Revealing Nondual Awareness

The Progressive Presencing of Co-emergent Wisdom [1]

Peter Fenner, Ph.D.
Copyright © Peter Fenner, 2011


In this article I’d like to layout the way in which I introduce people to nondual awareness, particularly in terms of how I initially differentiate the nondual state from our empirical experience.  There are different ways in which I invite people to “leap into” nondual awareness, as it were.  Having made that leap, I then dissolve the dualistic construction that the nondual can be different from our everyday experience.  If people then reduce the nondual to the flux of their conditioned experience, which often happens, I redistinguish the nondual as a space that is radically different from anything we can possibly “experience.”  I cycle through a process of collapsing the difference, redistinguishing the nondual, dissolving the difference again, until there is a more consistent presencing of the nondual within the context of our embodied, everyday life—our thought-world, feelings, relationships and activities.

I’ve arrived at this process by seeing what seems to work best “on the spot” in terms of introducing people to the basic state of nondual awareness, while being open, receptive and responsive to whatever arises in the inner and outer environments.

I’ll explain what’s behind some of the moves I make as we progress through this article.  I should say at the outset that most of the work I do is with groups from 10 – 100 people.  When I work with a group I work with the material that people bring up individually.  But I do so in a way that’s intended to keep everyone fully engaged. When I’m interacting with someone, I do so in a way that doesn’t place other participants in the role of being mere witnesses or passive observers of a journey that is happening for someone else. I privilege neither the individual nor the group.

I also work one-on-one as a supervisor for coaches, therapists and facilitators who are working with the nondual dimension.  I do this mainly by telephone.  The process I’ll describe in this article also applies to individual work, especially when it’s clearly focused on the recognition of, and familiarization with, nondual awareness. The process I describe shouldn’t be viewed as a roadmap.  While I hope it makes pedagogical sense, it shouldn’t be viewed a series of steps that are systematically followed.  The actual process is organic, free-form and dynamic.

Is the nondual an experience, state or space?

Before beginning I’d like to say just a few words about my use of the term “nondual awareness.”  There is some discussion these days about the best term through which point to the nondual state.  What we are looking for is a term that doesn’t let us create differentiations.  This is why many people object to talking about the nondual experience.  There are many different types of experiences and also in an experience there are objects that are experienced and a seeming experiencer.  So experience isn’t the ideal term.  This leads some people to prefer the phrase “nondual state.”  But this isn’t perfect either because there are different types of states and the nondual state is neither the same as, nor different from other states.

Another possibility is to talk about the “nondual space.”  This has some merit because at one level we can’t differentiate one space from another space.   There is nothing in space itself to let us do this.  Also, there is a connection with the conditioned.  We talk about the workshop space, or the space we are in.   In general, in this article I’ll use the term “nondual awareness” because it is in quite common usage.  I’ll also often use the term “this,” without spelling this out further.[2] When I use the term “nondual awareness” it like a code word for the basic or primordial state, what is also called ka dag or alpha purity (Longchenpa: 1998, 2001a, 2001b, 2006), or just the “A state.” When people are in the know—when they can directly recognize this state—it’s sufficient to use “just this.”   A phrase like “nondual awareness” is no longer necessary.[3]

Distinguishing the nondual: entering a different paradigm

I usually begin by presenting nondual awareness as being completely different from the mind that compares, differentiates and makes contrasts. I say that we will be giving our attention to the nature of awareness itself, in contrast to the “objects of awareness”—thoughts, feelings and sensations.  If we weren’t aware we couldn’t be aware of our thoughts, my words, or this room.  We are exploring “That which is aware, not what we are aware of.”  I point out that if we “knew” what awareness was, it would be an “object of our awareness”, not awareness itself.

I present “abiding as awareness” as something that is radically different from our usual mode of being in which “we are someone who is engaged with the world.”  I point to nondual awareness by saying that, unlike our conditioned experience, it can’t be known, isn’t a thing, etc.   Nondual awareness is indivisible, it is unconstructed, in contrast to conditioned experience which is composed of different elements; the different sense fields, feelings, and thoughts.[4]  This is important because we can return to the idea that “our experiences are constructed”; built out of different elements, when we begin to deconstruct limiting identifications.

