Another Book of Nothing Chapters 30 - 36: Reflections on having no head Practice makes perfect Chains of gold
Raining in my heart Letting go Box of tricks And in the end
Reflections on having no head
Douglas Harding says that where your head should be, there is in fact an empty space, the location where the universe happens, giving it reality by the very act of sacrificing your own, much smaller identity.
By-passing the intellect, imagination and belief, he tells us to simply rest in our awareness. Through our senses we contain the universe. Through our eyes and ears we see and hear it; through our tongue we taste whatever is given; and through our nose, we smell it. We touch creation on all sides, in our hearts and minds we feel and think it, and all in the space and capacity which we are but do not see - behind our eyes between our ears - in the vast emptiness that none of our senses can perceive, yet where everything is in fact perceived - always open, always clear.
Douglas tells us to literally point our finger right back at our physical 'self' and try to see what it is we are pointing at - what exactly do we understand our self to be? There must be something here, but what can I see? I see my finger pointing directly into my eyes - pointing directly at where ‘I’ am supposed to be - pointing through my face to that emptiness where surely I am - the looker, watching my finger pointing - at what? He tells us to look at the world we see right where we perceive it - where our senses receive their impressions and where it really happens - a world that has no limits, yet situated here on our shoulders where normally we believe a head to be. Left and right, above and below, our vision can only extend so far in any direction before it encounters our invisible ‘head’ - then what can we see? Nothingness, no dark or light, just nothing – up, down or to either side. All that empty nothingness that yet accommodates all that is and ever will be. An emptiness that is, but can never be seen - and that we are.
Like an empty vessel in space (the knower of Truth)
is empty both within and without,
while at the same time he is full within and without
like a vessel immersed in the ocean.
There, where I am, where my finger points, is an emptiness that can never be filled, yet contains all that can ever be; an awareness that is right now manifesting through consciousness the existence of everything. Yes, we are full and complete in every moment, regardless of time - a truly infinite capacity. Every moment creation is born anew in the infinite awareness that we are.
Even as we read these words they are appearing within the emptiness behind our eyes that we have always been and always will be. This is without and ‘we’ are within, yet within we are emptiness filled with without, without a face between them - full but empty, empty but full.
That which is form is emptiness,
That which is emptiness, form.
The same is true of feelings,
Perceptions, impulses, consciousness.
The Buddha, The Heart Sutra
Physically, we can only ever see ‘half’ the world - that which lies within the vision of our eyes. Behind us, that which we cannot see is a measureless emptiness. Where is the line that divides the two - the invisible “I”? Thus form and emptiness seem to merge seamlessly and are of one and the same awareness. The emptiness is both the light and the empty screen on which the phenomenal film of creation is projected moment by moment - either spontaneously pure, or apparently conditioned, filtered and confused by the illusory continuity of identity we have built upon that non-existent “I” and its database of what no longer in fact exists.
This is our kingdom and we are all one. We just have to look back at our self right now to see it, and know that this is what we are.
Your enjoyment of the world is never right,
til every morning you awake in heaven:
see yourself in your father's palace;
and look upon the skies and the earth
and the air as celestial joys,
having such a reverend esteem of all,
as if you were among the angels.
You never enjoy the world aright,
til the sea itself floweth in your veins;
til you are clothed with the heavens
and crowned with the stars
and perceive yourself to be the sole heir
of the whole world.
Til your spirit filleth the whole world
and the stars are your jewels;
Til you are familiar with the ways of God
in all ages as with your walk and table;
Til you are intimately acquainted with that shady nothing
out of which the world was made;
Til you love men so as to desire their happiness,
with an equal thirst to the zeal of your own;
Til you delight in God for being good to all;
You never enjoy the world.
Thomas Traherne, 17th Century
Practice makes perfect
There is always the danger that in wanting to know, to understand, to get something, we become jaded and disappointed in our search. Such is the downside of any desire, and a sure sign that we still believe we are ‘someone’ who wants to get ‘something’.
The stupid man does not attain Godhead because he wants to become it,
while the wise man enjoys the Supreme Godhead without even wanting it.
The Ashtavakra Gita
We forget that it is only upon the disappearance of individuality that realisation can occur, and then indeed there exists no such being that became realised! In The Sutra of Complete Enlightenment, the Buddha says:
It is not enlightenment that thwarts their entering;
rather, it is the idea that ‘there is one who can enter.
… 'attaining’ illumination and realization is a hindrance
… when the hindrances have been eliminated, there is no eliminator.
The teachings of the sutras are like the finger that points to the moon.
When one sees the moon, one realizes that the finger is not the moon.
So the process is one of losing, not gaining something! As this assumed identity with our ephemeral self and the ignorance in which we cling to ‘me and mine’ diminishes, the knowledge of what really is, the one universal Self, the one that is all this, shines just as it is. Again, the Buddha says in the following excerpts fro The Sutra of Complete Enlightenment:
This ignorance has no real substance. It is like a person in a dream.
Though the person exists in the dream,
when the dreamer awakens, there is nothing that can be grasped.
Like an illusory flower in the sky that vanishes into empty space,
one cannot say that there is a fixed place from which it vanishes.
Why? Because there is no place from which it arises!
Amidst the unarisen, all sentient beings deludedly perceive birth and extinction.
Hence this is called the turning wheel of birth and death.
There is no place where illusions vanish,
and there is no attainment in accomplishing the Buddha Path,
for the intrinsic nature is already wholly complete.
When the mind is able to illuminate and perceive enlightenment, it is but a defilement,
because both perceiver and perceived are not apart from defilement.
After ice melts in hot water, there is no ice to be aware of its melting.
The perception of the existence of the self enlightening itself is also like this.
