Reflections on having no head
Douglas Harding says you are the space in which the universe happens, giving it reality by forgetting or sacrificing your own.
In a few simple words, he says it all. By-passing the intellect, imagination and belief, he tells us to just look at what we can see. Through our senses we contain the universe. Through our eyes and ears we see and hear it; through our tongue we taste whatever is given; and through our nose, we smell it. We touch creation on all sides, in our hearts and minds we feel and think it, and all in the space and capacity which we are but do not see, - behind our eyes between our ears, - in the vast emptiness that none of our senses can perceive, yet where everything exists and is perceived.
Douglas tells us to literally point our finger right back at our self and see what is there, to physically point at your self. There must be something there, but what can we see? I see my finger pointing directly into my eyes, - pointing right at where ‘I’ am supposed to be, - pointing through my face to that emptiness where surely I am, - the looker, watching it. He tells us to look at the world we see right there where we perceive it and where it really happens, - a world that has no limits, situated here on our shoulders where normally we believe a head to be. Left and right, above and below, our vision extends only so far in any direction before it meets our invisible ‘head’, - then what can we see beyond the peripheries? Nothingness, not even darkness or light, just nothing - look and see! Look where you are! All that empty nothingness that accommodates all that is and ever will be. An emptiness that is but can never be seen. And that you are.
Like an empty vessel in space (the knower of Truth) is empty both within and without, while at the same time he is full within and without like a vessel immersed in the ocean.
There, where you are, where your finger points, is an emptiness that can never be filled, yet contains all that can ever be; an awareness that is right now manifesting through consciousness the existence of everything. Yes, you are full and complete in every moment, regardless of time, - a truly infinite capacity.
Here we are both you and I, looking at these words within the emptiness behind our eyes that we have always been and always will be. This is without and we are within, and within we are emptiness filled with without, but without a face between them, - full but empty, empty but full.
We can only ever see ‘half’ the world, - that which lies in front of our eyes. Behind us, that which we cannot see is a measureless emptiness. Where is the line that divides the two, - the invisible “I”? They seem to merge seamlessly and they are one and the same. The emptiness is both the light and the screen on which the phenomenal film of creation is projected, - either spontaneously pure, or apparently conditioned and filtered by the illusory identity we have built upon that non-existent “I”.
This is our kingdom and we are one. We just have to look back at ourselves right now to see it, and know that this is what we are.
From Thomas Traherne (17th Century)
Your enjoyment of the world is never right,
til every morning you awake in heaven:
see yourself in your father's palace;
and look upon the skies and the earth
and the air as celestial joys,
having such a reverend esteem of all,
as if you were among the angels.
You never enjoy the world aright,
til the sea itself floweth in your veins;
til you are clothed with the heavens
and crowned with the stars
and perceive yourself to be the sole heir
of the whole world.
Til your spirit filleth the whole world
and the stars are your jewels;
Til you are familiar with the ways of God
in all ages as with your walk and table;
Til you are intimately acquainted with that shady nothing
out of which the world was made;
Til you love men so as to desire their happiness,
with an equal thirst to the zeal of your own;
Til you delight in God for being good to all;
You never enjoy the world.
Practice makes perfect
Do you feel inspired - or frustrated or a bit of both? There is always the danger that in wanting to know, to understand, to get something, we become jaded and disappointed in our search. This is the usual downside of any desire, and a sure sign that we still believe we are ‘someone’ who wants to get ‘something’.
The stupid man does not attain Godhead because he wants to become it, while the wise man enjoys the Supreme Godhead without even wanting it.
The Ashtavakra Gita
We forget that it is only upon the disappearance of individuality that full realization can occur, and then indeed there exists no such being that became realized! In The Sutra of Complete Enlightenment, the Buddha says:
It is not enlightenment that thwarts their entering; rather, it is the idea that ‘there is one who can enter.’
….. ‘attaining’ illumination and realization is a hindrance….
…..when the hindrances have been eliminated, there is no eliminator. The teachings of the sutras are like the finger that points to the moon. When one sees the moon, one realizes that the finger is not the moon.
So the process is one of losing, not gaining something! As this assumed identity with our ephemeral self and the ignorance in which we cling to ‘me and mine’ diminishes, the knowledge of what really is, the one universal self, the one that is all this, shines just as it is. Again, the Buddha says:
…… this ignorance has no real substance. It is like a person in a dream. Though the person exists in the dream, when the dreamer awakens, there is nothing that can be grasped. Like an illusory flower in the sky that vanishes into empty space, one cannot say that there is a fixed place from which it vanishes. Why? Because there is no place from which it arises! Amidst the unarisen, all sentient beings deludedly perceive birth and extinction. Hence this is called the turning wheel of birth and death.
….. there is no place where illusions vanish, and there is no attainment in accomplishing the Buddha Path, for the intrinsic nature is already wholly complete.
….. when the mind is able to illuminate and perceive enlightenment, it is but a defilement, because both perceiver and perceived are not apart from defilement. After ice melts in hot water, there is no ice to be aware of its melting. The perception of the existence of the self enlightening itself is also like this.
So how should we practise? What path should we follow? If our present notion of reality indicates that we are indeed someone who wants to seek and find the truth of existence, - which my writing and your reading to this point would seem to affirm – what can we do? Rumi says:
Little by little, wean yourself.
This is the gist of what I have to say.
