The Nirvana Debate – Joseph Goldstein extract.


In this article Joseph Goldstein, a very experienced and influential Insight meditation teacher, explores his confusion about the apparent difference of opinion between different schools of Theravada Buddhism, Korean Ch’an and Dzogchen on the status of consciousness / awareness. His own tradition teaches consciousness is something transitory whilst Ch’an and Dzogchen believe awareness – pure awareness, rigpa, is the uncreated, unconditioned Buddha Nature, Tathagatagarbha. How can they both be right?

NW. July 31st 2009




There is so much Everything

that Nothing is hidden quite nicely.


IN OUR EXPLORATION OF ONE DHARMA, WE NOW COME TO the most fundamental issue: What is the nature of the liberated mind? Is it something already here that we need to recognise, or does it have a transcendent nature quite apart from our ordinary experience? Does it have any nature at all? One of the great motivating impulses behind One Dharma came from my hearing accomplished masters from different traditions talk about liberation in very different ways, each with descriptions that were verified in their own experience. It was a relief to finally realise that there are different perspectives even on ultimate reality, depending on our own particular relative conditioning, and that there is a way of holding these opposing views in a context of greater unity.

“Nirvana” has already entered our popular culture-I have eaten in restaurants named Nirvana, listened to the music of the group Nirvana, and seen a United Airlines banner headline on Yahoo that read, “Daily Departures to Nirvana. Buy Now!” Although it would he easy, and perhaps even appropriate, to decry the degradation of its meaning, the fact that “Nirvana” has entered our cultural lexicon suggests, at least on some level, an acknowledgement of its ultimate significance,

In India, the term Nibbana also has a popular usage, although it is somewhat more aligned with its actual meaning. (In this chapter Nirvana and Nibbana are used interchangeably, depending on the context of the tradition.) Ajahn Buddhadasa, a well-known Thai master of the last century, said that when village people in India were cooking rice and waiting for it to cool, they might remark, “Wait a little for the rice to become nibbana.” So here, nibbana means the cool state of mind, free from the fires of the defilements, As Ajahn Buddhadasa remarked, “The cooler the mind, the more Nibbana in that moment.” We can notice for ourselves relative states of coolness in our own minds as we go through the day. Notice the difference between being caught up in a desire and the moment when the wanting comes to an end. Can you experience the coolness, the relief of being out of the grip of some craving, even when the desire was pleasurable? Or when there’s pain in the body, notice the difference when there’s some level of contraction through fear and aversion and when there’s an openness of heart through courage and awareness. These examples point to the qualities of Nibbana-relief, release, peace.

Ajahn Buddhadasa spoke of how the coolness of Nibbana continuously nourishes and sustains our life because it puts out the mental fires of greed, anger, and delusion. It would be impossible to live if these fires raged all the time. Temporary Nibbana is the temporary absence of defilements. The supreme state of Nibbana is when all forces of the defilements are extinguished. It’s helpful for us to see and experience this temporary Nibbana, because it inclines us to experience absolute reality, the Unconditioned, the “Ultimate Cool.”

Nibbana is said to be ineffable and indescribable, unknowable by the conceptual mind, yet it is also described as the deathless, absolute peace, freedom, and so forth. It is Nibbana that the Buddha declared to be the final goal of the spiritual journey: “This holy life… does not have gain, honour, and renown for its benefit, or the attainment of virtue for its benefit, or the attainment of concentration for its benefit, or knowledge and vision for its benefit. But it is this unshakable deliverance of mind that is the goal of this holy life, its heartwood and its end.”

Although all Buddhist traditions agree that Nirvana is the cooling out of the afflictive emotions, there are some fundamental differences of view regarding the essential nature of this experience and the most direct way to get there. Does Nirvana, ultimate freedom, transcend awareness or is pure awareness itself freedom? Is Nirvana something we make an effort to attain, or is it the essential nature of our minds?

We will be considering aspects of these questions in four traditions: two in Theravada, one in Zen, and one in Tibetan. In order to understand the import of the various views, it is necessary to lay the foundation for the discussion with an explanation of the five aggregates of existence mentioned earlier.


The five aggregates are the raw material from which we form a sense of self. The first aggregate is composed of all the material elements of the physical universe. Everything we sense as being the body is part of this aggregate. Usually we stay on the surface level of perception and think of the body as composed of arms, legs, chest, head, or perhaps, if we have some knowledge of anatomy, as different systems of hones, organs, muscles, nerves, and so on.

Another way of understanding the body would be to directly feel the physical sensations: hardness, coolness, pressure, stiffness, vibration, heat, and so on. Notice there is no sensation called arm, leg, or lung. In meditation this becomes very clear. In both sitting and walking practice, the perception of form, the shape or image, of the body often disappears. At that time, only the experience of rapidly changing sensations remains. We begin to feel the body as an energy field. And sometimes even that disappears, and there is simply the experience of space. At first, people may be afraid of settling into this formlessness: “If there’s no arm, how can I cat?” There’s no cause for concern, however, since the level of form is always available to do what is appropriate. We don’t give that up; we simply see the underlying reality as well. For example, we may know through microscopic observation that a chair is mostly empty space, yet we still use it functionally to sit on.

