A couple of weeks ago I chatted with chaos magician Mark Van Void about the nature of awakening, what happens afterwards, and various other details. Mark brought some pre-prepared questions for our discussion, and generated some extra questions at random using a pictorial dice oracle he has been experimenting with recently. Unfortunately the recording wasn’t clear enough to make a podcast, but here’s an edited transcript.
MARK: Statement: ‘The joy you seek is you.’ Is that true for you, Duncan? Has that been internalized in some way?
DUNCAN: Yeah. That sounds very true to me. What about you? Is that true for you?
M: Yes and no. [Laughter.] The surface me: no, it’s not true for that. Because that’s what moves me to search for things that will bring happiness. But it’s true for the deeper I, because that doesn’t need anything, and it’s always free, always happy. So, yes, it’s true on a deeper level. But how can it be true on a superficial level, because then there wouldn’t be a seeker?
D: I think the whole point of that statement is that it’s getting you to question that sense of ‘I’. I think that’s what it’s for. Because, of course, on the surface it’s apparent that this is not the case.
M: Yes, because without some degree of unhappiness and dissatisfaction there would be no seeking. And perhaps it’s pointing to the fact that all of that is unreal, and deep down that ‘you’ is the enlightenment, the awakening, all the joy you are after. And this is not different from you.
D: What I get, when I’m sitting there, seeing that, the bliss – it’s a sensation as if it just keeps giving and giving and giving… Do you get that at all?
M: Yes. It doesn’t seem to have a beginning or an end. It seems timeless. It seems prior to everything.
D: To be honest with you, though, the thing that gets on my tits is that it’s still just an experience, the bliss. Do you know what I mean?
M: Yes, I do. You are the witness of that.
D: But I think it goes beyond that, because even if the witness has dropped away too, there’s still the sense that this has to take the form of an experience. My hunch is that if there is some ‘enlightenment’ that comes after what most people call ‘the awakening experience’, then it’s got to have something to do with that, the way that all we have is the experience of things – even of emptiness, even of the clear light. It still has a form.
M: Okay. What about the kind of experience where, to describe it later on, really, is just to talk crap because, at the time of the experience, there was no ‘me’, there was no experiencer. To make a statement about it is not to describe it in any way, because even if it is verbally accurate, such as ‘emptiness’, ‘void’ or whatever, I am not there. It is a transcendental thing beyond experience.
D: What strikes me about those kind of experiences is that they don’t include this – you know, the sense of there being an I, of being here. And in that way, they’re incomplete – do you know what I mean? Everything should be included. Even the sense of sitting here and feeling crap. I don’t think there’s anything ultimate about the transcendental kinds of experiences, because they rule out the mundane.
M: I’m not sure what you mean.
D: I don’t think there’s anything wrong or less transcendent about my state of consciousness right now than any other state.
M: Yes. This is like the debate over whether liberation is right now, such as in the sound of us talking. Is that liberation? Is that what you mean?
D: Yes. My view is that it is.
M: It has to be doesn’t it? Do you mean that there’s a tendency to tag a beginning and an end onto some of these deeper experiences? But isn’t that just a concept of the experience, which is like a tarnish, really? It tries to put the experience into time, when this – which is happening right now – is beyond fucking time!
D: I also think that ‘bliss’ is a label. Because bliss is not bliss. It has to be!
M: It’s just a word, isn’t it?
D: Yes, because the bliss that you seek is there even when you’re not seeking bliss, and even when it’s not bliss that you are experiencing.
M: You mean in the sense that your attention can be elsewhere, but it’s still running, as if it’s an undercurrent?
D: Yes. I think this is one of the things that pops up in practice, in the later stages towards the awakening experience, where you get this weird sense that even though you’re not concentrating, you’re still with things, somehow.
M: Yes. Distraction is allowed. Distraction is allowed to be, as distraction.
D: I think that’s a big breakthrough, because when you begin you’re so hung up on staying with things – and then you discover that everything’s a lot more spacious, and your mind can wander, and you can watch it wandering, and it’s completely off the point, and you’re no longer meditating. You’re completely off on one. And yet you can still see all of that, arising and passing. I think the same applies to bliss.
M: It’s like a meta-position to meditate from. Do you have a spatial location for this, Duncan? Where is that viewed from? Behind the head or something?
