Sunday 25 January 2015

How does an Awakened person perceive the world? True Self vs No Self

Namaste friends!

I found this article (thanks Soh Wei Yu for linking it) which is a description of a Christian mystic's vision of non-duality. In the article, the author explains that he thinks altho the mystic is viewing things from a True Self perspective, he thinks that really it would be the same thing to call it No Self.

Here is my response posted in the comments:

I have to say that I think the premise that True Self and No Self are equal is based upon never having true No Self experience. Most people never do have No Self experience, but those who go beyond True Self into No Self, pretty much all agree that True Self was a delusion & not true liberation. Catholic nun Bernadette Roberts may not be the best person to talk about this since she does not have "anatta realization," (aka "always already the case" no-self realization) but even her limited experience with No Self has shown her that the unity with God she experienced prior to that was just delusion. As of this writing, her latest book is "What is Self?" although I also have her unpublished addendum to that.

With True Self it feels like there is this background identity to everything. Like in One Mind. But with "my" no mind experiences, there is no background identity. No identity at all. Everything is its own appearance, aware of itself with no central reference point. Like imagine every atom in the room seeing the room from its vantage point, understanding things from its vantage point, and that understanding totally interpenetrating every other atom's understanding. It goes up to every level of organization of appearances. But there is no Room Awareness or Universe Awareness which subsumes it all.

Compared to No Mind, True Self or One Mind is extremely easy to imagine, i think. But No Mind is almost impossible for people to imagine... having said that, when I explain this to folks as I have just now, I find that many of them are able to have the experience if they try for it (even if they have to get help from a psychedelic agent due to poor concentration in meditation). And yes, I know, the experience is just an experience to remove doubt, not an end in itself.
Ultimately, the reason that True Self is not liberation is because there is still identity in it, even if it is very subtle and glowingly beautiful. All identities are born and die. It may take billions of years for the God identity to die & be reborn in another realm, but this is what will happen to it, according to Buddha. And it makes sense logically. Imagine identifying AS a dream (rather than a dream character). You may think you've escaped the death that all the dream characters will face, yet you forget the dream will also end, which will be the end of the dream identity also.

Wednesday 21 January 2015

Can Psychedelics like ayahuasca help us wake up to the truth?

Namaste friends!

As you may know from my first post on this blog, psychedelics and especially ayahuasca were the thing that broke my mind wide open and eventually led me to find Buddhism (dependent origination) in my search for answers.

And yet, from what I have found in talking to hundreds of people online who have tried ayahuasca and other psychedelics, it seems that most often the result of this is what happened to me for a few years: vastly inflated ego and delusional thinking.

This is also possible with many spiritual paths, of course. Any path which does not teach NO SELF via dependent origination, is liable to get people into "I AM" or "One [Universal] Mind" stages as listed here and clarified here. From there, most people seem to get stuck, because such a state is incredibly sublime and it is hard to imagine that there is any imperfection in it, even tho to outsiders it sounds ridiculous as people like Sai Baba claim to be God, claim to grow their infinite power each day and so forth. Would God listen to a human being (like Buddha) who tells him that he is actually delusional and in reality he is nobody?

Thus, if you are thinking of breaking open your mind with psychedelics, I ask you to please save yourself a great deal of suffering and delusional thinking and not do so unless a) you already have developed right view of No Self/automatic perfection, and b) you do not have manic/bipolar tendencies in your family.

I do think that psychedelics can be useful catalysts to removing all doubt about the Buddha Dharma, but only once Right View is firmly established (please do the dialog at for an introduction to this No Self understanding). And even then, I don't think they are necessary, because with intense effort and desire, one can achieve the state of No Self/No Mind and even cosmic consciousness (which is separate and almost unrelated), just from following the meditation instructions I've posted.

Perhaps the main problem with psychedelics, and even cosmic consciousness states, is that the mind states are so far away from our everyday experience that it makes liberation seem something very difficult to achieve permanently. That is why Buddha tried to show people how to stop suffering right here, right now, in the midst of ordinary everyday life and perception. His advice to Bahiya is exemplary of that.

In fact, it makes sense that psychedelic states would not be conducive to understanding the dependently originated nature of reality, because to do so requires logically examining direct, ordinary experience and the causes & conditions associated with it.

Rebirth is vital to understand for liberation to be realized

Namaste friends!

I find that even tho many people are able to see that there is no self, they still do not understand rebirth, which means they still are not likely to be liberated from rebirth (how can you liberate yourself from something you don't see? But perhaps "magically" that wisdom will come to you anyway?).

