44 The Defining Characteristics of Consciousness

24 Apr 2016

Alan begins by unpacking the distinctive characteristics of consciousness, which help us identify it vs. anything else that is not. Its characteristics are luminosity and cognisance. It’s very important to know experientially what we are talking about, and find the referent for each of these terms. There are two legitimate meanings to define the luminous nature of consciousness, the first of which is to be clear of any materiality, that is consciousness has no physical attributes whatsoever - no mass, no charge, no momentum, no location. The second meaning is its capacity to make appearances manifest: it illuminates them and enables them to become manifest. It’s consciousness alone that can do that, not neurons nor anything else. Alan invite us to imagine being in a sensory deprivation tank: it’s pitch black, it’s sound-proof and we are floating in it, there is no signal from any of the 5 senses, no sounds, no sight, but also let’s imagine that magically your mind has gone totally silent, no chit chat. There is no signal from any of the six fields of experience. However your mind is very bright, there is no laxity, no dullness at all and you are vividly awake. Now what are you aware of? You know that you are not dead because your mind is bright but you see how your mind is fading away and you experience a facsimile of dying, but you are dying lucidly. And you are aware of something similar to the substrate but at the same time you are not non-existent. You are conscious, no question of being non-existent. Now all you are experiencing is luminosity without any appearances being illuminated, you are experiencing cognisance since you are not in a coma, so now what is the referent of the word luminosity? What is being illuminated now? The referent of the word luminosity is cognisance itself. And what are you cognisant of? The referent of cognisance now is that you know you are conscious, you know that you are knowing. Alan invites us to clearly find out the referent of that stripped-down, bare nuclear cognisance and luminosity, to withdraw awareness from all the noise, from conceptualisation, and clearly identify the referent of the terms luminosity and cognisance in the following guided meditation session.

Meditation starts at 10:50, and it is on Awareness of Awareness (the identification of the characteristics of consciousness, cognisance and luminosity), followed by Settling the Mind in its Natural State.

After the meditation session, Alan invites us to evenly elevate the quality of awareness, both in terms of the heart with the Four Immeasurables and cognitively as well, especially in the time between sessions when our mind is more prone to mind wandering and rumination. But even worse than that, is the subtle and old habit to reify everything we experience - the surrounding people, the environment, our thoughts, our body and so on. And there is a good reason for doing that, because phenomena appear to us as if they were existing from their own side, having distinct characteristics - the impression is that our awareness of phenomena is completely passive. We didn’t do anything and what we are seeing is right there, really out there and moreover we project upon them whatever preconceptions, whatever opinion we have about the person or phenomenon. And that is delusional at multiple levels. That happens because appearances lie, they totally mislead, they obscure. This relative, conventional domain of reality obscures ultimate reality which is emptiness, dharmadhatu. They obscure a liberating reality, and keep us indefinitely in samsara. That is something that won’t go away for a very long time. According to the Buddhist teachings, appearances will continue to appear in this misleading fashion until we are an 8th-stage arya Bodhisattva. It takes a long time because this is a cognitive obscuration: there are afflictive obscurations and cognitive obscurations, and an arhat is free of all afflictive obscurations (all mental afflictions), but he or she is not free of cognitive obscurations. Only a Buddha is free of those. But we are not obliged to grasp onto them as such. We can actually stop insofar as we have been able to truly understand the Madhyamaka view, insofar as we heard such teachings, we understood, contemplated and reflected upon them. In this way another level of understanding can arise, and it can become our actual way of viewing reality.

To help us break our tendency to reify everything, Alan recalls a teaching given by Gyatrul Rinpoche, in which he invites us to relate to the world as Dudjom Rinpoche used to do while performing ordinary daily activities (like going to a shopping mall): Maintain the awareness of space all the time. While attending to persons, things and objects, be simultaneously aware of the visual space in which these appearances are arising. By doing so, space is continuously apprehended by us, and it appears as real as anything else. This is a great help to start sabotaging our tendency for reification.

