To awaken is to transcend awareness. Some teachers use “consciousness” and “awareness” interchangeably. This is not wrong, but it does not quite capture what I just realized.
According to the Buddha, perception requires the conjunction of three elements, the thing that gets perceived, the physiological capacity to perceive (eyes to see, ears to hear, etc.), and consciousness. If you are not conscious, asleep or in a coma, you perceive nothing. You still have eyes and ears, the world is still there, perceptible, but you do not perceive it because your consciousness is absent. One could strike “consciousness” from those sentences and substitute “awareness,” but we also say, “I was not aware of that,” and it would sound a bit odd to say, “I was not conscious of that.”
For my purposes, I will say that “consciousness” is passive and “awareness” is active. So, when you meditate as I learned it, you keep your eyes slightly open and allow your gaze to fall on what is in front of you. So you are conscious when you meditate and you can see what is in front of you, but the point is not to look at whatever that is or think about it. “Allow your gaze to fall” is different from “look at.” You are conscious of what your gaze falls on, but you are not necessarily fully aware of what it is. You may have had the experience, I have had the experience, of having an object fully in my visual field, right in front of my eyes, but still not been fully aware of what I was looking at.
In some sense, we can say that, according to the Buddha, we humans are all this way with respect to enlightenment or nirvana or whatever you want to call it. It is right in front of our eyes, but we don’t see it. For whatever reason, the Buddha did see it and we have been following his directions to see it ourselves ever since. That’s what I have done and what I am trying to explain with these blog posts.
Again, this is a realization. When you suddenly see your own capacity to awaken, when you notice your own enlightenment, you are not seeing anything new. You just have a slightly (perhaps minutely) different perspective on what was always there. If it were a snake, it would have bitten you.
That is a critical step, but it is not quite the end of the path. It is still you seeing your enlightenment. But the Buddha said there is no you, not in any enduring sense. Awakening is “the deathless,” as many Buddhist teachers put it. You will die. In his anticipation of quantum physics, the Buddha actually claimed that we are arising and passing away constantly at such a rapid rate that all we see is continuity, similar to a movie, which is really just a series of individual images that the projector projects at such a rapid pace that our minds see a movie instead.
The leading early Zen master Dogen said, “to study the self is to forget the self.” By meditating you are studying yourself. When you sit in meditation, you are paying attention to nothing but yourself.
But, in what is perhaps the ultimate paradox of Buddhism, when you study yourself long enough and consistently enough, you see that your self does not exist.
You can become aware of your own awareness, which is an important step on the path of studying yourself.
But the Buddha eventually entered a state in which all perception ceased. He transcended consciousness and awareness.
Since I intellectualize, I explained “the deathless” as the Buddha experienced it to mean that, after his last human lifetime ended, when the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, died, instead of taking another birth as unawakened humans do, his mind/consciousness/awareness, the quality that made his body him during his lifetime, dispersed entirely into space such that it no longer exists as such, which is why it could not take rebirth.
When he awakened at age 35, he perceived that this state is possible and how to ensure he would eventually end up there, which is what awakening in the Buddhist sense consists of. He launched himself through awakening and flew out the other side, beyond all consciousness, beyond all awareness.
This is amazing. It is very cool. You can do it. I have done it. Going there will change your perspective and your priorities, but you won’t care. You will see that what you thought mattered does not actually matter at all.
Keep meditating and you will get there.
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