Daniel Brown - The Great Way
Interview by Iain McNay
Iain: We’re going to talk about Daniel’s new book, Pointing Out The Great Way, which is about the Mahamudra tradition of meditation. And there are many, many areas we could cover here, but we’re going to keep the interview as accessible as possible. So, Daniel, let’s pretty much start with what motivated you in the beginning to get interested in meditation. What age were you when you first started to get drawn into that world?
Daniel: Well, I grew up in the ’50s so I was a product of the ‘50s. which meant science was the vision of the world. And I started out as a molecular biologist, and then in college we had to take these social science courses which I found very boring; they were requirements. And I ended up taking a course in Eastern religions, and one of the texts was the old Evans-Wentz translation of Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines. And I... I read the book and I was stunned by it.
Iain: It doesn’t sound like very light reading, that book.
Daniel: No, it wasn’t light reading, but there was something remarkably familiar to me about it, and I knew that that’s what I was going to do. And I ended up changing my profession and retooling as a psychologist and studying history of religions. And I eventually ended up doing my doctoral work on that very text in the original Tibetan, on the original Mahamudra text that was translated back in, I think, 1927 by Evans-Wentz.
Iain: And when you first started to meditate, did you find it easy?
Daniel: At first no, my mind was very scattered. I found it took a fair amount of discipline. And then I didn’t think the teaching of the meditation was very good in the west in those days.
Iain: Right. Did you have a teacher as such, or were you working pretty much from the book and other books?
Daniel: Well, I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago, and I wanted to do work on Tibetan. In those days Tibetan wasn’t very popular. The way that western academia had divided up the east into the far east and then south Asian studies - somehow Tibet got left out of both groups. So in those days there were very, very few places that you could learn Tibetan. At the University of Chicago where I was I learned Sanskrit, but Tibetan wasn’t a very popular choice. There was a programme at the University of Wisconsin, which was a few hours away from Chicago, and I thought I could commute to it and learn Tibetan. But since it was not very popular, the only option was second year Tibetan, so I had to find some place in the summer where I could take a crash course in Tibetan.
I asked around who I could learn that from and eventually found my way to Robert Thurman, who was a great linguist. And Bob said, “Well, maybe I could set up for you to study with my teacher” - which he then did. He was a Tibetan teacher, actually Mongolian, who was living in the US up by the Delaware Water Gap. I went there and the first day we started reading this script, the second day we actually started reading and, then, after being there for several weeks, it was clear that we weren’t just going to learn the Tibetan language. He was a remarkable teacher and I lived with him on and off, the summers between college and graduate school, for the next ten years, until he died.
Iain: And what did he actually teach you?
Daniel: A way of being in the world, a way of being present in the world.
Iain: And what does that mean in simple terms?
Daniel: It means that every moment you bring to it a fresh awareness, so everything is truly wondrous. So he was my main teacher. He and the Dalai Lama and then another man by the name of Denma Locho Rinpoche were three students together of the famous Master, Ling Rinpoche; so it was a good lineage. And then Denma Locho and I taught meditation together for twenty years. So I’m very appreciative to have had that remarkable opportunity with great teachers.
Iain: You mention that every moment being truly wondrous - how long did it take you to actually find that place or access that place?
Daniel: Well, generally in mediation practice, you have to set a foundation. Meditation practice begins with what I call preliminary practices, before you meditate. And the reason for the preliminary practices is that, if you just try and meditate, then there’s a tendency to bring to the meditation cushion all the problems that you play out in your everyday life. So the preliminary practices are designed to make the mind ‘fit’, as it’s said, to help you work out the difficulties.
There are three fundamental principles in preliminary practices. If you look at the mind as it unfolds in our everyday life, there are predominantly more negative mind states that come forth than positive mind states; that will influence meditation practice in a negative way. One of the points of emphasis for preliminary practices is to tip the balance of spontaneously unfolding mind states towards the positive rather than the negative. So that rather than getting into states of self-reproach, all the incessant negative self-talk that we say to ourselves; rather than getting into doubt, then what would unfold are positive states like trust, like patience, like light-heartedness, like balanced energy. These would be the virtues of the mind, and part of preliminary training is to cultivate those virtues of mind and to minimise the negative mind states that would otherwise interfere with meditation practice.
Iain: So that’s kind of changing the attitude of the mind?
