by Sam Harris
Harris's book is wonderful in overall. It is analytical and clear on many points but I find that it is also narrow minded in some things. I find that he is unreasonably critical towards religious people and mystical experiences. His book is called ”Waking up” whch obviously refers to about waking up of false notion of there being a self, or an I, in our minds.
As quoted, Harris quite well explains both I-based and I-less modes. However, he never brings these two together. He sort of leaves the rope untied which, I think, leaves the message half way. Therefore, I believe that this book will make people consider the message, that if waking up, but they will have hard time in actually coming to this breakthrough. This is one of the most interesting books available though.
- Baba Kim Katami
WHAT ARE WE CALLING “I”?
The pronoun I is the name that most of us put to the sense that we are the thinkers of our thoughts and the experiencers of our experience. It is the sense that we have of possessing (rather than of merely being) a continuum of experience. We will see, however, that this feeling is not a necessary property of the mind. And the fact that people report losing their sense of self to one or another degree suggests that the experience of being a self can be selectively interfered with. Obviously, there is something in our experience that we are calling “I,” apart from the sheer fact that we are conscious; otherwise, we would never describe our subjectivity in the way we do, and a person would have no basis for feeling that she had lost her sense of self, whatever the circumstances.
The self that does not survive scrutiny is the subject of experience in each present moment— the feeling of being a thinker of thoughts inside one’s head, the sense of being an owner or inhabitant of a physical body, which this false self seems to appropriate as a kind of vehicle. Even if you don’t believe such a homunculus exists—perhaps because you believe, on the basis of science, that you are identical to your body and brain rather than a ghostly resident therein— you almost certainly feel like an internal self in almost every waking moment. And yet, however one looks for it, this self is nowhere to be found. It cannot be seen amid the particulars of experience, and it cannot be seen when experience itself is viewed as a totality. However, its absence can be found—and when it is, the feeling of being a self disappears.
CONSCIOUSNESS WITHOUT SELF
This is an empirical claim: Look closely enough at your own mind in the present moment, and you will discover that the self is an illusion. The problem with a claim of this kind, however, is that one can’t borrow another person’s contemplative tools to test it. To see how the feeling of “I” is a product of thought—indeed, to even appreciate how distracted by thought you tend to be in the first place—you have to build your own contemplative tools. Unfortunately, this leads many people to dismiss the project out of hand: They look inside, notice nothing of interest, and conclude that introspection is a dead end. But just imagine where astronomy would be if, centuries after Galileo, a person were still obliged to build his own telescope before he could even judge whether astronomy was a legitimate field of inquiry. It wouldn’t make the sky any less worthy of investigation, but astronomy’s development as a science would become immensely more difficult.
GRADUAL VERSUS SUDDEN REALIZATION
We wouldn’t attempt to meditate, or engage in any other contemplative practice, if we didn’t feel that something about our experience needed to be improved. But here lies one of the central paradoxes of spiritual life, because this very feeling of dissatisfaction causes us to overlook the intrinsic freedom of consciousness in the present. As we have seen, there are good reasons to believe that adopting a practice like meditation can lead to positive changes in one’s life. But the deepest goal of spirituality is freedom from the illusion of the self—and to seek such freedom, as though it were a future state to be attained through effort, is to reinforce the chains of one’s apparent bondage in each moment.
Traditionally, there have been two solutions to this paradox. One is to simply ignore it and adopt various techniques of meditation in the hope that a breakthrough will occur. Some people appear to succeed at this, but many fail. It is true that good things often happen in the meantime: We can become happier and more concentrated. But we can also despair of the whole project. The words of the sages may begin to sound like empty promises, and we are left hoping for transcendent experiences that never arrive or prove merely temporary.
The ultimate wisdom of enlightenment, whatever it is, cannot be a matter of having fleeting experiences. The goal of meditation is to uncover a form of well-being that is inherent to the nature of our minds. It must, therefore, be available in the context of ordinary sights, sounds, sensations, and even thoughts. Peak experiences are fine, but real freedom must be coincident with normal waking life.
The other traditional response to the paradox of spiritual seeking is to fully acknowledge it and concede that all efforts are doomed, because the urge to attain self-transcendence or any other mystical experience is a symptom of the very disease we want to cure. There is nothing to do but give up the search.
These paths may appear antithetical—and they are often presented as such. The path of gradual ascent is typical of Theravada Buddhism and most other approaches to meditation in the Indian tradition. And gradualism is the natural starting point for any search, spiritual or otherwise. Such goal-oriented modes of practice have the virtue of being easily taught, because a person can begin them without having had any fundamental insight into the nature of consciousness or the illusoriness of the self. He need only adopt new patterns of attention, thought, and behavior, and the path will unfold before him.
