Discarding knowledge as ignorance

This post is continued from my previous post: Practicing knowledge

Discarding knowledge as ignorance

Once the purpose of the tool has been fulfilled, then the tool can be dispensed with. There are two main problems with this. Firstly, you can dispense with the tool too quickly, before it has done its work of rooting out ignorance. Secondly, you can cling onto the tool for too long, which essentially means that you have started to believe in it.

I see both of these errors happening all the time. People often dismiss the need for practice completely. While there are different paths to follow (including no-path ‘paths’), that does not mean that for some a path or teaching cannot be of benefit. All teachings are provisional which means that they produce limited results. This is true of all teachings and all actions/practices – they are all limited and produce limited results. But these limited results can still be of use to us in recognising what is already (and always was) present , ie. Freedom. 

Other people believe the conceptual tool. They have merely substituted one concept for another, one ignorance for another.

Hence the traditional advice is to liken these conceptual tools as being thorns, to remind you not to hold onto the second thorn, useful as it was:

Then, like the thorn used to remove a thorn, throw them both away.

See Ranjit Maharaj discuss this here.

This post is continued in the next article: Integrating knowledge/spontaneous action

Problems with utilising conceptual tools

Continued from 2 previous posts:

  1. Why seeing/understanding alone may not be enough
  2. Integrating the understanding of no-doer

Problems with utilising conceptual tools

Generally speaking, the more you believe in the concept, the better it works, but conversely the harder it is to throw it away once the task at hand (rooting out the ego/’I am the body’ notion) has been completed.

Other problems with believing in the concepts is that it sets you against other traditions and teachings that either utilise other concepts, thus breeding division and sectarianism, and also it can lead to some unintended consequences, some of which can be quite unpleasant.

These include spiritual bypassing, which is where emotional and psychological issues are not dealt with properly as ‘I am not the body-mind so I have no issues’ or where the body is neglected and not properly respected as it is deemed to be ‘insentient, inert and not me’.

Another problem with utilising concepts is that the ego is perpetuated and can even be strengthened during this part of the teaching. Eventually it can be seen that all teachings are also subtle ways of continuing/perpetuating the egoic process which is itself based on the illusion of being a separate doer-entity. Until then, these conceptual teachings and practices based upon these concepts may be useful, but eventually we see that all teachings are potential obstacles. Why? Because Freedom is already fully present, and on a subtle level all teachings assume that Freedom is not already here and reinforce the notion that this moment is deficient in some way.

You can probably think of other negatives of this approach yourself, and perhaps have seen spiritual seekers on this journey fall into one of these traps.

To be continued in a future post: Practicing knowledge

Q: Who sees there is no doer? (Self-Enquiry, Ramana, Who am I?)

Q: You say there is no doer, and that this is a key point in your teaching, but who or what sees there is no doer? 

Tom: Why do you ask? What do you hope to gain from that question? Do you think that knowing the answer to this question will set you free? Do you think the answer to this question can be found in words? Contemplate on these questions.

It’s easy to say that ‘I see’, or that ‘awareness sees’, but does this really get us anywhere? What is the concept of awareness but another way of verbalising that something is being perceived. When we say ‘awareness sees’ or ‘I am aware’, all we are really saying is that ‘something is seen’. It’s tautology, just a different way of saying the same thing.


Q: So why do so many non-dual teachers prescribe self-inquiry as a method?

Tom: The real point of asking ‘who or what sees’ (ie. self enquiry) is to notice that what we commonly take ourselves to be is actually something that is seen, and is not the seer/doer at all.  What we, in ignorance or misapprehension, commonly take to be the subject is actually experienced as an object(s). This is also the point of the awareness teachings, to see through the doer – not to get caught up and identified with a concept of awareness.

We commonly take ourself to be the body-mind apparatus, but it can be seen that the body and mind are both objects that are perceived. The body and mind, as far as our direct experience goes, are parts of our experience, they are parts of ‘the perceived’. There is no evidence that they are perceivers of the experience. (That is not to say that they are not representations of the subject/perceiver within our consciousness, but just that there is no evidence either way).

