“Without past, present, future; empty awake mind.”
The crux of the matter. The Buddhist Middle Way View teaches of the “Two Truths”: ultimate (paramartha satya) and relative (samvriti satya). Ultimate truth may be broadly construed as emptiness (shunyata); relative truth as the physical and mental form that continuously arises from the unbounded whole of this ultimate primordial emptiness ground. How is this “supreme source” related to our human happiness, both relative and ultimate?
But first, what in heaven and earth might this “ultimate primordial ground” possibly be? As conscious and self-conscious beings in form we perceive primarily the figure of our perceptual foreground—trees, stars, beings—as these forms continuously arise through the vast array of their kosmic background. A part participates in its whole. No whole, no parts. No parts, no whole. All of these apparently individual parts must perforce partake in that whole in which they arise. The whole is, as it were, the parts writ large. Therefore, plainly construed, the relation between part and whole is one of identity. This vast whole then, is a kind of all-inclusive source or ground, by whatever name. Now we see foreground objects. Then what? Don’t we habitually conceptualize, then name both the objects/parts, and upon reflection, the unbounded wholeness that is their all-embracing ground? Alas, through the conceptual activity of naming, that named—whether whole or part—departs the trans-conceptual realm of being itself and becomes an “other”, separate from its knowing subject, which is you and me. Subject and object are thereby split.
Well, how do we move our awareness from all of these parts, these things in the foreground, to the luminous basal primordial ground itself, while still “hewing wood and carrying water”? The subtlest or “highest” nondual teaching of our great wisdom traditions have told it: the perfect subjectivity that is this mystery of our trans-rational “primordial ground” cannot be known by objective, discursive concept-mind, even though we are all always only participating in it. Skeptical and nihilistic? Now consider the contemplative trans-conceptual “primordial wisdom” demonstrated by the lives of the masters and mahasiddhas of our Great Wisdom Tradition. This direct, experiential knowing of the entire whole shebang is, it is told, the inherent (sahaja) potential of all beings in human form. Moreover, such ultimate knowing (gnosis), and the compassionate lifeworld conduct or behavior that spontaneously flows there from, is the secret of our everyday, relative-conventional happiness; but as well, the ultimate happiness of the whole that is “spiritual” liberation/enlightenment. How shall we understand this?
Shakyamuni Buddha told in his Heart Sutra: “Form is emptiness; emptiness is form.” These two faces of reality are a prior ontological unity; two conceptual paradigms; “not one, not two, but nondual.” Nagarjuna teaches that “There is not the slightest difference between samsara and nirvana.” Quantum pioneer Werner Heisenberg tells us that “subject and object are only one.” We live in these two worlds—objective and subjective—at once!
Perhaps then our perennially vexed human condition is to find a middle way between existence and non-existence; between relative “scientific” Materialism, and infinite nihilistic Idealism. Indeed, the 21st century Noetic Revolution that is now upon us suggests such a middle way between relative, objective Science, and ultimate, perfectly subjective unbounded wholeness (mahabindu) that is its nondual spirit ground (Boaz, “Being the Whole: The Emerging Noetic Revolution”, 2013, www.davidpaulboaz.org). Let us then further explore this profound Buddhist view that unpacks, then repacks the very nature of mind.
In the Mahayana Buddhist View of Prasangika Madhyamaka—the Middle Way Consequence School of Nagarjuna (2nd century), Chandrakirti (8th century) and Tsongkhapa (14th century)—the very foundation of Dzogchen, the Great Perfection—even the Ultimate Truth that is fundamental great emptiness (mahashunyata, dharmakaya, kadag) is not a frozen absolute. In other words, ultimate emptiness/openness is not a metaphysical logocentric idol or false absolute existing unconditioned and independently as an unknowable “other” dualistic (subject-object separation) transcendent creator God, Self, metaphysical essence, or some vast substrate, entity, being or thing. Buddhist emptiness/openness is not a transcendent, deeper absolute reality strata of the arising and appearing of relative-conventional physical and mental form.
These forms of emptiness then, are not concept/theory independent, existing in a separate “real world out there” (RWOT). Rather, this anti-essentialist view holds that the appearing physical and mental objects of appearing reality—both objective and subjective—to be concept/theory-dependent, with no independently existent reality posited (nor denied) at all.
So Buddhist emptiness/openness is a non-essentialist relativized absolute, abiding interdependently, as “dependent arising” or “interbeing,” a timeless, spacious infinitely vast causal nexus of arising interconnected causes and conditions. Plenty of parking space here. This Buddhist View is then, non-essentialist, but not, conventionally anyway, anti-realist.