So how then should we practise? What path should we follow? If our present notion of reality indicates that we are indeed someone who wants to seek and find the truth of existence – what can we do? The great Sufi, Rumi says:
Little by little, wean yourself.
This is the gist of what I have to say.
From an embryo, whose nourishment comes in the blood,
move to an infant drinking milk,
to a searcher after wisdom,
to a hunter of more invisible game.
Understanding there is absolutely nothing to get, our only option is to lose what we appear to have. There may be so many different ways for this to happen and much may depend on the ‘ripeness’ of our souls, but inasmuch as the seat of our apparent identity, albeit based on the concept of a bodily existence, lies in the mind, dividing what is one into two, and manifesting in the first instance as thought, it is only that which we have to lose.
The mind indeed is of the form of space.
The mind indeed is omnifaced.
The mind is the past. The mind is all.
But in reality there is no mind.
The Avadhuta Gita
Of all the billions and trillions of thoughts we have entertained in all our waking days, constantly mesmerised by their hypnotic appeal and the saga of a self, how many have been important or significant in any way? As in sifting sand for gems or specks of gold, the overwhelming majority are irrelevant grit that could be thrown away without any loss.
Again, our thoughts usually concern the past, which is gone forever, or the future that is essentially unknown, and even in the present, thoughts oscillate between these two - building on a previous perception and speculating on the next. As the Buddha says, ”The past mind cannot be grasped; neither can the present mind or the future mind”.
If we could but hear them, all the thoughts of those around us would be like the deafening buzzing of countless bees. Yet we never let go of this endless chatter, as if our very survival is at stake! So strong is this primal habit that, as Ramakrishna said, we are like fisherwomen who cannot sleep without the smell of fish!
Like a man caught in quicksands
Thrashing and struggling about,
So beings drown
In the mess of their own thoughts.
Mind however, as far as we are consciously aware, not only contains the faculty of continuous thinking, but also that of observing and discriminating between different thoughts and indeed deciding whether to continue thinking them or not! Thus most techniques of meditation, by whatever means, centre on enhancing this ability to direct the mind and in this lies the potential for a power-shifting change. In contrast to simply being a passenger in the boat, we endeavour to assume the responsibility of guiding it.
Whatever form of practice we choose to follow, whether it be praise or prayer, contemplation or meditation, love or intellectual exploration, or a combination of them all, we are thereby choosing to direct our mind. To the extent to which it gives us pleasure and happiness, it is effortless and easy – as in listening to music, for instance.. In our attempts to delve deeper, however, we may find ourselves something like a mongoose with a stone attached to its tail! Whenever it tries to climb into its hole in the wall, the stone drags it down again, thus ensuring its continued vigilance in protecting the house from snakes in village India.
Meditation is just like this. Within seconds of resolving to direct the mind to a single object or emptiness, it will be off shopping or otherwise reeling out one thought after another. Even in ‘objectless’ meditation where our aim is simply to observe or disassociate ourselves from thoughts that come and go, we find ourselves riding off with them in no time. As for ‘stopping the mind’, one may as well try to stop the sun from shining, yet try we do. Realizing our distraction, we resolve again to follow our will, and again the same thing happens - and again, and again! Even with the slightest practice, the tenacity of habitual thinking will become all too evident, but this attempt to detach ourselves from it is what as known as meditation.
In doing this we are not trying to ‘get’ something, but we are cultivating bit by bit the extra-ordinary notion that we are something other than thought. What that is, of course, defies identification or any attempt at definition, being the negation of all we know, and so we call it emptiness or Self, Buddha, or God by any other name.
All our problems, suffering and pain belong to the realm of thought, and the less we come to identify with it, the happier we can be. In becoming nothing, nothing is lost and everything is gained. The less we are, the more we can be.
Virtuous man, all sentient beings since beginningless time
have deludedly conceived ‘self’ and that which grasps on to the self;
never have they known the succession of arising and perishing thoughts!
Therefore, they give rise to love and hatred and indulge in the five desires.
If they meet a good teacher who guides them
to awaken to the nature of pure Complete Enlightenment
and to recognize these arising and perishing thoughts,
they will understand that it is the very nature of such rising thoughts
that causes toils and anxieties in their lives.
The Buddha in The Sutra of complete Enlightenment
Gradually thus our whole being may change as the grip of ‘thought identity’ becomes diluted as it were, and the more we accept the idea of emptiness or nothingness - our permanent and ever-abiding Self - as being the basis and reality of our existence vis-à-vis our endlessly variable thoughts, and that this is indeed the only effective alternative to impermanence and pain.
We can try to contemplate and abide in the actuality of emptiness, the empty space that is free of any conceptualisation, resisting all attempts to frame or otherwise define it - or we can simply practise refusing to flow with the constant stream of thoughts. Again, we can try to confine them by concentrating on a single point or image, say the feet of our chosen Deity, by constantly chanting a mantra or by maintaining an attitude of continuous surrender or prayer.
Training the mind to concentrate, with the attitude of complete surrender and unquestioning devotion, has the effect of cultivating equanimity, which in turn means there is nothing to think about or distinguish between one thing and another, only suchness. As this absence of any reification or thinking about the object of concentration becomes stronger, it gradually becomes clear that when the attention is focussed on any object at all, that it is no more than a mirror image or reflection of that which perceives it, and that awareness, being the mirror itself, and having no distinguishing characteristics in regard to the reflections within it either, is pure emptiness. Thus the essential nature of both subject and object are seen as being of one basic space or emptiness. In meditation then, the appearance of any objects in the mind, thoughts, feelings and perceptions, in the absence of any reification, simply become indicators of that emptiness.