From an embryo, whose nourishment comes in the blood,
move to an infant drinking milk,
to a searcher after wisdom,
to a hunter of more invisible game.
Understanding there is absolutely nothing to get, our only option is to lose what we appear to have. Now I do believe there may be many different ways for this to happen; I do not claim to be an authority on this matter and much may depend on the ‘ripeness’ of our souls, but for the purposes of this writing, which probably appeals to an intellectual viewpoint, I will suggest this:
Inasmuch as the seat of our apparent identity, albeit based on the concept of a bodily existence, lies in the mind, dividing what is one into two, and which manifests in the first instance as thought, it is only thought which we ‘have’ to lose.
The mind indeed is of the form of space. The mind indeed is omnifaced. The mind is the past. The mind is all. But in reality there is no mind.
Consider if you will, all the billions of thoughts we have entertained in all our waking days, - what value do they have? How many have been important or significant in any way? Like sifting sand for gems or specks of gold, most are irrelevant grit that can be thrown away without any loss.
Again, our thoughts concern the past which is gone forever or the future which is essentially unknown. Even in the ‘present’, thoughts oscillate between these two, building on a previous perception and speculating on the future. As the Buddha says:
“……the past mind cannot be grasped; neither can the present mind or the future mind."
If we could but hear them, all the thoughts of mankind would be like the deafening buzzing of countless bees. Yet we never let go, as if our very survival is at stake! So strong is this primal habit that as Ramakrishna said, we are like fisherwomen who cannot sleep without the smell of fish!
Like a man caught in quicksands
Thrashing and struggling about,
So beings drown
In the mess of their own thoughts.
It is time to begin the deconstruction of this identity we have been building since our adventure began and to realize it is nothing but a castle in the air.
Mind, as far as we are consciously aware, not only contains the faculty of continuous thinking, but also that of discriminating between different thoughts and indeed deciding whether to continue thinking them or not! Thus most techniques of meditation, by whatever means, centre on enhancing this ability to direct the mind. In this lies the potential for tremendous power. In contrast to simply being a passenger in the boat, we assume the responsibility to guide it.
Whatever form of practice we choose to follow, whether it be praise or prayer, contemplation or meditation, love or intellectual exploration, or a combination of them all, we are choosing to direct our mind. To the extent to which it gives us pleasure and happiness, it is effortless and easy. In our attempts to delve deeper, however, we may find ourselves something like the mongoose with a stone attached to its tail! Whenever it tries to climb into its hole in a wall the stone drags it down again, (thus ensuring its continued vigilance in protecting the house from snakes in village India).
Meditation is just like this. Within seconds of resolving to direct the mind to a single object or emptiness, it will be off shopping or otherwise reeling out one thought after another. Even in ‘objectless’ meditation where our aim is simply to observe or disassociate ourselves from thoughts that come and go, we find ourselves riding with them in no time. As for ‘stopping the mind’, one may as well try to stop the sun from shining, yet try we do. Realizing our distraction, we resolve again to follow our will, and again the same thing happens…………and again and again! Try right now if you will, and see if I’m not wrong. This attempt to detach ourselves alone is what as known as meditation.
By doing this we are not trying to ‘get’ something, but we are cultivating bit by bit the extra-ordinary notion that we are something other than thought. What that is, of course, defies identification or any attempt at definition, being the negation of all we know, and so we call it emptiness or self, Buddha, or god by any other name.
All our problems, suffering and pain belong to the realm of thought, and the less we come to identify with it, the happier we can be. In becoming nothing, nothing is lost and everything is gained. The less we are, the more we can be. Simple as that. The Buddha says:
“Virtuous man, all sentient beings since beginningless time have deludedly conceived ‘self’ and that which grasps on to the self; never have they known the succession of arising and perishing thoughts! Therefore, they give rise to love and hatred and indulge in the five desires.
“If they meet a good teacher who guides them to awaken to the nature of pure Complete Enlightenment and to recognize these arising and perishing thoughts, they will understand that it is the very nature of such rising thoughts that causes toils and anxieties in their lives”.
Gradually thus our whole being may change as the grip of ‘thought identity’ becomes diluted as it were, and the more we accept the idea of emptiness or nothingness as being the basis and reality of our existence vis-à-vis thought - and that it is the only effective alternative to impermanence and pain, - and always only a ‘thought’ away!
We can either try to conceive of emptiness and explore this vast nothingness that we can never know, (observe how quickly we try to ‘frame’ it!) or practise refusing to flow with the constant stream of thoughts. Either way we are dissolving the chains that bind us and opening up, little by little, a space we never knew was there, which has no ‘me and mine’, yet which we are.
And what a magic space it is! What tremendous news! As our concentration grows, as our rate of oscillation between ‘something’ and nothing slows, we begin to understand there are gaps in the circle of fire, - that these speeding, whirling thoughts neither imprison nor define us, and the recognition dawns that we are free.
Indeed, there is no circle of fire! There is only ever one point of light, which, by its apparent motion appears to create a picture in the emptiness and in which its continuity is assumed by means of a momentary residue, - the trace of memory.
There is a light in our hearts that grows in radiance when we love. It is a light which projects, sustains and permeates all.
In the immensity of consciousness a light appears, a tiny point that moves rapidly and traces shapes, thoughts and feelings, concepts and ideas, like the pen writing on paper. And the ink that leaves a trace is memory. You are that tiny point and by your movement the world is ever re-created. Stop moving and there will be no world. Look within and you will find that the point of light is the reflection of the immensity of light in the body, as the sense 'I am'. There is only light, all else appears.
Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj
We have been trapped, and like the monkey grasping a handful of nuts in a jar, unwilling to let go and thus unable to withdraw its hand, we only have to let go of this notion that we are what we think.
Chains of gold
…………are no less strong to bind.
Know, slave is slave, caressed or whipped, not free;
For fetters, though of gold, are not less strong to bind;
Swami Vivekananda in the Song of the Sannyasin
It is in the nature of things that the more they are denied the more attractive they become. The more we stop listening to our thoughts the more enticing they become. When Tom stops chasing Jerry, Jerry starts chasing Tom! Once we step upon the path of freedom and begin to reject the dominance of thought, the more it seems to strive to become our ‘friend’, offering us feelings of joy, insights and gems of wisdom and understanding, and it is from moments such as these, I believe, that these words have largely been gleaned.
This is all to the good provided we remain aware and maintain our balance. In extreme cases, it is said, we may even find great powers and gifts at our disposal – anything to keep us in the game, identified with individuality and selfish gain.
There is a story of two aspiring sadhus who met again after a gap of 20 years. Enquiring of each other what they had attained, one revealed that he had mastered the ability to walk on water. “Really?” said the other, “have you thus spent twenty years to save a couple of cents on the ferry?”
Another story tells of a poor woodcutter who, seeking advice from a holy man was told “Go forward”. Next day as he went into the forest, remembering these words, he decided to go further than usual, and came across a golden coin. Pleased as he was, he reasoned: “The holy man said ‘Go forward’, so perhaps I shouldn’t stop now”. Thus he went on and on, finding greater riches the further he went.
Even so, we begin by seeking nothing by renouncing thought and every whim that would make us believe we are ‘something’. This is all we have to do, and go on doing – there is no stopping place, - no place to call our home. As Jesus said:
"The foxes have holes, and the birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head."
The Buddha said:
So, Subhuti, all the bodhisattva mahasattvas should give rise to a pure and clear intention in this spirit. When they give rise to this intention, they should not rely on forms, sounds, smells, tastes, tactile objects, or objects of mind. They should give rise to an intention with their minds not dwelling anywhere.
The mind of the man seeking liberation can find no resting place within, but the mind of the liberated man is always free from desire by the very fact of being without a resting place.
The Ashtavakra Gita
The Avadhuta (unique and free one), alone, pure in evenness of feeling, abides happily in an empty dwelling place. Having renounced all, he moves about naked. He perceives the Absolute, the All, within himself.
This is the state which the Buddha calls ‘quiescent stillness’. But beware! Renunciation means non-attachment to identity with individual selfhood, not rejection! In fact I would dare to say that not rejecting anything at all constitutes renunciation! We do not reject the form of things as they present themselves when seen, including our ‘ego’, thoughts and feelings, which are a part of nature itself no less than the sun and moon and stars, but we reject the colouring of it as good or bad according to the viewpoint of our individuality. Nay, we do not even reject that! Neither should renunciation be seen in terms of looking for something else! As Hui Neng says:
To seek enlightenment by separating from this world is as absurd as to search for a rabbit's horn.
…to take an attitude of neither indifference nor attachment towards all things - this is what is meant by realizing one's own Essence of Mind for the attainment of Buddhahood.
Learned Audience, the mind should be framed in such a way that it will be independent of external or internal objects, at liberty to come or go, free from attachment and thoroughly enlightened without the least beclouding.
Erroneous views keep us in defilement while right views keep us from it; but when we are in a position to discard both of them, we are then absolutely pure.
Raining in my Heart
I have to admit this writing provides me with a sense of purpose, and thereby demonstrates quite clearly that my individuality still depends on such a need. To exist as purposeless and yet be perfectly content is, for me at least, a formidable challenge.
How can there be happiness, for one who is burnt inside by the blistering sun of the pain of things that need doing, without the rain of the nectar of peace?
The Ashtavakra Gita
Still the urge to live and fear of boredom impels us to fill up all the empty spaces as long as we are unable to find enduring satisfaction in emptiness alone.
Nevertheless, this writing itself has become a form of spiritual practice for me, presenting in concrete form an ideal that inevitably demands comparison with my daily states of mind.
In common, as I imagine, with most humans gifted or cursed with thought, it is on retiring to bed, on the threshold of dream and sleep, that I naturally find myself alone with my thoughts, reflecting, contemplating, extrapolating the topics of the day or moment.
All thoughts have a taste or flavour somewhere in the spectrum between pleasant and unpleasant. Generally, short of the vortex of obsession, ‘good’ thoughts are the hardest to renounce.
Last night as I lay there ruminating aimlessly, - as the mundane insignificance of my thoughts puttered on, - a gentle rain began falling on the roof outside. Feeling bored with the mental dialogue and questioning if this was all there was to entertain my consciousness, I was reminded of my own exhortations to abandon thought and began to cast about for emptiness.
It seems to generally be the case that, like a searchlight, our minds are really only capable of entertaining one particular focus of attention at any given time, so as I turned away from the misty wispy threads of mental peregrination which up till then had evinced such all-consuming substantiality, to consider what else lay in my field of consciousness, the pitter-patter of the rain, the auditory universe, took centre stage. How to find emptiness with that going on, I thought!
