Once the pattern of our response to particular perceptions has been established, the only way to open our view to the possibility of choice at the level of intention is to allow some space to develop. We need to learn to become aware of intention arising in response to perception, so that we have a space in that moment to decide whether to allow the response to follow through, to let it dissolve, or to change it to another response. One of the primary methods of developing this spaciousness at the level of intention is through meditation techniques that teach us to dwell comfortably in the space of mind-without-thought. We discover Sky Mind.
There are many methods of spacious meditation in the different schools and traditions of Buddhism4. These methods teach us to cease giving attention to the constant chatter in our minds – cloud mind. Through letting go of cloud mind, we discover Sky Mind.
We sit and allow the movement in mind to settle. When a thought arises, we let go of the content and allow the energy to dissipate. When a memory arises, we let go of the content and allow the movement to dissolve. When sensation arises, we do not judge it as good or bad, attractive or unattractive, we let it subside and disappear.
When we learn to be comfortable in the space of Sky Mind, we find that we have discovered one of the most potent methods of transforming dualistic perception and response into enlightened perception and response. When we discover spaciousness at the point of intention, choice becomes a possibility. We realise that we can go down the usual furrow, start a new furrow, or allow every perception to be the fresh, new, clear, vivid experience of the moment. I can see that the grass is green; I can hear the sound of my beloved’s voice; I can smell the roses; I can taste the honey; and I can feel the caress of silk on my skin – for the first time, every time. Because every time is the first time in this mind moment. Every perception can be the ecstatically empty perception of now.
If we never learn to dwell in this spacious moment, we remain slaves to the automatic patterned quality of responses. There is no choice. We plod down the same furrow or create new ones which are equally constricting.
There are several ways to approach emptiness. If we are not able to dwell in emptiness as a meditational experience, karma can still be undermined through awareness and effort of will. We can approach emptiness by learning to control our responses to perception through mindfulness and self-discipline. Mindfulness is a practice of developing emptiness. Self-discipline is a practice of developing emptiness. These are practices of the Sutrayana path and are pragmatic and effective. They represent the path of renunciation.
If chocolate is a source of desire that, if indulged, leads to the deepening of the ingrained pattern of desire, then I simply remove myself from the sphere of chocolate. This approach works, and can be applied to all sources of desire and aversion.
The ultimate expression of the path of renunciation is monasticism. Here the method of developing emptiness through mindfulness and self-discipline is embraced by letting go of as many of the reference points of ordinary life as possible. The monastic practitioner lets go of the colourful perceptions of ordinary life that function as causes for the stimulation of the responses of desire and aversion. They adopt a restricted life with fewer opportunities for distraction. This is an admirable commitment to the development of emptiness in order to undermine the potency of karmic patterning.
However, the renunciate life may not be possible or desirable for the majority of us. It is fortunate therefore, that different methods of undermining karmic patterning exist. Emptiness can be developed through meditation and devotion. Devotion can be understood as form, through our interaction with a teacher and teachings in terms of showing respect and listening with attention. But it can also be understood as emptiness through our openness of heart and mind.
When emptiness is discovered through meditation, this ground experience of spaciousness allows the practitioner to actively play with perception and response in order to effect transformation at that level. This is the path of Vajrayana. It is an effective and pragmatic method, but it can be more difficult to grasp than the path of renunciation. We need to be aware of the danger of failure. If I fail to dwell in spaciousness at the moment of perception, so that I fail to open intention and realise choice, then I have simply reinforced my patterning.
My practice may then become the cause of the continuation of the cycle of samsara rather than the cause of liberation. Hence, Vajrayana is a more advanced path than Sutrayana. It is also regarded as potentially dangerous. Only if response is rooted in realisation of the emptiness of the form of perception can karma begin to be undermined.
Vajrayana offers methods of symbolic activity, to be employed as the empty form of intention and response, so that the subject and object of response are dropped. The experience of non-duality is simulated through symbolic activity until the actual experience as the co-emergence of bliss and emptiness is achieved5. Empty or non-dual form is experienced as blissful. It is the potent delight of the movement of form in the present moment – the ecstasy of loving appreciation; the blissful enjoyment of sensory experience; the inspiration of insightful ideation.
Once we are able to dwell in the experience of emptiness between moments of movement in the mind, and even expand the scope of that emptiness, our patterning becomes transparent. It is revealed and laid bare. We can experience the naked empty nature of our perception, and joyfully play with the movement of intention and response. We can begin to recognise the processes we enter into at the moment of perception that result in response. We can see how we judge everything, categorise everything and separate ourselves from the direct, naked experience of perception. We can recognise that we continually filter perception through expectation and previous experience, and are at the mercy of the three root misconceptions of attraction, aversion, and indifference. These three distracted tendencies are the grinding of the wheel of samsara.
Through objectifying ourselves as substantial and separate, as beings that can exist in permanence and continuity, we impute upon ourselves the ability to own experience and to possess a definition that can be harmed. Through our form-based definition of what we are and how we exist, we create the duality of subject and object. We are the subject of existence (perceiver) and everything else is the object (perceived).
4. For information on the practice of one of these methods, based in the Aro gTér lineage of the Nyingma Tradition see Roaring Silence by Ngakpa Chögyam and Khandro Déchen (Shambhala Publications, 2002).
5. For a full and detailed explanation of symbolic method see Wearing the Body of Visions by Ngakpa Chögyam (Aro Books, 1995).