When I begin a presentation I often say something like:

This evening we are here to explore contentlessness.  It’s easy to explore content, to get involved in ideas, viewpoints and opinions.  But, my invitation for us this evening is to explore—no, actually to access—a dimension of reality that’s been very well known to sages in the East and West, but which is relatively inaccessible in our modern, busy, highly distracting lives.  What I say “explore” it’s not really an exploration, because there is nothing to discover or reveal!

This dimension of reality has been called, “objectless awareness,” “centerless awareness,” “the mind itself,” buddhamind,” and so on.  This state is acausal—without a cause—or unproduced. We don’t need anything more than what we already have in order to be “here”. There is nothing we need to know or do.  This is effortless.[5] Nothing could be simpler.  Nothing needs to change in order to be here—resting in nondual awareness.

Our conditioned experience unfolds in time—it is always changing. We can touch, feel, sense, and think about it.  Nondual awareness, on the other hand, doesn’t have any of these characteristics.  It’s not a “thing”.  We can’t see it, we can’t even think about it because there is nothing to think about. Nondual awareness is completely unrelated to you and me as different embodied minds.  It’s unrelated to the circumstances of our lives or the condition of our bodies and minds.  We are born and we will die.  We have gender, age, race, etc.  Nondual awareness has none of these.  It is ahistorical, transpersonal and transcultural.

I make this radical departure from our usual way of “being someone in time and space” because (1) people come to me specifically for the nondual, and (2) nondual awareness is far less accessible to most people than our ordinary, everyday world of effort, struggles, thwarted ambitions and periodic accomplishments.  People have no difficulties accessing their conditioned existence.  It confronts us! Also, for people who have little or no idea of what this state is, it can be useful to initially present “this” as something completely different from what we “know.” When people are immersed in their conditioned minds, they need eased, or ejected, out of their identification with the contents of awareness, in order to recognize the nondual.

In the language of Buddhist hermeneutics this presentation of nondual awareness “as different from the contents of awareness” is provisional.[6]  It isn’t the most refined way of languaging the nondual.  When I present it in this way, I’m aware that we are en route to a more refined presencing of the nondual.  This way of distinguishing the nondual is a skillful process (upaya).  It isn’t the “truth.”  I know there is further to go. The language of “not this, not that (neti neti) is a pedagogical device that can be used to reveal a dimension of reality that is inaccessible to most people because it is invisible and nondual, i.e. beyond the categories of being and non-being.

Diagram One shows how I draw a line between awareness and the contents awareness.  It also lists some of the common names used in different traditions to identify the same state that I am calling nondual awareness in this article.

The nondual isn’t a subtle affective experience or meditational state

I also distinguish nondual awareness in a clear and precise way when people confuse this state with different types of subtlety conditioned experiences.  For example, people often think that nondual awareness is a state of bliss, or serenity or love.  These experiences can accompany the presencing of the nondual, but they aren’t nondual awareness itself.  They are conditioned experiences.  This is clear because they come and go in the conventional sense.[7]  They are refined experiences that arise as epiphenomena when people’s reactive responses settle down and the habitual need to understand and interpret slows down.  These experiences can be, in fact often are, confused with the nondual.

H.H. Dudjum Jigdral Yeshe Dorje (1904-1987) of the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism is  clear about the potential distraction that such a confusion can cause when he writes:

Now while you are on the path, it will happen that this [rig pa = pure awareness] will become mixed with some form of the three temporary experiences–bliss, clarity, and no thought–so when that does happen rest without a whisker of the hope and fear that believes in and grasps at these as special attainments and just that will cut the possibility of the experience turning into a sidetrack.[8]

A significant focus in group facilitation is to ensure that people receive nondual awareness cleanly and purely.  This need is compounded these days because the terms nonduality and nondual awareness are being used quite loosely.  They are often used to refer to states that still have some content and structure to them.  If there is any association between feeling peaceful, clear or accepting, and nonduality, this isn’t nondual awareness.

There is often a lot of scope to purify an experience so it really becomes nondual, and stays that way.  A lot of the work in nondual transmission is “cleaning work.”   People can enter the nondual, but over time it can become sullied.  People begin to identify with the pleasant feelings, sensations and authenticity that naturally enter the nondual field.  Many people have a strong need to attribute some basic qualities to nondual awareness, for example, that is a state of profound intimacy, unconditional love, sourceless bliss or imperturbable serenity.

