Seeing the Nature of Reality Through Buddhist Meditation

by Copthorne Macdonald


The perennial philosophy "nondual" spiritual traditions (such as Nisargadatta's Vedanta, and Tibetan Buddhism's Dzogchen) hold that existence involves a monistic, enduring, unchanging, absolute reality and a dualistic, ephemeral, constantly-changing relative reality. Through the practices that I describe in my book Toward Wisdom, I too have come to see that this is the way it is. Describing the situation in words has always been tricky, but I found that certain "information age" concepts clarify the situation.

The way I put it in a Zygon paper, in a paper I presented at the Tucson III Toward a Science of Consciousness conference, and in Part 1 of my 2004 book Matters of Consequence, the absolute reality, the foundation of all that is, is a oneness that has both a physical aspect we call energy, and a mental aspect we call awareness. Energy and awareness are carrier-like in nature. That is, they can be shaped, or formed, or modulated by information without their own nature being in any way changed. Although informational modulation does not cause the intrinsic nature of energy-awareness to change, it does cause a relative reality to arise. This relative reality is a transient, insubstantial informational reality. Physical reality is a relative world of information supported by the absolute-reality-carrier we call energy. Mental reality is a relative world of mind-content information, supported by the absolute-reality-carrier we call awareness.

The evolutionary process, with its pass/fail criteria of survival and reproduction, designed the human brain and its associated mentality with survival and reproduction as primary considerations. The cognitive system that evolution designed helps us to understand relative reality because it is in this arena that the drama of survival and reproduction is played out. Human mentality was not designed to allow us to understand absolute reality with ease because there was no survival or reproduction payoff in that. Now, in kinder, gentler circumstances, we want to understand the deeper truth — absolute truth — and we find that very difficult. And why shouldn't it be difficult? We're trying to use the human cognizing system for a different purpose. It was designed to give us a handle on relative, informational truth, the truth about the cosmic message; not absolute truth, carrier-related truth, the truth about the cosmic medium.

Spiritual practices are tools that give us some hope of seeing through the relative to the absolute. Vipassana meditation is a practice that gives us a better handle on the nature of relative reality. We watch, with as much detachment as we can muster, the informational show that the brain generates. Despite our best efforts, however, we frequently get lost in that show — we lose that sense of detachment from it. Experiencing both detachment and lost-in-the-showness, we eventually come to realize that this lost-in-the-show state is where we spend most of our lives. The normal human condition is to be identified with informational patterns, with the relative reality that the brain creates. In Vipassana we are still paying attention to the relative, but because we are more detached from it than before, gradually, bit by bit, insight by insight, we begin to see the nature of relative reality. We begin to see the impersonal nature of the brain's churning out of information. There is no "I" that is doing it. It just happens mechanically, automatically. We also discover that the informational stuff that arises has no inherent power. With practice we learn that it's possible to watch even physical discomfort and heavy emotions such as fear and anger without suffering when we accept that informational reality and refuse to give it power by trying to get rid of it. We see that it is our reaction to the information that binds us and disturbs us. Pleasant or unpleasant stuff has no power as long as we remain detached and simply watch it arise and disappear on its own. It is when we cling to the present, wanting it to continue or push away the unpleasant, wanting it to disappear, that we suffer and lose our innate equanimity and freedom. Vipassana gives us many insights that we need if we are to understand how trapped we usually are in this relative realm.

Although Vipassana does not introduce us to the absolute, it is designed to help us see much that must be seen, and in my view (and that of most Buddhist teachers) it is the place to start. We first need to learn to quiet the mind and look with detachment at the relative reality into which we are heavily immersed and identified. The Tibetan Buddhist practice of Dzogchen and the Advaita Vedanta of Nisargadatta, on the other hand, seek to introduce us to the absolute. Yes, underlying the relative world of mental information, and allowing it to exist, is that enabling something we usually call awareness. It is contentless, yet supportive of all content; informationless, yet supportive of an infinite variety of informational modulation. It is clear, transparent, not a thing. Other terms for it include:

       innate wakefulness
       natural mindfulness
       primordial awareness
       empty, luminous cognizance
       everpresent, inherent, utterly spacious openness
       inexpressible beingness
       one's own true nature
       rigpa (Tibetan for this reality)
       nondual awareness
       total presence
       open presence
       spontaneously present awareness
       the cognizing power of emptiness
       one's own innate wakefulness

In Dzogchen and Nisargadatta's practice the aim is to become cognizant of this absolute aspect of mind, and in some sense to become it — to relax into it or identify with it and to view the relative world of information from that vantage point. Awareness is noninformational, so it doesn't appear as the normal kind of mind content. Even in meditation, the colors we see and the bliss we feel are still part of the relative world of brain-generated information. Allowing us to sense those colors and feel that bliss, however, is this primordial awareness, this cognizing power that belongs to the realm of absolute reality. Our deep true nature is that primal awareness itself, and not those things in the informational, relative world that we take to be our selves. The problem is that mental information, mind content, is so powerful and overwhelming, and our identification with it so tenacious, that letting go of our identification as a thought-dominated person and surrendering into our true nature — into our own innate wakefulness — does not happen easily. The detachment we develop in Vipassana readies us for this. Then, (as I see it) at some point it makes sense to switch to one of the absolute-reality practices.

In one sense, the difference between Dzogchen and Vipassana is quite subtle. In both practices the informational arisings in the mind are watched with detachment. The difference is that in Dzogchen and other nondual practices one is also cognizant of the underlying ground or carrier of that information — that "primordial awareness," that "utterly spacious openness," that "empty, luminous cognizance." It remains, enduring and pure, unaffected by the coming and going of the modulating forces applied to it. Primal awareness watches the show of relative reality. And that pure contentless awareness is the true me. I can choose to participate in the show at at any time, but I am not of that show. I am of the realm of absoluteness. That is my true home, and my refuge from domination and control by mental information.

Copthorne Macdonald is a writer and independent scholar. He has written 8 books (3 of them on aspects of wisdom) and many articles, reviews, and column installments. Since 1995 he has tended THE WISDOM PAGE — a website devoted to wisdom resources at