Of course it is the empty spaces that give life to music or any sound, but my tired mind had not the strength of concentration to follow that. Instead, faced only with the two alternatives of listening to my grey thoughts or the rain, the only apparent guests of my consciousness at the time, I resolved to listen to the rain, - something usually considered a background of no consequence, but in this instance no less or more so than my thoughts. And so I began to be absorbed in the intricate rhythms of the undulating heavy drops which now I noticed were intermingled with assorted tinklings and the purely spontaneous and natural improvisation of countless rhythms and melodies.
Why, I thought, do we spend so little time appreciating the ever-present objects of our senses, the living universe that exists solely as a backdrop, it seems, to the intense preoccupation we have with our personal story and ambitions? This mental body that we regard as our closest friend is like a ghostly shadow that yet forever dances mischievously in front of us, absorbing all our attention and preventing any real view of where we are.
What a fine thought! What a pertinent image! But what happened to the rain? Hah! I was thinking again, no longer listening to the rain.
Again, listen to the rain. Oh, listen! In a high but muted trill there are frogs chirping madly away, some like a continuous throaty whistle, some with intermittent croaking, some building to a crescendo then plunging abruptly into silence at the end. And still there is the symphony of rain, the sound of breath, the physical movement of my lungs and the movement of air without and within; the resting of my head on the pillow.
Ah, there are so many things going on all the time! But how can one be simultaneously aware of all of them with a face that only sees in one direction at a time? Surely by having no face at all, by disappearing from the centre, and allowing all to exist as it is.
Douglas Harding’s revelation in the Himalayas was like this. Faced with such stupendous scenery, his head apparently disappeared, leaving him as but a receptacle for the universe to be presented in.
As a boy, seeing a flight of pure white cranes against the dark, monsoon sky above the emerald green fields of swaying rice, Sri Ramakrishna lost all body-consciousness.
And yet again, for me, what happened to the rain?
All the great thoughts of mankind, I wonder, - do they come from the edge of emptiness, the deeper and more profound the closer they come to the brink?
And what about the rain? The frogs? Breathing, feeling, and yes, even these thoughts?
Once we begin to detach ourselves from identification with thoughts, whether they continue to be visible or not is of no consequence. Ego and thought, body and feeling, belong to nature no less than the sun, the moon, the stars and planets, trees and mountains. They all exist in consciousness as the whiteness in milk and blueness in sky and like the changing colours of the day, they come, they go, they pass away.
Sri Ramakrishna used to say that when we climb the steps of a house to the roof, we find the steps and the whole house are made of the same material as the roof. So the whole universe including our thoughts and feelings, if we see them, is nothing but the nature of god or self. Automatically it functions, constituting our whole mind and including the witness thereof. But the emptiness in which these come and go and have such momentary existence remains supreme.
Once we cease to cling to our ideas of love and hatred, seeing all with an equal eye and allowing everything to flow as it will in the magical mirror of consciousness, there exists no contradiction.
Shining is my essential nature, and I am nothing over and beyond that. When the world shines forth, it is simply me that is shining forth.
The Ashtavakra Gita
Should we then all become monks or nuns? Like sadhus, should we renounce this worldly life, so full of care and obstacles, that spins and pins us to the walls of life’s events like some all-powerful centrifugal force?
Appearances and forms are but the outer shell. Renouncing this thin crust of our identity is but the beginning, and in comparison to the inner world of attachment to mind and thought, desires and feelings, is of lesser consequence. What if my head is shaved, eyebrows too? What if I wear a simple robe and beg for my body’s subsistence? If my mind is full of thoughts like a black hole absorbing everything within its orbit, letting no light escape, where is my freedom?
It is a choice in many cultures that we are free to make and I am full of admiration, nay, veneration for those whose outward renunciation is matched by that within. As a means of escape however, when the mind is still tormented by unrequited desires, I worry that such a dichotomy of spirit speaks of a burden of hypocrisy that is just as hard to bear.
The mind is the creator of the world; the mind is the individual; only that which is done by the mind is regarded as done, not that which is done by the body.
Yoga Vasishta Sara
No doubt it is true that the less we are exposed to ‘temptation’ the less we are bothered by it, but not if we cling to its indulgence in our minds.
There is the famous story which you may have heard of two monks travelling to a distant town. They came to a small river where a woman was waiting, too afraid to venture across. She appealed to the monks, and to the horror of his companion (their order forbidding any bodily contact with women), the other carried her across the stream on his back. Leaving the woman to go her own way, they walked on. Finally, as they came to the town, the offended monk could restrain himself no longer and launched into a volley of accusation that the other had committed such a serious violation of the rules. Whereupon the other replied, “Yes, it is true I picked her up and put her down on the other bank, but I see you have been carrying her ever since!”
The real deal is internal. To be sure we all need a certain amount of discipline to lead a functional existence, and I stand in awe of those who sit continually for hours in meditation and who find abiding peace in such an existence free from external disturbance. However, as Krishna says:
Man does not attain freedom from action (culmination of the path of action) without entering upon action; nor does he reach perfection (culmination of the path of knowledge) merely by renunciation of action.
Surely none can remain inactive even for a moment; everyone is helplessly driven to action by nature-born qualities.
He who outwardly restraining the organs of sense and action, sits mentally dwelling on objects of senses is called a hypocrite.
