“You are awareness. Awareness is another name for you. Since you are awareness there is no need to attain or cultivate it. All that you have to do is to give up being aware of other things — that is, of the not-self. If one gives up being aware of them then pure awareness alone remains . . .”
~Sri Ramana Maharshi
For something to be “true” in the absolute sense, it must be true both now and always, independent of any transient conditions. Just so, there is no moment when the Truth cannot be true. Indeed, only the Truth is true, or Real. The Truth is Reality, and all else is imagination, illusion, impermanence.
Likewise, our “True Nature” or primordial state must be always and already real and ever-present, rather than something to be acquired through the strategic manipulation of methods, schemes, and circumstances, arbitrary fortune, gradual purification, or even beneficent Grace.
Only by a process of incorrect, or mistaken, identification do we assume a false as our actual nature and condition, giving birth to and sustaining the complex and stressful story of “me and mine”. This fundamental error in recognition is most commonly expressed as the belief and conviction “I am the body-mind-self”. It is as if the sky were to mistake itself as a passing cloud, and subject to its destiny.
By inquiring into our true nature and condition, we may see through any such identification with the false, and what then is revealed is not something new, but simply that which has always been the case: the Truth, the Real. The tacit assumption that there was an individual and concrete “I” who was operative in the field of experience is recognized as an error of judgment and appreciation — a case of mistaken identity.
The contemporary Dzogchen teacher Anam Thubten wrote this about True Inquiry: “Nirvana, or whatever you want to call it, means the complete deconstruction of all of our rigid mental patterns and habits as well as the deconstruction of all of our limiting beliefs. This deconstruction creates a space for true inquiry. When we open our hearts and our minds completely, we are in a place where we can experience something new, a new truth, a new reality, a miracle that we haven’t experienced in the past. We can see things differently and they present new, expanded opportunities, new horizons. Therefore an open mind is required. This is true not only in relationship to the truth but in relationship to everyday life as well.”
Some designate the direct recognition of the emptiness of the I-concept as “Realization”, but such terms are mere expedient concepts and do not ultimately exist in the Truth, or Reality. Strictly speaking, this recognition cannot even be called “Realization”, since that would imply the making real of what was not heretofore real. Furthermore, it would also infer that such a state can be attained through some sort of manipulation of energies and attitudes.
If it can be acquired, however, then it cannot be our True Nature, since in order to be True it must have been True originally and always, and not dependent on changing causes and conditions. Nor can it be called “Self-Realization”, since again, strictly speaking, even “Self” (not to mention “self”) is ultimately recognized via True Inquiry as a fantasy of interpretation on perception, empty of any inherent and substantial Person or person. What is, simply is. The tongue goes silent.
The direct recognition of our Original Nature and Identity (“our face before our parents were born”) is the purpose of True Inquiry, though again, it is not a technique to be employed in the accomplishment of some change of state, transcendental ascension, or mystical elevation. I have briefly introduced the subject of True Inquiry here, and so the aim of this essay will be to elaborate a bit further on the topic, in hopes of clarifying its actual practice and application.
When thoughts arise, the ego-mind automatically claims ownership of them, creating the sense that “I think”, “I know”, “I desire”, “I am the doer”. In reality, this ego-mind is itself nothing but a thought, the “I” or root-thought, which cannot exist independently from the phenomena with which it is identified. It strings together all other thoughts, emotions, memory associations, and perceptions to create the illusion of a separate person, an enduring entity in the form of the body-mind-self. It is precisely this mis-identification which serves as the source of all complications, and so True Inquiry consists of seeing through and letting go of this mental fabrication first and foremost by undermining its energy at the root.
Confusing the issue, most spiritual practices, traditional meditations, and various exoteric as well as esoteric methods are actually based on the presumption of the reality of the person — the seeker — who is undertaking these strategies (usually based on motives spawned from hope and fear). Such a presumption merely results in the reinforcement, confirmation, and validation of the “I”-thought, or ego-mind.
Such strategies may produce a variety of fascinating or blissful experiences, which nevertheless remain tethered to the sense of self. They can even serve to inflate that false identity-sense with the fictional narrative of a “someone” making progress, rising to a heavenly level of consciousness or triumphant personal illumination. Moreover, whatever original insight may have actually occurred invariably gets subsequently buried under an avalanche of conceptual fabrications and conditioned fantasies of interpretation.
Many would-be gurus and aspirants get entangled in various dreamy, idealistic scenarios stemming from the primal mis-perception of the archetypal heroic seeker traversing the spiritual path to “Enlightenment”, when in reality they are only digging themselves deeper into storyland. In any case, such practices cannot culminate in true Recognition because the “I”-thought is not penetrated.
In Buddhism, for example, Shamatha alone, or calm abiding, may produce some peaceful feelings and a quiet mind, but unless it is married to Vipashyana (insight into the illusion of independent selfhood), it will not amount to True Recognition. Such Recognition is also called the Unity of Samadhi (one-pointed concentration) and Prajna (Wisdom).
In its application, True Inquiry begins by bringing relaxed and effortless attention to the essential nature of mind itself. As Tulku Pema Rigtsal suggests: “Do not pay any attention to thoughts or to whatever arises in the mind, but instead examine where the thought or the image comes from, where it abides, and where it goes. If we do this for long enough, we will discover that all thought forms are empty and that there is nothing substantial in the mind. Keep the mind in its own place, unmodified and without distraction, at ease in its state of clear naked emptiness. Do not attempt to stop the mind and do not follow it.”
