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Joyful Wisdom
»» 8. Insight

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Trí tuệ hoan hỷ - 8. Tuệ giác

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After concentrated intellectual activity, the intuitive mind seems to take over and can produce the sudden clarifying insights which give so much joy and delight.


IT USED TO be fairly common for Buddhist practitioners to meditate in charnel grounds—areas covered with human bones and decaying corpses. They would spend nights, which some consider the most frightening and uncertain hours, during which sights, even under a full moon, are unclear, and sounds, like the rattling of wind rustling through bones or the wailing of a dog, can't be readily identified. The aim of their practice was to confront their own attachment to their bodies, desires, hopes, and fears, and gain a deep experience of impermanence and emptiness.

I recently heard of one monk who'd gone to a charnel ground in India and staked a phurba—a ritual knife representing stability of awareness—into the ground in front of a heap of bones. He sat quietly looking at the bones, meditating on the impermanence of life and the emptiness from which all experiences arises. Then he heard a noise nearby, a howling that frightened him. He started to run away; but somehow, in the dark, he'd stuck his phurba through the hem of his robes, anchoring him to the ground. He couldn't run, he couldn't move, and he was terrified. “This is it,” he thought. “I'm going to die now.”
An instant later, he realized, “That's what I came here to learn.” There was no “me,” no “I,” and no monk—just a pile of bones surrounded by decaying flesh moved by ideas, emotions, and physical sensations. He pulled up his phurba and walked home to his monastery, but with a deeper experience of emptiness.

This doesn't mean that in order to understand emptiness and impermanence you have to go to a cemetery, stick a knife in your pant cuffs, skirt hem, or shoe, and experience terror over not being able to move. We experience enough terror—as well as uncertainty, attachment, aversion—in our daily lives: at work, in relationships, and watching children go off to school. The question is, who is experiencing terror? Who is uncertain? Where does desire—-or jealousy, confusion, loneliness, or despair—live? Where do these various identities—mother, child, employee, boss, and so on—come from? Where do they go when they pass? Where do they exist when we experience them?


Just realizing the meaning of mind encompasses all understanding.

—Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye,
The Outline of Essential Points, translated by Maria Montenegro

Understanding is like a map. It shows us where we need to go and the directions for how to get there. A map, however, is not the journey. The intellectual understanding of emptiness that comes from breaking things down into smaller and smaller parts, acknowledging impermanence and interdependence (as described earlier), is what we might call “analytical meditation.” On an analytical level, it may be obvious that “I” am not my foot or my hand or my brain. But that level of analytical contemplation represents the first step of the journey.

I've heard that some people, upon hearing about emptiness, immediately recognize that cherished notions of “self and “other,” the “I like” box, the “I don't like” box, the “I don't know” box, and all the smaller boxes within them dissolve instantly. I was not one of those fortunate few. For me, it's taken effort, which is still ongoing. There are boxes within boxes yet to be discovered. Attaining some stability in experiencing the union of clarity and emptiness evolves over time.

Over the years, however, I've learned that this gradual process of unfolding isn't an obstacle but an opportunity to discover deeper and deeper levels of awareness. How can you impose limits on what is essentially unlimited?

Fortunately, I was taught a means or method of cutting through concepts to arrive, even momentarily, at a direct experience of emptiness unified with clarity. This method is known in Sanskrit as vipashyana and in Tibetan as lhaktong. The traditional translation of these terms is “insight,” though the actual words mean something closer to “superior seeing” or “seeing beyond.”

What are we seeing beyond? All our concepts: “me” and “mine", "them" and “theirs,” and the often scary, very solid notions about “reality”.

Vipashyana or lhaktong is not merely an intellectual exercise. It's a gut-level practice, rather like feeling your way through a completely dark room to find the door. With every blind step you take, you ask, “Where is me?” or '“Where is anger?” or “'Who is the person I'm angry with?”

Combining the understanding of emptiness with the method of attention, vipashyana or lhaktong offers an experiential method of cutting through conceptual attachments to “me,” “mine,” “you,” “yours,” “'them,” “theirs,” “anger,” “jealousy,” and so on. We come face-to-face with the freedom of awareness unlimited by mental and emotional habits.