It is often said that the path of the soul is to become like a lump of clay in the potter’s hands; to be thumped and pressed and pushed and pulled; moulded into the shape required. Living in the world we are, as it were, at the coal-face of our likes and dislikes. Where else can we become aware of our fears, anger and desire? Where else do we find ourselves beating our heads against the obstacles to peace and contentment? Where else can we practice what we preach?
Where else can we realize, as Gautama Buddha said, that “with our thoughts we make the world”? The fact is that as long as we find ourselves bewitched by the nebulous mirror of our thoughts, there is always work to be done.
The root lies in our attachment to thought itself, no doubt, but within that world of thought it is the strength of our desires and aversions that cement its grip and bind our soul.
Even though bondage does not really exist, it becomes strong through desire for worldly enjoyments; when this desire subsides bondage becomes weak.
……The noble-hearted man whose desires of the heart have come to an end is a liberated man; it does not matter whether he does or does not practise meditation or perform action.
Yoga Vasishtha Sara
Desires are not so easily renounced. In the world we are generally restrained by the norms and expectations of the society in which we live, but where we are not it is a moot point whether restraint or indulgence is more successful in laying our demons to rest.
Sri Ramakrishna once said that one does not come to enlightenment without having experienced throughout a series of countless births everything there is to know. Our ‘normal’ experience of life, propelled as it is by desires great and small, indicates that experience itself is the greatest teacher of all, and that having experienced the gratification of any desire its importance to us is often diminished and no longer grips our mind as being such a big deal after all. Then we are largely, if not completely, freed from its clutches.
Psychologists tell us that repressed thoughts only linger and fester, and driven deeper into our subconscious create a disharmony that will inevitably erode the power that would restrain them and erupt, sooner or later, in our conscious lives, often with devastating consequences. One only has to look at the scandals that come to light concerning so many who have outwardly avowed a life of celibacy. In a similar way, there is no point in trying to run away from persistently recurring problems that may be ever so deeply embedded in our conditioning. We can never escape from ourselves. Whatever our karma, we have to face it sooner or later, in this life - or the next.
It is said that ignorance is bliss. What we do not know we don’t entertain in our minds, but even in the simplest communities isolated and untouched by the Pandora’s box of expression that has been opened to a large extent in many societies today, the human being remains a creature possessed of physical needs, desire and aggression that must be contained to one degree or another in order to maintain a necessary degree of communal harmony.
It is no doubt true that the more we move towards the light, the more darkness recedes, however it is also a fact that darkness has a pull of its own. So what are we to do?
As always it seems to be a question of balance, - the middle way, following life but not the force. Where the gratification of persistent desire involves no harm to the happiness of any other entity it may well be efficacious to satisfy such yearning rather than attempt to suppress it or keep it in some private mental compartment of personal fantasy. From the eastern point of view even the slightest desire or aversion retained at death needs must result in a future birth.
Arjuna, thinking of whatever object one leaves the body at the time of death, that and that alone he attains, being ever absorbed in its thought.
Krishna in the Bhagavad-Gita
Sri Ramakrishna used to say that some great yogis, wishing to ensure their rebirth to continue teaching or otherwise postpone their total absorption into the absolute, often deliberately cultivate a desire for some simple thing such as a ring or particular clothing before they die, just to guarantee their return.
However, that being said, once we choose to pursue anything in this world we set ourselves on a path of indeterminate length and price to pay that could possibly entail lifetimes of struggle as we delve into the labyrinths of success and failure that constitute the game of life, - setting a goal without the attainment of which we cannot move on.
Fortunately, if we are armed with some knowledge of this and see it as a means of clearing up the backlog of karmic residue, we are more likely, having tasted the fruit of desire, to move on, less if not completely unencumbered by it. If not, seeking constant and continuing gratification as our only goal, constructing a treadmill of habit that imprisons us and yearning only for more of the same, we may have much to learn before that liberating wisdom dawns.
No matter. We have all eternity in which to play this game until its price becomes more than we’re prepared to pay and realize that the cause of all our suffering lies in our craving and desire.
With but a little wisdom we may see how trivial many of our wants really are, and really not worth getting upset about. We may realize how basic are our essential needs and how little is required for us to be happy. Possessions and attachment bring with them fear of loss. Every triumph contains within it the seeds of disaster, every success the shadow of failure. But those desires we water with constant yearning can develop roots so strong they would strangle our soul.
On the night of a clear full moon, the abbot of a local Buddhist monastery sat beneath a tree talking to a group of people who were on a month long walk to the city to protest against the continued logging of the pristine virgin forest through which they journeyed. He said, “When you reach the city and see the grey concrete, the cars and planes, don’t forget that these are made from nature too, to which nothing can be added or taken away. Only consider this: how much of it is really necessary in order to be happy?”
Box of Tricks
Short of sudden enlightenment, the deliberate cultivation of habit can be utilised to further our cause. Over time, the habit of right thinking and recourse to certain ‘tricks’ or practices can become our help and salvation. In Hindu terminology, these are known as ‘yogas’ or paths towards union with the supreme reality.
From this side of a non-existent but all too apparent barrier, such habits can develop into techniques that switch on automatically, as it were, when faced with negativity or fear, or the mundaneness of everyday thoughts.
If you have followed the lines of thought presented in these pages, it is clear that our freely chosen faith and devotion to an image or symbol of god can become our refuge and source of sustenance in the face of the ups and downs of life. Most religions advocate the use of a prayer or invocation which, true to our nature, we often only remember in times of need, although an exuberance of joy may equally impel our souls to heartfelt praise and gratitude.
