Another Book of Nothing Chapters 1-4:
Words Truth Imagination Hide and Seek
Growing up in the UK, the highlight of my late teens and early twenties towards the end of the 1960's was to set off eastwards each year during the long summer college vacation, following what became known as the ‘hippie trail’ until eventually reaching India and Nepal. By then, I had also discovered what for me was the happy and socially liberating pastime of smoking marijuana, and had also taken a few LSD trips that had shaken the foundations and solidity of what hitherto I had always unquestioningly accepted and considered to be ‘normality’. Such experiences provided the first intimation that in fact we are not just this fluid bundle of thoughts and feelings, centred on an organic assemblage of flesh and bones that survives for but a short time on this earth. What became clear was that whatever the state of mind or experience, it was always transitory and external to my 'self' as the simple witness of it all, a basic awareness that remained essentially and fundamentally unchanged and completely unaffected by anything, whether physical, mental or even emotional, that appeared before it.
In retrospect, throughout all the events of life and all its pleasures and pains, however my experiences and choices may have changed or contributed to what I like to think of as my 'self', that pristine awareness which first looked out on the world as a newborn baby and innocent child is precisely and exactly the same that is looking out now, some 70 years later, regardless of all the accumulated knowledge and experiences of the intervening years. So it must be for all, and in view of this simple and universally evident fact, no more words would seem to be needed, but as we all know, the force of nature whereby we identify and are bound so tightly to this temporary corporeal existence and the sense of self constructed upon it, experiencing all its joys and woes in our passage through this great spectacle of life, is not so easily disregarded, and this is indeed, for us, the greatest puzzle and mystery of all.
During my second stay in Kathmandu at the end of 1970, as a young man of 22, I met Sri Tirtha Lal Mahanandhar who became my teacher and guru. He taught me how to meditate and led me into the world of Hindu Gods and Goddesses, their stories and teaching, and the towering glory of the wisdom of a multitude of saints and sages, all speaking of the same sublime truth from ancient times up to the present, as I and a small number of others gathered in the mornings and evenings to listen to him talking about the knowledge of Atman or Supreme Self and the path to self-realisation or 'enlightenment'.
Enlightenment - salvation, liberation or freedom from the wheel of birth and death - however you choose to call it - when it comes to talking about resolving the greatest mystery of life, it is certain that without the full and actual experience of self-realisation, no one can genuinely claim to know the ultimate truth. It is not a matter of accumulated or knowledge that can be remembered and trotted out on demand. In the absence of that awakening to our original nature, we remain in the realm of intellectual speculation or belief and faith, however strongly held, in the words of someone else, simply because we do not know for ourselves. Those who really do know seem to be very few in this world at any time, at least those who come to public notice or wide acclaim now and then and become renowned as being authentic, but these may in fact be the tip of a much larger iceberg of many others who remain unnoticed, perhaps shunning or even shunned by the world around them. To all those great ones who abide equally and untouched in any condition in this world, whether as kings or beggars or anything in-between, I humbly beg apology for anything I say here in ignorance, while seeking their blessing on the rest of us and our efforts to understand as best we may in following our own individual paths towards a deeper meaning and a final resolution to our momentary existence here on earth.
So, what exactly is enlightenment? Reading the words and stories of realised souls, some, such as Ramana Maharishi, speak of one consciousness-changing, all-knowing experience, the living reality of which remained clearly evident to them ever after, while others returned from that experience, it seems, to their previous, everyday worldly states only to be pushed by the suffering and sorrows of life to seek their freedom again and again, and to be thus absorbed by degrees, as it were. Sri Tirtha Lal said that for himself, having once experienced that state of freedom, he was initially unwilling and afraid to go there again, knowing how it meant the extinguishment of his individual identity or ego - until the troubles and struggles inherent in every form of physical existence drove him inevitably and repeatedly back to become increasingly established in that state of being.
In general then, enlightenment is 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 realised beings tell us that it cannot be described - yet there are libraries and scriptures overflowing with words about it nonetheless. Religions that even today still direct the lives of millions are based upon it and have their origin in the experience and teaching of at least one enlightened person or other and claim the legacy of their scriptures to be the ‘Word of God’. The primary purpose of these 'words', provided they are not distorted by vested interests to become a means of maintaining power and exerting control, is then understood to be to help others to attain enlightenment, or salvation for themselves.