To assess the purity of a state of nondual awareness, we look for the existence of structures within the state. The structures I’m referring to are ideas, beliefs, feelings, interpretations, and reference points. An ordinary, conditioned state is densely structured. With increasing familiarity with nondual awareness, we also experience more lightly structured states of awareness. Structures still exist, but there is an overall sense of more immediacy and less interpretation. The structures become more and more transparent.

It’s as if there is a spectrum of states that have a progressively lighter structure along the way to a clean presencing of nondual awareness. The states that we experience can become increasingly pure or structure-free. Ultimately in the state of nondual or centerless awareness there is no structure; so it cannot be described as being positive or negative, ordinary or sublime, useful or useless, as nothing or something.  Unlike conditioned states of mind, nondual awareness cannot be lost or gained, because there is nothing to arise or disappear.

Foundations, bridges and resting places

When people enter a nondual workshop space they quite quickly feel that something different is happening.  As a facilitator I have nothing to communicate from my side.  My job is simply to clear away all the obstructions (viewpoints, ideas, fears, unmet expectations, etc.) as efficiently and effortlessly as possible. There are no themes, topics or any subject matter I wish to share.  This becomes obvious quite quickly.  Sometimes I ease people through the transition that’s happening by saying:

We are entering a different paradigm with this work.  The main way it’s different from our normal paradigm is that there’s nothing to understand and nothing you need to be doing.  I’m not asking anything from you.  There is no pressure here at all.  There is no need for you to be here.  We aren’t going anywhere.  I’m not looking for something to be happening.  “This” isn’t a happening.  A need brought you here.  But now that you’re here you don’t need that need.  In fact, we are exploring what it’s like to not to need anything: to be free of the need to learn, understand, gain resources, and so on.  We’re discovering how to be totally complete with things exactly as they are.

If this is too much I may go back a little bit and simply present our time together as an opportunity to give ourselves a break from trying to change things, fix things up, even if we only do this for a few minutes.  For a few minutes we give ourselves permission to accomplish nothing!  When I make this offer, many people will say, “Wow, what a relief. There’s no pressure.  That feels really great.”  After a few minutes this can even mature into great bliss.

I create a foundation for inquiry by bringing people into the present moment and slowing down their thinking by giving them nothing to think about.  This creates an atmosphere of ease and tranquility.[9]   This is a foundation upon which it’s possible to inquire into the reality of “this” as awareness and not be able to find anything that lies behind the term.  Nondual awareness is revealed through the unfindability form of inquiry that is integral to Advaita (Katz: 2007, Maharshi: 1988, 1989) and Mahayana (Nagarjuna: 2005, Chandrakirti, 2005).

If people still can’t connect with this radical presentation of the nondual we can always go back and talk about it as a state of effortless being, total equanimity, a space that’s free of attachment and aversion, and which connects us with ourselves in a totally natural and uncontrived way.  We can, in fact, use the epiphenomena that arise, such as feelings of deep peace, acceptance, love and connectness as resting places en route to presencing nondual awareness.

Starting at the end: working at the result level

Another way I help people to leap into the unconditioned dimension is by explaining that we will be working at the “result level.”  This means that the result (abiding as awareness) is the path.  In other words, we begin with the baseline position is that nothing is wrong or missing. Everything is complete just as it is. Everyone is complete. There are no problems, nothing to work out, no work to be done.  In the midst of everything that’s happening, “nothing is happening at the same time.”

I am quite up front in presenting this possibility.  Sometimes I’ll start a workshop by saying; “Well, let’s just start at the end. Let’s just skip straight ahead.  Let’s not waste time time.  Our objective in being here is to arrive at the end of the path; to find what we are looking for in terms of discovering deep contentment, beyond which there is nowhere further to go.” I introduce this possibility in a light way.  It’s a suggestion, but I’m absolutely serious about it at the same time.  I don’t want to waste people’s time.  If I’m being asked to think, I’m looking for traction in terms of how to take people beyond the mind.

The suggestion that we can begin a workshop at the place we might hope to be at the end, without needing to do any intermediate work, immediately throws people into inquiry. Some people will protest internally, or out loud, “But I’m here to learn how to get this. There is work to be done. It can’t be that simple!” Others will be enticed by the idea, but genuinely feel incomplete.  People start to play with the idea that “nothing is wrong or missing.”

