The Talking School

Hollow Discussions

“If we have listened to many learned masters and received deep instructions, have studied a few sutras and tantras, without ever applying them —‘Oh how pitiful!’— we are just fooling ourselves.”


At a certain point on the journey, it becomes obvious that Reality is not reducible to any one view, dogma, religious or philosophical description, sage’s testimony, or even any direct experience, regardless of how seemingly profound and conclusive. On the contrary, it both includes and simultaneously exceeds all that we can know or imagine, and so clinging to any fixed notion, scripture, or purported revelation only serves to superimpose a conceptual limit on what is fundamentally limitless.

In that regard, and in today’s multifaceted spiritual environment, it is quite common for people who encounter certain nonduality teachings (such as Advaita Vendanta, or the Buddhist Schools of Zen, Mahamudra, and Dzogchen) to find substantial resonance on an intellectual level. After all, once one begins to examine such teachings, they do make a lot of sense, especially if one has already had some exposure to the eastern spiritual traditions, or grown disenchanted with the Abrahamic religious dogmas as propounded in the conventional institutions that most Westerners have been raised in.

The problem is, as long as these nondual teachings remain on the level of the intellect, they may have some philosophical value, but that is typically as far as it goes. Unless the inquiry penetrates deep enough through the layers of mental formations to sever the root of our transient identifications and self-positions, while simultaneously opening the heart to the call of selfless compassion, it will not ultimately be very transformative, and can even pose as an additional hindrance by fattening the “spiritual ego”.

Fixating in a purely intellectual understanding of the emptiness of the self-complex, for example, can actually interfere with or impede its direct recognition (or clear seeing), which is something of an altogether different nature. In that regard, one of the strange drawbacks of such philosophical agreement is the tendency observed in so many enthusiasts of the nonduality scene to forgo a commitment to the practice/actualization component, choosing instead to extract certain themes from the totality of the teachings (such as, “there is nothing that need be done”, “everything is already perfect as it is”, “just be what you are”, and other typically misunderstood and out-of-context proclamations), and then feel satisfied that they have “got it”.

Experiencing the concepts expounded by the nonduality-based wisdom systems, of course, is no substitute for the literal revolution in consciousness to which the concepts merely point. The great Advaitic sage Nisargadatta Maharaj himself spent years plunged into intense self-inquiry and meditation prior to his awakening, but that fact is often by-passed by the mind that believes it has the whole thing figured out, based on a bit of reading and online conversation. Finding those who can talk the talk has become increasingly easy, but those who actually walk the walk have always been quite rare. Stepping back a pace or two, one might even see the humor in the internet nonduality enthusiasts’ fervent efforts to deny their own existence, even as the concerted energy expended on that task only serves to confirm the very persona which they imagine they can banish via intellectual assent.

We might hear it said that the mind is without essence and identity – lucidity without a reference point, completely free. Some claim it is awareness without dwelling, unobservable and unfettered by notions such as existence, non-existence, permanence, and nothingness. The “unformed unity of empty cognizance” or “the quintessential luminosity itself abiding as the ground” are also phrases some preachers have been known to employ. Because these terms are all mere reflections in the mirror, we can avoid being trapped in the cleverness of words by recognizing them all as no more or less significant than a passing autumn breeze, and instead turn our attention (via practice) to that which they are only pointing. All the intriguing descriptions on a menu still cannot equal one delicious bite of real food.

Even my previous essay, on the Mystique of Freedom, could be misinterpreted to suggest that practice is unnecessary. In fact, no effort can bring about awakening, but paradoxically, in order to realize that, some effort does seem to be required.

As Nisargadatta himself noted: “Unless you make tremendous efforts, you will not be convinced that effort will take you nowhere. The self is so self-confident that unless it is totally discouraged it will not give up. Mere verbal conviction is not enough. Hard facts alone can show the absolute nothingness of the self-image.”

Practices such as Non-dwelling, the Discipline of Silence, and True Meditation (Mindful Awareness) can effectively serve to remove obstructions to Clear Seeing. In that regard, I have used the classic metaphor of a thorn employed to remove a thorn (as an expedient means), and once it has done its job, it too can be discarded.

Even Ramana Maharshi, who is held up as an example of the rare instance when awakening occurred spontaneously, actually spent years in sadhana in seclusion cultivating his initial insight into the Self-nature, prior to settling at Arunachala and beginning teaching.

I’ve heard some teachers claim that practice may not be necessary, and that may or may not be true for us someday, but certainly not as long as we are appearing in this realm. The great Zen Master Dogen said, “enlightenment has no beginning, and practice has no end.” To have no end means that there is infinite expansion, which doesn’t end with some experience of awakening. Indeed, such experiences may merely signal the beginning of a new phase of Self-exploration.