The other four aggregates are all mental phenomena. The second of the five is called feeling, which here does not mean emotion, but rather refers to the very specific qualities of pleasantness, unpleasantness, or neutrality in all experience. These feelings play a critical role in the process of our conditioning. Pleasant feelings habitually condition desire, unpleasant feelings aversion, and neutral feelings forgetfulness. The Buddha emphasised how mindfulness of these feelings was necessary to free ourselves from these conditioned responses. The third aggregate, perception, is the quality of recognition and memory. We recognise the distinguishing marks of each object, create a concept to describe it, and then store that concept in memory for future reference. It is through perception that the whole world of concepts comes into play. The fourth is all the mental formations other than feeling and perception, including volition, greed, anger, love, compassion, restlessness, concentration, mindfulness, and so on. (The Abhidharma, the Buddhist psychology, lists fifty of these mental qualities.) And the fifth aggregate is consciousness, the knowing faculty that arises in each moment of experience.

Consciousness, when used in this context of the five aggregates, arises out of conditions. For example, visual consciousness arises when there is the working organ of the eye, a visible object appearing before it, light, and attention. If any of these conditions are missing, then that moment of visual consciousness cannot arise. This description of consciousness as being dependent on conditions, which is found countless times in the Pali Suttas, is a critical piece in the puzzle of Nirvana.

The Buddha emphasised this contingent nature of consciousness in a response to a monk named Sati, who had the view that there was just one consciousness that went from life to life:

“It is this same consciousness that runs and wanders through the round of rebirths.”

[The Buddha then asked Sati,] “What is that consciousness?”

[Sari replied,] “It is that which speaks and feels and experiences here and there the result of good and bad actions.”

[In quite strong language the Buddha then said,] “Misguided man, to whom have you ever known me to teach the Dhamma in that way? Misguided man, in many discourses have I not stated consciousness to be dependently arisen, since without a condition there is no origination of consciousness?”

The Buddha was reaffirming the understanding that in each moment consciousness is arising dependent on conditions and then passing away. This is happening so fast that we do not generally recognise it during our daily lives; however, in meditation, as we refine our attention, it becomes clear.

From this particular viewpoint, then, there is no awareness or consciousness outside the play of these aggregates. Consciousness, awareness, and mindfulness are all part of the flow of conditioned phenomena, and Nirvana is something quite apart. Practising with this understanding leads through various stages of purification to an experience of Nirvana that transcends awareness. This is a classical Theravada view, especially as it is taught in Burma. But as we will see, even within Theravada, there are other viewpoints as well.


In practising insight meditation according to the Burmese tradition of Mahasi Sayadaw, we pay attention to each arising experience. As mindfulness develops, we go through various stages of purification, each one leading to the next, One Sutta in the Pali canon describes this progression as a journey made with chariots in relay: “By means of the first relay chariot I arrived at the second …. Then I dismounted from the first chariot and mounted the second … and by means of the second I arrived at the third … fourth … fifth … sixth … seventh.” Each purification is accomplished for the sake of reaching the next, all the way to enlightenment.

Although the Sutta itself does not give detailed descriptions of the stages, they have been well elaborated both in the great Theravada commentary, The Path of Purification, and by different masters over the centuries. A brief explanation of these stages may be useful here, as it will provide a touchstone for considering aspects of meditative experiences in other traditions. It is important to remember, though, that each person’s experience may vary from the orderly progression of these stages. Sometimes we seem to go backward or pass through particular insights so quickly we don’t even notice them. Different stages can also be confused one with another, even by experienced teachers. And sometimes there are deep psychological and emotional openings that are not described in this particular model of development at all. As a general guide to the meditative process, this map can be extremely helpful. But we should not become attached to the idea that it will always be an exact reflection of how our experience unfolds.

The first stage is purification of conduct. This is the practice and refinement of sila, morality, which we have discussed at some length earlier. Most simply, it is the practice of the precepts and wholesome actions. Because morality is the basis of nonremorse, it makes possible the necessary stabilisation of concentration, undistractedness, which is called purification of mind. When the mind is well concentrated and steady on the object of meditation, the hindrances don’t have the opportunity to arise. Concentration is like a fence that keeps out unwanted intruders; the intruders are still there, but they can’t get in. Because concentration purifies the mind, temporarily, of the hindrances and obstructions, we are able to see more clearly, and so it becomes the basis for the growth of wisdom.

When the mind is settled and composed for some sustained periods of time, continued mindfulness and investigation lead to the next stage, called purification of view. This is a turning point on our path, because it is the first experiential understanding of anatta, “selflessness.” We experience each moment as the paired progression of consciousness and its object, understanding that there is no one lurking behind this process to whom it is happening. At this time in practice, we see very clearly that everything we are calling “self” or “I” is simply the interplay of mental and physical phenomena, the five aggregates. Although this insight into selflessness is not yet complete and there are still many places where we identify with various thoughts and feelings, again creating the sense of self, still this stage of insight is a radical departure from our usual way of perceiving the world and ourselves.

As we strengthen this perspective and understanding of selflessness, we perceive directly that all of these aggregates arise out of appropriate conditions and see by inference that in the past and future the same law of causality applies-everything occurs due to conditions. When this is understood, doubt about how things happen in the three times (past, present, and future) is abandoned. This stage is called purification by overcoming doubt.