St. John's Gospel in the New testament of the Christian Bible, for example, begins by stating that, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”. From the point of view of 'enlightenment' however, notwithstanding that the formless absolute Reality and the relative forms of creation are ultimately to be seen as one and the same, like water and its waves, functionally, a word is simply a label - a means of identifying things and communicating information - but as such it is not the actual thing which it denotes any more than the finger pointing to indicate the moon is the moon itself. Certainly, a wave itself is nothing but water, but the label ‘wave’ refers to a momentary formation of water that has neither a separate, independent existence nor any essential reality beyond that of being water alone. Ornaments made of gold may all look different - the possibilities are endless - but their real substance, their essence, is one and the same, and when their separate forms disappear, as for example in being melted together, that essence, the gold alone remains, never having changed even one iota nor ever having existed as anything else, regardless of whatever its shape or form may appear to be or have been. Indeed, it is our illusion of firmly believing the form and appearance of each and every individual thing to have its own intrinsic reality as a separate and discrete entity that prevents us from understanding the essential equality and unity of all phenomena as being the ephemeral display of one, and only one, essence or Reality alone. On the other hand, this illusionary perspective and our labelling everything by means of words, as being distinct, individual and separate is exactly what gives the world its credence and makes our existence as a part of it seem so totally real - creating the conditions for life, its joys and suffering, the whole universe itself and everything without exception that we experience here.
That one single truth of 'enlightenment' - the origin and abiding Reality of this whole creation - is thus displayed here in so many forms, like a dream wherein anything at all may happen or appear to exist - yet never, ever, losing or becoming anything other than its essential nature of being totally devoid of any defining characteristics at all.
From the standpoint of enlightenment,
the heart essence from which everything arises,
there is no duality, and any attempt to quantify things would be endless.
Buddhas, ordinary beings, and the universe of appearances and possibilities are evident,
yet do not waver from the single nature of phenomena, just as it is.
Longchen Rabjam, from The Precious Treasury of the Way of Abiding
Unfortunately, in attempting to discover and define the truth of ourselves, too many words, thoughts and opinions about this subject, however wise and wonderful they may be, can sometimes lead to more confusion and frustration rather than less. Like a group of people standing around a muddy pond, each stirring the water with a stick in a vain attempt to make the water clear when the only effective solution lies, of course, in everyone taking their stick out, more and more words and words alone may only serve to continue to stirring the muddied waters of our intellect and mind. These days, for example, there are so many pages and groups on social media displaying seemingly endless memes of wise and spiritual sayings, albeit from famously authentic souls, and yet scrolling on from one to another can simply result in a surfeit of ‘wisdom’ similar in feeling to that which results from overindulgence in too much rich food. Indeed, such an abundance of words and advice, however wise, can begin to resemble the ubiquitous exhortations of advertisements that bombard us every day from every direction in this modern world, telling us how to have the perfect, teeth-sparkling happiness they portray - of a life that always seems to be somehow so much better than that which is authentically our own.
In fact, it's not so difficult with even a little knowledge to sound wise, and even the most banal statement can be adapted to illustrate some profound truth. For example, “The train is coming”. Oh yes! The train of thoughts is always coming, and always going too. That’s what it does - it comes and goes. Then, are we on the train, forever coming and going with our thoughts, or are we simply watching them pass? Ironically perhaps, we keep on thinking anyway, even hoping that one fine day we may hit upon a single thought – a flash of enlightenment, no less – that finally ends all thought!
