Seeing through Dualities, Deepening in Emptiness

To mark the completion of the Seeing through Dualities, Deepening in Emptiness course, two of my favourite passages from Seeing That Frees

13th March 2023

To mark the completion of the Seeing through Dualities, Deepening in Emptiness course, here are two of my favourite passage from Seeing That Frees:

If what one is seeking is a final, intellectual understanding of ‘how it all works’, then there may be frustration. A view which comprehends the emptiness of all phenomena does not, and cannot, give an ultimately coherent explanation of the functioning of conventional reality in conceptual terms. Any such hypothetical account could only be available from views which reify at least some thing as elementary, including time. In seeking a full explanation then, we may be missing the point of the teaching. For explanation is not the task of emptiness; liberation is.

Conversely though, and as we have suggested before, simply shrugging and declaring ‘unknowing’ too early would also be a mistake. A premature retreat from knowing, before one has probed such mysteries as mutual dependency and the emptiness of time, can only deliver a limited freedom. Unknowing is not in itself, therefore, the point of the path. It is thoroughly knowing voidness that brings a fuller release.

However, at least one of these two tendencies – on the one hand, wanting the ‘clarification’ of a reductionist explanation, and on the other, wanting to abandon concepts too early – is usually very strong for most people. One person may be attached to descriptions of atomized items neatly categorized with their well-delineated functions within a mechanism, and believe such descriptions to be reality. Another may be attached to the concept that all concepts are burdensome and that they block any possibility of opening to reality. Sometimes a practitioner’s tendency careens back and forth over time between these two extremes. More often we each sustain a certain disposition to one or the other. This pair of views and tendencies are like Scylla and Charybdis, and somehow a middle way between them needs to be charted.

Perhaps the most skilful use of the teachings of paṭiccasamuppāda is to regard the terms and the relations between them as offering powerful ways of looking for meditation. What we actually require is just enough clarification to enable us to meditatively work with the map so that it begins to lead beyond its own terms, its own conceptual structure dissolved in the radical freedom and emptiness into which it opens. — Chapter 27, Dependent Origination (2)

For some, of course, initially encountering either a refusal to establish any valid cognition of conventional truth, or a view such as Mipham’s, which establishes it only contextually, may give rise to suspicion and even annoyance. Yet a profound meditative exploration of dependent arising will likely end up with similar sorts of conclusions to those of Mipham, or lead at least to a letting go of the felt need to define valid conventional cognition. At the same time, as we have repeatedly stressed, and as will be obvious to anyone practising this way, the understanding and freedom that are opened bring no irresponsibility with respect to conventional appearances, no behaviour that harms self or other.

Perhaps it could be said that, as beautiful as the inquiry may be, a clinging to wanting to determine what is ‘really and unequivocally there’ on a conventional level simply betrays a mistaken premise of fundamental delusion. Perhaps we may say, with the Buddha, that some questions do not need answers. What matters is the freedom and love that comes from realization of the emptiness of all phenomena. Still, our inquiry into emptiness involves inquiry into appearances; and since cessation is not regarded as the goal, that inquiry may become a kind of open-ended exploration – of ways of looking and the perceptions of their associated appearances. It is not the assumed objectivity status of its appearances at a conventional level, but the blessing and liberation that any way of looking effects that becomes the primary criterion for judging it.

As well as being ultimately pragmatic, the adoption of a core approach of exploring different ways of looking has been concordant with a fundamental and vital insight right from the start. For it is in fact the fundamental openness of things that allows us the possibility to play with ways of looking and to see their effects on the heart and on perception. From the perspective of this approach, the very least that can be said of a view which, understanding that objects, awareness, and ignorance are all empty, does see a world of magical appearances, inseparable from a mind that is ultimately groundless too and beyond time – and does sense all of it thus as ‘holy’, ‘blessèd’, or ‘divine’ – is that such a way of looking sees appearances skilfully. What is opened by a view is what is most important.

In the end, everything is empty. Heart, appearance, way of looking – these too are void, and actually inseparable. With respect to how things appear though, we can acknowledge the primary significance of ways of looking and their effects on the heart, and also some degree of flexibility in perception. At this level, it is certainly clear that the state of the citta shapes and colours perception. But the truth of the converse is easily recognized as well: perception shapes and colours the citta. Understanding all this opens a door. In practice we may, to a degree, shape empty perception in the service of freedom and compassion. When there is insight, we know that how and what we see are not simply givens, but are the colourable and malleable, magical, material of empty appearances.

There is space here, and space for reverence and devotion. When we see the void – the open and groundless nature of all things, the inseparability of appearances and emptiness – we recognize anyway just how profound is our participation in this magic of appearances. Then whether fabrication, which is empty, is consciously intended in a certain direction or not, the heart bows to the fathomless wonder and beauty of it all. It can be touched by an inexhaustible amazement, touched again and again by blessedness and relief. In knowing fully the thorough voidness of this and that, of then and now, of there and here, this heart opens, over and over in joy, in awe and release. Free itself, it knows the essential freedom in everything. — Chapter 31, An Empowerment of Views