By contrast, the path of sudden realization can appear impossibly steep. It is often described as “nondualistic” because it refuses to validate the point of view from which one would meditate or practice any other spiritual discipline. Consciousness is already free of anything that remotely resembles a self—and there is nothing that you can do, as an illusory ego, to realize this. Such a perspective can be found in the Indian tradition of Advaita Vedanta and in a few schools of Buddhism.
Cessation and theravada-gradualism
Those who begin to practice in the spirit of gradualism often assume that the goal of selftranscendence is far away, and they may spend years overlooking the very freedom that they yearn to realize. The liability of this approach became clear to me when I studied under the Burmese meditation master Sayadaw U Pandita (student of Mahasi Sayadaw). I sat through several retreats with U Pandita, each a month or two in length. These retreats were based on the monastic discipline of Theravadan Buddhism: We did not eat after noon and were encouraged to sleep no more than four hours each night. Outwardly, the goal was to engage in eighteen hours of formal meditation each day.
The logic of this practice is explicitly goal-oriented: According to this view, one practices mindfulness not because the intrinsic freedom of consciousness can be fully realized in the present but because being mindful is a means of attaining an experience often described as “cessation,” which is thought to decisively uproot the illusion of the self (along with other mental afflictions, depending on one’s stage of practice). Cessation is believed to be a direct insight into an unconditioned reality (Pali: Nibbāna; Sanskrit: Nirvana) that lies behind all manifest phenomena.
This conception of the path to enlightenment is open to several criticisms. The first is that it is misleading with respect to what can be realized in the present moment in a state of ordinary awareness. Thus, it encourages confusion at the outset regarding the nature of the problem one is trying to solve. It is true, however, that striving toward the distant goal of enlightenment (as well as the nearer goal of cessation) can lead one to practice with an intensity that might otherwise be difficult to achieve. I never made more effort than I did when practicing under U Pandita. But most of this effort arose from the very illusion of bondage to the self that I was seeking to overcome. The model of this practice is that one must climb the mountain so that freedom can be found at the top. But the self is already an illusion, and that truth can be glimpsed directly, at the mountain’s base or anywhere else along the path. One can then return to this insight, again and again, as one’s sole method of meditation—thereby arriving at the goal in each moment of actual practice. This isn’t merely a matter of choosing to think differently about the significance of mindfulness. It is a difference in what one is able to be mindful of. Dualistic mindfulness— paying attention to the breath, for instance—generally proceeds on the basis of an illusion: One feels that one is a subject, a locus of consciousness inside the head, that can strategically pay attention to the breath or some other object of awareness because of all the good it will do. This is gradualism in action. And yet, from a nondualistic point of view, one could just as well be mindful of selflessness directly. To do this, however, one must recognize that this is how consciousness is—and such an insight can be difficult to achieve. However, it does not require the meditative attainment of cessation. Another problem with the goal of cessation is that most traditions of Buddhism do not share it, and yet they produce long lineages of contemplative masters, many of whom have spent decades doing nothing but meditating on the nature of consciousness. If freedom is possible, there must be some mode of ordinary consciousness in which it can be expressed. Why not realize this frame of mind directly?
Nevertheless, I spent several years deeply preoccupied with reaching the goal of cessation, and at least one year of that time was spent on silent retreat. Although I had many interesting experiences, none seemed to fit the specific requirements of this path. There were periods during which all thought subsided, and any sense of having a body disappeared. What remained was a blissful expanse of conscious peace that had no reference point in any of the usual sensory channels. Many scientists and philosophers believe that consciousness is always tied to one of the five senses—and that the idea of a “pure consciousness” apart from seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching is a category error and a spiritual fantasy. I am confident that they are mistaken.
But cessation never arrived. Given my gradualist views at that point, this became very frustrating. Most of my time on retreat was extremely pleasant, but it seemed to me that I had merely been given the tools with which to contemplate the evidence of my nonenlightenment. My practice had become a vigil—a method of waiting, however patiently, for a future reward.
DZOGCHEN: TAKING THE GOAL AS THE PATH
Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche lived in a hermitage on the southern slope of Shivapuri Mountain, overlooking the Kathmandu Valley. He spent more than twenty years of his life on formal retreat and was deservedly famous for the clarity with which he gave the “pointing-out instruction” of Dzogchen, a formal initiation in which a teacher seeks to impart the experience of selftranscendence directly to a student. I received this teaching from several Dzogchen masters, as well as similar instructions from teachers like Poonja-ji in other traditions, but I never met anyone who spoke about the nature of consciousness as precisely as Tulku Urgyen. In the last five years of his life, I made several trips to Nepal to study with him.
