There are so many interesting things to explore! And I’ve explored quite a few, thus far in my life—following the thread of my enthusiasm, what piques my interest, lights my fire.
But in comparison to all possible things to explore—all the phenomena past, present, and future, in this universe and all others—clearly the explorations accomplished via this one body-mind are miniscule: an estimate of 0.000001% of all possible phenomena would be generous.
Among the various actual and possible phenomena to explore, one that I return to again and again—which I believe is in a category of its own—is the relationship between Pure Awareness and the infinity of phenomenal appearances.
Considering Contact & Relationship
What is the relationship between Awareness (the ground of Being, my True Self) and body-mind-world appearances? How are they connected? How do they interface with or contact one another?
Perhaps the best answer to these questions is to understand how the questions themselves presuppose a duality which, in Reality, does not exist.
To speak of “relating” or “connecting” or “contacting” or “interfacing” in any meaningful way requires that there be two distinct entities—two “things”—which then participate in the activity of relating, connecting, contacting, interfacing.
But Pure Awareness—absent of phenomenal characteristics—is not a “thing,” not a specific entity that can be identified according to its shape, color, taste, smell, etc.
And if we look elsewhere to find permanent, unchanging phenomenal “things,” these also slip through our fingers, since even relatively stable phenomenal patterns are in constant flux and flow—an ever-modulating kaleidoscope of shapes and colors; tastes and smells; sounds and sensations; thoughts and internal images.
Since Pure Awareness is not a thing, and no separate phenomenal things can be found to stably exist from their own side—the project of specifying a “relationship between” such no-things seems destined to falter.
And yet …. Still there are these appearances—patterns with identifiable phenomenal characteristics—that continue to arise, within and as the “space” of Pure Awareness.
So, what’s the best way to understand and speak of these, once we’ve had a glimpse of nondual Reality—so clearly understand that separation is not Real?
How do we account for conceptual/perceptual distinctions—while remaining clear that separation is not Real?
Considering Mind & Awareness
We might consider distinction/discrimination as simply the activity of mind—while the essence of mind (like all phenomena) is Pure Awareness.
Or we might consider the mind to be nothing other than such distinctions among names, forms, and functions—with awakening to nondual Reality entailing a dissolution of mind?
These are two ways of speaking of mind in relation to Pure Awareness.
Considering Coffee Cups & Donuts
In topology, shapes are considered equivalent if they have the same number of holes, and so can be twisted and stretched one into the other. So, for instance, a coffee cup and a donut are topologically equivalent. We could mathematically transform one into the other.
Does this mean that—equipped with this new understanding—I can now use a glazed donut to hold my morning coffee, and enjoy nibbling on a ceramic coffee cup?
Of course not. The recognition of their topological equivalence does not negate their distinct names, forms, and functions—i.e., how they each can be used within a specific context, at a particular space-time location. While the donut and cup are topologically equivalent, they are not identical in terms of their appearance: their name, form, and function.
Similarly, understanding that the essence of all phenomena is Pure Awareness does not negate distinctions of name, form, and function, within specific local contexts.
* Essential not-two-ness does not exclude or cancel name-form-function.
* And name-form-function does not damage essential not-two-ness.
Considering Gold & Its Ornaments
Gold can be crafted into a variety of objects and ornaments: gold statues, gold rings, gold bracelets, gold earrings, gold stilettos, etc. The single substance of gold, in other words, can appear in a myriad of forms—or can remain as an undifferentiated block of gold.
In their essence, all these various golden objects/ornaments are the same. For instance, we can see the relationship between a golden ring (R) and a golden stiletto (S) and gold itself (G) via something like the transitive property of logic:
If the essence of R is G
And the essence of S is G
Then, at the level of their essence, R=S
Once again: at the level of their essence, the golden ring and the golden stiletto are equivalent. If we melted the gold, the name-form-function of both the ring and the stiletto would dissolve, disappear. This shows that the gold ring and gold stiletto depend, essentially, upon their substance, gold.
However, at the level of appearance, the golden ring and the golden stiletto still can be distinguished: the two are not identical. They have different names, different forms, and different functions.
A groom, for instance, would almost certainly choose a golden ring rather than a golden stiletto or an undifferentiated block of gold to propose to his beloved.
But the relationship between gold and golden ornaments is not symmetric. Why? Because we can’t have a gold ornament without the gold, but we can have the gold without a particular gold ornament. We can remove the name-form-function of “ring” or “stiletto” without damaging the gold. But if we remove the gold, the appearance of gold ring or gold stilettos is no longer possible.
So, we could say that at an Absolute or “primary” level, the golden ring is equivalent to the golden stiletto—while at a relative or “secondary” level, the golden ring can be distinguished from the golden stiletto.
But it seems disingenuous to say that a gold ring is nothing other than the gold. If this were the case, then a groom would have no preference between a gold ring and a block of gold—as a symbol to present to his bride-to-be. But clearly this is not the case.
So, in a nutshell: We can conceptually/perceptually distinguish the gold ring from a gold stiletto, but can never actually separate them from their shared essence/substance.
Considering a Rope & Snake
The gold-ring vs. gold-substance metaphor can be used to illustrate our habit of fixating on or identifying with name-form-function, while failing to notice the shared essence of the various phenomena—a shared essence which turns out to be our True Identity. It can also be used to show how appearances can be understood as “ornaments” or “creative expressions” of Awareness.