Q: OK… (pause)

Tom: So, back to your question: what is it that sees?

Here’s the shorter answer: that which sees is that which sees. Why name it? Does naming it mean we know it any better? Are we any the wiser for naming it or calling it ‘awareness’ or ‘consciousness’ or ‘me’ or ‘I’?

Why settle for verbal explanations or spiritual-sounding slogans? Instead question these statements. Don’t get rid of one dogma and replace it with another. Be true to yourself, be true to what you know and your own experience:

Things are seen – that much I know. What sees? – I do not know…

wp-1474790287732.pngQ: But don’t we need to know exactly what it is that sees?

Tom: No. Not only do we not need to know what sees, we cannot know what sees (as an object). We only know that we see, and not what sees. That is enough. And that’s our actual experience, right? We don’t need to take on a new belief such as the belief that we are awareness. Sure, we are aware. or you could say awareness is here, but we don’t have to go further and say ‘I am awareness’. Let’s just stick to our experience and not pretend to know something that we don’t. As Ramana Maharshi says:

‘The state we call realization is simply being one’s self, not knowing anything or becoming anything.’

There are a few other aspects to the teachings too, which I’ll quickly summarise for you. I go into more detail on the group meetings, but briefly:

1. We need to stop mistaking certain objects (ie. the appearance of the body-mind organism) for being the subject. That is a key purpose of what I call the ‘awareness teachings’ that are found in Shankara’s Advaita Vedanta and in many schools of Mahayana Buddhism.

2. We need to notice and understand deeply that all objects are transient – they all come and go, and that no object brings lasting satisfaction. As this realisation deepens and takes root, this leads us to naturally turn away from depending on objects as a source of happiness. This leads to our addictive and suffering-causing desires (vasanas) to naturally fall away. Suffering dissolves away and joy naturally rises in its place, rearing its head from time to time as it pleases.

3. We need to see that all objects comes and go spontaneously, including thoughts and actions, and so realise that there is no doer-entity controlling it all. What we call the mind is just a spontaneous succession of thoughts, with no evidence of any entity controlling it. This is the real point of self-enquiry.

As Ramana Maharshi said when a questioner asked him about self-enquiry:

‘Reality is simply the loss of ego. Destroy the ego by seeking its identity.  Because the ego is no entity it will automatically vanish and reality will shine forth by itself.
This is the direct method. All other methods retain the ego. In those paths so many doubts arise, and the eternal question remains to be tackled. But in this method the final question is the only one and is raised from the very beginning.’

When we see the false to be false, meaning when we see the doer (ego) is an illusion, whatever remains is reality. It just is whatever is. It doesn’t have to be named, known or understood – it’s just what is.

Is everything really consciousness?

consciousness buddha.jpg

Lots of spiritual teachers and teachings seem to be saying all there is is consciousness. But is this really true? And even if it was true, would we be able to know this as being true?

From the point of view of experience

Firstly, from the point of view of our experience, yes, everything is consciousness. Whatever you look at, smell, see, touch, feel, think or imagine, etc, appears within your consciousness or awareness. And all these things appear as modulations of that consciousness, so in effect, our entire experience is nothing but consciousness.

Also we cannot directly know or experience anything or go anywhere that is not within our consciousness. If we did then we would, by definition, be conscious of it, and so our experience of it would be consciousness.

Everywhere we go, no matter what we experience, consciousness is, it is always present, effortlessly shining.

So, there we have it. Everything is consciousness. Right? Well…

From the point of view of reality

Just because everything you experience is consciousness, doesn’t mean that everything is consciousness. You see, in one way this is just a play on words. In the way we are using the words, experience and consciousness are synonyms. You cannot have experience without consciousness. If you are conscious you are experiencing. Think about it. Can you have one without the other? So of course, in terms of experience everything is consciousness. But it’s a bit like saying in terms of vision everything is seeing.

You don’t have to be a genius to realise there may be things going on that we are not conscious of, and perhaps we will never be conscious of. From what we know of the universe (via our consciousness!) we know it is vast and complex. Of course all this vastness could be just all happening within our consciousness only, but we don’t know that for sure. It is easily foreseeable that there may exist something beyond our consciousness, something we can never sense (be conscious of) or understand.