The inability to consider rebirth (c.f. the article on SecularBuddhism), is often conflated with scientific skepticism, when in fact it is merely relying on habitual assumptions. Please note, I am not speaking of rebirth of the mind but rather rebirth of some of the clinging habits of the mind due to reification, or in other words, the continuation of a "mind-stream" from one mind to another (like the continuation of the process of burning when you let one candle light another--it is not the same flame, tho there was never really any continuous thing called flame).

To me, Secular Buddhism should be about taking the core teachings of Buddha and investigating them. To say that rebirth is impossible to investigate is completely untrue, and it does not require memories of past lives to understand rebirth as a rational notion. Furthermore, the Secular Buddhist Assocation should not even call itself Buddhist if it does not promote the goal of Nibbana. The point of Nibbana is to end birth, and the suffering attendant with identifying as a body/mind. Buddha never taught the way to live a happy life on Earth. He rejected all kinds of earthly pleasures in order to not be (and as a result of not being) attached to this body/mind. By teaching anatta, Buddha was showing us the root ignorance that keeps us bound up in samsara. If ignorance somehow "magically" ends for "me" at the death of this mind ("my" mind), then there is no need to practice at all. We could simply kill ourselves. Indeed, there are some folks who seem to think this might work, though they are a bit shy of saying exactly that, over at SecularBuddhism.

One thing I can agree with regarding the SecularBuddhism position on rebirth is that it actually happens [not just after physical death, but] moment to moment the sense of self is re-established, re-imagined to be a continuously existing entity, as explained scientifically by Bro. Billy Tan, and philosophically/dharmically/experientally by Soh Wei Yu.

It *does* make sense to say that the human mind is a product of the physical brain (which is actually not a thing but a collection of processes that are not separate from nature/its environment). But there is no reason to assume that the brain leaves no trace after its death. Everything else in nature continues on in some form after decaying. TV signals go out into space forever, for example. Waves on the ocean form new waves after breaking. Brainwaves/mind patterns do also, even if they attenuate to be unmeasurable by our instruments at a certain distance. If you want a scientific hypothesis to explain rebirth, I suggest you check out neuroscientist Todd Murphy's book, Sacred Pathways.

But suffice it to say that there is no evidence in science that the human brain produces awareness. This is called the "hard problem of consciousness" in neuroscience. Most people simply assume that awareness (what some call consciousness) is produced in the brain, but they have no understanding of how that might happen--how could some molecules in a certain formation produce awareness? It makes more sense to assume that awareness is simply a fundamental aspect of nature, but the human brain is special in that it is capable of reflection, symbolic thought, and imagination. Thus we have self-awareness as a result of the mind/brain, but it is built upon nature's pre-existing awareness. Don't get confused and think that I'm saying there is a background awareness... I'm saying that all appearances are by nature aware, so awareness and appearances are not separate (i.e. everything is a process happening AS awareness, not IN awareness). 

Whenever there is identification as a habit of mind, there will be a "body" of some sort to support that identification with a "part" of reality. Recent neuroscience has proven that when people are shown images of arms attached to their body in some VR goggles, their brain quickly assumes that those arms are actually their own arms (the person can feel the pain from those arm images being smashed with hammer images). This proves that the mind/brain can imagine itself up a body. There is also research showing that just by imagining exercise, the mind can tone the body's muscle mass. So it is not a huge leap to say that the mind can also create the brain, even as the brain forms the mind.

When identification stops as a result of the culmination of insight, there is a phenomenon called "Mind/body drop" experienced by stream enterers (the first of four levels of awakening to No Self), in which now there is no longer a division between seen and seer, nor is there "seeing" of the seen. In the seen, only the seen. In the heard, only the heard. In the cognized, only the cognized (taken from the Bahiya sutta). Thus, even while others may still see a body/mind operating, from the perspective of this liberated one, there is not a mind/body at the center of experience. There is only reality itself which is prior to experience of it. 

Without a belief in the likelihood of rebirth, it is hard to take all of this spirituality stuff seriously, because this human life is good enough (or if it isn't, then we can try to improve it rather than focusing on overcoming the view of actual beings existing). Even if beings suffer enough to seek wisdom, and then understand No Self & automatic perfection, liberation doesn't make much sense, because liberation from what? If death is the end of this mind/body which thinks it is you, then that's all, that's it, so what? Everyone gets to the same no-self place at the end, right? Even the Catholic nun Bernadette Roberts who wrote the book "What is Self," does not understand liberation from birth & death, although in an unpublished paper she wrote, she did recently start to express doubt that all people end up in the same no-Self realization at death. But that is all she can do, doubt, because she does not understand rebirth--it doesn't fit into Catholic dogma (neither does No Self, but she has wedged that in somehow).