The good news? Our appearing realities are not utterly illusory, as philosophical idealists, both East and West, would have it. There “exists” here the ultimately compassionate gift (jin lab, grace, euangelion) of a really real, nominal, relative-conventional reality out there, and in here. But there is no noumenal, permanent, substantial essentially existent reality at all. Our arising realities are merely the relative “dependent arising” (pratitya samutpada) of spacetime mental and physical forms to a sentient perceiving consciousness. The reality status of emptiness itself? Emptiness too is “empty of any shred of intrinsic existence” (Nagarjuna). H. H. the Dalai Lama terms this beautiful reality paradox the “emptiness of emptiness.”
It is important for us to avoid the misapprehension that emptiness is an absolute reality from which the illusory world emerges… it’s not some kind of [entity] out there somewhere… emptiness must be understood as ‘empty of intrinsic or independent existence’…form’s ultimate nature… [It] does not imply non-existence of phenomena but the emptiness of phenomena…its ultimate mode of being…the basis that allows form [to] arise as emptiness.
—H. H. the Dalai Lama, Buddhadharma Quarterly, Fall, 2002
How then does emptiness exist? Emptiness is established not absolutely, but by our relative, conventional conceptual minds. Emptiness does not exist ultimately. It exists merely conventionally, as the reified, conceptually imputed dependent, or interdependent arising of form. Again, emptiness is not some deeper logocentric reality. Thus it is not subject to criticism from Postmodern deconstructionists (Derrida, Foucault), nor from Premodern nor Modern theists, West or East.
Are these two realities—the duality of emptiness and form—incommensurable, as our Modern and even Postmodern traditions tell? No, they are complementary. Madhyamaka emptiness is then merely the ultimate nature of our everyday conventional, intersubjective reality of relative spacetime thoughts and things interdependently arising (vasana/quantum qubits) from the vast array of their ultimate primordial ground—by whatever name—appearing to sentient/human consciousness. Now what is the nature of this mysterious consciousness? It is this relative, impermanent human consciousness that is the spacetime instantiation of selfless, timeless vast and ultimate, primordial consciousness ground of all that is. “Do you understand the two minds, the mind that includes everything, and the mind that is related to something?” (Suzuki Roshi). There is a relative distance or separation. There is no ultimate distance or separation.
The sublime Dzogchen semde tantra, Kunjed gyalpo, reveals this trans-rational (but not irrational) source-ground to be our “supreme identity.” Who am I? That (Tat) I Am! The Two Truths, relative/conventional and ultimate/absolute are an ontic prior (a priori) unity. “Not one, not two, but nondual”. Samsara and nirvana are ultimately, one and the same (samata).
Beyond the duality of form and emptiness. By the lights of the nondual Vajrayana view (Dzogchen, Essence Mahamudra) we—as a self—cannot be that primordial ground. Here, there is no self that is our buddha nature. Primordial awareness wisdom is merely the selfless, nondual nature of mind, vast, inherently gnostic kosmos, unbounded wholeness of all that is, and of that of it which appears to sentient consciousness. This natural ground itself is utterly selfless. It pervades and purifies everything. It is wholly free of “any shred” of self-identity. And we are not separate from That. So it is told by the wisdom masters of the “three times”, past, present and future.
Through the practice of the Path we cultivate, connect to, and celebrate this great wisdom potential that abides “always, already” at the Heart. Here, now we relax into it, open into that vastness, and be happy. We cannot become happy later. We can only be happy now. Happiness, relative and ultimate, is assiduous moment-to-moment attention to That.
Now there is nothing out there, or in here, that is more cool, or more real, or more blissful than our here now ordinary, directly present experience, “just as it is.” No need to change anything (wu-wei). No need to not change anything. “So leave it alone and let it be as it is” (Shakamuni Buddha). Our past is past. Our future has not yet arisen. So the surrender of attention to That that is present here and now is happiness itself; is it not? And wonder of wonders, from such a fully present beautiful mind arises radical, spacious spontaneous action.
Not so for the habitually conceptual Modern materialist mind—the proto-religion of the “Scientism” metaphysic—clinging as it does to our deep cultural background (Platonist/Cartesian) quest for permanence, and for our common objectivist “dogmatic slumber” (Kant) that embraces mere eternal, material substantial form.
However, Buddhist emptiness should not be construed as nihilistic “nothingness” or non-existence. Astonishingly, this strange negation that is emptiness is full of the light/energy/motion that gives rise to everything in the exoteric material cosmos; not to mention the nondual innermost esoteric body/mind/spirit kosmos, including you and me. Striking a balance between negating too much of this arising relative form, and negating too little of it; now that is the rub. Such cognitive discrimination is the secular, and non-secular Buddhist Middle Way practice—but not the goal—of the Path. To make this Path a goal to future happiness can derail the practice. Why? Happiness is only now. Thus, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche advises, “Make the goal the path.”