Daniel: Changing the attitude of the mind and changing the very mental states that come forth in our mind; preliminary practices are usually designed to do that. They’re usually done in a relationship, over a ten-year span. You don’t just start with meditation. And if you make the mind fit - so that what unfolds are largely positive mind states rather than negative mind states - and you have a clear view where this practice is going to take you, then when you try to meditate it’s much easier; there aren’t a lot of interferences.
Iain: So you mention that you do it, use it, in a relationship?
Daniel: Yes. So I lived with this teacher for pretty much ten years, on and off, and most of the work was in the relationship. I suppose the western equivalent of preliminary practices would be psychotherapy [smiling]; that’s our view of how one does preparation for good meditation.
Iain: So you are really understanding how your mind works to a large degree?
Daniel: Yes. And changing it - not just understanding it, but changing it.
Iain: I understand, yes.
Daniel: So you are establishing the right ingredients that are going to support the meditation practice before you embark on the meditation itself.
Daniel: Now once you get into the meditation… Most of these traditions start with a good foundation in concentration. The Tibetan word for concentration is chi ne’ - it’s a compound term, ne’ literally means ‘to stay’. And what that means is, in our ordinary everyday life when we focus on something, when we intend to focus on it, not very long after that, maybe a few milliseconds later, our mind jumps to something else.
Iain: I know this very well.
Daniel: It doesn’t stay. So the word for concentration in Tibetan literally means ‘to stay’, and what we’re training the mind to do is to stay continuously over time, maybe for twenty minutes or even an hour; and then to stay completely at any given point of time. So we’re not staying ten percent on what we’re focusing on and then ninety percent of our mind at that given point in time is still focused on all the background noise - we stay completely. So completely at any given point in time and continuously over time. That’s what concentration training does, it makes the mind stay more completely and continuously.
Iain: It’s interesting we’re using the mind to do this because, in a way, meditation - as I understand it - is going beyond the mind. But it seems at the preliminary stage that we’re using the mind to aid us somehow.
Daniel: Yes, well, you have to train it. In the Indo-Tibetan tradition we call it ‘making the mind serviceable’. Our mind is likened to a wild animal, like a wild elephant - and an elephant is a very fearful animal and, on game reserves, if you scare an elephant, it stampedes and causes a lot of damage. On the other hand, an elephant is very intelligent and has great strength, so if you train it then it can do very useful work.
And the mind is like that. You know, in an ordinary waking state, whenever we intend to put the mind on something it jumps around all the time, it doesn’t stay... We have a lot of moments when we are unaware of what’s going on; we get lapses in our awareness, we space out. When you train the mind, it stays. There are no gaps in your awareness; you are fully present in what you’re doing and always present. And your mind is only focused on whatever it is you’re intending to put it on, and there isn’t all that background noise.
I remember once, some years ago, there was one of these public dialogues that we had, a film dialogue with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. And during the dialogue, one of the westerners brought up this notion of negative self-talk, and His Holiness started talking in Tibetan with his translators. Now he speaks very good English, but he spent a great deal of time talking with his translators in Tibetan about this. It took a while to figure out what had gone wrong. And the problem was that neither His Holiness nor his translators had an experiential basis to understand what negative self-talk is, because they don’t experience that; this is a western disease. And he sort of instantly and concernedly turned to us and said, “Why would you ever let your mind get like that?”
Daniel: We take this as a given, but this is the consequence of an undisciplined mind, an untrained mind. When you train the mind it stays continuously, and you’re fully present to whatever you’re doing.
It’s very practical. I mean, in western psychology, we have very sophisticated theories to understand how intelligence develops, how our sense of self develops, how emotions develop. But we don’t have any stage model for the development of attention in the west, and we don’t even have an applied psychology for the development of attention. We just sort of assume that people know how to pay attention, and we haven’t trained them. We don’t train children to pay attention, we don’t train adults to pay attention - and no one can pay attention.
And it’s not an accident that the metaphor of the time becomes biological, like Adult Attention Deficit Disorder, as if everybody has some sort of minimal brain damage. The problem is cultural. We don’t take it as a priority to train the mind and to teach people how to discipline the mind and to do basic things like how to pay attention which... affects everything we do in everyday life. If you don’t learn to pay attention then the mind is scattered; it’s the wild elephant. When we train concentration, we train the elephant to settle down. So you have the full resources of the mind for whatever you’re doing in the moment, in anything that you’re doing.