We can see how this applies right now.  You might be reading this article hoping to gain some insights or additional resources for your work as a coach, therapist or facilitator.  It’s possible for me to be writing this thinking that I have some wisdom that could help you, that I need to explain my process clearly, and so on.  Yet, if we connect with primordial awareness in this moment, that is all that’s needed, now and at any time in the future.  If we are “here” we don’t need anything more, and this is what is communicated to those around us—friends, clients, partners and colleagues.  “This” becomes the fuel, the essence, of your work as a facilitator or therapist.

If you are “here” I don’t need to write anything more.  You have all the resources you could possibily need in terms of sharing nondual awareness with others.  Nondual awareness will come through you naturally and automatically.  You won’t be able to stop it!  You will activate this recognition in others through the way you listen without judgment, through the quality of your silence, through the way you don’t condition the space, through the precision of your questions and love that is shared because you don’t need anything for yourself (Fenner: 2003, 2006, 2007).

By introducing the possibility that we can be “here” in the ultimate way, without needing to do any psychological processing or make any corrections or additions to our intellectual understanding of the path and goal, we set a benchmark, as it were.  The benchmark we establish doesn’t preclude the processing of emotions or deepening our understanding of who we are.  But, it lets us see how easily we fall into the habit of thinking we need to do more work before we can truly rest and abide in our natural state.  With this benchmark in place we can easily see how we habitually create work for ourselves.  When someone says, “Yes, that sounds great, but, first I need to ….” they are (re-)creating a path.  They are effectively saying that something needs to happen before they can be complete.  Once we’ve shown people this pattern, we can continue to point it out, each time it occurs.  This is how we “take the result as the path.”

Undoing the path

Another way I introduce the idea of working at the result level is by pointing out that for as long as we are “on the path” we can’t be at the destination.  So the work we will be doing consists of dissolving the path. In a sense we are always on a path, moving (forwards or backwards), resting for a while, or just waiting for something to happen. When we’re on a path we are sometimes entertained, having fun, feeling a sense of accomplishment because we are making progress. But often we feel there is a gap between where we are and where we’d like to be. In the spiritual arena we are on an explicit path. Often it is well laid out with stages or levels. People enter nondual work because they are on a path.

Working at the result level involves undoing the path. It consists of identifying and taking away the reference points on which a path is constructed in someone’s mind. When there is no path, there is no goal, just pure awareness. Nondual inquiry dismantles the path, and keeps dismantling it whenever it begins to reconstruct through the habit of believing that things could be different from what they are. Sometimes the path begins to be reconstructed through the simple thought, “Now what?” We notice such moves and take them away. “There is no what. There is just this.”

We are talking about “This”!

Often I initiate inquiry through an explore of “this.”  I dispense with terms like “nondual awareness” about which people can have different ideas.  I begin by saying, “What we are sharing together is ‘this’.” This is particularly effective in phone work because there is no shared “this” at the visual level.  If we don’t elaborate on what “this” is, or say, “’This,’ right now, in this second,” the “this” must be something different than our physical environment.  It’s not clear what “this” is referring to, and that is the intention.  We’ve made a break within the stream of conditioned experience and we can use this lack of clarity to distinguish the unconditioned.

The powerful thing about inquiring into “this” is that is gives us a lot of freedom in how we move. We can use the word “this” to point to this as “contentless awareness,” or as the undifferentiable co-arising of contentlessness and everything that is arising in the moment.[10]

For example, in relationship to this moment right now, when I say I am talking about “this,” I’m not talking about what you are reading right now. I am not talking about your awareness of your computer screen, or printed words on a piece of paper in front of you.  When I say I’m talking about “this,” I’m pointing to awareness itself which has no content or location.  We can’t even say “this” is here, because we don’t know what it is that we would be saying is here, or not here.  We can’t say that “this” is or is not, because we don’t know what it is that we would be saying exists or does not exist.

The very fact that we can’t say what it is that we talking about means that we are talking about the nondual.  If we “knew” what we were talking about, it wouldn’t be the nondual.  It would be something we could know or not know.  By the way, the language I am using now is definitive, because there is nothing to misinterpret: there is nothing to get right or wrong.