The forms of emptiness. There is a seminal, but non-essential relationship of Shakyamuni Buddha’s reflective, reflexive dependent arising (pratitya samutpada/tendrel) of relative forms, and their ultimate emptiness matrix base or ground (gzhi, kunzi). Again, from his Heart Sutra: “Form is none other than emptiness, emptiness is none other than form.” “Dependent arising is emptiness; reality itself” (Lama Rinpoche). This auspicious relation is that of identity.
Shakyamuni Buddha, indeed countless Buddhas and mahasiddhas of the timeless “three times” have taught three aspects of this interdependent unity of form and emptiness: 1) causal, all phenomena and processes depend upon prior causes and conditions; 2) mereological, wholes are dependent on their parts, and parts are dependent on their wholes; 3) conceptual imputation and reification, all arising phenomena and processes are real only by relative-conventional conceptual attribution and designation by a human consciousness, with no inherently, essentially real or absolute existence. All of our realities, including us are (gasp!) insubstantial and impermanent! (Bad for the economy.) “No phenomenon exists with an independent or intrinsic identity” (H. H. The Dalai Lama, The Universe in a Single Atom, 2005, p. 64).
Hence, this dance of geometry—our reification of arising physical/mental/social forms (Berger’s Nomos)—is the product of our historistic social interobjective and cultural intersubjective deep background semiotic/linguistic “web of belief” (W.V. Quine, “Ontological Relativity,” 1969). So much for the Modernist cult of objectivity, a concept-independent (things exist independently of our concepts/beliefs), separate, material/physical reality “out there” i.e. empirical Realism. Both Madhyamaka Buddhism and quantum field theory agree on this, after all.
To be sure, this “ontologically relative” belief system has become respectable Postmodern high culture dogma. But the cognitive dissonance inherent in such an anti-realist, anti-materialist view is a very sticky wicket for Modernity’s moral liberal democratic, but amoral (too often immoral) corporate capitalism with its utterly ironic, Postmodern destructive consumerist colonization of the lifeworld of the individual (Habermas, M. Gandhi, J. S. Mill). Better not to mention this at upscale cocktail parties, or to your doctors.
With this ontologically relative, anti-essentialist view, Postmodernists Bohr, Quine, Kuhn, the Neo-Pragmatists (Rorty), and the new panpsychic Neodualists (Chalmers) would agree (Boaz, “The Problem and the Opportunity of Consciousness, ”2013, www.davidpaulboaz.org).
Hence, on this Buddhist view, phenomena arise in dependence upon prior causes and conditions; phenomena arise in mutual interdependence of parts and wholes within the vast spacious unbounded whole (mahabindu, thigle chenpo); phenomena are absent any separate, essential intrinsic existence. And this absence of inherent self-existence is primordial emptiness ground of all that arises through it. All emptiness is emptiness of something. No emptiness, no form. No form, no emptiness. It’s emptiness all the way up; it’s emptiness all the way down.
Well, if phenomenal form does not exist ultimately or absolutely, how does it exist? Remembering again the Two Truths—relative and ultimate—appearing reality does exist nominally, relative-conventionally, as we have seen. Objective reality is not illusory, as Eastern subjective Idealism, and Western transcendental philosophical Idealism would have it. So we still have to show up for work. No skepticism, no nihilism here at all.
Therefore, all phenomena are dependently and conceptually designated; they exist only by way of conventionally reified conceptual and linguistic attribution, imputation and designation. So we had better pay attention to, and be mindful of our presently activated mind-states; and even of our not so present unconscious cognitive states. Why? In the words of Shakyamuni Buddha, “What you are is what you have been; what you will be is what you do now”. And our “bad karma” habitual negative mind states? Buddhism has powerful instant antidotes, if we will but learn, and apply them. Just so in the West: “Philosophy is the antidote to that bewitchment of our intelligence by language” (Wittgenstein).
Emptiness and the self. “All the evil, fear and suffering of this world is the result of clinging to the self” (Shantideva). We have seen that because of the subtle impermanence—moment-to-moment change—of all causally interdependently arising phenomena, nothing has an intrinsic self-nature. The consciousness of persons, and everything else of this unbroken whole arise and flow in a selfless, timeless constantly changing continuum of causes and conditions, with no eternal, absolute, substantial permanent self-identity at all. “Who are you in the space between two thoughts?” Indeed, it is this profound spaciousness through which, or in whom everything—physical mental, societal, spiritual—arises and appears.
