Unstructured, contentless and ineffable – Part 1
An Interview of Peter Fenner, Ph.D. by Alex Dijk for BewustZijn magazine
The Australian Peter Fenner (1949) lived nine years as a Tibetan monk, and then taught in the academic world. He is now regarded as an expert in applying and adapting Asian nondual wisdom through his programs, the “Radiant Mind Course” and the “Natural Awakening: Advanced Nondual Training.”
“I am very fortunate in that what I do now with my life is essentially what I hope to be doing until I die. I try to live my life so that I suffer less at a personal level. I hope that this then increases my capacity to support other people. My path has been one of discovering, first, to take care of ‘me’ so that I’m less preoccupied with myself, and then having done that, freeing up my time and energy to begin to contribute to others.
I’ve been involved with Buddhist teachings for quite a long time. Buddhism captured my attention 40 years ago because the idea that our needs and preferences are the source of our suffering made immediate sense to me at an intellectual level. Having what we don’t want, and not having what we do want, is the recipe for all our pain, upset and dissatisfaction. If we can free ourselves from the ‘need’ for things to be different, or to stay the same, we have discovered a state of unconditional freedom. This is what is meant by the term ‘nirvana.’ It is the state where nothing needs to be different. So the path consists of gradually reducing our needs and loosening the restrictions of our preferences.”
“More recently I’ve seen how this teaching and path offers the most efficient way for addressing the ecological imperatives which become more obvious day-by-day. The work of reducing the demands we place on external sources of pleasure and satisfaction is entirely relevant to the environmental discourse of today. It is the demands we make on planet earth that are rapidly degrading the quality of our environment, which in turn compound existing social and geopolitical pressures.
There are really two sets of demands that we make on the external world. There are the demands we make of other people, and the demands we make on the biosphere. The demands we make on others are the source of our interpersonal problems and conflicts: in couples, within families, within societies, between countries, races and religions. When we make demands, we place requirements on other people to be a particular way, and not be so in other ways.
Similarly we make tremendous demands on the environment because we believe that we need all sorts of things in order to be fulfilled. We are relatively incapable of ‘just being with ourselves,’ simply sitting and enjoying our connection and relationship with awareness itself. Instead we need to be entertained, amused, distracted or unconscious. The external resources that are required to keep us just marginally content are truly phenomenal. Just look at the funds involved in producing sporting events, luxury cars, technological gadgets, feature films, etc. If we decreased our demands on the external world by 10%, we would be living in a different world. It would be unrecognizable. Physically, tangibly, the world would be a different place.
Similarly, our relationships would transform if the source of our fulfilment was coming from within. The wonderful thing is we can make this change. We can train ourselves to rest peacefully in the nature of our own being, without needing to look outside for emotional pleasures and sensory stimulation. The greatest pleasure and peace comes from just being able to be completely fulfilled with things exactly as they are.”
“We also set standards for our physical wellbeing that place a huge cost on the environment. We spend enormous amounts of money on our appearance: wearing the right clothes, trying to look young and attractive. In some weird way we want to be in optimum health, right up until the moment of our death! Globally, we expend vast amounts of energy and spend huge sums of money trying to retard the aging process and prolong life.
What a great asset it would be if we could just let ourselves age, for example, without holding on to some notion of agelessness or immortality. No one really believes that we can remain young forever, and still the illusion motivates us to spend enormous resources on trying to forestall the aging process.
The ecological alternative here is to discover how we already have everything that’s needed to be fulfilled in the most comprehensive way possible. This isn’t just a fanciful idea. There are hundreds of thousands of great spiritual masters throughout the ages that have shown us that this is possible. There are sages who lived in ‘great bliss’ in severe environments without any heating or air-conditioning, without the latest gadgets, and without the security of knowing that quality medical care was close at hand.
The ultimate benchmark that these sages offer us is the possibility of making the journey through aging and dying without losing a connection with the supernal bliss of unconditioned awareness. For these sages, death itself was a non-event. As the 16th Karmapa of Tibet said on his deathbed in 1981, ‘nothing happens.’”
But more significantly, we can make our own experiment right now. Here we are. We’ve come together in this moment. How do we discover, first-hand, the very same reality that allowed the sages of the past and present to remain unperturbed in the face of the very same experiences that throw us into confusion, obsession, anger or fear.
The remarkable news is that nothing is needed in order to make this discovery. We don’t need ‘more time,’ to be somewhere else, to receive a superior teaching, or engage in a special practice. All that’s required is to see that we can be—that we are, in fact—already fulfilled. In this moment we don’t need anything more. We don’t need more money, a different body, a different partner—not in this very instant.
