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 the events of 2013, I was sitting in the back of the large tent in Crestone, Colorado with more than a hundred others attending an annual Dzogchen retreat with Tsoknyi Rinpoche. Up front, Rinpoche started 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 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 full nature and impact of my personal experience as well as precisely what had been missing ever since: all the validation I could ever have wanted. 

Spontaneous Presence, effortlessly realized, uncontrived fulfillment, is the essence of the Dzogchen accomplishment. Technically, the term refers to what occurs at a particular stage of ati-yoga, the highest of the Nyingma yanas. Visions of the spontaneous unconditioned nature of all phenomena, the nature of mind, arise from a timeless, infinitely dynamic source-less source. These visions are not the objects of meditation, but natural expressions of our own nature and that of reality itself. References to spontaneous presence are found in early Dzogchen teachings on the nature of reality and especially in the great 14th Century master Longchenpa’s Seven Treasuries. It turns out the Chöying Dzod was Longchenpa’s shortened rendition 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. From that day on, I devoured whatever I could find of his masterworks.

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 ultimate achievement in a distant and foggy future, is that the essence of all gradualist teachings and practices is always none other than the Great Perfection itself. It is not something which can only be reached by completing and repeating a sequence of practices, but is already intrinsic to every act, every thought, every moment of object-oriented, confused awareness. Dzogchen, realization itself, or at least some version of it, is intrinsic to every moment if we can but relax the striving of the conceptual flow. There is no bridge to timeless awareness. It is always already here. Were we to realize the true nature of reality in this or any moment, there would be no need whatsoever to envision any future whatsoever. 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. 

It is also universally accepted that bringing a non-dual view into average daily existence can only be achieved through a formal relationship with a lineage teacher. That implies adherence to prescribed sadhanas, fulfilling promises as to the content, frequency, and duration of practices. It also implies a progression of empowerments bestowed upon the supplicant and a deep grounding in fundamental principles of Buddhist philosophy. I cannot claim all these things. And yet, perhaps paradoxically, I received an unmistakable episode of clarity that seems to have transcended that requirement or at least the formal expectation that a student must climb that incremental ladder to fulfillment. Maybe I’m climbing it anyway, yet the spontaneous nature of my own experience has unavoidably colored my view of the entire hierarchical culture of how Buddhism is propagated in the west and any preconception that what is possible can only be unlocked under the close tutelage and guidance of a lineage holder.

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 really, at any time at all. We believe these tools to be antidotes to our confusion. We adopt simple or complex practices, devotional structures intended to break through our habitual mind to develop pure perception and to cultivate 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 even 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 locate the self or find anything substantial to identify it creates open space for true liberation. A spontaneous arising of an uncontrived outlook gives way to a release, a natural letting go of any attempt whatsoever to become something, or someone. The time we spend in this life unbinding the guarded heart, seeing through the antidotes employed by the fearful ego, also amounts to preparation for the final episodes of life when all the veils of self will dissolve and we will be offered a glimpse of the ultimate truth of life, that we have spent our time hypnotized by the fantasies of identity, permanence, the existence of past and future, that there is something out there that really exists. 

The flow of events, the changing momentary activity of ego or that part of us that constantly wishes to be someone is transformed both in life and at the time of death into a constantly changing humorous story. It’s a story of our foibles, our hapless failures, the futility of believing in endless stories seemingly arising from nowhere, having nowhere to go and disappearing into the emptiness from whence they came. Once those stories are 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 studiously avoiding suffering. Yet both the realization of suffering and the avoidance of suffering exist within the dance of ego. Even so, we pursue that vision as if the evolution of all humanity is hinging on our success. 

Actually, it is. 

Another great flaw in this approach is to imagine liberation 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 our daily concerns, children, vocation, money, health, our primary relationships or even death itself will ever matter again. This view is also completely unrealistic. And as with so many 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 no other than the fully realized non-dual awareness of Buddha himself: Dzogchen. 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. It does not happen on any schedule, and though there are surely legions of teachers who would disagree, it may not be 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 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 being endlessly captured by the 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. Nothing is lost and nothing is gained. Shedding is a continuous return to the timeless quality of the present, unencumbered by any baggage from the past. This is the true nature of liberation.

The liberation of whatever is arising in the moment may sound mysterious or even inaccessible. True, the nature of spontaneous liberation is completely effortless and could never go unnoticed. We are hardly, if ever, truly in that state of being. But if we look more closely, perhaps we can remove some of the mystery surrounding this condition. Most of the time we hardly notice, but the activity of mind is continuous. If we were determined to be continuously attentive, we could spend our time tracking every thought, every sensation, every evaluation, and association we typically make as if they were roiling bubbles in a boiling pot, looking carefully for the origin of each one. If we were to inquire this way into the activity of mind and remain utterly cool in the process, there’s a very good chance we would realize just how empty every arising really is, empty of origin, empty of substance, empty of destination. Cultivating this quality of attention brings us closer to the reality of a natural and effortless process of true spontaneous liberation.

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 – while also being 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 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, as defined previously, 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 conditioned, 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 this? Whatever ‘we’ are as biological entities, with unique individual and aggregate intelligence, unique histories, 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) imagine ourselves to be 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 an infinite evenness subsuming everything, in which we may realize we exist in a single seamless realm: a continuous creative dependent co-arising 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 disempowerment 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.

All of this may appear to be highly idealistic. Could anyone possibly live this way for more than a few moments? Maybe not. But who are we to say? 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 relatively 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 effervescence of continuous uninterrupted flow in which the stream of thoughts and feelings arise in wildly surprising variety, fulminating upward into awareness only to coolly disappear in a cloud of release. 

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 (IX) Longchenpa

Let’s all become lunatics!