Reflections on Self and Emptiness

Recently I’ve been reading the works of the Tibetan monk Longchenpa Rabjampa, considered one of the most influential writers on Dzogchen meditation.  The Dali Lama is a big advocate of this type of Tibetan Buddhist meditation.  As I was reading Longchenpa’s Precious Treasury Of The Way Of Abiding, I thought I should write a blog post trying to describe the state of Mind he’s trying to point to, which he calls ‘the way of abiding’.  I practice it a great deal, and it leads to tremendous peace.  I find it a profound way to look at the world.

I want you to imagine an empty box filled with a magical substance, or if that seems too strange for you, imagine it filled with special type of field.  The magical substance within this box contains every possible form, every possible thought, and every possible emotion.  Don’t try to think of how exactly, just for now, say that it does.  When a person, in this case conscious awareness, enters this box, It can selectively experience the different possibilities through a focus of attention.  It’s like a virtual-reality machine containing every possible experience, controlled by thought and intention.  This box is displayed in the following figure.Notice that it’s like an empty box with nothing in it.  That’s what the box-like grid signifies, though in this case it is not a 3D box.  It can have any sort of geometry or number of dimensions.  I just made it a 3D box because it’s intuitively simple and easy to understand.  Also notice that I have two added rectangular boxes along the top, one for Thought/analysis, and another for emotion.  That’s my attempt to signify that this box, this “space”, also contains invisible “inner” thought, and emotional states such as happiness, anger, or depression.  For now, I have a straight line within these boxes, signifying that there’s no signal, no stimulation.  No inner thoughts are happening, and the emotional state is one of peaceful indifference.  That’s the native emotional experience — a quiet joyful peace.

This is who you are at the most fundamental level.  You are this super-entity, containing all possible thought, all possible emotion, and all possible experience.  This magical substance and the box containing it never changes.  It’s just one super-entity, a divine oneness.  It’s always been and always will be.  There is no specific structure to how the infinite contents are organized.  That’s always up to the conscious awareness controlling It.  All of it is unceasing, spontaneously present.  There is no principle of causation governing how it operates.  There are no limitations or restrictions of any kind.  There is also no ultimate reality or ultimate state of being, no particular “state” preferred over another.  All is permissible.  There is also no specific reference point.  There is a sort of divine indifference to what happens in this divine virtual-reality machine.  The emotional states, the thought patterns, and the forms just are, and can be arranged in any way desired.

The most common confusion people have is wrongful identification with the body.  A more correct view is the body is just one of an infinite variety of forms “projected” into this “space”.  Any body can be experienced, and one can just as easily experience any set of forms without a body.  Anything can be projected into this box and played with.  To be incarnated in a body simply means that a particular form is projected up “close” and “follows” you around when you explore the environment (which is also projected in exactly the same way).  I’ll show this in the next figure.

Imagine that this “box” never moves.  In other words, those grid-lines you see there never move.  You’re not flying around within this box.  Your observation point also never moves.  You’re always in the same position within the box and locked looking in the same direction.  “You” never move, “You” never change.  To give the experience that you have this human body, you project these arms “up close” and other body parts from that first-person perspective, similar to what’s done in a video game.   They’re just forms, like any other forms.  In some sense this is “your” body, I guess, but ultimately it’s just a form like any other.  It’s projected into awareness in the exact same way as everything and everyone else you encounter.  What I’m trying to say is there’s no reason to identify with the body and not the environment.  They’re of the exact same nature.

So let’s take a typical moment we experience.  You’re at your parents house, in the dining room, and your mother is there, calling for you to join her.  How is this event created?  First a form of your mother is projected into the box, then that of a table, and the walls, and the paintings, and also the forms of your body, along with smells, sensations, and other thought/emotional experiences.  I’ve tried to indicate all of this in the next figure.

Notice the arrows I put in this picture.  That’s simply to indicate that they’re projected into the “space”, the “box”,  out of the infinite possibilities available.  This “database” of all possible experiences is called the Ground, or others refer to this as the Source.  Your mother, standing at every angle, along with all possible ways of perceiving her, all of this is contained in the Source.   The same is true of the table and the entire household you’re looking at.