In eastern religions this often comes in the form of a mantra, a word or phrase which being repeated constantly is said to be imbued with great power, but it may be as simple as OM, or the name of one’s chosen deity or god. It may be “I am that” it may be “Hail to the Jewel in the Lotus (of my heart)”, or “There is no god but god” in Christianity, “Hail Mary” or “Jesus is my saviour”. Such repetitions are often accompanied by counting on a rosary or “mala”, “worry beads” or prayer wheels, providing a physical counterpart to the verbal or mental process. The efficacy of such a habit lies in countering and providing an alternative to the process of endless thought.
There is the cultivation of love and yearning to see the beloved known as Bhakti Yoga, anticipating of the joy of beholding the object of our devotion to which we may surrender knowing it to be the one god of all. There are worship and songs of praise; we can direct all our feelings, even anger to god! There is devotion and obeisance to one’s teacher, if one is lucky enough to have one, as the physical manifestation of wisdom and the divine in human form. In this respect, Dattatreya says:
Of the teacher – even if he be young, illiterate, or addicted to the enjoyment of sense objects, even if he be a servant or householder – none of these should be considered. Does anyone shun a gem fallen in an impure place?
In such a case one should not consider even the quality of scholarship. A worthy person should recognize only the essence. Does not a boat, though devoid of beauty and vermillion paint, nevertheless ferry passengers?
And the sage Vasishta says:
Just as a steady boat, O Rama, is obtained from a boatman, so also the method of crossing the ocean of samsara is learnt by associating with great souls.…The sages are to be approached even if they do not teach. Even their talks in a light vein contain wisdom.
We can dedicate all our actions to god in a spirit of sacrifice known as Karma Yoga, intent on performing our daily duties to the very best of our ability without concern for personal gratification, success or failure. In the Yoga Vasishta, Lord Shiva himself gives this masterly advice:
The Lord should be worshipped by means of all the enjoyments that the body enjoys, through eating, drinking, being with one’s consort and other such pleasures. The Lord should be worshipped with the illnesses one experiences and with every sort of unhappiness or suffering one experiences. The Lord should be worshipped with all one’s activities, including life and death and all of one’s dreams. The Lord should be worshipped with one’s poverty and prosperity. The Lord should be worshipped even with fights and quarrels as well as with sports and other pastimes, and even with the manifestations of the emotions of attraction and aversion.
……..One should worship the self, without psychological perversion, with every object that is obtained purely on account of the coincidence of time, place and activity – whether they are popularly known as good or bad.
…….Established in this state of equanimity, the wise man should experience infinite expansion within himself while carrying out his natural actions externally without craving or rejection.
There is contemplation, and then there is meditation, the time set aside for concentrating on a single concept, perhaps the feet of our deity, our breath, the flame of a candle, even the head of a matchstick; being empty or nothing at all, or knowing only that “I am” without any connotations, - in an on-going attempt to control or rather detach ourselves from the mind; to step off the merry-go-round of endless thoughts; to strengthen our power of concentration and “to be still and know that I am god”.
Whichever way, it is our right to believe in our chosen imagination more than the so-called reality of this mad-house called the world. However, as long as ego hovers around our every thought and action, laying claim to every virtue as an embellishment of its name, it may be wise to keep these things a secret from the world.
With repeated practice then, when negative thoughts or fear and insecurity assail us, we may find these habits kicking in, pulling us out of the vortex of a whirlpool of thoughts and feeling, and reminding us of a bigger picture.
Another ‘trick’, if you like, is breath control. Here we discover that mind and breath operate in tandem. A racing mind is accompanied by quicker, shorter breaths, whereas with a calm mind, breathing is slow and deep. Furthermore, by changing one, we affect the other.
In India this breath control, known as ‘pranayama’, has been practised since time began and is really something of a science. It is said that in the absence of a qualified teacher we should not play too much with this as it involves the conscious manipulation of an essential bodily function that normally, instinctively ensures the required amount of oxygen necessary to sustain life itself. However if, as is often the case, you find your mind with a ‘mind of its own’, possessed of such momentum that no amount of effort can restrain it, you may like to try this simple exercise in moderation:
Take a long, slow, deep breath as if your whole upper body consisted of your lungs. Fill the lower abdomen first, letting it expand like a balloon, then fill the remaining space in the chest cavity until not a single further drop of air you can inhale. Then stop, holding in the breath inside for no more than 7 seconds or repetitions of your mantra say, or your name of god, but no longer than is reasonably comfortable. Then slowly exhale, emptying first the chest and then the abdomen until not another wisp of air you can exhale. Stop again, holding the air outside you, again for the count of up to seven, before repeating the process up to seven times, but no more.
At first it is difficult to breathe so deeply and even more so to do it slowly, but within 2 or 3 cycles it becomes much easier, and with it, a feeling of peace descends on the mind.
The reason I mention this technique with caution is that I first read about it in the writings of Swami Vivekananda who similarly cautioned thus. There are many other breathing techniques of more complexity which I know nothing about, but as a means to the end of calming the mind, this simple exercise would seem to suffice.
It takes time and a certain effort to cultivate these habits, but as Krishna says in the Bhagavad-Gita, categorizing everything according to the “Gunas”, - Sattva, Rajas and Tamas, - the three primary modes or moods of nature into which all actions, thoughts and feelings fall:
That in which one finds enjoyment only through practice and whereby one reaches the end of all sorrow, nay, that which appears like poison in the beginning (when the practices are started), but tastes as nectar in the end, born of placidity of mind brought about by meditation on god, such a joy is said to be Sattvic (the mode of wisdom, beauty and peace; harmony and motiveless action).