This moment—right now—is giving us everything we need just to be here; unassumingly, effortlessly, being ‘no one’ in particular, and with no need to be anywhere else. That’s the magic of this moment. This moment is perfect. Why? Because don’t need anything more. Here we are—you and me—in this tight, quite unique, perhaps slightly weird, but effortless conversation. We started with my observations about Buddhism and it’s relevance to ecology, and here we are, not asking for anything more. This moment is giving us everything we need just to be here, in the simplest way possible. We don’t need to be entertained, right now—enough is happening. We don’t need a flashy car—we’re not in it! In this moment, we don’t need a different standard of living, or a better return on our investments—we are clothed, fed and comfortable. We have everything we need, in order to rest with ‘what is.’
The beauty of this moment is that it’s effortless and uncontrived. The magic of this moment is that it’s ungraspable and ineffable. We can’t say what ‘this’ moment is. It leaves without a trace or history. In the very same moment that it arises, it disappears. We can’t say where it comes from, or where it goes. We can’t even say ‘where’ this is, except that ‘this’ is where it is: where ever that is! We can’t think about ‘this’ because there is nothing to think about. This is exactly what the sages mean when they say that ‘this’ is ineffable.
And now we can also see that if we are ‘here’ at the moment of our death, we have no fear. If we were to remain in this state, our death would be uneventful. The process of dying is nothing more than a continual letting go of everything at the conditioned level: our body, our friends, our possessions, our memories—in fact, the entire known world. At our death we say goodbye forever, to everything that we know and we never return. If we are here—resting in unconditioned awareness—everything can drop away with no grasping or attachment.”
“So, how do we go about this? How do we stay connected with ‘present awareness,’ not just now but going into the future? How do we cultivate this way of being? In one way that’s simple, just by being ‘here,’ whenever we can. Right now we have an opportunity, and we are using it. We’re still in this conversation together, and it has taken us into ‘present-moment-awareness.’ And these opportunities will return, again and again.
Visiting this place, resting here, enables ‘this’ to come into the foreground. Over time this might even become the baseline state. But we should be reminded that there is no practice involved in doing this. You haven’t been practicing these last few minutes. Neither have I. We’ve come together in a resonant field that allows the quality of this present moment to emerge like bubbles floating to the surface of water. This is a matter of recognition rather than practice. We recognize when it’s possible to be ‘here,’ and then we recognize ‘this.’
And yes, our capacity to recognize this opportunity does produce a change in our objectives. Our objective swings away from being preoccupied with our body, our finances and our relationships. We see that in this moment, we don’t need more zeros to our investment account. The objective right now is to continue to be ‘here.’ Not here as a physical location, but here as a state of consciousness that simply precludes the possibility of feeling that anything is missing, or wrong, or even that things could be better.
Over time, the contrast becomes clear. If we had the option of resting ‘here’ for the rest of our lives, or accumulating more assets, or keeping ourselves young and beautiful, the choice is obvious. It’s a choice between unconditional contentment and the ups and downs of chasing after fleeting experiences.”
Peter Fenner, Ph.D.
Copyright © Peter Fenner, 2011
Peter Fenner, Ph.D. is a spiritual leader in the adaption and transmission of Asian nondual wisdom. Pioneer in the development of nondual therapy, he created the Radiant Mind Course® and the Natural Awakening: Advanced Nondual Training. Peter runs courses, trainings, retreats and satsang telecalls and offers individual coaching sessions. His students and clients include Buddhist psychotherapists, psychologists, coaches, Zen masters, Sufi masters, Vipassana and Mindfulness teachers, Yoga teachers, psychiatrists, medical doctors, hospice workers, students of Tibetan Buddhism, followers of Advaita, artists and spiritual seekers worldwide.
Peter was a celibate monk in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition for 9 years and has a Ph.D. in the philosophical psychology of Mahayana Buddhism. Over a period of 40 years Peter Fenner has distilled the essence of traditions like Zen, Dzogchen and the Buddhist Middle Way, and adapted them to suit creatively our post-modern culture. He is the Director of Education of Timeless Wisdom.
The Radiant Mind Course (www.radiantmind.net) is taught in North America, Australia, and Europe, as well as the Natural Awakening Training, (www.nondualtraining.com.) Peter also offers retreats on 5 continents. He has presented his work at leading universities and institutions including Columbia, Stanford, CIIS and Naropa.
Peter Fenner has written extensively on Buddhist nondual traditions. His books and CDs include:
- “Radiant Mind: Awakening Unconditional Awareness” (Sounds True, 2007) translated in French: “L’Esprit Lumineux” (Almora, 2010) and in German: “Reines Gewahrsein”;
- “The Sacred Mirror: Nondual Wisdom and Psychotherapy” (ed. with John Prendergast and Sheila Krystal, 2003).
- “The Edge of Certainty: Dilemmas on the Buddhist Path” (2002) translated in French: “Le Fil de la Certitude, Dilemmes de la voie bouddhiste” (du Relié, 2001).
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