Given the unchanging, spontaneously present nature of phenomena,
if you look again and again with self-knowing awareness,
free of any complicating conceptual framework,
you will see that there is nothing to look at.
Nothing to look at - this is the view of omnipresent awareness.
Longchen Rabjam, The Precious Treasury of the Basic Space of Phenomena
In whichever way we practise, we are beginning to dissolve the chains that bind us and opening up, little by little, a space that perhaps we never knew was there, which has no ‘me and mine’, yet which is the core of our being and the reality of all..
And what a magic space it is! Over time, as our concentration grows, as our rate of oscillation between ‘something’ and nothing slows down, we begin to understand there are in fact gaps in the circle of fire - that these speeding, whirling thoughts neither imprison nor define us, and the recognition begins to dawn on us that we are free.
Indeed, there is no circle of fire! There is only ever one source of light, which, by its apparent motion appears to create a picture in the emptiness wherein its continuity and cohesion are assumed by means of an afterglow, a momentary residue upon which we build our memory.
The light in our hearts grows in radiance when we love. It is the same light which projects, sustains and permeates all.
In the immensity of consciousness a light appears,
a tiny point that moves rapidly and traces shapes,
thoughts and feelings, concepts and ideas, like the pen writing on paper.
And the ink that leaves a trace is memory.
You are that tiny point and by your movement the world is ever re-created.
Stop moving and there will be no world.
Look within and you will find that the point of light is the reflection
of the immensity of light in the body, as the sense 'I am'.
There is only light, all else appears.
Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj
We have been trapped, and like the monkey grasping a handful of nuts in a jar, unwilling to let go and thus unable to withdraw its hand, we only have to let go of this notion that we are our thinking and that our thinking is us...
Chains of gold
Know, slave is slave, caressed or whipped, not free;
For fetters, though of gold, are not less strong to bind.
Swami Vivekananda, The Song of the Sannyasin
It is in the nature of things that the more they are denied the more attractive they become. The more we stop listening to our thoughts the more enticing they become. When Tom stops chasing Jerry, Jerry starts chasing Tom! Once we step upon the path of freedom and begin to reject the dominance of thought, the more it seems to strive to become our ‘friend’, offering us feelings of joy, insights and gems of wisdom, knowledge and understanding.
This is all to the good provided we remain aware and maintain our balance. In extreme cases, it is said that we may even find new powers and gifts at our disposal, even things we have longed for but could never attain – anything to keep us in the game, identified with individuality and selfish gain.
There is a story of two aspiring sadhus who met again after a gap of 20 years. Enquiring of each other what they had attained, one revealed that he had mastered the ability to walk on water. “Really?” said the other, “Have you spent the last twenty years discovering how to save a couple of cents on the ferry?”
Another story tells of a poor woodcutter who, seeking advice from a holy man was told, “Go forward”. Next day, as he went into the forest remembering these words, he decided to go further than usual, and came across a golden coin. Pleased as he was, he reasoned, “The holy man said ‘Go forward’, so perhaps I shouldn’t stop now”. Thus he went on and on, finding greater riches the further he went.
Even so, we begin seeking nothing by renouncing thought and every whim that would make us believe we are ‘something’. This is all we have to do, and go on doing - there is no stopping place - no place to call our home.
As Jesus said...
The foxes have holes, and the birds of the sky have nests,
but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.
Gospel of St.Luke 9:58
So, Subhuti, all the bodhisattva mahasattvas
should give rise to a pure and clear intention in this spirit.
When they give rise to this intention, they should not rely on forms,
sounds, smells, tastes, tactile objects, or objects of mind.
They should give rise to an intention with their minds not dwelling anywhere.
The Sutra of Complete Enlightenment
The mind of the man seeking liberation can find no resting place within,
but the mind of the liberated man is always free from desire
by the very fact of being without a resting place.
The Ashtavakra Gita
The Avadhuta (unique and free one), alone, pure in evenness of feeling,
abides happily in an empty dwelling place.
Having renounced all, he moves about naked.
He perceives the Absolute, the All, within himself.
Dattatreya – The Avadhuta Gita
Such is the state that in Buddhism is known as ‘quiescent stillness’ wherein mental images, thoughts and turbulent emotions are absent - leaving only naked and empty abidance as our true selves. There does come a time however, when any kind of discrimination is seen to be creating a schism in the Oneness that is all - without any exception. In the final analysis, all things, including thoughts and feelings are seen to be none other than that one single essence. Observing anything without bias, preference or any kind of reification – in other words in pure acceptance and surrender to the suchness of everything as it is – the distinction that defines one thing as different from another disappears, as does the difference between object and subject – and in the absence of any specific or discriminating basis, all is seen as emptiness.
Renunciation means non-attachment to identifying with individual selfhood, but not rejection. Rejection is simply the opposite of attachment and both refer to the biases of an individual. In fact, ultimately it is not rejecting anything at all that constitutes renunciation! We do not reject the form of things as they present themselves when seen, including our ‘ego’, thoughts and feelings, which are a part of nature itself no less than the sun and moon and stars, but we reject the colouring of them as good or bad according to the viewpoint of our individuality. Nay, we do not even reject that! Neither should renunciation be seen in terms of looking for something else! As Hui Neng says:
To seek enlightenment by separating from this world
is as absurd as to search for a rabbit's horn.
To take an attitude of neither indifference nor attachment towards all things -
this is what is meant by realizing one's own Essence of Mind for the attainment of Buddhahood.
Learned Audience, the mind should be framed in such a way
that it will be independent of external or internal objects,
at liberty to come or go, free from attachment
and thoroughly enlightened without the least beclouding.
Erroneous views keep us in defilement while right views keep us from it;
but when we are in a position to discard both of them,
we are then absolutely pure.