In the next stage, purification by knowledge and vision of what is the path and what is not the path, we come to a critical place of understanding. As our experience in meditation deepens, we begin to see with extraordinary clarity the momentary rise and fall of all phenomena. The mind has become like a shining piece of crystal, and the beginning and ending of each object is very distinct. We have broken through to a different level of perception, more microscopic in its focus, and we feel great joy, elation, and wonder at the clear, radiant mind effortlessly noticing the arising and passing of experience. It is easy now to meditate for long periods of time without pain or discomfort. At this stage, distant memories may arise in the mind and, for some people, even images or recollections of past lives. Everything we have practised so hard for is now happening with ease.

This level of insight is called the forerunner of Nibbana. It is like a person standing with his or her arm raised in the air. Sooner or later, it will fall to its natural position. In the same way, once we have the experience of arising and passing away, realisation comes in the natural course of our unfolding practice. (Of course, it may be days, weeks, months, or even many years, depending on our effort and our previous development.) This is the insight the Buddha referred to when he said, “It is better to live a single day seeing the rise and fall of phenomena, than to live a hundred years without seeing it.”

But as this stage matures, we understand that these very wholesome states of mind-rapture, calm, clarity, and concentration-are now “corruptions of insight.” They are called this not because they have suddenly become unwholesome, but because it is easy to become attached to them, feel pride in our accomplishments, and think that we have already arrived at the goal. Only through continued application of mindfulness to these states themselves do we see that they too are impermanent, ultimately unsatisfying, and non-self.

Impermanent, ultimately unsatisfying, and empty of self-these are the three characteristics of existence the Buddha pointed out so often. We see that the more ecstatic states of mind are, in fact, not the path that leads to liberation. So we understand what is the path and what is not. The importance of this discernment is highlighted in all the Buddhist traditions. For example, in the Tibetan Dzogchen teachings, great care is taken to not confuse the conditioned states of bliss, clarity, and non-thought with the experience of realising the unconditioned Nature of Mind.

The next stage is purification by knowledge and vision of the way. Here the meditation progresses through a series of what are called “insight knowledges” – distinct experiences in practice that reveal more and more clearly the three characteristics of existence. One of these “insight knowledges” is the knowledge of dissolution, where the mind inclines toward experiencing the endings of things, so that each pair of consciousness and its object is felt as continually dissolving. There is nothing to hold on to; there is no place to take a stand. It is as if we are on the shifting sands of a very steep slope. Sometimes this perception of dissolution becomes so strong that we may see things disappearing right in front of us. Our perception is so refined at this time that the very process of seeing is experienced as a flow of change. It is a time in our meditation practice of great insecurity because there is nothing substantial to hold on to. It seems as if we have lost all ability to meditate – objects don’t seem to stay around long enough for us to be mindful of them, and so we think our mindfulness has fled. At this time, support and encouragement from a teacher are very helpful, reminding us that even these difficult experiences are part of the path.

Following this is a period of fear, misery, and disgust, because we are seeing very directly and intimately the utter unreliability of conditioned phenomena. Nothing can he counted on to provide ultimate happiness or security. This is called the “rolling up the mat” stage, because at this point meditators typically want to stop their practice, roll up their mat, and go home. This period of practice has many parallels with what St. John of the Cross called the “dark night of the soul.”

As the meditation continues to mature through successive insights, we finally come to a stage of equanimity, where the mind finds a perfect balance and rest in the midst of changing phenomena. At this time, there are no cravings or yearnings, even for the next breath or the next moment of experience. We are not choosing pleasant experiences over unpleasant ones. The mind is abiding in a very refined and effortless state of openness and ease. This is a happiness that far exceeds anything we have known before. It is as if we have been crossing a dry and barren desert and suddenly find ourselves in a lush and fertile oasis. At this point, the practice simply goes on by itself.


As the mind settles into this perfect balance of no wanting and no resistance, the flow of consciousness conditioned by changing objects can suddenly stop. In that moment the mind opens to, realises, alights upon Nibbana, the Unconditioned, the Unborn. This is the last stage in the chariot relay, purification by knowledge and vision-it is here that our meditation practice has been leading, for in the experience of Nibbana suffering has ended.

The Buddha described the experience of the Unconditioned in this way:

There is, monks, that sphere wherein there is neither earth nor water, nor fire, nor air … wherein there is neither this world nor a world beyond, nor moon and sun. There, monks, I declare, is no coming, no going, no stopping, no passing away, no arising. It is not established, it continues not, it has no object. This, indeed, is the end of suffering.

A story in the Suttas elaborates this further. Sariputta, the chief disciple of the Buddha, was addressing a group of bhikkhus saying, “Oh, the bliss of Nibbana.” One of the bhikkhus then asked, “If there is nothing felt in Nibbana how can it be blissful?” Sariputta responded, “My friend, it is precisely because there is nothing felt that it is blissful.” In this light we understand Nibbana, the Unconditioned, as putting down the burden of ceaselessly changing phenomena.

In this model of spiritual development, the moments of realising Nibbana are called “path” and “fruition” (magga-pha!a in Pali). The path moment of realisation is likened to a sudden flash of lightning that illuminates the sky and has the power to completely uproot particular defilements from the mind so that they don’t arise again. This uprooting happens in successive stages, called the four stages of enlightenment. The power of the first path moment bestows unending blessings, because it has cut through the view of self that has kept us so long confined. It is the moment of becoming “a noble one,” someone destined for complete awakening.