Paradox and nonduality

You will notice that in order to talk about “this” we have been compelled to move beyond the language of negation and into the structure of paradoxes (Fenner: 2007). The paradox right now is that the words that I am writing and that you are reading are unrelated to nondual awareness.  They are just symbolic images that have a semantic reference appearing on a screen or paper.  Yet, these words allow us to be right here, presencing the nondual as a state that is totally inexpressible because it has no characteristics.  In fact, we can’t even say that “this” has no characteristics because we don’t know what it is that we are characterizing in this way!

At this point unstructured, nondual awareness ceases to be something different from our ordinary, everyday consciousness, because we simply don’t know what “it” is that we are saying is different (or the same for that matter).

The nondual is a totally transcending state, but at the same time it isn’t rarified, disembodied or in anyway disconnected from the rich and complex worlds in which we live. This becomes palpably clear when we are in this state: “it” is neither the same as the dualistic mind, nor in any way different from it.

Collapsing the distinction

To summarize, then, my approach is to distinguish the unconditioned as being radically different and keep doing this until someone says, “But it can’t be different. It’s right here.”  I then bring this realization into the foreground.  It cannot be different from this very moment because the unconditioned is not a thing. It’s inseparable and indistinguishable from the conditioned experience.  In Buddhism this is called co-emergent wisdom (sahaja-jnana).

I then, move between these two, at times differentiating the unconditioned from the conditioned, and at other times collapsing the distinction, explaining that the distinction or identification of the two is only made by the thinking, dualistic mind.  When there is an over-identification with the conditioned—with thoughts and feelings—we re-distinguish the unconditioned. When the unconditioned is reified as something that is intrinsically different from our moment-by-moment embodied experience, I dissolve the possibility that they can be different.[11]  Diagram Two captures the indivisibility and lack of a boundary between the conditioned and unconditioned domains.

The progressive presencing of co-emergent wisdom

Diagram Three shows how the presencing of co-emergent wisdom can occur in time.  The horizontal straight line is a time axis moving from left to right.  It also represents the point where someone is resting in nondual awareness at the same time that we are thinking, perceiving, communicating, etc.  In this respect it is like the previous diagram. The positions and angles of incline and decline of the blue line show how people can move from presencing of the nondual in a way in which they are relatively disengaged with the complexities of life, towards a presencing in which the unconditioned and conditioned experience co-arise.

The notes I will make below are like a time-line summary of the process I have been describing above.

A.    This initial upward incline indicates how we move from a place where we are identified with conditioned experience—our feelings, fears, aspirations, beliefs, perceptions, and preferences—through to a clear recognition of nondual awareness as something that is pristine and unstructured.  In order to produce a clear recognition of that which hasn’t yet been seen, or which has been lost sight of, the nondual is distinguished as being contentless, a non-event, a clearing, without a center or periphery.  It is an absence (med pa).

The rate of the incline is significant here.  It indicates how quickly and definitively we reveal the nondual as a radically different reality.  As a facilitator, if you move too fast you lose people.  They get left behind.  The space and language in particular becomes too weird.  People become confused and disoriented to the point that they’d prefer to be somewhere else.  On the other hand, if you aren’t willing to leave some people behind: if you feel compelled to make sure that everyone makes it to the end of the journey, you might not even bring one person through to a clear recognition of nondual awareness.

B.    Here we rest or abide in nondual awareness for some time appreciating centerless awareness, with little active involvement in what’s happening within and outside of us.  The nondual may be being presenced while in a deeply interiorized state; a natural samadhi with very little happening in thought and feelings.  Whatever is arising liberates by itself (rang grol). Thoughts dissolve at the very instant they begin to form.  Or, the nondual may be being presenced with eyes and other senses fully open, receiving everyone and everything in the environment, but in a state of total equanimity that’s free of preferences and judgments. However, at some point one of three things can happen.

a.    People can begin to add qualities to awareness such as bliss, serenity, intimacy, etc. This is not to say that such feelings aren’t arising.  But people begin to think that awareness is a state of tranquility or interconnectedness.  There is a strong impulse to make the “nothing” into something.  If this happens we point out that these are conditioned experiences and not awareness itself, as a way of inviting people back into the nondual state.

