An interview of Peter Fenner by Leo Drioli and Enza Vita from InnerSelf
You spent 9 years as a Buddhist monk, how was that and why did you decide to become a lay teacher?
I became a monk when I was 26 because I needed the security of an ethical commitment. Within Buddhism it is generally thought that one can reach a state of freedom (nirvana) more quickly if you are a monk or a nun. The idea is that you create more positive karma, and potentially more negative karma too, if you are ordained. My adolescence, until around 23 years of age, was very confusing and quite experimental. I felt a need to charge up my positive karma and I didn’t want to waste time. Becoming a monk was an imperative for me. The first years were very helpful and creative. I developed some confidence in my path and spiritual practice. At the same time I was also doing my Ph.D. After about 5 years my ordination seemed to become stale. Even though I kept my vows I felt like a clandestine monk. Many people didn’t know I was a celibate monk. When I started teaching philosophy at the university I kept my private life more hidden. After 9 years as a monk I gave back my ordination to the Tibetan abbot who ordained me.
Have you always been a spiritual seeker? And what made you that?
Yes, I first felt something different was living inside me when I was 4 or 5. I was quite reflective at that age and have always been since. There was no specific experience that made me become like that. I had spiritual experiences when I was around 7 and 8. Spiritual seeking, per se! I would say it began around 14 years when I avidly read the Christian mystics.
You teach two main courses, Radiant Mind Course and Natural Awakening Training. How did these trainings develop and what can people attending expect to receive from them?
I’ve been a teacher in some capacity since I was 25, beginning as a tutor in Asian philosophy. I didn’t decide to become a lay teacher. I started teaching experientially, first in Australia and then overseas, because I felt I had something to offer that was deeper than a merely intellectual grasp of Asian philosophy. I wanted to share the transformative potential of Buddhism. In 1984 I started offering workshops that explored therapeutic applications of Buddhist wisdom. Around 2000 people started asking me if I could create a program that would support their spiritual development in between the bi-annual workshops I offered in the USA and Europe. In response to these requests, I created the 9 month Radiant Mind Course. About 5 years ago several people who had completed the Radiant Mind Course ask if I could create another program that would teach them how to offer the same style of transmission that I have developed. Shortly after, I created the 10 month Natural Awakening Training which is a more advanced course for therapists, coaches, and teachers.
Both the Radiant Mind Course and the Natural Awakening Training come from the same Mahayana lineage going back to the Perfect Wisdom or Prajnaparamita tradition. The foundations are identical. The differences are that Radiant Mind is for the direct benefit of the people participating in the course. It supports people in integrating nondual awareness into their daily lives. They join a great learning community, learn how to be more spacious, and discover how to rest in awareness, at workshops, at home, and with others. Participants work together throughout the course by doing nondual meditation in person and over the phone. The Advanced Training is more like a professional training. It trains people in how to offer the nondual dimension to other people in a variety of settings. I lift the curtain and show people how to facilitate nondual work. People can then bring this into their professional as well as personal lives.
What is the difference between your approach and traditional nondual teachings such as Advaita in Hinduism and Dzogchen in Buddhism?
My approach has been shaped by my immersion in different nondual traditions in Mahayana Buddhism and Hinduism and a need to really taste the reality that these traditions talk about. I wasn’t concerned about the words they used such as selflessness and pure awareness. I was concerned with discovering this reality for myself. Nonduality is the cornerstone and foundation for everything we do in Radiant Mind. Ideally we do nothing more, and nothing less, than what is needed to abide in nondual awareness. This is the basic principle. My own approach works at the “results level.” That means we discover (or rediscover) pure awareness. When we are here, we see what we have done to arrive in this place. We have engaged in quiet, respectful dialogue, and looked for the self, awareness, and suffering with the wisdom eye of nondual inquiry, and found ourselves unable to locate them. We then rest in the state of profound yet potent tranquility, deep inside and within beautiful relationships with others. In order to abide in Radiant Mind we also need to take care of our lives at the conditioned level. If we totally ignore the needs of our body, our material circumstances and our relationship responsibilities, we create a mass of confusion and level of self-preoccupation that, at some point, makes it impossible to rest in the carefree space of pure awareness. Radiant Mind lays out some simple principles and guideposts for living our lives so that the connection with the nondual becomes easier and more automatic.
What is it that informs and inspires the nondual approach to awakening?
The nondual approach is inspired by the direct experience that we don’t need to do any more work to be free. When we see how simple it is to be here, no effort is needed. We see clearly that suffering isn’t possible here. The words “suffering,” “discomfort,” “agony,” and “torment” no longer hold meaning. The experiences we have struggled to avoid can’t happen when we are no longer looking for things to be different. In fact, in this space we can’t find any suffering. Nothing is happening that we want to displace.
What is the aim of nondual teaching?