Although we may read about these stages of insight and the descriptions of Nibbana as classical texts describing the path of liberation, for many people walking on this path of practice, experiences actually unfold in this way, albeit with different variations. So it is not merely a theoretical construct; it is one description of how things happen.


Masters from the Thai forest tradition describe the experience of Nibbana from quite another perspective. This tradition flowered in the late 1800s, when Ajahn Sao and Ajahn Mun, two monks who became renowned for their ascetic discipline and their extraordinary meditative attainments, settled in the forests of north-eastern Thailand. Their disciples have continued the tradition up until the present day, and some of these teachers have described their own personal experience of the awakened heart/mind. Their understanding has strong resonance with Tibetan and Zen teachings as well.

Ajahn Maha Bua, one of these great Thai forest monks, speaks of the conventional mind and the mind released. The conventional mind is ruled by the tides of proliferating thoughts that are conditioned by ignorance and craving-that is, our usual mind. When these defilements are uprooted through mindfulness and wisdom, then the true mind, or the mind released, appears to its full extent. Ajahn Maha Bua describes this true mind as simple awareness, utterly pure. This awareness has no centre or reference point of self; it cannot he located in any particular spot. It is unsupported, unconditioned, unconstructed.

The five aggregates of experience still function, but they do not in any way affect the mind released. The nature of this mind, this pure awareness, is ultimate ease, the highest peace. Unlike our usual experience, this ease is not simply a peaceful feeling of the mind or pleasant sensations of the body. It is the ease of emptiness, the absence of all defilements. He goes on to say:

Nibbana is constant. The ultimate ease is constant. They are one and the same. The Buddha says Nibbana is constant, the ultimate ease is constant, the ultimate void is constant. They are all the same thing-but the void of Nibbana lies beyond convention. It’s not void in the way the world supposes it to be.

But great care is needed in our practice. We can mistake wonderful and subtle states of mind for the mind released. Ajahn Maha Bua writes:

Once when I went to practice at Wat Do Dhammachedi, the problem of unawareness [ignorance] had me bewildered for quite some time. At that stage the mind was so radiant that I came to marvel at its radiance. Everything of every sort which could make me marvel seemed to have gathered there in the mind, to the point where I began to marvel at myself, “Why is it that my mind is so marvellous?” Looking at the body, I couldn’t see it at all. It was all space-empty. The mind was radiant in full force.

But luckily, as soon as I began to marvel at myself to the point of exclaiming deludedly in the heart without being conscious of it . . . “Why has my mind come so far?”-at that moment, a statement of Dhamma spontaneously arose. This too I hadn’t anticipated. It suddenly appeared, as if someone were speaking in the heart, although there was no one there speaking. It simply appeared as a statement: “If there is a point or a centre of the knower anywhere, that is an agent of birth.” That’s what it said.

This is the critical point: as long as there is any identification with anything, any sense of the “knower,” the one knowing, then we are still bound by the conventional, conditioned mind. Through mindfulness and wisdom we keep deconstructing the sense of self until the pure mind is realised and only the ultimate ease remains.

But how can we understand this teaching about pure awareness in relation to the Buddha’s exhortation to Sati that all consciousness is conditioned? This is one of the sticking points between the Burmese and Thai traditions. Two understandings of Nibbana found in Theravada teachings can provide a useful framework for holding each of these descriptions as different aspects of One Dharma. The first is the experience of Nibbana in which all the aggregates cease (khandha nibbana in Pali). There is no arising object to he experienced. It is the cessation of becoming. Imagine yourself in a kitchen where the refrigerator is humming in the background. Probably you won’t even notice it. But the moment the hum stops, you suddenly feel a sense of relief, a sense of peace. In this analogy, all our conditioned experiences through the five senses and the mind are like the refrigerator hum. We don’t fully realise the stress of the flow of phenomena until the moment it ends. It is the great ease of putting down a burden we hadn’t realised we were carrying.

But even this experience of cessation is described in different ways. In the first, awareness itself is part of the hum and Nibbana is experienced as a gap in the flow of all sensory experience (mind included). For a moment, everything stops. Awareness and feeling cease. It is the experience of non-occurrence, of zero. Sometimes the analogy of deep sleep is used to explain this “unknowing.” When we are in deep sleep we do not know anything, yet when we awaken, somehow we “know” we have slept well and deeply. We feel rested and refreshed from the experience.

In the second, there is an awareness of Nibbana, an awareness of the cessation of all conditioned phenomena. Bhikkhu Nanananda writes: “Here, then, is a consciousness of the very cessation of consciousness …. …Instead of a consciousness of objects, here we have a consciousness without an object or support. Whereas, under normal circumstances, consciousness ‘minors’ or manifests something, in this concentration it is ‘nonmanifestative,’”

Once the Venerable Ananda approached the Venerable Sariputta and asked:

“Can it be, friend Sariputra, that a monk attains to such a concentration of mind that in earth he is not percipient of earth, nor in water is he percipient of water, nor in fire … air… nor is he percipient of this world or a world beyond-but yet he is percipient?”