Raining in my Heart
I have to admit this writing provides me with a sense of purpose, and thereby demonstrates quite clearly that my individuality still depends on such a need. To exist as purposeless and yet be perfectly content is, for me at least, a formidable challenge.
How can there be happiness,
for one who is burnt inside by the blistering sun
of the pain of things that need doing,
without the rain of the nectar of peace?
The Ashtavakra Gita
Still the urge to live and fear of boredom impels us to fill up all the empty spaces as long as we are unable to find enduring satisfaction in emptiness alone.
Nevertheless, this writing itself has become a form of spiritual practice for me, presenting in concrete form an ideal that inevitably demands comparison with my daily states of mind.
In common, as I imagine, with most humans gifted or cursed with thought, it is on retiring to bed, on the threshold of dream and sleep, that I naturally find myself alone with my thoughts, reflecting, contemplating, extrapolating the topics of the day or moment.
All thoughts have a taste or flavour somewhere in the spectrum between pleasant and unpleasant. Generally, short of the vortex of obsession, ‘good’ thoughts are the hardest to renounce.
Last night as I lay there ruminating aimlessly - as the mundane insignificance of my thoughts puttered on - a gentle rain began falling on the roof outside. Feeling bored with the mental dialogue and questioning if this was all there was to entertain my consciousness, I was reminded of my own exhortations to abandon thought and began to cast about for emptiness.
It seems to generally be the case that, like a searchlight, our minds are really only capable of entertaining one particular focus of attention at any given time - even thoughts arrive in single file - so as I turned away from the misty wispy threads of mental peregrination which up till then had evinced such all-consuming substantiality, to consider what else lay in my field of consciousness, the pitter-patter of the rain, the auditory universe, took centre stage. How to find emptiness with that going on, I thought!
Of course it is the empty spaces that give life to music or any sound, but my tired mind had not the strength of concentration to follow that. Instead, faced only with the two alternatives of listening to my grey thoughts or the rain, the only apparent guests of my consciousness at the time, I resolved to listen to the rain - something usually considered a background of no consequence, but in this instance no less or more so than my thoughts. And so I began to be absorbed in the intricate rhythms of the undulating heavy drops which now I noticed were intermingled with assorted tinklings and the purely spontaneous and natural improvisation of countless rhythms and melodies.
Why, I thought, do we spend so little time appreciating the ever-present objects of our senses, the living universe that exists solely as a backdrop, it seems, to the intense preoccupation we have with our personal story and ambitions? This mental body that we regard as our closest friend is like a ghostly shadow that yet forever dances mischievously in front of us, absorbing all our attention and preventing any real view of where we are.
What a fine thought! What a pertinent image! But what happened to the rain? Hah! I was thinking again and no longer listening to the rain.
Again, listen to the rain. Oh, listen! In a high but muted trill there are frogs chirping madly away, some like a continuous throaty whistle, some with intermittent croaking, some building to a crescendo before plunging abruptly into silence. And still there is the symphony of rain, the sound of breath, the physical movement of my lungs and the movement of air without and within; the resting of my head on the pillow.
Ah, there are so many things going on all the time! But how can one be simultaneously aware of all of them with a face that only sees in one direction at a time? Surely by having no face at all, by disappearing from the centre, and allowing all to exist as it is.
Douglas Harding’s revelation in the Himalayas was like this. Faced with such stupendous scenery, it was as if his head had disappeared, leaving him as but a borderless receptacle for the universe to be presented in.
As a boy, seeing a flight of pure white cranes against the dark, monsoon sky above the emerald green fields of rice, an ecstatic Sri Ramakrishna lost all sense of body-consciousness.
And yet again, for me, what happened to the rain?
All the great thoughts of mankind, I wonder, - do they come from the edge of emptiness, deeper and more profound the closer they come from the brink?
But what about the rain? The frogs? Breathing, feeling, and yes - even these very thoughts?
Once we begin to detach ourselves from identification with thoughts, whether they continue to be visible or not is of no consequence. Ego and thought, body and feeling, belong to nature no less than the sun, the moon, the stars and planets, trees and mountains. They all exist in consciousness as the whiteness in milk and blueness in sky and like the changing colours of the day, they come, they go, they pass away.
Sri Ramakrishna used to say that once we’ve climbed the steps of a house to examine the roof, we realize the steps and indeed the whole house are made of the same material. So the whole universe including our thoughts and feelings, if we see them, are all nothing in essence one and the same nature of God or Self. Automatically it functions, constituting our whole mind and including the witness thereof. But the emptiness in which these come and go and have such a momentary existence, remains supremely untouched.
Another nameless Sadhu, wandering in the foothills of the Himalayas, took a small abandoned puppy into his care named it ‘Automatic’. “This is Automatic,” he said. “You are automatic, I am automatic - everything is automatic!”
Once we cease to cling to our ideas of love and hatred, seeing all with an equal eye and allowing everything to flow as it will in the magical mirror of consciousness, there exists no contradiction.
Shining is My essential nature,
and I am nothing over and beyond that.
When the world shines forth,
it is simply Me that is shining forth.
The Ashtavakra Gita
Should we then all become monks or nuns? Like sadhus, should we renounce this worldly life so full of care and obstacles that spin and pin us to the walls of life’s events like some all-powerful centrifugal force?
Appearances and forms are but the outer shell. Renouncing this thin crust of our identity is but the beginning, and in comparison to the inner world of attachment to mind and thought, desires and feelings, is of lesser consequence. What if my head is shaved, eyebrows too? What if I wear a simple robe and beg for my body’s sustenance? If my mind is full of thoughts like a black hole absorbing everything within its orbit and letting no light escape, where is my freedom?