Is this woman your mother in actuality?  No.  Is this “her” house?  No.  You were never born.  You’ve always been, and this “mother” you’re looking at has always been contained within you, along with “her” house and everything in it.  So more correctly, you’re looking at one of your pet forms, now playing some fictitious role of your mother, all while standing next to other projected forms, all of which are yours as well, such as tables, couches, televisions, and the rest of it.  Everything is yours, including your body, your mother’s body, and EVERYTHING you experience.  EVERYTHING.  That’s why it’s stupid to get jealous about what “others” have.  The others are you, as is all the stuff they have.  You’re looking at yourself, and things within you, which you’ve always had.  All of this will always be available to you.  This fake mother never dies because she was never even alive.  You never die either because you were never this person you think you are.  It’s just forms popping in and out of focus.  There’s nothing to worry about.  Nothing is ever lost.

The sequence of time you experience is simply one projection after another, in any arbitrary ordering.  This same womanly form you’re using as your loving, wonderful mother could well be a random disinterested passerby in the next adventure you write for yourself.  There’s no inherent emotional experience contained within any form.  Heck, this same woman figure could be used as your arch-nemesis in a different story, a person you absolutely despise.  Or if you really want to be imaginative with the possibilities, in your next adventure you may be a bluebird eating out of this woman’s bird-feeder and see her with complete indifference.  It’s all up to you.

People mistakenly believe these forms to be pinatas or something, like they inherently contain properties and characteristics.  You just got to keep them around and hold them tight, and then this special stuff oozes out of them, splashing on you by proximity.  It’s like if you bust them open, some emotional experience pours out of them like candy.  That big beautiful home somehow contains happiness!  It’s in the walls, the stove, the fridge.  It’s just in there, somehow.  Or for another example, a lover is believed to contain a special kind of irreplaceable joy.  Your lover’s form is manifesting and you’re so happy, but if she’s gone, you’re deeply lonely and miss her terribly.  And oh, what about the one who got away!  Isn’t life cruel!  Or another example, some place of employment or special adventure was your only chance at having an interesting, exciting life.  The list goes on.  It’s all illusions, a big dream.  There’s no such thing as a lost opportunity.  All possibilities are always within you, and these forms do not contain this kind of power.  They’re empty.  This may sound really bizarre to you, but if you get deep into meditation, watching how this “movie” operates, you can step out of these streams of thought and emotion.  You can snatch the emotional power away from these forms and reclaim it! That baffled me when I first learned about it.

To “step out” of the movie, you utilize what’s called the Way of Abiding within the Great Perfection (as the Tibetan Buddhists call it).  If you do that, you can emotionally and mentally revert back to something very close to root Source consciousness, in a very beautiful mental silence and peaceful, quiet joy.  The first step is to realize that these are forms popping in and out of your awareness (your “space”).  Know what they are.  The same goes for thoughts and emotional experiences.  Next, experience them purely.  By that I mean do not give them names, labels, or conceptualize them.  This is why the end result of this process is silence, just like Ramana Maharshi realized.  No further elaboration of an experience is necessary.  Every experience stands alone, unique, ineffable, without need for anything further.  To try to add to an experience only invites diving deeper into illusion.  To chase experience is to chase your own shadow.  What are you doing?  It’s silly.  Let thought and emotion spontaneously arise, without you “aggravating” it.  Don’t touch it.  Let it all be.   There’s nothing to say, nothing to do.  If words spontaneously come out of your mouth, so be it, but live without effort.  The end result of this is there will no longer be any false “you” thinking it’s piloting this movie.  It knows this is an illusion, and your awareness knows what’s going on.

Do not accept or reject anything you experience.  While watching this progression of forms unfold, you have degrees of mental freedom and that can get you into trouble.  For example, don’t ascribe a moral sense to what you’re seeing, saying this is good, this is bad, or this is worth experiencing, and this other type of experience is to be avoided.  Do not identify yourself with anything you experience; know the nature of experience and that it’s what we’ve been discussing.  (For example, don’t identify with your body, or your thoughts, or emotions, etc).  Do not differentiate objects, or exclude objects, saying some things belong, and others do not.  They are all part of a divine super-entity union, and any attempt to break it into pieces, into your own subjective division of objects is to invite suffering.  For example, some experiences may seem ugly, like a pile of trash along the side of the road, but who knows, maybe in the future you’ll want to have an adventure in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, like living the Fallout video games, and you need forms like that heap of trash.  It has its uses.  Remember that all of this is beyond imagination or expression.  It speaks on its own.  Let it speak and don’t let it move you.  Just watch the movie, and remain in divine indifference, unmoved.  Don’t chase anything (do not desire anything).  That’s the Way of Abiding.