“Yes, friend Ananda, there can be such a concentration of mind …. Once, friend Ananda, I lived here in Savatthi, in the Dark Forest. There I attained to such a concentration of mind that in earth I was not percipient of earth … nor was I percipient of this world or a world beyond-and yet I was percipient …. On that occasion, friend, I perceived that Nibbana is the cessation of becoming.”

Thanissaro Bhikkhu, a contemporary American Theravada monk, scholar, and meditation teacher, writes, “A few texts discuss a separate type of consciousness that does not partake of any of the six senses or their objects. This type of consciousness is said to lie beyond the range of describable experience and so is not included under the five aggregates. In fact, it is equivalent to the Unfabricared [Nibbana] and forms the goal at the end of the path.” And in the Long Discourses of the Buddha is found:

Consciousness without feature, without end, luminous all around: here water, earth, fire and wind have no footing. Here long and short, coarse and fine, fair and foul, name and form are, without remnant, brought to an end. From the cessation of [the activity of] consciousness, each is here brought to an end. (Translator’s brackets.)

Although consciousness is not usually described this way in the Pali texts, with most references being to its conditioned, impermanent nature, many of the great masters of the Thai forest tradition use the language of the pure heart or pure mind to express the state of unconditioned freedom. They may be describing the experience of the second aspect of Nibbana, namely, the cessation of defilements (kilesa nibbana in Pali). Here, Nibbana is not some transcendental realm, but this very mind unobscured by the clouds of ignorance, what Ajahn Maha Bua called the true mind, or the mind released. It is the mind abiding free of defilements, the final cooling out of all the afflictive emotions. What remains is awareness, utterly pure.

A striking and vivid image, from a discourse to the nuns in the Pali Suttas, describes this state of release:

“Sisters, suppose a skilled butcher or his apprentice were to kill a cow and carve it up with a sharp butcher’s knife. Without damaging the inner mass of flesh and without damaging the outer hide, he would cut, sever, and carve away the inner tendons, sinews, and ligaments with the sharp butcher’s knife. Then, having cut, severed, and carved all this away, he would remove the outer hide and cover the cow again with that same hide. Would he he speaking rightly if he were to say: ‘This cow is joined to this hide just as it was before’?”

“No, venerable sir .. . even though he covers the cow again with that same hide and says: ‘This cow is joined to this hide just as it was before,’ that cow would still be disjoined from that hide.”

In this metaphor, the tendons, sinews, and ligaments refer to delight and lust for conditioned experience, and the sharp butcher’s knife is the term for noble wisdom, cutting through those attachments. Just as the hide is now disjoined from the cow, so too when the mind is free of defilements, the five aggregates are no longer objects of clinging. The mind is no longer bound up with experience. It is the mind released.

What, then, are the defilements that obscure this purity and ease of mind? There are many lists of unskillful mental states, but they all derive from three basic roots: greed, hatted, and delusion. These states arise in our minds with different levels of intensity. Sometimes they are strong enough to motivate unwholesome bodily and verbal actions: tendencies of desire or anger, pride or fear that move us to act. Sometimes defilements occur just at the mental level and do not manifest through body and speech: all of the unwholesome thoughts and feelings that influence our mental state. Finally, there are defilements that are not arising in the moment, but remain as latent dispositions in the mind. Any of these can manifest whenever the right conditions are present.

In one of his discourses, the Buddha told the story of Mistress Vedehika, a woman renowned in the ancient city of Savatthi for being kind and gentle. But her maid, Kali, wondered whether her mistress was really free of anger. Perhaps she stayed in good humour only because Kali’s work was so well done. The maid thought to test her mistress and began getting up later and later each day. At first, Vedehika was simply displeased, but as her maid’s lazy behaviour continued over many days, she became increasingly annoyed and angry. Finally she became so angry, she took a rolling pin and gave Kali a blow on the head. With blood flowing, Kali ran out to show the neighbours, and a had report soon began to circulate throughout Savatthi about Mistress Vedehika being rough and merciless.

When I first read this Sutta, I had an unexpected response. Although not condoning the rolling-pin action, I felt some sympathetic resonance with Vedehika’s situation. If we are counting on someone to fulfil a responsibility that is indeed hers, wouldn’t any of us become annoyed if she consistently failed to do so-especially because of sleeping late! And not just once, but over many days. However, the Buddha is making quite another point here, and noticing my own reaction gave me pause for reflection.

On a deeper level, this story reminds us of the radical, uncompromising freedom of Nibbana, a freedom that is not dependent on conditions being favourable but remains untouched by the changing winds of circumstance. The difficulties we face in our lives become a truth-reflecting mirror of our minds. Do we get upset when things don’t happen the way we would like them to? Or do we respond from a place of wisdom? When the Buddha speaks of freedom from defilements, he is not simply talking about being in a good mood. This deeper freedom comes through a profound inner shift of understanding where the sense of self-reference has been purified. Only when we uproot even the latent defilements can we truly taste what the Buddha called the unshakable deliverance of mind.

It is this third kind of defilement that has subtle and far-reaching consequences in our understanding of liberation. Although we may have moments of genuine realisation, as long as these latent tendencies remain in the mind there is more work to do. This understanding is clearly expressed in the teachings of Chinul, one of the great founding masters of Korean Zen.


Chinul framed his teaching in the context of “sudden awakening, gradual cultivation.” This approach starts with awakening, yet recognises the need for the gradual cultivation of that state.

