Loosening the (K)not of Which Daniel Speaks: Luminosity

Rigpa is more than its clarity-of-nondual-experience aspect. It is the vajra mirror wisdom, discernment of empty potentiality as the Ground.

I’ve taken a needed break from the developmental editing of MCTB2. I’ve been reading Clarifying the Natural State. This Mahamudra goes beyond taking jhana as an object of insight practice, just as Jake hinted to me. It is a deconstruction of meditation. First it deconstructs nonmeditation; then when that natural state is clarified, meditative, so to speak, then that is deconstructed. Then the knot untangles. Emptiness is form; form, emptiness. From that point, no difference between the meditation and postmeditation.

First Path versus Second Path

The key insight that ushered me into the stream in August arose from my closing my eyes and conducting an analytical, formulaic Tibetan-style meditative “internal” survey to find myself. When I grew weary, unable to find myself, I decided to open my eyes and rest them on the velvetly colonial teal-colored walls of the master bedroom, and BAM there was my sense of self. This was when Shargrol said, “Objects and subjects create each other.”

The point in my repeating this bit of story is that it was something exceedingly pleasing that I identified with  that gave me insight into how transient identifications create a subject, a self. Now, this time, I’m really closely and repeatedly noticing how pain, suffering therefrom, creates the self. I avoided this insight during first path; I avoided confronting or seeing anything in the Dark Night. I cultivated nothing in the face of the Dark Night. 

The Dark Night was me. I hung on for dear life, for cessation.

The Knot as the Indiscernibly Causal

The knot is our attempt to stave off suffering by reaching out and tying in a self, a perception loop, as though in doing so were refuge. Yet this identification process is a knot, is constriction, is pervasive suffering. Daniel’s teaching of the Second Noble Truth in MCTB2 flashes like silverfish changing direction, stating that this construction of a self is actually compassion, a wish to be happy. However, that compassion is misdirected, has become confusion. It is this very self that perpetuates suffering and always has. He writes that it is as if there were an eddy in the fabric of reality itself, indiscernibly causal. Suffering becomes this refuge out of a compassion that becomes more itself, more pure suffering, insofar as this refuge is taken up and tied in. This is a great paradox and irony. It is the knot of which Daniel speaks. 

It is the knot of which Daniel speaks. 

It is the knot of which Daniel speaks.

My Opening to Luminosity

The other day, I asked Daniel if we should have titled the chapter “The Three Characteristics” as “The Three Characteristics of Conditioned Existence,” which is traditional. He said no, that he didn’t want to perpetuate that clunkiness, that he actually preferred just “The Three Characteristics,” although that always begged the question to me of what, the Three Characteristics of what? I guess that is his point, though, yeah—of what or what-not?

So then I asked about terms like “Ultimate Reality” and the “Deathless.” I had been reading Fitter Stoke’s claim to fourth path attainment, and FS refers to a groundswell, a “source” that one can “turn in” toward and so one can “turn away from the arising and passing.” This apparent reification of self was an issue in the recent BATGAP interview of Kenneth Folk, as well, where Kenneth rejects the implications of these phrases (ground, source, and the like). 

I asked Daniel about whether his meaning of “Ultimate Reality” weren’t something, some nirvana, beyond the Three Characteristics, the Three Characteristics being of “only” conditioned reality. 

And then he said something that was astonishing. My reading that something in his reply triggered a visceral opening in me that the next morning had resulted in my landing upon luminosity, the bright continal mirroring-interchange with objects. He said, No, the Three Characteristics are it! Well, then he added . . . except Suffering:

I really like to avoid all that clunkiness. I would greatly prefer to just call them the Three Characteristics. The fine points of them being about conditioned things only really becomes an issue when one has seen totally through them, as then the suffering one isn’t there, but the other two totally are, and then this really isn’t an issue, as that teaching is no longer going to get you any more mileage, as you are already there, as it were, so it seems [merely] semantic to me. (Ingram, personal communication)

In other words, when Daniel writes or speaks of “ultimate reality,” he means the Two Characteristics: The Three Characteristics minus the one that is our Suffering. The two that remain, impermanence and no-self, together amount to the Tibetans’ shunyata, or emptiness of discrete and lasting own-being of any phenomenon. 

Why was this simple and fairly obvious statement so astonishing? Well, because suffering is so important that it is listed in the ancient commentaries as one of the Three Characteristics, in addition to the First Noble Truth. But it isn’t a “characteristic” of experience at all–not really! Suffering is reactivity. As a merely reactive process, not immutable reality, it can untangle, lie flat, vanish naturally into your direct line of sight. Then there remain impermanence and not-self. That suffering-ameliorating direct line of insight is what we call luminosity.

