Percieving Ordinary Magic - cover


Jeremy W. Hayward


In this chapter, we will again describe the arising of a moment of experience, the arising of a moment of being from the ground which is beyond both being and nonbeing. This time, the description will be drawn from the meditative tradition of Buddhism.1

According to the meditative traditions of Shambhala and of Vajrayana Buddhism, manifestation and awareness of that manifestation are not separate, nor is one primary and the other secondary. They arise together out of the basic, unconditioned ground of goodness. The observation of states of mind and awareness in meditation practice that is, bare, unconceptualized observation indicates that manifestation and awareness arise together discontinuously, abruptly. Each individual moment in awareness is also an individual moment in manifestation, and between such moments there is nonmanifestation, nonexistence, a return to the unconditioned gound in which such exclusive categories do not apply. Each such moment is self-formed owing to prior patterns of conditioning. Such moments of manifestation and awareness are said, traditionally, to be in duration approximately one-sixtieth of the time it takes to snap the fingers.

The description of the arising of such a moment of experience from within awareness is sequential. However, this sequential nature is not interpreted with reference to ideas about time. Within the apparent duration of each moment, there is a sequential arising of specific patterns. Those elements of experience which were formed by habit in previous moments are gathered together to form the apparent unity with discrimination of specific characteristics of this moment.

The description begins at the unconditioned level, which is felt as unbounded, complete, open, and full of potentiality. Within this openness, the potentiality of sense perception is also unlimited. These unlimited bases of perception are referred to in Sanskrit as "Ayatanas." Ayatana literally means "gate of coming into existence," or as Edward Conze says, "perhaps 'source' would be a tolerable equivalent, since 'gate' has the connotation of 'cause' or 'means' [which is not intended)."2 There are twelve such ayatanas arising in pairs: seeing (eye) and field of sight, hearing (ear) and field of hearing, and so on for the other three senses, giving five pairs. The sixth pair is cognizing (thinking mind) and field of thought. At this level, then, the potentiality for seeing, hearing, and so on, and thought is unlimited. There is no boundary to the possibility of seeing, hearing, thinking, and experiencing. There are entire worlds, which we have not imagined, which are available at this level as potentialities for perception. As Chogyam Trungpa says: you experience a vast realm of perception (ayatanas) unfolding. There is unlimited sound, unlimited sight, unlimited taste, unlimited feeling, and so on. The realm of perception is limitless, so limitless that perception itself is primordial, unthinkable, beyond thought. There are so many perceptions they are beyond imagination. There are a vast number of sounds. There are sounds you have never heard. There are sights and colors that you have never seen. There are feelings that you have never experienced before. There are endless fields of perception.

"[But) because of the extraordinary vastness of perception, you have possibilities of communicating with the depth of the world. . . the world of sight, the world of sound . . . the greater world."3

The beginning of a moment of experience is, then, that awareness notices itself floating in that vast space of possibilities and begins to perceive itself as an echo or reflection within that. Noticing such echoes, awareness realizes the limitlessness of the gates of perception. From each minute echo of itself, awareness recognizes the vastness within which it arises.

At some point, a sense of separate identity appears, and with this separateness fear arises. Why such a feeling of separateness arises cannot be said; it can only be seen. It seems to arise spontaneously without apparent cause, other than habit. Separateness once having arisen, the identity, instead of relaxing back into openness, separates itself further. Fear increases, the awareness begins to reduce itself, to limit itself, to try to ignore the fear and separateness.

Between the unlimited ground of awareness, called the alaya, and the unlimited sense perceptions, an intermediate level appears. This is known as the seventh consciousness (the first six corresponding to the six pairs of ayatanas). This seventh consciousness has an inquisitive, intentional, fearful quality. It acts as an intermediary between the alaya and the sense fields. It takes the bare sense perceptions and puts them together with its own version of alaya to form a story line, a sense of continuity, of personal history. The seventh consciousness is like an editor, which is continually taking in impressions, storing them, categorizing and editing them according to past habit and memory and playing them back.

