Be Empty

The Teachings of Sri Tirtha Lal Mahanandhar

Another Book of Nothing        Chapters 20 - 24:         


With form or without?            We can work it out            Within and without you            To be or not to be?            I think, therefore I am                                                                                                             


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20



With form or without?


Before we go on to investigate perspectives other than that of imagination or belief in a personal God, having hopefully established its validity and authenticity in recognising the reality of such a human need, let’s explore what may actually happen when this kind of devotion becomes intense. In such a state of sustained concentration on a single object, what happens to the mind? If through constant practice, the mind no longer skips from one thought to another, but remains fixed on one image without moving, what happens to the sense of self?


As an example of such devotion, there is the story of Sri Ramakrishna Paramahansa who came from a simple priestly village family in Bengal. In the latter part of the nineteenth century he came to Dakshinshwar on the outskirts of Calcutta, as it was then known, to assist his uncle who had been appointed as head priest to a brand new Kali temple on the bank of the Ganges. Once there, tending, decorating and offering worship to the dramatic image of Kali, he gradually became obsessed with the question of whether this image of the Mother Goddess in the temple was real or not. Being relatively uneducated, he kept asking this question with such simple intensity that people would sometimes find him in tears, crying for his ‘mother’

Sri Ramakrishna Paramahansa

Eventually, one day in the temple he was in such a state of anguish that he snatched the sword of Kali that hung there on the wall, determined to put an end to his pain - but at that moment he fell to the floor, unconscious of everything but the all-enveloping presence of Mother Kali. From that time on, She was, he said, his constant companion, guiding him, comforting him and even dancing beside him in the form of a little girl, telling him which flowers to pick for her worship. Of course she was visible to no one else, but for Ramakrishna, She was, so he declared, more real than anything else.


Mother Kali at Dakshineshwar temple


Thus he had, you might say, a sublime, divine relationship with God as his mother and companion at a level where the power of his intense concentration had transcended the everyday reality of mundane existence. You and I can probably only imagine such a state, but that’s a start!


At this point it would seem some sense of individual self still remained in Ramakrishna, and this he retained for the rest of his life, as the son or servant of the Goddess, enjoying Her beauty, companionship and comfort.


Now some time later a wandering monk or sadhu called Totapuri, who had spent forty years to attain enlightenment, or realisation of the ultimate, formless reality, came to Dakshineshwar, and saw Ramakrishna sitting on some steps in the temple compound. Intuitively thinking that he looked a likely candidate, Totapuri asked him if he’d like to learn ‘the knowledge of Brahman’, to which Ramakrishna replied that he’d have to ask his mother first. So off he ran to the temple, where Kali said yes indeed, and that it was exactly for this reason that she had brought the monk there.


(Please note here that ‘Brahman’ or ‘Brahma’, pronounced ‘Brum-ma/n’ refers to the supreme formless reality, and should not be confused with ‘Brāhma’, pronounced ‘Braama’, the God of creation in the Hindu trinity - or 'Brāhmin', denoting members of the priestly caste.


So Ramakrishna began meditating under the instructions of Totapuri, but every time he tried to concentrate, the image of Mother Kali took over his consciousness and he could go no further. Hearing this, Totapuri became quite agitated and pressed the point of a piece of broken glass against the centre of Ramakrishna’s forehead saying, “Feel this point - keep your concentration there!” Then, according to Ramakrishna himself, when the image of Kali appeared again, he summoned up all his determination, and using his discrimination as a metaphorical sword, cut the image in two. Immediately he lost all body consciousness and his awareness soared beyond all name and form or any remnant of duality at all - a state in which no sense of individual self remained. His body remained motionless in this 'samadhi' for three days, after which Totapuri, in great amazement at the unmistakable signs that Ramakrishna, in a couple of days, had reached the state of enlightenment that had taken him forty years, coaxed the consciousness back into his body, and they embraced as two knowers of Brahman.


The sequel to this story is relevant to the question of whether God in the form of a personal deity or even without form is real and partakes in an active relationship with the doings of creation or whether this whole manifestation is but an ephemeral dream with no abiding reality to it at all. According to Totapuri, Brahman, the Supreme Self and formless Reality, alone was real. Everything else was a kind of illusion, or Maya, being forever changing and transient, like movies on a screen, and the Gods and Goddesses therein no more than childish superstitions. However, being a wandering monk, he always kept a sacred fire burning where he camped outside the temple and one day someone came and lit their pipe from his fire, whereupon he got very angry. Ramakrishna, who was there at the time laughed at this and pointed out that if Totapuri knew beyond a doubt that Brahman alone was the only reality, how come he got angry over the fire?


