How will we recognise the bliss of Awakening when we have nothing to compare it to?

A student writes:

We’re encouraged to notice moments when our heart lifts, when we connect to bodhichitta, perhaps a beautiful sunset, a painting etc. To notice the moment, to cherish its significance, the dropping of all ideas, views and assumptions in the moment of connection, but not to grasp that experience. Then we yearn for Awakening, Enlightenment, to stabilise that experience when we’re told we will enjoy a permanent state of bliss. If that is the case, how would we know we are in permanent state of bliss when we have nothing else as a comparison?

Lama Shenpen responds:

It is a matter of realising the first Noble Truth.  We have to truly experience and know suffering for what it is.  When we can see and experience that fully and precisely, we simultaneously know its origin – the connection between avidya*, samskaras**, name and form, dualistic consciousness, senses, contact, feeling, grasping, thirsting, becoming, taking birth, old age sickness death lamentation and sorrow! 

When we know that whole thing as suffering and its origin we also know its cessation, the direction to go, the steps to take and the joy that emerges from that doesn’t belong to suffering – to the connected 12 links listed above.

It is not distorted by avidya and it is completely beyond any conceptual understanding we might have. It doesn’t belong to time and space and you would think that therefore we would know nothing about it, but that turns out to be completely untrue.

We are already so familiar with it but don’t recognise it and when we suddenly experience even if momentarily, we get excited and try to grasp it and so are immediately back in suffering – thinking the problem is that we lost something or in danger of losing something – when in fact all that has happened is we have misunderstood something and in a deep sense ‘forgotten’ something.

So, recognising the sense of uplift in the presence of a beautiful sunset for example, is a sign that we do know non-conceptual awareness, that we are intimately familiar with it but then we lose it, forget it, try to grasp it or have it in some way instead of simply opening to its unchanging nature, and letting it open us more and more.

The other thing that can happen is that we open to it so completely we feel it’s like death itself – it completely undermines our self-conceit, self-deception, self-importance – our sense of safety and control – so we might freak out and refuse to open up again at all – we even want to avoid anything that threatens the status quo as we see it.

This is the long answer to how we come to know that the happiness we are experiencing is permanent.  We know it because it doesn’t belong in the world of impermanence because we really understand what that world truly is – suffering.

It’s not a kind of intellectual understanding where we work out this is happiness because it’s not suffering, that its relative to suffering so you need suffering in order to know happiness, and yet we know it when we recognise our True Nature – the opposite of avidya – and that has nothing to do with the 12 links described above. It’s the 12 links described above that we gradually learn to recognise as what traps us in the skandhas* that are impermanent and not our True Nature.

It is a truly key question around which the whole of the Dharma revolves.

Lama Shenpen Hookham

*Avidya – (Skt) – often translated as ‘ignorance’. The fundamental state of not recognising our true nature, that keeps us in the state of confusion and grasping at the unreal as real. It is the cause of all suffering.

**Samskaras (Skt.) Formations – Conditioning – mental formations – conditioned/habitual tendencies

*Skandhas – (Skt) The 5 skandhas, of Form, Feelings, Perception, Conditioning (Mental Formations/Samskaras), Consciousness –  that make up what is not the True Self – English: Aggregate

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