Another analogy of the seventh consciousness is a fierce wind blowing over the surface of a lake (the alaya). The lake is stirred up so that it cannot clearly reflect the sky and moon, mountains and trees. In a similar way, seventh consciousness stirs up the basic goodness of alaya so that it cannot clearly reflect the vast space of ayatanas. As Chogyam Trungpa says: "In [examining] the process of perception, first you have a sense object. Then you have the actual mechanisms which perceive things, your physical faculties. You have eyes and ears and so forth. Beyond that is the mental faculty which uses those particular instruments to reflect on certain objects (this is the cognition, the sixth ayatana pair). If you go beyond that, there is the intention of doing that, the fascination, the inquisitiveness that wants to know how to relate with thons to lose the freshness, brilliance, and gentleness of those perceptions that come from the reflection or aftertaste of the unlimited in them.

The development of this moment to its final stage as a conscious thought now continues almost automatically through four further stages. Because we have now made the first discrimination between "myself" and "the world," every further stage is an interpretation of the world in reference to myself. At this point, however, we do not yet have a clear sense of self-consciousness, simply a vaguely but definitely felt presence of "other" which almost indirectly implies "self." "Other" is now felt in its relationship to "self" as either supportive, threatening, or neutral, and there is an automatic reaction to these feelings as pleasurable, unpleasurable, or meaningless. Every aspect of our perceived world at that moment brings with it a certain quality of feeling, positive or negative, or it is simply not bothered with in that particular moment and fades into the dimly felt background, deliberately ignored because everything must have a place in relation to the nascent self. If we notice our own feeling as we look around a room, especially a room we are somewhat familiar with, we can catch a sidelong glimpse of this positive-negative tone that comes along with each perception. We have our favorite cup which always feels good, and the favorite chair we like to sit in, some memories that always come with a nice glow. Then we have certain rooms which always feel hostile, certain photographs which give us a bad feeling, and so on. All of this is continually taking place at a level before all self-consciousness or naming.

At the third stage, a definite central reference point is established. This is the point around which the entire moment is constructed. It is the first definite sense of "I," although it still has no name. It is a sense of criteria, judgment, measurement. This moment is beginning to take a particular shape in relation to the center; it is a particularly grand moment in which we feel very important or not important at all. In relation to "I," other begins to be felt as "outside," as near or far, as large or small. This is the point at which the sense of eternalism or nihilism enters in. This moment will confirm either the existence of "I" or the nonexistence of "I." Sometimes when we wish to say something, we find ourselves just saying, "I . . . I . . . er. . ." We seem to get stuck reflecting on our I-ness. This may be a hint of the third stage. It is also said that this is a point in the development of our experience at which we might be able to open again to unconditioned alaya. It is not necessary that our consciousness develop in a purely mechanical way, based on habitual patterns; it is possible that a sense of freshness and fundamental relaxation could enter again at this point. However, if this glimpse of openness does not come in, then the perceiver mechanically reacts to his feeling of "other" and its confirmation of him. Thus impulsive action based on habitual reaction happens.

Following the appearance of the central reference point, naming enters in. Perceptions are categorized and named according to all of the complex philosophical, psychological, and practical habitual thought patterns that are carried over from past experience. This is the level of language and concept. Still not yet conscious, it consists of an extensive web of associations and systems of thought: wholesome and unwholesome, religious and secular, all of our various opinions and prejudices that form the assumptions and preconceptions within which we fit our experience.

At the final, fifth stage, conscious thought arises, a conscious experiencing of something. It is this conscious level that continues in a constant stream of thoughts and conscious perceptions of all kinds. Because of this stream of thoughts which covers over and consolidates all of the previous stages, we do not normally notice these previous stages in our everyday experience. We do not see the arising and ending of each moment of experience; rather, our stream of conscious thoughts produces a sense of continuity to our experience. These thoughts may be thoughts about perception ("That is a red flower"); solemn, heavy, meaningful thoughts of a philosophical nature; light, flickering, unstable thoughts of a fleeting memory; or hunger pangs, and so on. But they are all tied together in such a way that our feeling of a solid, safe, reasonable world of commonsense objects, meaningful relationships, and all the rest is continually maintained. There are few gaps, few hints of freshness or openness.

