Finding the spacious ground within

Recognition Sutra #8b

Of the twenty Recognition Sūtras, only two are given completely distinct alternate interpretations by their original author, the great eleventh-century Tantrik master Kṣemarāja: Sūtra One and Sūtra Eight. The alternate interpretations of Sūtra One are presented here, while the primary interpretation of Sūtra Eight is discussed here. In this post we discuss the crucial second interpretation of Sūtra Eight, which transmits the esoteric teaching of the ‘Great Truth’ (Mahārtha) that Kṣemarāja weaves into the text at various points, following his teacher Abhinavagupta's suggestion to present the most powerful teachings not all at once, but hinting at them here and there, so that students have to engage in active contemplation and put the pieces together for themselves.
     This second reading of Sūtra Eight seeks to show that the nature of Consciousness can be realized by reflecting on the process of cognition—specifically, how thoughts, feelings, and perceptions arise and dissolve within awareness. This reflection, we learn, can be done on the basis of any cognition. Such profound and careful self-reflection (vimarśa) leads one beyond philosophy to a direct contemplation of the nature of fundamental Awareness itself. This contemplative process, if properly directed, results in awakening to your true nature.
      In translating Kṣema’s alternate reading of his own sūtra, we have a couple of options:

The positions of all 'views' are opportunities for that.|| 8 ||

 the 'landing-points' of all cognitions are opportunities for That. || 8 ||

These are two different ways of saying the same thing; but either way, we will need his explanation of the sūtra to make sense of it, which follows:

This means that the inward point of repose of all cognitions—where they come to rest and dissolve—is where the true nature of one’s Self is revealed, overflowing with the undiluted Joy of Awareness.

A central doctrine of the Mahārtha lineage is that by following the cycle of any cognition back to its source, we can access our essence-nature. ('Cognition' here means any percept or concept, anything perceived (such as a visual object, sound, or feeling) or conceived (such as a thought).) This radical teaching moves us past concern about the content of our thoughts and feelings and brings our attention to the process of their arising and subsiding—as well as the ground of the process, which is our innate being or essence-nature. Here we are concerned with thoughts and feelings as movements of energy alone, and the practice of observing their movement and the quality of their vibration not only helps us becoming free of attachment or aversion vis-à-vis their content, but also has a curiously empowering effect on our energy body (more on that later). 

    Kshemarāja tells us that the practice of paying attention to where each cognition comes to rest is a subtle but powerful means for revealing the true nature of one’s innate being (svātma-svarūpa). Of course, there isn’t exactly a place that each cognition comes to rest, but by staying with a given feeling or thought (without prolonging it) we can carefully track how it loses energy and dissolves. What does it dissolve into, exactly? Like listening to a sound die away into nothingness, if we stay with the cognition as it attenuates and dissolves, we can repose for a timeless moment in the ground of our being, the field of pure potential which makes all cognitions possible. 

    Even though it is actually indescribable, Kṣemarāja gives us some hint about the nature of this ground of being, so that we might know whether we have indeed fully arrived there (not that it’s a ‘there’). He says it is “replete with the joy of awareness” (cid-ānanda-ghana). The attentive reader will recall that this is a key phrase from the invocation verse with which Kshemarāja opened the entire work. This fact implies that the present teaching is one that he regards as among the most important he has to convey. The main point here is that when we learn to be very present with the process and ground of cognition, rather than getting caught up in its content, we realize that Awareness—our fundamental nature—has the capacity to experience a kind of quiet joy and wonder (camatkāra) in relation to any experience whatsoever. We usually are not in touch with that capacity except with regard to experiences that the mind judges as positive. This is because we open ourselves to those experiences, whereas we resist experiences that the mind judges as negative, and this resistance impedes our ability to access our natural capacity for wonder, while openness does not. This is a natural law of consciousness. 

    The implications of this teaching are huge, for it completely reconfigures our sense of how to be happy. Instead of chasing after and maximizing the ‘positive’ experiences that we believe will make us happy, we orient to the possibility of discovering that when we are in touch with our essence-nature, any and every cognition can be a source of joy, wonder, and fascination—camatkāra. (For more on this, see this post.) It is important to note here that the Sanskrit words ānanda (joy) and camatkāra (wonder, fascination, sense of beauty or awe) do not imply a feeling of happiness as opposed to unhappiness. If they did, it would be impossible to experience ānanda while sad, for example. But this a kind of joy that has no opposite—a capacity to perceive beauty in what is, whether that be sadness, happiness, a grey day, or a blue sky. Essence-nature not only experiences beauty in what is, but can experience just as much beauty and wonder in what the mind doesn’t like as in what it does. 

    Let that sink in, because if you do, it can be world-rocking and life-changing (at least it was for me). Not as a concept, of course, but as a paradigm shift in your lived experience.

Contemplation exercise:  Can you remember a time in your life when you were sad or grieving and yet felt an undercurrent of inexplicable joy? That is ānanda. Perhaps you felt it as profound gratitude to be alive to experience sad moments in the first place.  Perhaps you could feel that heartbreak is a gift that bestows blessings, such as increased compassion. The brain doesn’t do very well at remembering things that don’t fit in with our picture of reality, but dig a little deeper and see if you can find examples of times in your life that you felt this undercurrent of quiet joy/aliveness/wonder, regardless of whether you also felt sad, bored, angry, or happy. 

      Actualizing your capacity to experience ānanda in all life circumstances requires the ability to cultivate your sense of curiosity and wonder. The sense of curiosity is needed to give you the patience to track your thoughts and feelings as movements of energy—paying more attention to form and quality than content. For example, instead of taking seriously the words of a thought like “I’m not good enough,” or “I’m better than her,” you become curious about: (a) how it feels to have that thought, its quality or ‘flavor’; (b) where it comes from, not so much psychologically but more like where it arises from in your body and what want or need it fulfills; and (c) where it moves to, what its trajectory is, and what kind of destiny it creates. The subtle practice here involves an exploration very different from the kind of analytical dissection and psychological evaluation to which we have all become accustomed in our culture. Rather, this involves taking a bird’s-eye view and intimately looking into the nature of the feeling/cognition. You notice its arc, where it arises from and where it subsides, in a subtle ‘energetic’ way, not in terms of another series of thoughts (though those inevitably appear).

      In this way, in time, you start to notice the ‘ground’ of the process of cognition, and when you relax into that ground, you naturally begin to access the inherent Joy of Awareness—your capacity to experience wonder and awe because of the miraculous fact of awareness itself. You are no longer dependent on gathering to yourself exclusively pleasurable sense-objects (an impossible endeavor anyway) or having the ‘right’ kind of experience (spiritual or otherwise). You feel radically free, because now you have access to a joy that is not dependent on external circumstance—without requiring you to distance yourself from reality in the slightest. This is called becoming nirālamba in Sanskrit: experiencing a joy or contentment that is free from any need for external support. It is not an attainment that comes easily, but in this View, there is nothing more worth working toward.

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~ This post is an excerpt from Chapter Eight of my forthcoming book, The Recognition Sutras: illuminating a 1,000-year-old spiritual masterpiece. The full chapter explores all these teachings in much more detail. 

For the online course to accompany the book, go to The Sutra Project