I can speak from firsthand experience that this way of perceiving the world is infinitely superior to “ordinary” ways of thinking.  If you master it, you see people beating themselves up, caught up in some sort of madness, and you think to yourself, “Was I like that?”  And you were!  You used to get all worked up about what’s happening at your job, like it was the end of the world or something.  You were caught up in some dog eat dog economy, this Matrix, and wearing yourself to the bone.  Or if things went south with your boyfriend, girlfriend, or spouse, life was over!  You went into self-destruct mode, thinking it’s all over.  Oh no, what will you do!  But what about now, after learning these practices?  -shrugs-  You’re left in a state of glorious indifference.  You’re no longer a slave to the stupidity of this world!  You used to get all worked up at politics thinking you had to save this illusory world.  Now?  What’s there to save?  You feel there’s some special need to rearrange the forms within your little dream?  You used to chase adventure, thinking you only had so much time to experience what’s out there.  Now you know you’re eternal and it’s no big deal.  Chill out.  It’s not worth stressing over.  None of it is.   Judging of any kind only limits yourself and what you can experience.  If you wall off certain experiences as “improper”, you limit yourself.  That’s all.  This is all a big topic, but I don’t want this post to get too long.

I guess we should talk about death a little before we go.  Let me give you an example using a real-world near-death experience I’ve read about.

Say you experience physical death.  The script is now over, at least for the time being.  It’s been played to the end.  What happens?  Well, to enter this movie you took on limitations, wanting to forget who you are so that it’d be more immersive.  Thing is, even when you died, you may not have set the stipulation to turn back on your divine awareness at death.  So you die and you’re like, “Uh, now what?”  Shame you didn’t think about these things while you were alive.  You could simply say within your mind, “I hereby remove all limitations on myself”, and you’d become all knowing, fully aware of All, etc., but if you don’t know this is possible, you sit in the “box” you set up to view your own little movie.  You’re sitting in a dark, empty theater space.

So here’s the thing.  Say you were attached to many things in the “movie” you just experienced, such as your home, your children, your parents, etc.  So at death, your attachments thrust you right back into dreaming.  You start thinking, “What will happen to Sarah, my daughter?”  And quite amazingly, this “space”, this divine theater you’re sitting in, it is infused with divine intelligence.  It’s not like a stupid computer.  It will respond to your intentions now, which it treats as divinely ordered commands.  So, what happens?  What do near-death experiencers tell you?  Next thing you know you will be right next to Sarah, your child, watching them, hovering over them, hearing all their thoughts, feeling all their emotions, and seeing everything taking place.

Do you now see why the Tibetan Buddhist masters tell you to remove attachments, especially if you’re not enjoying this life?  This young woman was never your daughter.  The movie’s over and you’re jumping in the back room, loading new film into the projector.  This can’t end!  I’m too heavily invested in this thing!  And now you’re prolonging a bad movie.  If you want to, sure, go for it!  If you want this divine intelligence to continue making up some realistic series of events “happening” with your daughter and family, why not.  But it’s over.  Move on.  Surely there’s better things to do than watch your fake daughter and her puppet husband bicker and go grocery shopping.  Do something else, something you actually enjoy.  All possibilities are open to you at this point.

Or say you have a Christian belief system.  From my own research on this topic, it seems we’re in a dream within a dream, so even after physical death, your mind/memories remain intact, or at least, they can.  So what happens now?  You die and think, oh, it’s time for me to go to heaven!  So what happens?  You manifest some beautiful heavenly buildings, and then, what is this?  A wonderous light is approaching you!  Who might it be?  My gosh, it’s your “deceased” mother!  You’re then engulfed in mother’s warmth and light, and you embrace in some strange spiritual way.