Speaking of which, is it actually possible to think without words? This endless commentary that we continuously speak to ourselves in thoughts - could it exist without words? And without that self-reflecting commentary - without the language of thought, ideas and opinions - what of our sense of individuality or self? Thoughts, and all our mental workings and imaginings, like dreams, are ethereal and have no actual substance - they cannot be seen as such or touched or even eaten! They can only be invisibly and mysteriously 'thought', and yet herein lies the innermost reality of who we seem to be and what we believe we are in our daily lives - a self based on a never-ending flow of 'talking' to ourselves, including habitual responses, strategic reasoning and an ever-accumulating database of memory. While the main purpose of thoughts and thinking might once have been as a means to aid our purely physical survival, within the human intellect this has evolved to include protecting and nurturing, primarily it seems, our 'self'-image of opinions, ideas, ambitions, desires and aversions and so on - in other words, our sense of individuality or ego.
Yet, to all intents and purposes, apart from an identity based on the physical existence of a body, its senses and experiences, this idea of 'self' simply doesn't exist, being a purely mental construction and having absolutely no graspable substance as an identifiable 'thing'. In 'Treasures from Juniper Ridge' when asked about the dividing line between 'this shore' of samsara, or worldly existence, and the 'other shore' of enlightenment, the great Bodhisattva Padmasambhava replied:
When applying this experientially in your own stream-of-being,
look into the normal thinking mind belonging to this shore,
and thereby see that it is utterly insubstantial,
a cognisance that cannot be apprehended.
This is known as 'arriving at the other shore'
and is the vital point of dissolving this shore
into arriving at the other shore.
Many authentic and enlightened souls throughout the ages have indeed described, as best they might, the way to freedom and liberation from this limited circle of our 'normal' self-centred existence, however inadequate our capacity to fully comprehend them may be, but they all admit that, in the end, words in 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
And from the final uttering of the 'other' Book of Nothing:
The way is beyond language,
for in it there is no yesterday, no tomorrow, no today.
HSIN HSIN MING - Verses on the Faith Mind (or The Book of Nothing) by The 3rd Zen Patriarch, Sengstau
Nevertheless, the greatest statements of 'truth' do seem to click with something that seems somehow familiar and that relates to the life and common experience of all - they are universal, have no shelf life and are not confined to any particular time or location. Great art also touches on this process, when the artist, by whatever means, draws inspiration from within and connects with that sense of recognition in the viewer, listener or reader. Although such intuitive feelings may be nameless, they still can dance with the emotions and intellect in words and thereby even touch our souls. So if, in this writing, some wayward word or two may happen to strike a meaningful chord in you, I trust it will be sweet to both our souls - and if not, then perhaps my own enjoyment and the art of words alone will simply suffice to be its purpose and excuse.
Some 'truths' are evident to all, though they may seem so vast in scope that it may take years of life experience and a certain depth of contemplation for their full validity to become apparent, for example::
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 immediately sound like the truth as such, but their significance can lie in the effect they 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 us. There should be no harm in this, any more than a scientist testing a theory or hypothesis - if it means this or feels like that - then what are the implications? However we can only do this by being free and open enough to choose to believe or imagine something to be true, even if only for a short time, and then through reason, reflection, feeling or intuition, judge its effect and thereby, its value. When it comes to spiritual or philosophical statements and ideas, for example, does it engender a sense of peace and contentment, a broader or more refined perspective, an understanding or an elevation of spirit? Such experience can lead to knowledge and understanding - even when imagined.
As an illustration of this, there is the idea of 'eternal return or recurrence' proposed by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, suggesting that life is a series of eternal repetitions - in other words, that everything we do, and indeed are doing now, we have done countless times before and that everything repeats itself thus, ad infinitum. Such a concept may seem crazy and hardly worth a second thought, but if you try to imagine that what you are doing right now you’ve done before, again, again and again - that you’ve been here countless times before, reading these very words just as you are doing now - how does it make you feel?
If nothing else, it may bring our attention to the present moment. It might even lead us to a momentary pause – long enough to feel a sense of self as the witness of all, separate and independent of the externalities of life. Long enough perhaps, to help us feel what it might be like to stop and get off the merry-go-round of mind and experience, and from eternally, repeatedly, leaping from thought to thought and from one thing to another - which, of course, is what we normally do.
Truth is generally defined as a statement of some unalterable and undeniable fact, however it could be that there can be no spoken or written truth that is absolute in itself. Indeed, there may be as many truths as there are beings and states of mind to perceive them - each being true in its own situation and context. Above all, different truths, nay, all truths may thereby exist simultaneously, both in parallel and paradox, such that truth is simply whatever is happening all around, but what it is depends entirely on each individual's perspective.
