Selflessness and the Mandala of Pure Perception

By Peter Fenner, Ph.D.

The buddhas teach that there is a self, that there is no self, and that there is neither a self nor the absence of a self.


The flower’s perfume has no form, but it pervades space.  Likewise, through a spiral of mandalas formless reality is known.


When we inquire into the reality of the “being within us” who seems to experience everything that we sense, feel and think, we can never find the experiencer.  If we find something—like the sense of a center, a feeling of “me” in the head, heart or anything—this would be something that’s being “experienced.”  We still wouldn’t have found “who” is experiencing this.

These days many people are finding their way into “selflessness” or “centerlessness”—the state of being without there being a center or separate experiencer.  People realize this state through self-inquiry, using questions like “Who or what is experiencing this moment?” People may struggle for a few minutes thinking that the word “me” is the experiencer, but after a few affirmations, most people who engage in this type of inquiry can see that, yes, the idea of “me” or “I” is a particular idea that’s also being experienced.  Some people find it easy to discover selflessness using the perceptual doorways made famous by Douglas Harding’s “experiments.”  We point one of our fingers at our face and see that we can never see, never find, what our finger is pointing at.  The finger points at a space, a clearing, that is the centerless universe that circumscribes our reality.

No “non-self” either

Moreover, if we try to find the “absence of a center,” or a “self,” or “me,” we can’t find what’s not there.  So, contrary to what some people conclude, we can’t say that there is “no self,” or “no experiencer,” either.  We are left speechless, seeing that we neither exist nor don’t exist.

Sometimes people get nervous when they first encounter the realization that there is no findable “me” that sits in our head, or stands behind everything out there. People fear that the bottom of their lives might fall out.  But, if we look at what really happens, nothing changes at all.  Our fear is baseless because, while we can’t find ourselves, equally we can’t conclude that we don’t exist.  We have no basis at all for saying “Who we aren’t!”  If we look at things, we are here—you and I—and  everyone else is exactly where they are.  And yet we are all unfindable!

At this point you might be thinking, “I can’t think about ‘this’.”  And, yes, that’s precisely the case. We can’t think about “this.”  We are beyond dualistic concepts. We can’t even say, “we are beyond.”  Nothing whatsoever changes when we realize selflessness because a self was never there in the first place.  We might think that something goes away (the self) but it doesn’t.  There is nothing to disappear!

Liberated in the here-and-now

This realization is wonderful because it creates a sense of open, unbounded, freedom that’s completely fused with the infinitely complex mandala of our unique, empirical existence.  This realization allows us to be totally free in the same moment that we are, effectively, trapped in the particulars of our moment-by-moment experience.  Think about it, in this moment, nothing can be different.  The thought we are thinking displaces every other thought, if we are inhaling we can’t be exhaling.  The word you are reading right now can’t be another word, because this is the one that’s here.  Your body can’t be in a different location in this very moment, because it is where it is.  Every square centimeter of our life-world is filled to the limits with a panoramic display of colors, shapes, sensations and thought-forms.  We are engulfed in a seamless and totalizing sea of sensations and cognition that has no ruptures or interruptions.

If you’re like me, your capacity for resting in the ground of being is highly conditioned. The external circumstances and state of my body-mind need to be “just right” if I’m to have any chance of resting in awareness.  Even when things are just right, I can still be distracted by my “important” projects or necessary interests, like thinking that I really need to know the current updates in world news.  It takes just a small discomfort to wish that “things were different.”  Frustrations, anxieties, fears, annoyances, boredoms, and vulnerabilities abound.

Gradual evolution

The path for many people is gradual.  Moments of selfless awareness arise within the larger context of our life—all the events that happen from our birth, initial awakening, on into death and beyond.  The first recognition of pure, primordial awareness may occur as a child, or the serene setting of a contemplative dialogue with a nondual master, after years of meditation practice, while taking in a sunset, or in dokusan with a Zen roshi.  Or, perhaps we are introduced to the nature of mind by watching a YouTube video or informally in a café when a friend who knows this space shares the unfindable “this.”  Sometimes the first recognition happens spontaneously without any obvious precondition.  One day, everything drops away and we find ourselves in a space that’s like the open sky: beyond all concepts and feelings.  Or, perhaps this realization creeps up on us, and we can’t say exactly when we first become aware of the fact that we can’t find ourselves.