b.    A second possibility is that a thought, memory, feelings, anticipation, etc. arises in awareness and distracts someone from continuing to abide in awareness itself.  In this case we create space around what’s happening.  We may invite the person to let things be as they are, without interference or judgment.  Or we might engage in an inquiry that dissolves the distraction by seeing that it (the distracting event) can’t be found when we look for it using the wisdom mind of nondual inquiry.  Or, we can point out that nothing can get in the way of nondual awareness.  As a “non thing” nothing can obstruct it.

c.    A third possibility is that people can reify nondual awareness as a reality in its own right.  They begin to think that nondual awareness is “nothing,” is “contentless,” is “unrelated to the personal,” etc.  We can sense this by listening to the way that people are listening to themselves when they talk about the nondual.  People acquire the via negativa language of nonduality and begin to listen to their own thinking and words as though they were really saying something when they are talking about the nondual.

C.    If and when the nondual becomes reified I point out that “this” can’t be different from everything that’s arising because the nondual isn’t a “thing” that can be the same or different from anything else.  When we say “this” is different, we don’t know what it is that we are saying is different, so we can’t say that “this” is different from the thoughts, feelings and appearances that are arising moment-by-moment. This is how I collapse the difference.  Usually, the idea that nondual awareness and the dualistic mind are different, collapses in an instant, like a deflating ballon.  For some time, I may let people think that contentless awareness and the objects of awareness are the same, even though they are neither the same nor different.

D.    Here we rest in the co-arising of emptiness and appearances.  If people start to think that there are two things that are actually co-arising we can point out that “this” goes beyond even notions of co-arising or union (lhan cig).  Clearly there aren’t two different things, so it’s impossible to talk about “union” or “inseparability.”

E.    While presencing the nondual in the context of being aware of our body and surroundings, at some point a thought, feeling or sensation arises that pulls us out of nondual awareness into an identification with the conditioned event that arises.  Typically people become involved in their thoughts (carried away by a story), caught by a sensation (a sound, image of a person, etc.), or overtaken by a feeling (a pain, some fear, excitement, and so on).  A conditioned event comes into the foreground, reactions of attraction and aversion come into play, until at some point we recall nondual awareness.  We think, “Ah yes, wow, I just become engrossed in worrying about my future!”

F.    How we move on at this point depends on how deeply we’ve become involved with a conditioned event and our familiarity with the primordial state.  If we’re very familiar with nondual awareness; if we’ve made the journey many times from begin caught up in a fear or worry through to being totally complete without any change in our conditioned circumstances, it might be as simple as thinking, “I’ve lost my connection to the nondual.  But what is it that I’ve lost.  Ah, yes!  I remember. It’s “this,” this thing that I can’t lose or hold onto.  Wow, that is simple.  Here I am back in the place where I can’t say what it is.  How wonderful!”  We retrace a journey we’ve made many times.  In fact, often the journey happens automatically.  It is like being in a dark basement, in the underground carpark, hitting the elevator button, and presto, within a few seconds we are in the lookout tower, enjoying our lives from a totally different perspective.  (This is why the incline back to the nondual is steeper here.)

If our clients or workshop participants are new to nondual work they may need some support in the form of unfindability inquiry that let’s them dismantle the construction that creates a feeling of lack and contraction.  We will help them identify a core construction in their narrative, for example, “I am worried that I won’t be able to retain this experience when I’m at home with my family.” We will inquiry into this construction.  We could look for the “I”, the “worry” or the “experience that will be lost” and not be able to find any of them.  We only need to “see through” one of these concepts for the entire construction to dissolve and allow for a re-presencing of the nondual.

G.    Over time we presence the nondual while retaining a more intimate involvement and connection with ever changing flow of conditioned experience.  Ever-present awareness begins to pervade our spiritual life, our work and relationships. Nevertheless, we are still prone to reify awareness, perhaps by creating some theory about how it relates to emotions, relationships, or psychotherapy, or politics.  Or, we might feel that the nondual is love or bliss, i.e. something that is conditioned and which can arise and dissipate.  So at some point we again see that nondual awareness isn’t a conditioned experience, but nor is it different from the experiences that are delivered to us through our mind and senses.