Two men looked out from prison bars.
One saw the mud, and the other saw stars. (Dale Carnegie)
Then it may also be that there can be no truth which does not confirm or directly infer the potential existence or truth of its opposite. 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 may be true beyond a doubt that the world is imperfect, fleeting, transitory and full of imperfections and suffering, and yet from another perspective it has to be true beyond a doubt that everything is perfect, simply because that is how it is and cannot possibly, in this very moment, be any other way. Similarly, every perspective simultaneously negates and complements its opposite and it is the interrelationship between them that creates the very drama of life. They are opposites, yet each concept gives meaning to the other and it is only the contrast between them that allows for anything to have any meaning at all. Thus perfection and imperfection, like all pairs of opposites, are but two inseparable sides of one and the same single coin.
There may be one exception, however, to the puzzle of there not being anything here that does not involve the inevitable and necessary existence of its opposite, and that may lie in the thought that while the apparent opposites of 'something' and 'nothing' would seem to be co-dependent, as an empty, vacant space is needed to provide the location, background and basis for anything to exist - pure nothingness, on the other hand, by its very definition, requires there to be nothing 'else' at all for it to be nothing! It can be argued however, that the only nothing we can speak of, apart from it being an essential element in the appearance of anything, can only exist for us as a concept - in other words, as another kind of something, since the complete absence of something would also include the absence anything to perceive it.
Emptiness or nothing is generally thought of, therefore, as simply having no existence on its own because our whole reality and intellectual understanding is based on the relationship between one thing and another. As space or emptiness, it only is only identifiable as such when there is something in it. Yet, as Lao Tzu would say, it is the emptiness that makes things useful, like the windows and doors of a house or the hub of a wheel. And where indeed 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, whereas that emptiness is infinite and definable only as the absence of anything at all.
Yet it is this total emptiness, devoid of the duality of subject and object and without any of the coverings of existence as we know it, that can best be labelled the only truly unalterable ‘truth’ when compared to the ever-changing impermanence and interaction of opposites that comprises the realm of ‘something’. Indeed, depending for its appearance on the ‘presence’ of emptiness, but lacking any stability or constancy and therefore, we might say, any permanent truth, this whole creation, including 'us' and our experience of it, most resembles some kind of illusion.
In this respect, Buddhist teaching talks about two truths - an ‘ultimate’ truth indicating absolute, non-dual emptiness and the other, the conventional, 'relative' truth of the existence of multitudinous names and forms with which we are so familiar.
Longchen Rabjam, the 14th century Tibetan master and mystic, attributes the idea of relative truth or the apparent reality that we see in the phenomenal world to a case of mistaken identity, whereby the ultimate formless and single reality, while constituting the undeniable sense of ‘presence’ or 'reality' that we feel in the appearance and form of all phenomena, erroneously identifies itself as the separate, localised and particularised existence of each of those multifarious objects, which in turn gives rise to the idea of ourselves as their subject. Thus everything appears to be real or true while in actuality the whole show is completely unreal or fictional like a figment of the imagination, a dream, a mirage or phantom.
In its varied shadings like a finished painting,
In becoming mistaken about itself, the One
presents itself to itself in many guises,
And by taking the many guises as something real,
its flow of mistaken presentations does not stop.
Alas! This actuality of Being presenting itself
as fictitious being is like a dream.