What is sudden awakening? It is the recognition and direct experience of ultimate hodhicitta-the mind’s empty, aware nature, which is always and already present. So from this perspective, it’s not something we need to get or develop, but rather something we need to recognise and come back to.

A mantra that has been helpful to me at times as a skilful means for not clinging is, “It’s already here.” When I’m meditating and I feel my mind reaching out for something, wanting something, or waiting for a meditative state of greater peace, love, concentration, or emptiness, this mantra comes to mind, “It’s already here.” This reminds me that the practice is not about wanting, but about letting go into the wisdom mind of non-clinging. It is understanding that clinging itself is “doing,” and non-clinging is the natural state of ease. In this respect, non-clinging is both the means and the end, the practice and the result.

But Chinul didn’t simply present this teaching of what we could call the ultimate level of understanding. He also emphasised the need to gradually cultivate that state of awakening. Here, “awakened” doesn’t mean that we’re fully enlightened given the latent defilements that are still present-but rather the momentary recognition of empty awareness (or aware emptiness). Having a glimpse of it, or even many glimpses, is not enough. “But although we have awakened to original nature, beginningless habit energies are extremely difficult to remove suddenly. Hindrances are formidable and habits are deeply ingrained.”

So Chinul teaches that we start with awakening, recognising the fundamental empty nature of awareness, and then practice the gradual cultivation of that awakened state. In a wonderful book of his teachings, Tracing Back the Radiance, a student asks Chinul why gradual cultivation is necessary after one has awakened to the truth. The master replies:

For innumerable kalpas [aeons] without beginning, up to the present time, ordinary men have passed between the five destinies, coming and going between birth and death. They obstinately cling to “self” and, over a long period of time, their natures have become thoroughly permeated by false thoughts, inverted views, ignorance and the habit-energies. Although, coming into this life, they may suddenly awaken to the fact that their self-nature is originally void and calm and no different from that of the Buddhas, these old habits are difficult to eliminate completely. Consequently, when they come into contact with either favourable or adverse objects, then anger and happiness or propriety or impropriety blaze forth: their adventitious defilements are no different from before.

Chinul is emphasising something here that is of crucial importance as the Dharma comes to the West. Teachers and students alike may indeed have authentic openings and moments of realisation; however, for almost all it is really just the beginning. The habit patterns of desire and aversion, restlessness and conceit run very deep in the mind, and unless we continue to practice, these patterns continue to play themselves out in our lives. The great danger is in assuming that we are done with our journey, that we have reached the final goal, and thereby justify or ignore unskillful actions and states of mind that may still he happening. Chinul goes on to say:

So how could you neglect gradual cultivation simply because of one moment of awakening. After awakening, you must be constantly on your guard. If deluded thoughts suddenly appear, do not follow after them-reduce them and reduce them again until you reach the Unconditioned. Then and only then will your practice reach completion.

Nevertheless, although you must cultivate further, you have already awakened suddenly to the fact that deluded thoughts are originally void and the mind-nature is originally pure.

This last sentence completes the circle, reminding us that although our moment of awakening is not complete, it still transforms the way we continue our practice. Even as we practice gradual cultivation, using all the various skilful means and methods to develop concentration and insight, we are now proceeding from that deep understanding that the hindrances and defilements themselves are empty and without substance. We are no longer practising from a place of thinking that the different states of mind are somehow solid and belonging to self. This is the union of the ultimate and relative levels: sudden awakening, gradual cultivation.


The Tibetan Dzogchen tradition also points very directly to the nature of the liberated mind, calling it the “Natural Great Perfection.” According to Dzogchen teachings this nature is always and already present-it is the essence of the mind itself. Shabkar (1781-1851), the great Tibetan yogi, beautifully describes this essence: “The mind’s nature is vivid as a flawless piece of crystal. Intrinsically empty, naturally radiant, ceaselessly responsive.”

What does it mean to say the Nature of Mind is intrinsically empty? To many people, this may not sound very appealing. Perhaps they imagine a grey vacuity or a blank nothingness. “Emptiness” (shunyata in Sanskrit) in Buddhism has many subtle meanings, but perhaps it can he most simply understood as the absence of self-centredness. We usually think of self-centredness as a personality problem, something our friends might suggest we go to therapy for. But “self-centred” has a more fundamental meaning. Self-centredness occurs when we create or hold a sense of sell to be at the centre of our lives, a reference point for all we think and sense and feel. The self-centre is the idea or felt sense of someone behind all experience to whom it is happening.

Most of us live in the gravitational field of this self-centre, circling around our hopes and fears, plans and worries, our work and relationships. Our lives seem to revolve around desire for ever new experiences, even as we see them continually changing. But through sustained wise attention, through the power of mindfulness and investigation, we begin to leave this familiar self-referential orbit. We begin to have glimpses of the zero centre of emptiness, rather than the self-centre of ego striving, and this becomes the new force of gravity in our lives. We may have intimations of this in our ordinary lives when we enter an effortless flow state, perhaps in music, art, or sports. Things seem to he going on without us-and are much better for it.

In the early Sutras, “emptiness” referred to this wisdom of understanding selflessness. Later Mahayana texts emphasised that even the particular elements, or building blocks, of experience are empty of any essence, of any self-nature. Everything arises contingently and interdependently; there is nothing substantial at the core of anything. Nothing has independent selfexistence-teachings not dissimilar from those of modem physics.

