Posted by: Soh
By Peter Fenner, Ph.D

The manifold of phenomenal appearances is primordially unoriginated and non-dual, just like an image reflected in a mirror. The nature of openness isn’t separate from phenomenal appearances, just as water and its quality of being moist are combined in a non-dualistic condition. Free of the limits of illusion, like an imaginary city, the instant things manifest they are in the condition of being primordially unborn.

Although the phenomenal world appears to be located (in time and space, in fact) it is the non- abiding dimension of being itself. The instant an appearance seems to disappear it does not in fact cease, (since ultimately phenomena) neither increase nor decrease. As such, phenomenal appear- ances do not exist in the way they appear.

These lines are from a text called the Natural Freedom of Being by the great Complete Fulfill- ment master Longchenpa who lived in Tibet in the fourteenth century. As we have said elsewhere, the Complete Fulfillment or Dzogchen tradition offers a spiritual perspective that is very consistent with our own work. Here we will unpack these few lines for they will help us understand the radical immediacy of the Complete Fulfillment experience which embraces and dissolves the sense of separation we create between ourselves and the world.

Longchenpa begins by stating that our sensory experience is uncreated and indivisible. He uses the analogy of a mirror-image to illustrate this idea. This is an image that is used frequently in nearly all Buddhist traditions to illustrate how our experience lacks any discrete and irreducible properties. In our own time we can also use the examples of film or video images. If we examine an image in a mirror the image gives the appearance of being composed of separate elements, yet in reality it is a single indivisible image. We cannot take the image apart and put it together in another way. The elements appear to be separate but in fact they are inseparable. As an image, the seeming boundary between one feature and the next signifies nothing. There is no change in constitution, or media that differentiates one feature from another. Even if the image is moving and changing its shape and constitution it cannot be broken up into separable elements.

From the Complete Fulfillment perspective the sense world is no different from the mirror image. While it appears to be divisible and manipulable like a set of building blocks, the idea that we can isolate one element of our experience and move it around, or replace it with another, is a linguis- tically created illusion. In particular, it is created through the language that attributes choice and agency to ourselves and others. The language of human agency produces the appearance of control and manipulation. We learn to claim responsibility when certain, often repetitive actions, occur in a predicatable way. For example, when our body moves as we stand up from a chair we say we choose to do this. At a more profound level, the image of a reflection in a mirror also illustrates the inseparability between a perceiver and that which is perceived. According to the Complete Fulfillment, concepts of a perceiver and objects of perception are theoretical abstractions, which have no basis in the domain of being. In the same way that an image in the mirror is inseparable from the mirror, similarly we don’t exist as something different from the universe that we experience. This is an extension of the idea that is now commonly accepted in the natural and human sciences, that our experience is “theory laden”. In other words, our perceptions are shaped and influenced by our beliefs, theories, and structures for interpreting the world. However, the Complete Fulfillment tradition applies this discovery in a far more radical way by demonstrating that even the most obvious and palpable dimensions of our experience, such as the feeling of being different from the things we experience, are but structures of interpretation.

The contemporary English mystic Douglas Harding has presented the visual dimensions of this disclosive space in a particularly accessible way through his notion of “having no head.” As Harding demonstrates in his writings, and through simple practical exercises, we never experience our own head in the same way that we experience those around us. In place of our head is a space that is the universe we experience. As Harding writes (p. 9), “This is not a matter of argument, or of philo- sophical acumen, or or working oneself up into a state, but of simple sight…. Present experience, whatever sense is employed, occurs only in an empty and absent head.” Our own head is a theoreti- cal construct, inferred on the basis that we are like the people who show up within the field of our experience.

Though our limbs and torso are often revealed within this field, our head is never revealed as an object of perception. Were it ever to be where we “think” it is, it would occlude the possibility of experiencing anything else. If our head was where we “imagine” it is, the universe would disappear. As Harding says (p. 11), “there is one place where no head of mine can ever turn up, and that is here on my shoulders, where it would blot out this Central Void which is my very life-source.” Of course, you might say that the existence of our head as the gateway for our visual, auditory, and olfactory perception can be confirmed by reaching out and touching a mass that seems to rest on our shoul- ders, but as Harding says (p. 8), “when I start groping around for my lost head, instead of finding it here I only lose my exploring hand as well: it, too, is swallowed up in the abyss at the centre of my being.” In the place where our head would be is a space that is the universe as we experience it. Consequently, from this perspective we are the universe. As Harding writes (p. 19): “It is absolutely Nothing, yet all things; the only Reality, yet an absentee… There is nothing else whatever. I am everyone and no-one ...”

