Perspective(s) on Nirvana, Cessation Experiences, and Emptiness

I hope to provide here some clarification of the views at play in contemporary discussions at the deep end of meditation discourse, primarily informed by Buddhist tradition(s). This is a synoptic presentation derived from many sources (which I will attempt to credit, though a full accounting of influence would be impossible) and much personal phenomenological (meditative) as well as philosophical investigation. If this seems too in-the-weeds, feel free to disregard, however, these are live issues in my practice, as I know they are for many of you here as well. May this be of use to you in your practice and understanding.

Ud 8:3:
There is, monks, an unborn, unbecome, unmade, unfabricated. If there were not
that unborn, unbecome, unmade, unfabricated, no leaving behind of the born,
become, made, fabricated would be discerned. But because there is indeed an
unborn, unbecome, unmade, unfabricated, a leaving behind of the born, become,
made, fabricated is discerned.

I was recently alerted to an old talk of Guy Armstrong’s in which he lays out neatly some competing definitions of the goal of Buddhist practice between traditions, some of which are, if you’re not attempting to scrub away inconsistency, mutually contradictory and incompatible, at least at first blush. It’s been useful to me in clarifying my own view on these subjects. I suggest listening to it! [https://www.dharmaseed.org/teacher/79/talk/2440/]

For those without time to listen, and as a recap and contextualization for those who have, the four definitions of nirvana as he describes them (nibbana, the unconditioned, etc.) are:

1: A state freed from delusion (moha), attraction (raga), and aversion (dvesha), without separate ontological or phenomenological status, a mere absence of these factors. What that actually means isn’t quite clear. Guy attributes this view to hard-line Madhyamikas (followers of Nagarjuna’s philosophy), and perhaps others. This definition is compatible with the others as a qualification of them, but may be held in isolation from 2, 3, and 4 and in denial of their importance or ultimacy.

2: A state of phenomenal cessation in which all consciousness is suspended. No time, no space, no subject, no object, not even the barest trace of cognizance remaining. This view is held by Theravadins influenced by the Abhidhamma and Visuddhimagga, primarily in Burma and by those following this stream of teaching, e.g. Mahasi Sayadaw, Daniel Ingram, among many others. Those who hold this out as ultimate tend to depreciate 3, and perhaps 4 relative to this state.

3: A state of phenomenal cessation in which all sensory consciousness is suspended. No time, no space, no subject, no object, a content-less, non-sensory consciousness, yet consciousness nonetheless. This corresponds to the Theravadin view held by most in Sri Lanka, in the Thai Forest tradition, and appears to be quite amenable to the perspectives of Indo-Tibetan traditions such as Dzogchen and Mahamudra. See Ajahn Amaro’s (a Thai Forest monastic) book Small Boat, Great Mountain for a comparative reflection. It is also arguably the view which accords best with the Pali suttas. See Thanissaro Bhikku’s book The Mind Like Fire Unbound, or Bhikku Katukurunde Nyanananda’s The Magic of the Mind, and Rob Burbea’s ever-excellent Seeing That Frees, chapter 28.

4: A state not of phenomenal cessation but rather cessation of subject-object duality alongside recognition of the nature of mind as the timeless, boundless, and empty cognizance undifferentiated from the illusion-like contents of consciousness. This is equivalent to rigpa, awareness-awake-to-itself, yada yada, cf. Seeing That Frees, chapter 30, or any number of Dzogchen and/or Mahamudra texts. It also appears compatible with the descriptions of awakened sensory perception found in the Pali suttas, e.g. AN 4:24 Kalaka Sutta, Ud 1:10 Bahiya Sutta, etc. This is likely to be equated with 1, and to be considered a result of repeated and/or especially impactful immersions in 2 and/or 3. Plenty also teach it as immediately accessible given the right nudges. Some people who favor this one tend to not care much about or even acknowledge 2, but plenty identify this state with 1, and regard 3 as a pure distillation of it.

What are we, as practitioners, to make of this muddle? We could just leave it aside, but I suspect, as it has been for me, that at some point these fine points of disambiguation take on an urgency and it is productive to comprehend and investigate for oneself, or at least be clear about the interpretations on offer.

Theravadin traditionalists disagree between 2 and 3, and given that for them the matter of the cessation of rebirth, the end of samsara, and liberation from interminable dukkha hangs on which is valid and therefore is rightly The Buddha’s True Teaching, you can understand the controversy. I suspect that this is not so relevant to most reading this. If it is, and you are concerned about the fate of your mind-stream post-mortem, I wish you the best of luck in figuring it out.