What’s going on?  More of the same.  Now the form of your mother has changed, but this experience has enough of your “mother”  in it to remind you of your time together.  But is this your mother?  No.  More projections from the Ground within you.  Neither form is your mother.  You’re unborn!  You’re timeless, remember?  You have no ultimate characteristics or properties.  No ultimate identity.  Any being can be your mother or you can have no mother at all.  It’s up to you!  You have no creator, no mother, no father, no past lives, no anything, unless you choose to believe in it and drag certain things along with you.

If you identify with your old body, or old thought patterns, old desires, the history from your previous life, the past events of your previous life (such as feeling of guilt and feeling you need to make amends, etc), then you drag all that with you and perpetuate it in complex ways.  As for the full details of the mechanisms one will experience at death, I can’t say.  There are so many variations in how your divine self could manifest these things into your experience.

I won’t say exactly what will happen at death.  I don’t know for sure in all respects.  I have some detailed theories, but I’ll leave those out for now.  What I want all of you to remember is that there are no levels, no masters, no spiritual paths, no “evolution”, no progress, or any need for special training.  There’s no reason to be in a soul-school, or take part in any sort of “evolution”.  It’s just confusion.  There is no such thing.  At best, evolution is an arbitrary sort of game you can play with yourself, if you want.  I personally am not interested in forgetting who I am and trying to evolve back to who I originally was.  Seems kind of stupid.  Just think about and come to understand the things I wrote about in this post.  Tibetan Dzogchen meditation is basically the route to a complete reset.  It will help you reunite with the Source, the divine Ground.  You’ve taken on limitations, gotten involved in who knows what, and if you’re wanting to “log out” and reeexamine what you’re up to, and maybe take on something radically different, something far more enjoyable, this is the way to do it.   I’ll leave it at that.

3 thoughts on “Reflections on Self and Emptiness”

  1. Jason, if you restrict yourself to that view, there is no reason to behave morally or to think that karma is in effect, so one can do whatever they like.

    However since you attribute your view to (a branch of) Buddhism then we know that it is prescribed to consider karma, to be kind, compassionate, and behave morally. How do you resolve that contradiction? There are no other living beings in the box, there is only you.

    1. Recently I wrote a post talking about how this summer, I would focus on non-dualistic thinking. This stuff is kind of strange, but I’ll do my best to answer your question, which is quite difficult.

      I sort of addressed this point in a comment I made to Anastasia in my post ‘A Story Of Two Men’. I don’t want to repeat all of that again. Maybe you could read that comment real quick and jump back here? I would respond to this by saying whose will are you talking about and how is it willing things into existence? For example, with each thought you have, was your awareness presented with some catalog of every possible thought, and choosing from them all for each moment in time? Or take bodily movements. With all of your movements, quantum physics says that literally anything is possible at any given moment, just a certain progression of events is the most likely. Before each moment, did time stop, were you presented with all possible movements, and did you select the movements of your body (collapsing the physical wave function)? Same goes with all of your emotions and other sensations. That’s why I said, “The end result of this is there will no longer be any false “you” thinking it’s piloting this movie.” There is nothing willing anything. There is no self doing anything. That’s certainly how I experience my life. I’m just watching things happen.

      Now I’ve read near-death experience accounts of people dying and them entering some state of super-consciousness, where the awareness and choice required to do the things you’re proposing may be available to them. They’d have the mental power to look through all the options, design it all, and set something of this scale into motion. Maybe you and I were beings of this sort entering into some sort of joint-movie? If there are individuals, maybe the singular divine Mind (call it God if you will) spawned off two separate boxes, two individuals of the type described in this post? God is viewing the contents of both our boxes simultaneously. We’d still both be One in the sense of both being aspects of God. However, that still doesn’t call for morality as an absolute rule or anything, especially if there actually was a choice. You chose the experience! It all depends on how these ‘boxes’ of awareness work. If we control the contents with absolute freedom, then no, morality in the way you’re discussing isn’t fundamental, though it’s still important. Let me explain.

