This week, I speak with non-dual teacher and former Tibetan monk, Peter Fenner. Peter was a monk for nearly a decade before he disrobed, realizing that the Buddhist practices he was engaged in weren’t leading him to what he was looking for. He then looked to Western psychotherapeutic technologies, and in the process developed a non-dual teaching that relates in part to Madhyamika, Advaita Vedanta, and Western psychology.
He calls this approach Radiant Mind, and in this episode we speak with him about the various aspects of his teaching, from a type of deconstructive inquiry based on dialoguing with him, to the formless “practice” of natural meditation. Listen in to hear more about this type of “fruition or results” based spiritual path.
Vince: Hello Buddhist geeks. This is Vince Horn. And I’m here today, in the studio, with a special guest: Peter Fenner. Thank you, Peter, for joining us.
Peter: Hi Vince. It’s great to have this time with you.
Vince: Thank you. And just a little bit of background for listeners out there who might not be aware of your work. You are the author of several books, including Radiant Mind, Reasoning into Reality, and The Edge of Certainty. As I understand it, your work has a lot to do with exploring how to take traditional Buddhist non-dual wisdom, and find a way to present it in a way that’s really effective for Western peoples. Is that true?
Peter: Yes, well I hope so.
Peter: Because that’s what I’ve been working on for a little over thirty years. It’s, firstly, immersing myself in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, quite deeply. Tibetan, Mahayana Buddhism. Being engaged and involved with that, within it’s own framework for about 15 years. And then a change happened, and I moved away from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, and began teaching in my own right. Integrating Western psychology, and experimenting with how best to present Buddhist non-dual wisdom for Westerners. So that it was easy to take it in. So that they could do it in the context of their everyday life.
Vince: Fantastic. So, we’re going to, hopefully, get to cover, in more depth, every piece of what you just said. But I wanted to start where all good stories start, which is, hopefully, at the beginning.
Vince: Not too far back. Not before the Big Bang, or anything, but start with your time as a Buddhist monk. You are actually a traditionally trained Buddhist monk. And I wanted to hear a bit about your experience with that.
Peter: The story is that I was studying about Western philosophy at a University in Australia. And I had the good fortune to encounter Eastern philosophy. At a time when I was really struggling, myself, in my young twenties. And looking for something that would really help me to work with my own suffering. The confusion that I found myself in. So, a stepping stone was Advaita Vedanta at University, but that led my quite quickly into Tibetan Buddhism, and I had the good fortune to meet Lama Thubten Yeshe, the first Tibetan Lama to visit Australia, in 1974. And then it really all came together. I just knew that this was where I had to direct my attention. And so, then I really pursued both the philosophical study of Tibetan Buddhism and the practice. And yes, in 1978 I was ordained as a monk in India, and kept that ordination while I was doing my PhD. and through the first years of my teaching Eastern philosophy in a University environment.
Vince: And how long did you spend as a monastic?
Peter: Nine years.
Vince: And were you spending that time primarily in Australia?
Peter: Mainly in Australia. Some time in India, US, and Nepal, but primarily in Australia.
Vince: Were you mostly studying with the original teacher you encountered? Or were you studying with different teachers?
Peter: I was mainly studying with a Tibetan Geshe. Geshe Thubten Lodan, who was the resident Geshe at Chenrezig Institute, just north of Brisbane, in Queensland, Australia. So he was my primary teacher of the Buddhist philosophy. But my root guru was clearly Lama Thubten Yeshe. He’s the master who really gave me the direction for what I’ve done since first meeting him, right up until this point.
Vince: I’m guessing what you found during that period was probably very important and very influential in your life. At the same time, you eventually disrobed and started teaching in your own right, like you said. And the emphasis in your teaching took a slightly different turn. And I’d be interested in hearing what it is that happened to lead in that new direction.
Peter: I’m still not sure what really happened. I was pursuing my practices, and finding that they weren’t giving me the result that I was looking for. So I found myself in an existential crisis, effectively. Finding that I was practicing, but really not making any significant progress, in terms of recovering basic sanity, being able to live with myself in a very comfortable and accepting way. So, that led me to explore different avenues besides Tibetan Buddhism, particularly to explore different innovations in Western psychotherapy. And that quite quickly took me out of Buddhism. And Buddhism became untenable for me, at least in that traditional context, so yes I disrobed. Then really in a way stepped into nothing because I was leaving behind the structures that has supported me in a very powerful and effective way for about 5 or 6 years but then seem to lose their attraction in terms of supporting me.
Vince: And what did you find going into the… some of the psychotherapeutic technique or something like that things that you delved into actually helped with regards to what your primary aim was.
