The Essence of Awakening

Follow the development of Buddhist ideas through the centuries, all the way from selflessness to emptiness and compassion.

Everyone wants to be happy and no one wants to suffer. All of our endeavors relate to this basic motivation, which raises timeless questions: Why do we suffer? And how can we restructure our worldview in a way that aligns with the way things really are and leads to less dissatisfaction? From the Mahayana Buddhist perspective, the answers to these questions emerge from deconstructing what we “know” to be true and cultivating the wisdom of selflessness, emptiness, and compassion.

Key benefits

Over six units, you'll:

  • Familiarize yourself with the history of Buddhist thought and key concepts, such as selflessness, emptiness, interdependence, and models of consciousness.
  • Dive into a philosophical approach that underlies and leads to the nondual styles of practice found in the Mahamudra (Great Seal) and Dzogchen (Great Perfection) lineages.
  • Consider philosophy an extension of practice through study, contemplation, and meditation.
  • Disassemble your conceptual assumptions to create the ground for compassion to arise.
  • Practice simple yet profound contemplations to undo mistaken beliefs that perpetuate subtle levels of suffering in our lives.

Choose a Pricing Option

Video dharma talks

Trace the development of Buddhism wisdom and philosophy from selfless to emptiness, and the need for great compassion.

Understand the Essence of Awakening

Clearly grasp the wisdom of Buddhism's most prominent thinkers: Nagarjuna, the Yogacara school, and the Buddha himself. 

Step-by-step contemplations

In Buddhism, philosophy is a practice. Take part in contemplations that open up insight and support meditative development.


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.

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 throughout the week. This is a self-study course and you are invited to progress 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.

A practical exploration

The Essence of Awakening demonstrates with utmost clarity how traditional Buddhism has always married philosophical inquiry with meditative practice. These powerful contemplations are supported by an accessible nondual meditation style that allows insights to deepen and take root with far-reaching impact.

About John Dunne

John Dunne, PhD, holds the Distinguished Chair in Contemplative Humanities, a newly endowed position created through the Center for Healthy Minds. He also holds a co-appointment in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Until January, 2016, John was an Associate Professor in the Department of Religion and the Graduate Division of Religion at Emory University, where he co-founded the Collaborative for Contemplative Studies.

John's work focuses on Buddhist philosophy and contemplative practice, especially in dialog with cognitive science. His publications range from technical works on Buddhist epistemology to broader works on the nature of Buddhist contemplative practices such as mindfulness. He speaks in both academic and public contexts, and he occasionally teaches for Buddhist communities, most notably the Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico. In addition to serving as a faculty member at the Center, he is a Fellow of the Mind & Life Institute, where he has previously served on the Board of Directors. John also serves an academic advisor for the Rangjung Yeshe Institute in Nepal.

Curriculum Preview

  Unit 1: Philosophy as Practice
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  Unit 2: The Illusion of Self
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  Unit 3: Exploring Emptiness
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  Unit 4: The Nature of Experience
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  Unit 5: Moving Beyond Subject-Object Duality
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  Unit 6: Great Compassion
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"Excellent material and the teacher was incredible!"

"Planning on replaying the talks as there is so much material for reflection and learning. Thank you once again. Great course!!"

"This course has opened up many new, helpful ways of approaching and thinking about experience. Thank you."

"Wonderful. Thank you so much John and Tricycle. That really was a very interesting course. I will continue to read, study and meditate and would really welcome any further courses from John. Thank you all so much."