Perception Happens

by Ken McLeod

No origin, nothing there: that’s just how it is.
Perception doesn’t arise or vanish.
When you make it more than that,
It’s like making form out of what is formless:
You lose touch with what is natural. How reactive you become!
—Verse 3.2

Perception HappensThere is something wonderfully tenacious about the human proclivity to name
an experience and then make an object out of the name. An academic word
for this tendency is reification, but the proclivity has been known since ancient
times. The opening lines of the Tao Te Ching point out how this propensity is
problematic in the context of spiritual practice:

A way that becomes the way is not the way.

A name that becomes the name is not the name.

When we are present, deeply present, in what we experience, it is turtles all the way down. Experience is groundless. When we look into that fathomless depth, we often recoil with fear. We feel as if we are jumping off a cliff into a bottomless abyss. Yet, there is nothing to fear. Because there is no bottom, there is no end to our fall. It is turtles all the way down and we can fall forever.

Again, when we are deeply present, there is at the same time a nothing-there quality. The nothing-there quality can be likened to the space in a room. Yet, even though we say, “There is nothing there,” we are still aware. We know, but we cannot put any words to this knowing. The knowing can be likened to the light in a room. We cannot say where the light comes from or what it is made of, any more than we can say where the space comes from or what it is made of. Beginning and end have no meaning when applied to the space and the light. They are just there, and that is how it is.

In that empty knowing, perception happens. Jigmé Lingpa writes Perception doesn’t arise or vanish. He is not saying that there is no perception. There is, but it does not start or stop. It is just there and then not there, whether perception is of a thought, a feeling or a sensation.

It is a very different way of experiencing our lives. Nevertheless, we find that we can function, though not exactly as before. We now know that the content of experience is not solid, ultimate or determined. Thoughts, feelings and sensations just come and go. It seems that they come from nowhere go nowhere, and they do not have the same hold on us as they did before. In particular, we come to know that we do not have to react to them.

Nevertheless, many of us find it difficult to relate to a way of experiencing life in which everything is simultaneously so vivid and so ephemeral. A part of us grasps for something to hold on to, an anchor, even if all we do is make this experience something special, give it a name and make it into some thing. Then we at least have a direction, if not a goal, by which to orient ourselves.

Now we enter a carrot-and-donkey situation. We take a step toward the carrot and that movement starts us on a path. We take more steps, but the carrot is somehow still out of reach. We keep taking steps. We build up strength, stamina and abilities; we learn methods and skills, but the carrot is still in front of us, and we seem to be no nearer than when we started. Sometimes we think that if we just understood the goal better, if we just understood this concept that we ourselves have made up, we would be able to reach our goal. The more we try to understand it, however, the more we tie ourselves up in concepts. Frustrated, confused and exhausted, we completely lose touch with what is natural. We become more and more desperate and more and more reactive.

It is hard to let go of words and concepts. It is hard to let go of ideas. When we consciously try to let go of an idea, it imprisons us. For example, I might say to you, “Don’t think of an elephant.” Now, how do you get rid of the elephant?
In this context, then, how do we practice an outlook in which there is nothing to hold on to without being trapped by our own words and ideas?

It all comes down to this: as soon as I recognize that I am engaged in thinking, I have already returned. Now all I need to do is rest right there. Some people find that pausing for a breath helps to break the momentum of the train of thinking. Others find that focusing on the breath is more of an interruption. The key point is just to recognize and rest.

In the same way, as soon as I recognize that I am explaining or describing to myself what I am experiencing, I rest.

When I become aware that I am hoping, fearing or dreading, I return and rest.

If I think that I see, understand, feel or know something, I return and rest.

Whenever I notice that I am bored, elated, depressed or flooded with feelings of well-being, I return and rest.

And if I find that I am wondering about where all this is going, I return and rest.

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Ken McLeod is a teacher, translator and author who has devoted his live to penetrating and elucidating the mysteries of Tibetan Buddhism. In 1990, he established Unfettered Mind, a non-profit organization that provides a place for those whose path lies outside established intuitions and traditions. A full archive of McLeod’s teaching in both written and audio formats is freely accessible on the Unfettered Mind website at

From A Trackless Path, by Ken McLeod. This work is a contemporary translation of a poem by the respected 18th century Dzogchen Tibetan mystic Jigmé Lingpa.