The Tibetan Dzogchen tradition emphasises another aspect of emptiness as well. This is the empty, space-like nature of the mind. Padmasambhava, sometimes known as Guru Rinpoche, the renowned Indian adept who first brought Buddhism to Tibet in the eighth century, gave these “mind teachings” in a root Dzogchen text called Self-Liberation Through Seeing with Naked Awareness: “It is certain that the nature of the mind is empty and without any foundation whatsoever. Your own mind is insubstantial like the empty sky. You should look at your own mind to see whether it is like that or not.” This practice is not the deconstruction of the sense of self, but rather a direct recognition of the mind’s empty essence. When we look for the mind there is nothing to find.

Although the Nature of Mind can be likened to space, it is not actually space itself. Space is a physical phenomenon-it doesn’t know anything; it has no consciousness, no cognizing faculty. Similarly, the spacelike quality of awareness does not mean the feeling of spaciousness with which it can easily be confused. A very experienced meditator once asked Tsoknyi Rinpoche, a Dzogchen teacher, whether the experience she had while meditating of vast spaciousness was indeed the empty essence of awareness. He replied that the Nature of Mind is better characterised as groundlessness rather than spaciousness. Spaciousness is a conditioned state of mind often arising from balanced concentration. Sometimes our minds feel spacious, sometimes not. But groundlessness indicates that every arising phenomenon is simply empty, meaning that it is insubstantial, having no essential self-nature.

The natural radiance of mind is its innate wakefulness. It is the open, knowing nature of the mind itself-the inseparable unity of clarity, awareness, and emptiness. The Tibetan word for “radiance” also means “able to know.” The nature of this awareness is the great mystery of our lives. When we look for it, there is nothing to find; it is like looking for open, empty space. Yet, at the same time, there is this innate knowing capacity in all sentient beings.

Robert Kaplan, a mathematician from Harvard University, wrote a book about the history of the number zero called The Nothing That Is. He writes, “If you look at zero you see nothing; but look through it and you will see the world.” This is a good analogy for the open, spacelike quality of awareness. There is nothing there, yet it is not nothing. Some Tibetan teachers call it the “cognizing power of emptiness.” Or as Buddhadasa Bhikkhu taught, “We should really call mind emptiness, but because of the awareness faculty we call it mind.”

From the perspective of Dzogchen teachings, it is possible for us to look directly into the nature of our minds, to recognise the lucidly clear, unfabricated awareness that is uncreated and deathless. Padmasambhava gives simple instructions: “You should look at your own mind, observing it again and again. . . However many names may be applied to it, even though they are well conceived and fancy sounding, with regard to its real meaning, it is just this immediate present awareness (and nothing else).”

Many Tibetan texts use the word “amazing” as an exclamation of wonder highlighting the ever present, although often obscured, truth of our own minds. In Self-Liberation Through Seeing with Naked Awareness, Padmasambhava says:

This self-originated primordial awareness has not been created by anything-amazing!

It does not experience birth nor does there exist a cause for its death-amazing!

Although it is evidently visible, yet there is no one there who sees it-amazing!

Although it has wandered throughout Samsara, it has come to no harm-amazing!

Even though it has seen Buddhahood itself, it has not come to any benefit from this-amazing!

Even though it exists in everyone everywhere, yet it has gone unrecognised-amazing!

Nevertheless, you hope to attain some other fruit than this elsewhere-amazing!

Even though it exists within yourself (and nowhere else), yet you seek for it elsewhere-amazing!

Awareness is the great wonder of our lives. But even as we begin to look at our minds and recognise this immediate present awareness, we need to notice if there is any subtle identification with it or if we have created any centre point of observation. In the naked awareness of Dzogchen, there is nothing to find, nothing on which to take a stand.

The Nature of Mind is ceaselessly responsive. In the Tibetan tradition, a simple image of ice and water is used to describe the movement from delusion to awareness, from ignorance to wisdom. Ice is solid, frozen. It represents the mind contracted in identification with any arising experience-when it is identified with thoughts, opinions, feelings, sensations, or awareness itself-taking the experience to be self, to be “I.” Water represents the nature of mind, the wisdom mind of awareness, unfrozen, and unfixated, where there is no holding or clinging to anything at all.

A great discovery in our spiritual lives is that water is nothing other than melted ice. So in this expression of Nirvana, freedom is not some other state, but rather this very same mind that had been frozen and fixated and is now unfrozen. Of course, great care is needed in distinguishing water and ice; sometimes what we think is free-flowing water turns out to be slush. We may feel as though we’re abiding in a totally open, groundless space of mind, when in reality, there may be subtle attachments present, even to that state of openness itself. For this reason, Dzogchen teachings speak often of having confidence in one’s experience, but continuing to clarify and refine one’s view.

Lines from Wendell Berry’s poem “Breaking” capture the importance of this clarifying process:

Did I believe I had a clear mind?

It was like the water of a river

flowing shallow over the ice. And now

that the rising water has broken

the ice, I see that what I thought

was the light is part of the dark.