It is a choice that in many cultures we are free to make, and I am full of admiration, nay, veneration for those whose outward renunciation is matched by that within. As a means of escape however, when the mind is still tormented by unrequited desires, I worry that such a dichotomy of spirit speaks of a burden of hypocrisy that is just as hard to bear.
The mind is the creator of the world; the mind is the individual;
only that which is done by the mind is regarded as done,
not that which is done by the body.
Yoga Vasishta Sara
No doubt it is true that the less we are exposed to ‘temptation’ the less we are bothered by it, but not if we cling to its indulgence in our minds.
There is the famous story that you may have heard of two monks travelling to a distant town. They came to a small river where a woman was waiting, too afraid to venture across. She appealed to the monks, and to the horror of his companion (their order forbidding any bodily contact with women), the other carried her across the stream on his back. Leaving the woman to go her own way on the other side, they walked on. Finally, as they came to the town, the offended monk could restrain himself no longer and launched into a volley of accusation that the other had committed such a serious violation of the rules. Whereupon the other replied, “Yes, it is true I picked her up and put her down on the other bank, but I see you have been carrying her ever since!”
So the real deal is internal. To be sure, we all need a certain amount of physical discipline to lead a functional existence, and I stand in awe of those who sit continually for hours in meditation and who find abiding peace in such an existence free from external disturbance; however, as Krishna says:
Man does not attain freedom from action (culmination of the path of action)
without entering upon action;
nor does he reach perfection (culmination of the path of knowledge)
merely by renunciation of action.
Surely none can remain inactive even for a moment;
everyone is helplessly driven to action by nature-born qualities.
He who outwardly restraining the organs of sense and action,
sits mentally dwelling on objects of senses is called a hypocrite.
The Bhagavad Gita, 3:4,5,6
It is often said that to follow the spiritual path of the soul is to become like a lump of clay in the almighty potter’s hands; to be thumped and pressed and pushed and pulled; moulded into the shape required. Living in the world, we are as it were, at the coalface of our likes and dislikes. Where else can we become aware of our fears, our anger and desire? Where else do we find ourselves beating our heads against the obstacles to peace and contentment? Where else can we practice what we preach?
Where else indeed can we realize that, as Gautama Buddha said, “With our thoughts we make the world”? The fact is that as long as we find ourselves bewitched by the nebulous mirror of our thoughts, there is always work to be done.
The root lies in our attachment to thought itself, no doubt, but within that world of thought it is the strength of our desires and aversions that cement its grip and bind our soul.
Even though bondage does not really exist,
it becomes strong through desire for worldly enjoyments;
when this desire subsides bondage becomes weak.
The noble-hearted man whose desires of the heart have come to an end is a liberated man;
it does not matter whether he does or does not practise meditation or perform action.
Yoga Vasishtha Sara
Desires are not so easily renounced. In the world we are generally restrained by the norms and expectations of the society in which we live but when this factor is not of overriding importance, it is a moot point whether restraint or indulgence is more successful in laying our demons to rest.
Sri Ramakrishna once said that one does not come to enlightenment without having experienced throughout the course of countless births everything it is possible to experience. Our normal experience of life, propelled as it is by desires great and small, indicates that experience itself is the greatest teacher of all, and that having experienced the gratification of any desire its attraction and importance to us is often diminished and no longer grips our mind as being such a big deal after all. Then we are largely, if not completely, freed from its clutches.
Psychologists tell us that repressed thoughts only linger and fester, and driven deeper into our subconscious create a disharmony that will inevitably erode the power that would restrain them and erupt, sooner or later, in our conscious lives, often with devastating consequences. To understand this, one only has to look at the scandals that come to light concerning so many who have outwardly avowed a life of celibacy. In a similar way, there is no point in trying to run away from persistently recurring problems that may be ever so deeply embedded in our conditioning. We can never escape from ourselves. Whatever our karma, we have to face it sooner or later, in this life - or the next.
It is said that ignorance is bliss. What we do not know we don’t entertain in our minds, but in even the simplest communities, isolated and untouched by the Pandora’s box of expression that has been opened to a large extent in many societies today, the human being remains a creature possessed of physical needs, desire and aggression that must be contained to one degree or another in order to maintain the necessary conditions of communal peace and harmony.
It is no doubt true that the more we move towards the light, the more darkness recedes, however it is also a fact that darkness can exert a pull of its own. So what are we to do?
As always it seems to be a question of balance - the middle way, following life but not the force. Where the gratification of persistent desire involves no harm to the happiness or wellbeing of any other being it may well be efficacious to satisfy such yearning if possible, rather than attempt to suppress it or keep it in some private mental compartment of personal fantasy. From the eastern point of view even the slightest desire or aversion retained at death needs must result in a future birth.
Arjuna, thinking of whatever object one leaves the body at the time of death,
that and that alone he attains, being ever absorbed in its thought.
The Bhagavad-Gita 8:6
In this respect it may well be efficacious to try to clear up any lingering desires so that when our time is up we are literally free to go. On the other hand, what does it matter how many births we experience when, as in a dream, even time itself ultimately has no meaning.
Sri Ramakrishna used to say that some great yogis, wishing to ensure their rebirth to continue teaching or who otherwise want to postpone their total and final absorption into the absolute, often deliberately cultivate a desire for some simple thing such as a ring or particular piece of clothing before they die, just to guarantee their return.
However, that being said, once we choose to pursue anything in this world we set ourselves on a path of indeterminate length and price to pay that could possibly entail lifetimes of struggle and suffering (however illusory) as we delve into the labyrinths of success and failure that constitute the game of life - setting a goal without the attainment of which we cannot move on.
