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What Is Emptiness? An Interview with Rob Burbea

Rob Burbea

by Michael W. Taft

(The following is a (fairly) verbatim transcript of a podcast interview I conducted with Rob Burbea. Please let me know if there are any errors in the text.)

Rob Burbea is a meditation teacher, musician, and author who teaches at Gaia House in Devon, England. Rob is the author of the groundbreaking meditation practice book entitled Seeing That Frees: Meditations on Emptiness and Dependent Arising. I personally love this book and I recommend it to anyone who really wants to investigate the deeper ends of meditation practice. Rob and I will discuss the book and the practices in the book in depth in this episode.

Michael Taft: Rob, welcome to the Deconstructing Yourself podcast.

Rob Burbea: Thank you, Michael. Pleasure to be here.

Michael: It’s a real pleasure for me. I’ve been a big fan of your book, Seeing That Frees, and so it’s just a total delight to get to speak with you live here. So, as I mentioned, the name of your book is Seeing That Frees. When you think about it, it’s a somewhat unusual name. Often when I’m talking to another person and I’m recommending it, I say, “I just love this book, Seeing That Frees,” and they’re like, “What? Freeze? Like ice? What are you saying?” I have to repeat it several times. I end up saying something to say it in a different way, like “looking that liberates” or “ways of looking that cause us to be free, you get it? Seeing That Frees.” And then they’re like, “Oh, okay.” But the more I’ve been asked to kind of explain the title, it’s almost been a little bit of a mindfulness exercise, just thinking about the meaning of that title, Seeing That Frees. It’s quite a compelling phrase. I just want to begin with that very simple fact of the title of the book and the idea of ways of seeing that could actually be liberating to human beings. I’d just like to hear your intention for the title and what that means to you, this idea of seeing that is liberating.

Rob: Yes, I’m aware some people really don’t like the title and don’t get it, and some people love it.

Michael: I definitely am among those who love it.

Rob: I hear that. So, in a way, there’s a double meaning in the title. Oftentimes with titles of talks and different things I like to play with double or even triple meanings just to cram a lot in there. But we can come back to that. As you point out, there’s actually – one way you could look at the way the book works, or what it presents and what it takes for a ride, there’s two central kind of concepts or strands. One is, as you said, ways of looking, or ways of seeing, if you like. I actually usually prefer the word ‘looking’ because it implies a little bit more intentionality than ‘seeing’, which we tend to associate with a bit more passivity.

So one concept is ways of looking, and the other is fabrication. We could say, as you said, ways of looking that liberate – that would encapsulate at least one of the meanings in the title. What this really refers to is that, as human beings, we have this amazing capacity to look at things in different ways. By ‘look at,’ I actually mean sense things in different ways or relate to things in different ways, or conceive in different ways. So all of that is packed into this idea of ways of looking. It’s the totality of what’s involved in any moment of perceiving anything whatsoever. That comprises my reactions, subtle or gross; my preconceptions; my ideation; my likes and dislikes; the kind of mode of viewing with which I’m looking at it. So all that comprises the way of looking at any moment.

And the book just starts with the premise that, well, you know what, as human beings we have this capacity, as I said, to look in different ways, to experience in different ways, deliberately. We can change our ways of looking at things. A classic one from the Dharma would be – I’m just pulling this out from an infinite number of possibilities – just to see something that’s going on – let’s say my body sensations right now, or even the thoughts that I’m having as I’m speaking this – and to regard them as ‘not me, not mine.’ This is a classical anattā way of looking, as I would call it. That’s a mode of looking. A typical, more normal human way of looking would be to regard them as mine – that these are my sensations, or I am this mind or whatever. So that’s just an example of two contrasting ways of looking.

One of the premises of the book is that humans have this capacity to explore deliberately, developing skills or arts of lots of different ways of looking, and experimenting with them, and finding out what they do. Because, for instance, if I’m sitting here and I have a pain in my back right now, and I see it as not-self, or if I’m thinking, “Maybe Michael thinks I’m stupid and I’m not making sense, and my mind isn’t as sharp as Michael’s,” or whatever, and I’m identifying with my mind, if I view it as not-self then to a large degree, to a very profound degree, the suffering that’s associated with that identification with the mind, or the identification with these being my sensations of pain or whatever, that goes. So we see that one way of looking, in this example, actually liberates. It frees. It’s a kind of seeing that frees. And the other, relatively speaking, causes in Dharma language more contraction, more pain.

More than that, though, we see that if I really start practicing this – let’s take that as an example because I started with it – way of looking, ‘not me, not mine,’ it doesn’t just stop there, bringing a momentary release of suffering. I actually start to see, if I really practice it, and I get quite skilled at it, and develop it over a range of different objects of my experience, then I notice other things. The sense of self starts to change. In other words, this way of looking starts to affect not just the dukkha, the experienced suffering in the moment, but also the sense of self, the experience of self in the moment. That becomes, for example, less solid, less separate, more spacious, et cetera, lighter, through that way of looking. And if I take it even further, I find that with that same way of looking, this anattā way of looking, the very perception of the world starts to change. Certainly these objects themselves, of course they’re seen as ‘not me, not mine,’ but that perception of objects itself starts to – in the language of the book, and the other central premise – be fabricated less. They start to appear less solid – not just that they’re kind of unhooked from my identification, unhooked as belonging to me or being me, but they actually, with practice, over time, start to feel less solid, less substantial. It’s almost like they’re less intense as experiences. We say they’re fabricated less, those perceptions are fabricated less. That lessening of fabrication moves along a spectrum with the development of my skill in that way of looking, and in some instances can go all the way to those sensations, et cetera, not appearing at all – they’re not fabricated at all. This is just one example.