In the open, unobstructed nature of awareness, there is great spontaneity and responsiveness to situations. It is like water flowing down a mountain, making its way to the ocean. Given the particulars of the topography, the water always finds the most direct way. The mind is not some inert vacuum, but is ceaselessly responsive to all arising experience. One expression of this responsiveness is a natural compassion-not compassion as a stance, but as the spontaneous expression of emptiness. The Dalai Lama is such a good example of this union of compassion and emptiness manifesting in the world: he laughs at himself and deeply cares for others.

In this fourth representation of the liberated mind, there is a shift from seeing Nirvana as being separate from the aggregates of experience to seeing it as one with them, with the explicit understanding that this union of emptiness and awareness is endowed with the heart of compassion: intrinsically empty, naturally radiant, ceaselessly responsive. The Dzogchen view is that all experiences are appearances at play in the vast expanse of empty awareness. They are the self-display of the ultimate. Buddhas are beings who realise this fully; ordinary sentient beings do not. Here, the path of practice is recognising this union of emptiness and awareness endowed with compassion, and then stabilising that recognition.


All these different expressions of Nirvana highlight a discussion that has been going on since the earliest days of Buddhism. What is the experiential, psychological dimension of Nirvana? Is it experienced as the ending of awareness, as something apart from the mind, or is it pure awareness itself? Is it an immanent reality, this very mind free of defilements, or is it a transcendent reality, something beyond the ordinary mind altogether? Even in the earliest teachings of the Buddha, there is much to support each of these views. And in the understanding of One Dharma, we see that they may well be different aspects of the same realisation.

Most of us are familiar with the example of several blind men each touching a different part of an elephant and then describing the elephant based on the part they had touched. The same situation can happen in spiritual practice, even when our eyes can see and our minds have opened. The way we describe experience reflects many kinds of conditioning-the propensities of our minds, the practices we have done, the texts we have studied, and even the language we speak. Moreover, the limitations of language themselves force us to describe the truth in ways that can never fully capture its every dimension. Nirvana has been described as ultimate peace, the supreme silence, the end of suffering, complete freedom, the Unborn, absolute emptiness, the all-good, stainless beauty: same elephant, different words.

In The Path of Purification we find one example of how the different propensities of our minds can determine the particular way we experience Nirvana and the words we use to express it. According to this classic text, people’s experience of Nirvana will be influenced by the doorway through which they enter: people who enter through the door of impermanence are strong in faith and resolution, and experience the Unconditioned as signless, meaning there is no sign there of impermanence. Those who enter through suffering are strong in concentration and tranquillity, and experience the Unconditioned as desireless. And those who enter through selflessness are strong in wisdom and experience the Unconditioned as void.

Within the Tibetan tradition, there has also been an ongoing debate about which of the three turnings of the Wheel of the Dharma represents the highest truth. It is a debate between those who give primacy to the teachings of emptiness in the second turning and those who see the teachings of intrinsic Buddha-Nature in the third turning as being more complete or ultimate. The subtleties of the arguments have been well explained in Reginald Ray’s book Indestructible Truth, The point here is simply that even within one tradition, enlightened masters have different perspectives on ultimate reality, not to speak of the differences between traditions.

Another possible framework for understanding different descriptions of Nirvana is the Mahayana elaboration of the three bodies (kayas in Pali and Sanskrit) of the Buddha. These three kayo.s. are classified in many ways. Most commonly, they refer to the Buddha’s physical form, called the Nirmanakaya; his visionary, nonmaterial body in which he taught in other realms, the Sambhogakaya; and the body of ultimate truth, the Dharmakaya. This last is what the Buddha referred to when he said, “You can look at this physical form for a hundred years and not see the Buddha. Only those who see the Dharma see the Buddha.”

Within the Dzogchen context of Mind Essence, though, these three bodies of the Buddha (in reverse order) refer to the aspects of mind nature mentioned earlier: intrinsically empty, naturally radiant, and ceaselessly responsive. These meanings may also shed light on the different views of Nirvana. Perhaps the path and fruition moments described as cessation of knowing are the direct realisation of the empty, uncreated nature of Dharmakaya; that the simple and utterly pure awareness of mind beyond any defilement is the clear, cognisant nature of the Sambhogakaya. And when we speak of the Buddha after his enlightenment as “living” in Nirvana, all of this enlightened unobstructed activity is the Nirmanakaya.

As we consider all these views about Nirvana, we may find ourselves following our usual habit of mind, jumping in with judgements about each view, which ones we agree with, which ones we don’t, setting one against the other. By making one view (our favourite) the highest, the others must be lower. But if we follow the Buddha’s advice about letting go of attachment to all views and experience the freedom and openness of mind in that relinquishment, then, in the light of One Dharma, there is a way of seeing all the different perspectives as a mandala of skilful means, each contributing to our liberation. The description of the liberated mind may vary depending on what aspect is being emphasised and on our own particular conditioning. We experience the new moon and full moon quite differently, but it is the same moon hanging in the sky, changing only according to our relative perspective.

Do all these views about Nirvana have any real significance for us? Or are they of interest only to philosophers and to arhants and bodhisattvas far along the path? At different times in our lives and meditation practice we may get glimpses of something beyond our ordinary, conventional reality, touching a space that transforms our vision of who we are and what the world is. These intimations give passionate meaning to questions of ultimate truth, because although we may not always be living in that space, we understand it to be the source of everything we value.

From: Goldstein, J. (2002) One Dharma, Harper, San Francisco pp.157-183.

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