Longchen Rabjam, 'Kindly bent to Ease Us, part 3 - Wonderment' (translated by Herbert V. Guenther)
Perhaps the final arbiter of truth, from a practical perspective, is the bare fact of being aware of the existence of anything. Awareness, or consciousness, is the very actuality of our existence whereby all perceptions, thoughts, feelings and actions are seen like the pictures on a screen, and which, as we all know, come and go. At the same time, perceptions are the only actual evidence there is of the existence of awareness itself which otherwise has no form of its own. Thus, in reality, what are these pictures, which do not have any independent or intrinsic existence in themselves, if not the 'visible' form of that one, single awareness itself? And yet, as the underlying basis, reality and 'truth' of all that can be, pure awareness, like the movie screen, has no bias or discriminating function as to the objects displayed, being completely detached, unmoving and single in itself, and yet completely at one with the display of whatever our multifarious individual stories and experience of life from moment to moment may be. In the absence of any pictures or ’objects’ to define it then, what exactly is this awareness? Unfortunately, from the point of view of objects - which include none other than we ourselves and all the efforts of our intellectual capacity - it is impossible to say whether the screen or such a thing as awareness, our very essence, exists if we do not! So this means that while we cannot exist without, and indeed are nothing other in reality than awareness itself, we are incapable of identifying it as anything at all - and thus we call it, ‘emptiness’, void, nothing at all, or simply 'mind-as-such', as it is the complete absence or absolute non-separateness of anything and everything we can possibly know, think of or perceive.
In the context of pure awareness then, while it is undoubtedly the ultimate and only ‘truth’ as the 'sine qua non' of the existence of our selves and everything else, any ideas, concepts and value judgements such as truth and falsehood can have no definitive relevance or meaning at all. Thus:
Whatever is there before the mind having
become mistaken about itself
Has no truth or reality value in itself. This very moment
The state in which there is neither truth nor falsity
and which in its non-duality passes beyond the intellect
Must, of a certainty, be known to be the self-existent
Longchen Rabjam, 'Kindly Bent to Ease Us, part 3 - Wonderment' (translated by Herbert V. Guenther)
Imagination may be the most powerful force in the universe, and perhaps even now we exist only in the imagination of 'God'. Indeed it seems that that pure 'mind-as-such', the eternal subject of all, can only see itself in terms of the objects of its own projection, and yet when appearing to be embodied as the heart and mind of an individual soul, it seems to be helplessly addicted, like some cosmic Narcissus, to seeing its ever-free Self solely in terms of the infinite proliferation of images that are simply reflections of its own inscrutable making. In this case, the words from the Bible, “And God created man in his own image” would have quite a different meaning than that which we usually assume or imagine, in believing that God must just be like us, only perfect in all respects. Then again, there are those who say that any belief in the existence of a Supreme Being, God or Gods is akin to the imaginary friend of a child, but from a realised soul's perspective, it is the whole world around us that is imagined and our very existence as an individualised being is no more than a dream.
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.
Imagination - the creation of images in the mind - is certainly one of the greatest human gifts when used creatively and yet paradoxically it can also be one of our greatest burdens. Used as a tool, the potential significance of a willingly entertained idea or hypothetical situation can be tested and tasted, vicariously as it were, by applying reason or feeling to the imagination of there being such a reality and observing the consequences thereof. Allowed to run wild, however, our imagination can turn a harmless piece of burnt rope seen in the dark into a deadly snake - and our belief in it lead to outright panic. Such is its power. Some even say it is a metaphor for the predicament in which we find ourselves here, to all intents and purposes running away from facing up to the frightening transitoriness of life, of death and the loss of all we cherish and hold dear, trying to ignore the inevitable suffering that is part and parcel of a physical existence by pretending we are here forever - yet always searching for something or someone to take us back, like a baby into its mother's arms, in the faith and hope of rediscovering an ever-abiding, lovingly secure and invulnerable reality behind these scarily fleeting forms, and an understanding that will lay all our fears to rest.
It seems that all living beings down to the tiniest cell, from the moment they become aware of their individual existence at birth, are driven by a primary directive to survive at all costs. Their greatest fear is that they should cease to exist - despite the fact that just a moment before, as far as they know, they did not. So it is that life itself and all our stories are, in this respect, relentlessly propelled by an overriding instinct for survival at all costs - not only of our bodies but also, as humans, for the continuity of our sense of identity as an individual or ego - and this is inevitably accompanied by the fear, always lurking in the background however much absorbed we may be in the activities of life, of losing or not getting ‘something’, of death, and of ceasing to be.