Peter: Yes certainly. At the first program I accounted after disrobing was what was Est, what is now a landmark forum and that was stunning, really opened my eyes because what I saw happening in that environment was the presentation of the shunyavada of the emptiness tradition, in a Western context and more than that to the people who were coming off the street. So I saw something happening and I thought was impossible that I have been taught was impossible, namely, the presentation, of the very profound teachings on emptiness or openness in Mahayana Buddhism to people who didn’t have 10, 20, 30 years of training in other Buddhist practices.
Vince: I’m interested in hearing what happened in between disrobing and then starting to teach whether some significant shifts outside of just… the encountering.
Peter: The first program that I offered to the public now about 23 years ago was Psycho-therapeutic-adaptations of Buddhist psychology. So that was great because I really had no experience in teaching to professional public. And the first of was to teach to psychologists, medical professionals and it was great. And i found it worked really well, I was able to present Buddhist teachings on emptiness and really open it up in a way that people could have a direct taste of the unconditional dimension, nature of mind, so…
Vince: Yeah that seems like a primary thing that you point to in your work.
Peter: What I point to in my work, is this. When I say this, I am pointing to this at both the conditioned level, how we are in our bodied existence for example, sitting here together in this studio but also pointing to a dimension, which goes beyond the finite, which goes beyond the conditioned reality. So pointing to this as pure awareness we could say or in the Zen tradition is no mind or emptiness, different words are used in different traditions but for me they’re all pointing to same this timeless, unconditioned reality.
Vince: And I had a chance to go to one of your events several months ago. And the first thing you did is to engage the audience by asking “What is awareness?”, and you are asking people to give their answers and then you are kind of engaging in a dialogue about awareness and continuing to ask further questions. I want to know if you could say a little bit about that method of teaching, what that’s about?
Peter: Well, what I find dialogue very effective and silence in dialogue and weaving of those together to be a very powerful way for moving beyond just being identified with what’s happening at the feeling, thinking sensory level and move into present scene what’s often called the nondual. So yes, I have in a way adapted the type of deconstructive enquiry that you get in the Madhyamika tradition of Mahayana Buddhism and I have tried to adapt that so it can work in a conversational setting. So, in the Madhyamika the enquiry is driven by what’s called “unfindability analysis,” which means that when we look for something that particularly our souls but that could be other things we can’t find a substantial reality behind the word behind the concept. So I have adapted that so we can use unfindability enquiry and we can employ it in conversational context .
Vince: And what do you find people discover in that process?
Peter: Well in a way they discover no-thing or no-thingness, they discover emptiness, they discover something that we can’t think about. They discover something that has no identifying characteristics we can’t say even that had “exists or doesn’t exists” so we encounter, lets say, the mystery of being. But, without any need to try to understand it. So we go beyond the need to know, we go beyond the need to be doing and then we engage with we enter this reality right now in a way that we are complete nothing more needs to happen we don’t need to know anything more
Vince: Does that stick for people often?
Peter: Then it comes and goes, so in the context of a cost, people may presence the non-duals. Presence pure awareness. Ten or fifteen minutes. Both when they’re open and engaged with other people and also in a contemplative mode or contemplative mood. Then, people work at embodying the experience. Bringing it into their daily life.
Vince: So I understand the deconstructive dialogue is just one component of how you work with people, and what they’d be doing with you…
Peter: It’s a major component, the work that we do in a workshop setting. The dialogues that people have with me. But, in a nine-month course, they also do a lot of work with each other. So they’re working at developing the skills in supporting each other. In seeing through the sense of being an individual, a discrete person. And seeing through, into this selflessness, of themselves. So people support each other, in that way.
Vince: Gotcha. In your program, do you do any interior, formal meditation, the way that we think about it typically?
Peter: No. The meditation falls out of the process. Natural meditation emerges when people find that there’s nothing more that they have to think about. So, when the energy of trying to understand, or trying to get somewhere. Trying to pursue a goal. When that energy dissipates, then people enter into a state of natural contemplation. That can either be very interiorized, and very deep and very blissful, or in other circumstances it can be aware, open and connected with other people.
Vince: Wow, that’s really interesting. That you don’t have any more formal sitting practices, given your background.
Peter: I invite people to do just sitting, but often I introduce it in a way that people discover that they’re already meditating. So it’s a very flexible practice in the way that I introduce it. In just sitting, we simply sit and, in a sense, the practice is complete. As soon as we’re sitting because we’re not practicing by looking for some reference point in terms of what we should or shouldn’t be doing. So the practice consists of doing whatever we’re doing. We can’t not be doing what we’re doing, so the practice is always complete.
Vince: Interesting. And do you find, with an emphasis on that, that you are able to sidestep or… I’m not sure of the wording, but there are some obstacles to traditional practices that have stronger goals or stronger techniques.
