Report: Notes on Dance of Emptiness Talk 5

Notes on ‘Path of Purification’ – fifth dhamma talk in the 2011 Dhamma Talk Series: The Dance of Emptiness.

Talks kindly hosted by the Dance Centre, School of Performing Arts, Sukhumvit 24, Bangkok.

Below are notes, quotes, links – in case anyone who listened to the talk would like to follow up on any of the topics. It is not a transcript of the whole talk. The video will become available one day, when we get the hang of video editing software….

Click here for background information on this Talks Series

Topic of this talk:

Path of Purification (or Everything’s Aspect)

The three higher practices of desirelessness, signlessness and emptiness – relating to three aspects of everything. Confused? Emptiness is a concept associated with Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, but it all began in the original sutta teachings in the Theravada tradition. There are certain characteristics that belong to everything, the observation of which lead to ‘breaking the spell’. Disenchantment is a beautiful thing.


We start with the conceptual world in which each person lives. There is no end to the questions, speculations, proliferations of the ‘world’. Buddhism teaches what is ‘useful’ – models that can be used for the purpose of enlightenment. It does not not seek to provide answers to all the questions of the world. You are supposed to know and see directly from enlightenment, for yourself.

Vaccagotta was one character in the original suttas, who liked to ask a lot of questions about the origin of the universe, the end of the universe etc.. The Buddha did not answer these questions, but tried to point out instead what was useful, rather than fuel speculation that has no end.

The analogy is to a man shot with an arrow, who is attended by the surgeon. But before he allows the surgeon to remove the arrow head and poison, he wants to know who shot the arrow, what was the person’s name, was he tall or short, what village did he hail from, what kind of bow did he use …. (link to the original sutta).

So other religions like to accuse Buddhism of avoiding questions; they say it is a cop-0ut. Well they are right. How was the world created, when will it end … and the endless stream of speculation. Think about it. Even if these answers were provided, you still would not know. You would only have a new set of beliefs that you cling to.

More Conceptual World

If you walk in a room what do you see? Some notice the decorating, some notice the colours, some see the architecture, some note the acoustics .. it all depends on what you have done before. During these talks we have been in the Dance Centre. There is a big printed wall behind the speaker – if you have ever worked on stage, you will be used to printing/painting big scenes and erecting a wall to hold them up, and so that is what you see. Think of a Buddha image. Is it beautiful? Or is it a ‘Graven Idol’? Depends entirely on your past associations.  You don’t see the world around you, you see your concepts. Or more properly, your conceptual framework. In psychology, this was a theory proposed by the great psychologist George Kelly, in Personal Construct Theory. It is a rather refined theory.

In fact humans are drawn outside of themselves from the very start. from babyhood (is there such a word?) the world fascinates and we are inclined to enjoin it, even when things don’t really make much sense. Like the half heard lyrics to a song, we force the world to fit our limited viewpoint. Here’s a great video of two babies engaging in meaningful babble (then look at people on their mobile phones…!)

Personal Construct Theory used the term ‘constructs’ rather than ‘concepts’. But it described these constructs as ‘expectations’. Or put another way, should’s and shouldn’ts. With monks this is especially obvious – there are layers and layers of what monks should and should not do. Layers which, of course, depend on your own ideas! This was the topic of a Bangkok Podcast with Phra Pandit, in September 2011.

Fivefold Aggregate

In the two previous talks we looked at the fivefold aggregate as it arises and vanishes. That is to say, any moment of consciousness has a physical form that it is based upon (a sight, a sound, a bodily feeling, a smell or a taste, or a mental representation of any of these). With that will arise liking/disliking (attraction/repulsion), perception, background mind conditions, and cognition. These are called in Pali the 5 khandhas, or in Sanskrit the five skandhas :-

  • form
  • feeling
  • perception
  • background mind states
  • cognition

If you pay attention, this is all that you can see. Take for instance ‘democracy’. You have the form (the sound, either externally heard, or mentally pronounced), and each of the other factors arising with it. But to keep it in mind, you have to start picking at the details of it – thinking about what the word means to you, thinking up examples of democracy or its characteristics.

The thinking is called vitakka (aiming) and vicara (throwing of the attention), and results in papanca (diffuse thinking).

The Amata

Lets jump for a moment to the Buddha 2500 years ago. He had heard from the Brahmins about something called the Amata – the deathless, or immortal. It is clearly not the body – that is not immortal, and that is easy to see. But the mind? Is that immortal? Does that last forever? When you go look for it, all you can see are these fivefold aggregates arising and ceasing. There is nothing lasting there. It cannot be the mind either. If you disconnect then from these fivefold aggregates as they arise in turn, you get to see and feel a sense of your self that is still here. If the whole of what arises, also ceases, but you are still here, you cannot be that 5fold perception!