Though we're conditioned to identify with the thoughts that pass through our awareness rather than with awareness itself, the awareness that is our true nature is infinitely flexible. It is capable of any and every sort of experience—even misconceptions about itself as limited, trapped, ugly, anxious, lonely, or afraid. When we begin to identify with that timeless, pristine awareness rather than with the thoughts, feelings, and sensations that pass through it, we've taken the first step toward facing the freedom of our true nature.

One student expressed it this way: “When I was going through my divorce, I worked very hard at being aware of the pain I was experiencing. I broke it down into little pieces, looking at the thoughts that came up in my mind and the sensations that occurred in my body. I thought a lot about the pain my soon to be ex-husband must be experiencing and the pain that other people in our situation were probably feeling, and realized I wasn't alone. And the idea of what they might be going through without the benefit of looking at their sorrow, anxiety, or whatever made me want them to feel better.

“Working with the pain in this way, I gradually came to experience—not just intellectually, but on an intuitive, "Yes, this is how it is" sort of way—that I was not my pain. Whoever or whatever I was, was an observer of my thoughts and feelings and the physical sensations that often accompanied them. Of course I experienced grief or loneliness at times, felt some heaviness around my heart or in my stomach, wondered if I'd made a terrible mistake, and wished I could turn time backwards. But as I looked at what was passing through my mind and body, I realized that there was someone—or something—bigger than these experiences. That something was the 'looker,' a presence of mind that wasn't disturbed by my thoughts, feelings, and sensations, but just observed them all without judging whether they were good or bad.

“Then I started looking for the 'looker,' and I couldn't find her! It wasn't as if there was nothing there—there was still this sense of awareness—but I couldn't put a name to it. Even 'awareness' didn't seem to fit. It seemed too small a word. For just a couple of seconds, maybe more, it was like the 'looker', the looking, and what was being looked at were all the same.

“Oh, I know I'm not saying this very well, but there was just a sense of bigness. It's so hard to explain. .. .”

Actually, she explained it very well—or as well as she could, since the experience of emptiness can't really fit neatly into words. A traditional Buddhist analogy for this experience compares it to giving candy to a mute: someone who tastes the sweetness of candy but can't describe it. In modern terms, we might refer to the experience in terms of the “innocent perspective” mentioned earner, in which we're confronted by a panorama so vast there is simply the awareness of seeing: for an instant there's no distinction between the “seer,” what is “seen,” and the act of seeing.

We sometimes experience this innocent perspective accidentally on waking up in the morning. For a second or two there's disorientation, during which we can't attach any concepts to who is seeing, what is being seen, or the act of seeing. During those few moments, there's simply awareness, a nonconceptual openness that transcends “here' “now,” “this' or “that.”

Then the habits of relative perspective rush in and we begin to think, “Oh, yes, I am me. That is my husband (or wife or partner or dog or cat) beside me on the bed. Those are the walls of the bedroom, the ceiling, the windows, and the curtains. That's a lamp on a nightstand beside the bed. There's a dresser over there. . ..” At the same time, our thoughts and feelings about ourselves, about the room, about the day ahead of us or the days behind us, about the people we're likely to meet or like to meet, about the people we've lost, and so on, emerge. Quite unconsciously, we engage in the process of making distinctions. Sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly we begin to grasp at them as determining and reinforcing points of reference for navigating our inner and outer worlds.

Clinging to these distinctions as absolute rather than relative is probably the most basic description of the Sanskrit term samsara, which in Tibetan is referred to as khorlo. Both terms may be understood as spinning around on a wheel that keeps turning and turning in the same direction. We have the sense of motion and a sense of change, but actually we're just recycling the same old mental and emotional patterns in different forms.

Release from this sort of mental and emotional recycling is commonly referred to in Sanskrit as nirvana and in Tibetan as nyang-day. Both terms refer to the realization, through direct experience, of our inherently free nature—a perfect peace of mind free from concepts, attachment, aversion, and so on. A common misperception of the Buddhas teaching, however, is that in order to attain nirvana, we have to deny samsara—evade it, get rid of it, get out of it- Samsara is the enemy! Samsara is the boss!

Samsara is neither enemy nor boss. Nor is it a “place,” a common misinterpretation of the term. Samsara may be more accurately understood as a point of view to which we've become attached in an effort to define ourselves, others, and the world around us as we travel a realm characterized by impermanence and interdependence.