From the point of reality, we do not know if all there is is consciousness, and to say that everything is consciousness is going too far. We can only say everything is consciousness in terms of our own experience, but not in terms of reality. If you think that everything is consciousness (and by implication that nothing exists outside of consciouness), I would say that is a belief. Ask yourself, do you know that for sure? How can you know that for sure?

Why is this important?

Does this actually matter? If all we experience is consciousness, then does it matter? If there is something beyond consciousness but we are not aware of it, who cares, right? Well, to me at least, it does matter. If you are interested in what’s true it does matter. If you are a spiritual seeker trying to figure this all out and it doesn’t make any sense, then it does matter. If you are interested in seeing through all false beliefs and discovering a genuine freedom, then yes, it does matter. And if you are interested in science and reducing human suffering through technology based on scientific discoveries, then yes, it does matter.

False beliefs breed suffering as they inevitability conflict with what is true, and false beliefs impede genuine philosophical, ethical and scientific inquiry. Beliefs like this affect how we approach and respond to life and how we treat each other. It affects the philosophical basis upon which scientific progress is made, and so it can affect the technologies we develop and how we develop them. The overall result of clinging to false beliefs is to the detriment of us as individuals and our society at large.

Does that mean that not everything is consciousness?

So, back to consciousness. Does that mean that not everything is consciousness? No! Perhaps everything is consciousness! Perhaps it isn’t. The point is that we do not know. Everything may or may not be consciousness. We don’t know. It’s actually a scientific question and we currently don’t have the evidence either way. It may be impossible to know, as how would you know that there is nothing beyond consciousness?

The point is we should be honest, with ourselves and each other, and not cling to beliefs unnecessarily and unknowingly. Whilst beliefs can be used to make us feel better and give us strength during hard times, clinging to them and thinking they are definately true and that we are definately right causes more suffering in the long term, both for us and often for those around us.

Can the teaching ‘everything is consciousness’ be useful?

Ironically, yes. Even though ultimately we don’t know, the teaching that everything is consciousness can still be useful. How so? Well the teachings aim to undermine the belief in a separate self, or the notion of being an independent doer-entity, and in that regard this philosophical idealism of everything being consciousness can be useful. The idea is that the teaching is an antidote to a fixed belief. More on how that works here.  The key is that once the job of the conceptual teaching is done, we don’t cling to this new concept which simply becomes a new problem and a new way of perpetuating the ego.

The consciousness teachings or awareness teachings, as I call them, can also point to a still-point in our experience that is always present, at least whilst we are awake. It is that which never changes and is always ever-present, un-touched and ever-aware. Recognising this aspect of our being can be very liberating and can give us the emotional security to open up to our thoughts and feelings, and allow our emotional-spiritual hearts to open, and can allow us to feel happier and whole.

What about Freedom?

So if we don’t know whether or not everything is consciousness, what do we do now? A part of Freedom, which is already here, is that everything is allowed. It’s ok to not know. That’s ok. There are lots of things we do not know, many things we will never know, and probably many things that are impossible for us to know. Freedom doesn’t mind. It’s just the way things are.

Buddhism: How enlightenment happens

Buddha statue.jpg

If you read the earlier Buddhist texts (the Pali Suttas) you get a very different feel of the Buddha’s teachings compared to the systematised versions of Buddhism that are often more prominently on display today. It becomes apparent that the Buddha taught in different ways to different people and that the true Dhamma (teaching) cannot be grasped.

The eight-fold path that we most often hear about was very probably a central and important part of the Buddha’s teaching, and a truly wonderful teaching in my view, but it is clear that many people came to enlightenment in various ways according to the suttas (Buddhist texts).