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
It is not that we actually live in a perpetual state of fear, but rather than think the unthinkable, we tend to busy ourselves with the present and carry on through life as if it will last forever. The present, in fact, requires no further imagination to be simply as it is, whereas the future is always imagined, no matter what indications, clues or omens there may be as to what may possibly happen. In particular, fear is always concerned with the future and what we imagine is going to happen in either the short or long term, and so the very impermanence of everything here means we are unlikely ever to feel completely secure, albeit as Alan Watts said, that fear is an image that exists solely in the mind and as such consists purely of imagination alone.
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)
As an antidote to such fear - if it cannot be ignored and if we are unable to see that the snake is in fact a harmless piece of rope - we then have the option of countering it with another form of imagination, namely faith, trust or belief.
Sadly, in making an attempt to remedy this poignantly tragic condition in which we find ourselves unable to keep anything, even our bodies, longer than a certain limited period of time, there are some who go so far as to put their faith in a belief which they cannot allow anyone to question, even to the extent of seeing those that do so to be their mortal enemies. Yet the fact is that belief itself is a form of imagination that only has relevance when we do not know something for sure, so it’s rather a sad picture and something of a contradiction when we talk about a ‘true’ belief. Belief is what we substitute for the real or actual knowledge of something and thereby implies the lack of it, so it would seem somewhat desperate for us to imagine that only our belief is true to the exclusion of all others. And if such a belief, as is often the case, is professed to be in a loving, all forgiving, merciful and universal God, it must surely break that heart of tenderness to see it used as a justification for imposing suffering and discrimination against others whose belief may differ from our own.
Supporters of a football team enjoy the competition and rivalry while sharing with the supporters of other teams the same love of football. The nature of the human collective however, based as it is on tribal instincts of loyalty and security in numbers, means that it is often quite another thing when it comes to some of the more ardent adherents of any religion, who should, in theory at least, find common ground with those of others in the love of God or a Supreme Spirit, while differing only in the names used and means of worship. Such prejudicial attitudes, often fanned into a raging flame by politicians or religious fanatics, blend easily with the ideas of certain narrowly exclusive groupings and even with the sentiments of national identity and patriotism, whereby, especially in times of conflict, people easily accede to the belief that their nation, race, religion or ideology is somehow intrinsically better than others, and subscribe to negative opinions and feelings toward others and even, in extreme cases, demonise those who are not the same as them as being evil. Thus it is a rare soul who would stand alone in the face of such powerful social pressures and maintain an independent, unbiased and comprehensive view of the life conditions and basic physical and emotional needs that we all, as humans, have in common, and whereby it is seems so patently obvious that it is the same inviolable spirit that equally animates us all.
Yet, in the face of the unknowable, belief is all we have to deal with the ever-present insecurity of life. Though fundamentally flawed in being only a proxy for reality, this power of imagination is such that it may well underlie the very idea of our existence itself. Believing we are, we certainly seem to be, and at this level of conviction we entertain no doubt whatsoever that one breath will 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, and indeed, when it comes to the scenes and events of the external world, we say, 'seeing is believing' and thus it certainly all seems real enough! So it seems we are in little danger of losing this level of belief, especially when it comes to the credibility of our individual existence and immediate environment because everyone, from the moment we are born, confirms and reaffirms its 'reality' again and again to ourselves and each other and to challenge it would seem absurd. Yet it could be that all this is being sustained by a belief or imagination so strong as to be deluding us completely - like the snake in the rope - keeping us here, inseparably welded to to our individual identities, bodies, thoughts and opinions, unable to let go as if clinging madly to a runaway horse and believing beyond any shadow of doubt that we are who are, that everything is just as it appears to be, and that this is all there is.
Of that about which we are less sure, however, belief is quite another story. It’s a gamble, and yet is one on which many are prepared to stake their lives in its defence. Why feel so vulnerable? To whom do we have to prove our faith but to ourselves? Can I prove that anything exists if I do not? So where are we running to and what are we trying to change?