Fortunately, if we are armed with some knowledge of this and see it as a means of clearing up the backlog of karmic residue, we are more likely, having tasted the fruit of desire, to move on, less if not completely unencumbered by it. If not, seeking constant and continuing gratification as our only goal, constructing a treadmill of habit that imprisons us and yearning only for more of the same, we may have much to learn before that liberating wisdom dawns.
No matter. We have all of eternity in which to play this game - until its price becomes more than we’re prepared to pay and realise that the cause of all our suffering lies, as the Buddha said, in our craving and desire.
With but a little wisdom however, we may see how trivial many of our wants really are, and that they are not really worth getting upset about. We may realise how basic are our essential needs and how little is required for us to be happy. Possessions and attachment bring with them the fear of loss. Every triumph contains within it the seeds of disaster and every success the shadow of failure. But those desires we water with constant yearning can develop roots so strong they would strangle our soul.
On the night of a clear full moon, the abbot of a local Buddhist monastery in Western Australia sat beneath a tree in the forest talking to a group of people who were on a month long ‘Great Walk’ to the city of Perth to protest against the continued logging of the pristine virgin forests through which they journeyed. The monk said, “When you reach the city and see the grey concrete, the cars and planes, just don’t forget that these, like everything else, are essentially derived from nature too, to which nothing can be finally be added or taken away. The only question we need to consider is this: how much is really necessary for us to be happy?”
Box of Tricks
Short of sudden enlightenment, the deliberate cultivation of habit can be utilised to further our cause. Over time, the habit of right thinking and recourse to certain ‘tricks’ or practices can become our help and salvation. In Hindu terminology, these are known as ‘yogas’ or paths towards union with the Supreme Reality.
From this side of a non-existent but all too apparent barrier, such habits can develop into techniques that switch on automatically, as it were, when faced with negativity or fear, or the mundaneness of everyday thoughts and feelings.
If you have followed the lines of thought presented in these pages, it is clear that our freely chosen faith and devotion to an image or symbol of God can become our refuge and source of sustenance in the face of the ups and downs of life. Most religions advocate the use of a prayer or invocation, which, true to our nature, we often remember only in times of need, although an exuberance of joy may equally impel our souls to heartfelt praise and gratitude.
In many religions this devotion often comes in the form of chanting a mantra or rosary, a word or phrase which being repeated constantly is sometimes said to be imbued with great power, but it may be as simple as OM, or the name of one’s chosen deity or god. It may be “I am That” (Soham); it may be “Hail to the Jewel in the Lotus (of my heart)” (Om mani padme hum), or “There is no god but God” (lā ʾilāha ʾillā -llāh), in Christianity, “Hail Mary” or “Jesus is my saviour”. Such repetitions are often accompanied by counting on a string of beads, rosary or “mala”, “worry beads” or prayer wheels, providing a physical counterpart to the verbal or mental process. The efficacy of such a habit lies in countering and providing an alternative to the process of endless thought and keeping the mind concentrated on the object of devotion.
Then there is the cultivation of love and yearning to see the beloved known as Bhakti Yoga, anticipating of the joy of beholding the object of our devotion to whom we may surrender everything knowing that to be the one God of all. This may include worship and songs of love, praise and adoration, reading and listening to the stories and teaching of our beloved, or silent prayer and meditation; we can direct all our feelings, even anger to God! There is devotion and obeisance to one’s teacher or guru, if one is lucky enough to find one, as the physical manifestation of wisdom and the divine in human form.
Of the teacher – even if he be young, illiterate,
or addicted to the enjoyment of sense objects,
even if he be a servant or householder –
none of these should be considered.
Does anyone shun a gem fallen in an impure place?
The Avadhuta Gita
Just as a steady boat, O Rama, is obtained from a boatman,
so also the method of crossing the ocean of samsara
is learnt by associating with great souls.
The sages are to be approached even if they do not teach.
Even their talks in a light vein contain wisdom.
We can dedicate all our actions to God in a spirit of sacrifice known as Karma Yoga, intent on performing our daily duties to the very best of our ability without concern for personal gratification or the fruit of our action, whether it be a success or failure. In the Yoga Vasishta, Lord Shiva himself gives this masterly advice:
The Lord should be worshipped by means of all the enjoyments that the body enjoys,
through eating, drinking, being with one’s consort and other such pleasures.
The Lord should be worshipped with the illnesses one experiences
and with every sort of unhappiness or suffering one experiences.
The Lord should be worshipped with all one’s activities,
including life and death and all of one’s dreams.
The Lord should be worshipped with one’s poverty and prosperity.
The Lord should be worshipped even with fights and quarrels as well as with sports and other pastimes,
and even with the manifestations of the emotions of attraction and aversion.
One should worship the self, without psychological perversion,
with every object that is obtained purely on account of the coincidence of time, place and activity –
whether they are popularly known as good or bad.
Established in this state of equanimity,
the wise man should experience infinite expansion within himself
while carrying out his natural actions externally without craving or rejection.
There is also contemplation, and then there is meditation, the time set aside for concentrating on a single concept, perhaps the feet of our deity, our breath, the flame of a candle, even the head of a matchstick; being empty or nothing at all, or knowing only that “I am” without any connotations - in an on-going attempt to control or rather detach ourselves from the mind; to step off the merry-go-round of endless thoughts; to strengthen our power of concentration and “to be still and know that I am God”.
Whichever way, it is our right to believe in our chosen imagination more than the so-called reality of this madhouse called the world. However, as long as ego hovers around our every thought and action, laying claim to every virtue as an embellishment of its name, it may be wise to keep these things a secret from the world.
With repeated practice then, when negative thoughts or fear and insecurity assail us, we may find these habits kicking in, pulling us out of the vortex of a whirlpool of thoughts and feeling, and reminding us of a bigger picture.