Iain: And it means also that we’re not being run by our emotions because, if we’re paying attention, we’re aware the emotions are starting to swell up or whatever, and we’re not getting caught in them.
Daniel: Yes. You’re not reactive.
Iain: That’s right, yes.
Daniel: It’s even more basic than emotions, like anger or sadness. The first noble truth in Buddhism is in Pali dukkha, which is often translated as ‘suffering’. It’s not a very good translation. What it really means is that, if you look at your experience, moment by moment, if the mind likes something it moves more towards that to make more of it; if the mind doesn’t like it, it moves away from it to make less of it. So incessantly the mind is moving towards things and moving away from things; it’s reactive. The first noble truth is ‘reactivity’. It’s built into how we process events moment by moment. And what these meditation practices do is minimise and ultimately eradicate that reactivity. And if you eradicate that reactivity moment by moment so it just doesn’t occur, then there is no basis for suffering.
Iain: See, I know for myself that my mind, if I watch it, is continually trying to move to what it thinks is going to make me happy and it’s continually trying to move away from what it thinks is going to make me unhappy. And it’s such a... such a process. I have to be very aware to... to actually catch that.
Daniel: And the fact that you can become aware of that is the starting point because, in addition to becoming aware of it, if you look further, you can become aware of it in such a way that the reactivity starts to calm itself...
Iain: Yes, I can imagine that.
Daniel: ... and eventually there is no reactivity.
Iain: I think one of the interesting things in your book which I picked up on was that you spent this time translating the ancient Tibetan texts. And most of the situations, apart from negative self-talk… most of the situations which we face in the west and our problems with meditation, the obstacles, actually are documented in these ancient texts. And it’s interesting: it’s a culture which is hundreds of years old, or even thousands of years old, yet they had the same challenges to face that we have to face in the west now.
Daniel: Yes. There were several generations of teaching meditation. If you look at the great renaissance of meditation in India, it was really about the sixth century up until about the eleventh century. And there was a very popular movement in Odiyana (which is roughly equivalent to where Bangladesh is now) and in that area the Essence tradition was developed. There was a tradition of eighty-four wandering Masters who taught one of three different traditions - Mahamudra (Great Completion) practices, what’s called Dzogchen, and then the early Tantra practices. The teachers tended to travel around; they traded practices, so someone who knew Mahamudra would also know Dzogchen practices and Tantra practices. And what was unique about those traditions was they all had to do with the essence of the mind, how you really look at the essence of the mind. It was a quick path to awakening the mind.
And what was also unique about those traditions is that they were relationally taught. All the instructions were given in a way to introduce you to the real nature of your mind; they are called ‘pointing out instructions’. The Master would point out directly the real nature of the mind. And sometimes the things that were said were remarkably simple - but not obvious, unless they were pointed out to you by someone else.
I like to think of pointing out instructions sort of like what we find with a tour guide. I remember once going to Italy and to Pompeii and taking a tour bus. And on the bus, before we got to the ruins, the tour guide said, “And when you get out of the bus there’ll be a large flat rock and you’ll see grooves in it, and those are the grooves of all the chariot tracks.” Now had I gone by myself, I would have seen a flat rock, but once the tour guide pointed out that these grooves were made by chariots, I looked at that in a different way and I saw the chariot tracks. And what a Master does in the relationship, when pointing something out, is point out things that might be perfectly obvious once they’re pointed out, but without those special instructions you would only see rocks.
Daniel: That’s how meditation was originally taught. In fact, in Mahamudra, which is the tradition that I teach, people were sung into awakening with little poem songs called dohas. The average time was twenty minutes to several days.
Iain: So they could actually be sung into awakening?
Daniel: Yes, exactly. And then what happened is… about the eleventh century, when meditation had become very popular, you get these big monasteries. In other words, what we are talking about is the institutionalisation of meditation. Large groups of people - maybe three hundred, maybe five thousand - all sitting. And they’re not followed very carefully any more, they’re not followed very carefully.