Luminosity is a knot slippage involving an extent of nonstriving that isn’t even the subtlely self-fixated striving implied by the word acceptance. Luminosity and the way to it is more radical than acceptance. It is seeing those other two characteristics, impermanence and not-self, until they’ve run quite through everything and delusion that they can be avoided drops away. This running-through, ongoing yet always already “here,” is the “dance of God.” It is the mind’s clarity shining itself and illuminating the whole field. It is the Vivid. 

Postscript 2.5 Years Later

Although I no longer think of spiritual milestones in terms of four neat paths, the opening that began for me with Daniel’s email reply to my question about the Three Characteristics ended up next morning as one permanent dimension of my awakening: nonduality. I will elaborate here on this mysterious attainment we call luminosity, which marks off MCTB third path.

My Experience and Timing of Luminosity on the Path

In MCTB2-J terms, this permanent perceptual change marked attainment of MCTB third path, although at the time I thought I was on the second path. I actually finished second path about 6 weeks into it, when I felt a very subtle shift and my dominant concerns changed from the mental echo of sensory experience, and from the pscyho-emotional turmoil arising from past trauma, which is the hallmark of second path.

The new dominant concern after second path was Boundless Space and Boundless Consciousness. The spaciousness of the interoception-to-field shift had come with stream entry, but when the preoccupations of second path cleared, the felt sense of spaciousness became my foremost playground and testing ground. My practice consisted mainly of entering the arūpa jhānas as little insight laboratories, where all variables except the jhāna factor in question were excluded so that I could better explore the difference between conditioned experience and unconditioned ultimate reality, between space and consciousness, in supposed settings of boundlessness. Those proto-Mahāmudrā explorations will inform a large part of the meditation manual I’m working on.

What Luminosity Is Like

As for the advent of luminosity in February 2015 and what it was like—whenever I gazed on any object, there was high clarity. The clarity was that the experience was one of no inside, no outside. Perceptual clarity was of no Subject-Object boundary. Instead, both sides seemed to be giving off awareness like an oddly stationary shimmering of one continous mirage. Notice that I say seemed, for explanations later in this post will address reasons that luminosity is not quite rigpa.

When continuous nondual interchange of Subject and Object is seen clearly, such that it cannot be unseen, then the secondary effects are that the objects become visibly more color-saturated and high-definition than they were before luminosity. Typically, in terms of affect, the practitioner experiences intense joy. I spent most of my spare time for months joyfully engaged in my new hobby: staring.

But all this graphical  upgrade  business is emphatically secondary. The primary effect of luminosity on viewing objects is their immediacy. A time-consuming process of perception has stopped. It never restarts, although I had a brief preview of this attainment the month beforehand, as documented in in the post about the magnificent luminous tree: http://jhanajenny.com/preview-nondual-awareness/,  So a preview can end, but the real thing is permanent until rigpa eclipses it with its breadth. 

The experience of luminosity is immediate because it is nondual. It is the experience of an unceasingly fluid interchange of formerly discrete felt-Subject and discrete seen-Object. It is as if they had been solid clods of silt that dissolve and are now ceaselessly flowing each into the other, mingling atomic particulates. Nevertheless, and paradoxically, all essents/percepts are perfectly still, self-perfected where they always already are. This stillness is because both “sides” have been unknotted, released, as they always already are. Hence, the experience is in multiple ways nondual: two sides yet no sides, dynamic interchange yet profound stillness of all where it is and as it is.

The latter sense for me—profound hush, experiential oneness, and stillness—was born of the cessation of clunky, manipulative processing on my side. I am no longer funneling the object into my individual identifying central processor in order to project it back out as dependent for its own-being on the discreteness and superiority of my own-being. The object doesn’t depend on my identification process and resulting delusional identity structure for its showing. In some newly recognized sense, its showing is the primacy of dynamism (tsal).

In short, I am not perceptually doing it. This resultant new stillness provisionally may be thought of as a perceptual speeding up of a “sample rate,” but it is not even a speeding up. It is beyond speed. It is a permanent stop. It is a transcendence of speed by means of surrender to phenomena as they always already really are. There is nothing faster than always already. It will beat you to the finish line every instant. Normal perception is a violence we do to ourselves by means of violence we do to objects, including other people. Perceptually, we subjugate them to shore up our separateness and primacy, which are delusional.

Why Luminosity Is Not Complete Rigpa

Recently, I had a discussion with my current teacher about whether luminosity were “nondual awareness.” He said that term, nondual awareness, doesn’t mean anything to him. The reason that it doesn’t is that, although the experience we call luminosity is nondual, it isn’t the awakening of awareness, or rigpa. It is the clarity aspect of rigpa, but not the discerning knowledge aspect, the gnosis. I’ll explore this distinction here.