However uncomfortable, samsara is at least familiar. Vipashyana, or insight practice, may seem difficult or even uncomfortable at first because it disturbs our attachment to what is familiar. To use a very simple analogy, imagine your experience as a piece of paper that has been rolled up for a long time. You can try to straighten the paper out to its entire length, but it will most likely tend to roll back up. In order to see the entire piece of paper, you'd have to anchor it down on both edges. Then you can see the whole paper instead of just a few of the words written on it. There's a lot more to see than the few words we're used to reading.

Now imagine that the paper just keeps unrolling—there's no end to it! The words are not the paper, nor is the act of reading the words on the paper. They all occur simultaneously: the words, the paper, and reading the words on the paper.

This is only an analogy, of course, but perhaps it may help to explain that the appearances of samsara, and even our attachment to them, are only possible because the basis of our experience is nirvana—the capacity to experience anything joined with our capacity to perceive whatever appears. Samsara is an expression of nirvana, just as relative reality is an expression of absolute reality. We just need to practice recognizing that even our attachment to certain reference points of relative reality is possible because of the union of emptiness and clarity.

As with shinay or shamatha practice, there are certain steps we can take in order to arrive at insight, the direct experience of clarity and emptiness. I won't say that the process of developing such direct experience is simple or easy. In fact, it should be undertaken very slowly, mouthful by mouthful, sip by sip. There's no quick and easy means to overcoming mental and emotional habits that have accumulated over a lifetime. But the journey itself provides its own rewards.

So now let's look at the process.

The Empty “I”

Who am I? This question haunts us, most frequently on a subtle level, throughout almost every moment of our daily lives. Try as we might, we can't really find an “I,” though, can we? Our opinions shift and our relationships to others reflect different aspects of “I”. Our bodies are going through constant changes. So we begin by looking for an inherent “I” that can't be defined by circumstances. We act as if we had an “I” to protect, avoiding pain and seeking comfort and stability. When pain or discomfort occurs, we seek to remove ourselves from it, and when something pleasant occurs, we seek to attach ourselves to it. The implication here is that pain and pleasure, comfort and discomfort, and so on, are somehow extraneous to this “I.”

Oddly enough, however deeply we may observe our responses, we don't have a very clear picture of what this “I” really is. Where is it? Does it have a definite shape, color, or any other physical dimension? What can you say about “I” that is permanent or unconditioned by experience?

Transcending this experience of “I” doesn't involve speculating about whether or not “I” truly exists. Such speculation may be interesting in a philosophical sense, but it doesn't offer much help in dealing with moment by moment experience. The practice of insight involves examining ourselves in terms of our investment in an “I” existing independently of circumstances as a valid reference point of experience.

In order to begin this examination, it's of course essential to assume a physical posture that is relaxed and alert. Next, rest your mind using the practice of objectless attention described earlier. Then look for “I”—the one who is observing the passage of thoughts, emotions, sensations, and so on.

At first, this process may involve some sort of analysis.

Is “I” my hand? My foot?

Is “I” the discomfort I may be feeling with my legs crossed?

Is “I” the thoughts that occur or the emotions I feel?

Are any of these “I”?

Then we can turn from this analytical process to look for “I”.

Where is “I”?

What is “I”?

Don't keep this investigation going very long. The temptation to arrive at a conceptual or a philosophical position is quite strong. The point of the exercise is simply to allow yourself to discover within your own experience a sense of freedom from the idea of “I” as permanent, singular, and independent. Emptiness as discussed earlier isn't a decision we make about the nature of absolute reality or an awareness attained through analysis or philosophical argument. It's an experience, which, once tasted, can change your life, opening new dimensions and possibilities. That is the point of insight practice.

The Empty “Other”

Joining shamatha or shinay with an understanding of emptiness doesn't mean denying relative reality. Relative reality is the framework within which we operate in this world, and denial of that framework—as seen in the case of the fellow who simply stopped saying “I”—is the path of madness. But there's a third level of experience which I call “fake relative reality.” In it, ideas, feelings and perceptions are intimately bound up in our perception of selves, other people, sensations, and situations. Fake relative reality is the main source of self-created suffering. It emerges from attachment to ideas, feelings, and perceptions about ourselves and others as essential characteristics.