Another ‘trick’, if you like, is breath control. Here we discover that mind and breath operate in tandem. Quicker, shorter breaths accompany a racing mind, whereas with a calm mind, breathing is slow and deep. Furthermore, by changing one, we affect the other.
Known as ‘pranayama’, has been practised in India since time began and is really something of a science. Nevertheless, It is said that in the absence of a qualified teacher we should not play too much with this as it involves the conscious manipulation of an essential bodily function that normally, instinctively ensures the required amount of oxygen necessary to sustain life itself. However if, as is often the case, you find your mind with a ‘mind of its own’, possessed of such momentum that no amount of effort can restrain it, you may like to try the following simple exercise, in moderation.
Taking a long, slow, deep breath as if your whole upper body consisted of your lungs fill the lower abdomen first, letting it expand like a balloon, then fill the remaining space in the chest cavity until you can’t inhale a single drop of air more. Then stop, holding the breath inside for no more than 7 seconds or repetitions of a mantra say, or name of God - but no longer than is reasonably comfortable. Then slowly exhale, emptying first the chest and then the abdomen until not another wisp of air you can exhale. Stop again, holding the air outside you, again for the count of up to seven, before repeating the process up to seven times, but no more.
At first it is difficult to breathe so deeply and even more so to do it slowly, but within 2 or 3 cycles it becomes much easier, and with it, thinking slows and a feeling of peacefulness descends on the mind.
The reason I mention this technique with caution is that I first read about it in the writings of Swami Vivekananda who similarly cautioned thus. There are many other breathing techniques of more complexity which I know nothing about, but as a means to the end of calming the mind, this simple exercise would seem to suffice.
It takes time and a certain effort to cultivate all these habits, but as Krishna says in the final chapter of the Bhagavad-Gita, categorizing everything according to the “Gunas”, or the moods or qualities of nature - Sattva, the mode of wisdom, beauty and peace, harmony and motiveless action; Rajas, the mode of passion, excitement and motivated action, and Tamas, the mode of dullness and perversely recalcitrant action:
That in which one finds enjoyment only through practice
and whereby one reaches the end of all sorrow,
nay, that which appears like poison in the beginning (when the practices are started),
but tastes as nectar in the end, born of placidity of mind brought about by meditation on God,
such a joy is said to be Sattvic. (18:36/37)
The joy which is derived from the contact of the senses with their objects,
though appearing like nectar in the beginning, proves to be mischievous like poison in the end.
That is why such a joy is said to be Rajasic. (18:38)
The joy which deadens the soul, both in the beginning and in the end,
and which is derived from sleep, indolence and carelessness is said to be Tamasic. (18:39)
The manifestations of these moods are something with which we are all familiar. Again, concerning knowledge:
That by which man sees one imperishable entity in all beings,
undivided among the divided, know that knowledge to be Sattvic. (18:20)
And that knowledge which regards the manifold existence of various kinds in all beings as separate,
know that knowledge as partaking of Rajas. (18:21)
And that knowledge which clings to one individual, as if it were the whole, which is without reason,
without any real object and of little value, that is declared as Tamasic. (18:22)
Krishna further points out that even Sattva binds the soul through self-identification with happiness and wisdom; Rajas, through attachment to actions and their fruits; and Tamas, through error, sloth and sleep - and that finally all three must be transcended in the search for the Absolute.
The nature-born qualities of Sattva, Rajas and Tamas firmly tie the imperishable soul to the body, Arjuna. (14:5)
There is no existence here on earth, in the heavens or among the celestials,
or anywhere else in creation, which is free from these three qualities born of matter. (18:40)
When the seer does not see any agent other than the three Gunas,
and knows Me, who stand beyond these Gunas, he enters into My Being. (14:19)
Finally, there is what I would call the intellectual practice of the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom, also known as Gyana Yoga, which begins with the simple desire to know and leads us to study the words of the wise. As Krishna says:
Attain this knowledge by all means. If you prostrate yourself at the feet of the wise,
render them all forms of service, and question them with a guileless heart,
again and again, those wise seers of truth will unfold that knowledge to you. (4:34)
Even if you are the most sinful of all sinners,
you will cross over all sin by the raft of knowledge.
For, as the blazing fire reduces the fuel to ashes, Arjuna,
even so the fire of knowledge reduces all actions to ashes. (4:36)
In this world there is no purifier like knowledge. (4:38)
And in the End
I remember reading the Bhagavad-Gita for the first time, convinced that the secret to life and the universe lay somewhere in those words, understanding so little yet imagining a knowledge I did not possess. Little by little over the years I became familiar with the terminology and concepts, and as fate would have it, Sri Tirtha Lal asked me to read a chapter every day as part of my practice. Nowadays many of those divine verses resound like echoes in the chamber of my mind, clear as a bell behind the usual detritus, gaining more and more profundity and relevance, and cutting ever deeper with the sharp sword of truth. It is a song of triumph and celebration, and compels me to declare this is indeed the “Song of God”.
Similarly there are many other books and writings, a few snippets of which l have borrowed to lend authenticity to “Another Book of Nothing”, and which I hope give some justification to the perspectives I have presented here. For me this has been a synopsis of thoughts and musings accumulated over many years, and an attempt to provide a common rationale for any and every spiritual practice or belief, which hopefully serves to strengthen whatever faith we may have. In the process, being prompted by vague memories or wishing to quote original words, I have taken advantage of the Internet where there is little that cannot be found today. This has led to my reading again and again some of the most inspiring texts, amazed at the consistency of knowledge and wisdom presented from so many different faiths. If anything here has whetted your appetite, as I certainly hope it has, and you feel ready for a ‘stronger dose’, I would encourage you to search the internet where most of these books can be downloaded for free, or visit an appropriate bookshop for the texts I have mentioned here and which will yield much more of the same.
