We tend to think that each of us is a substantial and enduring individual being, because we remember moments from the past, and so imagine there is some continuity of a personal self. However, in the same way we awake and quickly forget the various adventures we participated in while dreaming, so too does the same fate befall much of what transpired in the past. Where is that wonderful Pinot Noir I drank last week? Where is the one who drank it? There is a memory, but it is fading even now (not to mention the character who was driven around in a baby carriage, who saw a flying bird for the first time, who fell in love with clouds while reclining on the backyard lawn).
Yes, some things seem to stick with us, and even serve to define who we take ourselves to be today. We dwell on these past events and experiences, and in doing so, we give them some power to confirm our sense of self. In this way, we come to believe in an orderly principle of cause and effect, otherwise known as “karma” in spiritual terminology. It gives us a hedge on what otherwise might seem to be a very disturbing chaos. Yes, I have all this karma, which explains my appearance in the midst of the confusing situation I find myself, by virtue of simply being born.
We believe we are the result of what has gone before, even though what has proceeded us no longer exists. Indeed, there was never a quantifiable moment when it did. We cannot go back and grasp any of it, in the very same way we cannot grasp the entity we might assume ourselves to be at this moment. Is there even a “moment”, a discrete piece of time, separate from other pieces, such as past and future? Of course, all such grasping and mirror-gazing is self-reinforcing, and the complex destiny of an enduring person is projected on the basis of mind stringing together certain memory associations and physical sensations, which are assembled by the brain into the “reality” we take for granted.
On the other hand, perhaps we have heard various sage-like people talk about “emptiness”. Now we imagine all sorts of implications to that concept, as if we could somehow solidify enough to stand apart from something else and label it “empty”. In whatever way mind attempts to configure experience, it is still just emptiness chasing its own tail like a dog. On further inspection, the whole totality of universal manifestation is just one thing, so to speak, wanting to have the experience of subject and object. Hence, there is this dreaming which we take to be the self, the world, reality, God. There is dreaming, but the source of this dreaming is none other than dreaming itself. Dreaming is dreaming.
Just so, who or what is this “we” that is projecting a self, a world, a God, the dream, but emptiness itself projecting a separate entity, a separate reality which it can stand apart from and observe, critique, define, explain, or manipulate? See, when we try and pin this supposed entity down, we end up grasping at air. There is no answer to “Who am I?” There couldn’t be, because we would have to separate out from the essential emptiness to observe such a character, and we can’t, any more than water can separate itself from wetness, or a dream from dreaming.
Where is our past? It only exists as an arbitrary and fleeting mental formulation, just as our supposed present does. Never mind about the future. None of it can be stopped for a moment and considered actually existent. There is no solidity to any of it, even down to the sub-atomic level. Our thoughts, which we take to be “ours”, have no endurance. That is easy enough to recognize. But outside of thoughts, what is there? There is an apparent physical body, but we know that it is always changing, always replacing cells, for example, so that the body of yesterday is no longer, and the body of today will be different tomorrow. Which one am “I”? There is actually no body, but simply the appearance of a body. If we examine the body we will find atoms separated by vast distances of empty space.
Within this vast empty body, certain physiological processes swoosh together like fluids and electrons, producing the sensation of existence, and from there all sorts of phenomena seem to be implied, like an objective world, for example. Certainly, if a big rock lands on my toe, it will create the feeling of pain, but when I fall asleep later, where is the rock, the pain, the toe? When this body returns to the elements, where is any such experience of rock, toe, pain, self, world? Literally, we are already the “walking dead” — dead to whatever previously transpired, which is now more like a movie which we once watched, but are now in the process of forgetting (along with the one who watched it). It is all so elusive, we are barely able to take a breath!
In the midst of this whirl of sensation, experience, perception, and perpetually modifying consciousness, there does appear to be one constant, one unchanging element, but it is not ours, not personal, not graspable, not even perceivable. It is not an object to itself, and it is empty of even emptiness. “Awareness” has been designated as who and what we really are, but there is no identity to it, no standing apart from it and claiming “This is it!”
Although it is simple and obvious — Awareness — such a term really means nothing. All terms have no objective meaning, except what mind grants to them in its illusion of knowing. If we were to be totally honest, however, we must admit that we know nothing. We have many ideas about things, but do not know a single thing. All this presumption of knowing only prolongs the magic act which we take to be “our life”. We may have the feeling that there is some essence waiting deep in the innermost layers of heart and mind that “knows”, but that too is just a play of consciousness, a trick, not real.
We are never going to arrive at some exalted destination where we suddenly “know”. If there is such a destination, it only manifests when all knowing drops away, along with the presumption of a knower. That is our actual “state”, even now, which is only obscured by our presumptions that things are otherwise, that we are other than the pure awareness in which all knowing, all presumption, all appearance arises and dissolves, and that we are in the deplorable condition of having to jump through all sorts of hoops to arrive at the place which we have truly never left. What a horror!
The entire apparent universe is composed of mental formations, illusory objects that appear and disappear based on mechanisms which surpass the human persona’s capacity to comprehend, much less control. The human persona itself is one of those illusory formations, flashing in and out of time like bits of lightning during a sudden summer storm that sweeps through the sky and then is gone. Did it even happen? In that sense, nothing actually happens. Nothing has ever happened, except a breath-taking play of imagination, a compelling tryst of mind, memory, and magic. Isn’t it all so amazing?