In meditation we do this by being mindful. Then you notice that your mind wanders and your attention is lost in some perception, based on sound, thought, feeling etc.. So you note gently that your presence was ‘lost’. When ‘lost’ we count that as being ‘outside’ of yourself. Even if it is a mental construction, which many people might think of as ‘internal’ (different models – not that any model is right or wrong), in Buddhism it is counted as ‘outside’. Your attention returns home and after a while you become aware of yourself while you are not engaging in the world outside. You are not engaging in sounds, thoughts, feelings, vision … (also tastes and smells, but these are rather secondary senses to humans).

You gain a sense of balance,and of ‘refuge’ – nissarana, which was the topic of the previous talk in this series. It is not so comfortable at first. Like anything new, it doesn’t feel quite right at first, but you soon get used to sitting there, without ‘being’ anything at all. Sometimes a 5fold aggregate will arise, but you can feel the attraction, can see the disturbance it creates, know that if you engage it you will be disturbed, and maintain your mindfulness while it ceases.

It is a subtle thing, and takes a bit of practise. But when you can do this, you will already be having a lot of insight into the nature of your being. You will also see that when the ‘self’ arises again and you get involved in the world, your character has not changed much to the eyes of the outside world, but inwardly you remember, there is a different way of being.

As you get comfortable with this, at certain points the mind turns back on itself. You become ‘aware of awareness’ or mind-seeing-mind’ or ‘Buddha-nature’ … or many other terms. Actually this is real mindfulness:

  • Sati – to recall into mind
  • Sampajannya – the feeling of awareness

This feeling of mindfulness can be maintained while walking, sitting, breathing, eating or any other activity. Again, it takes practise.

Note here that you are not mindful of an activity, but mindful during the activity, or perhaps even, mindful despite the activity.

At this point, you have a clear and firm idea where enlightenment is, and you will no longer have need of a teacher. A teacher is fine – inspiration, tips, advice … but you will be self sufficient in Dhamma.

Then What

This really bright mind, self aware, can be polished like a mirror – compare to polishing a brick that we looked at in an earlier talk. But what next? The world is hopelessly addicting, and you cannot stay in a state of no-mind! If you try to be without desire you cannot do it. It is an impossible task. (Next Dhamma Talk focusses on the Impossible Task as a universal story archetype)

So you need a weapon – a tool to use to complete what you yourself cannot. For us it is wisdom.

And we foster this by watching these 5fold aggregates arise and cease. It is very empowering to see that nothing stays in the mind. It undermines the whole conceptual world, and from time to time you see this whole universe that you have created come crashing down. The metaphor given is like a tree, building or boat covered with a tangle of vines. The original structure they grew over has long since vanished, but the tangle is still there.

Somehow it holds itself up, but if you cut at the root, the whole edifice comes down. The root in this case is the mindfulness that maintains self awareness, and does not engage.

“A tangle inside, a tangle outside
This generation is entangled in a tangle.
I ask you this, O Gotama
Who can disentangle the tangle?”

“A man established in virtue, wise,
Developing the mind and wisdom
A bhikkhu ardent and discreet
He can disentangle the tangle.”

The practise then, is to watch the process of the mind as it arises with one 5fold group, one moment of cognizing, and then jumps to another. You do this in meditation until it becomes familiar. This is paying attention to the effervescence of the mind. It undermines the whole conceptual world.

If something is changing like this, it cannot be sukha (happiness). It must be Dukkha. That is not to say to see a thought vanish, and write home to tell your parents. It is not harsh suffering. But Dukkha, as we saw in week one, means ‘off-centre’ like a wheel that is poorly balanced. If you engage in the perception, you are shaken. What shakes, in Buddhism, is Dukkha.

Further, if you look into this, and see the moments of cognizing in this way, and also see them cease, you get a really deep feeling that they are not ‘yourself’. If something arose, and then vanished, it cannot be you yourself. So you gain this sense of disconnect – you are something deeper and more fundamental than the frothing of the mind.