We learn through that way of looking – it’s a particularly powerful one – through that way of looking, it’s not just a kind of neat trick to reduce suffering in the moment; it starts telling me something about what is perceived, what appears to us, what we experience, with different ways of looking. So I start experimenting and playing with different ways of looking. As I said, there are infinite amounts. And in the paradigm of a kind of movement towards liberation, I’m particularly interested in that experimenting and that playing – not just with gaining skill but with really noticing what are the effects of this way of looking on my sense of self, on the dukkha, on the sense of things, and what are the effects of that way of looking on the dukkha, on the sense of self, on the sense of things. It becomes this journey of exploration with these twin kind of entwined concepts of ways of looking and fabrication. Fabrication is the other central strand of concept; it really refers to how does my way of looking give rise to this experience or this sense of things or this suffering. So we say dukkha, suffering, dis-ease, is fabricated to a large extent by my ways of looking, and similarly the sense of self, and similarly the sense of things.

So it’s taking those really basic concepts that are sort of, I would say, hard to argue with – that a human being can play with their ways of looking, and that we can see, even at a gross level, that the way of looking fabricates, to some extent, what we perceive. So I see that when I’m completely crazy, what Buddhists call papañca, and my mind is just running riot with all this storymaking and nonsense, in that experience I fabricate a whole sense of self, certainly quite a lot of suffering usually, and a kind of world involving certain very prominent objects and a whole tangled solidity of perception. When we come out of that kind of craziness, that way of looking which wasn’t an intentional way of looking, that papañca, then we see, “Oh, it was a fabrication.” So we take these two concepts, ways of looking and fabrication – which, I would say, are kind of obvious to a certain extent; a little bit of self-awareness just reveals those possibilities – and we say, “What if we don’t close them down or limit them as concepts? What if we just open them up as sort of avenues of exploration?” In other words, what ways of looking are possible, without limiting how many are legitimate, and not pre-assuming what is fabricated and what isn’t?

So I see in that example at a very gross level, I can see when I’m in this state of catastrophizing and sort of semi-hysteria that we call papañca, it’s a very gross state. I come out of it, a little time goes by, I feel better, I see things differently. I look back and say, “Oh, that was fabricated, all that nonsense. What a crazy world I made up, and crazy self-views I had.” So we see that is fabricated, but in the back of my mind, I’m maybe thinking, “That was fabricated, but this desk that I’m sitting at, or this microphone, or this conversation, or whatever, that’s all real. That’s not fabricated.” What if we just don’t rush in so quickly with the typical assumptions of what is fabricated and what is not fabricated? Where is the limit of fabrication? Let’s not impose that from the beginning.

Together with that exploration of fabrication, we also explore it through this gradually developing playing with different ways of looking, and we see how they affect each other. That brings not just liberation in the moment but a deep understanding about the dependent arising of suffering, of the sense of self, and of the sense of anything whatsoever – any phenomena whatsoever. That explains the subtitle of the book, Meditations on Emptiness and Dependent Arising. In Buddhist teachings, when something is a dependent arising, it means it’s empty – it has no independent existence, no inherent existence. And the premise of the book is that we can really have a lot of joy and fun playing with these explorations. Usually gradually, with kind of quantum leaps or whatever – it’s a bit unpredictable – but there comes not just the joy of playing with it, not just the temporary relief of suffering, but there comes kind of radically deep insights overturning our usual assumptions about what is real, what is not real, what is this self, what is this world, what is a thing, what is awareness, what is time, what is space, et cetera. So that’s kind of the way the book works.

I think I mentioned before that the title has potentially a double meaning, with the emphasis on ‘that’ – so Seeing ‘That’ Frees, ‘that’ being either the Unfabricated, the Deathless, or emptiness. So that’s there. That meaning is there, as well. But in a way, the way I would conceive of the whole thing is that the freedom that’s possible is even deeper and wider than seeing the Unfabricated, seeing the Deathless. The sort of primary title is more as you kind of interpreted it yourself earlier, Michael, ‘Seeing’ That Frees, ways of looking that liberate. What the book unfolds is that, in the end, what we’re left with is just this range of ways of looking, and this kind of possibility of play and art to conjure, to weave, different experiences, different senses of self, of world, knowing that it’s all empty. Because it’s all empty, we have that freedom. So that goes beyond even a particular kind of seeing, seeing ‘that’ frees.

Michael: I’m just curious…of course these ideas and these experiences of emptiness and dependent origination are at the core of Buddhist practice. And yet, you seem to have made a rather thorough investigation of this, and in kind of an unusual way. I want to unpack that just a little bit, what I mean by ‘unusual.’ That is, you seem to have come at it from many, many different directions, with many different types of meditations, which I think is not that typical, and quite interesting, and you have documented this very clearly in the book, Seeing That Frees. So my curiosity here is how you began working in this very, I would say, creative way that is, I think, so intriguing about your work. It’s very creative. It’s clear that you’re devising new exercises, or modifying or updating classical techniques, and that there’s just this mode of absolute investigative wonder and curiosity about it. There’s no feeling that you’re trying to get from stage x to stage y or whatever, but instead, really just experimenting and having openness. I really appreciate that mood. I’m wondering if you can share with us how you began that investigation and how it unfolded for you in such a deep and rich manner that you’ve documented in the book.

