Be Empty

The Teachings of Sri Tirtha Lal Mahanandhar

Another Book of Nothing        Chapters 20 - 24:         

Is God 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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Is God 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 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 concentration on a single object, what happens to the mind? Short of finding out through constant practice, we will probably have to try to imagine this - if 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. 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, which 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 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).

So Ramakrishna began meditating under the instructions of Totapuri, but every time he tried to concentrate, the image of 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 Ramakrishna’s forehead saying, “Feel this point - keep your concentration there!” Then, according to Ramakrishna himself, when the image of Kali appeared, he summoned up all his determination, and using his discrimination as a metaphorical sword, cut the image in two. Immediately he lost 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 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 this 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 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 religious paths and the divinity of the human spirit, at the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago in 1893 (, had a similar experience. Choosing to meditate 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 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 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 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


We can work it out

Now for an exercise in intellectual gymnastics!

If being of perceptible form, that is, anything we can perceive, know, think of or imagine, however fine, defines creation, it follows that either it exists eternally, or that it is ‘created’ out of formlessness - that existence, as we know it, is created out of 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 everything created, what else can the creator be, assuming there is one, except ‘uncreated’? Now, can we say that the uncreated ‘exists’ in some way or not? We may be able to conceive of something and nothing existing simultaneously, but what of one without the other?

Some say that both the formless reality and its display as this universe of infinite possibilities are eternal and are actually one and the same, inseparably identified with each other regardless of the infinity of forms the display may take, like milk and its whiteness or blueness in the sky - two, and yet inseparably one. Again, a sculpture carved out of rock is nothing but rock, even though now we 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 ‘wetness’. Whether of individualised form or formless, the real and ever abiding nature of these things and all their apparent aspects and differing forms remains as a single indivisible oneness.

But what about us and our seemingly inseparable ‘I’? Are we a material or mental form, or do we exist as both - and yet also beyond both? Does our very existence as individual souls depend on the existence of a body, or does the existence of body depend on us as individual souls? Are we both body and individual soul or neither? Oh dear - what indeed am I?

From this perspective, we need to consider the formless idea of God or the Supreme Being as being equated with the concept of the Self - the original Self that abides within each of us and within which we each exist, 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

Relying solely on the evidence of our senses to determine what really exists at any given moment, how we can be sure of anything other than our immediate environment? We may think we ‘know’ from previous experience or memory, or believing what others tell us, but in the absence of direct perception, where is the proof that anything really exists beyond that of which we are immediately aware? Even a thought or memory only becomes evident at the moment of being perceived in the mind.

Who is to say then, that as different objects enter our field of consciousness via our senses and mind, that they are not being created anew at that very same instant?

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 physically, not to mention mentally or emotionally! Following this line of reasoning, the actual reality of any object can only be that which is bestowed in the very moment of its perception by our own individual consciousness of it, and thus it is at this point that creation really occurs!

It may be therefore, that creation is not something that happened at some distant time in the past, nor even that it is a beginning of any kind, but is that which is happening instantly and spontaneously each and every moment of our conscious existence!

This leads us to the conclusion that there are as many universes, or creations, as there are individual centres of consciousness or selves. My universe is not the same as yours - though they appear to contain the same elements, our perception of them is inevitably different and unique. But what of the self within – that very consciousness we all call I? Could that be one and the same?

Traditionally we tend to refer to our physical bodies and the world beyond as ascertained by our senses to be external, and our ‘mind-stuff’, thoughts feelings and even dreams as internal - but as these too are also objects of our consciousness, they are all in fact external to the self that perceives them.

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

So how about consciousness itself? Consciousness or awareness is our proof that anything exists. It is the light in front of which everything must pass to be acknowledged as existing. Yet still we say my consciousness and my awareness.

Consciousness alone doesn’t appear to have any form. It cannot be seen, yet it would seem to be the essential prerequisite for the existence of anything else. But does or can this conscious self of ours exist independently of that which it illumines? Maybe, maybe not, and maybe each defines the other. If we could but 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 - that which we call our self – that destroys the suchness of existence and causes us problems.

Following this line of investigation, is known as Jnana yoga (pronounced ‘gyana’), the path of knowledge or wisdom. This path of ongoing perspectives and understanding follows the simple question, “Who am I?” to its ultimate conclusion. In practice it requires the deepest concentration and examination of what we really know our self to be. 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.

So briefly, it goes like this: first we have to ask - are we this body? If we lose a limb, is our sense of self diminished? Does a blind person have less sense of self than those who can see? I don’t think so.

Secondly, am I my feelings and emotions? Which particular wave in the ocean of those waves that come and go would I be? Whether I am a victim of circumstance or can 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 incessantly march through our mind only to disappear again naturally into the emptiness out of which which they appeared, while we jump on and ride them wherever they go, like grabbing and clinging on to a horse in full gallop that we dare not let go - following our reason, our fears, adventures and dreams? But who is the rider?

If, having contemplated thus, we are unable to identify with anything external to consciousness that we can call our real, definitive self, what then are we?