Subsequent to this incident, Totapuri caught a bad dose of dysentery. To begin with he could meditate his consciousness out of his body, but soon the pain began to interfere even with this. Exasperated, he reasoned that, knowing beyond a doubt that the body was not real, he would drown it in the River Ganges where it flowed past the temple. Well, he walked into the river, and walked, and walked, but at no time did the water come above his knees. Halfway across, he turned around to be ‘hit’ by a light streaming from the temple, and the consciousness of Mother Kali overwhelmed him. Thus he realised that when it comes to life in this worldly realm - as long as we have any trace of individuality, as long as we are here in a body as a part of this creation - we ultimately have no power over it - and that it is nature or the inscrutable will of the Divine that determines all the circumstances of our life and death.


Swami Vivekananda, the well-educated, great disciple of Sri Ramakrishna, who was perhaps the first to introduce the wisdom of India to the West, including the unity of all religious paths and the divinity of the human spirit, with his inspiring speech at the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago in 1893 (https://www.artic.edu/swami-vivekananda-and-his-1893-speech), had a similar experience. Meditating in an old temple of the Divine Mother that had been largely destroyed by the Moghuls in a previous time, he was overcome with a spirit of heroism and cried to her, “If I had been here at that time, I would never have let them do this to your temple!’. To his surprise, he heard this reply as clear as a bell, “Do you protect me, or do I protect you? Don’t you think, that if I so wanted, I could build a thousand such temples in the blink of an eye?”


Unfortunately this is obviously not a story that figures so much in the reckoning of modern-day Hindu nationalists!


Ramakrishna would often say that the difference between the delight of knowing and relating to God in a personal form and the bliss of dissolving one’s self in the formless Reality Itself is like the difference between tasting sugar and being sugar - not a lot in terms of sweetness! For the rest of his life, he would often lose outward consciousness, especially when singing or listening to songs of devotion, and frequently enter a state of abstraction or samadhi at the slightest stimulus, alternating between being the servant or child of God, and being completely absorbed in identity with the Absolute.



Sri Ramakrishna in samadhi













21



We can work it out


Now for an exercise in intellectual gymnastics - although perhaps we should be wary of putting too much faith in the intellect...


                  Even the belief in two realities - which states that

                  Things are there for all practical purposes, but

                  ultimately they are found not to be so - is a split set up by the intellect;

        

                  Longchen Rabjam, Kindly Bent to Ease Us, part 3 'Wonderment' (translated by Herbert V. Guenther)


If being of perceptible form, that is, anything we can perceive via our senses, know, think of or imagine, however fine, defines creation and the material but relative and transitory reality upon which we base our sense of self, it follows that either it exists eternally in one form or another, or that it originates out of formlessness - that existence, as we know it, somehow emanates from non-existence. For something to be created from nothing defies logic. It belongs to the realm of magic - some kind of illusion that something exists when in fact it does not - and yet, creation being defined as the sum total of absolutely everything we can possibly be aware of, what else can the creator be, assuming there is one, except ‘uncreated’? Now, can we say that such anunborn emptiness ‘exists’ in some way or not? We may be able to conceive of something and nothing existing together interdependently, but what of one without the other?


In answer to this, it is said that the reality of both timeless emptiness and that of the display of time and space that we know as this universe of infinite possibilities are eternal and are actually one and the same, inseparably identified with each other regardless of the endless variety of forms that display may take, like milk and its whiteness or blueness in the sky for instance - they are two, and yet indivisibly one. Again, a sculpture of any form carved out of rock is nothing but rock, even though now we may temporarily see it as something else. Ornaments made of gold are always gold; countless waves appearing individually in all shapes and sizes are nothing but water. Again, water itself is inseparable from its ‘wetness’. Whether of individualised form or formless, the real and ever abiding nature of all these things, whatever their differing shapes and forms, remains in actuality, a single, indivisible and unchangeable oneness.


But what about us and this identity which, as individuals, we all call ‘I’? Of what is it made? Are we a material or mental form, or do we exist as both, or neither - or beyond both? Does our very existence as a soul depend on the existence of a body, or does the existence of our body depend on us as an individual soul? Are we a combination of both body and soul or neither one nor the other? What exactly is the basis of this sense of identity, this idea of self? What indeed am I?


