Welcome to The Essence of Awakening

John Dunne

Welcome to The Essence of Awakening

According to Mahayana Buddhism, wisdom enables us to pierce through layers of delusion, which is at the root of all suffering. During this course, John Dunne, PhD, a prominent professor of religious studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison as well as teacher in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, will cover three aspects of wisdom—selflessness, emptiness, and compassion—in a comprehensive exploration of Buddhist philosophy and contemplative practice. He’ll specifically trace a line of philosophical inquiry and practice that serves as a basis for engaging with the Mahamudra (Great Seal) and Dzogchen (Great Perfection) schools.

In the first part of the course, John will walk us through the historical development of Buddhist thought and unpack the concept of selflessness, a deep understanding of which can liberate us from believing our own identities to be fixed and essential. We will use simple yet profound contemplations to begin undoing this mistaken belief, which perpetuates subtle levels of suffering in our lives.

Next, John will explain the view of emptiness as it first emerges in Indian Buddhist philosophy. He will show how our mistaken belief in a fixed and essential identity confuses us about our own identities—and how we unconsciously extend this framework to the world around us and thus are misled by distorted experiences in which we seem to see fixed qualities and distinctions that are actually unreal. When we learn to embody the concept of emptiness, we are freed from a constricted worldview and can participate in an open, interconnected life. 

Finally, John outlines a typical Tibetan Buddhist approach to expanding compassion in light of emptiness. Once we learn to disassemble our conceptual assumptions, we’re able to create the grounds for compassion to arise, which carries the promise of fresh, genuine relationships to ourselves and the world around us.

Course Outline

Each unit will offer roughly one hour of material to work with. There will also be suggested take-home practices, including guided audio meditations, for you to explore in your home practice. You are invited to study at your own pace. You will retain access to the course, so you can work with it ongoing or refer back to it in the future.

Unit 1 | Philosophy as Practice

Learn about the role of philosophy in developing insight and practice a mind-settling meditation that reinforces breakthrough moments. 

Unit 2 | The Illusion of Self

John demonstrates the logic behind the Buddha's realization of selflessness in easy-to-follow contemplations.

Unit 3 | Exploring Emptiness

We extend our contemplations to understand the truth of emptiness. Just as we lack a core identity, so does everything else.

Unit 4 | The Nature of Experience

We follow the historical development of Buddhism further and learn the reasoning of the Yogacara school, who recognized that all appearances are the mind itself.

Unit 5 | Moving Beyond Subject-Object Duality

We take our investigation of Yogacara thought further to see what happens when we no longer differentiate between ourselves and the world we experience.

Unit 6 | Great Compassion

The motivation to attain Buddhahood for the benefit of all living beings must be driven by great compassion as well as wisdom. We learn what compassion looks like from the perspective of emptiness.