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I realized today that I spend most of my time on this blog talking about awakening and practices which can help the process along. What I don’t talk about is the fact that none of this is necessary.

The truth is that awakening doesn’t make you better. Awakening won’t solve your personal problems. In fact, it only solves one very specific problem, which turns out to be no problem at all. When I take the time to consider my motivation for posting my writings here, I find that it has nothing to do with trying to convince people that they should try to wake up, so they can be better, or feel better, or gain some special salvation or safety from the world. I would never want to put those ideas into the heads of otherwise ordinary people. But, the truth is that so many people are already on this path. They’ve already decided that it’s important to wake up. It’s for those people that I offer these writings. This work can take a long time, and I would hate for it to take longer than it needs to.

Emptiness is not static. There’s nothing to it, nothing that can be set apart from anything else. Somehow emptiness and awareness are inseparable in essence. This is how your own awareness is the starting point, the path, and the goal. Therefore, if you don’t feel compelled to practice, don’t! If awakening isn’t important to you, that’s fine! You’re no better, and no worse, than me. I’m no better, and no worse, than you.

Honestly, “enlightenment” as a term is terribly misleading. Reality is always-already itself. There are those who don’t know this, and those of us who do. Likewise, there are those who simply don’t give a shit. They’re probably the best off! Those who don’t know, and don’t care, are the highest kind of Buddha.

Awakening will not save you from anything. If you take it all the way, you’ll see that there’s nothing to be saved from, and no one to save. Furthermore, this has no bearing on the meaning of life, the universe, and everything. All of it is still just as fluid as it ever was. Human beings are human beings, period.

Forget Buddhist clichés like “carry water, chop wood.” Go to work. Play with your kids. Honk your horn at the asshole veering into your lane on the freeway. Go to your daughter’s dance recital, and bring her flowers. And most importantly, stay up late to watch Dexter, and go to work tired the next morning.

But if you can’t do that, I guess you should practice until you can.

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When the desire to awaken first enters our hearts and becomes clear, the illusory self has the sense of embarking on a journey of discovery. This “I” is going to discover something wonderful, or become something magnificent. It has everything to do with “I” in the beginning. Ending “my” suffering. Fulfilling “my” desires.

We catch our first glimpse of the truth, and things immediately take a new turn. This thing I’m supposed to be chasing is actually intimately connected with me. In fact, it may be even more me than “I” am. But the “I” continues to hunt, to search, to track.

Much later, a feeling of “double-mindedness” may arise. Which am I? The truth or the expression? Am “I” the Self or the self? Still thinking that “I” am going to figure this out, the “I” presses on.

When awakening reaches its full expression, the whole paradigm is flipped upside down. It is not the small self – the “I” – which wakes up to the source, or God, or Brahman, or Emptiness, etc. Rather, the source wakes up unto itself via its own spontaneous, egoless, unplanned, unintentional activity. The fact that awakening happens at all is the most peculiar of truths, as there seems to be no way anyone or anything is directing the process. No one is up in the sky pushing buttons. The source expresses itself, and some particular facets of expression – who were previously deluded – somehow wake up to their source. The activity continues, but the expression takes on a whole new existence. And so the life of the awakened must commence, as it always has, in a completely spontaneous expression of Empty, selfless source activity.

True wisdom is not acquired. Real intelligence is not the measure of how well one comprehends abstractions, solves equations, or memorizes facts. This runs counter to what we encounter in our confused, day-to-day lives as seemingly-separate beings. We are taught to learn things, often by way of memorization. Being able to recall facts from memory is something “smart people” can do. The popularity of game shows like Jeopardy and Who wants to be a millionaire are examples of how highly our deluded selves value this kind of knowledge.

There are many who treat the path of awakening as if it were some kind of mundane intellectual exercise. They learn about concepts like Impermanence or Emptiness or Nonduality, and then they attempt to blanket their experience with these concepts and ponder their significance. However, true wisdom – real intellegence – is the opposite of all that. Cut through the conceptual layers of mind through practice, and all the wisdom you need is available to you. It was there are along. In fact, it just is, period. The source is wisdom (Skt: jñāna) by nature. Recognize the source, and the truth is self-evident. If ultimate truth is your aim, than no amount of conceptualization or philosophizing is going to cut it. You just have to wake up.

Mundane smarts can only get you so far. Don’t worry about trying to wrap your head around paradoxical propositions. Practice until you recognize the source. With recognition comes the dawning of true wisdom.

There is something formlessly created
Born before Heaven and Earth
So silent! So ethereal!
Independent and changeless
Circulating and ceaseless
It can be regarded as the mother of the world

I do not know its name
Identifying it, I call it “Tao”
Forced to describe it, I call it great

(Tao Te Ching, Ch. 25)

You may have noticed from the posts in the Practice Profiles series that I often write about what I refer to as the source. It’s difficult to write anything about the source aside from what has been written already. In fact, it’s difficult to saying anything at all about the source (hence the reason why I began this post with the selected passage of the Tao Te Ching).