But with an understanding of rebirth, one realizes how important it is to break this cycle of identification (even while understanding that ultimately, there never was anyone here). 
When you are dreaming, notice that you generally do not have any more dreams after becoming (fully) lucid, but until you become (fully) lucid, you continue having more dreams, one after another, and in all of them you seem to exist in a body. Now, if you get to the Advaita realization of "I AM" (awareness seeing itself), your mind may seem to encompass the entire universe. But that is not liberation from the mind, just a very high degree of luminosity of mind. It is like becoming lucid in a dream but identifying as the dream itself rather than realizing the dream has no identity to it. When the dream ends, "you" (as the dream itself) still die & may take another body/mind in the next dream, just as a wave forms into another wave after breaking.

In fact, there is no way to prove that we are not currently in a "meta-dream"... that is, there is no reason to believe that this so-called physical reality is not just another dream in which we go to sleep every night and have sub-dreams (a la the movie Inception). On the other hand, if we try to define what "physical reality" means and how it would be different from what "meta-dream" means, we may find that we can't exactly differentiate the two. But I just like the sound of "meta-dream" because it allows us to stop identifying with this body as much. 

To sum up, there is no actual scientific reason to believe that rebirth is not possible, as long as we do not assume that the mind/brain is what is being reborn. Thus, it is a logical assumption to make, based on our experience in dreams and our knowledge of how the mind is able to conjure up bodies for itself in this so-called physical reality.

I found this excerpt from the Dharma Connection facebook group to be useful:

Kyle Dixon: Raan writes:

"From the standpoint of Anatta realization there is apparently nothing and no one to be reborn and on one and nothing to which karma might apply even if these were not a matter of belief. So I have not seen yet how any of the above discussion or definition has established these as more than beliefs anyway. Do we need to swallow the litany of dependent origination blindly after all? I understand the intent of it certainly however I do not agree entirely with the order and structure. The question remains as to how ignorance might occur in the first place. It is tantamount to the Theistic "problem of evil" I have yet to see a Theodicy, if you will, of ignorance. But really when it comes down to it, it does not matter since a realization of Anatta dispels it all anyway."


Regarding the idea of no-self and rebirth: from the standpoint of anatta or otherwise there has never, ever once at any time been someone or something for karma to apply to. That is the entire point of this, and that is why realizing anatta, etc., is possible. If there truly were a 'self' endowed with valid existence then anatta would be an impossibility.

Buddhism is never dealing with 'selves', it is dealing with causes and conditions, afflictive processes and habitual patterns. The 'self' is merely a useful (ultimately unfounded) convention attributed to the sum total of those processes. There is no self enduring from moment to moment, there is patterns of conduct, behavior, grasping, which are simultaneous causes and effects for further proliferation of the same expressions.

For example, from Nāgārjuna's Pratītyadsamutpādakarika:

"Empty dharmas are entirely produced
from dharmas strictly empty;
dharmas without a self and [not] of a self.
Words, butter lamps, mirrors, seals,
fire crystals, seeds, sourness and echoes.
Although the aggregates are serially connected,
the wise are to comprehend nothing has transfered.
Someone, having conceived of annihilation,
even in extremely subtle existents,
he is not wise,
and will never see the meaning of ‘arisen from conditions’."

And in his Pratītyasamutpādakarikavhyakhyana, Nāgārjuna states in reply to a question:

"Question: Nevertheless, who is the lord of all, creating sentient beings, who is their creator?
Reply: All living beings are causes and results."

And in the same text:

"Therein, the aggregates are the aggregates of matter, sensation, ideation, formations and consciousness. Those, called ‘serially joined’, not having ceased, produce another produced from that cause; although not even the subtle atom of an existent has transmigrated from this world to the next."

And lastly from Lopon Kunga Namdrol:
The point is that the question is phrased wrong requiring at best an ambigious answer that will confuse more than edify.

Buddha in fact discussed this with Sharputra saying that if he answers the question "yes there is something that undergoes birth" people will become confused and assuem there is a permanent self that undergoes retribution of action and so on. Likewise, if he answers the question "no, there is nothing which undergoes rebirth" likewise there are those who will assume there are no consequences of action and so on and will therefore feel no compelling need observe the principles of karma and so on.