Nondual teachings present the possibility of going beyond suffering without needing to change the conditions of our life. The nondual perspective shows how we can be free with things “just as they are.” Most psychological systems and spiritual paths offer people conditional forms of freedom. We need to change our inner and outer worlds in order to be free. Actually, we try to change reality so that it conforms to our preferences. Any sense of freedom that arises is conditional and very fragile. Nondual awareness offers us the possibility of being completely free while being conditioned within our body-mind and life’s circumstances.
In Radiant Mind you talk about being “complete” and being “incomplete.” Can you describe the difference between the two?
We are complete when there is no impulse to change what is happening in the moment, or any need to maintain the state we are in. We are also complete in the sense that there is nowhere further to go. We are no longer on a path, seeking. In my work I also talk about being complete in our actions in the world. By this I mean that we learn to function in a way that we don’t leave traces behind us. We do what is here to be done, and don’t do what doesn’t need doing. This way we don’t need to process the past. Our way of being is clean and tidy. We don’t produce feelings of guilt and resentment. We don’t need to go back and fix things up because we have been careless or lazy. We do what needs to be done in order to be open to the present moment, rather than being thrown, without any control, into replaying the past, or excessively processing the future.
You teach how to hold a conversation about “nothing” as part of “deconstructing fixations.” This may sound pointless to many people but can you explain why and how to talk about “nothing” … and can you do it right now?
Of course we can do that right now. I simply start by talking about “this” and clarify that when I say “this” I’m not talking about the visual sensations taken in by your eyes, any ambient sounds, anything you are sensing in your body, or what you may be thinking in this moment. The “this” I am talking about isn’t a thing. It’s not an object of thought. I can’t think about “it” because there is nothing to thinking about. I can’t talk about “it” because there is nothing to talk about! That’s what I’m talking about! I am talking but there is no subject, nothing I am talking about. This is contentless communication. I do this when I’m teaching as a way of opening into the unconditioned dimensions. I use words to go beyond the mind.
For many people, our natural state is unrealized and a complete mystery … totally oblivious to its reality, they suffer through their lives in ignorance … can the Radiant Mind teachings make a difference in their lives?
I wouldn’t put people in a box thinking that they are unrealized, because this can make our shared, primordial state into something solid. We think that some people are realized and that others are not. I don’t see myself as being different from other people. I don’t have more insight than others. I wouldn’t say that people who haven’t recognized “this” are living in ignorance. It’s too heavy a label. But I do acknowledge that some people recognize the unconditioned dimension, and others haven’t yet seen this. The Radiant Mind teachings show people the unconditioned dimension, the ground of being, as it were. The course helps people to integrate this recognition into their lives so they can rest more consistently in the space of imperturbable awareness.
In your book Radiant Mind you say that “conventional psycho-spiritual paths assume that the release of intense emotions involves work and effort, deep cognitive insight, cathartic release, or some combination of these. Such paths are built on the principles of discipline and transformation: we change our behavior, purify our minds, and transform our perceptions”. Do these paths have a place for those seeking complete liberation?
Nothing is needed to be free, but often it’s not simple to be that “no thing” – to recognize and rest in the ground of being. We feel we need to change our conditioning and get rid of memories from the past, bad habits or dysfunctional patterns we’ve inherited from our parents. It’s easy to think that we are impure and need to go through a process of mental and emotional cleansing before we can recognize pure awareness. If we can’t see in the moment that awareness is by its nature pure, we might need to do some type of work in order to get here. But once we are here we see that “this” is “acausal.” It isn’t a product of anything, any type of process of practice. We see, as is often pointed out in Zen, that we didn’t need to do what we thought we needed to do, but we wouldn’t have seen this without doing what we didn’t need to do.
What is the best thing one can do to help someone who is locked into a mind state that’s causing them harm … I have a friend that recently tried to kill himself. He’d been on his chosen path for many years but found himself in a very dark place, and couldn’t see any other way out.
The best thing we can ever do is abide in our natural state as open awareness, available and receiving everything and everyone exactly as they are. From here we see that other people are parts of our self. It’s possible that your friend’s behavior threatened your own integrity, your own need to be helpful, and fundamentally your need for self-preservation. If we feel threatened we contract, maybe into our minds or our explanations, and we can’t be fully open to others. The opportunity is to deepen the presencing of awareness to the point that we can receive and creatively embrace everyone, beyond any need for personal protection, because we are awareness itself, which can’t be hurt or harmed. We may not be there, but it is great to see the scope ahead for our development.
What are the main obstacles to experiencing unconditional awareness, our true nature?
There are no obstacles to presencing our true nature as unconditioned awareness because nothing can get in the way of “this.” Primordial awareness isn’t a phenomenon, it’s not a belief system, it’s not a particular feeling, and it’s not an experience, as such. Nothing can obscure “this” because there is nothing to be obscured. However, it’s also easy not to recognize the unconditioned dimension of reality because it is invisible; it’s not a sensory or mental reality. It goes beyond all dualistic notions, including labels of “being” and “not being.” It is paradoxical. It’s completely different from our conditioned experience which changes moment to moment. On the other hand, it’s inseparable from each distinct moment because it doesn’t exist apart from everything else.