Rob: That’s an interesting question, Michael. My immediate response is I can’t remember. [laughter] I’m sure it’ll come to me in a minute. My other immediate response is that, so, if there’s a story, then this will be like today’s version of the story, which might be a different telling of history than on another day or in another mood or whatever. You know, past is empty, too. So, I know where I got the idea of fabrication from. I got that from Ajahn Thanissaro, who maybe many of your listeners will know him – Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Ajahn Geoff, who is an American monk with a monastery in San Diego. He was a monk in Thailand for 25 years, I think. He was a very important teacher for me for a kind of short period. I was actually thinking of becoming a monk at his monastery for a while. The idea of fabrication I got from him. I’m not sure if he would feel, if he read Seeing That Frees, if he would feel I had taken it too far and beyond the range of what he would feel comfortable with, or into territory he would not feel comfortable with. I don’t know.

But I remember getting the idea of that from him. It’s a certain translation of the word saṅkhāra, fabrication. The experiment thing, I think…I don’t know, maybe it’s just a kind of personality type I have. I was a jazz musician for a long time. It was my work before I was a full-time Dharma bum. I think that kind of idea of improvising and being creative and trying things out, it’s just, it’s kind of my type, maybe, to a certain extent.

You know, I spent some time in meditation just running into brick walls, and then trying different things, and then those walls opening or disappearing or whatever, and avenues opening up. So I think I learned from difficult experience. It’s a curious thing, with this way of approaching things that I outline in the book. The very approach of playing with ways of looking turns out to be, in a way, the goal as well. We go all the way through seeing the emptiness of self, the emptiness of things, the emptiness of awareness, the emptiness of time, the emptiness of the present moment, the emptiness of everything, the Unfabricated, the Deathless, all the way through that, and we emerge with just this kind of full permission of the beauty of free play with ways of looking, to serve different purposes – of which the paradigmatic one in Buddhadharma is the purpose of relieving suffering and increasing compassion.

So in some sense, the premise of the book, or one of the premises, one of the sort of starting strands of the book turns out to be the actual delivery point where it all ends up. So that’s part of it. I think maybe another sort of weave in the story was – and again, it’s today’s story, right now, at this time, when you’re asking me – I think, perhaps, I certainly felt helped by a lot of the teachings that were out there. Certainly, as I mentioned, Ajahn Geoff, and Christopher Titmuss, and Christina Feldman – actually lots of teachings. But I also felt, somehow, nothing fully satisfied me. There were lots of questions that I couldn’t really find answers to, or people with the same degree of burning interest in them. So I had a lot of time on retreat – years, in fact. And I was, to a certain extent, it was a natural kind of move for me to just begin experimenting and seeing what happened and getting super interested in stuff, with this burning curiosity about it.

Michael: Can you actually remember that moment of kind of leaving the well-worn trail and going off into – just to horribly mix metaphors for a moment – going off into your jazz improv on emptiness?

Rob: Probably not. But I remember I had this question for a while about the nature of awareness. And I would sort of go and ask lots of different teachers, and I was just struck by, again, how unsatisfactory I found the answers about the relationship of awareness and the Deathless and the Unfabricated, et cetera. There were a lot of different answers, all of which, I felt, for me at that time, were not satisfactory. What I also encountered in some of the people that I talked to was just – it was clear that it really wasn’t an interesting question to them, or that level of meditative territory or inquiry or that level of liberation just wasn’t that interesting. I think it was more those signals of lack of interest – and also the absence of answers that were satisfying – that kind of made me just tip ever-so-slightly off an edge that I was already on, I suppose. That’s the story that comes out now that you asked me.

Michael: Well, it is interesting, when – many times when I’ve asked teachers about emptiness or heard teachers respond to questions about emptiness, they’ll give kind of a pat answer out of the questions of King Menander, you know, like, “Well, there’s a chariot, and you take it apart, and it’s no longer a chariot, and you put it back together, and it’s a chariot. But, you know, that’s about it. In every other way, it’s too deep to talk about, and too deep to understand.” Not to be too critical here, but it seems like there’s almost an abdication of the possibility of talking about it or describing practices that will actually give you more insight into emptiness in a very direct way. For some reason, that’s either taboo or not available or, as you said, it just seems like they’re not interested in it. So I just love that you took it upon yourself to just go there anyway and investigate it deeply.

So besides Thanissaro Bhikkhu, what other resources did you find that helped you do this long process of investigation into emptiness?

Rob: So the teachings of Christopher Titmuss were really pivotal for me. Those teachings were huge. I didn’t have much personal contact with him at all, except a couple of retreats, I think, over a few years. But I listened to a lot of his recordings. He has – I think you know him; I think you even had an interview with him recently – he has, yeah, what came through of the beauty of the promise of emptiness, communicated to my soul and my heart. I loved that. But also certain kind of radical insights about dependent arising that really struck me and were very helpful for me back in the mid ‘90s.

I worked for a long time on retreat with Christina Feldman, and that was very helpful as well. Then I was at Gaia House on these long retreats. The library there is very eclectic, it’s not huge but it’s a fairly substantial library, and it’s very eclectic. So I would pick up books and, for instance, the books in the Tibetan Gelug tradition, where they would use this kind of logical analysis to go into the realization of emptiness. At first, it just left me cold. I had no resonance with it whatsoever. At what point that, for instance, started to come alive for me, I actually don’t remember. I don’t remember what even prompted me to start playing with it, because I was so kind of turned off by it for a long time.