Therefore when asked the question "what takes rebirth" he points out that question itself is flawed.

The question should be "Why is there birth?" The answere to that question is easy. There is birth, i.e. suffering, because of affliction and action.

As long as the aggregates are afflicted, afflicted aggregates will continue to be appropriated.

In Madhyamaka it is explained there is birth because of the innate self-grasping "I am" appearing to the afflicted mind. It is asserted that what appropriates birth in a new series of aggregates is the mental habit "I am." That "I am" is baseless, has no correspondence in the aggregates or seperate from them or in any one of them, just as a car is not found in its parts, seperate from them, or in any one of the parts. Nevertheless, the imputation "car" allows us to use cars effectively. Likewise, the mental habit "I am" is proper as both the agent of action and the object upon which it ripens even though it is basically unreal and has no basis in the aggregates, outside the aggregates, or in any one of them, but allows us to treat the aggreates as a nominally designated "person".
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Kyle Dixon So there is a conventional self, but that doesn't truly constitute a self. The self is an expression of karma, where there is karma there is conditioning, and the perception of a self appears as a result of those processes. There is no actual self (nor actual absence thereof) though, in any sense of the term.

If those karmic propensities are allowed to proliferate, then the conditions persist. The continuity of those afflictive propensities is reincarnation. What reincarnates is habitual patterns, however again, there is no actual self within that patterning. That is why when one's karma is exhausted then liberation occurs.

The entire occurrence is equivalent to an illusion, it is no different than going to bed at night and waking up the next morning with the impression that the same entity who went to sleep the night before is now waking up to begin a new day. Those processes of confusion beget further confused processes. When confusion is overturned, then those processes are seen for what they are, devoid of substantiality
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Kyle Dixon: And if the issue arises from a Zen standpoint; here are a few excerpts from Dōgen's Shōbōgenzō:

5.386 "If people who study Buddha Dharma have no genuine faith or true mindfulness, they will certainly dispense with and ignore [the law of] causality."

6.437 "denying karma is wrong view, zazen with wrong view is useless"

7.504 "Tathagatas [Buddhas] never go beyond clarifying cause and effect"

7.510 "Students of the way cannot dismiss cause and effect. If you discard cause and effect, you will ultimately deviate from practice-realization."
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Saturday 17 January 2015

My Amazon review of Sam Harris' book Waking Up

I took a little while to read Waking Up by Sam Harris, and although while reading it I was astounded at its profundity, I nevertheless ended up writing a fairly critical review on Amazon.

But I do highly recommend folks read his book if they wish to get a scientific understanding of no-self and why self is a mere brain hallucination.

Btw, you can read the first chapter of Waking Up for free on Harris' own website.

Sunday 4 January 2015

The unfortunate misunderstanding of Buddha's teaching on Karma & Free Will

Namaste friends!

Today I'd like to go over what I perceive to be a very widely held misunderstanding regarding the nature of reality: specifically, free will. Even many buddhists (for example, Thanissaro Bikkhu and the editor of, the largest archive of English translations of the Pali cannon online), do not seem to understand that free will does not exist.

First, a cautionary note: no free will does not mean you don't need to practice to awaken. Please see this post on pathologies of insight. If what is done does not matter in terms of future outcomes, then there is no dependent causation, everything must be random. That is nonsensical.

Now, let's remind ourselves what Buddha's primary teaching was: dependent origination, or in Pali, pratityasamutpada. Here is the Dalai Lama's etymological definition:
"Dependent-arising [origination, NOT arising!] is the general philosophy of all Buddhist systems even though many different interpretations are found among these systems. In Sanskrit the word for dependent-arising is pratityasamutpada. The word pratitya has three different meanings–meeting, relying, and depending–but all three, in terms of their basic import, mean dependence.Samutpada means arising. Hence, the meaning of pratityasamutpada is that which arises in dependence upon conditions, in reliance upon conditions, through the force of conditions. On a subtle level, it is explained as the main reason why phenomena are empty of inherent existence." Dalai Lama (1992) p.35, The Meaning of Life, translated and edited by Jeffrey Hopkins, Wisdom

This would naturally lead one to see that free will is an illusion. However, that is a very hard pill for many to swallow! So instead they make logical leaps to say that Buddha never taught that free will does not exist. To support their positions, they point to various suttas in which the Buddha explains that it is a wrong view to suppose that past karma causes present conditions and thus we are unable to change our circumstances. He says if this were true, then there would be no need for practice in order to awaken.