The practice of Dzogchen requires that one be able to experience the intrinsic selflessness of awareness in every moment (that is, when one is not otherwise distracted by thought)—which is to say that for a Dzogchen meditator, mindfulness must be synonymous with dispelling the illusion of the self. Rather than teach a technique of meditation—such as paying close attention to one’s breathing—a Dzogchen master must precipitate an insight on the basis of which a student can thereafter practice a form of awareness (Tibetan: rigpa) that is unencumbered by subject/object dualism. Thus, it is often said that, in Dzogchen, one “takes the goal as the path,” because the freedom from self that one might otherwise seek is the very thing that one practices. The goal of Dzogchen, if one can call it such, is to grow increasingly familiar with this way of being in the world.
In my experience, some Dzogchen masters are better teachers than others. I have been in the presence of several of the most revered Tibetan lamas of our time while they were ostensibly teaching Dzogchen, and most of them simply described this view of consciousness without giving clear instructions on how to glimpse it. The genius of Tulku Urgyen was that he could point out the nature of mind with the precision and matter-of-factness of teaching a person how to thread a needle and could get an ordinary meditator like me to recognize that consciousness is intrinsically free of self. There might be some initial struggle and uncertainty, depending on the student, but once the truth of nonduality had been glimpsed, it became obvious that it was always available—and there was never any doubt about how to see it again. I came to Tulku Urgyen yearning for the experience of self-transcendence, and in a few minutes he showed me
that I had no self to transcend.
In my view, there is nothing supernatural, or even mysterious, about this transmission of wisdom from master to disciple. Tulku Urgyen’s effect on me came purely from the clarity of his teaching. As it is with any challenging endeavor, the difference between being utterly misled by false information, being nudged in the general direction, and being precisely guided by an expert is difficult to overstate.
Taboos and miscellaneous
It is considered bad form in most spiritual circles, especially among Buddhists, to make claims about one’s own realization. However, I think this taboo comes at a high price, because it allows people to remain confused about how to practice. So I will describe my experience plainly.
Before meeting Tulku Urgyen, I had spent at least a year practicing vipassana on silent retreats. The experience of self-transcendence was not entirely unknown to me. I could remember moments when the distance between the observer and the observed had seemed to vanish, but I viewed these experiences as being dependent on conditions of extreme mental concentration. Consequently, I thought they were unavailable in more ordinary moments, outside intensive retreat. But after a few minutes, Tulku Urgyen simply handed me the ability to cut through the illusion of the self directly, even in ordinary states of consciousness. This instruction was, without question, the most important thing I have ever been explicitly taught by another human being.
And whatever the traditional liabilities of the guru-devotee relationship, I know from direct experience that it is possible to meet a teacher who can deliver the goods.
Unfortunately, to begin the practice of Dzogchen, it is generally necessary to meet a qualified teacher.
But to have their confusion and doubts resolved, most people need to be in a dialogue with a teacher who can answer questions in real time.
However, one can never be sure how much Buddhist religiosity one will be asked to imbibe along the way. My advice is that if you seek out these teachings, don’t be satisfied until you are certain that you understand the practice. Dzogchen is not vague or paradoxical. It is not like Zen, wherein a person can spend years being uncertain whether he is meditating correctly. The practice of recognizing nondual awareness is called trekchod, which means “cutting through” in Tibetan, as in cutting a string cleanly so that both ends fall away. Once one has cut it, there is no doubt that it has been cut. I recommend that you demand the same clarity of your meditation practice.
It is true, however, that the role of guru seems to attract more than its fair share of narcissists and confidence men. Again, this seems to be a natural consequence of the subject matter. One can’t fake being an expert gymnast, a rocket scientist, or even a competent cook—at least not for long—but one can fake being an enlightened adept.
Consider the case of the late Tibetan lama Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who was an inspired teacher but also an occasionally violent drunk and a philanderer. As guru to Allen Ginsberg, Trungpa attracted many of America’s most accomplished poets into his orbit. Once, at a Halloween party for senior students—where W. S. Merwin, the future poet laureate of the United States, and his girlfriend, the poet Dana Naone, were guests—Trungpa ordered his bodyguards to forcibly strip a sixty-year-old woman of her clothing and carry her naked around the meditation hall. This made Merwin and Naone more than a little uncomfortable, and they thought it wise to return to their room for the rest of the night. Noticing their absence, Trungpa asked a group of devotees to find the poets and bring them back to the party. When Merwin and Naone refused to open their door, Trungpa instructed his disciples to break it down. The resulting forced entry led to chaos—wherein Merwin, who was then famous for his pacifism, fought off his attackers with a broken beer bottle, stabbing several in the face and arms. The sight of blood, and his horror over his own actions, apparently collapsed Merwin’s defenses, and he and Naone finally allowed themselves to be captured and brought before the guru.