And in answer to this, it is said that in fact the ultimate reality of our true, highest Self, 'Atman' or soul, is none other than God or Brahman - the original and ever-abiding and all-pervasive Supreme Self - of which our usual idea of 'self' identity, based on our fleeting and finite existence as human beings, is but a very pale and limited reflection, despite the fact that It abides as the actual reality within each of us and we within It - and hence the term ‘Self-realisation’.


                  Arjuna, I am the Self seated in the heart of all beings; 

                  so I am the beginning and middle, and also the end of all beings.


                  The Bhagavad Gita 10:20


As embodied beings, however, relying solely on the evidence of our senses to determine what really exists at any given moment, how can we be sure of the existence or reality of anything other than that which presents itself as our immediate environment? We may think we ‘know’ from previous experience and the accumulated knowledge and information stored in memory, or by believing what others tell us, but in the absence of our own direct perception, where is the proof that anything really exists in each moment beyond that of which we are immediately aware? Even a thought or memory only becomes evident at the instant of being perceived in the mind.


This being so, who is to say then, that as different objects enter our field of consciousness via our senses and mind, that in fact they are not being created anew in the very same instant that we become aware of them?


Can any two people see anything in exactly the same way without looking through the same pair of eyes? For example, the view of a bottle or bowl of fruit on a table will inevitably be different for each person looking at it. Physically, every point of consciousness, and therefore its perception, is uniquely separate and individual, not to mention its mentally and emotionally! Following this line of reasoning, the actual reality of any object for each of us can only be that which is bestowed on it at the very moment of our own perception and individual consciousness of it, and thus it is at this point that creation really occurs!


According to this understanding, creation is not something that happened at some distant time in the past, nor even a beginning of any kind, but is that which is happening instantly and spontaneously as a uniquely new and fresh experience, each and every moment of our conscious existence!


This then leads us to the conclusion that there are as many universes, or creations, as there are individual centres of consciousness or 'selves' - not only for humans but for any and every form of life. My universe is not the same as yours - though they both may appear to be ongoing and contain the same elements, our perception of them, and thus our experienced reality, is inevitably different and unique. But what of this idea of 'self-ness' or the observer within – that consciousness that we all call 'I' - the subject of everything for every individual whatever the objects? Could that be one and the same for all?


Traditionally we tend to refer to our physical bodies and the whole world beyond as ascertained by our senses as being external, and our ‘mind-stuff’ - our thoughts, feelings and even dreams - as internal, but all of these too are likewise objects of our consciousness and thus they are all in fact external to the awareness that perceives them - in other words, not our self, not us.


We feel our bodies, we experience our emotions, we think our thoughts, all interwoven with each other, yet we say our body, our mind, our emotions, and our thoughts, but exactly whose are they? What else is there?


So how about this consciousness itself? Consciousness or awareness is our only proof that anything exists. It is the light that illumines all and in front of which everything must pass to be acknowledged as existing - and which, radiating through the experience of our individual senses and mind gives rise and a sense of reality to the idea that everything exists solely in relation to this temporary formation of an 'I' as the subject of all this. Such is our identification as this individual self that we talk about my consciousness as if it were some kind of object that depends on us  - like a single ray of light claiming to be the glory of the sun itself!


Consciousness itself has no form. It cannot be seen and yet it would seem to be the essential prerequisite for the existence of anything else and the essence of life itself, but can or does it exist independently of that which it illumines? Maybe, maybe not, and maybe each defines the other. Indeed, if we could only see everything just as it is, without adding thoughts and feelings and opinions, there would be no problem for us. It is our constant judgement of things solely in relation to the isolated parts of the picture and that we habitually identify with and call our 'self' that destroys the suchness of existence and causes us so much trouble - just as clouds cover the ever-shining sun.


This line of investigation is known in India and Nepal as Jnana yoga (pronounced ‘gyana’), the path of knowledge or wisdom. It is a path of ongoing perspectives and understanding that follows the simple question, “Who am I?” to its ultimate conclusion, and in practice requires the deepest concentration and examination of what we really know our self to be or not to be - by questioning the validity of whatever it is we habitually identify with. Ideally, the truth of each stage has to be contemplated with such intensity that it is seen and understood to be an incontrovertible fact, as undeniable as knowing that fire burns.


Briefly it goes like this: firstly, we have to ask - are we this body? This is, of course, what we naturally identify ourselves with first and foremost, seeing and reacting to everything in terms of how it pertains to it, but if we lose a limb or sense faculty, is our actual sense of self diminished? Does a blind person or one without arms and legs have any less sense of self or feeling of 'I' than those who can see? I don’t think so.