So I think partly in the process of working with these things and trying things out, and really just following the lead of the beauty of it and the sense of the liberation at different degrees of depth, it’s kind of like, what opened up at one depth or in one territory then made another door available, if you like, and I could walk through that one, or it became interesting, or it became possible. So things kind of built on each other to a certain extent. Because I was a little bit exposed to different streams of teaching, I also wanted to know how they related to each other, or were they just contradictory, et cetera.

But I think there’s different elements that come together. One is the sort of basic, overarching concept of the whole path and method and what we’re doing, this idea of two strands of ways of looking and fabrication that I outlined. I don’t quite remember when that really got clear, but it was fairly early. Just having that conceptual framework of what practice was doing – and not just emptiness practice; any practice – that kind of allowed everything else to fit into a context. It contextualized everything else. I can remember certain periods where insights just took these quantum leaps to another level of depth, and they were really exciting times. But exactly what stimulated them, I can’t remember. I remember reading Gampopa, a Tibetan teacher from, I think, the twelfth century. He has a book that’s usually translated as something like The Jewel Ornament of Liberation or something like that in English. There were just a few lines in there about the emptiness, if I remember, of atoms, and the emptiness of time. They weren’t really meditative instructions, but somehow – and again, I can’t quite remember how – somehow I took these teachings, which one could just read and sort of say, “Okay, that sounds cool,” somehow I took it and found ways of turning them into meditations that for me were very, very powerful.

So a lot of that kind of stuff found its way into Seeing That Frees. I was just kind of obsessed about the whole thing – or I think it’s fair to say I was pretty obsessed for a number of years about emptiness and the Unfabricated, the Deathless. I had an intuition even before I got into deep practice – this drew me. I didn’t quite know what it was, but I had this mystical intuition of something that was – I remember saying to someone, “I would stake my life on this. I don’t know what it is yet, but I just know that I would stake my life on it.” So that kind of intuition was there for me. These are some of the factors, but I feel I’m not giving you a very good answer to your question. That’s what I can do for right now.

Michael: It’s today’s answer. Perfect. So I’m just going to ask you an impossible question, which is, okay, Rob, you have this deep insight into emptiness – what can you say about emptiness? What is it? Why does it matter? Why should someone care?

Rob: At this point in my journey and my journey as a teacher, I’ve kind of stopped trying to convince anyone that they should care about this. I think some people will be interested, even when they don’t understand. I was saying to a group the other day, you know, “Some people hear the Heart Sutra or something like that and they know they don’t understand, but they’re attracted.” Something just ignites in the consciousness that they want to go towards that, they want to open up that understanding – in the broad sense of the word ‘understanding.’ I think other people maybe won’t ever be.

Even some people who are committed Dharma practitioners, they’re just not going to be. I feel that’s fine. I wouldn’t even judge that. I’m not interested in converting anyone to anything. There were times when I did feel more fired up and that this is how we need to understand the Buddha’s teachings, or this is much more helpful, this will go deeper, this will make sense of everything. I just feel less inclined to do that right now.

But having said all that, what is emptiness? As you said, it’s an impossible question, because I find the way I speak or what I might say is very much dependent on my sense of who I’m talking to, whether I speak more poetically or more logically or more polemically or whatever. This feels like a bit of a blank right now when you’re asking me, in terms of who’s listening and what kind of personalities they are, and what speaks to them.

Michael: You can just use me as the person asking you.

Rob: What is emptiness? Emptiness is something that we realize absolutely everything has as an attribute, if you like. And that realization liberates us. It opens up a radical sense of freedom in relation to everything in existence – absolutely everything. I would say, more than that, it opens up a degree of mystery and beauty in the sense of what everything is, who am I, what consciousness is, and what the cosmos is. So usually emptiness is presented in purely the context of liberative aims – for freedom, for the ending of suffering, or at least reducing suffering. I think that’s obviously really key, and the book Seeing That Frees is written in that language, in that premise.

But I think it’s also true that there is, for me, something sacred about the realization of emptiness. There’s a sense of sacredness when we open to it. There’s a sense of mystery and a sense of beauty, as well as relief and release of suffering and all that. So in technical language, we can say emptiness is the realization that nothing whatsoever – nothing – has any what we call ‘inherent existence,’ any independent existence. Sometimes people translate that as meaning everything is dependent on conditions in the world – so this tree is dependent on water and sunlight and minerals from the soil and all that. That’s one interpretation of dependent arising and emptiness. But for me the more radical, deeper, thorough, certainly more liberative and much more beautiful levels of emptiness realization come in when you include the dependence on the mind, the dependence on the ways of looking.

One starts to explore, as I was outlining earlier, this question of how the ways of looking either fabricate more or less or differently and that binds it, so to speak, in unbinding the mind and the self and consciousness. It also, curiously, binds it, connects it, with the world of things and the cosmos that we experience. So there’s liberation and mystery in the seeing of that lack of inherent existence. Nothing, not anything, exists independent of the way of looking. And ways of looking, too, are empty – everything, everything. So for me seeing emptiness is something that brings this really, yes, radical sense of freedom in relation to our existence, but also a lot of profound beauty, sacredness, love, all of that.