H.    Even though we may be quite familiar with nondual awareness and able to easily access this space in satsang, on a Dzogchen retreat, or with a nondual therapist, in most people’s lives events arise that effectively block access to our primordial state.  Perhaps our marriage starts to break apart, our children go off the rails, a parent suddenly needs fulltime care, our guru dies, or we become seriously ill.  Even for people who are very familiar with the nondual it’s easy to go on a family vacation for two weeks and the nondual takes leave as well!

I.    In these cases it is easy become engrossed in ourselves for weeks or even months.  We either forget about nondual awareness completely, or “know that it’s there” but are unable to taste the ease and freedom of nondual awareness even for a few seconds.  The journey could be short or long.  Perhaps we are identified with a thought for just a few seconds.  Or the journey might take several weeks.  The challenge in these times is to take the journey we are on.  We might think, “I know there is no one making this journey.  I know (intellectually) that there is no one who suffers.”  But still we ache and suffer.  If the gateways to the nondual all seem closed we take on board the first noble truth of the Buddha.  Yes, we suffer.  If we have needs and preferences then yes, we are bound to suffer.  “Clearly, what’s happening for me now isn’t what I want to be happening.  That’s the problem. That’s why I’m suffering.  And there doesn’t seem to be anything I can do about it.”  So, we suffer.  We accept the inevitability that we will suffer for as long as we can’t accept things as they are.

But we also know that our suffering is a conditioned experience.  Our preferences aren’t being met at the moment.  But everything changes.  At some point our suffering will dissolve.  We don’t know when.  But, for sure, it will change.  We might suffer more before we suffer less.  But the sun will shine in.  At some point we will feel better.  That is great, but it is also an opportunity to recognize that “feeling better” is still just a conditioned state.  We are still in the cycle of pleasure and pain.

J.    Often, all that’s needed here is a code word like “centerlessness” or “just this” and instantly we are back here, where nothing is missing and it’s impossible for things to be better, because we’re in a domain where ideas of better and worse make no sense at all.  The sheer vertical movement of this line shows how we can move from a point where we are identified with a conditioned aspect of experience back into full recognition of awareness itself, in an instance.  It does occur, in an instant, the moment we recognize that “this” is beyond presence and absence, and hence can never be lost or gained: the moment we see that the gateway to the nondual is always exactly we were are.

K.    Here we are presencing the nondual with an increasing inclusion of conditioned experience.

L.    Here we abide in the nondual, with our senses fully open and actively engaged with the world.  We are a clearing—a centerless space—through which our unique life-world moves.  Whether we are in deep meditative absorption or actively engaged with the world, we receive everything that arises without any glitches—without any movements of attachment or rejection.  All thoughts, feelings, colors and sensations arises as the play of contentless awareness—like paintings in the sky.


Copyright © Peter Fenner, 2011


[1] This paper is a significant expansion of material that was first prepared for the Manual of the 10 month Natural Awakening: Advanced Nondual Training I offer in North America and Europe.  See  These notes are primarily for the benefit of therapists and facilitators who are familiar with Buddhist teachings. Back to [1]

[2] In this context the word “this” is the equivalent of “de nyid” in Tibetan: a term that means “just (nyid) this (de)”.  De nyid means thisness, not this as something in particular but “this” as “this” no matter who we are or what, or when “this” is happening. Back to [2]

[3] Some people object to the use of terms like “nondual,” “awareness” and “nondual awareness.” They correctly point out that “this” is not “nondual” in contast to the “dual”.  Also, “awareness” can’t be found or qualified so we can’t see “this” as awareness.  All this is true, and this is the precise meaning of these terms.   These terms have been used for thousands of years to point to the unfindability of the self, mind, awareness, ultimate reality, and so on.  It doesn’t make sense to reject the use of simple code words that have been used effectively for millennia.  This misses the critical recognition that there is nothing to reject!  The idea that a word—any word—could obscure “nothing” is itself misleading. We should heed Vimalakirti’s injunction to rely on the intention of whatever words are use to point to the nondual, and not on the specific words themselves.  See Robert Thurman. The Holy Teaching of Vimalakirti: A Mahayana Scripture. University Park: Pennsylvania, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1976. Back to [3]

[4] This is the exact meaning of the term samskrta in Buddhism.  Thoughts and empirical phenomena are samskrta-dharmas meaning they are composed, compounded, conditioned, or constructed. Back to [4]

[5] You may note that already I am talking about it as something that’s happening, not as a theoretical possibility.  This is where I am, and I am inviting people to join me “here.” Back to [5]

[6] In Buddhist hermeneutics, dharma transmissions are categorized as being either interpretable (neyartha) or definitive (nitartha).  I am using the distinction between definitive and interpretable teaching in my own way here, though it generally fits with the Prasangika Madhyamika understanding.  In fact, there is a great deal of disagreement between the Mahayana schools about “that which is definitive” and “that which is “interpretable.” (See Donald Lopez. Buddhist Hermeneutics. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1993 and S. Thakchoe. The Two Truths Debate: Tsongkhapa and Gorampa on the Middle Way. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2007.)