In the above lines Longchenpa uses the term openness (shunyata), thus connecting the Com- plete Fulfillment to the broad and powerful river of Buddhist wisdom contained in the Perfect Wis- dom (Prajnaparamita) tradition. In language reminiscent of the famous Buddhist text, the Heart Scripture, Longchenpa writes that “the nature of openness isn’t separate from phenomenal appear- ances.” The Heart Scripture itself says: “Form is openness and openness itself is form. Openness does not differ from form and form does not differ from openness. Whatever is form, that is open- ness. Whatever is openness, that is form.”

The point being made here is that there is no separation between that which is disclosed (i.e., the phenomenal world) and the disclosive field that makes the disclosure of any universe possible. A disclosive space is the field within which all things manifest, persist, and decay, exactly as they do. Ultimately, it is indistinguishable from the experiential field. It is the occurance of that which occurs in it. As Harding says (p. 60), “The Space is the things that occupy it.” This disclosive space cannot be created since this is tantamount to creating the universe. Further, to the extent that there is never a time when there is no disclosive space (time being an occurance within it), it is a vacuous concept. In fact, the disclosive space that is disclosed doesn’t exist. This is why Buddhist philosophers such as Nagarjuna and Chandrakirti emphasize that the experience of openness is itself open and insubstan- tial.

A consequence of this level of immediacy is there is no act of perception. As the Heart Scripture also says, “in the sphere of openness there is no eye, ear, nose, tongue, body or mind, and there are no forms, sounds, smells, tastes, touchables or objects of mind. Because there is no perception, there is no perceiver, or object of perception either. As Harding writes (p. 6): “[T]hese coloured shapes present themselves in all simplicity, without any such complications as near or far, this or that, mine or not mine, seen-by-me or merely given. All twoness-all duality of subject and object-has vanished: it is no longer read into a situation which has no room for it.” It is meaningless to say that the world is out there, or in here, because disclosive space is neither inside nor outside. There is nothing it doesn’t disclose, so it can’t be inside since nothing can be outside. Nor, can it be outside because whatever is inside is disclosed by this space. Also, because there is no inside or outside, this space cannot be said to be small or large, expanded or contracted, hidden or revealed, here or there. Furthermore, because there is no sense of here or there, there is no experience of distance within this disclosive space. The feeling that we are closer to some things and further away from others is an illusion created by the beliefs that things remain constant in size, even when they change their dimensions, and things can occlude each other. Consequently, we aren’t located within this space because we are the space itself. For example, when we sit in a room we believe that the room is located within a house which is within a city or town, but this isn’t given in our experience at all. That our room is located in a country on planet earth is an interpretation that is seemingly substanti- ated by memories.

Perhaps that is so, you might say, but I still have the experience of being located in this room. You might say you are sitting near the west facing wall, or standing in the middle of the room. If we say we are located near the west wall we do so on the basis of a belief that the room exists in a larger universe. Here the sense of location is derived, not from our experience, but that things exist “on the other side” of our experience. If we say we are in the middle of a room we believe that things can be more, or less distant from us, in virtue of believing that phenomena have stable dimensions, even when they shrink or enlarge within our field of experience.

Because the experience of distance and location deconstruct within the Complete Fulfillment perspective, there is no experience of motion or stillness. The phenomenon of walking or driving is completely consistent with us moving through a stationery landscape, or the landscape moving through us. In the absence of an arbitrary framework of interpretation, there is absolutely no way of distinquishing whether we are moving, or whether phenomena are moving through the clearing we identify as the locus of our head. Consequently, we are neither still nor moving. From the Complete Fulfillment perspective there is simply “an experience” of colors and shapes that modulate like reflections on water.

This thing that we call our “body” isn’t the locus of our identity. It is simply the most constant gestalt that occurs in “our” experience. Many of our visual experiences are accompanied on the lower periphery by an inchoate and indistinct sensation that frequently transforms into an experience of hands, arms and sometimes legs. We identify these sensation as our body because they invariably show up wherever we think we are. We think we are there because these limbs consistently display the same markings in terms of color, shape, size, weight, etc. If another set of limbs showed up with predictable constancy around the bottom half of our visual field, we would think that we were there. We interpret that we are walking when certain changes occur in our visual, auditory and tactile fields. In fact, we simply witness modulations in our experience like those that can be partially replicated with virtual reality technology. The difference between virtual reality and the Complete Fulfillment perspective is that virtual reality creates an impression of movement while we are statio- nery. This is partially a limitation of virtual reality technology which cannot yet replicate the pixel resolution of human vision, or simulate the muscular activity involved in actions like walking. But more significantly it is due to the memories we have of stepping into a virtual reality unit. But unlike virtual reality the Complete Fulfillment perspective doesn’t condition the experience of being in a fixed location with images changing around us. In other words, though the experience of real motion dissolves, it doesn’t produce the sensation of being stuck in the same location. Spatial location and dislocation both dissolve in this perspective. From the Complete Fulfillment perspective, reality is always a virtual reality.

Adapted from forthcoming book by Peter titled The Natural Freedom of Being. A free Audio CD Interview is available for those interested in the Radiant Mind Course.

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