the empty spaces
where just the river
BOOK OF NOTHING
© Patrick Lewis 2007
I feel like talking, but these days I don’t have anyone to talk to, so I will write these thoughts to myself and imagine that someone, somewhere might find them interesting.
Where I am exactly, no one knows, least of all myself; but the ‘power’ is on, there’s ‘someone’ here, so I’m going to speak.
Talking about ‘spiritual’ things can be a pleasure and a pain. I used to think I knew a lot. I used to think I knew what everyone should do, - but it only takes the question, “What do you know?” to feel the pain of mistaking belief, however strong, for the absolute truth.
I cannot pretend to know the ultimate. Though I love talking and playing with thoughts with anyone who’s interested, few such kindred souls seem to come my way; and even when they do, I fear it might be just an ego trip and another self-image to be overcome, - and of course the bottom line is I really do know I really don’t know what I’m talking about!
Perhaps it can never be ‘known’, but then again, somehow, not knowing seems to be the most desirable state to be in!
Be that as it may, a desire to know what it’s all about has been a fairly continuous undercurrent of most of my life, and over the years has become a truly thirst-quenching source of intellectual, emotional, and ‘spiritual’ fascination: nourishment, and a cool, refreshing stream to jump in when feeling tired of the world.
I followed my teacher, Sri Tirtha Lal Mahanandhar, a family man in Nepal, though with diminishing practice and discipline as the years wore on, without experiencing anything I could call ‘enlightenment’. I in no way dismiss him however, for it could well be that he worked a magic on me, inasmuch as I am happy enough to be myself today and celebrate everything he taught. He certainly led me into a world of gods and goddesses, and the towering glory of the thoughts and teachings of a myriad of sages speaking the same truth. It is his love of this subject that now I also claim; yet in the absence of any defining experience of my own liberation, I am as yet unable to validate his. Yet again, in another way, I couldn’t be sure where my soul ends and his begins.
Short of full ‘enlightenment’, who can honestly claim to know the truth? We are still in the realm of belief and faith in the words of someone else. We do not know for ourselves. Those who do, (I believe!) are very few in this world at any given time but I do believe they exist, and indeed, those who come to public notice now and then may indeed be but the tip of a much larger iceberg. To them, I humbly beg apology for anything I say in ignorance. Meanwhile, the rest of us can but continue trying to understand as best we may, by thinking, reasoning, and exploring our faiths and beliefs and seeing where they lead us.
So what is enlightenment? Reading the words and stories of those who teach, some speak of one consciousness-changing, all-knowing experience that remained with them ever after. Others returned, it seems, to their previous worldly states only to be pushed by the sorrows of life to seek their freedom again and again, and to thus be absorbed by degrees, as it were.
Enlightenment is generally assumed to be a super-conscious experience wherein all questions of the heart and mind are laid to rest, all sorrow and fear dissolve and the enigma of existence is resolved. All such enlightened beings tell us that it cannot be described, yet there are libraries overflowing with words about it nonetheless. Religions that even today still direct the lives of millions are based upon it, and some say everything is but an image in its name.
Picture this: a group of people stand around a muddy pond, each stirring the water with a stick trying to make the water clear. The only effective solution, of course, lies in everyone taking their stick out. In the matter of trying to define the truth of ourselves even the words that tell us to stop playing with words only continue to stir the muddy waters of our mind. Nevertheless, we continue hoping that one day we may hit upon a thought that finally ends all thought!
It’s not difficult to sound wise. Even the most banal statement can be adapted to illustrate some profound truth. For example, “The train is coming”, - yes, the train of thoughts is always coming, and going too; that’s all it does, it comes and goes. Are we on the train, just coming and going, or watching it pass? Well?
Fortunately, we do have the words of some authentic souls throughout the ages who have described, as best they might, the way to liberation, however limited our capacity to fully comprehend them may be.
Following the customary method of teaching is only for preserving the tradition. Pure awareness results solely from the clarity of the disciple’s understanding.
From Yoga Vashistha
However, even such great knowers admit that, in the end, words themselves mean nothing; for they belong to the very illusion they attempt to negate!
Where one knows nothing, there is verily no versification. The supreme and free one, pure of thought, absorbed in the consciousness of the homogeneous being, prattles about the truth.
The great sage Dattatreya in the Avadhuta Gita
Nevertheless, the greatest statements of ‘truth’ click with ‘something’ that exists in everyone. They are universal. They have no shelf life and they are not confined by time or location. Great art also touches on this process, when the artist by whatever means draws inspiration from within and connects with ‘something’ in the viewer, listener or reader. Such feelings may be nameless, but they can dance with the intellect in words. So if this ‘babble’ strikes a chord somewhere with you, I trust it will be sweet to both our souls. If not, perhaps my own enjoyment and the art of words can be my purpose and excuse.
Some truths are evident to all, though they may seem so vast that it may take years of life experience and a certain depth of contemplation for their full validity to become apparent.
"To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.
Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow; a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
From Shakespeare’s Macbeth
Other statements may not sound like the ‘truth’, but their significance lies in the effect they may produce on our sense of being, - which can only be experienced by sampling them, by entertaining their premise or perspective, and seeing where they lead. There’s no harm in this, any more than a scientist testing a theory or hypothesis, - if this be so, then what? We do this by being free enough to choose to believe, or imagine something to be true, and then using reasoning, reflection and feeling to judge its authenticity. Does it engender a sense of peace and contentment, a broader or more refined perspective, - an understanding or an elevation of spirit? Knowledge lies in experience, even when imagined.
Consider if you like, the proposal that that life is just an eternal repetition, - that everything we are doing now we have done countless times before. It may seem crazy and hardly worth a second thought, but try imagining that this very moment, what you are doing right now, you’ve done before, again, again and again – you’ve been here before, reading this countless times, and here you are again, - how does it feel?
If nothing else, it may bring our attention to the present moment. With luck, it may lead us to a momentary pause, - long enough to feel a sense of self as the witness of all, - long enough to help us feel what it might be like to get off the merry-go-round of mind and experience, and from eternally, repeatedly, leaping from thought to thought, - which is what we usually do, - unless we can leap into nothing, that is.
Follow that if you can! Then how about this, - there may be no spoken or written truth that is absolute. There may be as many truths as there are beings to experience them, and states of mind to perceive them, - each is ‘true’ in its own context. Above all, different truths, nay, all truths may exist simultaneously, both in parallel and paradox. Truth is happening all the time. Truth is happening all around. What it is depends on your perspective.
“Two men looked through prison bars, one saw mud, and the other saw stars”.
Consider also, if you like, that there may be no ‘truth’ of which the opposite is not equally true. Our whole existence is framed in the juxtaposition of opposites, - good and bad, light and dark, hot and cold, to name but a few, - whereby neither polarity exists in isolation without its opposite. What does bad mean if there is no good? What does good mean if there is no bad? For example, it’s true beyond a doubt that the world is full of imperfections, and yet from another perspective, it has to be true beyond a doubt that everything is perfect! Each perspective negates the other, - they are opposites, yet each concept depends on the other in order to have any meaning at all! Perfection and imperfection are but two sides of the same coin.
The final solution to this puzzle, the great escape – if we dare to contemplate it, - may lie in the thought that while the apparent opposites of something and nothing are equally true, just as an empty space is needed in which things may exist, something needs nothing, - but nothing needs nothing at all! As Lao Tzu would say:
“Tis the emptiness that makes things useful”.
And where are our thoughts displayed, if not in emptiness? The screen must be empty to display the pictures. The cup must be empty to hold its contents. And yet can emptiness itself really be confined in any way? The walls of a container simply divide space from space, - like a line drawn on water. It is infinite and definable only by the absence of anything at all.
Yet here, in this world of substance, time and place, where can peace be found?
Imagination would seem to be the most powerful force in the universe; - it’s probably what god does! Perhaps even now we only exist in the imagination of god. Thus the words from the Bible,
“……and god created man in his own image.”
could have quite a different meaning than that which is usually assumed!
It is because of that which always, of its own accord, imagines (everything) quickly and freely that this magical show (of the world) is projected in the waking state.
For us, imagination must be one of the greatest human gifts, and yet paradoxically, one of our greatest burdens. Used as a tool, a willingly entertained belief or supposition can be tested and tasted through imagining, reasoning or feeling and lead to new discovery. Allowed to run wild, however, imagination can turn a harmless piece of rope, seen in the dark, into a deadly snake, and our belief in it lead to panic. Such is its power. Some even say it explains our predicament here, - running away, yet forever searching for something to take us back and allay our fear.
For fear of Him, fire burns;
For fear of Him, shines the sun;
For fear of Him, Indra, king of the gods, and Vayu,
the wind god, function;
For fear of Him, death, the fifth, stalks on the earth.
From the Katha Upanishad.
All beings down to the tiniest cell, from the moment they become aware of their individual existence, are driven, it seems, by a primary directive to survive and avoid death at all costs. Their greatest fear is that they should cease to exist - despite the fact that just a moment before, they did not. So it is that life itself and all our stories are relentlessly propelled, - by fear.
Like an artist frightened
By the devil he paints,
The sufferer in Samsara (worldly existence)
Is terrified by his own imagination.
The great Sage Nagarjuna (around 200AD).
Worst of all, in my book, is to be driven by a belief that we cannot allow be questioned. Belief is a form of imagination which only has relevance when we do not know something for sure, so it’s a sad picture when we talk about a ‘true’ belief. Belief is a substitute for real knowledge and implies the lack of it. It’s sadder still when we imagine that only our chosen belief is ‘true,’ and if that belief is purported to be in a loving, all-forgiving, merciful and universal god, it must surely break the heart of tenderness to see it used as a reason to discriminate against others or even kill, and see so many suffer.