Yet is it possible to imagine a state of absolute reality and ultimate truth that does not depend on us, on our perception or belief in it - a reality that is not in fact imagined or contrived by anyone in any way? 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 is a form of imagination that inevitably implies an element of doubt – being a substitute for actual knowledge. Faith, belief, and imagination, are simply degrees of much the same thing. At their best, they are conscious attempts and a means to discover an ever-abiding truth or something constant in the ever-swirling waters of change, and indeed it is often seen that a firmly held faith and absolute trust, even in the face of all indications of an opposing reality and against all odds, can 'move mountains' or achieve the seemingly impossible. Alternatively, as some have said, faith is not wanting to know, like a convenient blindfold whereby we can avoid taking responsibility for ourselves and our actions, blindly following others or doggedly clinging to our fixed opinions - not wanting to know or admit the fact that in the total scheme of things, we really know nothing, and may indeed, in the final analysis, be nothing at all!
Indeed, 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 or the satisfaction of every unrequited desire - that, in some cases, we can find ourselves desperately clinging to our inherited, imposed or chosen beliefs, 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 and the principle of 'divide and rule' rests on the skillful manipulation of belief - but the search for knowledge can allow nothing to be set in stone.
Belief or imagination is a tool! You can pick it up and put it down! Its best use is to further our knowledge and to comfort our souls - and as a means to explore and discover the ultimate truth about who it is that believes.
So well may we honour, use and enjoy this gift and our natural right to the power of creative imagination, faith and belief - hopefully for the good and to our hearts’ content - while fully respecting 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 - an overlay or covering, as it were, on that which really is and what we truly are.
The self that seeks is the self it finds.
Weapons cannot cut it nor can fire burn it;
Water cannot drench it nor can wind make it dry.
For this soul is incapable of being cut; it is proof against fire,
impervious to water and undriable as well.
This soul is eternal, omnipresent, immovable, constant and everlasting.
This soul is unmanifest; it is unthinkable; and it is spoken of as immutable.
Therefore, knowing this soul as such, you should not grieve.
Bhagavad Gita 2:23,24,25
Hide and seek
Dear friends, ladies and gentlemen, girls and boys, lovers and children, and any spark of conscious awareness that regards itself as an “I”, let’s play a game - it’s called “Looking for God!”.
It’s obviously the most amazingly incredible game in the universe - and in fact, the universe is the game itself!
So 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 in reality, who imagines whom? The mind boggles. Where and what exactly is God? If space and time did not exist before the universe was created, exactly where could the Big Bang take place?
Well, if one’s choice is to entertain the concept of God as most understand it, my baby logic says that He, She or It must create everything - that is, the totality of all that exists, including the power to imagination it, out of Him, Her or Itself - there being nothing else ‘in the beginning’ to do it with. Following the same simple logic, the only conclusion is that absolutely everything seen or unseen that can possibly exist is in fact, in essence and truth, God - being created by God out of God. So That which was before, is now, ever is and can only be God - and there never was, could, can or will 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.
The Bhagavad Gita 7:7
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’ - even though 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 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, if you really knew you were God, and you knew that the pen and computer were God, then it would just be God looking at God and so bang goes the idea of creation! Pop! No more subject and object - just God being God and nothing but.
No more diversity, where did it go? No more waves, only water - just God and God alone.
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 - but simultaneously for the apparent purposes of creation, God is pretending not to be God - imagining being you and me and so many other identities all calling themselves ‘I’, all 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 – so the great game goes on - the ultimate game of ‘hide and seek’!
There is a story about a group of novice monks who were listening one morning to their master's teaching that, in reality, everything without exception was God. Later as they were collecting firewood in the forest they heard a mad elephant come crashing through the trees towards them and its keeper, the mahout, shouting for everyone to get out of its way. Fearing for their lives, the monks scattered in all directions or climbed the nearest tree - all except for one earnest young man who thought to himself, "My teacher told us that God is in everything, so the elephant must be God too", and so he remained standing in its path with his palms held together in prayer as it thundered towards him. The elephant, however, picked him up, threw him off into the trees and continued on its rampage. Returning to their hermitage with the bruised and shaken young monk, and hearing of his reason for not running away, the master said, "Yes, it is true that the elephant was God, but so was the mahout, and he was yelling at you to get out of the way!"
So, this whole universe and all the different parts of the game are the miraculous display of God and there is nothing but God, however the ultimate understanding of this can only be found in the actual realisation of that same divinity residing within and as ourselves.
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