacetime dimension of Relative Truth (samvriti satya)—the world of Suzuki Roshi’s “Small Mind”. So we must work with it. But self-ego-I does not ultimately exist in the timeless perfectly subjective dimension of Ultimate Truth (paramartha satya)—Roshi’s “Big Mind” that transcends yet embraces the realm of Relative Truth.
Self-ego-I is, for Mahayana Buddhists, but a relative conceptual imputation, a concept-mind reification of an ultimately empty illusory non-entity. Yet, this self-fabricated “I” is all too real in the conventional realm of Small Mind. Contemplative practice reveals its actual nature as non-conceptual “innate intrinsic awareness” of indwelling Big Mind; our innermost Wisdom Mind. Essence of self is fearless wisdom.
The practice of the path recognizes, then realizes that this consciousness processional of the relative spacetime and the ultimate transcendent dimensions that are the primordial Two Truths of reality are now and forever a prior and present complementary unity, indivisible, inseparable, like a golden thread of the one truth that pervades and traverses the fabric of all that arises and appears from the primeval ground—nondual unbounded whole itself.
Let us recall that our “mind-forged manacles” (William Blake) are cast off through mindful breathing. There remains a trans-conceptual, luminous innermost awareness that is in no way dependent upon the thinking self-ego-I.
What is Real? Being here in time requires the presence of a spacetime existing conscious observer-experiencer. Absent that, there is no time, nor space. This was also the view of Einstein, and of recent relativistic physics and cosmology, which point to the great Buddhist truth of the ultimately illusory nature of an all too relatively real objective self-ego-I, abiding in a spacetime objectively “real world out there” (RWOT). For Einstein, such an objectively real spacetime world is but a “persistent illusion”.
This trans-conceptual, timeless realm transcends and subsumes our global materialist web of concept and belief—our confining, not so comfortable comfort zones brimming with all this objective material and mental stuff that bestows upon us a really RWOT, and a self to experience it. Or does it?
After all, nonlocal Quantum Field Theory, local General Relativity Theory, Mahayana Middle Way Buddhist emptiness (shunyata), Taoism (Tao-chia), and Hindu Advaita Vedanta ontologies (ontology is the study of what ultimately exists; epistemology is how we know it) all tell us that appearing time and space (E=mc²), though relatively, conventionally “real”, are ultimately but a timeless illusion (Boaz, The Collapse of Objective Reality: Quantum Nonlocality and Buddhist Emptiness, 2020).
We have seen that such a view as to what is really real is known as the “Two Truths”—objective, conventional spacetime Relative Truth and perfectly subjective nondual (trans-conceptual) Ultimate Truth in which, or in whom this all arises. This perennial ontology pervades our great Primordial Wisdom Tradition, including recent physics and cosmology, as we have just seen. (More on this below.)
Post-Standard Model physics, and much of our premodern Wisdom Tradition—Mahayana Buddhism, Advaita Vedanta, Tao-chia—denies a permanent absolutely existing spacetime reality, including the existence of an ultimately existing self-ego-I; though in the dimension of spacetime Relative Truth, this self in time is all too real.
The Neuroscience of Self. I, me, mine! For both neuroscience and Mahayana Buddhists the perceived self-ego-I cannot be located anywhere in the brain, or outside the brain. It exists only as a concept! So, it is intrinsically absent and empty of any solid, absolute or ultimate existence. But it is, as we have seen, all too real in the dimensional realm of relative conventional everyday existence. Indeed, it is often construed by thinking folks as a big problem for our species’ continued tenure upon this pretty little planet. Let us then penetrate a bit more deeply into this illusive self being here in time.
Remembering the Buddhist Mahayana Prasangika Middle Way Two Truths trope, self-ego-I is absent in the nondual world of Ultimate Truth, but abundantly present in the dualistic world of Relative Truth. Well, who is it that experiences all this stuff? It sure feels real. How shall we understand this seeming conceptual incongruity?
From an evolutionary perspective, patterns of our prodigious self-sense have permitted Homo sapiens to survive long enough to pass on our genes, and become our earth’s “dominate species” (not that other species will agree with such an impudent egoic presumption). Thus does the self-ego-I still arise under certain conditions: 1) existential threats (avoidance), perceived or otherwise; 2) opportunities for desired stuff (approach) essential or otherwise; and 3) desired relationships with other human beings (attraction), healthy or otherwise (aversion). The two defining characteristics of self-ego-I are then, desire (attraction, greed, lust) and avoidance (fear, anger, hatred).
And we still have to show up for work. To be sure, these patterns possess their respective “neural correlates” in brain. But such neuronal activity demonstrates no unique privileged pattern, quality or location relative to other neural processes. Prior to the arising of the self-ego-I in one of our above defining conditions there exists no experiential or neuroscientific evidence of its existence. But within a half second of a perceived threat or strong desire—voila, here it is in all of its narcissistic urgency. In this way do attraction and aversion give birth to an adventitious, otherwise non-existent self-ego-I. Thus is this non-entity we call self, in the nondual ultimate view, an illusory fantasque phantom. Perhaps we make too much of it. Perhaps there is a bit of self-correcting humor extant in the entire absurd endeavor that is self-ego-I.