Secondly, am I my feelings? However strong and heartfelt, which particular wave in the ocean of emotional waves that come and go would I be? Whether I am a victim helplessly reacting to my circumstances or can simply observe them, control or change them at will, either way, feelings arise, abide for some time, then inevitably sooner or later they fade away. Which one am I?


Thirdly, am I this mind? This endless parade of thoughts that march incessantly through our internal 'space' only to disappear again naturally into the same emptiness out of which and into which they originally appeared. There are those which register and sort the information received via the senses, retrieving and adding to information stored in the data bank of memory like the operating system of the body, while others arise spontaneously as in our dreams, but mostly there is the never-ending and ever-present chatter of thoughts we jump on and are busy riding wherever they may lead, as if clinging on to a horse in full gallop that we dare not let go as if our very being depended on it - forever indulging our intellect, imagination and reason in following our fears, adventures, ambitions and dreams - but who or what exactly is the rider?


If, having contemplated thus, we find that of all these these faculties and aspects we habitually and unquestioningly identify with, however automatically they function, are objectively external to our consciousness of them and therefore not our real, definitive self, what then, if anything, are we?


We all have a name to indicate our individual but elusive self, a label - but again, a label denoting what? We instinctively feel we are a single entity, one discreet being - not many - and yet we only appear to exist in terms of the multifarious objects of our consciousness, including our bodies, feelings, thoughts and opinions, none of which constitute a permanent, self-sufficient and unified state - yet which we not only claim to be ours, but happily and comfortably claim to be our very self! 


Not being any conceivable object then, what are we?


When our moods and thought processes begin as we wake up every morning, are they the same in every detail as the day before? Of course not - and yet we are so sure we are one and the same person as, without question, we pick up the pieces of our story day by day, tirelessly believing that this is the only reality - and yet the greatest relief and refreshment available to us is that which we enjoy in deep sleep and its immediate aftermath - in the complete absence of memory, dreams or any consciousness of space and time - nor indeed, any sense of self - in other words, when 'we' exist the least!


In fact, with a little stretch of the imagination, it isn’t difficult to think that the person you woke up being today - seeing the world and yourself through this body and mind - may be quite different to what, if anything, you were yesterday - or even if there was a yesterday - if you entertain the notion that the whole bundle of personality and identity, this 'I', including its memories, background and story, including the whole universe of matter and thought that provides its environment, may remain in a dormant state something like a digitised video, or as in quantum mechanics, just one of an infinite number of potential possibilities until, like a coat we put on, it is brought to life by consciousness. How indeed are we to know the difference - any more than a light bulb can recognise the origin of the electrical energy that is flowing through it and giving it life in this particular form? Then what of life and death?


Is this just another crazy idea, perhaps the result of an over-active imagination? I suspect not. In fact it may be nearer the truth than you or I have yet imagined! From this perspective ‘we’ - our bodies and minds and individual stories - are not essentially any more important in having consciousness flow through them than anyone or anything else. That consciousness which in essence we really are is one single universal energy that is flowing equally through all, and the less we are concerned with ‘our’ particular manifestation of it, the less constrained we can become and the freer our genuine 'selves' can be.


                  If only you will remain resting in consciousness, 

                  seeing yourself as distinct from the body, 

                  then even now you will become happy, 

                  peaceful and free from bonds.


                  The Ashtavakra Gita


So then, as it becomes impossible to identify our true self as any object of our conscious awareness, we can only conclude that our true essence is consciousness or awareness itself - that principle which illumines the myriad forms, ideas, thoughts and opinions which constitute individual identity and which are defined and nurtured by the senses and mind in tandem with the objects of their perception, whilst itself remaining perfectly equanimous, untouched by anything, and utterly free, having absolutely no form or identity of its own.


Such appears to be the mechanism of our existence. As long as there is something to be perceived, a 'self' exists but can never be found as such by an individual of its own creation, for the actual subject of all can never be the object of its own perception.




Oh, to find somewhere else to look


Than a mind that changes faces every day,


Or perhaps to find nowhere - nor look.



The sages who have found themselves


Are nothing, because I am more,


But it is not my wish to be so.



Oh Lord, give me peace and tranquillity,


Where you are alone,


So much more worth having!