Here's a quote from Thanissaro Bikkhu: of the many things the Buddha discovered in the course of his awakening was that causality is not linear. The experience of the present is shaped both by actions in the present and by actions in the past. Actions in the present shape both the present and the future. The results of past and present actions continually interact. Thus there is always room for new input into the system, which gives scope for free will.[1]

But this reasoning misses that the "new input" into the system is a result of previous inputs. There is no such thing as a "new input" which is outside of the web of causes & conditions. Also, although it may be true that the past is somehow shaped by the present and the future, it is not true in any practical sense. One could say that our thoughts about the past determine the past "for us." But regardless of what we think of the past, it still happened the way it happened to produce the present circumstances. If this were not the case, then it would make no sense to do practice to awaken, as Buddha said, because practicing a skill relies on the assumption of the linearity of time. If somehow it were true that our future abilities determined how we practiced to develop those abilities, it still would not matter in terms of the way we approach practice. We would still have to approach practice pragmatically with a linear perspective in order to have any hope of developing skills.

Indeed, in higher dimensions, I have seen that time is an illusion. However, people often see this and then think that it means practice is meaningless. Remember, you are reading this now in linear time, even if from a higher dimension everything happens all at once. To get to that transcendent perspective, we, paradoxically, have to take actions within this linear time dimension. Also, remember that just because time is an illusion does not mean that free will exists! It doesn't matter whether time is linear or not. If everything actually happens all at once, that still leaves no room for free will. If the present influences the past & future, that still leaves no room for free will.

Although free will does not exist (in fact it is not even a logical concept that can be said to either exist nor not exist), one still must follow the moral guidance of something like the eightfold path to increase their chances of waking up from the dream of free will & identity. If we just go about our daily lives as before, satisfying our selfish desires at the expense of others, we are unlikely gain equanimity & dispassion for the world. Without dispassion & equanimity there is not much chance for liberation from samsara. But the eightfold path is a mundane teaching (which can lead to better rebirths or conditions here), which then must be superseded by the transcendent teaching of no free will, nobody here, everything already perfect, in order for a "being" to be released from samsara. As Buddha said, all of his teachings eventually must be left at the shore in order to cross the great divide between samsara and nibbana (nirvana).

Oh, dispassion is another misunderstood word. Many people think that when I talk about dispassion, I'm saying you should be like a rock. No emotions. Then of course nobody will want to be near you.

Actually, whatever emotions come up are fine. The point is not to block emotions, but rather to see thru them & to realize they are not your emotions. You can still be loving to your family, but realize that this love is not yours, this family is not yours, nobody is here, and everything is always happening perfectly according to natural laws. Indeed, Buddha taught that one should develop compassion even as one develops dispassion. Compassion is needed on the path to letting go. And with letting go, one attains the great peace and freedom from which true transcendental love (agape, metta) and compassion (karuna) spring forth.

Lest you be unconvinced by "my" pedestrian brain, please peruse the excellent book, Free Will by neuroscientist & Buddhist practitioner Sam Harris (or check his youtube videos on the subject). His book Waking Up (free first chapter online) is also excellent and possibly a better use of your time, as it includes insights from his book on free will, as well as giving sage advice on awakening, while acknowledging that he himself has only had glimpses of it (as is the case for myself as well up to this point).

If you are wondering which awakened Buddhist masters support "my" position, the only one I know of for sure in my limited readings is Ajahn Brahm. He is quite explicit that you have no free choice. And he is one of the most highly regarded masters today in Theravada Buddhism. Strangely, Brahm only makes passing mention of this key point in his book, Meditation, Bliss, and Beyond, as he prefers to teach people to enter the states of meditative absorption known as jhana. I can see why he prefers jhana, although he admits it does not directly lead to liberation, but it certainly does remove doubt about the possibility of liberation. And I can vouch for his instructions to achieve it: following them, I achieved first jhana in a week (really one day of intense practice while I was sick). It is infinitely better than sex, as he advertises!


Now, I will be the first to admit that my understanding of dependent origination is at a kindergarten level compared to the likes of Nagarjuna. So perhaps in some sense there is neither free will nor is everything determined by conditions (since according to Nagarjuna, conditions are dependently designated based upon results). If you would like to study Nagarjuna, and then get back to me on what you learn, I'd love to hear it.