      For example, say you had this sort of control (I think) you’re proposing, and could modify the forms, thoughts, and emotions with free-will on the fly. You could simply turn off an unpleasant experience the second it starts. Change it to something nice. Say someone is about to punch you in the face. That’s not a problem. You could then turn off your sense of pain, or create a magical shield in front of your face. You’re pretty much immune from suffering, so it doesn’t matter. Morality only becomes important when you take on limitation and no longer have control. So at the highest levels, no, morality is not important. But when a person is locked into a certain experience under restrictions and limitations, and cannot move out of the way, and has to experience being punched in the face, that’s when it’s important. At the highest levels, even Tibetan Buddhists such as Lonchenpa say things like,

      “Awakened mind is like space.
      In the nature of phenomena — the nature of mind, like space —
      there is no view to be cultivated, no samaya (set of teachings) to be upheld,
      no effort to be made in enlightened activity, nothing to obscure timeless awareness,
      no levels on which to train, no paths to be traversed,
      no subtle factors, no duality, no dependent relationship.
      There is no definitive or conclusive statement concerning mind.
      Since it is beyond value judgments, there is no specific instruction to follow or decision to be made.
      This is the view of awakened mind, great perfection.”

      So karma, morals, and all only applies to limited forms of existence. The model of reality I talk about in this post deals with the nature of Self at the highest levels of consciousness, and is beyond morality. In fact, I may write another post arguing that individuals can only exist once limitations are enforced in some way, but I’ll have to think about it more.

      There are a few more things to discuss. I think there are several assumptions embedded in the question you’re asking. The first assumption is that you had no choice in the life you’re currently living. You were just thrust into this life, no choice of your own. It’s not an unwarranted assumption, though. I’ll get to it in a second. And the second assumption, that free will happens on the fly, as life goes by. I cannot speak for you, but within my awareness, this choice process is not happening on the fly. It seems the choices are either being made by some higher aspect of my Mind, simulated, or they were made in advance, as I just spoke about. As for whether you chose your current life before all this started, I don’t know how to argue that in any way. I can only present a certain type of evidence. If you read books by different psychologists specializing in things like past life regression hypnosis, you’ll read about souls choosing their lives before they live them. These people give accounts where they meet with spiritual guides, discuss what they think they need to experience and learn, and interact with computer-like simulation devices allowing them to preview different lives and alternatives. You can read about this stuff in a book like ‘Destiny Of Souls’ by Dr. Michael Newton. My best guess is that something like this is what’s going on, but if you contest it I’m not going to be able to argue anything very convincing. You probably set certain major events you wanted to happen and experience, and the rest is simulated. There’s great evidence we’re experiencing a simulation. If you don’t agree to this, I really don’t blame you. I take it with a grain of salt myself, but I have nothing else to go off of.

      The thing is, if you have free-will on the fly, at this level of reality, what sort of ‘individual’ are you? You can change your body on the fly, your thought processes on the fly, your emotions on the fly. Every possibility for every state of being is always laid out in front of you to choose from, like a giant buffet. You’re a human male on Earth one second, then a disincarnate alien intelligence the next, then some sort of invisible process forming a universe of your own the next. Does morality even apply to such a being? I don’t think so. Especially not if it’s omnipotent and all knowing. You can’t deceive it, take advantage of it, or hurt it in any way. Also, who could enforce any type of karmic rules on it, good or bad? It controls Its “space”. You try to harm it, it’s like, “Nope”, or you try to reward it, and It’s like, “Leave me alone. I don’t need your gifts. I do what I want.” And even IF someone could harm it, why should it care about retribution? Or karma? Or anything like that. It’s not like anything is being withheld from it. “Oh, you better give Jason back his motorcycle you stole from his garage!” Nothing can be stolen. I can just manifest another one instantly. Karma and individuality in any sense I understand can only happen once awareness becomes limited in some way. Limited in knowledge. Limited in power. If individuals have boxes, it’s a limited box. At least, that’s what I’m thinking.

      If I were to make statements on morality within the context of these boxes, I’d say this. When taking on limitations, think carefully about what freedoms you’re giving up and what someone could end up doing to you, or the suffering you could inflict on others. But to make an important point: You could only learn moral lessons first hand by giving up these powers of your “space”, and lock yourself into a painful experience. Maybe that’s why the freedom on the fly doesn’t actually exist for us while we’re alive?