In any case (and not to belabor the issue), I will offer one good practice tip from a pretty reliable teacher, Garchen Rinpoche:

“If you were to practice mindful awareness with great diligence for just a month, if you were to recognize even the slightest thought and not allow your mind to wander off into delusion for that time, even in such a short time you would witness great changes. Fierce afflictions would not faze you so much anymore, because you would have gained personal experience in observing the illusory play.”

About Bob OHearn

My name is Bob O'Hearn, and I live with my Beloved Mate, Mazie, in the foothills of the Northern California Sierra Nevada Mountains. I have a number of blog sites you may enjoy: Photo Gallery: Essays on the Conscious Process: Compiled Poetry and Prosetry: Verses and ramblings on life as it is: Verses and Variations on the Investigation of Mind Nature: Verses on the Play of Consciousness: Poetic Fiction, Fable, Fantabulation: Poems of the Mountain Hermit: Love Poems from The Book of Yes: Autobiographical Fragments, Memories, Stories, and Tall Tales: Ancient and modern spiritual texts, creatively refreshed: Writings from selected Western Mystics, Classic and Modern: Wisdom of a Spirit Guide: Thank You!
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22 Responses to The Talking School

  1. Bob OHearn says:

    “All metaphysical discussion is fruitless unless it causes us to seek within the Self for the true Reality. One can, and often does, go through numerous books, a whole library perhaps, and yet comes out without the faintest realization of what one is. Learning often renders a disservice, especially when it causes a person’s ego and pride to develop; these prove to be serious obstacles to progress.”

    ~Ramana Maharshi

  2. Bob OHearn says:

    “Merely talking about Reality without doing anything about it is self-defeating. There must be love in the relation between the person who says ‘I am’ and the observer of that ‘I am’.

    As long as the observer, the inner self, the ‘higher’ self, considers himself apart from the observed, the ‘lower’ self, despises it and condemns it, the situation is hopeless. It is only when the observer accepts the person as a projection or manifestation of himself, and, so to say, takes the self into the Self, the duality of ‘I’ and ‘this’ goes and in the identity of the outer and the inner the Supreme Reality manifests itself.

    This union of the seer and the seen happens when the seer becomes conscious of himself as the seer, he is not merely interested in the seen, which he is anyhow, but also interested in being interested, giving attention to attention, aware of being aware. Affectionate awareness is the crucial factor that brings Reality into focus.”


  3. Bob OHearn says:

    “Seeking to understand conceptually that which cannot become an object of thought causes the hindrances that obstruct understanding.”

    ~Chogyal Namkhai Norbu

  4. marcelvuijst says:

    “When spiritually experienced people come here, they entertain into a dialogue just for entertainment. In the true state nothing is. You can talk in the world to the ignorant masses; you can convey any number of concepts to them. Let me give you an example: In certain parts of our country , when a person is dead, his ornaments are given to a barber, because from the barber they will go to the dead person. That is the concept. And such concepts are all for the ignorant people. But you can’t very well tell such stories here, when discussing profound spiritual matters. Ultimately, what are these spiritual talks? They are meant for so long as ignorance prevails. To remove the ignorance, so-called knowledge is necessary. The knowledge removes the ignorance and then itself also goes; both knowledge and ignorance are thrown overboard. What remains is the Absolute.”

    ~Sri Niz

  5. Bob OHearn says:

    “As long as you pay attention to ideas, your own or of others, you will be in trouble. But if you disregard all teachings, all books, anything out into words and dive deeply within yourself and find yourself, this alone will solve all your problems and leave you in full mastery of every situation, because you will not be dominated by your ideas about the situation.”

    ~Nisargadatta Maharaj

  6. Bob OHearn says:

    “Only one in ten million goes to the crux of the matter, analyzes what it is, comes to a conclusion, and gets liberated, all by himself. The one who gets liberated is the consciousness, there is no entity.”

    ~Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj

  7. Bob OHearn says:

    In the late 1970s I sat with a little-known teacher called Dr Poy, a Gujurati who lived in northern Bombay. On my first meeting I asked him what his teachings were and he replied, ‘I have no teachings. People ask questions and I answer them. That is all.’

    I persevered: ‘If someone asks you ”How do I get enlightened?”, what do you normally tell them?’

    ‘Whatever is appropriate,’ he replied.