It seems a miracle, as much as anything is seen to exist here at all, let alone that all our many stories of such apparently intense significance should somehow have been constructed from the impersonal combination of the basic elements of the universe, that such wisdom, proclaiming the ultimate resolution to the enigma of life and existence, stands openly revealed for all to see.
The good news is that whether we know or are aware of it or not, there is only one ever-abiding Reality, one super-conscious, all-embracing awareness, of which the appearance of this physical and mental universe of infinite possibilities is but an ephemeral display and which, like a dream on waking, has no permanency nor indeed any actual substance - not the sun, the stars and planets, our lives and deaths, nor anything at all we label as existence, there is but One Self beyond any time or dimension, such that even the labels of emptiness or space, which are perhaps the closest definition we have for the negation of all concepts, cannot apply to That from which they themselves, like us, originate.
The cosmic irony then, if you like, is that for all our joys and suffering, our efforts to transcend this existence and find enlightenment through various practice, faiths and beliefs, there is nothing, in the final analysis, that is not already That which we seek.
Virtuous man, all hindrances are themselves of the nature of ultimate enlightenment.
Having a correct thought or losing it is not different from liberation.
Wisdom and stupidity are equally prajna (wisdom).
Ignorance and true suchness are not different realms.
Sila (morality), Samadhi (concentration) and prajna (wisdom)
and the three poisons of greed, anger and delusion are all pure activities.
Sentient beings and the world they live in are of one Dharma-nature.
Hells and heavens are all Pure Lands.
Regardless of their distinct natures, all sentient beings have intrinsically accomplished the Buddha Path.
All vexations are ultimate liberation.
The Tathagata’s ocean of wisdom, which encompasses the whole dharmadhatu (the nature of all things),
clearly illuminates all phenomena as empty space.
This is called ‘the Tathagata’s accordance with the nature of enlightenment’.
The Buddha, The Sutra of Complete Enlightenment
Here then is the ultimate riddle: to seek without seeking, to renounce without renouncing, and to realize there is in fact no realiser. However this can only become fully clear to the enlightened soul – one who no longer sees a snake in the harmless piece of rope and whose whole apparatus of existence that was based on the former belief has been dissolved. Thus Dattatreya sings:
The enlightened one is a yogi devoid of yoga and absence of yoga.
He is an enjoyer, devoid of enjoyment or absence of enjoyment.
Thus he wanders leisurely, filled with the spontaneous joy of his own mind.
All this is magic, like a mirage in the desert.
Only the Absolute Self, of indivisible and impenetrable form, exists.
To all things, from the practice of religious laws and duties to liberation itself, we are completely indifferent.
How can we have anything to do with attachment or detachment?
Only the learned imagine these things.
Renounce the world in every way. Renounce renunciation in every way.
Renounce the poison of renunciation and non-renunciation.
The Self is pure, immortal, natural and immutable.
There is no state of liberation, no state of bondage, no state of virtue, no state of vice.
There is no state of perfection and no state of destitution.
Why dost thou, who art the identity in all, grieve in thy heart?
There is nothing dividing, nothing to be divided.
I have nothing to know, nothing to be known.
How shall I speak of coming and going, my child?
I am free from disease – my form has been extinguished.
The Avadhuta Gita
I am tempted to end this writing with some dramatic punch line, but when all is said and done, it can only be something of an anti-climax as there is no way I can claim, as many of the works I’ve quoted here do, that whoever reads them is guaranteed enlightenment.
For example, Krishna says at the end of the Bhagavad-Gita:
He who shall study this dialogue of ours,
by him shall I be worshipped through the sacrifice of wisdom.
Such is my mind. (18:70)
The man who listens to it full of faith and in an uncarping spirit,
freed from evil, even he shall gain the happy worlds of the virtuous. (18:71)
Or the sage Valmiki, at the end of Yoga Vasishta:
He who constantly listens to this dialogue between Rama and Vasishta is liberated,
whatever be the circumstances of his life, and he attains knowledge of Brahman.
Dattatreya, concluding the Avadhuta Gita
This Gita or song is composed by Dattatreya Avadhuta who is the embodiment of bliss.
Whoever reads or hears it has never any rebirth.
And the Buddha, in the Sutra of Complete Enlightenment:
Virtuous man, if there were a man who, with the purest intentions,
gathered enough of the seven treasures to fill a great chiliocosm (innumerable universes) and gave them all as alms,
he could not be compared to another man who hears the name of this sutra and understands the meaning of a single passage.
So here’s the point. The ‘punch lines’ are spread throughout these great works from beginning to end, sometimes indeed on every line, and each has the potency to trigger greater awareness, higher consciousness and enlightenment to one degree or another. Like a baby kicking from within the womb they goad us to consider the mystery of life itself. When we are truly able to understand even one statement - if the time is right and we have sufficient concentration, developed by practice, to see its ultimate depth - when we are ready, as a ripe fruit, to fall from the tree - each is capable of transporting us from the contemplation of an immanent truth to the immediacy of undiluted Reality itself. Because finally,
The Lord cannot be seen with the help of the sacred texts or the Guru.
The self is seen by the Self alone with the pure intellect.
The Tibetan Bodhisattva, or God of wisdom, Manjusri, holds in one hand, resting on a lotus, a book symbolising spiritual knowledge, and in the other a sword. It is a sword of Truth so sharp that it pierces our heart, severing the very root of our ignorance to reveal the absolute emptiness that is the one pure, incorruptible essence and eternal Reality of all that exists.
OM TAT SAT