Michael: Now, when you talk about this lack of inherent existence, there’s at least two ways we can kind of approach that. One is kind of a semi-scientific, third person, external viewpoint, like “Well, things are constructed of other things, and those are made of atoms, and atoms are made of quarks, and so on, subatomic particles and then quarks.” That’s one way of conceptually approaching that. Another way of conceptually approaching it would be more first-person experiential, of actually experiencing what I would call the construction, or what you call the fabrication, of all the sensory streams in experience. You can just observe them being fabricated and then coming together, weaving together, to then construct objects in the world and ideas and so on. There’s this kind of first-person seeing of the lack of inherent existence because you observe it being constructed. I’m dividing those two things because one is, in my mind, more experiential, and the other is an idea about the world. Would you say your understanding of emptiness includes both of those, or one or the other of those, or something completely different than that?

Rob: If I’m understanding you, Michael, yeah, I would say for me it includes both of those. Although in the first one that you outlined, I wouldn’t stop. See, what usually happens is people engage in some degree of deconstruction. Some degree of deconstruction any human being is going to agree on. But when I was talking about fabrication, it’s a similar thing – it’s like, where am I going to stop? Are there any basic building blocks? You could say, “Yeah, there are quarks.” My question would be, “Is a quark empty or not?” In my view, a quark is thoroughly empty. It’s not that the world is made of building blocks and we just, “Oh, now we’ve got a smaller building block.” That actually is at least one interpretation of quantum mechanics – that’s consonant with one interpretation, that the way the observer, the scientist, looks, the way they set up the experiment, the interpretation, et cetera, conditions actually what is experienced in terms of the motion, the mass, the velocity, the momentum, the time, the energy, et cetera, place, location, of a subatomic particle. So again, none of these are independently existing structures from a perspective on quantum mechanics, the typical perspective at present. I would be a little cautious of putting too much weight on that, because of course with science things can just turn around and someone can kind of discover something that calls that into question. But basically, in terms of your division, I would say yeah, both.

And how that translates in the book, for example, is you get what I call predominantly phenomenological meditation – so in other words experiential, as you outlined. Based on my experience I can start, in your language, deconstructing my experience, or looking at my experience and elements of my experience, with different ways of looking, and seeing how they are fabricated. And then the more analytical meditations are perhaps something – it’s still phenomenological, but they can be a little more akin to, okay, if you assume x or y is a basic building block or a real thing, then you can kind of prove that it can’t be so. You take that kind of logical proof in a very subtle way into meditation with the heart, with the sensitivity and all that, and that functions to liberate. For me, it’s both.

What’s interesting for me working as a teacher – and I find this really interesting – is that each person, each student, each person who travels the path of emptiness will have their own epistemology. What I mean by that is their own kind of structure of what’s convincing to them in terms of emptiness, what really convinces them in a way that liberates and what doesn’t. In other words, someone could, say, for example, engage in the kind of practices that you’re talking about, what you called the experiential thread there, and find that very liberating. Another person will say, “That doesn’t prove anything. You’re just doing some weird stuff with your brain or whatever, so you’re seeing differently.” So Person A is convinced; their personal epistemology is satisfied and it’s enough to liberate them. Person B is thoroughly unconvinced and needs another approach.

So that was part of the reason why I put these different approaches in the book. That’s the main reason. I think it kind of shores up the foundations and the thrust of the emptiness seeing. But people are also very different, and I find that question of what is convincing to different people and that there won’t be a universal there – I find that extremely interesting, both practically as a teacher but also more philosophically.

Michael: Yeah, it’s something I found really interesting about the book. You do have experiential meditations, and then you have these analytical meditations where I would even call them philosophical meditations because you’re deconstructing the object philosophically or conceptually. I wonder if just for listeners you could give the briefest hint of an example of how that actually works in practice.

Rob: Yeah. As I said before, this was very strange to me when I came across this kind of talk and these kind of teachings in, for instance, Tibetan Gelug traditions. So one example would be – you mentioned the chariot earlier. It’s something that appears in the Pali Canon, the original Buddhist teachings. A nun introduces the teaching of deconstructing the self like you would deconstruct a chariot. It’s given there as a sort of philosophical argument, but in the Tibetan Gelug teachings they develop that into a meditation with certain instructions. I guess, for me, again, the instructions that I found for that were – they didn’t feel very satisfying or very powerful, and I certainly never met anyone who had any really liberative power for. So I just experimented with finding ways that they would be really satisfying for me.

Maybe a simpler one is around time, a moment of time. One of the reasonings goes: a moment of time, if it has inherent existence, has to be one or many. So anything that has inherent existence, its nature is one or many. If it were a one, this present moment of time, that means it couldn’t have a beginning, a middle, and an end. For a moment of time to function, it needs to have a beginning and an end. The beginning needs to be different than the end. So, in effect, you’ve actually got two moments of time. So we say, okay, well, you can’t have one moment, maybe the present moment is many. But the very concept of many depends on the concept of one; one is an aggregate, a collection, of many. So you see that many can’t exist, either. And so – you know, we’re just talking rationally right now – then it’s neither one nor many; it has no inherent existence. Now, I just rattled through that. What a person has to do meditatively is take some time with the kinds of rational arguments, philosophical arguments, that actually attract them but also convince them. So that means pondering and thinking for a while.

Once you’ve got that – and it may mean you articulate it differently than other people articulate it, or you add certain bits – once you’ve got that, you’ve got something you can then take into the stillness and also the subtlety of meditation, when the mind is still, when the sensitivity and the awareness are subtle, and then, for example, actually focusing on the present moment, and just really delicately bringing this analytical argument to bear in relation to an experience. So whatever it is I’m deconstructing, the self or the present moment, I’ve got it in the awareness, I’ve got it in the meditative focus, and then very delicately, this very subtle dance of this analytical deconstruction – which, with practice, can be both very subtle and very quick. I don’t know, it took me maybe a minute to explain it; in the meditation it can be really just a few seconds, even. One brings it to bear, and with practice, with all the subtlety and delicacy, like a very subtle dance or surgery or something, one brings it to bear, and because of the receptivity and because there’s that sensitivity of the whole body and being and the focus and quietness, it actually works more than just a mental kind of game or some clever kind of thinking. It actually functions effectively as a way of looking, and starts deconstructing the present moment. What happens when the present moment deconstructs? It’s very hard to put into words.