D: No, you can’t locate it.
M: Okay. I’m just asking you. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong answer. So it would be wrong to think you were looking from above or behind the head, or something?
D: I don’t think that does it justice, does it?
M: No. That would be to assert a ‘me’ doing something, wouldn’t it?
M: Which is located here or there, or wherever… So, could you say that bliss is arising from a particular location?
D: No, but I’m thinking about chakras…
M: I’ve heard it said that bliss arises from the heart. Perhaps it arises from there and radiates out throughout the body. But then, what body? What fucking chakra?
D: To me it feels, when you’re in those states, that it’s like the chakra is receiving it. I know a lot of people say they get it in the heart chakra, and I do too, but most of the time it’s in the ‘third eye’ for me. That’s often where it feels strongest. Also – do you ever get it when it feels painful as well as blissful? It sometimes feels like there’s a hard pebble in the heart chakra, grinding around and around.
M: It can be emotion, which feels a little like pain, but not pain in some physical way. Is that what you mean – like a physical niggle?
D: It can feel like that, yes. But I don’t think that’s what it is.
M: The emotion is a reaction to it. The emotion is added to it. Often, we can be observing the emotion, which then transcends the emotion, and the emotion stops.
D: Yes. So I don’t think there’s a location for bliss, but it feels like bliss can be in the chakras. But when I look at it more closely, it seems to be like you say – it’s a reaction. The sensations are reactions to something. To nothing.
M: To nothing being everything… Perhaps wherever you focus your attention it can be.
D: But if you concentrate on your fingertip, does that have the same feeling? It doesn’t seem to. It seems to be certain parts of the body.
M: I see what you mean. Next question: Buddha said enlightenment is the end of suffering. Do you think there’s a misconception amongst seeker about this?
D: Yes, I think there’s a massive misconception about that, which is the idea that you’re never going to feel pain again or feel miserable again. After the awakening experience it’s a huge anticlimax to discover that things are still shitty.
M: That irritation can still arise?
D: Yes. [Laughter.] There’s still suffering, but the idea that there is someone to suffer is what changes. It just doesn’t seem as ‘personal’ as it used to. Do you know what I mean?
M: Yes. To the extent, though, that you can develop anger or irritation or any other delusion – if you like – isn’t that due to some sort of karma that remains, or our attention on the thought that gives it some energy?
D: I don’t think it works like that.
M: Isn’t our attention feeding that thought, making it into something bigger and bolder than what it actually is?
D: Well, ask yourself: what is it making more intense? What is there to be made more intense by the thought?
M: Well, more thoughts. Such as ‘this shouldn’t be happening,’ and other such stupid ideas.
D: This is the weird thing: suffering still arises, but – like I said – it’s not personal any more. It is seen straight away as being empty. But that doesn’t stop all the thinking and clinging – that still arises too, but that also is seen through as being empty. So I’m sitting there, unhappy about something, and the thoughts are arising, and I’m totally bound up in the thoughts arising – but the being bound up is seen through as well. I take what you mean about karma, but I don’t think karma takes us away from anything. It’s just karma. And karma is seen through as well. The feeling I had, after my awakening experience, was like a kind of cog wheel, all the suffering and thoughts arising, but spinning and spinning and spinning without gripping onto anything in the way that it used to. It doesn’t find any purchase. The process still goes on, and it gets quite mad and intense, but there’s nothing for it to lock into.
D: I think the karma is what is making that wheel spin. The karma is still there and the wheel is still spinning, but it can’t find purchase because you can see that everything that comes up is empty.
M: So it’s like a duck’s back that has been positioned vertically. [Laughter.] Whatever gets thrown up, can’t stick. It’s just going to run down and fall off.
D: Yes. And I think the karma is what is doing the throwing. That’s going to carry on. Over time, you’re going to gradually learn that there’s no point throwing that water, and it comes up less and less.
M: So the attention given to thought lessens too, in so much as you become a sort of ninja who can block those thoughts with quick reactions?
D: Yes, because you know they’re not really going to go anywhere. But those thoughts can’t really do anything. After the awakening experience, everything that arises can be seen through. So it really doesn’t matter what you think. It doesn’t matter how you react. Whatever that reaction is, it’s seen through.
