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Pure Awareness Retreat - Notes

by Tejananda

Pure Awareness Retreats – Notes

by Tejananda

Given at Vajraloka Retreat Centre, 2004-2005

Related audio available at: http://www.freebuddhistaudio.com/meditation/retreats

The Basic Practice – Just Sitting
21st March 2005

There are various terms for this practice – just sitting or shikantaza (Zen); formless
meditation (Dzogchen, Mahamudra); choiceless awareness (Theravada/vipassana). All
refer to same approach.

The basic observation that underlies this practice is that everything we experience arises
in awareness, we are never ‘outside’ awareness.

As ‘formless’ implies, there is no fixed form and no fixed object. We are simply aware of
whatever happens to be – there is no deliberate attempt to develop or eradicate any
quality. The effort that we exert (and this approach does require a lot of effort, at least to
begin with) is devoted to continuously 'letting go into the moment'. It seems paradoxical
– although we are in reality nothing but awareness, yet it seems we have to work hard to
be aware. Eventually it becomes clear that awareness is effortless – but (although it is
possible to glimpse this from the beginning) this effortlessness is usually only realised
after a lot of hard work on and off the cushion!

Just sitting itself is very simple, in fact it couldn’t be simpler. You just sit there. You sit –
alert in your meditation posture, just aware of whatever happens to be arising from
moment to moment – sensations, feelings thoughts and emotions. You may also become
aware of ‘pure awareness’ (but more of this later).

The attitude you have is that whatever arises, that's ok. Compulsive thoughts, ill-will,
sloth-and-torpor, absorption (i.e. dhyana), metta… whatever – it just arises momentarily
in awareness, and is gone.

It's a complete openness to our experience. Openness or spaciousness is a ‘natural’
quality of mind which in some way we’re aware of all the time – we know, even if
somewhat vaguely, that our experience arises in some kind of mental ‘space’.

At the same time, in this practice, we are just ‘open’ to whatever is there – in a sense you
could say we face up to it. We don’t balk, whatever it is. We just let it be, there in the
space of our awareness. We accept ‘in this moment, this is what is’ – we don’t look for
our experience to be anything other than what it is (in fact, our experience cannot be
other than what it is).

things away. We just let our body and mind ‘do themselves’. Absolutely anything can
arise; absolutely nothing is held onto conceptually.

Issues that may arise in the practice

Compulsive thoughts

The question often arises ‘In just sitting, should we use any kind of antidote to quieten
the thoughts down?’ I think there are two main ways to approach this. The ‘strict’ answer
is that if we just sit in an alert posture with the intention to be in awareness of whatever
arises, the awareness itself will eventually have the effect of quietening the thinking. If
you have the patience to allow things to take their course in this way, you can learn some
important lessons about yourself and the way your mind works.

However, if you decide the thinking is too much for you, I think it’s quite acceptable
initially to apply a very subtle ‘antidote’ within the spirit of just sitting, e.g. to gently
‘bring your awareness back’ to the present moment, again and again. This will probably
have the effect of breaking up the stream of thoughts. A slightly less subtle approach is to
say ‘thinking’ to yourself, whenever you notice thoughts are occurring. The label isn’t
used as a blunt instrument to hammer the thoughts away!

Thoughts occur quite naturally and don’t need to be suppressed. Labelling in this way
just helps keep you present to what is arising now, but streams of thoughts tend to quieten
down and become less intrusive. A more ‘interactive’ approach still is to ‘repeat’ the
thought you have just had, e.g. if you notice you were thinking ‘how much longer this
meditation is going to go on for?’, you repeat to yourself ‘thinking “how much longer
this meditation is going to go on for?”’ Doing this for a while (I wouldn’t recommend
doing it all the time) can give a very useful ‘feedback’ on exactly what you are thinking
about, what is ‘coming up’, as well as tending to quieten the compulsive thoughts down.