What is your definition of enlightenment and what is it that gets enlightened?
I rarely use the word enlightenment because it carries a lot of fanciful projections for some people. I prefer words like our ultimate state, centerless awareness, natural freedom, or the ground of being. Once people know what these words refer to we can talk about this state as “just this,” or “this.” Then things are really simply. This is how Buddhism often talks about enlightenment, as “just this.” All of these terms refer to the state in which there is no suffering of any kind. In this state suffering simply isn’t possible. We have no reference for this experience. What is more radical is that we can’t even say what isn’t happening. In this state we’re unconditionally free because we don’t need anything to change or stay the same. This can sound dull if people haven’t tasted it firsthand. But in reality, it’s a state that’s highly potent. It can change in its expression from the deepest stillness to dynamic joyful interchange in a few seconds. In this space we are free because nothing needs to change in order to be at this point where we are beyond dualistic notions of better and worse. As to how achieve this state, on the one hand no one does because there is no experiencer. But this is the same for all experience. If we look for the experiencer we can’t find one. I can’t find the person answering this question. And I’m sure if you look for who is reading these words right now, you won’t find the being who’s experiencing this. You can’t say where the impressions of the words you are reading are being received. Still, there is a me writing this, in Seattle at the moment, and there is a you reading this.
What would you say is the most important requirement for someone to practice nonduality? In particular, does one need to be of any particular faith or spiritual mindset?
There is no single most important requirement to practice nonduality. Nothing needs to happen before we arrive here, in nondual awareness. There is no practice actually. There is nothing more to do because nothing is missing. However, we create a predisposition to resting here, in nondual awareness, whenever there is an opportunity, such as there is right now. This recognition of our constant base state as awareness is essential. The deepening and integration of this realization takes time. It takes whatever time it takes. We can’t rush the process. If we try to speed up the process it only creates resistance and delay. In order to be here in this way we need to live our lives so that these types of opportunities come to the foreground. If we are stressed-out, consistently overwhelmed, in constant pain or emotional turmoil, or hold very rigid beliefs, then it’s difficult to look at the nature of awareness itself. We are wrapped up in our experience and can’t see beyond them into the boundless space of the mind itself. Immersion in the field, perhaps through being part of an informal, nondual community, can also be a great asset.
How would you introduce these teachings to someone who may be relatively new to spirituality?
Mainly through the idea of taking a break from our usual, pressured way of living life. We always have things to do, projects to complete, and responsibilities to assume and fulfill. We rarely give ourselves the opportunity to do nothing, to accomplish nothing for a given amount of time. We are all on a path of some sort and we are all looking to arrive at the end of the path, the place where no more work needs to be done. This includes giving our mind a break from needing to understand. I often open up a workshop by saying, “We could spend a lot of time on the path during this workshop – we will anyway, thinking there is something to do and something to understand. The other option is to be at the end right from the beginning. This way we spend more time being together in the free-form play of pure awareness. So let’s do that. I am sure we can do that for 5 minutes.” We do it for 5 minutes, and then it extends to 20 minutes, just like that. We get to spend a few days together enjoying the different manifestations of abiding in pure awareness. We enjoy moments of incredibly deep stillness where thoughts just dissolve in on themselves before they form, leaving us surfing the tip of huge samadhi wave of imperturbable serenity. We play at the edges of silence and we watch as stillness morphs into dynamic dialogues where we dance in the delightful paradoxes that emerge at the boundary between thought and the unconditioned.
Do you see, as some other teachers do, that this is an extraordinary time, a time when ordinary people are waking up?
It is quite wonderful how many people in the modern world, on all continents, are realizing how we all share the same basic ground of being as expressions of an awareness that goes beyond all divisions and borders – the personal, national, political and religious. Many more people are ready for these super simple pointing-out teachings that reveal the nature of consciousness itself. It is wonderful to come together with people all over the world on a teleconference calls or videoconference calls and share an identical space together, knowing that all boundaries and differences are somewhat incidental.
Have you discovered who or what you are?
The process of discovering who we are at the level of being a human living in time is a never-ending process. We might discover a little bit over the decades of our life, but I think we are infinitely complex. Each one of us is like a universe. If you are asking if I have discovered that I can’t find an “I” then yes, I come by that and rest in it from time to time. Isn’t that paradox delightful: I can’t find myself!
Is the realization constant and lasting? And if yes, what was it that turned it all around for you?
The realisation of being a centerless universe isn’t constant. It matures and deepens over time.
And if there’s one thing you would say to our readers today to assist them in seeking Truth, what would that be?
Just that it is extremely simple to be really satisfied. All we need to do is to connect with this moment – yes, this moment right now – and see that we don’t need anything more than what is happening right now. Whatever we think we will need in the future may or may not happen. But right now we don’t need it. We are complete. And, in fact, every moment takes care of itself, and us, in this way.