The joy which is derived from the contact of the senses with their objects, though appearing like nectar in the beginning, proves to be mischievous like poison in the end. That is why such a joy is said to be Rajasic (the mode of passion, excitement and motivated action).
The joy which deadens the soul, both in the beginning and in the end, and which is derived from sleep, indolence and carelessness is said to be Tamasic (the mode of dullness and perversely recalcitrant action).
It is an interesting system of classification, and the manifestations of these moods are something with which we are all familiar. Again, concerning knowledge:
That by which man sees one imperishable entity in all beings, undivided among the divided, know that knowledge to be Sattvic.
And that knowledge which regards the manifold existence of various kinds in all beings as separate, know that knowledge as partaking of Rajas.
And that knowledge which clings to one individual, as if it were the whole, which is without reason, without any real object and of little value, that is declared as Tamasic.
And again regarding action:
……which is prescribed by the scriptures, and which is done without a sense of doership, and without passion or prejudice, by one who does not seek its fruit, is said to be Sattvic.
……which involves much strain and is done by one who seeks enjoyment, and is prompted by egoism, is declared to be Rajasic.
……which is undertaken through ignorance, without considering the result, loss to oneself and injury to others and one’s own capacity, is declared to be Tamasic.
That reason which knows what is right action and what is right cessation of action, what must be done and what ought not to be done, what is fear and what constitutes fearlessness, what is bondage and what is liberation, is Sattvic.
That reason by which one understands incorrectly what is right and what is wrong, what must be done and what ought not to be done, partakes of Rajas.
That reason which, enveloped in ignorance, thinks the wrong to be right, and regards all things contrary, is Tamasic.
Have you ever been so depressed that even happiness seems like a cruel illusion and a waste of time?
The nature-born qualities of Sattva, Rajas and Tamas firmly tie the imperishable soul to the body, Arjuna.
There is no existence here on earth, in the heavens or among the celestials, or anywhere else in creation, which is free from these three qualities born of matter.
Krishna further points out that Sattva binds the soul through self-identification with happiness and wisdom; Rajas, through attachment to actions and their fruits; and Tamas, through error, sloth and sleep.
When the seer does not see any agent other than the three Gunas, and knows Me, who stand beyond these Gunas, he enters into my Being.
The Beginning and End
Finally, there is what I would call the intellectual practice of the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom, also known as Gyana Yoga, which begins with the simple desire to know and leads us to study the words of the wise. As Krishna says:
Attain this knowledge by all means. If you prostrate yourself at the feet of the wise, render them all forms of service, and question them with a guileless heart, again and again, those wise seers of truth will unfold that knowledge to you.
Even if you are the most sinful of all sinners, you will cross over all sin by the raft of knowledge. For, as the blazing fire reduces the fuel to ashes, Arjuna, even so the fire of knowledge reduces all actions to ashes.
In this world there is no purifier like knowledge.
I remember reading the Bhagavad-Gita for the first time, convinced that the secret to life and the universe lay somewhere in those words, understanding so little yet imagining a knowledge I did not possess. Little by little over the years I became familiar with the terminology and concepts, and as fate would have it, my teacher bade me read a chapter every day as part of my practice. Nowadays many of those divine verses resound like echoes in the chamber of my mind, clear as a bell behind the usual detritus, gaining more and more profundity and relevance, and cutting ever deeper with the sharp sword of truth. It is a song of triumph and celebration, and compels me to declare this is indeed the “Song of God”.
Similarly there are many other books and writings, a few snippets of which l have borrowed to lend authenticity to “Another Book of Nothing”, and which I hope give some justification to the perspectives I have presented here. For me this has been a synopsis of thoughts accumulated over many years, and in retrospect, an attempt to provide a common rationale for any and every spiritual practice or belief, and which hopefully serves to support whatever faith we may have. In the process, being prompted by vague memories or wishing to quote original words, I have taken advantage of the internet where there is little that cannot be found today. This has led to my reading again and again some of the most inspiring texts, amazed not only at the consistency of knowledge and wisdom presented from many different faiths, but also that even I have been inspired to speak about such things. At the same time I have often been compelled to pause, reflect on and absorb to the best of my capacity even deeper and more enigmatic concepts and statements with variable success.
If anything here has whetted your appetite, as I certainly hope it has, and you feel ready for a ‘stronger dose’, may I encourage you to search the internet or visit an appropriate bookshop for the texts I have mentioned here and which will yield much more of the same.
My intention was to call this writing “The Book of Nothing”, but in running a search to check the originality of that name I discovered the first “Book of Nothing” or “Hsin Hsin Ming” written by Sosan, the 3rd Zen Patriarch, which in 3 pages covers everything we have discussed here about emptiness. It is a priceless gem that cannot be recommended highly enough.
It seems a miracle, as much as anything is seen to exist here at all, let alone that all our many stories of such apparently intense significance should somehow have been constructed from the impersonal combination of the basic elements of the universe, that such wisdom stands openly revealed for all to see.
Much, I am bound to admit, I understand with but the most tenuous grasp of intellect, but I accept that such truths cannot become truly evident except in the experience of full enlightenment.