D: The awakening experience is like a kind of understanding. That’s the nearest word I can think of to describe it. It’s not a state, or an idea. It’s like a kind of understanding that soaks into you, and you just know, see and experience it in that way. So you can think what you want. You know, what could you possibly think that could mess up your whole life? What could you think that could destroy the universe, or stop you from seeing things how they are? There isn’t anything.
M: I suppose not.
D: In some traditions you have the idea of ‘blasphemy’ – if you think certain thoughts or say certain things, then it somehow sticks in the universe and God can see it and will be offended. I think this is an equivalent. But there’s really nothing you can think, or any reaction you can have, that can ever really do that, because reality is just not like that at all – stuff does not stick around. It’s always arising and passing.
M: So the only clinging that occurs, occurs within the conditioning within delusion and – necessarily – isn’t real?
D: Yes. The karma is not in you having those thoughts. It’s seen through. It doesn’t stick anywhere.
M: And as a result of not reacting to these situations, then you won’t be committing any more karma.
D: Well, that’s not how I’ve experienced it, so far. I think you can react, and even the reaction can be seen through at the time. So someone might say something and you become annoyed. Even as the anger arises, even as you lash out at them, you can be seeing through that, seeing that it’s empty.
M: Can there be stages to that? You might have an angry outburst, and it’s only when you’ve said the last word of the sentence that you adopt this meta-position and think, ‘What the hell?’ and it’s like you’ve just watched someone else do something.
D: I think it’s at a much deeper level. You can see through your ‘letting go’, even. Imagine you’re angry, and you can see yourself being angry, but then you decide to let go. Even that is karmic and can be seen through.
M: So it’s a meta-position even of that?
D: I think it’s no position. It’s not having any position at all.
M: It’s like the internal weather is still there but your experience of it is different. Preference can still be there, and doing something that goes against it. You’re still going to try to choose situations that involve less suffering – unless we put ourselves deliberately in a place to test our realisation.
D: And I think that’s a good practice!
M: That’s it. If you can go into situations where previously you got annoyed and ended up ranting at someone, if you can go there and abide in a peaceful state, and walk around with a big smile, then there’s probably nothing left to learn, is there?
D: But, at the same time, you’re probably still getting pissed off. There’s probably still annoyance arising.
M: But it’s being seen through.
D: Yes. And if you keep putting yourself in those situations then, eventually, it probably won’t arise. But that’s probably nothing to do with enlightenment as such; it’s just habituation.
M: Karma is like habit too, isn’t it? Conditions that we’ve built up through belief.
D: I’m starting to find more useful now the idea of the Will of God. Not a particularly Buddhist concept, but the idea of surrender to the Will of God seems a better metaphor than this idea of trying to arrange things in a certain way. What grabs me about this idea is that God’s Will is always the way everything already is. You can’t go against it, because by definition this is already what it is, what’s happening right now.
M: I don’t know… The concept of God, for me, is too karmically polluted!
D: Try this one, then: enlightenment is not ours to fiddle with. Awakening is just awakening.
M: I can detach the word ‘God’ from personification, but sometimes I have trouble. [Laughter.] So, go on. Run it past me again.
D: Enlightenment is part of reality. So you don’t get to think, ‘Oh, I won’t react like this,’ or, ‘I won’t get irritated by that.’ That’s not what enlightenment can be, because that’s us trying to set things up in a particular way.
M: Trying to control things.
D: Enlightenment is just what is. It’s the fabric of reality.
M: Whatever is happening has already been deeply accepted with love, in a sense, because it’s happening.
D: Exactly. So who gives a fuck what you think or how you react – stuff like that. You can’t intervene at that level. Thank God!
M: There’s no one to react. There’s just this.
D: Which – from one way of looking at it – is the Will of God.
M: How about ‘Great Spirit’? I think I’ll go with that one. It’s more faceless.
D: Hasn’t got so big a beard.
M: It’s more comfortably vague. It can be called the Will of the Great Spirit, but it’s still witnessed by us, by ‘I’.
D: But that arises within it. That’s part of it. It’s not standing outside of it.
M: The Will of the Great Spirit, that’s arising within you, rather than you arising within it. You’re a witness of the Great Spirit too, no?