Yet, in the face of the unknowable, belief is all we have to deal with the insecurity of life. Though fundamentally flawed, may I suggest it also powers the very concept of our existence here? Believing we are, we certainly seem to be. At this level of conviction, we do not doubt that one breath shall follow another, or that we might forget how to put one foot past the other and walk. We happily allow ourselves to pass into the oblivion of sleep, never doubting for a moment that we shall wake again. I think we are in little danger of losing such belief in existence because everyone agrees it’s so, and thus we have no doubt. It faces no challenge - yet it too may only be just a belief or imagination, deluding us completely like the appearance of a snake in a piece of rope; keeping us here clinging madly to a runaway horse, believing we are who we are.
Of that about which we are less sure, however, belief is quite another story. It’s a gamble, and yet it is one on which many are prepared to stake their lives. Why feel so vulnerable? To whom do we have to prove our faith but to ourselves? Can you prove that anything exists if you do not? So where are we running to and what are we trying to change?
Yet is it possible to imagine a state of reality that does not depend on us or our perception of it? Perhaps, - when our imagining stops!
The common mind imagines a self
Where there is nothing at all,
And from this arise emotional states -
Happiness, suffering, and equanimity.
In the meantime, the fact remains that belief implies doubt, - a substitute for real knowledge. Faith, belief, and imagination, are simply degrees of much the same thing. At best they are conscious attempts to discover the truth. Alternatively, as some have said, faith is not wanting to know, - a convenient blindfold, - not wanting to know or admit that in fact we know nothing, and may indeed be nothing at all!
Such is the power of the need to believe in something, - some final solution to all that’s missing, the end of fear and suffering, the satisfaction of every unrequited desire, - that we cling to our inherited, imposed or chosen beliefs so desperately, blocking out our rational faculties, shutting our ears and minds to any murmur of contradiction, and making it our secret or public mission to convert the world to our point of view.
The whole art of politics rests on the manipulation of belief, but the search for knowledge can allow nothing to be set in stone.
Belief is a tool! You can pick it up and put it down! Its best use is to further our knowledge and comfort our souls, - and to discover the truth about who it is that believes.
So the moral of this, it seems to me, is that we should honour, use and enjoy this gift, our right to the power of imagination and belief, hopefully for the good and to our hearts’ content, and fully respect the right of others to do likewise, - but never should we doubt our primal innocence and freedom to let it go, knowing that it truly is imagination and that it originates in us alone, and of our own volition.
Nothing of your self can go away. Where can it go without you?
The self that seeks is the self it finds.
Hide and seek
Ladies and Gentlemen, girls and boys, lovers and children, and any other spark of consciousness that regards itself as “I”, - let’s play a game, – it’s called “Looking for god”.
It’s obviously the most amazingly incredible game in the universe.
Where shall we look? Up there? Down here? Over here? Over there? Did god make the world and then go home again? What did god make the universe out of if nothing existed before? Maybe he, she or it imagined it, imagines us all, but really, who imagines whom? The mind boggles. Where is god? Where were space and time before they were created? And exactly where did the Big Bang take place?
I think that’s what is known as an oxymoron, ‘an idea in which apparently contradictory statements exist in conjunction’. Well, if one’s choice is to believe in the concept of god, my baby logic says that he, she or it must create everything, including the ability to imagine it, out of him, her or itself, - there being nothing else to do it with. Following the same simple logic, the only conclusion is that everything seen or unseen that can possibly exist is in fact, in essence and truth, god, - being created by god out of god. That which was before, is now, and ever is, and therefore never was nor can be anything else!
As Krishna tells Arjuna in the Bhagavad-Gita,
“There is nothing besides Me, Arjuna. Like clusters of yarn-beads formed by knots on a thread, all this is threaded on me.”
Bearing this in mind, it follows that every atom or less that comes into existence, encompasses and is one with the essence of the whole universe, being made of ‘god’, - and yet indeed, for all our intents and purposes, each appears, functionally and situationally, to be separate, isolated and individual.
So now we know where god is, - everywhere! That was easy. So now tell me, who is looking? Well, of course, that must be god too!
What? You can’t see god in a pen, a computer, or yourself? Well, consider this: if you really knew you were god, and you knew that the pen and computer were god, then god would be looking at god and bang goes the idea of creation! Pop! No more subject and object; just god looking at god. No more diversity, - where did it go? Just god being god again, - a paradoxical oxymoron!
End of story!
As by knowing one lump of clay, all things made of clay are known, the difference being only in name and arising from speech…… exactly so is that knowledge, by knowing which we know all.
From the Chandogya Upanishad
Is that what we’re looking for? The end of the story? Probably. So let’s imagine it this way: There is only god, and god is always god and everything is hunky-dory, and simultaneously, for the apparent purposes of creation, god is pretending not to be god, imagining being you and me, looking for him, her or itself, and apparently having all sorts of troubles. It’s happening now, and as far as we’re concerned, it’s probably not the end of the story, - the great game goes on, - the ultimate game of ‘hide and seek’!
Hiding inside yourself! No-one will think of looking there!
I have lived on the lip of insanity,
wanting to know reasons,
knocking on a door.
I’ve been knocking from the inside!
The great Sufi, Rumi