We all have a name for that 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 and yet which we not only claim to be ours, but habitually and comfortably claim to be our very self! 

Not being any of these, again, 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 morning before? Of course not - and yet we are so sure we are one and the same person as we pick up the pieces of our story day by day. The greatest relief and refreshment available to us is that which we enjoy in deep sleep and its immediate aftermath - in the absence of memory, dreams and consciousness of time - in other words, when we exist the least!

With a little stretch of the imagination, it isn’t difficult to imagine that the person you woke up as being today in this body, seeing the world and yourself through this mind, may be quite different to what, if anything, you were yesterday, if you entertain the notion that the whole bundle of personality and identity, including its memories and story, and the whole universe of matter and thought that provides its environment, may remain dormant until, like a coat we put on, it is brought to life by consciousness. How are we to know the difference, any more than a light bulb can trace or even identify with the origin of the energy that is flowing through it and giving it life? 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 - are no more important having consciousness flow through us than anyone or anything else. That consciousness which we are is the one universal energy that is flowing equally through all, and the less we are concerned with ‘our’ particular manifestation of it, the less constrained we are and the freer we can become.

                  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

If then it becomes impossible to identify our true self as of an object of conscious awareness. We can only conclude that our true essence is consciousness itself - some principle which illumines the myriad forms of individual identity which are defined and nurtured by the senses and mind and the objects of their perception, whilst itself remaining perfectly free, having no particular 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 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!


Within and without you

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 the individual self simply does not exist in the absence of objects. If anything remains, it is emptiness, devoid of any characteristics at all. That emptiness is the Supreme Self, the inviolable space where our very consciousness - thoughts and feelings, the sensory perceptions that are the recognised universe, the experience of life and this very sense of being that constitutes an individual self - appear, and disappear. It is that space of timeless awareness that we usually call our mind, where all these phenomena appear but do not stay, the empty space that never becomes full or in any way affected or changed by all the infinite number of thoughts, feelings, memories or sense perceptions that appear to us to appear within it, then always disappear, leaving no 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 thus only can we explore the concept of nothingness - by eliminating what it is not, and abandoning any preconceived concept of what we think it may be or that we are at all.

                  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 for naught, that in the end there is a just a blank - that 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 opposite of life. We only regard that which has form as having any 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 space do they appear and disappear without any trace? So, is emptiness really so unimportant?

Above all, that timeless emptiness, or nothing, is the only alternative to identifying with thoughts and mental projections ad infinitum. Indeed, it is the only choice we have - to end the ceaseless chatter of the mind 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 our see-saw of actions and reactions based on apparent causes and effects, is believed to result in the momentum for birth after birth, if you 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 self from which we, like every form of life, run like petrified rabbits, may in fact be the one thing in life that is the 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 no 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.

Above all, nothing has nothing to do with our fear of it - nor any concept of fear 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 moon dance. 

                  It is all appearance, due to wrong ideas.

                  Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj

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

The outside world appears 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 conscious only 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, will 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 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?

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 begins with an individual thought, a feeling, a heart and mind – giving identity to a self that plays the game called ‘life’ as a body that is born, grows and dies - no less indeed than a flower does - 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.

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.


To be or not to be?

Conditioned by our thoughts

to live a little story -


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 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 we continuously judge each momentary thought and event, either consciously or unconsciously, in terms of whether it is good or bad for us. This value judgement simultaneously determines the degree to which we feel pleasure or pain.

The self that is made up of individual characteristics, needs, and wants - the hungry self - inevitably acts to achieve these ends. 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 continually create the 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 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 force applied in winding the wheel with the stick is karma - the action performed with individual purpose and intent and which propels the wheel of life. Removing the stick represents enlightenment, the realisation of non-self, but the wheel of karma, the momentum that created the body and its world up to this point will continue to revolve until the force that propels 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.




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? And yet a self is there. Even entertaining the possibility of thoughtlessness is another thought! 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 but which is single, unmoving and constant for there to be any basis of relativity between one thing and another or for us to be aware of anything at all – just as an otherwise empty screen is needed to display pictures and their movement.

Absolute nothing or emptiness is that one and only single thing! There is only one kind of nothing; it is unique. It is 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 for us, nothing only exists as a concept within the realm of something, in other words, another kind of something!

So 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. 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 - 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 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. A wooden table, for instance, quite apart from depending on and 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, etc etc. ad infinitum. In other words, everything is dependent for its existence, in the final analysis, on everything else. In Buddhism, this is referred to as the interdependence of phenomena.

                  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.


Could it be however, that both something and nothing 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 – 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 dared to declare that there is no difference between their Real Self and God - and 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 human experience, are all in fact empty of any inherent existence of their own, and declaring that form is emptiness, and emptiness is form, gave voice to the following mantra:

                  "Gate gate, paragate, parasamgate, bodhi svaha"  

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

This is my own interpretation from many differing versions however as they say, the actual meaning of a mantra is not as important as the effect produced by its sound in repetition.

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 - open as 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 any causal connection between the two events.

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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