Spontaneous Presence

Within the essence of totally pure awakened mind,
there is no object to view or anything
that constitutes a view –
nor the slightest sense of anything to
look at or anyone looking.
There is no ordinary consciousness
meditating or anything to meditate on.
Due to spontaneous presence,
without any duality of goal and conduct,
there is not the slightest sense of any fruition to achieve.

Chöying Dzod (pt. V), Longchenpa

Six months after a 2013 retreat at Mount Madonna, I was sitting in the back of the large tent in Crestone, Colorado with more than a hundred others attending an annual advanced Dzogchen retreat with Tsoknyi Rinpoche. Up front, Rinpoche started reciting or reading a passage in Tibetan, followed by an assistant repeating that passage in English.   

At first, I didn’t realize what was happening. This reading (a loong—or verbal transmission) had not been formally announced. I was slightly confused until I realized the words were penetrating all the way in, the cadence and poetics were opening me again to an experience similar to what occurred six months prior. As the readings continued this day and at the appointed time on several subsequent days, I frequently and quietly wept in the back as I listened. When the entire Chöying Dzod, The Treasury of The Basic Space of Phenomena in thirteen parts, authored by Longchenpa, had been transmitted, I had received a direct refresher course in the nature of my previous experience and precisely what had been missing: all the validation I could ever have wanted. 

Spontaneous Presence, effortlessly realized, uncontrived fulfillment, is the essence of the Dzogchen accomplishment. The term refers to the essence of all phenomena, including the nature of mind, arising spontaneously from a timeless, infinitely dynamic source-less source. References are found in early Dzogchen teachings on the nature of reality and especially in the Seven Treasuries of this great 14th Century master—also known as a Second Buddha. It turns out the Chöying Dzod was Longchenpa’s shortened version of the nature of reality. Despite its brevity, the eloquence of its poetry, illuminated by Richard Barron’s translation, powerfully conveys the essence of the View. He also wrote quite a few other more treatises on the topic. From that day on, I devoured whatever I could find. 

Spontaneous Presence resolves the paradox of perpetually constructing a goal-oriented incremental path requiring effort, based on a premise of insufficiency, leading to a distant objective, the ‘achievement’ of awakening, with the intrinsic capacity to realize the awakened state in this moment.

From the perspective of the Great Perfection, spiritual development depends on how we each comprehend and resolve this paradox in thought and action. We are usually unaware, and often painfully so, that our attention on ourselves and on the future—a distinct “personal” future—is the essence of confusion and obstructs direct realization in the moment, and thereby in the imagined future as well. It’s as though a simple quirk of perception combined with confused consciousness is perpetually obstructing our access to the freedom always at hand. 

What we tend to forget, even while we imagine an ultimate achievement in a distant and foggy future, the essence of all gradualist teachings and practices is at all times none other than the Great Perfection itself. It is not something which can only be reached by completing and repeating a sequence of practices to the satisfaction of a teacher, but is already intrinsic to every act, every thought, every moment of object-oriented, confused awareness. There is no bridge to timeless awareness. It is already here. Were we to realize the true nature of reality in this or any moment, there would be no need whatsoever to envision the future. Neither would we ever imagine anyone to realize it.

This awakened vision is called pure perception, a substrate always lurking directly within and beneath conventional awareness. Knowing it’s there and seeing through its eyes are two different things, of course. The word realization is so often used in Buddhist literature and teaching, suggesting spontaneous presence is virtually unattainable, a dramatic event only achieved after unnumbered lifetimes of effort or accessible only to a select few who have devoted this lifetime to rigorous practice. But the climb is not as steep as we imagine. It’s not even a climb at all. And we are up to it. At the risk of committing heresy, I’m not completely convinced that bringing a non-dual view into average daily existence can only be achieved through a formal relationship with a lineage teacher.

Since most of us are not realizing our true nature in this moment, we seek tools and practices to rely on in moments of stress—or at any time at all. We believe them to be the antidotes to our confusion. We adopt simple or complex practices, devotional structures intended to break through our habitual mind to develop pure perception, bodhicittaand open-hearted presence. Yet here is another paradoxical condition in which we realize ritualized practices within structured contexts, cultural symbols and all the trappings that come with them are part of the way we hold ourselves back. They can become more ballast, dragging us down into ever more complex rational approaches to awakening. Regardless of how complex they may be, conceptual constructions cannot drop us into a non-conceptual condition.

