Awareness is inherently free. It is free of “I.” It is free of every illusion of separateness. It already transcends the spectacle of birth, old age, sickness and death.
In this moment, we either realize this to be true, or we do not. Thus, as meditators we are inevitably moved by one of two opposing visions of reality: either we recognize the intrinsic freedom of awareness, and experience it directly in each moment of mindfulness, or we find ourselves mysteriously confined by what appears as mind and body, and we are mindful of our bondage, hoping to transcend it.
Which of these visions is revealed to us by our practice of mindfulness is not a matter of what we believe to be true about the nature of reality. It is a matter of realization. In this moment, we are either released from our illusions of suffering and confinement, or we are seeking this release and enduring the efforts of our search.
As freedom is truly intrinsic to the nature of awareness, it is likely that yogis in every tradition of spiritual practice have realized it. But most teachings reflect the world-weary view that freedom is elsewhere, and thus most paths ask to be travelled by the logic of seeking.
It is my opinion that while many yogis have experienced freedom through the practice of vipassana, most are not taught to recognize that freedom is inherent to the nature of awareness. To account for this, I will compare the teachings of vipassana to those of Dzogchen.
The views which I am presenting are the result of my experiences in meditation. I share them in the hope that all practitioners may distinguish inherent freedom from strategies of attention which seek freedom by stages, and which sustain, in every present moment, the illusion of duality.
The view of reality which provides the motivation and guiding logic for the practice of vipassana is one which sees existence as a circumstance of suffering and limitation. The root cause of this predicament is our craving for experience, which is the result of ignorance.
Ignorance, according to vipassana, is the failure to recognize the three characteristics of all conditioned phenomena. Thus, we regard what is by nature impermanent (anicca), to be lasting; what is unsatisfactory (dukkha), to be a source of happiness; and what is not self (anatta), to be “I.”
Having described our situation in these terms, the logical remedy for the apparent problem of existence is to observe phenomena closely enough so that the three characteristics become obvious, and our craving for samsaric experience gradually diminishes. Thus, wisdom in the teaching of vipassana refers to various degrees of insight into the characteristics of impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and selflessness.
It is important to emphasize that in the practice of vipassana, this condition of bondage and ignorance is considered to be “real,” or really present, and must be overcome gradually (through continuous insight) and in necessary stages (through the repeated death-rebirth event of Nibbana).
By contrast, the teaching of Dzogchen regards our apparent bondage as an illusion, born of our mistaken perception of duality. Thus, ignorance, in Dzogchen, is not simply the failure to see the three characteristics of conditioned phenomena. Rather, it is the false presumption that sensory phenomena actually exist as objects, independent of the nature of awareness. When the view of Dzogchen has been recognized, all phenomena are discovered to be inseparable from awareness in the same way that the images which appear in a mirror are inseparable from reflected light. In reality, we experience only awareness, for whatever appears is merely the empty display of its own energy. There are no separate objects arising at all.
After one has recognized this vision beyond any possibility of doubt, every moment of mindfulness reveals that awareness is inherently free of all subject-object distinctions (and therefore the feeling of “I”), center and periphery, inside and outside—and all appearances are seen to be merely a dreamlike display of emptiness. Thus, the meditation of Dzogchen is not a rigorous cure for the disease of unenlightenment, but a direct perception of a reality which has never known bondage.
One key to these divergent visions of reality is that the teachings of vipassana presume that awareness (usually called consciousness) is itself another type of conditioned object, arising and vanishing in every moment. These teachings view awareness as the mental factor of cognizance, and thus distinguish it from the phenomena which it cognizes. In this way, a vipassana yogi is taught to be mindful of all phenomena (including consciousness) as objects, independent of the condition in which they are arising—as though such a condition did not exist, or could not be recognized. As a result, all experience appears as an irreducible duality, with objects of all kinds arising and passing away, and conditioned consciousness knowing them. As practice develops, the mere presence of phenomena is felt as an acute limitation, an impingement, and it is dukkha. In this vision of reality, it is not only the kilesas, like ignorance, desire and anger, which are considered the circumstance of our conditioned bondage. Experience itself is, in some fundamental sense, an obstacle to be overcome by practice—for as long as conditioned phenomena are arising at all, the goal of Nibbana has not been attained. Freedom is elsewhere.
From the perspective of Dzogchen, this vision of limitation, and all the purifying efforts which proceed from it, are born of an uninspected illusion. And yet once presumed, this view is self-confirming—for if we fail to recognize the prior freedom and non-duality of awareness, we will continue to suffer the apparent confinement of dualistic perception, whereby everything that arises seems to modify and limit awareness, and thereby bear evidence of our unenlightenment.
The teachings of Dzogchen would agree that reality can appear in exactly this way. But the experience of Dzogchen reveals that such a course of practice suffers from the misguided efforts of the man in Mumon’s poem:
In conclusion, I would like to suggest that the teachings of vipassana and Dzogchen are actually addressing two very different problems. The practice of vipassana takes our bondage to be real and seeks to uproot its cause, which is the craving resulting from our ignorance of the three characteristics of phenomena. When this ignorance is removed we cease to crave, and phenomenal existence is ultimately brought to an end. In this view, experience itself is an affliction which must disappear before we may enjoy the freedom that lies beyond conditions.
The teachings of Dzogchen see our bondage as an illusion which results from our ignorance, not of the limited nature of phenomena, but of the limitlessness of our true condition. When we recognize this condition, which is non-dual awareness itself, we discover the freedom and emptiness which are entirely coincident with phenomenal existence. What is truly remarkable about the tradition of Dzogchen is that an authentic master, by the power of his realization and the blessings of his lineage, can directly reveal this vision of reality to a ripe practitioner. It has been my experience that the practice of vipassana is an excellent preparation for this “direct introduction to the nature of mind,” and yet it was only after receiving this transmission that I found a moment of mindfulness to be truly identical to a moment of freedom.
The recognition of non-duality, which a Dzogchen master introduces directly to the mind of a yogi, is not identical to the insight into egolessness (anatta) which I experienced in the course of vipassana practice. In vipassana, this insight is very much dependent upon seeing the impermanence (anicca) and the ungovernability of all arising phenomena; since all objects, and the knowing of them, arise spontaneously and pass away in an instant, it becomes obvious that there is no solid entity, no self or ego, behind or within the stream of appearances.
Such a realization is not necessarily non-dualistic, for one can see that there is no ego, and yet still feel a separation between consciousness and objects—indeed the duality of nama (mental phenomena including consciousness) and rupa (physical phenomena) is emphasized continually in the teaching of vipassana. Consequently, no matter how effortless and continuous my mindfulness became, as a vipassana yogi I was always in some sense observing phenomena (or their absence); and this was, of course, the point of practice—to observe the three characteristics.
In the practice of Dzogchen, however, the sense of duality between awareness and objects completely dissolves, and all that remains is an inexpressible totality of emptiness. In this condition, the problematic view of experience which motivates the efforts of vipassana is entirely absent.