Again, self is utterly absent and empty of any intrinsic, essential, ultimate, logical or neuroscientific objective existence. And for Mahayana Buddhists, neither does the ostensible objective reality that the self desires or avoids possess “any shred of intrinsic existence”, as first century Buddhist master Nagarjuna told. Yet, here it is. What hath God wrought?! So, who is it that denies all of this appearing existence?
E = mc², But Who Is It That Knows? Well, if there is no self, just who is it that is kind, compassionate, happy and enlightened? Who is it that knows this absence of an ultimately real existing self in an illusory spacetime? Who is it that is conscious; that is born, suffers and dies?
Western relativistic physics simply declines to address the question of this absurd absence of time, and so of an observer-self to bestow its reality. For Einstein, “Time is ultimately an illusion; albeit a very persistent one”. No explanation other than this was ever offered by the great physics master, nor by recent relativistic physics.
For the pioneers of non-objective quantum mechanics—Planck, Bohr, Heisenberg, Schrödinger—building upon the broad objectivist shoulders of Isaac Newton’s classical mechanics, time does not exist objectively, absolutely, ultimately, before the “collapse” of Schrödinger’s quantum wave function (Ψ) by a sentient observer in time. At that instant of collapse—no one can explain how—an objective reality in time is metaphysically, almost magically bestowed upon we observers.
Thus, quite ironically does Relativistic Quantum Field Theory (QFT, QED) require an objective time and the cognitive consciousness of a physically “real” observer-self in order to perform its objective quantum measurements. That’s the relative view. Yet, ultimately considered, an objective self, existing in time is a quantum entangled “nonlocal” illusion. Middle Way Buddhists, and Einstein agree.
Has this illusive observer-self “problem” presented an inherent logical contradiction that contributes to the inherently vexed theoretical incommensurability of the Quantum Field Theory (QED) and General Relativity Theory (GRT) formalisms? Indeed it has. A prodigious mathematical and metaphysical healing is required to accomplish the great physics desideratum of a Quantum Gravity Theory (QGT). The continued absence of a consistent QGT has utterly stalled the progress of 21st century physics and cosmology. On this all theoretical physicists agree. What to do? Super-symmetric Super String M Theory? Loop Quantum Gravity? Nothing objective works!
Perhaps physicists and Middle Way Buddhist scholar-practitioners should sit down over pizza and ale and engage the metaphysics of a self arising and being in time that is this mystery of great gravity—creator and destroyer of worlds.
Whatever the metaphysical view-belief as to the ontological status of a self as existent (Metaphysical Materialism/Physicalism), non-existent (Metaphysical Idealism), or relatively existent but ultimately non-existent (Buddhist centrist Middle Way), what is clear is that our being here in time requires presence of a sentient consciousness.
As to such a self-ego-I being in dubious spacetime, what saith our Primordial Wisdom Tradition? We are told by the wise that this physically embodied self—illusory or otherwise—that we all experience so vividly arises and emerges from our transpersonal, trans-conceptual “supreme identity” that is our always present Wisdom Mind, selfless, timeless, already present Presence, instantiation of the great primordial unbounded whole itself (mahabindu). It is That in whom arises all this embodied beingness participating in quasi-illusory relative conventional spacetime; whether or not we understand it conceptually, or believe it.
Again, here arises the perennial Two Truths trope of emerging reality from the ontologically prior nondual primordial awareness-consciousness ground itself, by whatever name or concept.
This vast unbounded whole embraces its instantiated parts—trees, stars, and all of us. And these interconnected parts necessarily, interdependently participate in that primordial ground itself. Buddhists call this “dependent arising”, or “interbeing” (pratitya samutpada)—the emergence of relative spacetime form from its nondual awareness-consciousness base (gzhi rigpa), a vast causal matrix of prior causes and conditions. On the account of this “logic of the non-conceptual”, wonder of wonders, we are never separate from That! We arise, participate and have never departed that whole.
Be that as it may, this trans-rational, trans-conceptual explanation is not at all acceptable to our dualistic conceptual sociocultural “global web of belief” that is our collective self-ego-I, steeped as it is in the prevailing Metaphysical Scientific Materialism/Physicalism ideology that has almost entirely colonized the Western mind.
Again, we transcend such conceptual belief systems via transpersonal mindful breathing, quite beyond the realm of mere concept and belief. Here our practice mantra is “No self, no problem”, essential truth of the Wisdom Path. Alas, we then conceptually unpack the whole shebang so that this prior unity of the two dimensions of reality—relative, objective, physical, and ultimately subjective, emotional, spiritual—might fit our procrustean “common sense” (Bertrand Russell’s “metaphysics of the stone age”) notions of a purely physical spacetime reality with a real selves. It won’t work.
Our iconic one-dimensional materialist common sense does not admit of the trans-conceptual realm for it denies this dimension by habitually reducing it to the mere gross physical dimension, namely, brain function and structure. This untidy bit of “functionalist” philosophical conjuring is known to the philosophy trade as “scientific reductionism”. The urgent ultimate question remains: in whom does this all arise?