Peter: Well, I think the primary thing in my approach is that we’re not looking for obstacles. If you look for obstacles, they’re there. They arise. It’s very easy to create. That something is an obstacle. Something is in the way of me being in that state of real completion in the moment. So we work at what sometimes is called the fruition or the result level, meaning that we try to be in that state of feeling complete, being at the end of the path. Being at that point where there’s nowhere further to go. There’s no going backwards, there’s no going forwards. So, in a way, the work introduces that possibility and invites people just to be in that way.
Vince: This is something that I always wonder when I think about that kind of approach, because my own personal experience has been almost the opposite way in. And yet, I feel like they’re banging my head against the wall enough. I started to relax. But I’m wondering, do you ever find people running into the issue of feeling that they’re complete, but in some ways, fooling themselves? Or, in some ways, a slight delusion about what that means?
Peter: It depends upon how seriously you take your thinking. You can think, “this is an illusion. I’m not really at that place of fulfillment. I’m not presencing the non-dual.” If you take that thought seriously, then you’re not in that place, because you’re still thinking dualistically. In terms of being on a path and arriving at a goal. Being there and not being there. But it’s possible for that thought just to move through awareness, and it just moves and flows through without identification, without taking it seriously. So, in that case, anything can arise, without producing any disturbance. Because if we’re presencing pure awareness, we can feel, we can see that there’s nothing that can be disturbed. Awareness that self can’t be disturbed by anything. Which is why it’s often described as being in-perturb-able, indestructible.
Vince: That sounds like it still takes some level of sincerity to not be fooled, in particular, by thoughts. It sounds like there’s still a sense of sincerity, or a sense of remembering, or coming back, and a discipline of some sort. But it sounds like a discipline that’s not really trying to get somewhere. Is that an accurate way of talking about things?
Peter: I wouldn’t describe it like that, because nothing is needed. So in a way again that’s the invitation to be in the space in which we don’t need anything. That we could just be with this, be with whatever is, exactly as it is, without needing things to be different. So there’s no discipline involved in that because that would be a doing. But there is I guess a sense of just becoming more and more familiar with this space and then just tasting it and acknowledging that yes when we’re in this space there is nothing more that we need to do. So then a deep resting just naturally occurs.
Vince: Sounds nice. I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit more about the kind of innovations that you’ve stumbled across and that you’ve put into practice and how that relates to Western people in particular.
Peter: I think one of the things I’ve done is to take people’s aspirations and make them real. So as Buddhists we have a lot of aspirations and its very easy to think that, “Ah yes emptiness, that’s really great, or having a taste of nirvana, or touching the nature of mind. That’s really great but really it’s beyond me. Yes, they are great masters who can abide in those states but no, for me its really going to require a lot of practice, many many years and then maybe I’ll have a glimpse.”
So I feel that in a way we shortchange ourselves through thinking in that way and that it’s much, much simpler than we often believe. And so part of the process in a way is going beyond those type of fixed beliefs and saying okay. So yes, the teachings are telling me that I can’t know reality as such, that I can’t know pure consciousness that’s beyond the mind. Okay. I can’t know it so I will let go of that need to know. It’s in a way we don’t believe that we cannot know the nature of consciousness itself. We keep telling ourselves that we can know because we’ve been conditioned that, theoretically at least, we can know everything, there’s nothing beyond the reach of the mind. And so it just takes time and touching the mind itself and realizing that there’s no object of knowledge here, there’s nothing to know. That’s why we can’t know the nature of mind, it has no structure. It’s content-less. So if something is content-less we have no subject matter. There’s nothing to see, nothing to taste, nothing to know. So that, that becomes self evident when we confront that 20, 50, 100 times. And then in someway then we become convinced.
Vince: And then what happens?
Peter: And then we just… we’re here in the way that we are now in which everything is arising. We’re fully cognizant of each other, appreciating each other, fully taking in past present & future and also aware of awareness itself. And aware that there’s no one who is aware of awareness. So if we’re looking for who is aware of the fact that there’s awareness happening at the moment we can’t find who is aware.
Vince: So, I’d be interested just in closing to ask you what kinds of things might you offer to people who listen to a show called “Buddhist Geeks?”
Vince: (laughs) Because you clearly have delineated yourself in some ways from more traditional kind of approaches. I’d be interested in what you’d have to offer.
Peter: What I would invite people to do is to relax firstly, not take these spiritual endeavor, not take them so seriously. So just to relax, to begin just to accept themselves, accept things as they are, not to create some grandiose goal in the future of achieving full enlightenment. But to back off from that a little and to say “okay look just to taste Nirvana, just to have like a 5 minute resting in that state of pure awareness, that would be great.”
Then I can develop it from there. So that is within my reach. That is possible. So then to engage in not just the work that I’ve developed but a lot of teachings that are available now in the non-dual tradition that make available the presenting of awareness, just allowing us to be with what is, without any struggle existing beyond pleasure and pain.