Meditation starts at 10:50

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Olaso. So for this morning’s practice I would like to focus very explicitly on the defining characteristics of consciousness. Consciousness in Tibetan is shepa, or shyana in Sanskrit and every first year Tibetan Buddhist studies student knows the definition. It’s very easy to memorize. That’s what people do. Terizing rigpa, the defining characteristics, the distinctive characteristics, the characteristics of consciousness that set it apart from everything that is not consciousness. Like there are defining characteristics of an orange of a football, of anything else. How do we identify this vs that, by identifying the distinctive characteristics the defining characteristics that set a particular object apart from everything that is not it. So dictionaries are full of those. So terizing rigpa, luminous and cognizant. And I want to give a very short talk about this and then go to the much more challenging endeavour of seeking to identify experientially the referent of each of these terms. Anybody can say luminosity or clarity and awareness, luminosity and cognizance. That’s easy, but do we know what we are talking about, do we have a very clear experiential sense? What’s the referent of luminosity? So I’ll tell you. I’ll tell you in words. But that’s like talking about chocolate, and no more chocolate please. But it’s like talking about chocolate, you can talk about it, I think there must be – there have to be many books written on chocolate, you could read all the books about chocolate in the world – if you haven’t tasted chocolate you really don’t know what they are talking about although you could probably write your own book. [laughter] This happens in philosophy all the time. Writing books about other people’s books about other people’s books. And it happens in religion, it happens in many areas.

[02:05] So luminosity, what does it mean exactly? It has two different meanings, two legitimate ways of interpreting it. It’s translated as luminous, as clear, those are the two primary translations of selwa. They’re both fine. One is, it’s clear in the sense, it’s clear of materiality. And that is consciousness has no material attributes whatsoever, no physical attributes, no material attributes, its not composed of atoms, it has no mass, no charge, no spin, no momentum, no location, it’s not physical. Has no material absent. So therefore it’s clear, clear of, that is devoid of materiality, like space. Space itself is devoid of materiality, it’s not composed of atoms of matter.

[02:51] That’s one meaning. But the other meaning, both of these are very experiential. The other meaning and I think you’re very familiar with this already, is that it’s called luminous or clear in the sense that it clarifies or illuminates all appearances, all experiences. It is consciousness alone that makes appearances manifest, not neurons, not photons, not soundwaves, not anything else. And so the fact that we can see colours, that we can hear sounds, that we can experience emotions and perceive dreams. The manifestation of that which manifests them, makes them evident, enables appearances to manifest, that is consciousness and its capacity for doing so is called luminosity. So we know consciousness is luminous indirectly by observing all that it illuminates. If you see a screen with flickering images on it, you can very strongly infer there must be a projector, something that is illuminating the screen, right. But it’s more interesting than that. I thought this would be short, but it’s always hard to be short. I love this thought experiment. And that is, imagine being in a sensory deprivation tank, and I mean, but as a thought experiment, a perfect one. And so you, so of course it’s pitch black, that they can make. It’s sound proof, that they can make. They put you in a saline solution that is body temperature so you have very little in the way of sensory, that is tactile or somatic experience. But now let’s go for a perfect one. In other words they don’t exist, but as a thought experiment. Imagine you’ve gone into a sensory deprivation tank where there’s no signal from any of the five senses, no sounds, sights and so forth and so on. Nothing, zero signal. But also in this, this is a magical deprivation tank, so we’ll call in Merlin and he will, oh, wave his wand over the sensory deprivation tank after you’ve gotten in. He’ll say Ohm Alan ah hum phet [laughter] And by reciting this magical mantra, your mind will suddenly go totally silent. Totally silent like no signal of appearances, chit chat, noise, just you know Om Alan ah hum phet You have to remember that mantra, it’s a very special one. And your mind just goes totally silent, right. They don’t believe me at all. Oh yee of little faith. [chuckles] I don’t believe me either. So imagine that.