22



Within and without you


So, inasmuch as the mechanics of our individual existence do not allow for the recognition of anything that cannot be perceived by our senses or mind, we have to conclude that a self as such simply does not exist in the absence of objects. If anything remains, it is emptiness, devoid of any characteristics at all. That total emptiness is the Supreme Self, the very essence of 'reality' and the inviolable space of pure consciousness where thoughts and feelings, all the sensory perceptions that make up the recognised universe, the experience of life, and this very sense of being that constitute an individual self, appear and disappear. It is that space of timeless awareness, where all these phenomena appear but do not stay, and thus have no intrinsic reality of their own - the empty space which, as that which we call 'mind', never becomes full or in any way affected or changed by any of the infinite number of thoughts, feelings, memories or sense perceptions that give rise to the sense of self within it but sooner or later disappear without fail, leaving not even the slightest whisper of any trace at all.


                  The observer and his observation, 

                  as well as the world observed, 

                  appear and disappear together. 

                  Beyond it all, there is void. 

                  This void is one for all.


                  Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj


So what is this void, this emptiness? How can we comprehend this Supreme Self of which individual selves are like tiny sparks that flicker for a trifling moment of time then disappear? Jnana yoga sums up its whole approach in the words “Neti, neti” - not this, not this - and it is only thus that we can explore the concept of nothingness - by eliminating what it is not, and abandoning any preconceived concept of how we think it may be.


                  O Raghava (Rama), adopt a comprehensive view, 

                  characterised by the abandonment of all objects of contemplation, 

                  live in your innate Self, liberated even while alive (jivan-mukta), 

                  and thus play your part in the world.


                  Yoga Vasishta



                  Always “not this, not this” to both the formless and the formed. 

                  Only the Absolute exists transcending difference and non-difference.


                  The Avadhuta Gita


The concept of ‘nihilism’ or nothingness, more often than not, carries with it connotations of despair, negativity and defeat. It is thought to suggest that all our struggle and experience in life is all for naught, that in the end there is a just a blank - that when our life is done, we simply cease to be, like a candle flame blown out. It is regarded as the very antithesis of faith and hope and is taken to imply that there is no absolute value in existing at all.


Such is the common notion of emptiness. It has zero value - no purpose at all, and is the very opposite of life. We only regard that which has form as having any meaning or significance. So try throwing nothing away! Your body would become the size of a pinhead; the universe would contract and cease to exist as such - and neither would any longer have anywhere to exist! Existence itself would cease to be - without emptiness. And what of all our thoughts and feelings and sense perceptions - where do they exist, in what pristinely empty space of 'mind' do they appear and disappear without any trace? So, is emptiness really so unimportant?


Above all, resting in timeless emptiness, or nothing, is the only alternative to identification with thoughts and mental projections ad infinitum. Indeed, it is the only choice we have to end the ceaseless chatter of thoughts and the endless experience of transitory sensations, physical, mental and emotional, where we scurry on forever like a mouse on a treadmill - and that choice is to get off!


                  Within timelessly empty basic space is a supremely expansive

                  state devoid of ordinary consciousness.

                  Based upon the blissful ground of being, 

                  the conscious mind is uninterruptedly content.


                  Longchen Rabjam, The Precious Treasury of the Way of Abiding


If, as in eastern philosophies in which the see-saw of actions and reactions based on apparent causes and effects is believed to result in the momentum for one birth after another, and if we begin to feel tired of there being no end in sight, the problem becomes not how to live forever, but how indeed to die! This extinction of individual selfhood from which we, like every form of life, run like petrified rabbits, may in fact be the one thing in life that is most difficult to successfully achieve!


There is no front or back, before, behind, no left or right, no up nor down, in emptiness. There is no central point. There are no boundaries. There is not a single thought. There certainly are no worries, and no pain. There’s no first or second, beginning, middle or end - no time, no motion, no space or distance - no dimension in fact, at all. There is no light or dark, no colour, life or death. It isn’t big or small. Indeed, we are all fully qualified to define emptiness in terms of what it is not! There is no universe, no God, no you or me. It just isn’t there - and yet paradoxically nothing is missing as nothing  can possibly arise from anywherehere else! 


Above all, nothing has nothing to do with our fear of it - no concept of fear, or anything else for that matter, in it at all!


The Buddhist practice of Vipassana is designed to increase the level of concentrated awareness of sensations to the point where everything is directly experienced to be composed of vibrations occurring at phenomenal speed, including the apparent sense of self that exists only in tandem with its objects - being and not-being, something and nothing, oscillating so fast that form and self appear to be continuous. And where there is no other sense of self, there is no longer a self to seek or find.


Now you see it, now you don’t. The end of another story!


                  There is no sense of purpose in my doing anything. 

                  Things happen as they happen -- not because I make them happen, 

                  but it is because I am that they happen. 