    After a few more questions like this, I realized that I wasn’t going to receive a coherent presentation of this man’s teachings, assuming of course that he had any. He was a good example of what I have just been talking about. He didn’t have a doctrine or a practice that he passed out to everyone who came to see him. He simply answered all questions on a case-by-case basis.

    I sat quietly for about ten minutes while Dr Poy talked in Gujurati to a couple of other visitors. In those few minutes I experienced a silence that was so deep, so intense, it physically paralyzed me.

    He turned to me and said, smiling, ‘What’s your next question?’

    He knew I was incapable of replying. His question was a private joke between us that no one else there would have understood. I felt as if my whole body had been given a novocaine injection. I was so paralyzed, in an immobilized, ecstatic way, I couldn’t even smile at his remark.

    He looked at me and said, ‘There is no such thing as right method, there is only right effort. Whatever technique you choose will work if you follow it intensely enough. You asked for my teachings and here they are: ”Part-time sadhus don’t get enlightened.”’

    ~David Godman, Living the Inspiration of Sri Ramana Maharshi

  8. Bob OHearn says:

    “Many modern students follow teachers around and accumulate empowerments and transmissions and take many teachings. But this is not a substitute for practice. Pure students don’t hang around the teachers that much. They come for instruction, or guidance, or clarification, and then they go off and practice. If we perceive our teacher as a buddha, we receive the blessings of the buddhas. But blessings relate to the power of interdependence and do not simply fall out of the sky. They do not exist independent of our mind. Nothing does. The capacity to receive and benefit from blessings comes from our side, which comes from practice.”

    ~ Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche

  9. Bob OHearn says:

    Maitreya said that to hear the dharma is to open the door to liberation, and many students imagine that study in the form of hearing and contemplating the dharma will suffice as a dharma practice. It’s true that for those on the threshold of spiritual practice, to listen to and to read dharma is extremely rewarding – and an activity that should not be entirely abandoned by more seasoned dharma practitioners – but words are abstractions that rely wholly on centuries-old assumptions, making the language we are forced to use obscure and vague. Ultimately, merely to hear and think about dharma is not enough; we must also practice it. So, hearing, contemplating and meditating on dharma are all vital to our spiritual path, with meditation lying at its very core.

    – Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche

  10. Bob OHearn says:

    “Even if we think we have grasped the meaning of the word “nondual,” we are really just fooling ourselves, because our mind is still caught up in the dualistic condition.”

    “All the philosophical theories that exist have been created by the mistaken dualistic minds of human beings. In the realm of philosophy, that which today is considered true, may tomorrow be proved to be false. No one can guarantee a philosophy’s validity. Because of this, any intellectual way of seeing whatever is always partial and relative. The fact is that there is no truth to seek or to confirm logically; rather what one needs to do is to discover just how much the mind continually limits itself in a condition of dualism.

    Dualism is the real root of our suffering and of all our conflicts. All our concepts and beliefs, no matter how profound they may seem, are like nets which trap us in dualism. When we discover our limits we have to try to overcome them, untying ourselves from whatever type of religious, political or social conviction may condition us. We have to abandon such concepts as ‘enlightenment’, ‘the nature of the mind’, and so on, until we are no longer satisfied by a merely intellectual knowledge, and until we no longer neglect to integrate our knowledge with our actual existence.”

    – Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche

  11. Bob OHearn says:

    “The Buddhas teach that emptiness
    Definitely eliminates all clinging to views,
    But those who cling to the view of emptiness
    Are said to be incorrigible.”

    ~Arya Nagarjuna, Mulamadhyamakarika 13.8

  12. Bob OHearn says:

    “The teaching that is written on paper is not the true teaching. Written teaching is a kind of food for your brain. Of course it is necessary to take some food for your brain, but it is more important to be yourself by practicing the right way of life.”

    ~Suzuki Roshi

  13. Bob OHearn says:

    “In the book Spiritual Bypassing, Robert Masters has written about an important wake up call to all people with spiritual inclinations. It is a wake up call that rings true, and is aligned with what genuine Buddhist masters have always taught: do not think you can jump to the top of the ladder.

    Robert Masters points to a range of unhealthy traits that may arise from unfounded and non-guided spiritual training: Excessive detachment ability; One-sided focus on positive thinking; Fear of anger and artificial kindness; Neglect of emotions; Difficulty in setting limits; No interest in real psychotherapeutic work; An intellectual intelligence that is far ahead of the emotional and moral intelligence; Focus on the absolute rather than the relative and personal; Somewhat inflated ideas about their own cognitive level.

