This sense of subjectivity is known as dag6. We believe dag is substantial, separate, and defined and can be maintained as continuous and permanent7. From this misconception, whatever we perceive is seen as having the potential to either substantiate dag, threaten dag, or be irrelevant to the security of dag. From this perspective arise attraction, aversion, and indifference. In fact, attraction, aversion, and indifference are simply the inevitable outcome of dualism. If we split emptiness and form and define ourselves as subject and everything else as object, then we are inevitably going to be attracted to that which appears to support dag, be averse to that which appears to undermine dag, and be indifferent to that which appears to have nothing to do with dag.
The three root misconceptions of attraction, aversion and indifference are often described as lust (or desire), hatred, and ignorance. The words lust and hatred are quite extreme, reminiscent of the seven deadly sins. The problem with using such colourful words is that we can misunderstand the scope of the root misconceptions.
Attraction encompasses the merest hint of preference right through to lustful compulsion. Aversion embraces slight irritation through to roiling, boiling, murderous hatred. Indifference includes the sense of not having the energy to bother right through to wilful determination to ignore what is in front of us. Also the emotive words ‘lust’ and ‘hatred’—having the flavour of ‘sin’ about them—suggest that these reactions are ‘naughty’ or ‘wicked’ and must be abandoned for that reason.
The process of samsara is actually rather subtle and the words ‘lust’, ‘hatred’ and ‘ignorance’ may cause us to miss the subtlety. The alternative words of ‘attraction’, ‘aversion’ and ‘indifference’ encompass even the slightest of feelings, judgments, expectations, and preconceptions we place upon naked experience. The strategies of attraction, aversion and indifference protect us from emptiness, so that we can live as much as possible in the sphere of form.
While our view remains dualistic, attraction, aversion or indifference arise from perception as night follows day. From these three arise responses that are coloured by the intention of attraction, aversion or indifference. In this way we turn the wheel of samsara and ingrain our belief in dag more and more deeply. Spiritual practice offers the opportunity to let go of dag and recognise the energy of attraction, aversion and indifference as being no different from the energy of kindness, clarity and awareness. We do not have to learn new ways to respond to what we perceive, we simply have to recognise the distortion we inflict on the natural energetic flow of our response. When we recognise the root cause of this distortion as addiction to form, we can relax. We can let go at the point of perception, and relax into the certainty that pristine perception naturally allows response to flow as kindness, clarity, awareness.
In Sutrayana we work at the level of response, adjusting our activity to purify ourselves and allowing perception to become empty. In Vajrayana non-duality is discovered through embracing the energy of attraction, aversion and indifference. Through dissolving the subject and object of emotions they self-manifest as the non-dual wisdoms. In Dzogchen there is simply direct perception, in which energy and activity of response are naturally and spontaneously congruent.
However, awareness of the distortion of perception and response, and engagement with methods to clarify their flow is dependent on emptiness. Without the experience of spaciousness as the ground of being, we do not have the opportunity of choice. Space allows us to discover awareness at the moment of potential engagement with experience, to realise the possibility of transformation at the moment of perception, or to be mindful of our activity when we respond.
Practice is the key that explodes the narrow confines of our ordinary experience. Practice liberates the fatalistic, deterministic view of karma as cause and effect.
Once karma is understood as self-originated and self-maintained, we can let go of the cause and refuse to support its maintenance. Through direct introduction to method by our Lama, we can derail karma and burn the diesel as passionate devotion8. We can turn around the causes that create samsara, and transform their energy into creating the causes of eternal satisfaction through the endless continuity of blissful now-moments.
6. dag (bDag): pronounced dug, means ‘soul’, ‘self’, or ‘self-existing unchanging identity’.
7. The notion of a self-existent self is often referred to as ‘ego’ in Buddhist writings available in the West. This can be confusing, as we may be familiar with ‘ego’ in the context of Freudian psychology. Ego has no Freudian implications in this context. Alternatively, readers may be familiar with atman / anatman: inherent self / lack of inherent self.
8. Passionate devotion is the emptiness and form of who we are as Vajrayana practitioners. Devotion is our passionate interest and involvement with the teacher and teachings – the way our devotion manifests. Devotion is also our capacity to be an empty vessel for the teachings, and to be open to hearing and understanding.