                  In reality nothing ever happens. 

                  When the mind is restless, it makes Shiva dance, 

                  like the restless waters of the lake make (the reflection of) the moon dance. 


                  It is all appearance, due to wrong ideas.


                  Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj


As we go through each day, hopping from moment to moment, thought to thought - what are we hopping over? Emptiness of course! This apparently continuous yet intermittent chain of thoughts and sensations itself represents and defines creation and a sense of self - initiated it seems, by some mysterious energy.


The outside world can only appear to be as we see it to be, and that itself will be according to that which sees. A mind that is imbued with equanimity, without judgement and accepting of all - an empty mind - is pure within and thus only conscious of purity without. A positive attitude imbued with love will only see the brightest present and the brightest future for the world and every being, and knowing the end of the game, being faced with brutality and pain, only feel all the more compassion for both the victim and the persecutor that they should be bound so tightly to an imaginary self, the one albeit unwillingly, the other with unrelenting intent.


                  To one who is shod with leather the earth is as good as covered with leather. 

                  Even so to the mind which is full (i.e. undivided) the world overflows with nectar.


                  Yoga Vasishta


How can there be purity when there is flavour, colour, smell, shape or sound? How can there be purity when there is thought? How can there be purity when there is even an inkling of an individual self?


Absolute purity is by definition taintless, total emptiness, and when there is purity, emptiness within, what else can be seen, if seen at all, but purity without? Creation, that begins for us with a single thought, a feeling, a heart and open mind - giving identity to a self that plays the game called ‘life’ as a body that is born, develops according to its nature, grows old and then dies, no less indeed than a flower does - is simply a display that begs to be admired for the beauty of its expression, before fading, only to bloom again in another form. All is pure.


                  Original purity in its essence has never existed as anything

                  rather, its nature, like that of space, is primordially pure.


                  Longchen Rabjam, The Precious treasury of the Way of Abiding


And every moment, knowing the moment that is no moment at all, is purity in motion, you might say.


In this world, great souls are but an open window to the emptiness within. Just sitting near that window is to breathe the air of peace, and love. 


Accepting all, yet untouched by all, there remains nothing to be desired.












23



To be or not to be?



Conditioned by our thoughts


to live a little story -


unconditioned,


who are we?



In this context, all words are just a distraction - an entertainment for the brain. To investigate their truth and see what happens is the only test of their validity. To see what is - beyond imagination and conceptualisation - may take lifetimes of dedication and concentration. But then, who knows the moment when the leaf will fall from the tree? And in the meantime, if we’re not in a hurry, as long as an individual ‘I” is here to project the story of creation, we have all of eternity in which to play this game!


However, as the Buddha says, life is suffering. Every moment we are investing our love, our hopes, dreams and aspirations in a play we all know has to end. Even in the short term, nothing remains the same from one moment to the next. It may be fun, but all we have is a hunger for entertainment, this 'real-life' drama that goes on and on, and like the downside of any addiction, we also have to experience fear, disappointment, loneliness and desperation - not to mention disease, old age and death.


The Buddha and all great souls have tried to tell us that it is possible to end this suffering by following in their footsteps.


                  Through many a birth I wandered in samsara (worldly existence), 
                  seeking but not finding the builder of this house. 
                  Sorrowful it is to be born again and again.

                  O house-builder! You are seen. 
                  You shall build no house again. 
                  All your rafters are broken. 
                  Your ridgepole is shattered. 

                  My mind has attained the unconditioned. 
                  Achieved is the end of craving. 

                  The Dhammapada

How was it possible, you may ask, for the Buddha, having extinguished his sense of self, to yet remain in the world and give his teachings?


Sri Ramakrishna explained this in terms of residual, or prarabdha karma. Karma is the force that propels us ever onward to more experience of life. It approximates to Newton’s law that every action must be followed by an equal and opposite reaction, or from the Bible, ‘as you sow, so do you reap’.


From the first moment of waking every day, and even in our dreams, we continuously judge each momentary thought and event, either consciously or unconsciously, in terms of whether it is good or bad for what we believe to be our selves. This value judgement simultaneously determines the degree to which we feel pleasure or pain, happiness or sorrow.


The individual self that is made up of individual characteristics, bodily and emotional needs and wants - the hungry self - inevitably acts to achieve those ends and to avoid those it doesn't like. As such it has a sense of identity, purpose and intent – otherwise known as ego – and it follows that every action thus performed is in fact consolidating the notion that such an entity exists and is real. Thus we habitually and continually create and colour our world in relation to this self-image, and are bound to enjoy or suffer the consequences accordingly.