I wonder myself if our habitual states of individual being merge seamlessly with that of non-being. Do the dualities and opposites of which existence here is undoubtedly composed, merge in a state of neutrality as black when mixed with white becomes grey, or do they cancel each other out leaving neither at all? When one is added to zero, is the answer really one or zero? How indeed can zero be augmented? Like the some vast and complicated equation, once the elements on both sides are finally reduced to their simplest form, the answer is always zero equals zero. Thus the Buddha says:
Virtuous man, all hindrances are themselves of the nature of ultimate enlightenment. Having a correct thought or losing it is not different from liberation. ………Wisdom and stupidity are equally prajna (wisdom). Ignorance and true suchness are not different realms. Sila (morality), Samadhi (concentration) and prajna (wisdom) and the three poisons of greed, anger and delusion are all pure activities.
Sentient beings and the world they live in are of one Dharma-nature. Hells and heavens are all Pure Lands. Regardless of their distinct natures, all sentient beings have intrinsically accomplished the Buddha Path. All vexations are ultimate liberation. The Tathagata’s ocean of wisdom, which encompasses the whole dharmadhatu (the nature of all things), clearly illuminates all phenomena as empty space. This is called ‘the Tathagata’s accordance with the nature of enlightenment’.
“Virtuous man, all bodhisattvas and sentient beings in the Dharma Ending Age should at no time give rise to deluded thoughts! Yet, when their deluded minds arise, they should not extinguish them. In the midst of deluded concepts, they should not add discriminations. Amidst non-discrimination, they should not distinguish true reality. If sentient beings, upon hearing this Dharma method, believe in, understand, accept, and uphold it and do not generate alarm and fear, they are ‘in accordance with the nature of enlightenment.’
For seekers such as us then, here lies the ultimate riddle: to seek without seeking, to renounce without renouncing, and to realize there is no realiser. Thus Dattatreya sings:
The enlightened one is a yogi devoid of yoga and absence of yoga. He is an enjoyer, devoid of enjoyment or absence of enjoyment. Thus he wanders leisurely, filled with the spontaneous joy of his own mind.
All this is magic, like a mirage in the desert. Only the absolute self, of indivisible and impenetrable form, exists.
To all things, from the practice of religious laws and duties to liberation itself, we are completely indifferent. How can we have anything to do with attachment or detachment? Only the learned imagine these things.
Renounce the world in every way. Renounce renunciation in every way. Renounce the poison of renunciation and non-renunciation. The self is pure, immortal, natural and immutable.
There is no state of liberation, no state of bondage, no state of virtue, no state of vice. There is no state of perfection and no state of destitution. Why dost thou, who art the identity in all, grieve in thy heart?
There is nothing dividing, nothing to be divided. I have nothing to know, nothing to be known. How shall I speak of coming and going, my child? I am free from disease – my form has been extinguished.
I am tempted to end this writing with some dramatic punch line. Many of the works I’ve quoted here end with the promise that whoever reads them is guaranteed enlightenment. Thus Krishna says at the end of the Bhagavad-Gita:
…….he who shall study this dialogue of ours, by him shall I be worshipped through the sacrifice of wisdom. Such is my mind. The man who listens to it full of faith and in an uncarping spirit, freed from evil, even he shall gain the happy worlds of the virtuous.
Valmiki, at the end of Yoga Vasishta, says:
…….He who constantly listens to this dialogue between Rama and Vasishta is liberated, whatever be the circumstances of his life, and he attains knowledge of Brahman.
This Gita or song is composed by Dattatreya Avadhuta who is the embodiment of bliss. Whoever reads or hears it has never any rebirth.
The Buddha, in the Sutra of Complete Enlightenment, says:
Virtuous man, this sutra belongs to the sudden teaching of the Mahayana. From it sentient beings of sudden enlightenment capacity will attain awakening. This sutra also embraces practitioners of all other capacities who engage in gradual cultivation; it is like a vast ocean which allows small streams to merge into it. All who drink this water, from gadflies and mosquitoes to asuras (the demonic counterpart of demi-gods), will find fulfilment.
Virtuous man, if there were a man who, with the purest intentions, gathered enough of the seven treasures to fill a great chiliocosm (innumerable universes) and gave them all as alms, he could not be compared to another man who hears the name of this sutra and understands the meaning of a single passage.
Here’s the point. The ‘punch lines’ are spread throughout these works from beginning to end, sometimes indeed on every line, and each has the potency to trigger greater awareness, higher consciousness and enlightenment to one degree or another. Like a baby kicking from within the womb they goad us to consider the mystery of life itself. When we are truly able to understand even one of them, - if we have sufficient concentration, developed by practice, to see their ultimate depth; when we are ready, as a ripe fruit, to fall from the tree, - each is capable of transporting us from the contemplation of an immanent truth to the immediacy of undiluted reality itself. Because finally,
The Lord cannot be seen with the help of the sacred texts or the Guru. The self is seen by the Self alone with the pure intellect.
The Tibetan Bodhisattva, or god of wisdom, Manjusri, holds in one hand, or resting on a lotus, a book, the symbol of spiritual knowledge, and in the other a sword. It is a sword of truth so sharp that it cuts to our heart and severs the very root of our ignorance, revealing the absolute emptiness that is the pure, incorruptible essence and only reality that ever exists.
In choosing to believe this, we find ourselves on a journey that has no end, because, in reality, it never began!