When the Methods Become Stale
We must take the microscope and telescope of awareness, tune it up and examine our experience of being-ness and phenomena. This is the practice of Dharma, the search for our essential nature. Vipassanā (Pali, Sanskrit(Skt.)., vipaśyanā, Tib., lhaktong) is the result, the direct insights and wisdom that arise from looking at the five aggregates with the microscope and telescope of investigating awareness. Vipassanā is not solely a technique as commonly used today to refer to a specific type of meditation. Classically vipassanā refers to a series of direct knowledges gained through awareness boring into phenomena. They are called vipassanā-ñāṇa (Pali), Skt., vipaśyanā-jñāna.
One of these key insights is that we encounter an empty wondrous spaciousness where previously we experienced solidity or density. This solidity may be very subtle, appearing like layers of the finest clouds. So it may be hard to detect. Therefore, though almost undetectable, the density can have far ranging impact on our lives: how we think, feel, energy levels, mood swings, creativity, how we approach the Dharma and how we experience ourselves and all things. It may help to use other words to understand why we use the word solidity, such as: real-ness, firmness, entity-ness, concreteness, set, fixated belief, bound, frozen, tight, locked-up, brittle, dependable and congealed. For example, when we feel that our emotions are real like bricks. Often, when we wake up to the falsehood of this entity-ness, in whatever form it manifests it comes with strong affect; e.g. wanting to run away, crying, shaking, anger, dullness, fear and floods of stories. It is like a door we don’t want to open. And we don’t realize how much we resist opening it! We back away from exploring this next level of insightfulness even though it will reveal a spacious freedom, profound kindness and many other fine qualities—even the transcendent nature of mind.
Surprisingly, by observing with a keen attentiveness for long periods of time, we still may not recognize what we are experiencing. Therefore it is vital to have a skillful guide, the accomplished spiritual mentor to help us look and investigate in a decisive and direct way. The Ninth Karmapa, Wangchuk Dorje said,
“Some people, however, do not recognize it even if this [recognizing mind’s nature] has happened…Therefore, in order to reach certainty about the (nature of the mind) after you have seen it and to have all your doubts cut, it is necessary (for a Guru) to introduce you to it (in other words, cause you to recognize it).”
We have all experienced this non-seeing many times in our life. While on safari my guide told me there were Zebras in front of a group of trees. At first I couldn’t see them. Having them pointed out a couple times, there was a sudden recognition. So too, the spiritual mentor’s role is to keep us looking again and again, further and deeper, in different investigative modes, and not to get side tracked. They help us peel away the layers of conditioned experience that obscure our view of a non-conceptual freedom—a mind free of fabrications, an infinite view, called emptiness.
Generally speaking, I have found there are three broad digressions along the journey to recognizing emptiness. The digressions conform to three types of clinging (Pali, taṇhā) the Buddha presented. First, we require guidance to keep from straying into a grey indifference, for example, ‘it’s all smoke and mirrors—all is illusory—so why be concerned with anything’. Or, ‘it’s all empty’, so why bother building temples, doing crafts, engaging in religious ritual, visualizing or running a business. This indifference may be a defence against life situations that are often messy, difficult and emotionally charged. For instance, even though all rituals or ceremonies are empty, like all phenomena and don’t ultimately liberate, they can be extraordinarily skillful supports on the path of realization for oneself and others. These views appearing as indifference manifest as a cool or jaded demeanour that is highly contrived. This can develop into misguided concept of emptiness that negates life; a form of vi-bhava taṇhā (Pali), a craving for non-being.
On the other hand, the second digression, one may stray into over fascination, where we are busy with this and that concern and entranced with bliss, lights and far-out meditational experiences. Is it easy to get caught up in ‘the wonder of it all’, without clearly seeing the struggles of life, dissatisfaction and dukkha. In this second case, the incomplete concept of emptiness forms attachments to sensory experiences of any of the six doors. This digression is a form of kama-taṇhā (Pali), craving for sensing and pleasure.
The third straying is when the training towards realizing emptiness becomes inflexibly ingrained as a belief system. These trainings are incredibly skillful and were developed over thousands of years for people to quickly realize the nature of mind. But one can get stuck for a long time believing that the training is the realization. These profound experiences of meditation as well as intellectual knowledge gained through study may be confused for genuine realization of śūnyatā. One can be left parroting slogans which at one time before they became fixated were powerful personal contemplations; such as ‘it is all transience’, ‘I am subject to arising and passing away’, or referring to oneself as ‘this formation” or “this being” instead of using the word ‘me’ or ‘I’. Unsound concepts of emptiness will create an unnatural expression of how we think about ourselves and express ourselves to others. In these ways, partial understandings are worn as if emptiness were a thing, like the clothing of our personality. These skillful methods and teachings can produce a hard and brittle cocoon of beliefs that we need to break out of in order to experience the freedom of the natural mode. In this way the concepts or methods around emptiness have taken on a being-ness, a craving to becoming, an identity or new existence (Pali, bhava-taṇhā).
We all go through the above three entanglements, it is perfectly normal and part of our journey towards innate freedom. This happens throughout the day, but gets magnified in meditation sessions or in retreat. The strayings and partial views might be useful for a time, if they are in service to deepening contemplation and unfolding the awake mind. The goal is the exhaustion of all held concepts, called the freedom from all elaborations (Skt. nisprapanca, Tib. trötral). The methods one uses to approaching emptiness, when stale, will get in the way unless at numerous points along the path we get help from our teachers to un-grasp from the concepts and practices that are meant to point us to the un-graspable.
Going beyond these three strayings, the recognition of utter non-solidity is an unspeakable, ineffable continuum of great bliss (Skt., mahasukha) without any contrivance. Imagine for a moment, that if one day we suddenly noticed that all the chains (reference points of clinging) were gone (cessation) and realized they were never real in the first place (knowledge of liberation), we might just emit a long giant belly laugh of great joy and release, or a bellowing roar like a lion. Je Gampopa said;
'Finally, you need to recognize that there is no 'thing' to do, like a milkmaid after the enemy has carried off all the cattle.'
By Lama Yongdu. Deepest gratitude to my many precious teachers. Many heart felt thanks to Laurel Jacobson’s excellent editing skills.
 A major theme of the Namgyal Guru Yoga as revealed by the Ven. Tenzin Dorje Namgyal Rinpoche.
 See Appendix I.
 text in square brackets added for clarity.
 p. 84. The Ninth Karmapa, The Mahamudra, Eliminating the Darkness of Ignorance. Translated by Alexander Berzin. Library of Tibetan Works and Archives. Dharamsala. 1978.
 p. 87. Ibid.
 Digha Nikaya 22: Mahasatipaṭṭhāna Sutta, The Great Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness.
 There are six senses in Buddhism: seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, smelling and mind (Pali, mano). Each sense is a perceptual doorway or gate (Pali, dvara).
 Tib. Wylie: spros bral, free of elaborations, free of all grasping, beyond concepts, freedom from extremes.
 p. 23. Gampopa. The Precious Garland of the Sublime Path. The Oral Instructions of Lord Gampopa. Translated by Eric Pema Kunsang. Rangjung Yeshe Publications. Boudhanath. 1995.