[05:20] But now just to make this a really good thought experiment. Imagine you have just downed three cappuccinos, just before you went in. So there is no chance of your falling asleep, no doziness, no drowsiness, you’re like a little chipmunk on steroids. In other words the cappuccino was to make sure that the clarity aspect, that is your vivid, you’re bright, you’re awake, right. Not falling into laxity, dullness, sleepiness, so no chance of that. So there you are, now imagine this, you’re in this perfect sensory deprivation tank, no signal from any of the six, any of the six fields of experience. It’s completely no signal, no appearances, but you are wide awake, vividly awake. You’ve got a buzz on because of all those cappuccinos, right.

[6:03] So now, what are you aware of? You know you are not dead, dead as in the materialistic notion of dead, like non existent. You just had three cappuccinos for heavens sakes right, and maybe even see, you’re in the sensory deprivation tank and then they just kind of go tweek tweak and turn off all the nodes and then Merlin comes in with his mantra and so see how you are losing your mind. In other words, you’re having a facsimile of dying. Yeah, a really good facsimile of dying, and everything’s shut down, but you are dying lucidly, the cappuccino helps here! [amused laughter] And so, what are you aware of? As a thought experiment, what are you aware of now? You are aware of something that looks an awful lot like the substrate in terms of the sheer absence of any appearances whatsoever, sensory or mental. At the same time, you’re not non-existent. There’s no question about being non existent. You are conscious. Nobody numbed your consciousness, on the contrary, gave you capuccino for the clarity and then stripped you of all signals of the six fields of experience. So what are you experiencing? And your mind is totally silent. No images, no flickering, just flat.

[7:26] There’s luminosity without any appearances being illuminated. But it’s still luminosity. You are experiencing cognizance in the sense that you know full well that you’re not non existent, you’re not in a coma, you’re not, you’re not out, you’re not unconscious. You are conscious. No appearances and yet three cappuccinos you’re very bright, you’re wide awake. So what now is the referent of the word luminosity in that perfect sensory deprivation tank?

[07:57] What is luminous when nothing is being illuminated except consciousness itself. And what is cognizance? What do you know? Cognizance, the first one is luminosity, so I elaborated on that one. The second is cognizance, tsel shing rigpa. Cognizance and tselshing rigpa, and there’s the word rigpa it means awareness, it means cognizance. So I’m translating it as cognizance here. What do you know? What do you know? When you are in that perfect sensory deprivation tank you know that you are conscious. That’s knowing, that’s stripped down nuclear knowing, that’s the knowing of knowing as Sogyal Rinpoche calls it. Nice, nice phrase.

[08:49] Well that would be interesting to do. We don’t have the mantra. We don’t have Alan and Merlin. We don’t have [? inaudible]. We don’t have the perfect sensory deprivation tank. But we will die. So, we’ll have that opportunity, right, it’s part of the dying process. The only question is whether we enter into that dying process and go through it, lucidly or non lucidly. Most people go non lucidly, they’ve had no preparation whatsoever. They have spent their whole lives focusing on objects, objects, objects suddenly they have no objects, they go unconscious. Too bad, they miss the last page of the novel of their lives. So that’s what I’d like to do now, is no sensory deprivation tank, no magic, no magic wand, or mantra but that stripped down bare nuclear cognizance and luminosity, that’s present right now. That’s not something you get later if you get to go into such perfect sensory deprivation tank, it’s not achieved later, it’s already there. So can we tease it out? Can we so withdraw our awareness from appearances, from objects, from noise, from conceptualisation? Strip it down right here and now and clearly identify the referents of the term luminosity and cognizance? That’s our homework for this morning. Get a comfortable position. [sounds of students shuffling to position]

[10:54] Meditation starts, bell rings three times.