Having tasted the goal, the path consists of incrementally expanding and deepening our capacity to abide more continuously and reliably in selfless awareness as we engage the full range of experiences that are delivered to us by our karmically conditioned body-mind.  The scope for integrating what’s possible within the extremes of nirvana and samsara are enormous. Perhaps it has no limit.

Universal awakening: limitless integration

In Mahayana Buddhism the scope for our evolution is said to be inconceivably vast.  Quantum physics leads to the conclusion: “If it can happen, it will.”  Mahayana takes this further saying, “Everything can happen, and already is.”

The scope for deepening and expanding the embodied realization of selflessness is limitless.  According to the Mahayana, there is no conceivable event or experience that can disturb the vast, open-minded equanimity of a buddha. For a buddha, violent emotional invasions are received as whispered teachings of “perfect wisdom.”  Mental energies that would otherwise be experienced as psychological anguish and torment auto-liberate into a continuous stream of meditative quietude.  Physical pain is instantly and continuously transmuted by buddhamind into super-sensory pleasure.  For buddhas, energy in any form is the currency of bliss—exchangeable like dollars and euros for whatever we wish.  They live continuously in a “heaven on earth.”

One of my teachers, Lama Thubten Yeshe, often used the example of atomic power.  Awakened beings radiate a fusion-energy field.  They live in a matrix, a holographic mandala, that penetrates other people’s psyche and transforms any environment they inhabit.  The realization of buddhas is contagious, like a chain reaction.  Lama Yeshe embodied this capacity himself.  In the space of one or two minutes he would do a complete make-over of people’s limited conception of themselves.  They would arrive at his doorstep feeling very miserable about themselves, and leave a few minutes later with a life-changing experience of their spiritual potential.

Even though we are just scratching the surface of these buddha-like capacities, it’s inspiring to see that we have everything that’s needed to follow the same path to universal awakening (mahabodhi).  We are aware, and more over, we can see that we can be free in the moment without anything needing to change at all.

Pure perception

Within the vision of universal awakening, a gap between where we are now and the irreversible liberation of all mind-streams, is creatively and lovingly bridged by visioning the ideal spaces within which people can wake up and be constantly suffused and infused with the nectar of selfless awareness.  This is called “pure perception.”

“Pure perception” arises naturally when we see that there is no end to the dimensions and realities that can be touched and transformed by the liberating field of selfless awareness.  Ultimately, there is no other work to do.  We learn to how to think, feel and live at the result-level.  The type of visioning I’m talking about here comes to us effortlessly as we tune into precisely what people need in the moment in order to abide in the primordial state.

As the Buddha says in the Prajnaparamita Sutra:

Bodhisattvas are ceaselessly inspired by the conviction that the infinitely diverse structures of relativity, far from being some dangerous disease, are actually a healing medicine. Why?  Because in their intrinsically selfless nature, interdependent structures perfectly express the mystery and transmit the spiritual energy of universal companionship.  Not just awakened sages but all structures of relativity are dwellers in the boundlessness which constitutes all-embracing love, selfless compassion, sympathetic joy and blissful equanimity.

The wonderful thing about “pure perception” is that we can taste it now.  By definition, this is the nature of pure perception.  Pure perception is never something that happens in the future.  The idea that “pure perception” can only happen in the future, degrades the very quality of this experience itself.  In pure perception we bring an exalted appreciation to our experience of the world, including our own physical form.  We see the intrinsic harmony within and between all phenomena.  We experience the seamless, unimpeded flow of everything that arises and dissolves within the reality-sphere that is the mandala of our own existence.  Nothing is out of place; everything gives unique expression to an infinite network of conditions that are implicated in every manifestation from the most miniscule to the most cosmic, from the most insignificant to the most magnificent.   Everything is revealed as an expression of the unfindable vastness.

Copyright © Peter Fenner, 2012


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 ( is taught in North America, Australia, and Europe, as well as the Natural Awakening Training, ( 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:

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About Peter

Peter Fenner, PH.D. is spiritual teacher and a leader in the adaption and transmission of Asian nondual wisdom worldwide. He offers training programs and individual coaching and meditation entrainment sessions over the phone. Pioneer in the development of nondual therapy and creator of the Radiant Mind Course® and Natural Awakening: Advanced Nondual Training:, he 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 our post-modern culture.
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