This is the description of how each moment of ordinary experience arises from the unconditioned ground, according to the discoveries of meditation practitioners in the Buddhist traditions. Although it has been presented systematically in traditional texts, it is not essentially a philosophical doctrine but a formulation of direct observation. We have presented it informally in order to give the flavor of it. In traditional texts the five stages of development of experience are known as "Skandhas," a Sanskrit word meaning "heaps" or accumulations.5 This reflects the discovery that each stage arises simply as a heaping together of elements of habit passed on from prior moments. As we saw in the previous chapter, this description of the way a moment of experience arises to the level of consciousness is very similar to Whitehead's description of an actual occasion, a moment of experience.


Seeing Through Duality

We can see immediately that it provides the possibility for a different way of viewing and experiencing the ordinary world. We could begin to see through the stages of experience: past the conscious stream of thoughts and images, past the layers of conceptual systems, past the sense of central reference point and the feeling tone of perception, back to the bare sense fields. At that point we arrive back at the seventh consciousness itself, the cloudy mind which right from the beginning has been stirring up the habit patterns which produce the sense of continuous fearful and limited existence.

There are two different approaches that we can take to the energy of the ayatanas and the seventh consciousness, which are reflected in the differences between the Shambhala or the Vajrayana Buddhist traditions and religious approaches generally. The approach of religion is usually to boycott the seventh consciousness directly, to step beyond it and let our mind rest in the basic alaya. Cloudy mind is allowed to come to rest of its own accord. The whole process of formation of experience from its first separation from the alaya to conscious realization of thought and perception can go on, but now it is seen through. Experience can be seen as arising from alaya rather than separate from it. The gaps of nonexistence between experience are seen, and a sense of freshness can come in. Since from this point of view we are boycotting seventh consciousness, which ties our sense perceptions into a unified but separate world of experience, these perceptions themselves become suspect. A beautiful flower tends to be seen as a potential source of grasping and fixating onto the commonsense world, and we might try not to be caught up in it. The commonsense world is realized as insubstantial, empty, and we can see through it to alaya.

The Shambhala tradition, being a nonreligious tradition, a tradition of how to live in the ordinary world, takes a slightly different attitude to the ayatanas and the seventh consciousness. The sense perceptions are used directly and appreciated. Instead of being regarded as an obstacle to be boycotted, the seventh consciousness is purified and becomes a clear channel connecting the sense perceptions to the ground of basic goodness. Because the ayatanas were originally limitless in the vast ground of basic goodness, they are able to lead us back to limitlessness. We begin to realize the meaning beyond simple sense perceptions. The details of ordinary perception are bright, clear, and inherently pure.

From the Shambhala point of view, the key point is realization of the fear which narrows down the limitless ayatanas in the first place and perpetuates the mechanism. When fear is realized, then fearlessness can also be realized, and perception can be seen truthfully and directly. Thus the ordinary world regains its ground in basic goodness, and the natural wholesomeness of the world is discovered. In the Shambhala tradition this natural, inherent wholesomeness or healthiness of the ordinary world is termed sacredness. The secular world itself is sacred. Things do not have to be sanctified or made holy by something, someone, or some Great Being outside of themselves.

When they are seen fully and clearly in their own detail, then they are uncovered or rediscovered in their unconditioned dimension, basically not separate, good and, therefore, sacred. Such a sense of sacredness of ordinary, mundane experience transforms the world. Colors, sounds, smells, and so on are brilliant and clear, arising from nowhere and not dependent on anything, remaining just as they are.

This description of the process of perception is taken from the observations of generations of practitioners of mindfulness-awareness meditation who have been willing to look directly at their own minds and perception without the partiality of hope or fear. It shows how we form an apparently stable and continuous world from fleeting, unpredictable, and discontinuous flashes of perception. Notice that what we usually call" consciousness" comes in only at the final level of limitation. From this point of view, then, efforts to become "more conscious" might have the effect only of strengthening one's sense of limitation and separation, if these efforts are not based on insight into the nature of "consciousness" itself. This description begins to indicate that we might work back through the layers of narrowness and fear to rediscover the clarity and unlimited quality of the senses themselves and thus to begin to reconnect with the unconditioned goodness, alaya.

This working back through the process of perception and conceptualization, through the various stages by which perception concretizes the world, begins precisely where we are. That is, it begins by careful and detailed study of these processes at the ordinary, everyday level. However, such attention to, or mindfulness of, the details of the thought and perceptual process begins to lead automatically to a taming of the wildness and coarseness of the mind. Thus we begin to be able to be attentive to the smaller details of experience. This, then, is the process of mindfulness-awareness training, which is a natural and self-correcting process of joining mind and body.