[11:11] Shantideva declares that with the motivation of Bodhicitta all of the first five of the six perfections, including of course the 5th which is dhjana, or for the sake of the 6th which is wisdom. Because it is only wisdom insight that sets us free. So with this motivation for freedom, for perfect awakening for the sake of all beings, settle your body in its natural state, relaxed still and clear.

[12:30] Settle your respiration in its natural rhythm, effortless, unimpeded, totally releasing, relaxing, non-conceptually as you come to the end of each outbreath.

[13:21] Then set your mind at ease by releasing all thoughts, all hopes and fears pertaining to the future and the past, releasing all goals, hedonic and eudaimonic and allow your awareness to come to rest effortlessly in the present moment, still and clear.

[15:13] Resting the awareness without deliberately focusing on any object, sensory or mental. For a short time simply maintain this mindful presence, sustaining the flow of mindfulness. Without being distracted outwards to any appearance, sensory or mental. Without grasping to or identifying with any subjective mental impulse. Loose and free. Rest your awareness in the present moment.

[17:23] So here for the time being is your best approximation of that perfect sensory deprivation tank in which you withdraw your awareness from all of the five and the six fields of appearances. You rest your awareness in stillness. And now we have these terms, this flow of consciousness that you are experiencing right now. As you invert your awareness right in upon it or simply release all interest and attention given to any appearances. As you rest there in this simplicity attend to the referent of the term luminous – clear. You heard the explanation of this term, can you observe directly the referent?

[18.:40] Is there a clarity of awareness, a clarity of consciousness that has no color, that is not bright or shining, that is not an appearance, but is the very source of appearances. Examine closely.

[20:24] And the word cognizance simply knowing, can you clearly identify the referent, the experience of knowing?

[21:35] To put it in very ordinary language, are you aware that your mind is clear and cognizant? And can you focus right in upon and identify that very clarity and that very cognizance?

[22:54] And now focus, direct this flow of consciousness to the space of the body and to whatever tactile sensations arise within this space. Letting your consciousness illuminate and know this space and whatever sensations and feelings arise within this space.

[24:12] Let your awareness be still as these sensations come and go.

[27:30] Let your awareness illuminate these appearances as if from afar, like a lighthouse that illuminates distant islands or ships on the sea. Just the opposite of cognitive fusion where your awareness merges, your very sense of identify merges with the sensations or feelings.

[28:53] And then, with your eyes gently open, your gaze vacantly resting in the space in front of you direct the light of your mental awareness to the space of the mind and to whatever arises within that domain, sustaining the same quality of awareness and viewing the events of the mind as if from afar. Knowing and illuminating whatever arises within this mental domain.

[31:12] Again rest primarily in the stillness of your awareness and secondarily let the light of your awareness illuminate and know the space of the mind and its contents.

[34:54] Meditation ends, bell rings three times.

[35:14] Olaso. So purely quantitatively as we are here in retreat, our between sessions are more important than our formal sessions on the cushion, just because we spend more time off the cushion. If you have a certain amount of money and most of the money is invested here and some of the lesser amount is there, the larger investment is more important right. And so in that very simple metaphor of filling a bathtub and seeing the water elevate altogether evenly, the central challenge of being in retreat generally, just generally in practicing altogether, is to evenly elevate the quality of awareness, both in terms of the heart, four immeasurables and so forth but of course cognitively as well. So we have our ruts that is our task then to get out of in our expeditions and one of the ruts so obviously is rumination, mind wandering which is the rut of the world. So we’re very familiar with that.

[36:16] But there’s another subtler rut, it’s an old habit, a deeply ingrained habit and that is of reifying everything we experience, surrounding people, the environment, our thoughts, our bodies and so forth. And there’s a very good reason we reify, a very very good reason, and that is everything appears, as I gaze over at Susan, she appears to me, I look at her and she appears to be over there. She’s like of course she has to be over there, that’s how she looks and everything else right? And so as she or anyone else as they appear to be existing from their own side, having their own distinctive characteristics such as the impression is my awareness of Susan is completely passive. Not me, I didn’t do anything, I just opened up the mirror of mind and there she was. And what I’m seeing is what’s there. And of course if we get really stupid then whatever preconceptions I have about Susan, my opinions about Susan, my projections about Susan, well I’ll just assume they’re all there too. Because after all I’m objective. So clearly that’s delusional on multiple levels. Susan you just represented all of reality for me because that’s what we do.