And then about the thirteenth, fourteenth century, you get hundreds and hundreds of books written in Tibet about the problems of meditation, and all those books were written because of the institutionalisation of meditation. You see, unfortunately, those were the traditions that got transferred to the west. So when people go on a retreat currently in western countries, what happens is they’ll maybe sit for ten days or three months, and every three days they’ll go for a group interview with six or eight or ten other people, and they’ll get asked a question or two about their practice. And they usually say, “Keep on going.” But nobody follows it carefully, nobody is listening carefully and saying, “Now focus on it like this” or “This is a problem - this is how you correct it”.
And in a relationally based way of teaching this, you are always using the relationship to guide the meditation, to point out what you want the person to be able to see, to bring forth that realisation. And based on your description, you can tell, reasonably so, where the problems are, and you can make correction for them.
That’s the old way of teaching the meditation; that’s the kind of meditation we’re trying to bring back. Because with the institutionalised forms of meditation, the danger is people sit for long times - and we’ve seen many western students who’ve sat for twenty or thirty years, and their practice has ‘bottomed out’. Because there are many points where you get stuck, and the students don’t even realise that they’re stuck because the mind seems quiet. But it doesn’t ever go any further than that and they certainly won’t awaken. There’s an old Sufi tale that says, “A log sits on the woodpile for months and years, but a log never realises God.” So don’t sit like a log [laughing]!
Daniel: Sit intelligently. Use your intelligence to look at whether the meditation is on track, and work in a relationship to help keep it on track, so you bring the very best of the meditation out. Meditation isn’t about sitting still, it’s not about relaxing - it’s hard work. It’s about awakening.
Iain: So what is awakening?
Daniel: It’s a good question and depends on the tradition. For example, within Buddhism itself, there are two answers to that question, whether we take the old Theravada Buddhism or the newer Mahayana Buddhism.
In the old Theravada Buddhism, a lot of what was focused on is this issue of reactivity: how the mind incessantly goes towards things it likes and goes away from things it doesn’t like. Every moment in our waking life the mind is reactive like that. In the old Buddhism, there’s a point in the meditation practice where everything drops away - the body, the content of the mind - and there’s this vast ocean of pure awareness. Just for an instant. And then, following that, when the content of the mind comes back, what’s gone away is all that reactivity. Once you have a taste of that ocean of awareness - which is the ground of being - then it eradicates that reactivity.
Iain: It’s like a new reference point that’s available?
Daniel: That’s a new reference point, it’s a new... I like to call it ‘a new basis of operation’.
Daniel: You are not dwelling within your personal identity, your individual consciousness. Your reference point that has no reference point is that ocean of awareness itself, OK? That is your new basis of operation. The older language to describe that tends to be somewhat spatial: ‘going to the other shore’. But it’s not like a place that you’re going to, it’s not like a state that you’re going to - it’s just the realisation of what’s always right here, which is your real nature. And you operate out of that.
Iain: But once we lose... why do we lose the ocean of awareness once we’ve found it?
Daniel: Ah. Now, the issue is that old habits of mind come up again to obscure that. Some people have this view that, if you get a taste of awakening, nothing is ever the same again. And it’s true in one sense: once you get a taste of that ground of your being there’s no more searching. Sometimes it’s said that “This is the path that ends all paths”, because even a little taste of that, even if it’s unstable, it eradicates any doubt about what you’re looking for.
Now why people lose it: it has to do with the habits of mind, or ordinary sense of self, or personal identity; the sense of a world that is out here, that gets too solid again. We get into those habits again and we lose it. We start dwelling within our basis of operation and become our personal identity; it becomes our individual consciousness rather than the ground of our being, dharmakaya awareness. So you see, there is a relapse in relapse prevention literature in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism. Some people get little flames and they lose it. And then the objective becomes how you make those little flames of awakening a forest fire, so it’s always here all the time.
Iain: And you talk in the book about the two paths to enlightenment, whatever we call it; and the one path is the gradual path, and there’s the more sudden path… Or not so much the path, but the sudden realisation.
Daniel: Yes, and I want to come back to this question also about the difference between the awakening and Mahayana Buddhism...
Daniel: It’s very different. Maybe I’ll answer that one first and come back to this issue.
Daniel: Because in the old Buddhism, the Theravada Buddhism, you can find a good example of that. The stages of the practice would be called ‘the path of purification’ or the visuddhi-magga. It’s a great description of the stages of meditation in Theravada Buddhism. And in that, there’s a particular level of deep concentration or samadhi where everything pulses like a strobe light. And if you keep looking at it [pulsing fingers of right hand open and closed], there’s a tendency to look at the going out rather than the coming into existence of each one of those pulses or mind moments. And after a while everything starts breaking up. All the basic elements of the mind dissolve and break up. It’s called bunganyana or ‘dissolution experience’. It’s not a very pleasant experience.