An interpretable transmission has content and meaning.  It is also contextual meaning that it’s value depends on the state and circumstances of the person who hears it.  It is univocal. A definitive transmission is unequivocal.  It is valid throughout time and space because there is nothing to interpret.  The definitive transmission is the direct realization of nondual awareness.  The distinction between these two types of transmission is extremely useful, especially for anyone who is facilitating nondual work. Back to [6]

[7] In my understanding the neti neti level of discourse is not definitive because it is “saying something”.  The dualistic mind tries to grasp the nondual by thinking, “Ah!  I get it.  It is not a thing.  It is unconditioned, nondual, etc.”  This is still a position.  Something is being said, hence it is open to (mis-)interpretation.

The state of nondual awareness also comes and goes but not in the conventional sense, because there is nothing in it to come or go.  It does not happen in any conventional sense of the word.  It isn’t an event. Back to [7]

[8] Tony Duff. trs. Alchemy of Accomplishment. Kathmandu: Padma Karpo Translation Committee, 2008. Back to [8]

[9] Mahayana hermeneutics recognizes four levels or ranges (chatushkoti) in terms of how we describe reality.  Reality can be describes with positive attributes (is), negative attributes (is not), through contradictions (is and is not) and double negations (neither is nor is not).  I often use first level language when I first introduce the nondual, especially in describing workshops.  I then move into second level expressions when I’m working with people face-to-face or by phone.  At some point we progress into the third and fourth ranges (Fenner: 2010). Back to [9]

[10] The third way we could understand “this” is in terms of the time and conditioned location we are in, but this is already given and not relevant in terms of revealing the nondual. Back to [10]

[11] In terms of Buddhist nondualism the process I use combines aspects of the Dzogchen-Mahamudra approach to realizing nondual awareness (rig pa or sems nyid) and more classical Mahayana methods for realizing emptiness (stong pa nyid) or selflessness (bdag med).  In Dzogchen and Mahamudra the two levels of reality, the ultimate and the relative aren’t highly differentiated at the level of practice (Brown: 2006 and Tashi Namgyal: 2001). The practices of natural mediation and the meditation of non-meditation dissolve a boundary between the unconditioned and conditioned.  Co-emergent wisdom is realized from the outset.

In classical Sutra Mahayana, two levels of reality are distinguished philosophically and at the level of practice.  Within the Madhyamika, for example, practitioners focus on realizing what is called a space-like, or non-residual emptiness. This is an experience of emptiness in which the arising of relativities (thoughts, feelings and sensations) have been highly attenuated.  Yogis engaging in deconstructive inquiry while in a highly concentrated and highly internalized meditative state.  The post-meditative practice consists of infusing the results of their formal contemplations on selflessness into the structure of their daily lives.  For a traditional account of Madhyamika praxis see Jeffrey Hopkins. Meditation on Emptiness. Boston, Wisdom Publications, 1996.

In some respects the way I initially distinguish the nondual by disconnecting our attention from our conditioned experience, corresponds to the Sutra Mahayana approach.  When I collapse the distinction between the awareness and the appearance which arise in awareness, this corresponds more closely to the Dzogchen-Mahamudra approach.

To simplify this further we could say that in Dzogchen-Mahamudra, “this” points to both awareness and appearances.  In Madhyamika, we could say that “this” points to the ultimate, unconditioned dimension when we are systemically engaged in the deconstructive contemplations that define its form of vipashyana meditation.  When we are functioning in the social world “this” point to our empirical experience.  Over time to two blend and in both systems, Dzogchen-Mahamudra and Classical Mahayana, one realizes a co-emergent wisdom. Back to [11]


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Copyright © Peter Fenner, 2011

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