[37:27] And of course it’s not only external it’s internal. So appearances lie, appearances lie, they’re called gunzop. They totally mislead, they totally veil, they totally obscure, in the sense that this relative domain of reality obscures an underlying reality which is emptiness, dharmadhatu, nirvana.

[37:54] So it is reality, the appearances do constitute reality, relative truth, relative reality. They’re not non existent of course they exist, but they obscure a deeper reality, a liberating reality. Whereas when we get fixated on, first of all reify and then respond with attachment, hostility, and so forth and so on. Then that’s how we spin ourselves indefinitely in this self perpetuating cycle of samsara. So we’ll need to get used to this. That is something’s not going to go away for a very long time most likely and that is the fact that appearances of phenomena, phenomena arise or appear in a fashion that indicates or suggests that they do exist from their own side. Appearances appear to be existing from their own side, that’s just the way it is. And according to the Buddha’s teachings they are going to continue to appear in this misleading fashion. Phenomena will appear to exist, inherently existent, while in fact they are not. Well they’ll continue to appear in that way until we are eighth stage arya bodhisattvas. A long time.

[39:00] Because the, it’s called [?39:03 Tibetan], true appearances, truly existent appearances, phenomena appearing as if they are truly existent. That mode of appearance that’s said to be a shes byai sgrib pa, a cognitive obscuration. There are afflictive obscurations, there are cognitive obscurations and an arhat is free of all cognitive [Alan snaps his fingers and corrects to] all afflictive obscurations. An arhat is free of all mental afflictions, therefore free of that whole domain, that very broad bandwidth of mental afflictions. So an arhat is totally free of those. But an arhat, a sravaka arhat is not free, even after becoming an arhat, is not free of cognitive obscurations, only a Buddha is free of those. On the bodhisattva path you’re not free of cognitive, you don’t even begin to be free of cognitive obscurations until you’re on the eighth stage arya bodhisattva level. So in other words you’re incredibly far along the path. This doesn’t mean that when you’re on the first, second, third, fourth, sixth, seventh bhumi that you’re delusional. It doesn’t mean that you are apprehending or grasping onto phenomena as being inherently real, but it’s very similar to being in a very lucid dream where you really nailed it, you’ve really comprehended this a dream. You can walk through walls, fly through water, or you know swim through water, you can breathe underwater, you can let your body burst. You can touch the sun and the moon and all that stuff in the dream. I mean you can do anything you like in the dream, nevertheless even though you know perfectly well that none of these phenomena in the dream including yourself as that personae in the dream, you know perfectly well none of them exist by their own inherent nature. You know that and you demonstrate your knowledge of that by this marvelous array of siddhis that you can display. They still appear as if they’re inherently existent. They still do. You look at a wall it seems to be really there from it’s own side. You know you can walk right through it and it still appears to be from its own side. So the analog is that’s how things appear until you’re way up there on the eighth, ninth arya bodhisattva level.

[41:05] So, clearly there’s not a whole lot we can do about that. That is appearances will continue arising in that fashion, phenomena will, other people, environment, our bodies and so forth will continue to appear as if they exist from their own side by their own inherent nature but we’re not obliged to grasp onto them as such. We’re not compelled to do that, we can actually stop, insofar as we have learned and have been able to integrate, truly understand, the Madhyamika view, the view of the middle way, the view of all phenomena being empty of inherent nature and arising as dependently- related events in which the role of the subject is integral, absolutely integral, to the very existence of all phenomena by way of conceptual designation.