Iain: I can imagine it could be very scary, actually.
Daniel: Sometimes it’s accompanied by great fear or disgust. But one of the things that happens is, through that experience, you begin to see that there’s an awareness that isn’t connected with all those activities of the mind. The awareness sort of pervades or saturates all of that, and that becomes the point to really begin to look at the nature of awareness itself. And that will open up the kind of realisation of that great ocean of awareness that is somehow no longer interfered with by all that activity that breaks up. It makes it easier to see it.
Now, some time later, Nagarjuna, one of the early proponents of the wisdom school in Mahayana Buddhism, came along and said, “Wait a minute! As we’re looking at that pulsing - yes, it’s true that normally, if you keep looking at it, you’ll notice the going out more than the coming into existence of each one of those movements of the mind. But that presupposes time, and maybe time itself is just another construction of mind.” So Nagarjuna said something like, “If you start looking at that... When things come into existence, they don’t really come into existence because they’re already here. And when they seem to go out of existence, they don’t really go out of existence because they’re staying here. Then if you look at it in that funny way, what begins to happen is you begin to see that the idea of things coming and going in time is just another idea. It’s another construction of mind.”
And then that opens up to a whole different level of experience that’s outside of the convention of ordinary time. You open up to a level of awareness that I like to translate as ‘ever-present awareness’. It can’t come and go because it’s not interfered with by time; it’s always right here; and it’s vast. And then you see the realisations that you get are no longer cast within the convention of ordinary time, so there aren’t stages to realisation any more. And what you find is a profoundly different state of consciousness that you open up to, which is a kind of... it’s hard to describe, but the Tibetan word is kunji, which is often translated as ‘storehouse consciousness’, but it really means…
Daniel: Storehouse consciousness. It means... it means ‘all-at-onceness’.
Daniel: In other words, what you’ve done is you’ve shifted from serial information processing (using western language here) to simultaneous processing. Everything is here all at once, interconnected. As it’s said, “All realms and times are here at once.” And you get the ‘all-at-onceness’ of it.
Then when you open up the awakening, it’s a very different kind of awakening because, you see, the awakening is cast with the awareness that everything potentially possible in this ‘experientiable’ world, in all worlds, is here all at once.
So you see, it’s not like that if you awaken, in the Mahayana sense, that every... everyone in this vast sea of interconnected humanity awakens along with us. But if you awaken your mind - since from that level of realisation everything and everyone is interconnected - that’s said to have more influence. So when you awaken the mind, your mind, your individual consciousness, from that perspective it ripples; the influence ripples across a sea of interconnected beings and plants the seeds for the awakening of everyone. That’s said to be the ‘lofty view’ of the Mahayana. It’s a direct realisation of a level of simultaneous consciousness where whatever you’re doing in your practice will have an influence on all consciousnesses. That’s a very different kind of realisation.
Now, eventually, when you awaken in the Mahayana, you also eradicate reactivity. That’s called the ‘liberation component of awakening’. It gets rid of all the reactivity, all the suffering, but in addition to that, what you get in the Mahayana - which you don’t find in the earlier Theravada Buddhist literature - is another component, which is called the omniscient component of awakening. You have this vast ‘all-at-onceness’ as a direct experience, and you open up to what I call the Buddha bodies.
The Buddha bodies are... Your basis of operation is no longer within individual consciousness. Your basis of operation is now the dharmakaya awareness, that vast ocean of awareness that is the ground of our being. Simultaneous with that, the energy of manifesting anything in existence across any potential kind of existence is there at the same time. And simultaneous with that is your individual consciousness, and the content of your individual consciousness, and your personal identity, and the stuff of your ordinary mind. It’s quadraphonic, all levels at once.
Iain: All there, everything’s there. And how is it operating in today’s world in that state?
Daniel: No contradiction. You just open up the other levels simultaneously.
Iain: So everything is there where it needs to be there.