Who Is It That I Am? From the view of our innate Wisdom Mind consciousness I Am That “innermost esoteric” wisdom Presence—vast boundless whole that is our Heart’s desire—that which we constantly seek. It is That to which we aspire; That to which we awaken each moment; each mindful breath, whether we know, or believe it or not. Spooky indeed to ego-I’s concept-mind, and deep cultural background (mostly unconscious) materialist/physicalist “global web of belief”. Indeed, there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our conceptual materialist philosophy.
The good news? Self-ego-I, in due course and with a bit of luck, ceases to be a deceiver and obstructer to our psycho-emotional-spiritual growth and becomes a self-interested but non-judgmental ally in this great process of awakening. So be kind to this strange guest of your phenomenal world that pretends to be you. Relate to it and love it as the prodigal child that it is. Recall that exoteric ego-self cognition and esoteric Bodhi Mind Wisdom Mind cognition are not ultimately separate. We’re all in this together.
Exoteric/outer and esoteric inner understanding—our perennial Two Truths, Relative Truth (embodied self in time) and Ultimate Truth (timeless unbounded whole in whom this all arises)—are always already a trans-conceptual, nondual, utterly interdependent prior yet always present unity. Our healing Wisdom Mind knows this.
As to this unified one truth, Buddha told, “Rest your weary mind and let it be as it is; all things are perfect exactly as they are”. Such wisdom expresses the Ultimate Truth dimension of our in-dwelling Wisdom Mind that endlessly embraces the spacetime dimension of Relative Truth. This profound but subtle teaching rides each mindful breath. Professor Anne C. Klein (2006) has told it well:
The unbounded whole is how and what reality is…
Open awareness (rigpa, presence), fully present to
that state of wholeness is the knowing of it.
This freeing state of knowing Presence is inherently always already present each moment now, at the numinous spiritual heart (hridyam) of the human being. This is the nondual “fruitional view” that embraces and subsumes the duality of the causal view—cause and effect—be good and practice now to accomplish a happy result later. The outer, exoteric understanding of our great Primordial Wisdom Tradition is primarily causal. This view is represented in the Buddhist tradition by the Pali Cannon of Theravada, and by the Two Truths trope of the Mahayana Causal Vehicle. We find the resolution of the duality of the noble causal view in the nondual fruitional teaching of Buddhist Dzogchen, Essence Mahamudra, Saijojo Zen, and nondual Advaita Vedanta of the Hindu tradition. Here, in timeless now, the fruition or result “is already accomplished.
Hence, it is our indwelling nondual, non-causal, transpersonal, trans-conceptual Wisdom Mind—luminous Presence of That—to which we awaken, breath by breath, upon life force subtle prana energy of each mindful breath. Solid ego-I here dissolves. “Gate gate paragate, para samgate, bodhi svaha“. “Gone gone beyond, gone utterly beyond”.
The beautiful irony and paradox here is that in the fruitional view “it is already accomplished from the very beginning” (Garab Dorje). “That which you seek is already present within, and it is spread upon the face of the earth, but you do not see it” (Jesus Luke 17). “Mindfulness of breathing” is seeing (samadhi, satori) it here in this very moment now; recognition, then realization of That. It is from this realization that the effortless, spontaneous thought, intention and action for the benefit of beings manifests, however imperfectly, in this sometimes hellish relative duality of self in space and time.
Self-ego-I lives mainly in the past and the future. This present moment now is hard for us. Throw in some self-aggrandizing, or regretful past/future fantasy/reverie, and we have a bunch of dysfunctional human minds. As good a definition for our painful “human condition” as any. Unhappiness arising as fear, anger, hatred, despotism, war, and the rest are the inevitable result. We now know the way out of this futile cognitive cage. “No self, no problem.” Rest in that space until it is who you are.
We’ve seen that our usual seeking quest strategies for human happiness are based in wild, mindless self, the narcissistic separate self-ego-I and its “I, Me, Mine” effort to acquire much stuff, and to control everything, and to gain power over others. This activity of self-ego-I is known as ignorance (avidya, ajnana, marigpa, hamartia/sin). It is the root cause of human suffering; not to mention the suffering of non-human beings.
The great avatars who came to earth have told it well: Said Jesus, “Forget thy self”. Such kenosis is the “self-emptying”, or self-ego-I transcendence that the great exemplar accomplished, for self, and others. And Buddha, “There is no self” (his teaching of anatman/no-self). “Islam” literally means surrender of self.
Yet, we need this self to show up for work, and to buy groceries, not to mention the diapers. For most folks the self-sense is not going to vanish into a puff of primordially pure fairy dust. And if it did, who is it now that is happy and liberated?
Therefore, we imbue this unsettled grasping contrivance that appears here in time as self-ego-I with all embracing great love of our always present Wisdom Mind Presence—like the mother’s love that so gently corrects the selfish narcissism of the child. We let it be thus, imperfectly, more or less moment to moment, upon each mindful breath. It is self-ego-I that seeks liberation from suffering—Happiness Itself—that is always already present as your very essential Wisdom Mind Presence. Know now “That it is already accomplished from the very beginning”.
No self, no problem at all. So arise and do some good. It will make you happy.