Stages of Insight

According to Vajrayana Buddhism, as a practitioner accomplishes the process of mindfulness-awareness training, there are four main stages of perceptual discovery which he or she may glimpse. By stages of perceptual discovery, I do not mean that the student actually sees different things; rather, he sees things differently. His fundamental understanding, his way of seeing, and the nature of what he sees change. These stages are very clearly described in the Vajrayana tradition of Buddhism, from which the meditative training aspects of the teachings of Shambhala are mainly derived.6 Some of the characteristics of these stages parallel the historical schools of Buddhism as they developed over the centuries: the Abhidharma schools, the Yogacara schools, the Madhyamika schools, and the Vajrayana or Tantric schools. Thus the particular stages of insight are to some extent represented by the formal doctrines of the historical schools.

The first stage is associated with the early pre-Mahayana schools and Abidharma doctrines, and particularly exemplified by the Sarvastivadins, a name meaning "those who believe all is real." Experience is recognized as transitory and discontinuous, consisting of a series of moments. Each moment is realized as analyzable into components, known as dharmas, or "knowables." It is the knowables that are real, and are direct objects of knowledge, immediately experienced. A moment of experience, which is ordinarily felt as a duality of a subject perceiving an objective field of objects in space and time, is seen to be composite. Each moment consists of a composite of dharmas, and the ever-changing flux of dharmas is what gives the appearance of change from moment to moment.

Each school during this period categorized these elements, knowables, dharmas and showed how any given experience could be analyzed in terms of them. It was almost like an atomic table of elements of experience. However, the specific number and description of the elements were not identical from school to school, although there was considerable overlap in detail and also general agreement as to the major subgroups of elements. The five main subgroups of knowables are elaborated by the Sarvastivadins thus:

1. The physical-material: solidity, cohesion, temperature, and movement, the five senses and the five sense objects and a sense of overall tightness or looseness, of cohesiveness or falling apart. This last element, cohesiveness or noncohesiveness, is what brings about the tendency of elements to stay together, or not, from moment to moment, i.e., the cause-and-effect relation between moments.

2. Mind, that which selects particular elements for attention. According to Herbert Guenther, "Perceiving and conceiving begin when we select and attend to connections which have already been 'thought' ['minded'] in sensory awareness, although they have not yet been 'thought about.'" This is the apparent subject of a moment of experience.

3. Mental events accompanying each moment of perception and coloring it. This is a category whose number of elements varies most from school to school. In one school, for example, there are fifty-one 7 such elements, in another forty-six.8 They include such knowables as attention, motivation, trust, nonhatred, lust, rage, opinionatedness, anger, jealousy, carelessness, drowsiness, regret, and discursiveness.

4. Connecting elements, claimed to be different from the "physical-material" and the "mental": nouns, verbs, sequence, time, process, distinctions, connection, birth, death, and so on. There are twenty-three such entities in one school, fourteen in another.

5. That which is not born from causes and conditions. This is the category of unconditioned dharmas. Three such dharmas were frequently described. The first is space, that which accommodates all that exists, yet is itself neither existent nor nonexistent. The second unconditioned dharma is nirvana, awakening attained through the practice of meditation, and the third is the natural, inherent, creative process which brings awakening spontaneously.

We might notice that at this first stage, the notion of an internal object, an "I," or of specific external objects such as "chair" or "cat," is not regarded as real and knowable. Such notions are hypotheses formed by mind (number 2) out of the physical-material elements and given their specific coloration and quality of existence by the mental and connecting elements. The experienced sense of selfhood in these schools was taken to be merely the aggregate of dharmas itself, changing from moment to moment. The possibility that freshness and openness might enter the stream of being is represented in this scheme by the fifth category.

There are obviously clear parallels here with the kind of work on cognition and perception that we have discussed, especially that of Gregory. The limitation that could come in at this point would be to take the dharmas, the knowables, themselves as ultimately real. These dharmas could be taken to have real, independent existence, permanent in past, present, and future. This early stage can also lead to a kind of personal nihilism in which wakefulness is regarded as individual annihilation. Or it could lead to a personal eternalism if the person were identified with category 2, the mind or subject of experience, and if this dharma were taken to be ultimately real and permanent.