That one, for me, for example, takes me automatically to a very, very deep level of unfabricating. For someone else, they might not find that argument convincing, or they might not be able to work it quite dexterously into meditation. Maybe something else works. But basically a rational argument has to be woven in to the present moment meditation with all that delicacy and subtlety, and then it can function really, really powerfully.

Michael: This is really interesting. You know, when we’re doing a more phenomenological deconstruction of, let’s say, a meditative object, it’s very often the case that it starts to kind of dissolve before the meditative gaze, right? It fades away or whatever, starts to vanish in one way or another. You seem to be describing something similar happening with this other way, with this analytical way of working. Do you get that same – I think you call it in the book a fading of perception?

Rob: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. Basically that’s the whole premise of the book. We can divide ways of looking into two broad camps. There are ways of looking that kind of keep suffering and dis-ease and whatever objects and selves are involved in that suffering, they keep it solid and real-seeming and there, or they make it even stronger and more intense. We’ve got those kinds of ways of looking in, kind of broadly speaking, one camp. And the other kinds of ways of looking are ways that fabricate less, that cause the fading – to some degree or other – of the suffering, the sense of self, the sense of things.

So all the practices in the book, as far as I remember, if you engage them – whether they’re analytical meditations or what we’re calling more fully experiential, phenomenological – to some degree or other they will support, they will engender, the fading of perception, because they’re not fabricating. Because the ways of looking are part of what fabricates, they’re part of what stitches reality together – this object, that object, this self, that self, and also time. So any of these meditations, what we’re calling phenomenological right now, or analytical, they basically form ways of looking that will,  to some degree or other, create more fading – or allow more fading we should say, more accurately.

Michael: We’re creating two categories here. Are there other categories of seeing that work in this way also?

Rob: That work for the fading of perception?

Michael: Or to the relief of suffering, yes.

Rob: Well, there is a whole other category that I would call soulmaking perception, which might be skillful fabrication.

Michael: This is your current investigation, correct? What we might call the reconstruction of things?

Rob: Yeah. I can’t remember so much what’s in the book now; I think there’s a little bit of reconstruction in the book, but yes, I think so, when it gets into the more Vajrayāna practices. One way of conceiving what we’re doing with Vajrayāna or tantric practices – one way of conceiving it – is that one has realized or become quite skilled and adept at this kind of fading of perception, and one can become so skilled at it that it’s almost like it’s a gas pedal on a car; you can press more so that everything just completely fades out, or a little less, or a lot less. So you can kind of modulate where you are on what I call the spectrum of fading, or the spectrum of the fabrication of perception. One of the things you can do is, let’s say, put the gas pedal fairly far down, but not completely far down so that everything fades; you’re retaining an almost light or insubstantial sense of the perception of the body and self and the world of phenomena. What you have there is a very insubstantial, fluid but malleable perception. Then you can actually start shaping perception this way or that.

You can also do this in jhāna practice. For instance, you have a – sitting in meditation, you’ve been sitting too long and a pain comes in your back, and you just decide to bring what we might call the primary perception of one jhāna or another – let’s say happiness in the second jhāna – and you just take that and you decide to see the pain as happiness. The pain fades, and what replaces it is the experience of happiness in that location in the body. So this idea of the malleability of perception, again, it’s all just woven in with the idea of ways of looking. Where we are on the spectrum of fabrication at any time, eventually you begin to have quite some control in that. It’s not always, “I’m just gunning for total fading, the cessation of perception and feeling. I just want always the Unfabricated.” You actually say, yeah, that’s great, we can do that sometimes. That’s wonderful and beautiful. You can dip into that and then come back out and start taking advantage of this malleability of perception, of the possibility of playing with different kinds of perception when the world of phenomena, et cetera, is not completely faded.

We can do that with different intentions. So, for example, one might do that with mettā practice or lovingkindness – I decide to see this person in a certain way; I play with that way of looking that sees them in a certain way for the sake of mettā or whatever. But I can also do that for other reasons. So I can broaden the scope of why I’m doing it; it’s not just for the release of obvious suffering. Does this make sense?

Michael: It does. We can think of certain types of jhāna practice and certain types of mettā practice as a kind of tipping of the perception in a certain direction to get an outcome. It seems to be related to various type of Vajrayāna practice – one could think of yidam practice as being a much more expanded version of that same thing, that same direction, let’s say. And if I’m not mistaken, what you’re doing in the soulmaking is kind of a Jungian-inspired version of the same thing. Is that correct?

Rob: To a certain extent, yeah. It’s partly Jung, yeah.

Michael: What I specifically mean is rather than, for example, doing a yidam practice with a Vajrayāna deity, one might use archetypes as well as just regular objects and experiences.