Whether we ever realize spontaneous presence, even for a short time, may or may not depend on how successful we are at this. We also attempt to be good people, noticing our faults and flaws, applying various antidotes to correct them, all with the idea that we are transforming ourselves on a long arc of achievement to attain an ideal we’ve been forming and re-forming for decades. And with that effort, despite our best intentions, we continue to carry an apprehension, a suffering and shame of realizing that when death arrives, we will almost certainly be incomplete. We will have fallen short in some way.

All the antidotes themselves are also of equally insubstantial nature as everything else, not to mention the thoughts we have about them and the plans we make for their use. All is conceived for the purpose of becoming someone we aspire to be or more of what we imagine we already are. On the other hand, realizing there is no way to grasp what or who the self is opens space for true liberation, a spontaneous arising of an uncontrived outlook that gives way naturally to a release, a natural letting go of any attempt whatsoever to become something, or someone. 

The flow of events, the changing momentary activity of ego or that part of ourselves that constantly wishes to be someone transforms into a constantly changing humorous story. Once that story is allowed to collapse, a natural warm and uncontrived compassionate view arises. We begin to see everything and everyone as an ongoing infinitely varied human story, a continuous, intricate, intimate and poignant story of avoiding suffering.

But the realization of suffering and the avoidance of suffering both exist within the dance of ego. Yet we pursue that vision as if the evolution of all humanity is involved and depends on our success. Actually, it does. 

Another great flaw in this approach is to imagine awakening is a permanent state, as if we will wake up one day to find ourselves remaining in unchanging bliss and from that moment everything will be different forever. As if none of the concerns we have on a daily basis, children, vocation, money, health, our primary relationships or even death will ever matter again. This view is also completely unrealistic. And as with similar misconceptions, entertaining this view prevents us from discovering what is right in front of us.

Dharma tells us our true nature is always present; obscured, perhaps, but never in doubt: pristine, pure and indestructible. Our true nature is not other than the fully realized non-dual awareness of Buddha himself. Rather than trying with great effort to dress ourselves in attributes, we would do better to discard the accumulated conceptual matrix of whatever it may be and relax into what it already is….and isn’t.

The fullness of Being, expressing itself through our being, at least in theory, is always available. We have only to regard our true nature as the essence of mind capturing our attention in the moment. Everything is it. There is nothing that is not it. Even when we think we have lost it, that too is it. Since the potential resolution of this paradox is always present, yet not always apparent or accessible, we always have an opportunity to open to a spontaneous emergence of the clarity and presence our true nature implies.

Spontaneous presence is not calculated. It is not the product of conceptual undertakings or planning according to any regimen or belief. It does not happen on any schedule, and though there are surely legions of teaches who would disagree, it is not dependent on a sequence of events. Spontaneous implies an absence of preconceptions, personal conditioning, the automaticity of our ego structure seeking security and refuge in concepts and reference points, together constructing the identity we cling to so tenaciously. It is an infinitely refreshing emergence—an infinitely and rapidly auto-refreshing emergence, a perfectly improvised response in the moment; the recognition that every moment is timeless, having no antecedents, without consideration for and independent of any future goal or objective. Striving, planning, reflecting on our inadequacies, wondering if we’ve got it, all is antithetical to spontaneity.

Saying every moment is timeless seems oxymoronic, not to mention we are typically collecting and constantly evaluating the antecedents of this moment and formulating strategies for acting in the next moment. Yet if any moment is timeless, that is the only moment there is. There is no other moment arriving or on its way or just passed in any respect at all. There is only an unchanging presence. And since all conceptions and conditions as well as immersion in the endless procession of cause and effect, all of our projections imputing characteristics on phenomena in every moment, faster than you can think, are continuously shed, timeless presence has no qualities or characteristics whatsoever. It has no labels and no objects of contemplation.

‘Continuously shed,’ is a reference to an essential quality of liberation, true spontaneity, which is a continuous instantaneous resolution of everything that arises, a spontaneous dissolution of the endless samsaric process of adding values or memory to any event, creating objects of attention, whether it be sensation, feeling or thought. Shedding implies an instantaneous transformation of sensation, feeling and thought into their essential nature, which is an infinite and timeless creative eruption of phenomena from the ground, without beginning or end; and may I say again, infinitely auto-refreshing. Shedding makes room for what is next. Shedding is a continuous return to the timeless quality of the present, unencumbered by any baggage from the past.

II

A universal objective of life is the creative pursuit of happiness. How each person may define happiness differs, but the fundamental nature of that pursuit is an imagined perpetual state of satisfaction, unending sublime ease. Isn’t this the objective of life — and also a universally recognized illusion? We know the opposite of perpetual bliss is reality: happiness is all too fleeting, interspersed with varying degrees of struggle, pain and suffering.