Daniel: And the content of what we’re talking about, the focus of what we’re talking about right now, is on this level, what we’re talking about. It’s just the other levels are open simultaneous to that. That’s the level of awakening that you find in the Mahayana and that... that awakening is at once an ocean of awareness, and that’s also an ocean of loving-kindness, it’s the basis of compassion. Then all the movements of the mind are operative in the service of trying to help all of us in our basic humanity to improve, to cause the flourishing of all the positive qualities that are inherent in anyone’s nature and to eradicate all the negative qualities that interfere with seeing that. That’s the great awakening in the Mahayana.
Iain: One of the things that we get asked a lot on Conscious TV is to explore the subject of non-duality, and we talked a little of this before we started doing the programme. How does that fit into this bigger picture you’re talking about?
Daniel: It’s not the same, it’s a prerequisite. Let me set some foundation for that.
Iain: OK, yes.
Daniel: In Mahayana Buddhism, the key, the foundation of the practice, is with emptiness. And what emptiness means is to see that everything is just a construction. It doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist but you see it the way it is, as merely a construction. My ‘Dan-ness’, your ‘Iain-ness’ - what we call our personal identity - it’s a useful construction of mind, it’s a very good reference point to have in our everyday life. But we tend to forget that it’s just a construction and, as a result of failing to see it’s a construction, we reify it, we tend to take it too seriously, we make it too solid. And that brings with it what’s called zinpa or ‘grab’, grasping; that’s what creates suffering in the Mahayana.
So when you practise emptiness of self, you’re not trying to get rid of the self. What you’re looking at is to see that that ‘Dan-ness’ is merely a construction, a kind of idea, OK? Useful in living in everyday reality but, ultimately, it’s just a construction of mind. And when you see it that way, and you continue to see it that way, then when you’re meditating, your basis of operation for the mediation… When I’m concentrating, it’s not going to be ‘Dan-ness’ - it’s going to be awareness, because awareness is different from ‘Dan-ness’; and awareness will now guide the meditation rather than Dan observing and doing the meditation. Awareness knows how to do the meditation better than Dan does, so I’m operating out of awareness itself as my basis of operation in the meditations. We call that ‘emptiness of self’.
The next is ‘emptiness of phenomena’ and that has to do with what in the west we’d call ‘reality construction’, OK? The ‘mind-only’ school of Buddhism... is the easiest way of understanding that. And what it means is that, if I look around me and you look around right now, we make what the ‘mind-only’ proponents call the habits of ‘out-there-ness’. We tend to see as if there’s a world out there. And the second thing that we do is we tend to take that world as something self-existent apart from us. So we make the assumption, if we leave this room, that the room is still here. So what you do in the cittamatra approach or ‘mind-only’ approach is, you try and correct for that habit. What if you look around and you try and take what’s called an ‘inward orientation’? At this moment you see everything as if it’s not out there, but it’s in the mind, number one...
Daniel: ...and number two, you start to see everything as if it’s generated by the mind, OK? Because what we’re really seeing is not an ‘out-there’ world - what we’re really seeing is the mind’s capacity to generate or construct something. What we’re really seeing is the mind’s construction. In other words, human perception is holographic perception.
If you go to the Science Museum, and you see the three-dimensional image, and you try and grab it, you don’t have any problems seeing it’s a virtual image; you don’t reify, you don’t make it solid. This is no different, because the way that the brain works is by taking energy patterns and constructing representations from those energy patterns. This is a holograph [holding palms up to side and in front of body], but we forget it’s a holograph.
So what happens in ‘mind-only’ meditation is very simple: you keep adopting an inward orientation. You think, “This is in the mind, it’s generated by mind, this is mind-only.” And if you keep doing that over and over again, after a while it changes your perception. You stop seeing the world as solid and out there, and you see that what you’re looking at is just construction. You’re looking at the mind’s constructive process, or you’re looking, technically, at awareness in its constructive or illuminating... We call it the ‘self-illuminating aspect of awareness’.
Now that’s the first, that’s the foundation of this. If, at a more advanced level, you have really refined that practice, then the ‘out there-ness’ goes away so thoroughly that there isn’t a sense of ‘out there-ness’ anymore; this is all awareness [holding hands up]. And if you look at that awareness from the mind’s side of the equation, this awareness has the capacity to brilliantly know things. And if you look at that awareness from the seeming events side of the equation, this awareness is self-illuminating; it’s just an expression of awareness in its self-illuminating aspect. That’s non-duality, OK?