Rob: Yeah. One might use anything that comes, either intrapsychically or anything in the world of material objects – so anything at all. In other words, this malleability of perception functions everywhere, inner or outer, with regard to the self, with regard to objects in the world, with regard to the cosmos, with regard to other people. Because everything is empty, there’s the possibility of modulating where we are on the spectrum of fabrication – in other words, how solid and fixed and substantial things appear on that whole spectrum – and also playing with the ways of looking. We can decide to look in a certain way for the sake, let’s say, of sacredness, or for the sake of healing, or for the sake of beauty, or for the sake of freedom from suffering, or for the sake of love. The whole playground starts getting mixed with different possible intentions that can come in. Of course, we could see all of that under a rubric of Buddhadharma and just say they’re all different kinds of liberation, they’re all different kinds of suffering. It’s possible to see it that way if we want to.

Michael: How would you prefer to contextualize it?

Rob: I feel like the contextualization of it is itself what I would call a soul question and empty. For me, going thoroughly, deeply into emptiness – as coming out in the way I teach now – means also that conceptual frameworks are empty, which includes the conceptual framework of Buddhadharma, of the Buddha’s teachings, the conceptual framework of awakening, the conceptual framework of Jung, the conceptual framework of what we’re now calling soulmaking – all of it. That leaves us, again, with a playground of conceptual frameworks. Yeah, there’s some interesting philosophy to discuss there, because you can’t just say everything is true. But basically the idea that there’s any kind of, “This is the right way to see it, or the true conceptual structure that reveals or discloses reality,” that starts opening up.

Again, it becomes like, well, what purpose is served by this or that conceptual framework, for this or that person, at any time? It depends who I’m talking to, what they need, what they’re ready for, what kind of personality they are, what their relationship is with tradition and all of that, how I might express that. I see it as a playground: one can move between conceptual structures of all these things. And I can move. But I don’t think I ever kind of see any of them as, “This is the way it is.” They’re more just perspectives we can play with.

Michael: Yeah. This is fascinating. You are preaching to the choir here of meta-rationality or metaconceptuality. We talk about that on the show quite a bit, particularly with David Chapman. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with his work, but he’s a Vajrayāna practitioner with quite a large body of work describing meta-rationality, which is essentially what you just described – being able to switch conceptual frameworks based on what’s most useful, most beautiful, most helpful, most whatever right now, and do that very fluidly.

Rob: Great, interesting.

Michael: If someone is pursuing this path of meditating on emptiness and they’re largely doing it on their own, maybe they’re listening to your recordings on Dharma Seed or reading the book or whatever, but they’re mainly doing it on their own, how do they know that they’re getting somewhere with it? What’s the gradient you’re following that lets you know, little by little, that this is deepening into further insight into emptiness?

Rob: Yeah, thank you, that’s a good question. I do write about this in the book. For me, one of the ways that we can actually talk about what insight is – insight is any way of looking that brings freedom and relief and release from suffering. Some of those ways of looking – especially the ones I outline in the book – will bring that relief and release in the moment. One of the principle gauges of what is working for a meditator – and I did try to write this book with the idea of someone who would never have any teachings directly.

Someone could take this book and just, if you read it really closely, it’s quite dense, they could just do it on their own from the book; there is everything you need, and everything is explained; the index is very careful, et cetera. You might not catch it on a first reading, but it’s there, the kinds of problems that people encounter, et cetera. But as one engages the practices, one actually feels palpably a relief and release. Part of what one’s doing as one practices is one’s experimenting with ways of looking, which means one is experimenting; as an experimenter, one notices what the effect is – “I feel in this moment that I am looking in this way, that I am sensing in this way, I feel the relief.”

That’s partly what the incorporation of the energy body sensitivity is, because one feels it palpably in the felt-experience of the energy field of the body. One feels that relief and that release, or there’s joy or peace. So those are indications that one is on the right track in the moment. Sometimes that feeling of release and relief is really sometimes very subtly, and sometimes it’s really profound – almost exhilarating. These are all indications that whatever way of looking you’re engaging at that moment is really working.

Secondly, with all that, what starts to happen is, as I’m engaging these ways of looking, not only is there relief and release, but there is also a sense of the perception opening up in some way that, generally speaking, feels wonderful, feels exhilarating, feels truly wondrous. You can tell, when someone comes in to talk with a teacher, something has opened up and it’s just, “This is gorgeous.” You know, when someone comes in to an interview with me and they’re kind of saying, “This happened,” and it’s like, well, it was a completely not-a-big-deal experience; sometimes they’re so hooked into trying to achieve something that actually they haven’t let the experience blossom and touch them. So the kinds of experience, the kinds of openings and unfabricatings of perception that happen really strike the being. That’s another signal, that it’s just gorgeous and you love it and it’s beautiful, generally speaking.

Sometimes there can be a little bit of fear, but I also try to address that in the book. Generally speaking, that’s also a signal that you’re on the right track. Of course, as one goes, one is still going to fall in and out of self-contraction in one’s life, different things happen in relationship or whatever it is. But one can practice with those. Over time, those start to become – let’s put it this way: there’s whole kinds and levels and realms of suffering that, after a while, just can’t really get going anymore. One has realized enough of the emptiness of things that they don’t have the foundations to form – particularly certain kinds of suffering around self would be the first sort of ones that would go more permanently. All those criteria would sort of give an indication that you’re on the right track. I would stress again the sense of beauty and enjoyment and wonder and the grace and the gift of what opens. These, to me, are really healthy indications that one is on the right track, that things are working.

Michael: So I haven’t studied your soulmaking teaching in any thoroughness at all; I’ve just glanced at it. In a way, if you’ll allow me to just be sort of poetic, but it seems to be in a way recreating the history of Buddhism, you know, where we get into very heavy emptiness teachings and then, “Now what?” “Now we’ve got all this emptiness, let’s notice how the entire world is refabricating, reconstructing, coming out of emptiness every moment into everythingness and start playing with that.” Right?