To explain the mechanism of karma, Sri Ramakrishna used the metaphor of a potter’s wheel as seen in the villages of India. It consists of a large, thick circular slab of stone perfectly balanced on a wooden pivot just above the ground. Towards the edge is a hole into which the potter inserts a stick and ‘winds up’ the wheel to such a speed that it can continue revolving for a long time, during which the clay can be thrown and pots moulded into shape. In this illustration, the stick represents the ego, the individual self. The driving force applied in winding the wheel with the stick is karma - the action performed with individual purpose and intent and which thus propels the wheel of life. Removing the stick represents enlightenment, the realisation of non-self, but the wheel of karma, as the momentum that created the body and its world up to this point, known as prarabdha or residual karma, will continue to revolve until the force that propelled it is spent.


                  When the wheel of mind ceases to turn
                  All things come to an end.
                  There is nothing inherently substantial,
                  And all things are utterly pure.


                  Nagarjuna   

   











24



I think, therefore I am


... and without thought, therefore - I am not!


Seriously, is it possible to have any kind of picture, image or concept of one's self without thought? Even the basic experience of the senses involves a seemingly simultaneous cognition, evaluation and labelling in the mind. Nevertheless, a 'self' always seems to be there, and even entertaining the possibility of thoughtlessness is more evidence of its thinking! Yet for all the thoughts and multitude of perceptions that continually occupy our minds, creating what we habitually believe to be our self, there must be something that is not a thought or perception itself but which in being single, unmoving and constant provides a basis for the sense of relativity, comparison and contrast that enables us to be aware of anything at all, including thoughts themselves - just as stillness is needed to ascertain movement, silence for sound, and so on.


Absolute nothing or emptiness, or in human terms, that pure, unadulterated consciousness and its utterly clear and lucid shining through the open window as awareness is that one and only single thing! There is only one kind of nothing and in this it is unique, being the only singularity there is, having no divisions or dimensions or relation to anything else - no multiplicity at all. In fact it is neither one nor many. And yet the irony is that despite being the substratum and source of reality of our whole existence, for us in this magical realm of relativity where the limit of our understanding is bound within the duality of subject and object, the actuality of absolute nothing or emptiness can only exist as an intellectual concept within the realm of something, in other words, as another kind of something!


Paradoxically, the singular oneness of totality negates the concept of 'all'. Although by definition it refers to the sum of a multitude of separate parts, as a whole it cannot be any one of those parts in particular. An unchangeable totality that encompasses an infinity of possibilities that, while emanating entirely from itself, can only come and go must therefore, as a whole, be devoid of any individual 'thing', in other words, complete and absolute emptiness - and yet exclude absolutely nothing at all. Thus, if it were indeed possible to behold totality as a 'whole', there could be no consciousness of any separately individual phenomena, while conversely, at the moment of seeing anything as having its own individual, separate identity there can be no vision of the whole.


The fact is that the human mind is incapable of fully grasping the vastness of total emptiness, and if it could, it would not, thereby, be emptiness, just as the water in a bowl cannot reflect the whole sky, or anything that is finite encompass the infinite.


This is well illustrated in the story of the frog that lived by the ocean who decided one day to go exploring inland and came across another frog that lived in a small well. When the first frog tried to describe the size of the ocean, the other hopped a little distance saying, "Is it this big?" Then it hopped a bit further, and again still further, until finally it hopped all the way from one side of the well to the other, exclaiming, "Is it as big as this then? Nothing can be bigger than this!". 


So as far as we're concerned, it looks like this: the something and nothing that together make up our world, the infinite variety of things and the emptiness in which they float and are perceived - the invisible self and the objects of its perception - are mutually dependent on each other for their existence and are, in fact, of one ineffable essence whereby neither 'exists' without the other like water and wetness.


It seems reasonable to suggest that ‘one’ cannot be 'seen' to be until there are ‘two’ and a relationship thus exists, and that creation is therefore a process of ‘two by two’. The ‘two’ items, for our purposes are the concepts of one and zero, or something and nothing or emptiness - a simple code well known to the digitally minded. They appear to come into being simultaneously and through the relativity of their combined existence create a third identity and so on, being capable of infinite combinations involving space and time. This primal duality sets the scene for the whole interplay of opposites and interdependencies that make up the conditions in which we live. Without light and dark, there can be no picture. It also means that there is nothing in the whole of creation that has any inherent existence in itself alone and therefore nothing that has any abiding reality. A wooden table, for instance, quite apart from depending on a place in which to exist such as a room and a floor, is made by a human being who needs air and food etc., tools, wood from a tree, sunlight and water, and so on ad infinitum. In Buddhism, this is referred to as the interdependence of all phenomena. In other words, while continuously subject to change, everything is dependent for its existence, in the final analysis, on everything else and the absence of any permanent, unchanging reality in any one thing implies the negation of reality in all. In this sense, since everything is empty of any intrinsic reality of its own, all that 'is' is in fact emptiness. 