The reason it’s difficult is because the source is not an object that can be grasped, nor is it an appearance that can be witnessed. Rather, the source is that which gives rise to every object or appearance, and also that which knows them. The cognizing quality of the source is what inspires some to refer to it as primordial awareness, or ground luminosity.

While the source is not an object, it is also not wholly other than any object that emerges from it. This “not-two-ness” is more eloquently articulated as nonduality (a term that anyone reading a blog about awakening may have heard once or twice before – maybe more).

The creative activity of the source is experienced as a spontaneous outflowing and inflowing; a flux of expansion and contraction. And the whole shebang happens in the space of awareness that exists prior to the assertion of will. In other words, it is completely and totally empty of self. (Buckle up, kids. There ain’t nobody in the driver’s seat.) Therefore, the source is none other than the ultimate emptiness.

In regards to liberation, the source is already free. It always has been, and always will be, free from any snares and entanglements. The implication here is that you (the real you) are already free, and always have been, and always will be. To recognize the source is to experience freedom. And when this recognition of the source is continuously abiding, the search is over. You have awakened out of the dream (i.e. nightmare) of separate, painful existence, and into the Truth.

I hope that I provided enough information to make clear what I mean by “the source” and what it has to do with awakening. For, while awakening has everything to do with the source, it really has nothing to do with you.

Vipassana, or “Insight” meditation is one of the more popular practices that may actually lead to awakening. Originating in the conservative Theravada Buddhist tradition, vipassana is way of paying attention to the phenomena appearing in one’s awareness in such a way as to notice aspects of the sensate world that are almost always overlooked. These universal aspects of phenomenal appearances are called the Three Characteristics. The Three Characteristics are impermanence (Pali: anicca), nonself (anatta), and suffering (dukkha). By noticing that phenomenal appearances are marked by these characteristics, one succeeds in eventually loosening their identification with them. Since the early Buddhist literature is all about achieving liberation, this dis-identification process is how it is supposed to be done.

The principle act of the vipassana meditator is noting (or noticing). One sits in meditation and notices how nothing lasts, how everything changes, how it all happens on its own, and how no phenomenal appearance is truly satisfying – vipassana in a nutshell. However, there was an innovation by the contemporary meditation teacher Shinzen Young, which I think makes this practice all the more valuable to anyone with awakening as their sole aim.

Looking back at the previous techniques in the Practice Profiles series, there’s an obvious common thread. The inevitable conclusion of both self-enquiry and tracing back the radiance is the same: the recognition of the source. These might be referred to as direct path teachings, whereas vipassana might be referred to as a gradual path due to its goal of eventual liberation via dis-identification. But vipassana practice may also be used as a means of recognizing the source. Here’s how…

When one first begins vipassana practice, their concentration probably isn’t all that high (unless they’ve spent considerable time working on concentration prior to starting vipassana practice). So their first aim is to begin recognizing the phenomena that they generally confuse to be their self. Shinzen Young breaks it down into three classifications of phenomena – feel, image, talk. By observing the transient nature of feel, image, and talk, one can come to recognize the “emptiness of self,” and thus experience a great measure of freedom.

As one’s concentration deepens, their perception gets more refined, and the phenomena that used to be easily classified into feel, image, and talk begin to be experienced as very subtle vibrations. One realizes not only the “emptiness of self,” but also that all phenomena is “empty of inherent existence.” There are no universal phenomenal appearances – no ultimate “dharmas” that come and go in-and-out of experience. In other words, the philosopher Heraclitus was right when he said that, “all is flux.” With nothing to grasp, we let go even deeper and experience even more freedom.

Now, here’s where the gradual and direct paths converge. If one pays attention to the subtle vibrations, they may notice exactly when and where the arise and vanish. If one is able to note the vanishings, they may be able to recognize the source – as the source is that from which things arise, and to which they return. It is the very same source which is left when the “I am” collapses due to self-enquiry practice. And, it is the very same source which may be recognized by tracing back the radiance. When recognition occurs, one may let go and rest effortlessly as the source. And that, my friends, is good practice.

Many hardcore vipassana types will notice that I left many details out of this post – very important details for the diehard types. I mentioned nothing about the progress of insight, or the Visuddhimagga, or the four paths of enlightenment, or bhanga (dissolution), etc. I’ve only outlined what I find important about vipassana in terms of awakening to the source. For me, nearly everything else is a distraction.

If you want to wake up, vipassana can get you there. Just don’t get caught in any dogmatic traps (like all of the fanatical SN Goenka followers), and try not to be too heady about it. If you’re an intellectual type, forget about the Three Characteristics and save yourself some time. Give your energy to noticing rather than thinking, and you’ll have a lot more success with the practice.

Sam