Trungpa, who was by then quite drunk, castigated the pair for their egocentricity and demanded that they take off their clothes. When they refused, he ordered his bodyguards to strip them. By all accounts, Naone became hysterical and begged someone among the crowd of onlookers to call the police. One student attempted to physically intervene. Trungpa himself punched this Samaritan in the face and then ordered his guards to drag the man from the room. Predictably, many of Trungpa’s students viewed the assault on Merwin and Naone as a profound spiritual teaching meant to subdue their egos. Ginsberg, who had not been present at the time, offered the following assessment in an interview: “In the middle of that scene, to yell ‘call the police’—do you realize how vulgar that was? The Wisdom of the East was being unveiled, and she’s going ‘call the police!’ I mean, shit! Fuck that shit! Strip ’em naked, break down the door!”5 Apart from having produced a perfect jewel of hippie moral confusion, Ginsberg exposed the riddle at the heart of the traditional guru-devotee relationship. No doubt Merwin and Naone’s preference to not dance naked in public had more than a little to do with their attachment to their own privacy and autonomy. And it isn’t inconceivable that a guru could operate in such a coercive and seemingly unethical way out of a sense of compassion. In fact, it may have been conceivable to Merwin and Naone themselves, even in the aftermath of this humiliating ordeal, because they remained at Trungpa’s seminar for several more days to receive further teachings. However, judging from the effect that Trungpa’s wild behavior had
on both himself (he apparently died from alcoholism) and his students, it is very difficult to view it as the product of enlightened wisdom.
The scandals surrounding Trungpa’s organization did not end there. Trungpa had groomed a Western student, Ösel Tendzin, to be his successor. Tendzin was the first Westerner to be honored in this way in any lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. His appointment as “Vajra Regent” had even been approved by the Karmapa, one of the most revered Tibetan masters then living. As it happens, Tendzin was bisexual, highly promiscuous, and rather fond of pressuring his straight male devotees to have sex with him as a form of spiritual initiation. He later contracted HIV but continued to have unprotected sex with more than a hundred men and women without telling them of his condition. Trungpa and several people on the board of his organization knew that the regent was ill and did their best to keep it a secret. Once the scandal broke, Tendzin claimed that Trungpa had promised him that he would do no harm as long as he continued his spiritual practice. Apparently, the virus in his blood didn’t care whether he did his spiritual practice or not. At least one of his victims later died of AIDS, having spread HIV to others.
What one encounters in a person like Trungpa is a mind impressively free of shame. This can be a good thing, provided that one happens to also be committed to the well-being of others. But shame serves a crucial social function: It keeps us from behaving like wild animals. Believing in one’s own perfect enlightenment is rather like driving a car without brakes—not a problem if you never need to stop or slow down, but otherwise a terrible idea. The belief that he could live beyond conventional moral constraints is explicitly put forward in Trungpa’s teaching:
[Morality] or discipline is not a matter of binding oneself to a fixed set of laws or patterns. For if a bodhisattva is completely selfless, a completely open person, then he will act according to openness, [and] will not have to follow rules; he will simply fall into patterns. It is impossible for the bodhisattva to destroy or harm other people, because he embodies transcendental generosity. He has opened himself completely and so does not discriminate between this and that. He just acts in accordance with what is. . . . If we are completely open, not watching ourselves at all, but being completely open and communicating with situations as they are, then action is pure, absolute, superior. . . . It is an often-used metaphor that the bodhisattva’s conduct is like the walk of an elephant. Elephants do not hurry; they just walk slowly and surely through the jungle, one step after another. They just sail right along. They never fall nor do they make mistakes.
The state of freedom and effortless goodwill that Trungpa describes here undoubtedly corresponds to an experience that certain people have and to a perception (whether true or not) that others can form about them. But boundless compassion is one thing; inerrancy is another. The notion that one is incapable of making mistakes poses obvious ethical concerns, no matter what one’s level of realization. Anyone who has studied the spread of Eastern spirituality in the West knows that these elephants often stumble—even stampede—injuring themselves and many others in the process.