Be Empty

The Teachings of Sri Tirtha Lal Mahanandhar

Another Book of Nothing              Chapters 1-4:            


Words                  Truth                 Imagination                 Hide and Seek     

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To enjoy 

the empty spaces

where just the river 

flows

















1


Words


Growing up in the UK, the highlight of my late teens and early twenties was to set off eastwards each year during the long summer college vacation, following what became the ‘hippie trail’ until eventually getting to 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 shook 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 was clear was that no matter whatever the state of mind or experience, it was transitory and external to my 'self' as the simple experiencer – a witnessing principle which remained unchanged – in other words, the simple awareness that allows for the perception of anything at all always and forever remains  essentially and fundamentally unaffected by anything it perceives.


It was during my second visit to Kathmandu at the end of 1970, as a young man of 22, that I met the man who was to become my teacher and guru, Sri Tirtha Lal Mahanandhar. Sri Tirtha Lal taught me how to meditate and led me into a world of Gods and Goddesses, and the towering glory of the thoughts and teachings of a myriad of 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 his teaching about devotion, knowledge of the Self, God realisation  or 'enlightenment' - and emptiness.


Of enlightenment, it is clear that without the full experience of self-realisation, no one can honestly claim to know the ultimate truth. It is not a matter of accumulated knowledge that can be remembered and trotted out on demand. In the absence of that awakening to our original nature, we are still in the realm of intellectual speculation or belief and faith 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, although those teachers who come to public notice or wide acclaim now and then and are renowned as being authentic may in fact be but the tip of a much larger iceberg of many others who remain unnoticed, perhaps shunning or even shunned, by the world. To them - to all the great ones of this world abiding equally in this world, whether in the form of kings or as beggars, 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 - following their teachings and example and our own individual paths towards discovering 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, it seems, to their previous 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 death of his individual identity or ego - until the troubles and struggles inherent in every physical existence drove him inevitably and repeatedly to become more and more established in that state of being.


Generally, 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 another and claiming the legacy of their scriptures to be the ‘Word of God’.


The opening words of St. John's Gospel are, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”. Notwithstanding that the formless Supreme Absolute and the relative forms of creation are ultimately seen to be 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 reality which it denotes. In other words, yes, 'the Word was God', but can we say that the 'word' is the actuality we call God?  Sure, 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 water. 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 devoid of their separate forms, for example in being melted together, that essence, the gold alone remains, in itself never having changed even one iota nor having ever existed as anything else, regardless of its shape or form. Indeed, it is our illusion of firmly believing the form and appearance of every individual thing to have its own intrinsic existence as a separate entity that prevents us from understanding the essential equality and unity of all possibilities as being the ephemeral display of one, and only one, Reality alone. On the other hand, this illusionary perspective and our labelling everything by means of words, as 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 - and thus creates the conditions for life, our joys and suffering, the universe itself and everything 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 it never, ever, loses or is anything other than its essential nature - 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, The Precious Treasury of the Way of Abiding



However, coming back to the relative reality of this world we live in - like a group of people standing around a muddy pond, each stirring the water with a stick in an effort to make the water clear, when the only effective solution lies, of course, in everyone taking their stick out, in attempting to define the truth of ourselves, too many words and thoughts can often serve only to continue stirring the muddy waters of our intellect and mind, and lead to more confusion rather than less. These days there are so many pages and groups on social media showing endless memes of wise and spiritual sayings, albeit from famously authentic souls, which can sometimes produce a surfeit of ‘wisdom’ that can leave one feeling the same kind of nausea and repulsion that results from overindulgence in too much rich food. Such an abundance of words begins 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 is always made to seem so much better than that which is authentically our own.


In fact, it's not so difficult, even with 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 that which simply watches them pass? Even then, ironically perhaps, we continue hoping that one fine day we may hit upon a thought – a flash of enlightenment, no less – that finally ends all thought!


Speaking of which, is it actually possible to think without words? The endless commentary that we speak to ourselves in thoughts - could it exist without words? And without that self-reflecting commentary - without thought or ideas - what of the sense of self?


Many authentic and enlightened souls throughout the ages have indeed described, as best they might, the way to liberation, however limited our capacity to fully comprehend them may be, but they all 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 do seem to click with something that seems familiar and is the common experience of 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 that sense of recognition in the viewer, listener or reader. Although such intuitive feelings may be nameless, they still can dance with the intellect in words. So in this writing, if some wayward word or two may happen to strike a meaningful chord in you, I trust it will be sweet to both our souls - but if not, then perhaps my own enjoyment and the art of words alone will have to serve as my purpose and excuse.













2



Truth


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,
                  Signifying nothing.


                  From Shakespeare’s Macbeth



Other statements however may not 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? 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 on us, and thereby its value. 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 an experience can lead to knowledge and understanding - even when imagined.