‘Vegging out’

Another concern about the formless approach is that you will just enter a vague,
vegetative mental state – sort of spacing out. This can happen. The best way of avoiding
it is to set up and maintain awareness of your alert posture and body-experience. Have a
sense of your centre of gravity in the ‘hara’ area (2 finger widths below navel).
Sometimes it helps to have or keep the eyes open, sometimes (if you notice ‘vegging’
happening when the eyes are open) it can help to close the eyes.

What is pure awareness?

'Pure awareness' is one of many ways of referring to our true, integral, ultimate nature &
It’s ‘here’ already - fully and perfectly, always. It can’t not be here. It is what we truly are
– the true nature of everything, things as they are.

Pure awareness can’t be developed or cultivated, it just ‘is’ – so, rather than a practice, it
would be more accurate to say that pure awareness is a state of insight or awakening. The
question of ‘how do you get into pure awareness’ is exactly like us here on retreat at
Vajraloka asking ‘how do we get to Vajraloka?’ – well, of course, we’re already at
Vajraloka. (But then ... what exactly is ‘Vajraloka’?...)

So pure awareness is just awareness itself. Or mind itself, or consciousness itself.
Awareness ‘in itself’ is completely pure of subject-object and of ‘self-view.’ In other
words, it’s inherently self-less (not-self, i.e. anatman) and so nondual because there is no
self-other dichotomy in it. It is also total interconnectedness, because there is no
separation in it between different really-existing ‘things’ – which also hints at how it’s
nature is both wisdom and compassion.

We can also call it ‘pure’ awareness in the sense that that’s all it is – it’s just awareness:
everything arises and passes away as empty, spontaneous manifestation, magical display
(maya), within this awareness or consciousness or nature of mind. And I do mean this
awareness – not some special different awareness. This awareness is present right now. It
is only ever right now. This is why in Dzogchen it’s often spoken of as ‘ordinary
awareness’ – or in Zen as ‘nothing special’. It’s essentially not what we’re aware of – it’s
that which is aware (though that’s inseparable from what we’re aware of).

How this fits into Buddhist teaching

There are indications in early Buddhism, e.g. the Buddha’s teaching in the Anguttara
Nikaya ‘this mind (citta) – is luminous but covered by extraneous defilements’, but
essentially this teaching flowered in the Mahayana and tantric Buddhism (as well as in
non-Buddhist traditions) the main basis in Mahayana is ‘tathagatagarbha’. I.e. ‘Buddha
Nature’ (lit. the ‘womb’ or embryo’ of the Buddha). Probably the earliest expression of
this is in the Tathagatagarbha Sutra:

‘... all beings, though they find themselves with all sorts of klesas, have a
tathagatagarbha that is eternally unsullied, and that is replete with virtues no different
from my own. ... the Tathagatagarbhas of all living begins are eternal and unchanging. It
is just that they are covered by sentient beings’ klesas’.

This teaching became extremely important in Mahayana schools such as Ch’an and Zen,
the tantras and particularly Mahamudra and Dzogchen.

So this intrinsic pure awareness (i.e. ‘rigpa’ in Dzogchen teaching, also known as
Buddha nature, the Great Perfection, Mahamudra, Indestructible Heart Essence, and so
on) is the teaching on which we are focussing on this retreat. Only, we can’t realise it. It’s
realisation consists in ‘our’ absence. The practice, you could say, consists in our getting
out of the way. In other words, as mentioned above, implicit in the realisation of this
‘unborn’ or ‘radiant’ mind – pure awareness for short – is the realisation of not-self
(anatman). The seeing through of ‘self-view’. This means – just to repeat – that pure
awareness is insight. Or you could equally say that pure awareness, in itself,
is awakening.

So how to do it? Well, the good news is that this is it already. The ‘bad’ news is – as I’ve
already said – that you can’t ‘develop’ it. (But this is not actually bad news – quite the

What this means is that you will need to have a ...

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