    Is there an alarm bell ringing? Are you able to say that you are completely free? Every genuine master whom I have had the luxury of receiving teachings from has always stressed that we need to cultivate from the inside out. With the concept of bypassing, Masters describes how many so-called spiritual people [are] missing out on imperative psychological development. He compares it to being hoisted down to the mountaintop by a helicopter. We end up without a reliable or firm foundation. Our view is not deserved nor supported from within, but bought and achieved without the appropriate foundational work. We simply have to climb all the way to the top if we really want to be free.”

  14. marcelvuijst says:

    What is this ‘knowledge’ that you want, this knowledge about which you take down notes ? What use will be made of those notes ? Have you given any thought to this aspect of the matter ?

    The real point is, he continues: Did you find any need of any knowledge a hundred years ago ? That, which you do not know and cannot know is your true state. This, which you think is real because it can be objectified, is what you appear to be. Whatever knowledge you are now seeking about your true state is unknowable, because you are what you are seeking. All that you can get as knowledge is at a conceptual level – the knowledge that you would get as an objective appearance. Such ‘knowledge’ is in no way different from ‘ignorance’, because they are inter-related counterparts at the conceptual level. In other words, comprehension at the mind level means only conceptualization and, therefore, is totally illusory. Do understand please, the difference between such conceptualized knowledge and the intuitive apperceiving which is not at the conceptual level. Indeed, apperceiving is whole-seeing or in-seeing, which is vitally different from mere intellectual seeing. Once there is apperception, the duality of counterparts, the basis of mere intellectual comprehension, totally disappears. There is no question of any ‘one’ thinking that he has understood something by the use of reasoning and logic. True understanding is spontaneous apperception, intuitive and choiceless, and totally non-dualistic. Meditate on what I have said.

    ~Sri Niz – the last days : last teachings

  15. Bob OHearn says:

    “In the Mahayana, the principle to which maximum importance is given, and the essence itself of the Mahayana doctrine, is the union of void-ness and compassion. But, in truth, if one does not have awareness inseparably linked to presence, there absolutely cannot arise a really genuine compassion. As long as one does not have the real experience of being moved by compassion for others, it is useless to pretend that one is so very full of compassion. There is a Tibetan proverb about this, which says: “Even if you’ve got eyes to see other people, you need a mirror to see yourself!” As this proverb implies, if one really wants a genuine compassion for others to arise in oneself, it is necessary to observe one’s own defects, be aware of them, and mentally put yourself in other people’s places to really discover what those persons’ actual conditions might be. The only way to succeed in this is to have the presence of awareness. Otherwise, even if one pretends to have great compassion, a situation will sooner or later arise which shows that compassion has never really been born in us at all.

    Until a pure compassion does arise, there is no way to overcome one’s limits and barriers. And it happens that many practitioners, as they progress in the practice, just end up thinking of themselves as being a ‘divinity’ and thinking of everyone else as being ‘evil spirits’. Thus they are doing nothing other than increasing their own limits, developing attachment towards themselves, and hatred towards others. Or, even if they talk a great deal about Mahamudra and Dzogchen, all they are really doing is becoming more expert and refined in the ways of behaving of the eight worldly dharmas. This is a sure sign that a true compassion has not arisen in us, and the root of the matter is that there has never really arisen the presence of awareness. So, without chattering about it, or getting caught up in trying to hide behind an elegant facade, one should try really and truly to cause the presence of awareness actually to arise in oneself, and then carry it into practice. This is the most important point of the practice of Dzogchen.”

    ~Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche, The Mirror.

  16. Bob OHearn says:


    When you have become one with the Self, a great power takes you over and runs your life for you. It looks after your body; it puts you in the right place at the right time; it makes you say the right things to the people you meet. This power takes you over so completely, you no longer have any ability to decide or discriminate.

    The ego that thinks, ‘I must do this,’ or, ‘I should not do that,’ is no longer there. The Self simply animates you and makes you do all the things that need to be done. If you are not in this state, then use your discrimination wisely.

    I tell you regularly, ‘You are the Self. Everything is the Self.’ If this is not your experience, pretending that ‘all is one’ may get you into trouble. Advaita may be the ultimate experience, but it is not something that a mind that still sees distinctions can practice.

    Electricity is a useful form of energy, but it is also potentially harmful. Use it wisely. Don’t put your finger in the socket, thinking, ‘All is one.’

    You need a body that is in good working order in order to realize the Self. Realizing the Self is the only useful and worthy activity in this life, so keep the body in good repair till that goal is achieved.

    Afterwards, the Self will take care of everything and you won’t have to worry about anything anymore. In fact, you won’t be able to because the mind that previously did the worrying, the choosing and the discriminating will no longer be there. In that state you won’t need it and you won’t miss it.

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