Mahayana Buddhism teaches of the “two selflessnesses,” the selflessness of the person (rangtong), and the selflessness of phenomena perceived and experienced by such persons (shentong). The stabilized mind (samadhi, dhyana) realizing emptiness—the unity of shamatha/mindfulness practice (settling the wild horse of the mind into its natural original state), and vipashyanā (penetrating insight meditation)—is the recognition, then realization of the utter absence of self-nature in all arising form, both “self” and “other.”
So we have here the auto-noetic, authentic reflexively aware (rang rig) liberating realization of a nondual (interdependent trans-conceptual subject/object unity) “primordial wisdom of emptiness” that is nothing less than the prior unity of generally confused and ignorant (avidya, marigpa) relative-conventional mind with our bright “clearlight mind” that is its ultimate basal emptiness ground, unbounded wholeness, our inherent (sahaja) “supreme source” (Kunjed gyalpo, the basic space/ying of dharmadhatu, cittadhatu, etc.).
The two wisdoms of happiness. Now this Middle Way unified Yogachara/Madhyamaka emptiness is none other than the buddha nature of the idealist Buddhist Yogachara School. According to His Holiness the Dalai Lama (based in part upon Shantarakshita’s 8th century Madhyamakalamkara) there is no essential difference between these “two wisdoms”, that is to say, between luminous emptiness (shunyata) and our indwelling seed of buddha nature (tathagatagarbha). “Realizing emptiness we realize our intrinsic buddha nature. Realizing our buddha nature we realize emptiness.”
And from the unity of these two wisdoms spontaneously arises boundless altruism—kind, compassionate lifeworld conduct. This then is the unity of Buddhist wisdom (both relative prajna and ultimate jnana/yeshe) with karuna/compassion. And from this wisdom of kindness activity (bodhichitta) emerges actual human happiness. “Love is the only cause of happiness” (Garchen Triptrul Rinpoche). Love is Buddhist ethics writ large. Such “loving kindness” (maitri), and compassion (karuna) spontaneously arise from meditative equipoise (upeksha). Love is the heart essence of Middle Way Buddhist moral psychology and conduct.
Thus it is, this great foundational Buddhist teaching of emptiness: no-self (anatman), impermenance (anitya) and interdependent arising (pratitya samutpada)—all of this difference—is an ontic prior unity. This unity is recognized, then realized—step-by-step—through these “two wisdoms,” namely, spacious emptiness, and our inherent, “primordially present” heartseed of buddha nature. This unity is perfected in nondual Dzogchen. Such realization is our liberating freedom, the happiness that cannot be lost (mahasuka, paramananda, beatitudo). Such freedom is the result of “mind training”: discipline (yoga/religio) in action (karma), wisdom (jnana), and devotion (bhakti). Yes, it takes a qualified teacher, and a bit of practice.
Now What? This Buddhist View bespeaks the emotional ignorance (avidya/marigpa/ajnana) that is Attraction (desire, greed, pride) and Aversion (fear/anger, aggression), the non-recognition and failure of realization of this tripartite compassionate wisdom: selflessness, impermanence, and dependent arising. Such non-recognition of the compassionate bodhichitta (awakened heartmind) is the root cause of human suffering, alienation and human evil. “If we do not understand that this internal enemy of non-recognition of bodhichitta is the cause of our suffering, our external enemies will be never-ending” (Lama Rinpoche).
This adventitious ignorance that is suffering is an internal conceptual (kalpana, vikalpa) superimposition or projection (samaropa, vikshepa) onto our everyday, pristine, direct perceptual experience which is “intrinsically pure” and free, prior to this nearly instantaneous superimposition of concept, and then belief. “Rest your weary mind and let it be as it is; all things are perfect exactly as they are” (Shakyamuni Buddha). Radical teaching indeed.
Perhaps then we should not believe everything we think, nor defend everything we believe. To do so is to “miss the mark” (hamartia/sin) of the selfless, timeless nondual primordial perfection of indwelling, “always already” present presence (vidya/rigpa, atman, epinoia, christos, shekhina) of impermanent, selfless, empty, interdependently outshining consciousness-reality-being-itself (cittadhatu). Astoundingly, the arising of fearful/angry negative afflictive emotions is a cognitive aperture where the light of our primordial awareness wisdom enters in. Yea, it is the very door through which we enter into this light, and come home. How do we do this?
On the Buddhist View, the possibility and potential of release from this ignorance that is suffering is of course, the practice of the Buddha’s Eightfold Path to the freedom that is both relative, and ultimate human happiness.
—David Paul Boaz Dechen Wangdu
Posted 10.10.13, by permission, Offering Magazine, November, 2013