Now if you couple that with the ‘emptiness of time’ meditation that we talked about earlier, then what happens is that you are operating from the mind perspective out of this vast ocean of ever-present awareness; and everything that arises will be seen as waves on that ocean, everything. It’s just another... Every movement of the mind is just another wave, another empty construction of mind - there’s absolutely no duality between what the mind is aware of and what appears in the mind. Just as an ocean and its waves are non-dual, the mind’s awareness and what seems to appear in that mind are non-dual.
That’s a profound state, but it’s not awakening, it’s a precursor to that. And Maitreya once said in one of his sutras that, “An absolute direct experience of non-duality is one of the doors that opens to awakening.” But it’s not awakening itself. We’re not to confuse here even profound altered states of consciousness with awakening. Non-duality is a very profound state, something very different from ordinary consciousness, but it’s not awakening, and the reason is the following.
When you have that sense of ever-present awareness that is outside of time, and along with that an absolute sense of non-duality to whatever comes up in every moment in your awareness, still that’s packaged in individual consciousness, OK? It’s still... we have our ordinary perceptual apparatus, in the way that individual consciousness works: it’s always trying to make things, it picks out things, OK? It picks out individual things and, as long as it’s picking out individual things (which is the simplest operation of individual consciousness, that tendency of the mind to pick out individual things), that obscures the whole of it. When you have a flame of awakening, you... your basis of operation is the whole of it, OK? So non-duality doesn’t mean that you’ve opened up to the totality of that ground of awareness - it just means you have non-duality experience. But having set a strong foundation in that, that becomes a good basis by which awakening becomes more possible.
There’s a whole other set of instructions that one would need, to go from non-duality to awakening and then from non-duality to awakening to the Buddha bodies, full enlightenment, when you open up the quadraphonics. There are lots of different practices for each of those steps along the way, and the instructions are very precise, you see.
Iain: Quite a few of the people who are in a non-dual state will say that there’s no one there to move forward to wherever. They say there is no self.
Daniel: That may be the case, that they have understood something of the emptiness of self, and they may also have non-duality. But there are still operations of consciousness that need to be addressed with certain kind of instructions that will lead to awakening. That’s where the relationship and the teachers come in.
Iain: But where does the motivation to do that come from?
Daniel: Ah. You see if they were practising in the context of the Mahayana, when they open up to ever-present awareness in non-duality, the vastness of that awareness from one perspective is a vast awareness; from another perspective it’s an ocean of loving-kindness. That’s the motivation - you do it for all beings.
Daniel: And if they haven’t set the foundation in compassion, then they will not open the doors to the Buddha bodies, the quadraphonic, the full awakening. The key is a deep understanding of compassion; that is the motivation. It’s a prerequisite to open up for awakening, full enlightenment, the Buddha bodies, as we call them. You can’t access the Buddha bodies without a strong foundation in compassion.
Iain: Why do you think...
Daniel: There are built-in safeguards to these practices so that they can’t be done selfishly.
Iain: OK… I’m going to change my question now. I’ve just thought of something else which I want to explore with you briefly. The last chapter of your book talks about practices for after enlightenment, and I forget the term you used - there’s a term you used there?
Daniel: Path walking.
Iain: Path walking, that’s right. And I found that intriguing, because you were encouraging people… or suggesting that one way to path-walk is to go and be in a situation that is really scary for you.
Daniel: Yes, the idea is that awakening isn’t a state - it’s always right here [moving hand up around heart area]; it’s everyone’s real nature. If you open to that, then you operate out of that at all times. Now post-awakening, or even if you have what are called little flames of awakening, the habit is to go back in, to operate out of ordinary self mode; the habit of your personal identity gets too reified again. The habit of an out-there world gets too reified again, the habit of conventional time gets too reified again, and we begin to operate within the ordinary structures of mind.
So path-walking instructions… Or sometimes that word lumcar is translated as ‘enhancement instruction’: something will enhance or improve the likelihood of holding that awakening. The idea is to bring the nature of your realisation fresh, every moment, to the most difficult of everyday life experiences; to the coarsest levels of mind. And some teachers would recommend that putting yourself in life’s most difficult circumstances is a good practice to keep your awakening fresh [smiling]. Others recommend that compassion and activity is a good way of keeping it fresh. Personally, in my professional life, I’m a clinician, I’m a trauma expert, a trauma abuse expert - I do a lot of work in the courts so... being cross-examined as an expert is a good path-walking [laughing]. Good occasion to practise.