We read that some attained enlightenment without practising, and some attained enlightenment simply upon hearing the Buddha speak. Some had a great awakening before practice, and then a practice naturally developed afterwards. Others followed the more traditional way of engaging with spiritual practises first and then attaining arahantship (full enlightenment) afterwards. The fact that arahantship was preceded by many years of practice for the Buddha himself may have affected the way he taught. However the suttas indicate that the Buddha realised that not all came to the Dhamma in the same way. In the Yuganaddha Sutta, Ananda explains the 4 main ways arahantship can arise:

Venerable Ananda said: “Friends, whoever — monk or nun — declares the attainment of arahantship in my presence, they all do it by means of one or another of four paths. Which four?
“There is the case where a monk has developed insight preceded by tranquility…He follows the path, developing it & pursuing it — his fetters are abandoned, his obsessions destroyed.
“Then there is the case where a monk has developed tranquility preceded by insight…He follows that path…his fetters are abandoned, his obsessions destroyed.
“Then there is the case where a monk has developed tranquility in tandem with insight…He follows that path…his fetters are abandoned, his obsessions destroyed.
“Then there is the case where a monk’s mind has its restlessness concerning the Dhamma well under control. There comes a time when his mind grows steady inwardly, settles down, and becomes unified & concentrated. In him the path is born. He follows that path, develops it, pursues it. As he follows the path, developing it & pursuing it — his fetters are abandoned, his obsessions destroyed.”
“Whoever — monk or nun — declares the attainment of arahantship in my presence, they all do it by means of one or another of these four paths.”

You can see here that two aspects of the teaching become very prominent, namely that of achieving tranquility and that of insight. The key is that both are required, but the order in which they are achieved varies. Some naturally are drawn towards becoming more tranquil and insight comes later. Others are more drawn to understanding and insight first and it is this insight that leads to tranquility as ‘fetters are abandoned’ and ‘obsessions destroyed’.

I explain in more detail what is meant by tranquility and insight here, but briefly insight is seeing there is no separate self (anatta in Pali), specifically that there is no separate doer entity. Tranquility when it is cultivated before insight usually refers to the lessening of thoughts and increasing of peace which in turn paves the way for insight. Tranquility after insight usually means a purification of the mind which naturally happens after insight; rather than reducing thoughts, this is the tranquility of freedom, of not being bothered by thoughts or circumstances and not depending on the mind, body or world (ie. anything) for one’s happiness.

In later Buddhist developments many schools developed ‘enlightenment first, practice later’ schools of teaching, notably in the Mahayana traditions, a prime example being Korean Zen master Chinul (1158-1210):

‘There are many avenues of entry into the Way…Sages since time immemorial have all first awakened then cultivated practice, attaining experiential proof based on practice.’
Chinul, Secrets of Cultivating the Mind, verses 19-20
‘If a real teacher points out a way of entry for you, and for a single instant you turn your attention around, you see your own original essence. This essence originally has no afflictions; uncontaminated wisdom is inherently complete in it. Then you are no different from the Buddhas; thus it is called sudden enlightenment.
As for gradual practice, having suddenly realised fundamental essence, no different from Buddha, beginningless mental habits are hard to get rid of all at once. Therefore one cultivates practice based on enlightenment, gradually cultivating the attainment to perfection, nurturing the embryo of sagehood to maturity. Eventually, after a long time, one becomes a sage; therefore it is called gradual practice. It is like an infant, which has all the normal faculties at birth, but as yet undeveloped; only with the passage of years does it become an adult.
Question: By what expedient means can we turn our minds around instantly to realise our inherent essence?
Answer: It is just your own mind; what further expedient means would you apply?’
Chinul, Secrets of Cultivating the Mind, verses 27-30

Chinul talks about the importance of first recognising your true original essence first (insight) before using this insight to purify the mind (tranquility after insight).

Going back to the Pali suttas, the Buddha also repeatedly warned against being attached to any particular teaching or teaching tradition:

‘Do not go by oral tradition, by lineage of teaching, by hearsay, by a collection of texts, by logic, by inferential reasoning, by reasoned cogitation, by the acceptance of a view after pondering it, by the seeming competence of a speaker, or because you think, ‘This ascetic is our teacher.’
AN 3.65 Kesaputti [Kālāma] Sutta

This really is quite a stark warning, and we could see this as a very ‘modern’ and scientific way of approaching this search for freedom from suffering. Again in the Atthaavagga, perhaps the earliest of all the Buddhist texts we know of, the Buddha warns about having any fixed views:

Atthaavagga, Chapter 6
5. Having abandoned what was acquired, not taking up anything, he would not be in dependence even upon knowledge. He truly is not a partisan among the schoolmen; he does not fall back on any view at all.
Atthaavagga, Chapter 10
7. He does not train himself through desire of gain, and he is not upset at lack of gain. He is not opposed to craving, nor is he greedy for savory stimulations.
8. An indifferent onlooker, always mindful, He imagines nothing in the world to be equal, nor superior, nor lower. For him there are no distinguished positions.
14. He for whom there is nothing his own in the world, and who does not sorrow over what is not there, And who does not go by philosophies— He truly is said to be “at peace.”

The Buddha stresses non-clinging, including non-clinging to doctrines, teachings, knowledge and points of view. In fact the Atthaavagga goes even further. Most of the very earliest Buddhist texts do not even mention the four noble truths, let alone the eight-fold path (which is the fourth truth of the four noble truths).

The Atthaavagga appears to go further here by denying much of what is commonly taught. We are not to find this deeper ‘truth’ through seeing, hearing or by any kind of knowledge. We are not to cling to morality or purity, nor their opposites. We are to depend on nothing. Of course, reading the following lines and having insight into them reveals a core ‘truth’, a more sublime Dhamma that is not opposed to the classic eight-fold path at all:

3. [The Buddha said:] There is nothing of which I say, “I declare this,”…But looking among the views, not taking hold of anything, examining, I saw inner peace.
4. [The questioner responds:]…This “inner peace,” whatever it means, How is it made known by the wise?
5. [The Buddha said:] Not by what is viewed, not by what is heard, not by inner knowledge…nor by morality and observances is purity said to be; by absence of what is viewed, by absence of what is heard, by non-knowledge, by amorality, by nonobservance—also not by that. So having let go of these, not taking hold of anything, A peaceful one, not being dependent, would not have longings for existence.
6. [The questioner responds:] Then I imagine that to be a confused philosophy indeed. Some do rely on purity by view.
7. [the Buddha responds:]And having depended upon view, enquiring…you have become confounded by what you have seized upon; And so you have not seen the slightest sense in this. Therefore you hold it to be confused.

So where does this leave us? Should we practice according to a path, or instead cultivate insight and wisdom? I answer this in more detail in this article, but for now, let’s go back to the Korean Zen Master Chinul for the last word:

To practice spontaneous concentration and insight is the sudden approach, using effortless effort, both operative yet both tranquil, spontaneously cultivation intrinsic essence, naturally fulfilling the Way of Buddhas.
To practice formal concentration and insight is the gradual approach taken before enlightenment by those of lesser potential, using curative work, striving to direct each thought toward cutting off confusion and grasping quietude.
…Among those who are suited to the sudden approach, there are also those whose potentials are superior and those whose potentials are inferior. Thus their practice cannot be judged by the same standard.
As for those whose afflictions are slight, who are light and easy in body and mind, who are detached from good in the midst of good and detached from evil in the midst of evil…they rely on spontaneous concentration and insight, which they cultivate simultaneously without effort, naturally real and uncontrived, always in meditation whether active or still, and fulfill the design of nature. Why should they pursue formal practices for curative purposes? When there is no illness, one does not seek medicine.
As for those who, in spite of having first realised sudden awakening, have deep afflictions and rigid mental habits…it is appropriate for them to make provisional use of formal concentration and insight.
Chinul, Secrets of Cultivating the Mind, verses 88-92

Poetry: Cannot be lost, cannot be gained

water oceanic.jpg

If you got IT, then lost IT,
I’ve got news for you:
– That wasn’t IT.

If you experienced IT, once, perhaps twice,
I’ve got news for you:
– That wasn’t IT.

If you got IT, and have still got IT,
I’ve got news for you:
– That isn’t IT.

Whatever you get, is also liable to go.
What ever comes, can also go.
What is born, may also die.
That which is subject to appear, is also subject to disappear.

THIS cannot be got,
THIS cannot be lost,
THIS is already here,
(always was)
THIS just IS!