For a somewhat secular perspective, Culadasa (author of The Mind Illuminated) acknowledges both 2 and 3 as valid cessation experiences liable to afford insight into the emptiness, i.e. fabricated, dependently originated nature, of phenomenal appearances, and though he doesn’t lay it out explicitly, to be onward-leading to abiding continuously in 4, which he might equate with 1 (could someone ask him?). Compare with Shinzen Young, who I believe has a preference for 2, but values 3 as well, and certainly 4.

Rob Burbea, who was once a student of Thanissaro Bhikku, seems not to put much stock in 2, and follows his former teacher as identifying 3 as what the Buddha was on about with talk of the Unfabricated, the Deathless, etc. If you read his book and listen to his talks, it also appears that for him 3 definitely supersedes a watered-down version of 4, which can be a trap insofar as it might serve as a last stand for reification of or identification with awareness. Though it must be said that for Rob, liberating insight into the emptiness and dependent arising of phenomenal appearances is the gold standard, not any one-off or even repeated cessation experience. A version of 4 absent reification, in full recognition of the emptiness of awareness, space, and time, next to 3 seems to be his pinnacle.

Where do I happen to stand? In my own practice I had glimpses of 4 prior to any cessation experiences. Unpredictable, brief, and unrepeatable, however, I cultivated standard shamatha-vipashyana along the lines laid out in TMI. Later, influenced largely by Ingram when anicca all-day-every-day was what I was keyed into I prized repetitions of 2, which afforded pre/post-cessation tastes of 4. Later still, which is relatively recently, I’ve been pretty haphazard in a good way, it seems. While working with one of Shinzen’s students exploring his system and various practices therein (turning back attention to its origin has been especially helpful), I’ve been reading and practising from Bon Dzogchen materials and interpreting what has been/is happening phenomenologically within Rob Burbea’s framework of understanding samadhi, insight, and the dependent arising of empty fabrication (i.e. all phenomenal appearance). Cessation experiences a la 2 occur, but the gradual fading, arising, and modulation of perception leading into and out of 3 seems naturally conducive to recognizing and resting in 4 intermittently but more continuously throughout the days, as though the mature variant of 4 is the recognition of 3’s permeation of and identity with phenomenal appearances.

You must decide for yourself about these things, of course, and the pragmatic criterion of lessening dukkha is a good one. May all beings be at ease, and know the peace of nirvana (whatever that means!).

Some more scripture to close:

DN 11:
Consciousness without attribute, without end, luminous all around.
Here water, earth, fire, and air have no footing.
Here long and short, subtle and gross, pleasant and unpleasant, and nāmarūpa are all destroyed.
With the cessation of consciousness [i.e. the six sense consciousnesses] here each of these is destroyed.

Dhp 153 – 154:
House-builder, you are found out! You will not build a house again.
All your rafters are broken, and your ridgepole disassembled.
The mind has arrived at non-fabrication,
has experienced the end of craving.

Nagarjuna’s MMK 18: 7:
Unarisen and unceased, like nirvana
Is the nature of things.

The Six Yogas of Naropa:
All things in saṃsāra and nirvāṇa… all existents, phenomena, appearances, and non-existents,
all these functional realities are inseparably of one taste with the quintessential nature of emptiness…
All share in the vastness of the great coalescence.
The wise who realize this truth no longer see mind, but only wisdom-mind.
They no longer see living beings, only Buddhas.
They no longer see phenomena, only the quintessential nature.

Nagarjuna’s MMK Homage Verses:
I prostrate to the perfect Buddha,
The best of all teachers, who taught that
That which is dependent origination is
Without cessation, without arising;
Without annihilation, without permanence;
Without coming; without going;
Without distinction, without identity
And peaceful— free from fabrication.

Cat’s Purr

What to say?

Vimalakirti’s silence is the essence of eloquence,
It’s true,
You’ll have to excuse me;
I’ve never claimed to be wise.

Seems it’s done,
doing,
Completed,
completing,
Transcendence is intimate immanent acquaintance,
Iridescent replete resplendence of the senses,
This,
Always, already, only this!
What a joke!

Awake from the first,
Aimless clouds; an empty sky,
One sun; many rays.

Sheaf of Reeds

Humming sight, alight in grace,
living, buzzing, budding space,
dying, fizzing, fading time,
no one, no thing appears as mine,

and all belongs,
and all is fine,
living, dying, being, not,
loving, longing: a gain, what’s lost?