[41:55] Insofar as you’ve received such teachings, you’ve heard and have some understanding, you’ve contemplated, reflect upon, analyze the teachings and another level of understanding has arisen. Then you are poised to really let that understanding, how do you say, filter into, your actual way of viewing reality. Then it’s not just a belief system, oh I can talk about Madhyamaka, I’ve studied the books you want to debate.

That’s all very fine, that’s just intellectual... stuff. But by the time it gets to meditation where you’re actually integrating in the very way you view phenomena. So you look at phenomena and yes, they are lying to you, the appearances are right there as if from their own side and yet with your understanding you do not grasp onto them as such. It’s like knowing there’s a pathological liar, and the liar is really persuasive, but you know the person’s a pathological liar, then you listen to them, you understand them but you know they’re lying all the way through. Okay, you’ve understood everything they’ve said and you know they lied every step of the way. Okay. Well appearances lie. And so we can withdraw this deep, deeply rotted tendency of reifying everything that we perceive, everything we think of, everything that appears. We can break that, we can break that habit. And now we need a technique.

[43:25] Gyatrul Rinpoche mentioned years ago a regular practice or habit of his, one of his root gurus, Kyabje Dudjom Rinpoche, the mind emanation of Dudjom Lingpa. And I presume Dudjom Rinpoche simply told him this, but in any case, Gyatrul Rinpoche was a very close disciple of him. And he said that, as a matter of course when Dudjom Rinpoche was simply out and about, including like walking in a mall, doing a bit of shopping, ordinary stuff, that he said his baseline practice as he did the very things that needed to be done in the world. Even lamas need to go shopping sometime you know. It’s just ordinary stuff. Is that he would in an ongoing fashion, maintain an awareness of space. Not imagining space, not thinking space, space, space, but being aware of [space]. So right now, I’m aware of Jeffrey sitting right in front of me. So the mind tends to naturally, understandably, when looking at Jeffrey, then there’s Jeffrey and then I go druup, I lock on and then I reify. And so for the moment what we attend to is reality. So if I’m attending to Jeffrey, then Jeffrey arises to me as something very real. But it’s also perfectly possible to attend to another person, a landscape, anything you like and while attending to it, you can try it right now. There’s nothing mystical or difficult about this. Attend to whatever you’re attending, me or anything else in the room or people listening by podcast, whatever. Whatever’s arising in your visual field, attend but as you’re attending simultaneously be aware of the space, the space, the visual space, you can do that, not too difficult. You can be aware of the person, the landscape, anything but also be aware of the space in which these appearances are arising. You can look in another person’s mind, eyes, so I’m looking right into Jeffrey’s, eye to eye, here we are looking at each other. And I’m giving you my attention, and you know I’m not spacing out. But in so doing of course there’s nothing magical about this, or terribly difficult. While he and I could even have a conversation right now and while maintaining the conversation we can still maintain an awareness of this space in between, this space in which appearances are arising. Right? True?

[45:53] It’s not so easy to reify space. I’m not saying we can’t do it, we can reify anything. But that we know there’s not much there in the first place. So if you reify it, you haven’t reified much, because it’s space. And so for the moment what we attend to is reality, if you’re attending in a continuous fashion as apparently Dudjom Rinpoche did, maintaining an awareness of space, such that space appears to you and is apprehended as being as real as anything else. And space isn’t very real, I mean - there is nothing there! And if you see all appearances are arising within space, which they clearly are, whether it’s visual space or auditory space or what have you, then the appearances can’t really be any more real than the space in which they arise. Which means we are sabotaging reification! Softening it. So ready to do that for the next twelve hours? We can call ourselves the Tuscany Space Cadets. [laughter] It has a nice ring to it, yeah? Good, all right, let’s continue practicing.

Transcribed by Jon Mitchell

Revised by Kriss Kringle Sprinkle

Final Revision by Rafael Carlos Giusti


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