But isn’t this also why we devise so many adaptive and compensatory strategies to reinforce the thin slices of happiness, the precious timeless and all-too-fleeting moments of true bliss we do experience? All of this is our furious—and futile–attempt to create permanence. Giving up our adherence to an unattainable objective along with all our collected practices for attaining that goal, relaxing all of our accumulated actions and remedies, giving up the conditioned and conceptual notions of who we must be, even temporarily, leaves us with an appealing ineffable alternative to all the guided or misguided actions required to achieve happiness: non-action. By non-action, I am not talking about restraint or renunciation. It’s more like emptying and expanding—allowing, if you will. Non-doing introduces the idea that stillness can be a form of doing. Since goal-oriented “doing” can and often does take us further from what we imagine is our goal, perhaps we should consider that there is nothing to be done. And who is there to do it, anyway? What else is there to do but “not-do?”

Spontaneous Presence might be a little more comprehensible if we recall that a moment in time is infinitely divisible. Regardless of how small an increment of time we choose, it is still divisible, eventually disappearing completely into an indeterminate quantum, a timeless state. If there is no substance to time, how could there be any immutable substance to anything else–either in the micro-moments of the biological matrix or in the vast spaciousness of mind? Nothing we see or feel or imagine is substantial. We might be temporarily fooled by our senses, but they are equally illusory and insubstantial. Thus, the essence of every phenomenon is empty. There is no substance whatsoever there. It is all emptiness.

Where, or what, then is the “I” in all of this? Whatever “we” are as biological entities, with unique individual and aggregate intelligence, a unique history and the capacity to reflect on our actions, we are having difficulty reading the messages coming from the matrix of the biological world over which we (mistakenly) envision ourselves as masters, as well as the messages coming from the matrix of consciousness, which is also calling us to awaken from our delusions of individuality.

The true nature of both domains of emergence (consciousness and biology) is a perpetual stillness, an infinite evenness subsuming everything, in which we may realize we exist in a single seamless realm: a continuous creative interdependent unfolding that has no beginning and no end, no boundaries, no center or limits. A realm in which the very idea of a separate self is inexplicable; in which we realize our movement and intentions within a unique place in the network of life also holds all others, informs and is informed by all others.

Hope is not a feature of spontaneous presence. It could not be, as it is incompatible with pervasive evenness. Hope relies on causal relationships in a universe that is without cause. The universe is all effect. If we hope long enough or hard enough for a particular outcome, perhaps something will happen, something we desire. Unfortunately, such thinking exists in a narrow linear domain that conflates intention with faith. Being neither intention nor faith, hope lies somewhere between the possible and the impossible, between what we believe is within and what is beyond our capacity. Hope also lies at the opposite pole of despair, a duality in which we repeatedly oscillate from one extreme to the other. Without hope, there can be no despair.

Mastery lies in immersing ourselves in our immediate experience, in the feeling level of our responses to our senses, without regard for their source and without preferring a particular outcome. Such immersion attains without labeling experience, becoming neither attracted nor repulsed by any of it, without analyzing, meditating upon or turning away from it. In other words, without turning it into an object of interest or adding it to a collection of memories, neither categorizing, discarding, nor even believing it. In so doing, we become immersed and detached simultaneously, watching from a vast view, yet also noticing, feeling and allowing right now. Since there is no need to review ideas or options, past or future, there is nothing to reflect upon.

Though the view should be as vast as the sky, keep your conduct as fine as barley flour.
                                                   —Padmasambhava

All of this may appear to be highly idealistic. Could anyone possibly live this way for more than a few moments? Maybe not. Let’s not fall so easily into the cynical regard for anyone offering something radically different– such as not being solely and obsessively driven to enhance personal self-interest. Mainstream thought about the Self, the pursuit of happiness, sanity and insanity is a closed orbit, exerting immense inertia on moments of awakening, lest they threaten the hold of consensus reality. And yes, whatever the actual expression of spontaneous presence may appear to be, since it must co-exist with the material reality of existence, it is nevertheless a condition subject to cultivation.

True presence could be described as a quiet storm of openness, an effervescent energy in continuous uninterrupted flow in which the stream of thoughts and feelings arise in a wildly surprising variety, fulminating upward into awareness only to disappear in a cloud of release, like bubbles in a carbonated drink.

No matter what arises, even if heaven and earth change places, there is a bare state of relaxed openness, without any underlying basis. Without any reference point–nebulous, ephemeral, and evanescent–this is the mode of a lunatic, free from the duality of hope and fear.                         

Chöying Dzod (pt. IX) Longchenpa

Let’s all become lunatics!