In order to “kick-start” this focus, the question “Who am I?” is sometimes employed, not as a mental riddle or mantra, but as an expedient prompt to turn attention back on itself, to the source of mind itself — where the “I”-thought first arises. It is essentially a matter of being aware of being aware — the heart essence of primordial consciousness.
As Khenpo Tsewang Dongyal Rinpoche notes: “A powerful way to unveil the primordial ground of being is to ask yourself, “Who am I?” […] The ground of awareness is the essence and source of your being. When you ask yourself ‘Where is my mind? Who am I? What is mind?, who is doing the asking?’ You are looking within, and you are discovering the state of clear and open emptiness. This is rigpa, the mind’s nature.”
It should be clear then, that True Inquiry does not represent some form of intellectual puzzle-solving, or attempt to grasp the mind essence through resort to the mind. Nor is it a strategic effort to change one’s state, but actually quite the opposite. It entails the surrendering of all fascinations and fixations which obscure the recognition and appreciation of the natural state – the Mind of Clear Light.
If this relaxed but focused attention is distracted by other thoughts, one can simply return the mind to rest in its natural state, naked radiant awareness itself, free from the discursiveness of the intellect. When the clarified attention is concentrated on this heart essence of awake awareness to the point that transient or provisional identifications cease to arise, then the ego-mind will be unable to fixate on phenomena/objects, particularly if that subjective attention is pursued to its end.
As the great Adept Dudjom Rinpoche suggested: “Take your stand on the ultimate practice of the heart essence — samsara and nirvana are the display of awareness. Without distraction, without meditation, in a state of natural relaxation, constantly remain in the pure, all-penetrating nakedness of ultimate reality.”
Likewise, Sri Nisargadatta echoed that suggestion when he said: “Abandon every attempt. Just be. Let go of every support. Don’t strive, don’t struggle. Hold on to the blind sense of being, brushing off all else. This is enough.”
One common misconception about True Inquiry is that it involves some kind of conceptual exercise entailing the rejection of all thought objects and perceptions as “not-self”. In traditional Advaita Vedanta practices, for example, this method is called “Neti Neti” (not this, not this), which is a process or form of analytical deconstruction.
Again, the problem here is that the ego-mind is still sustained by this intellectual approach, since the very “I”-thought which would eliminate or refute all other forms of identification as “not-I” cannot eliminate itself. In fact, the Truth can never be grasped by the discursive mind, either through affirmation, negation, or any strategy of subtle analysis and conventional inquiry, but only in its dissolution does the Real emerge from the silent background in the space between thoughts and shine as the transparent awake awareness of the Natural State.
The great Zen Patriarch Bodhidharma noted: “If you use your mind to study reality, you won’t understand either your mind or reality. If you study reality without using your mind, you’ll understand both.”
Likewise, when asked, “It is said that [Truth] is beyond the mind and yet the realization is with the mind. The mind cannot think it. It cannot be thought of by the mind and the mind alone can realize it. How are these contradictions to be reconciled?”
Ramana Maharshi responded: “[Reality] is realized with mind devoid of thoughts and turned inward. Then the mind sees its own source and becomes that.”
When the perception of all objects, both physical and mental, cease via the correct application of True Inquiry, the individual “I”-thought will be unable to hold its dominant position. Starved by lack of attention and confirmation, it will eventually become obsolete, falling back into its source and disappearing there. In its place True Recognition will shine forth, and once seen, the Truth cannot be unseen.
As the Dzochen Adept Jigme Lingpa wrote: “The location of the truth of the Great Perfection is the unfabricated mind of the present moment, this naked radiant awareness itself, not a hair of which has been forced into relaxation. Maintaining this at all times, just through not forgetting it even in the states of eating, sleeping, walking, and sitting, is called meditation. . . Just by not forgetting the nature of one’s own awareness — the kind that is not a tangled mindfulness that gets more tangled in order to be mindful — at some point the unelaborated ultimate truth, transcending terms and examples, will appear.”
Ultimately, and even now, only Awareness pertains, the same aware spaciousness that has always been the case, except that we have temporarily been beguiled by the energetic illusions of the self-sense, imagining that “I”-thought to be who and what we are. In fact, what we truly are is that which is aware right now. It is not at the end of a long journey, or waiting for us at some mountain top. It is closer than our own heartbeat, and we cannot be other than it.
The great female Adept Ayo Khandro proclaimed: “Whatever arises in the mind, the awareness of that, the presence of that state of whatever arises is itself rigpa (the innermost, essential nature of mind). This is not a concept but it’s a direct experience, that kind of presence or awareness. It’s beyond any concept. One continues to remain beyond concept and one continuously finds oneself in this knowingness or presence.”
Once the obscuring impediments and distractions have been seen through and released to some extent, the practice, if it can be labeled as such, is simply to not fall back to sleep. For most, because we have been so habituated to a pretense of identification with this or that fictional narrative, the full embodiment of such revolutionary Recognition will usually require a period of integration in terms of bringing life-level behaviors and relationships into alignment, but once our true nature has been recognized, it cannot be forgotten again.
In any case, there is no place to tarry along the way, since the truth of our Spirit is infinite expansion, even beyond any human comprehension. As Dogen Zenji noted, just as there is no beginning to enlightenment, so too there is no end to practice.
“The only true and full Awareness is Awareness of Awareness. Until Awareness is Awareness of itself, it knows no peace at all. Is it not because you are yourself Awareness, that you now perceive this universe? If you observe Awareness steadily, this Awareness as Teacher, will reveal the Truth.”
~Sri Ramana Maharshi