                  Knowing the relativity of all,
                  The ultimate truth is always seen;
                  Dismissing the idea of beginning, middle and end
                  The flow is seen as Emptiness.


                  Nagarjuna


So, do both the something and nothing that make up our world exist by virtue of something else, or a nothing else as the case may be, that abides beyond the interdependence of these two conditions, of nirvana and samsara or heaven and earth, but yet sustains the apparent existence of both as a kind of arbitrary illusion that simultaneously is and is not? All the great teachers allude to the existence of a supremely unconditioned state. They experience a super-conscious state beyond all trace of duality or individual self, and come back to tell us it is there. Some have stumbled upon it, and others have followed paths laid down by those before them. Some have even dared to declare that there is no difference between their Real Self and God - and there are some have died for saying so!


                  Beyond this Unmanifest, 

                  there is yet another eternal Unmanifest, 

                  that supremely Divine Substance, 

                  which does not perish, even though all beings perish.


                  The Bhagavad-Gita 8:20


In the Heart Sutra, the Buddha, having ascertained that all skandas - basic but transitory elements that make up the whole of human experience - are all in fact empty of any inherent existence of their own, and declaring that therefore form is emptiness, and emptiness is form, not simply as a concept but being perceptible only in the 'presence' of form, gave voice to the following mantra:


                  "Gate gate, paragate, parasamgate, bodhi svaha"  


                  "Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone completely beyond everything! - Lo! Awakened mind!"


The sun shines equally on all and in its light all have their life and being, but with their backs to it as it were, seeing only the shadow it creates that moves as they move. Our eyes, looking only forward, see only half the world, while behind us the emptiness is infinite. What are ‘we’ but an ephemeral shoreline between the two? Whether anything appears in its light or not is of no consequence to the sun. Whether anything appears to exist in emptiness or not neither qualifies nor limits it in any way. The pictures on the screen are momentary and have no real substance other than light - touch them and you only touch the screen. Like reflections appearing in a mirror, the objects of awareness or consciousness have no existence apart from the mirror, but as far as the mirror is concerned, regardless of an infinite succession of reflections, nothing can happen to affect it in any way at all. 


Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj explains it this way: the “I am”, which constitutes consciousness and exists only in relation to its objects is like a hole in the roof, as it were, whereby the light of awareness enters and illuminates all. When sought by means of the negation of its multifarious attributes, that “I am” is thus found to be nothing indeed but emptiness - an open space at one with the light of infinite awareness.


For those of us who enjoy the intellectual puzzle of philosophy, we then have this problem - how, given the existence of a totally unconditioned state, does a conditioned state arise? How can duality emerge from unity, and how can something originate from nothing? Even the slightest awareness of ‘oneness’ as such would be sufficient to get the ball rolling, but from where can it arise?


Sri Tirtha Lal used to say that in the process of realizing our naked self, as it were, there comes a point, a line beyond which the world and anything definable simply disappears. It is something that is beyond rationalization from this side, being as it is the very genesis of thought itself.


Vashistha likens the origination of the finite within the infinite to pure coincidence, as when a coconut falls just as a bird lands on the tree – but without the slightest causal connection between the two events - a mystery unsolvable by the intellect.


Nagarjuna argues that the whole chain of cause and effect, whereby the one thing leads to the other, loses its validity in either the absence or existence of an original or ‘uncaused’ cause.


How, in heaven’s name then, do we appear to exist?


The answer is – I don’t know, and perhaps nobody does! But if, after dreaming of a way to wake up, we happen to do so, it matters not whether we dreamt at all!


                  Who really knows? Who will here proclaim it? 

                  Whence was it produced? Whence is this creation? 


                  The Gods came afterwards, with the creation of this universe. 

                  Who then knows whence it has arisen? Whence this creation has arisen? 


                  Perhaps it formed itself, or perhaps it did not – 

                  the one who looks down on it, in the highest heaven, 

                  only he knows – or perhaps he does not know.


                  From the Song of Creation in the Rig Veda






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