The classic Buddhist teaching then, on Impermanence, Dukkha and Non-Self :

Sabbe Sankhara Anicca’ti
All mind states are impermanent
yada panyaya passati
if you watch this with wisdom
atha nibbindati dukkhe
you will tire of wavering (dukkha)
esa maggo visudhiya
this is the Path of Purification

Sabbe sankhara dukkha’ti
all mind states are dukkha
yada panyaya passati
if you watch this with wisdom
atha nibbindati dukkhe
you will tire of wavering
esa maggo visudhiya
this is the Path of Purification

Sabbe dhamma anatta’ti
all things are non-self
yada panyaya passati
if you watch this with wisdom
atha nibbindati dukkhe
you will tire of wavering
esa maggo visudhiya
this is the Path of Purification

Following, for the very keen, are these concepts in further original sutta form.

And further, monks, an aspirant lives contemplating awareness of mental objects of the five cognitive aggregates of clinging.

How, monks, does an aspirant live contemplating awareness of mental objects of the five cognitive aggregates of clinging?

Herein, monks, an aspirant thinks, “Thus is material form; thus is the arising of material form; and thus is the disappearance of material form. Thus is sensation; thus is the arising of sensation; and thus is the disappearance of sensation. Thus is perception; thus is the arising of perception; and thus is the disappearance of perception. Thus are formations; thus is the arising of formations; and thus is the disappearance of formations. Thus is cognition; thus is the arising of cognition; and thus is the disappearance of cognition.”

Thus one lives contemplating awareness of mental objects internally, or one lives contemplating awareness of mental objects externally, or one lives contemplating awareness of mental objects internally and externally. One lives contemplating origination factors in mental objects, or one lives contemplating dissolution factors in mental objects, or one lives contemplating origination-and-dissolution factors in mental objects [23]. Or one’s awareness is established with, “Mental objects exist,” to the extent necessary just for knowledge and awareness, and one lives detached, and clings to nothing in the world. Thus also, monks, an aspirant lives contemplating awareness of mental objects of the five cognitive aggregates of clinging. Satipatthana Sutta M 10

Another typical example:

“What do you think, monks — Is form constant or inconstant?” “Inconstant, lord.” “And is that which is inconstant easeful or dukkha?” “dukkha, lord.” “And is it fitting to regard what is inconstant, stressful, subject to change as: ‘This is mine. This is my self. This is what I am’?”

“No, lord.”

“…Is feeling constant or inconstant?” “Inconstant, lord.”…

“…Is perception constant or inconstant?” “Inconstant, lord.”…

“…Are mind states constant or inconstant?” “Inconstant, lord.”…

“What do you think, monks — Is cognition constant or inconstant?” “Inconstant, lord.” “And is that which is inconstant easeful or dukkha?” “dukkha, lord.” “And is it fitting to regard what is inconstant, stressful, subject to change as: ‘This is mine. This is my self. This is what I am’?”

“No, lord.”

“Thus, monks, any form whatsoever that is past, future, or present; internal or external; blatant or subtle; common or sublime; far or near: every form is to be seen as it actually is with right discernment as: ‘This is not mine. This is not my self. This is not what I am.’

“Any feeling whatsoever…

“Any perception whatsoever…

“Any mind states whatsoever…

“Any cognition whatsoever that is past, future, or present; internal or external; blatant or subtle; common or sublime; far or near: every cognition is to be seen as it actually is with right discernment as: ‘This is not mine. This is not my self. This is not what I am.’

“Seeing thus, the instructed disciple of the noble ones grows disenchanted with form, disenchanted with feeling, disenchanted with perception, disenchanted with mind states, disenchanted with cognition.

Disenchanted, he becomes dispassionate. Through dispassion, he is fully released. With full release, there is the knowledge, ‘Fully released.’ He discerns that ‘Birth is ended, the holy life fulfilled, the task done. There is nothing further for this world.’

Relating to dukkha as ‘wavering’:

The attached mind wavers. The unattached mind does not waver. Where there is no wavering there is calm, there is non-bending, there is non-leaning, there is no coming/going, there is no here/there/inbetween. This indeed is the ending of Dukkha

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4 Responses to Report: Notes on Dance of Emptiness Talk 5

  1. Pornchai P. says:

    Your venerable,
    “Sabbe dhamma anatta’ti” should be translated as “All things are non-self”, sir.

  2. Cittasamvaro says:

    Yes, thanks for the correction.

  3. Cathy says:

    I loved this talk – for me it got to the heart of the matter – the nature of that which remains when the skandas are realised to be temporary and conditional. The analogy of the centre of the wheel being the place from where we aim to view the world (and dukkha as wobbly off-centre viewing) is great, thanks. Can literally feel the bumpy ride versus the smooth!