The second stage of meditative insight into perception is to realize that all dharmas themselves arise out of a ground of consciousness, the alaya, and return to this ground. Dharmas then are seen to be not real, separately existing entities, but manifestations of the ground. Each experiential moment is itself taken to arise out of alaya as a result of the maturing of potentials deposited there from previous moments. The experienced sense of continuity, of ongoing life journey, is also this underlying consciousness, the alaya, which, however, has no individual sense of "self" associated with it. The conjecture of "I" comes from the stirring up of self-consciousness, which is the watcher and. editor of experience.

Because all of phenomenal existence is seen to arise from and return to the alaya moment by moment, there is a sense of union or nonseparateness of phenomena. Thus, this stage is called the yogacara stage the way of union (yoga = union, cara = way). Because the alaya does not have qualities of physicality or objectivity, there is, in this experience, a sense that the "relatively permanent conditions of interrelated senses are minds." Therefore this school, or stage of insight, is also sometimes referred to as the "mind-only" view. This term is very easy to misunderstand because, in the Western context, "mind" is always taken to refer to some individual, personal, localized mind. This is not the intention behind the phrase "Mind alone counts" or "mind only." The intention is rather to indicate that all of existence, all phenomenal appearance, appears at this stage to arise within and from a basic substratum of consciousness. Again, we are not referring to self-consciousness or consciousness of self. We are referring more to the creative process by which perceptions become conscious. Since at this stage phenomena are seen to arise from the nonseparateness of alaya, the acausal interconnectedness, or auspicious coincidence, of all phenomena is seen.

The problem which might arise at this stage would be an attachment to the idea of the alaya as ultimately real and having the nature of "self," and thus to "consciousness" or "oneness" as the absolute reality. The problem is that" All is One" can almost imperceptibly change to "All is Me" if one does not see the nonultimacy of both. There is still in this view a subtle watcher, an experiencer standing outside his experience and recording it as such. This error did appear historically as the" citta-matra error" the belief that consciousness alone is real. Unfortunately, it is also beginning to be something of a problem in some current thinking, in which there is rather an overemphasis on "consciousness," especially individual consciousness. It is even sometimes proposed that "self-consciousness" is the next step in the evolution of man. This is the" citta-matra error" all over again. It creates the ultimate substantial reality of a Higher Self, or a Oneness, separate from the ordinary world.

Next, at the third stage, awareness begins to rest in its fundamentally unconditioned nature and to realize the whole process of conceptualization, including the conceptualizations of the "oneness" of subject-object, of mind-matter, of inside-outside, as just that: concepts. This stage, associated with madhyamika doctrine,9 is often referred to as the realization of emptiness a term which has been rather misunderstood by Western commentators. "Emptiness" is simply the fully experienced recognition of the entire structure of conceptualization and conjecture, centered on the central conjecture of "I." It is a recognition that all descriptions are relative and partial and that we usually live in our descriptions. Thus it is a realization of the fundamental, unconditioned, indescribable nature of reality. Instead of being felt as "oneness," it is felt as not-two. That is, having discovered the partiality and relativeness of the subject-object, mind-matter, inner-outer dualities, one rests in what is, neither one nor many, not-two. The discovery of emptiness is also an antidote to taking the dharmas as real, and this is how it was historically first understood.

However, there may still be some residual clinging to the "emptiness," to the experience of no-thing and no-self. Thus, in the fourth and final stage of Vajrayana doctrine, which is in some sense just the complement of the previous stage, the energy and brilliance of phenomena are seen. This stage unifies the fullness of the ground of consciousness alaya of the yogacara stage with the discovery of complete nonconceptuality, the "emptiness" of the madhyamika stage. A ground of awareness which is nonreferential is discovered beyond consciousness. Nonreferential awareness is realized as being unconditioned and at the same time the essential nature of man's being. It is this stage which prompted Guenther's remark, quoted in Chapter 2: "In order to discern the ultimate man must in some way partake of it." Rigpa, which we described in Chapter 2, is the faculty capable of discerning this unconditioned ground of awareness.

