5 min read

The primordial state.

The primordial state.

While the Western scientific traditions consider the hard problem of consciousness to be how to explain the subjective experience of consciousness from material reality, the non-dual philosophical traditions of Mahamudra and Dzogchen flip that question on its head.

If the nature of mind is considered to be an integral part of the nature of reality, then how do we move from non-dual awareness into the perceived reality of the physical world as we experience it.

In Dzogchen, this fundamental ground of being has many names– the primordial state, the clear light nature of mind, pure awareness. In the Western traditions you'll often find this idealist view of consciousness posited as a foundational principle of reality as big 'C' Consciousness, compared to the little 'c' consciousness that we experience. I don't really like the Consciousness vs. consciousness labels because what we are talking about is so radically different from conscious experience as we know it that it just creates more projection and confusion.

I'm going to refer to the fundamental nature of non-dual awareness as the primordial state, since it's more agnostic with regard to a perceiving subject and has a timeless quality to it.

The primordial state is a vast, pure expanse of clear light. This primordial state can be described as being empty of essence (nothing to find, insubstantial), whose nature is unceasing energetic expression, and has the characteristic of responsiveness.

The primordial state is a vast, single sphere of pure potentiality in which there is no matter, no consciousness, nothing that comes into being. In this primordial state that is the clear light nature of mind, there is no separation or distinction between timeless awareness and the spacious field of the nature of reality. Pure awareness and the energetic expanse of space are non-dual (not two), they are inseparable.

This is the primordial state that is the nature of our own mind and the nature of reality. That primordial ground of being is always and forever a single sphere of undivided wholeness. It is unborn and unceasing. There is no space, no time, nor even a basis for space or time. Everything is empty, energetic expression of clear light.

Within this single pure expanse, we can describe three aspects of the nature of mind– an aware aspect (Tibetan: rig), a luminous aspect (Tib. sal), and an empty aspect (Tib. tong). In the primordial ground of being, these three aspects are ways to describe the state of undivided wholeness, like facets of a diamond. In the ground, the aware aspect and the luminous aspect are non-dual, and both are empty and insubstantial by nature.

The aware aspect, when reified and not recognized as being empty, becomes the ground of subjective experience. The luminous sal aspect, which is the energetic expression of the primordial state, then gets reified as the objective field (imagine holding a crystal sphere, and the side nearest you becomes the subject, and the side opposite you becomes the object, but in reality you're just holding a single sphere. That's a decent metaphor for this perceived separation).

Since in the primordial state these two are not separate, never have been and never will be, they co-exist conditionally, the sal-aspect shaping rig, and the rig aspect shaping the experience of the sal (put a red cloth under the crystal and it appears red, a yellow cloth and it appears yellow).

From this fundamental split, this zero to one moment, come a whole cascade of causal events which play out as the infinite play of dependent origination. From binary systems we know that moving from zero to one gives rise to infinite complexity, so too moving from non-dual to dualistic perception gives rise to infinite worlds of experience (zero does not mean nothing here, but no separation or distinction, whereas one represents emergence or differentiation).

In truth, the nature of mind and the nature of reality never deviate from the primordial state, they are the primordial state. There is only the primordial state, but the primordial state is beyond the confines of experience because it is obscured by the limits of dualistic perception and sensory experience.

The reality we experience is but the illusory play of dependent origination. There is no reality outside of our conscious experience (and if there was how could we ever know it?).

With the primordial state of the nature of the mind as our ground, we can now explain how consciousness fits into that understanding. This simple shift from a vast state of pure potentiality into a world where things appear to be separate and distinct and solid and real all happens because the awareness aspect of the nature of mind is not recognized as being empty itself. By perceiving a "ground" where there is no ground, consciousness is born from a state of confusion or non-recognition.

Consciousness is a perceived deviation from the primordial state. It is by its very nature conditioned, limited, and incomplete. Consciousness is inherently dualistic, conditioned by the varieties of its causal conditioning or what Buddhists call karma. The varieties of conscious experience can be understood by understanding that all conscious experience is shaped by its karmic lens. Each karmic lens has many modules to it, including the senses, cognitive biases, emotional layers, cultural layers, and more. Each of those modules combines to create a karmic lens and consciousness can only experience the world through a karmic lens.

There are general karmic lenses, like the standard human lens, a bat lens, a dog lens, an ant lens. But each of those has sub-modules that shape it in myriad ways, such that my Greg karmic lens is much different than yours, even though we are both human.

From the dualistic perspective of self and other, mind and matter, reality can be explained and understood in an infinite variety of ways. And it has been through the centuries. Each religious tradition offers a way of explaining and making sense of the world and our place in it. Each scientific discovery is an attempt to explain how and why things are the way they are.

Since consciousness is only experienced through these lenses of dualistic perception, any explanation about the nature of reality or the nature of the mind can only be partial and incomplete. Explanations can approach the truth, but the true nature of the primordial state is beyond expression or imagination. It is beyond conception, beyond mind.

There is something to learn in there and be humbled by. Many traditions, both religious and scientific, would benefit from this understanding. Certainly less people would die needlessly.

But knowing that an explanation is partial and incomplete, we can also continue our search for good explanations, knowing that the landscape and terrain for which to explore is much more vast and profound that we initially may have conceived.

With this new understanding or view of the nature of mind and reality, we might approach understanding the nature of reality and our place in it as conscious beings with much more harmony and balance.

Based on this view that pure awareness is an integral part of the nature of reality, we can now consider how other perspectives might fit into this. Over the next few weeks I'll continue to explore different views and we can see how this view can inform or augment other perspectives. Maybe it will be helpful, maybe not.

I encourage you to sit with this for a bit. Chew it over, write down your own thoughts or impressions. Share your questions, your insights, and your arguments. I'm looking forward to continue exploring this rich landscape with you.

Some questions I am contemplating:
Is this the same or different from panpsychism, idealism, or monism?
How do these ideas of a karmic lens shape our experience of reality?
How does consciousness give rise to matter based on this view?
How can we experience this primordial state?
How could this view inform complexity theory, quantum physics, and other scientific theories or are those in strict opposition to this view?