A similar metaphor—of the rope and snake—highlights the ignorance/suffering aspect of this process. You may already be familiar with this story:
At dusk, a man enters the shed in his back yard. Coiled in the corner of the shed he sees a large snake. Frightened, he runs back into his house. The next morning, the man returns to the shed, carefully cracks open its door, peers inside. And now, in the full light of day, he realizes that what he had (the previous evening) believed to be a snake was actually just a coiled rope.
Just so, in ignorance (the waning light), we’re unable to see Reality as-it-is. Instead, we superimpose something that isn’t really there (the perception of a snake) onto the true substance/essence of Reality (the rope).
Once ignorance is dissolved—allowing the light of Reality to shine without obstruction—we’re no longer fooled by appearances (names, forms, functions). We know them as their essential reality.
Central to this snake/rope metaphor is the notion of a mistake via superimposition. We see a snake when really it is a rope. Ignorance obscures the rope from our vision—as though we only saw the form of the ring in the gold ring—rather than being aware, simultaneously, of its golden essence.
Now, this begs the question: to whom or what does such a mistake, does such ignorance, belong?
If we say that ignorance belongs to a body-mind, then we would seem to be claiming the body-mind to have a power superior to that of Awareness: viz. the power to obscure Awareness.
If we say that ignorance belongs to Awareness, then we would seem to be claiming that Awareness becomes ignorant of Itself, that it can willingly forget itself—which is rather odd and counterintuitive.
One solution is to propose that Awareness “plays the game” of ignorance, just for its amusement, without ever, in Reality, being fooled by it. Kind of like how a human mind projects a dream, in which one of the characters is genuinely surprised by something that happens in the dream. But how is it possible for the mind to “not-know” (and hence be surprised by) something that it has created?
But this a topic for another essay ….
In wisdom, appearances still arise, but we don’t mistake them for our true identity, or for something that exists separate from their essence (Awareness/Being)—and we no longer are subject to unnecessary suffering due to ignorance.
Sugar-cookie dough can be rolled out and then cut into various shapes: stars, moons, pine trees, reindeer, etc.
Similarly, mind—like a cookie-cutter—creates various objects out of a single substance.
Once they’ve come out of the oven, the cookies appear in a multitude of forms, yet all are of one taste: the taste of sugar-cookie dough, perfectly baked.
Similarly, we can notice the variety of phenomena (with their names, forms, functions) that appear moment by moment—while simultaneously being rooted in their shared essence which is our true identity: Pure Awareness.
Considering Northern & Southern Hemispheres
We can understand, also, that the distinction between Absolute and relative, between “primary” and “secondary” reality—like all distinctions—belongs only to the mind.
Speaking from the Absolute, there is no distinction between Absolute and relative.
We say that the equator “separates” the northern and southern hemispheres.
However, this entity called the “equator” is merely conceptual. Its existence is purely conventional, illusory.
If we go looking for the equator, we will never find a line drawn in chalk, paint, or ink, girdling the Earth. And the two entities supposedly divided by the equator—viz. the northern and southern hemispheres—are clearly just two parts of a single whole, a single planet.
Just so, the distinction between Absolute and relative, between samsara and Nirvana, is an illusory one. As Wei Wu Wei puts it, in his book, All Else Is Bondage:
Tao, the pathless way, has a gateless Gate, which just as the equator separates northern from southern hemisphere, illusorily separates the unites the phenomenal and noumenal, Samsara and Nirvana. It is the open road of escape from solitary confinement in the dungeon of individuality. It is the way of reintegration in this-which-we-are, and it is pure as-it-isness.
Considering Bondage & Freedom
I’ll bring these contemplations to a close with one final metaphor, one of my favorites …
There was a cowgirl who was in the habit of visiting her favorite tavern pretty much every afternoon, around 3pm. She’d travel to the tavern on horseback (a beautiful chestnut mare), use a rope (specially made for the purpose) to tie her horse to a hitching-post, then go in to enjoy a drink or two with friends.
One day, having just arrived at the tavern, she discovered that she had forgotten to bring the rope she needed to secure her horse to the hitching-post. She really wanted to spend time in the tavern—but didn’t want the mare to wander away while she was inside.
Fortuitously, one of her friends noticed her dilemma, and offered this solution: Just pretend to tie your horse to the hitching-post, her friend suggested. Go through all the motions—taking the rope out of your bag, looping it around the saddle horn and then around the hitching-post—as though you had an actual rope, even though you don’t.
The cowgirl—willing to give this rather strange advice a try—did as her friend suggested. And, sure enough, her horse remained right outside the tavern, just as though she were actually tied up, even though she wasn’t.
After a couple of hours, the cowgirl was ready to leave the tavern and go home. So, she mounted her horse and gave a little “giddy-up!” and nudge in the flanks. But the mare didn’t move. Try as she would, the cowgirl couldn’t get her horse to move. The mare remained right where she had been for the previous two hours, in front of the tavern, next to the hitching-post—as though she were actually still tied up.
Fortuitously, the same friend noticed this new dilemma, and offered a similar solution: Before trying to ride away, just pretend to untie the imaginary rope with which—two hours ago—you pretended to tie your horse to the hitching-post. And, sure enough, after the cowgirl went through the motions of untying the horse, the chestnut mare, believing herself to be newly free, trotted away toward home.
And so it is, with bondage and freedom: We’re never actually separated from our True Nature, even though ignorance of this fact has consequences (namely, unnecessary suffering). Since we’re never actually separated from our True Nature, any so-called liberation is only apparent—like going through the motions of untying the horse.