We have previously translated rigpa as intuitive insight. It might also be translated, according to Guenther, as "aesthetic experience" or "intrinsic perception," which terms emphasize its aspect beyond cognition. As Guenther says, "This (rigpa) is the aesthetic apprehension or intrinsic perception by the artist, the poet, the seer whose words are a commentary on a vision rather than a futile attempt to establish a system of universal truths over and beyond man's cognitive and sensible capacity, or to reduce the latter to some preconceived scheme demanding the exclusion of everything which the propounder of this scheme is unable to fathom."10

Guenther relates the content of rigpa, intrinsic nondual perception, to emptiness (nothing) and fullness of value: "In the aesthetic experience [of rigpa] we may say that that of which we are aesthetically aware, before we are aesthetically aware of it, is nothing. But this nothing, as the texts again and again assert, is not an absolute nothing which just is not. It is a dynamic nothing which, when we are aesthetically aware of it, has already been given a form and so resides in the vividly present and its meaning."

This stage, also known as "luminosity," is described by Trungpa thus: "If we see a red flower we not only see it in the absence of ego's complexity, in the absence of preconceived names and forms, but we also see the brilliance of that flower. If the filter of confusion between us and the flower is suddenly removed, automatically the air becomes quite clear and vision is very precise and vivid." He goes on to quote a Vajrayana text: "This energy, that which abides in the heart of all beings, self existing simplicity. . . is the sustainer of primordial intelligence which perceives the phenomenal world. It is indestructible in the sense of being continually ongoing. It is the driving force of emotion and thought in the confused state and of compassion and wisdom in the awakened state."11 At this level, the simplicity and sacredness of the ordinary world are fully experienced.


Deepening Perceptions

We have gone through these stages as if each one followed only after the preceding one was fully accomplished, in a sequential fashion. However, experience is discontinuous, and the whole process of arising of conscious perception from the unconditioned ground occurs momentarily, over and over again. Therefore, it is quite possible for each of us to discover a glimpse of any of these stages at any moment. Such glimpses may be quite sudden and fleeting and easily ignored, but nevertheless they happen continually. The purpose of the practice of mindfulness-awareness meditation is to provide an environment which facilitates acknowledgment of such glimpses as part of our natural stream of being. It is because of such glimpses and the possibility of including them in our lives that our lives do not have to be automatic reaction, that perception can open up and humor and lightness can enter into them. To quote Chogyam Trungpa: "Your sense faculties give you access to possibilities of deeper perception. Beyond ordinary perception, there is super-sound, super-smell and super-feeling existing in your state of being. These can only be experienced by training yourself in the depth of meditation practice which clarifies any confusion or cloudiness and brings out the precision, sharpness and wisdom of perception the nowness of your world."12

The change of perception we are talking about is itself a change of one's whole being. One begins to experience one's interconnectedness with the natural power and energy of the phenomenal world. Again to quote Chogyam Trungpa: "So meditation practice brings out the supernatural, if I may use the word. You do not see ghosts or become telepathic, but your perceptions become super-natural, simply super-natural.

"Normally we limit the meaning of perceptions. Food reminds us of eating; dirt reminds us to clean the house; snow reminds us that we have to clean off the car to get to work; a face reminds us of our love or hate. In other words we fit what we see into a comfortable or familiar scheme. We shut any vastness or possibilities of deeper perception out of our hearts by fixating on our own interpretation of phenomena. But it is possible to go beyond personal interpretation, to let vastness into our hearts through the medium of perception. We always have a choice: we can use perception to limit or close off vastness, or we can allow vastness to touch us. When we draw down the power and depth of vastness into a single perception, then we are discovering and invoking magic. By magic we do not mean unnatural power over the phenomenal world but rather the discovery of innate or primordial wisdom in the world as it is."13

Such transformed perception could be called" ordinary magic." It is ordinary because it is in this very ordinary, commonsense world in which we live, the world of cause and effect, of time and space, of life and death. It is ordinary because it is hidden from us by nothing other than our reluctance to see it, by habitual beliefs in struggle and separateness and by fear. It is magic because such transformation of perception happens suddenly, without cause or conditions even though the training may be long, requiring great practice and energy.

Finally, it is magic because, when we discover nonseparateness from the phenomenal world, we also discover that perception and "innate primordial wisdom" are not two separate entities. The perceptions of this ordinary world, according to Chogyam Trungpa, contain wisdom within them. We will discuss this innate wisdom and power of perception in the final chapter.


Perceiving Ordinary Magic