D: It doesn’t seem that way. I remember, I met an old teacher of mine from university and I was telling him about some of the stuff I’d got into. As I continued talking I could see his face taking on this expression of increasing horror, as I went on about Buddhism, magick and occultism. At the end he said, ‘That’s just complete solipsism. You’ve deluded yourself that you are the only being in the universe; that you are synonymous with the universe itself.’ Afterwards I was thinking about this, and I concluded that actually it’s the opposite: all this stuff we’re talking about right now, it’s not solipsism. It’s not like we’re trapped in our own heads. It’s not that we’re saying we’re the only beings in the universe. It’s like everything else exists, apart from us. That’s the way I tend to look at it.
M: That they’re all merely perspectives, and at different times some are more appropriate and useful than others.
M: Solipsism is crap because it’s all about everything being one, and oneness, and that can have a loosening effect on our reality tunnel – if you want to call it that – which can be beneficial, but I prefer the term ‘non-dual’, meaning ‘not two’, and I think there is an important and subtle difference between the meaning of ‘one’ and ‘not two’.
D: Yes. And ‘not one’ either.
M: Yes. And neither ‘non-dual’ nor ‘one’. But both. Sometimes.
M: Next question: going through the meditation or awakening experience, we feel we have ‘okayness’ with whatever arises, but even when this is relatively stable, can there still be resistance to some or certain appearances?
D: Definitely. You can even have resistance to the ‘okayness’. Why shouldn’t you?
M: You’re free to adopt any position.
D: You can’t define enlightenment as belonging to any particular view or state.
M: Even okayness with whatever arises is a perspective. And there can be resistance to appearances, but that is merely a perspective also, one that automatically is seen through as empty.
D: Exactly. If things were ‘okay’ and ‘stable’, imagine how fucking bored you would get! [Laughter.] But then boredom would arise – and be instantly seen through.
M: You must get to a point where you can’t choose not to see through thoughts and experiences and so on.
D: I don’t think ‘seeing through’ is a voluntary process. That’s what I mean about enlightenment being a form of understanding.
M: An intuitive thing? Not conscious?
D: It’s like when you learn a sport or martial art. Once you’ve ‘got it’, you just do it automatically.
M: So there you go – there’s a limitation: you can’t not see through! You’re stuck being free from delusion.
D: Someone said to me once, ‘What if you get enlightened and you don’t like it?’ At the time, I thought this was the most stupid thing anyone could have said. But, after the awakening experience, I thought: ‘Actually, they’ve got a point.’ Because there is no going back.
D: For a while, the effects of the awakening experience did feel unpleasant, in a way. The sense of self changes, and there is a sense that you’ve lost something.
M: What about loneliness? Does that come into it?
D: Initially, I think. What about you?
M: I’ve thought so, yeah. If that’s all there is, and there’s no one among all of these forms; if it’s just ‘you’ looking back from among all these forms, whether they’re people, or objects, or whatever, then I think there is a loneliness there. But not a sad loneliness, as such.
D: It’s weird how the awakening experience includes all this bliss, the end to suffering, and yet there’s unpleasantness and loneliness at the same time.
M: A sweet, beautiful sadness.
D: A boring bliss.
M: So, if you look at an object, then, do you get some sense of ‘you’ – in the deepest sense – that’s illuminating it from the inside, that’s making it be there, because it’s arising within you? In what way is it ‘other’ than you?
D: Again, this makes me think of what we were saying earlier, about how everything exists apart from the self. Pens, screens, microphones and vajras exist, but the only thing I can’t find is the thing that thinks it perceives them.
M: If the person is empty of independent existence, then the many people are empty of it too – there’s not just no ‘you’, there’s no ‘anyone’, either. And similarly, with objects.
D: Yes. But I don’t really experience it that way. Do you?
M: No. There’s an element of ‘otherness’ in objects and things, but it does sometimes look like a practical joke I’m playing on myself, by putting that ‘otherness’ there, by projecting that otherness.
D: ‘Otherness’ arises on the inside?
M: It can’t be ‘outside’, can it? ‘Inside’, ‘outside’ – again, it’s just duality. Just more perspectives on nothing.
D: Let’s roll those dice, then!
[Mark takes up his dice oracle, to generate some further questions. He lights some incense and rings a bell. Whilst reciting mantras, he throws the dice and pauses to interpret the result.]