      Ramana Maharshi had an interesting perspective on this. He felt that at the deepest levels, we are just watching these life movies. However, if someone mistakenly believes they are an individual, whether they identify with their thoughts, body, actions, etc., then that is when karma comes into play. You believe you were the one who did these actions, then you are the one to also experience the consequences. God enforces this karmic system. To quote Maharshi,

      “All the activities that the body is to go through are determined when it first comes into existence. It does not rest with you to accept or reject them. The only freedom you have is to turn your mind inward and renounce activities there. Nobody can say why that freedom alone and no other freedom is left to man. That is the Divine scheme.
      Giving up activities means giving up attachment to activities or the fruits thereof, giving up the notion ‘I am the doer’. The activities which this body is destined to perform will have to be gone through. There is no question of giving up such activities, whether one likes it or not.
      If one remains fixed in the Self, the activities will still go on and their success will not be affected. One should not have the idea that one is the doer. The activities will still go on. That force, by whatever name you call it, which brought the body into existence will see to it that the activities which this body is meant to go through are brought about.

      The fact is that any amount of action can be performed, and performed quite well by the Jnani, without His identifying Himself with it in any way, or ever imagining that He is the doer. Some power acts through His body and uses His body to get the work done.

      Everything is predetermined. But a man is always free not to identify himself with the body, and not to be affected by the pleasures or pains consequent on the body’s activities”
      – Ramana Maharshi

      These are some of my thoughts to your question. I’d love to hear what you think.

      1. Hello Jason

        Thank for the elaborate answer and spending the time writing it up. And I read your reply to Anastasia.

        I think you are right, but on a very, very high abstraction level that may not be practically applicable.

        There are some assumptions in what I write below that you will recognise, however I don’t think these assumptions are forbidding. I also want to let you know that I am very likely much much less advanced on the path than yourself, so I don’t want my doubts to sound like they come from position of any implied authority. I do not practice meditation as of now, and haven’t reached any advances meditative state (eg jhana). Any reader of this comment please also take this into account.
        With that disclaimer:

        Generally, I disagree with you that there is no evolution, and no “game” being played. We can ask if that was the case, and all you need is to recognise the ultimate reality, then why did you need to learn mediation to begin with. Why do we need all the spiritual teachers and teachings? Succinctly, why did you (the ground) needed to create that body of knowledge of thousands of years of scriptures and meditation practices, in the box, so that you in the box can simply liberate yourself from the box and recognise yourself as the ground luminosity. It’s all you after all. I don’t want to use occam’s razor, it sounds unnecessary in this context, but if Buddha had students, then it stands to reason there is more than just one consciousness overlapping in the box.

        Don’t get me wrong, I would love to think it is all about me, but the model of a “drop” from “an ocean” feels more correct to me, and is more humble.

        To continue – why do we need the bodhisattva enterprise, where they commit themselves to cycles of rebirth until everyone achieves liberation? There is no-one after all, there is only one true consciousness. Of course is all could be an elaborate setting for your subjective reset, but wouldn’t it simply be that the moment you recognise the limitation you’re free from it? The fact that Truman’s show doesn’t stop when you see it for what it is, tells us that there are rules, and if it was you who set them up, then you can’t break them, but that doesn’t make sense.

        So I do have my doubts that refusing to play the evolution game is a quick way to reset. We know (or maybe with a caveat – that’s what I think) that Buddha who achieved an enlightened state did talk about progression, and taught students. But I do want to support your model in one thing first. Buddha commented “… that one of the amazing features of [his students] passing was that their consciousness could no longer be found in the cosmos” [1], which sort of implies, in your model to getting out of the box.

        We also know, if I understand it correctly, that Buddha has explicitly refused to elaborate on the kind of questions we’re discussing here (“Buddha’s ten indeterminate/undeclared questions”), meaning that either the box model is counter-productive, or with our limited mind we cannot grasp the true model at all, and it can be a detrimental to simplify. I am not sure.

        Also from a very high level perspective Hinduism and Buddhism disagree on the notion of the divine, I am sure you’re aware of this.

        [1] The Truth of Rebirth And Why it Matters for Buddhist Practice, Thanissaro Bhikkhu (2012)

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