As an example, the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche put forward the idea of ‘eternal return or recurrence’, suggesting that life is an eternal repetition - 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 in this very moment, that what you are doing now, you’ve done before, again, again and again - and that you’ve been here, reading these very words an infinite number of times before - 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 - which is, of course, what we usually do.


When it comes to defining what exactly is the truth, it could be that there exists no spoken or written truth that is absolute in itself. In fact 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 exist simultaneously, both in parallel and paradox such that truth is what is happening all around, and what it is depends entirely on your own 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 the existence or potential 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’s 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 in the moment and undeniably cannot be any other way! So each perspective simultaneously negates and complements the other and together they create the 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 sides of one and the same single coin.


One exception to this puzzle - of not being able to have anything here without the inevitable and necessary existence of its opposite - may lie in the thought that while the apparent opposites of something and nothing would seem to be co-dependent, in that an empty space is needed as a location and background for something to be, nothing, by its very definition, needs nothing to be nothing!


Indeed, ‘nothing’ is generally defined as having no existence because our whole reality 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. 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. It is infinite and definable only as the absence of anything at all.













3



Imagination


Imagination may be the most powerful force in the universe, and perhaps even now we only exist in the imagination of God. If this were the case, then 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 in believing that God must just be like us, only perfect in all respects. Then again, there are those who say that the very belief in the existence of a God or Gods is akin to the imaginary friend of children. 


                  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. 


                  Yoga Vashistha



Imagination - the creation of mental images - must be one of the greatest human gifts and yet paradoxically one of our greatest burdens. Used as a tool, the potential consequences 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 thereof. 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 is a metaphor for our predicament here - running away from facing the transitoriness of life, of death and the loss of all we cherish and hold dear - the inevitable suffering entailed in physical existence - yet forever searching for something to take us back, to rediscover an ever-abiding, harmless and invulnerable reality behind these fleeting forms, and thus 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



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 instinct for survival - not only of our bodies, but also as humans, of our sense of identity as an individual or ego – the fear of losing or not getting ‘something’, of death and of ceasing to be.


It is not that we live in a perpetual state of fear, however, but rather than think the unthinkable, we tend to carry on through life as if the present will last forever. The present requires no imagination; it is as it is – whereas the future is always imagined, no matter what basis of indications or clues there may be as to what will probably happen. In particular, fear is always concerned with the future and what we imagine is going to happen in both the short and long term, and so the very impermanence of everything here means we are likely to never feel completely secure. Nevertheless, as Alan Watts said, fear only exists in the mind.


                  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)



Unfortunately, in an effort to remedy this poignantly tragic condition in which we find ourselves unable to keep anything, not even our bodies, longer than a certain limited period of time, there are some who put their faith in a belief which they refuse to be questioned, 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 when we talk about a ‘true’ belief. Belief is what we substitute for real or actual knowledge of something and implies the lack of it, so it seems a pity 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 reason to justify the suffering of others.


Supporters of a football team enjoy the competition and rivalry between teams while sharing with the supporters of any 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 adherents of different religions, who should, in theory at least, find common ground in the love of God, while differing only in names and means of worship. Such a prejudicial attitude, often fanned into a raging flame by politicians, also blends easily with sentiments of national identity and patriotism, whereby people easily accede to the belief that their nation, race or religion is intrinsically better than others, and subscribe to a negative idea or even demonisation those who are not the same as them. 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 needs we all have in common, whereby it is seems so obvious that it is the same inviolable spirit that equally animates 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, its power is such that it might 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, as they say, seeing is believing and so it all seems real! So I think we are in little danger of losing this belief - especially in the apparent reality of our individual existence - because everyone else, from the moment we are born, confirms it again and again, and to challenge it would seem absurd. Yet all this could be being sustained by a belief or imagination so strong as to be deluding us completely - like the snake in the rope - keeping us here as if clinging madly to a runaway horse, believing beyond a doubt that we are who are and that everything is just as it appears to be.


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 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 reality that does not depend on us or our perception or our belief in it 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.


                  Nagarjuna



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 the truth, and it is true that a firmly held faith in the face of all indications of an opposing reality and against all odds can move mountains. Alternatively, as some have said, faith is not wanting to know, like a convenient blindfold - not wanting to know or admit that in fact we know nothing, and may indeed, in the final analysis, 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 or 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. 


Indeed, he whole art of politics rests on the 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 imagination 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.


Nothing of your true self can go away or be lost. Where can it possibly go without you?


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













4



Hide and seek


Friends, 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.


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? Where were space and time before the universe was created, so exactly where did 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 imagination, 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, and ever is God - and there never was, could or 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.

 

                  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’ - 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!


Game over!


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 and nothing but. 


No more diversity, where did it go? No more waves, only water - just God being God as always.


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’!


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.
                  It opens.
                  I’ve been knocking from the inside!


                  The great Sufi, Rumi






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