    So – this is the big question – when we’ve peeled away the skandas and are left with pure awareness of awareness, what significance does this have? Is it “just” a psychological state of profound peace and happiness? Or is it more?

    Can we speak further of the nature of this empty but profound essence to our consciousness? For some this is the starting point for the nondual teachings where we learn that at this level of insight (or inner-sight) reality itself is not what we typically assume. We hear that those who cultivate this pure view report that deep reality is a seamless, timeless whole. The provisional and ultimately false nature of the ego-self is evident, so wisdom and compassion naturally flow. At this level, reality does not fundamentally comprise separate objects (or people) but rather a very profound dance of connection as well as a dance of emptiness – the two are inseparable. The unfolding wonder is to identify with this, rather than the sense of a “separated-off” self.

    For many this re-visioning of physical reality is fanciful stuff and hard to get heads around! But after the talk I found the concept of skandas really help tie in this profound perspective on reality with neuroscience – interested if you agree?

    The skandas are great descriptors of neuronal processes, be it perception, cognitive processing, memory or emotional states. It seems obvious when we lay these processes out for examination that they are attempts to sample what’s there, a sampling that results in an elaborate conscious representation. The representation needs to be effective – it is the basis of survival. Our species however rather arrogantly assumes that its own representation is actual reality! Yet our sampling (however good) is not the Real Underlying Reality. How could it be? Our representation is without doubt a neuronally-mediated event in our brain/ consciousness. In fact what is really out there could be very different to our representation – how would we know – all we get is the representation. Through this sampling we create our experience of reality (including the sense of discrete objects and time) – this experience could be described as a semi-real illusion specific to our species.

    If we agree that the ultimate nature of Reality is veiled from us — and that we can only see our self-generated representation — our only hope would be to aim to drop the representation as best we can. We’d need to turn our attention to that which “knows” the representation i.e. see through the processes and become aware of what’s going on behind. Meditation! As you nicely put it:

    Note here that you are not mindful of an activity, but mindful during the activity, or perhaps even, mindful despite the activity.

    So we are withdrawing awareness from the lure of skandas and reaching within. Although not necessarily the ultimate, this seems a good bet for finding a level of awareness “more real” than the basic representation?

    As we know, many who do this diligently get paradigm-shattering insights. They speak of the more ultimate Reality as being nondual, i.e the seamless timeless unity mentioned above. Seen from here, there is no actual discrete self, physical or psychological, just a locus of awareness within the whole. As different levels of insight unfold, this tends towards the experience of one all-encompassing light-like reality (Dharmakaya).

    Of course this could just be another illusion, even a worse one! But I’m fascinated by the fact that so-called paradoxical findings in quantum physics (i.e. non-locality, time running backwards; consciousness affecting collapse of waveforms etc) chime with a nondual substrate to deep reality, in fact that’s what is getting suggested in physics right now. Particle physics experiments make it clear that mysterious things are going on behind the scenes. Actually it’s only to our illusion-seduced everyday representation that this seems peculiar and mysterious! Well it would, wouldn’t it??? We are typically living in shadows.

    So my main point is that seeing through the skandas is not just about freeing yourself from a tangled psychological reality into a happier state (which is true enough), but also freedom from buying the illusion of so-called physical reality… The whole shebang. To my mind, the classic texts you cite are beautifully consistent with this.

    Lots more to say on this, but just wondering if the nondual perspective is something that gets discussed within Theravada? Anyone else in Littlebang into this, particularly the interface between hard sciences and self-enquiry?

    Thanks for the great talks Phra Pandit — and all the efforts preparing them.


  4. Cittasamvaro says:

    I love that word you use “sampling” – I was looking for just such a key term for the 5 aggregates as they arise together on a particular object. I could only say ‘moment of perception’ but sampling is much better – that is exactly what it is.
    Non-duality is not stated in Theravada (or I think, most of mahayana outside of some typically zenny Zen teachings). But it is there in fact. “no here, no there, no inbetween” “no course, no refined” etc..
    I did put together many of the key non-dual quotes in Theravada in a .doc linked on the bottom of this page:

    Also some references here:

    One thing is clear – the ‘awareness of awareness’ is only a practise, a door that takes you to non-duality. Ramana Maharshi said it is like the caterpillar that waves its head around feeling for the next leaf – it won’t let go of the leaf until it finds a new one. So the mind latches on to the ‘Who am I’ awareness, as a stepping stone to the true realisation.

    I have not compared to neuroscience (of which I am skeptical) or Quantum physics, of which I have a couple of courses I downloaded, but have not yet studied.

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