So it’s just such a fascinating sequence that seems to just be part of how this works, so to me there’s a kind of naturalness to that and a beauty to that direction you’re moving. At the same time, one of the main questions that’s come up when I’ve told people I was going to do this interview with you, is they wanted to know personally, like, here you are, you’ve gone on this journey, and you’ve been going through a rather major health crisis for quite some time, and I just would love to have some insight into how this soulmaking practice is interacting with your personal journey of facing the end of life possibly at various moments, and how you’ve been working with that.

Rob: Yeah, thank you. I’m not sure I can sum it up really quickly or simply. You know, the soulmaking doesn’t replace other practices; it’s a kind of extension, if you like. So for me, working with the possibility of dying soon, and illness and pain and all that, I still regularly draw on emptiness practices. They’re very powerful ones and there’s a way that they can just, for instance, open up the sense of the emptiness of time, or the sense of the Deathless or the Unfabricated, and that really does tend to change the perspective quite radically on the whole thing in a way that really relieves and brings a lot of beauty and peace. I think I’m more interested now, because it’s kind of my creative edge, my edge of exploration, in opening up these soulmaking practices.

So yeah, a lot of what I deal with day-to-day is I’m confronted with ill health and the possibility of dying and all that. It’s not like there’s one kind of practice – soulmaking is not so much a technique; it’s more like an art, if you like. So when I sit down with that and something is difficult in the body, or just the whole existential kind of personal predicament there, I don’t quite know what’s going to happen. But I start with the dukkha of it. I usually start with the vulnerability, in the body, with the heart, with the sense of not knowing, with the sense of being powerless in the face of what might happen or what’s actually happening in the body. That kind of humility there and sensitivity and heartfulness functions as one of the doors. It’s one of the kind of entry points. I can’t go into soulmaking with a laser beam focus and rigid “right, let’s clean this up” kind of mentality; I can’t go in there with a checklist, a technical checklist of one, two, three, four, hey presto. One has to feel one’s way in with the depth of one’s being – in this case, when it involves dukkha and that kind of thing, into the heart of that, with the heart. And then we usually include a certain sensitivity to the body which I also described to some extent in the book on emptiness, what I call energy body or subtle body. That kind of sensitivity comes into play as being a platform for the soulmaking.

But then anything might come out of that: an image might arise in relation to my illness, in relation to death, in relation to my body, in relation to my life and what I’m doing with my life. When you’re facing the possibility of dying soon, you know, I’ve had to make a lot of choices about what do I need to do, what’s important that gets done. If I’m forced to choose because I have very limited time, what do I need to do? So the whole question of what I’m doing with my life, what I have done with my life, what my life is serving – these kind of questions are part of what we would call soul questions. But the images or the senses of being that might come might be related to that. It might be related to my sense of what I’m doing, what I’m serving. But it could be absolutely anything. It could involve what’s around me, so I might hear or sense the garden outside and somehow that touches – maybe the garden outside becomes like the Garden of Eden. It’s not a Buddhist image [laughs], but who cares, you know? It comes alive in a way that, if we use a certain language, speaks to my soul. There’s a poetry in it. And somehow that Garden of Eden is timeless. Somehow my body, my body with the cancer and all the rest of it, with the possibility of death, is in the Garden of Eden. It’s not a promise of something in the future, “When I die I’ll go to Heaven and everything will be okay.” I’m talking now; I’m talking in a timeless way. I’m also talking in a way that’s – I know it’s not real, and I know it’s not not-real. We’re talking about a whole other kind of ontological envelope, if you like, here.

So all that is involved. There’s a kind of theater to it. All this is involved – the poetry, the theater, the heart, the sensitivity, the vulnerability, the humility, and my body, the sense of my body, in the garden – which is actually outside; I might be sitting, meditating cross-legged on my bed or whatever, but I sense that with my whole body and with all the sensibility. It’s as if there’s a kind of divinity in that – my body and my being and my life become divine, become infused with a kind of poetic sensibility that touches me to my core and opens out. I can’t predict, I can’t make this happen. It might be something that if I experience it once I might decide to revisit that image, and maybe it goes in a slightly different direction or whatever. But there may be other elements – maybe the sound of the wind starts or the birdsong starts being incorporated into the imaginal sense, into what we call the sensing with soul. So there are countless possibilities. I don’t know if that gives you some idea of the kind of thing.

Michael: It definitely gives me a felt-sense of it. It seems like quite a deep and beautiful way of encountering life in the world. So that’s an example of your current soulmaking teachings.

Rob: If I could maybe add something there, Michael – I think what tends to happen, then, after some time, is these kinds of experiences impact the being very deeply and they change our relationship with existence. They change our relationship with death and with life and what we’re doing and who we think we are, or what a human being is. So again, it’s not that there’s a promise of something in the future in some reified way, or it’s just a nice relief from some pain or some concern in the moment. Something starts to happen – much as in the emptiness practices – something starts to happen with the whole sense of what existence is, and what reality is, and what the cosmos is, and what the self is, and what everything is. That is, if you like, the important thing – the dimensionality, the possibility, of how we can perceive life starts to open up. There’s an endlessness of possibility there, an infinity of possibility of beauty, of sacredness, of different levels of healing and freedom, et cetera.

Michael: Rob, thank you so much for sharing with us today.

Rob: It was really a pleasure, Michael. Thank you.



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