M: Okay, this is roll number one. This is good! So: ‘When we investigate with the single-pointed arrow of our concentration, is there a need to be able to hold the object of emptiness whilst simultaneously inspecting it from many angles, like a nimble fish, in order to see it directly with our vajra-like mind of bliss?’ Here are the dice, so you can see where I got that from…
D: Let’s have a look… Wow! There’s a key, a torch, a learner-driver sign, a lightning-bolt, an eye and a fish. That is so cool! To answer the question – absolutely, and this practice still goes on. This question is more like an affirmation, I think. It becomes even more amazing after the awakening experience, because holding emptiness in attention deepens it, and deepens it. You can also see how concentration itself is empty – what is concentrating and what are you concentrating on?
M: Does there come a point, then, when the concentrating and the deep inspection of the object vanish, and something beyond the mind arises, like a revelatory experience?
D: Yes. That is the experience of meditating upon emptiness, as far as I’m aware.
M: So it’s like the mind and its object both vanish, revealing emptiness itself, seen directly?
D: Yes. This is just the practice. Your dice seem to have summed up precisely the practice. This is what all practices designed to bring about enlightenment will ultimately lead to, I think.
M: So concentration and the object are like the two pieces of wood that get rubbed together, and the fire gets going, and eventually the fire destroys the two pieces of wood used to start it?
D: Yes. You can now see, in real time, all the time, over and over again, how there’s nothing to concentrate on, there’s nothing to concentrate with, and there’s nothing called ‘concentration’ anyway.
M: Shall we try another one?
D: Yes, I’m impressed!
[Mark rings bell, recites mantras and launches the dice.]
M: ‘This vajra-like bliss from concentration, how essential is it to crossing the river of awakening and seeing the multi-levelled house of samsara as empty, to give happiness?’ [Laughter.] In other words, ‘How essential is bliss?’ Is it the discovery of this bliss that stops the appearance of the ordinary body-mind?
D: I don’t think bliss is something you have to cultivate in order to arrive at the awakening experience. I think for a lot of people it’s a hindrance. You come across a lot of people who are stuck in concentration practices and just sit focussing on their breath, totally off their tits in bliss, but never reach the point where they examine who is concentrating or what is being concentrated upon. Bliss is a result of seeing emptiness.
M: That’s interesting…
D: Not all bliss, of course… Hey, I love these dice. They’re more like affirmations than questions. Rhetorical questions.
M: Would you like to try out one last one?
[Mark rings bell, and does the mantra and dice thing again.]
M: Okay, ‘What does the awakening experience have to say to people who feel they are the victim of circumstance?’
D: Oh, that’s tricky. Isn’t that tricky?
M: It is, isn’t it? But that’s what has come up. What ability or what approach would help a person who feels themselves a victim of society or circumstance or something?
D: One approach to helping people like that is to teach them magick. It reaches out to people more than religious systems, because the first thing it gives you is a sense of empowerment. It can make you feel more empowered and, as you press further into it, then you start to ask deeper questions about, ‘Why do I want the stuff I’m asking for?’ ‘Who is doing this?’
M: Yes. Like you say, it correctly puts the person back in the position of choosing the experience rather than suffering the uncontrollable.
D: I can’t think of any religious system that does that for people. If you take up magick, you are the priest – and the congregation.
M: That’s quite a healthy way to think, really. Isn’t that how religions came about historically, by manipulation of the populace? They didn’t want local shamans popping up here and there to help people.
D: But past a certain point, all the intention to awaken people has gone. There’s no longer anything spiritual going on; it’s all about power. It’s just the attempt to control people through dogma.
M: I don’t think the Buddha had any intention for ‘Buddhist Centres’ or institutions built around what he had said, or whatever.
D: The Buddha’s problems started as soon as he began taking on students. Then he had to impose rules. And people began mistaking the rules for the practice. It seems inevitable, doesn’t it? Whereas the wonderful thing about magick is it teaches you there are no rules. You just make it all up. It doesn’t really matter what you make up, because it’s all going to be reality. You can’t get away from reality. Making stuff up just makes you look closer at what you suppose the difference between reality and unreality actually is. And then you’re confronted with the fact that it’s your mind, your beliefs that do that. And then – you’re on the path to enlightenment.
M: ‘With our thoughts we make the world.’ That’s from the Dhammapada. So with our thoughts we can make our own spiritual system! We can make it all up, if we like.