All that I have said above, to begin with, is not to say that inert objects actually have their own intrinsic awareness. They do not, in a strictly theoretically correct Buddhist and Dzogchen sense. Only sentient beings are aware. Nor is everyone’s awareness a collective homogeneous Awareness. A homogeneous Awareness possessed by all would be a monist fallacy, as Jean-Luc Archard explains:

It is in this section of the text [The Lamp Clarifying the Oral Advice on the Universal Base} that objects are clearly defined as inert matter (bem po) devoid of Awareness. Therefore, those acknowledging a wrong definition of “Pervading Awareness” (khyab rig) are demonstrated as heretics lacking the capacity to understand what Rigpa and the natural state are.

The second simile [from the aforementioned text] provides an even clearer demonstration about the wrong understanding of Awareness affecting minds that are not favored by the intelligence of actual penetration of the real meaning of the natural state. I will paraphrase the text as follows:

When the moon shines in space, its light arises in a mode embracing the whole of the earth. Therefore, since the inherent clarity of rivers, ponds, and lakes is a priori pure, they possess a ground that enables the arising of water-moons (chu zla, reflections of the moon within water), and consequently the reflections of the moon appear upon them. On the other hand, insofar as the soil, stones, and rocks are opaque, they lack such a ground for the arising of water-moons. Thus, even if the light of the moon embraces them, not a single reflection of the moon appears upon them. 

In the same way, just like the manḍala of the moon shines over everything, the natural state embraces the entirety of samsāra and nirvāna, but only inner Awareness has the power to realize such a state because it possesses a potential or ground that enables the arising of the realization of Reality, in the same way that water has the potential to reflect the image of the moon. The manifestations of outer objects, as well as entire universes, etc., are material things devoid of Awareness, and therefore they don’t possess any ground or potential for the arising of the realization of Reality, even though they are embraced by Awareness. Therefore, such inert objects cannot realize Awareness, experience it, or be endowed with it.

For this reason, the few modern deluded individuals advocating that objects have an Awareness are to be considered vessels filled with the poison of wrong views (log lta). Such wrong views are based on a wrong understanding of what Awareness is, how it functions, and what its qualities are. This is why actual, real Dzogchen teachings should be kept secret from such persons. (Archard, The Six Lamps: Secret Dzogchen Instructions of the Bön Tradition, 2017, Kindle location 2316)

Be this Dzogchen Right View as it may, the bare experience of the clarity aspect of rigpa, which we are calling luminosity, is one in in which awareness seems to be emanating from the viewed object, without the need for a perceiving sentient being to make it so. Alternatively, one’s mind seems fused to the object, such that the object is one’s own mind. What makes this nondual clarity less than rigpa, however, is lack of the discernment, or knowledge, aspect. Rigpa is awareness, yes, but not just any ol’ awareness of any ol’ thing. It is, in its discernment aspect, awareness specifically of the Ground, of the Universal Base, of Totality. 

This Universal Base is also called the primordial essence, but it is an essence completely empty of own-being. Its only show is the inexhaustible, spontaneous, interdependent co-arising and self-liberation of all variety of phenomena each instant. These phenomena (tsal), like their functional unfindable “source,” are empty, although unawakened folks fail to discern this to be the case.

Emptiness—because its essence is no-thing-ness—is pure potentiality to dynamically manifest all variety of phenomena. This Base of all manifest diversity is, in Bön Dzogchen, figured as the archetypal Mother (kun zhi); the practitioner’s intrinsic awareness of the Mother, and his or her discernment of her, is the archetypal Infant (rig-pa).

When the two, Mother and Infant, are directly realized to be, and to always have been, inseparable, then the practitioner discerns that all manifest dynamism (tsal) arises and passes from the Ground (gzhi) of this Mother-Infant “embrace.” Manifestation, like a light show, arises and passes as more or less color-stained and opaque ephemera between an unfindable source of these projections and its beholding awareness. This is known. 

Now, as my teacher recently discussed with me, when I came into my first retreat with him, I had two permanent perceptual changes onboad: (1) a Mother-like felt sense of spaciousness (what I call the interoception-to-field shift), and (2), on a separate eye-consciousness track, luminosity. The problem with that luminosity was that the witnessing Subject, or individual ego, was still the one having that luscious nondual experience. It was a nondual experience between a particularized subject—by which I mean subjectivity experienced as an identity-object, which is how we all experience so-called subjectivity before enlightenment—and a particularized object. It was as though, at a metalevel of consideration, I had a Super-Subject that remained exterior and superior to this subsumed nondual experience (luminosity). Blindly, one walks around fully believing that the Witness is gone. This delusion stems from the fact that what one would be looking for is what one is standing forth from. It is a blind spot, an opacity where one’s own consciousness has not be seen as empty. That not-seeing obscures knowledge of the Mother.

The reason that nondual awareness is a meaningless attainment term to my teacher is that this luminosity sense of nonduality is attentional. Attention can operate at the subtle level of mind, the level that conducts ordinary insight (vipassana). But Awareness operates only at the very subtle level of mind. Emptiness of Time practice opens this level of mind.