I am full, an empty promise,
a sheaf of reeds,

fluttering trees’ leaves.

Experience, Buddhism, and Psychedelics, Oh My!

I’ve wanted to say something(s) regarding the intersection of the titular topics for some time. However, as it often happens, I don’t quite know what it is I want to say until I’ve begun saying it, and haven’t felt impelled until now to begin interpreting the inchoate urge into legible prose. At the prompting of my second date with Dimethyltryptamine, let us away, then.

I’ll begin by situating myself within Douglas Osto’s taxonomy of Buddhis(t/h) users of psychedelic drugs. There are those for whom psychedelics “opened the door” to altered experience(s) of self/world in ways which encouraged further meditative exploration within more or less traditional Buddhist institutions and soteriology, as well as a second camp to which I suppose I must now belong, though I was for a while in the first. Rather than psychedelics simply “opening the door” to a more sober, mature spiritual practice, this second camp keeps the door open, as it were, considering psychedelic use either an adjunct to traditional practice or an integral part of one’s continuing development. I can see either of these camps as being useful places to stake one’s tent dependent on personal priorities and spiritual ideals.

For myself, I’ll explain the appeal of the open camp by way of a neater dichotomy between Buddhist traditions than actually exists. There are schools of Buddhism which regard visionary experience as, at best, stumbling blocks. Exemplary here is the denigration of odd perceptual phenomena as mere ‘makyo’ (illusion) in Zen, or the ‘corruptions of insight’ in the Theravada. Bliss, light, vivid and immersive imagery, noetic encounters with beings of various sorts, all these are considered pitfalls. Not something to be avoided, per se, but side effects of proper practices which are potential distractions from advancing on to genuinely liberating (non) experience(s). If all phenomena are inconstant, impersonally fabricated, and unsatisfactory as dogma dictates, best to leave all behind for the deathless, the unfabricated, nirvana, the end of birth, the end of experience. “There is nothing further for this world.”, and all that. So goes the renunciant cant.

Let us grant that all phenomena are indeed inconstant, impersonally fabricated, and unsatisfactory. As it is elaborated in later Buddhism(s) (I am thinking specifically of Mahayana and Vajrayana), however, that unsatisfactoriness, the whole of samsara, is not inherent to phenomena, but a product of the ignorance of their empty, fabricated nature. The fading and eventual complete cessation of fabricated phenomena and therefore of perception (nirvana, nirodha) is reinterpreted and instrumentalized as a means to this realization, and not an end in itself. What reappears, remains, and fluxes is what was there all along: empty, which is to say dependently arisen (see MMK 24:18-19), phenomenality, though now free of habitual reification of self/world and opened to an abundant play of perceptual malleability.

What has all this to do with psychedelics? My view is that their use may, with suggestive set and setting, provide not only an abrupt, perhaps rude and at worst traumatizing, introduction to the fabricated, dependently arisen, empty nature of self/world and all phenomena, but also the possibilities of more or differently functional, blissful, compassionate modes of perceptual auto/mythopoesis. A groundless, creative freedom to inhabit myriad senses of self/world, of space, of time, of awareness, of identity dependent on what appears useful and/or enjoyable.

I believe that the full depth, and perhaps more importantly, the day-to-day availability of this groundless freedom is not accessible without meditative development. That said, psychedelic use may, for the serendipitous individual, act as a spur to such development and a delightful recreation in the hyperbolic possibilities of consciousness. If bizarre, blissful, unitive, synesthetic transformations and disappearances of phenomena and identity laden with mythic significance are available through substances, why not engage them, enjoy them, cognizant of their emptiness? Unless one is wedded to traditional proscriptions against intoxicants, or valorizes the equally empty unfabricated at the expense of the fabricated, I see no reason.

So goes my elaborate justification of getting high out of my mind.

Thanks to All, though relevantly Rob Burbea and his book, Seeing That Frees.

Passion Peak

For a time we were not two,

And all the words were I love you.

Then all around the walls were whirling,

Space palpated its patterned twirling,

Your face fluoresced,

Enveloped, caressed, and

There was a sense that you and I

Were the Beginning of All each time,

And knowing the harm in Being,

In love we’d keep repeating This,

The burning world born of a kiss.

Mea Culpa

and this is how it goes

floes and blues and burnt hues

worse news

and we wonder how to lose

and this is how it’s fine

won’t quit borrowing time

what’s the interest, we’ll pay

day on day on day we

talk slow-walk and balk back and say

and this is how it goes

and it goes