Iain: [laughing] Yes.
Daniel: And so there’s no reactivity, there’s no grab - just being present. Then it’s easier to follow the strategies of the attorneys and keep things on track.
Iain: As you were telling me on the phone, you really are in some quite high-profile cases, like the Oklahoma bombings in America; you were involved in that. There’s a lot of pressure because it’s also very high-profile PR-wise too, isn’t it?
Daniel: …and the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague.
Iain: Yes. So there must be also preparation you have to do for these cases, which must be a case of really having to focus the mind on the details too?
Daniel: Well, that’s where concentration training comes in.
Iain: Yes, I understand that.
Daniel: Because if you’re doing a trial, there are tons and tons of facts that you have to memorise in a short time and have them available; so there isn’t the occasion to have a lot of junk in your mind. You have to be like the trained elephant: focus with the full strength and resourcefulness of the mind, to have all that available without any reactivity.
Daniel: So all this is... It’s not about states - it’s about a way of being in the world; bringing every moment the best of who we are to it. And the idea in Buddhism is Buddha nature, and this gets to your question you asked earlier, which is about the quick path to enlightenment.
See, from one perspective, we have to develop these qualities; we have to slowly eradicate the spontaneous emerging of negative mind states; we have to cultivate positive or virtuous mind states; we have to train concentration. We have to train ourselves to see things the way they really are with the emptiness meditations, then we have to refine that awareness so thoroughly that we can awaken. In essence, that’s what the path is about.
From one point of view, we develop these skills slowly over time. But from another point of view, we don’t need to develop them at all because, deep in our nature, our nature is inherently positive. There are eighty-something positive qualities associated with awakening - all of those we have, every human being has them, but all the habits of mind in the course of our life have obscured all that; we fail to see it. So the quick path approaches point out to you how to see that it’s always here.
I’ll give you a little story about that. I once was taking my kids on school vacation, we were going to go south. I live in Boston, and it was the middle of the winter and we went to the airport and there was a big snowstorm and they’d cancelled all the flights. And with the chaos of rescheduling all these cancelled flights, the most they could give us was a flight four days later, which wouldn’t be very good for kids on school vacation. Having two boys, I thought that could be a disaster, so I got on my phone and quickly tried to see if there was any flight that was still going out that would get us to where we wanted to go. And we found a flight that was still going out. We got on the flight and they had to de-ice it two or three times in this blinding snowstorm - you couldn’t see anything. And I’m having my doubts about this plane being able to take off in this snow, because it’s really coming down very strong. And then suddenly the pilot says, “We’re taking off.” It revs up and just goes right through the snow and then, three minutes later, there’s this brilliant sun above the snow clouds. And it was there all along.
Daniel: Brilliant sun, shining. It was always shining but, you see, from my perspective down on the ground, all I could see was the storm. I didn’t see that the sun was always shining until I got a glimpse of it. And it’s like that, the pointing out instructions in the quick paths like Mahamudra, Dzogchen, the great completion practices of the early translation Tantras. The goal is to point out what’s obvious that you wouldn’t see and cut through all that stuff that obscures. And then you don’t have to practise anything, you don’t have to develop anything, because it’s already here.
It’s just a different point of view about the same practices. Neither is wrong or right; they both work. But if you have the benefit of having it pointed out in that way so you can see that the deep radiance, the inner radiance that we have within us, is always right here, then you don’t have to do all those practices, you see. And that’s what you find in lineage traditions, where these kinds of protected instructions are, under certain conditions, given to you. So it makes it easier...
Iain: OK, we’re going to have to finish now, Dan. Thanks very much for coming in - it really has been quite fascinating. And I’d really like to recommend Dan’s book here, Pointing Out The Great Way. It’s another fascinating read.
To watch the original video
interview click here. This transcript is included in the
book: "Conversations on Non-Duality: 26 Awakenings" published by Cherry
Red Books. The book is available from amazon.co.uk, amazon.com and as a kindle edition.
This programme has been transcribed on a voluntary basis. If you would like to offer to transcribe a video on the same basis, then please
All text copyright © Conscious TV Ltd.