After gaining a little bit of experience in looking at the emptiness of “I” - the “looker,” as my student named it - we can begin to investigate the emptiness of what or whom we're looking at, the object of awareness. The process is perhaps best achievedby examining our experience with the intent to recognize the division/ of each moment of awareness into a looker or a “watcher” and what the looker or watcher perceives is an essentially conceptual invention.

The Buddha often discussed this division of perception in terms of a dream. In a dream, you have a perception of “self” and a perception of “other.” Most of his examples were relevant, of course, to the conditions common to the people in the time during which he lived: being attacked by lions and tigers, for instance. I suspect that's not a concern for most of us nowadays-although I've heard from many people about dreams of being chased by monsters or being lost in a big house or landscape.

A more contemporary example might be a dream in which someone gives you a nice, expensive watch: a Rolex, maybe, which I've heard is a very nice, very expensive watch indeed. In the dream you may be thrilled to receive a Rolex without having to pay a single “dream dollar” for it. You may try to show it off, scratching the wrist on which you're wearing it while talking to someone in the dream or pointing out something to someone in a way that reveals your watch.

But then maybe a thief approaches you, slashes your wrist, and steals the Rolex. The pain you experience would feel very real in the dream and your sorrow over losing the watch may be quite intense. You have no dream “insurance” to replace the watch and you're bleeding. You may wake up from the dream sweating or crying, because it all seemed so intense, so real.

But the Rolex was just a dream, wasn't it? And the joy, pain, and grief you experience were all part of the dream. In the context of the dream, they appeared real. But when you woke up from the dream, you didn't have a Rolex, there was no thief, and your hand or wrist hadn't been cut. Rolex, thief, wounds, and so on, occurred as expressions of your mind's inherent emptiness and clarity.

In a similar way, whatever we experience in terms of relative reality can be compared to the experiences we undergo in a dream: so vivid, so real, but ultimately reflections of the union of emptiness and clarity.

We can “wake up,” so to speak, inside the dream of relative reality and recognize that whatever we experience is the union of emptiness and clarity. Insight practice offers us the opportunity to recognize, on an experiential level, how deeply our perceptions condition our experience. In other words, who and what we perceive is in large part a fabrication of the mind.

Just as when employing insight practice regarding “I,” begin by assuming a physical posture that is relaxed and alert, take a few moments to rest in objectless attention. Next, rest your attention lightly on an object: a visual form, a sound, or a physical sensation. Nice, yes? Very relaxing.

But where is that visual form, that sound, or that physical sensation actually occurring? Somewhere inside the brain? Somewhere “out there”—beyond the body?

Rather than analyze where they occur, just look at them (or listen or feel them) as if they were reflections in the mirror of the mind. The object of awareness, the awareness of the object, and the one who is aware of the object all occur simultaneously—just like looking in an ordinary mirror. Without the mirror there would be nothing to be seen, and without the seer there would be no one to see. Joined together, they make seeing possible.

Insight practice offers a way of relating to experience that involves turning the mind inward to look at the mind that is experiencing. This process may be difficult to understand until you try it for yourself. It takes some practice, of course, and the recognition of mind arising simultaneously with experience—the sense of “bigness” described by the student who was going through a divorce—may last only a second or two in the beginning. The temptation in such cases is to say to oneself, “I've got it! I really understand emptiness! Now I can get on with my life in total freedom.”

The temptation is particularly strong when working with thoughts and emotions, as well as the way we relate to others and to various situations. The brief glimpses of insight can harden into concepts that can lead us into paths of perception or behavior that may be harmful to ourselves and others. There's an old, old story about a man who spent many years in a cave meditating on emptiness. Inside his cave there were many mice. One day, a rather large mouse jumped up on the stone that served as his table. “Aha,” he thought, “the mouse is emptiness.”

And he grabbed his shoe and killed the mouse, thinking, “The mouse is emptiness, my shoe is emptiness, and killing the mouse is emptiness.”

But all he'd really done was solidify the idea of emptiness into a concept that nothing exists, so he could do whatever he wanted and feel whatever he felt without experiencing any consequences.

When we turn the mind to look at the mind—whether we're looking for “me,” “other,” thoughts, or feelings—we can begin, very slowly, to see the mind itself. We become open to the possibility that the mind—the union of emptiness and clarity—is capable of reflecting anything. We're not stuck seeing one thing, but are capable of seeing many possibilities.

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