Although the awakened human mind continues to particularize objects because the mind still has an attention, being wakeful means that it does so without ever losing the boundlessness of the whole field from which an object happens to be attended to. Consequently, for one with awakened awareness (rigpa), there is no longer “attention bounce” from object to object to object. to object as if the attention were, across time, jumping over walls inherently between discrete objects. In the essence traditions of Extraordinary Insight, it is important to distinguish attention from awareness. Luminosity is attentional. That is easiest way to parse the reason it isn’t rigpa.

For rigpa to be rigpa, the sense of one’s individual consciousness, or Witness, must completely go. Until it does go, the ego is co-opting the nondual experience of Subject-Object dissolution. There is a surviving Witness atop and straddling this Subject-Object dissolution. When timeless intrinsic awareness illuminates the entire field at once, not just a particularized object in that field, then one has opened rigpa and therefore awakened awareness. One sees the entire field reflected off intrinsic awareness.

Somewhere in my notes is a checklist for what is Awakened Awareness. Nonduality is only one item on the checklist. Moreover, there is more that is necessary, beyond Awakened Awareness, to hold the Ground (gzhi) view from which Dzogchen is practiced, but let’s leave that elaboration for another time. 

Luminosity as an Attainment

My teacher, in our recent discussion, seemed to suggest that luminosity is not really a spiritual attainment. After all, even athletes who have never practiced meditation can incidentally develop the clarity of nondual experiences.

Although it is true that luminosity is a washout when true rigpa opens, because I went from Theravada to Māhamudrā, I hold that luminosity is indeed an attainment. To begin with, it is a permanent change to perception, not merely an “experience” such as an athlete might have while skiing down a slope. Rigpa engulfs it, but the fact is that the nondual clarity aspect remains on the checklist for rigpa.

Moreover, my current hypothesis is that my already having—before Māhamudrā retreat—both the bodily interoception-to-field shift (Mother-lite) and the eye-consciousness luminosity shift (Infant-lite) was important. I think these two tracks of Mother and Infant are what made my first retreat yield, in a single week, both the opening of rigpa, or Awakened Awareness, and the view of the inseparability of that Awakened Awareness from the empty potentiality of the Mother. Thus, after that retreat, I left the focused practice scaffolding of Māhamudrā behind, and began the refinement and integration practice of Dzogchen trekchöd (cutting-through remaining occasional obscurations of the Ground View).

I agree that, as a term, nondual awareness is nonsensical over against Awakened Awareness, or rigpa. But luminosity is not much better as a technical term for the clarity attainment. Perhaps particularized nonduality is best, or attentional nondualtiy, although those terms certainly fall flat as evocative poetry goes. I’ll continue to discuss this matter of naming with my compatriots. 

Daniel’s Hidden Message and My Synthesis

Even though in what I quote above in my original post Daniel seems to say that the Two Characteristics of impermanence and no-self are “ultimate reality,” not just conditioned reality, in a follow-up email exchange between us, he asked if I wanted to hear something “really way out there.” Then he told me this: The other two [characteristics] also vanish!

This was and is a fascinating hint to hear whispered by the likes of Daniel Ingram. He never once hints at this conclusion in MCTB or MCTB2-J. What I think he is indicating is the noncontradiction between Emptiness and True Self, the embrace. So in a sense, no-self disappears when the true nature of mind and field is realized as empty. And as awareness doesn’t arise and doesn’t pass away but pervades as the base of all, it is not impermanent. Daniel’s work seems focused on debunking the Three Delusions of permanence, identity, satisfactoriness. Those delusions do require debunking, but as soon as the Three Characteristics take their place, then one also needs to see that those Three Characteristics are of conditioned phenomena only. For that step one goes to the Ind0-Tibetan Essence traditions.

Daniel knows much that he never states publicly anywhere. He has never told me why he withholds information. I surmise, from having known him, that he does so because he anticipates that people will skip the step of debunking the Three Delusions in their grasping after higher practices. In my experience interacting with practitioners, I find Daniel’s supposed anticipatory caution justified. Although I find ultimate wisdom in Mahāmudrā and Dzogchen, I meet many who are “stuck” while following these traditions for practice. They are stuck because they have not stabilized requisite earlier realizations. If badly timed, “taking the Fruit as the Path” can be detrimental to real progress. If one does not begin by looking at one’s own suffering, then the result will be spiritual bypassing, not successfully taking Fruit as the Path. Theravada is King when it comes to view and practice for the foundational insights.

For this reason, I’m drafting a meditation manual that corrects the limitations of  Theravada and MCTB, and corrects the bypassing that ubiquitously characterizes westerners engaged prematurely in completion-stage practices.

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