Be Empty

The Teachings of Sri Tirtha Lal Mahanandhar

Another Book of Nothing        Chapters 5-9:      

Nowhere Man             Saint or Sinner?             In our own Image              Refuge from the storm             Idols

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Nowhere man

No-where, now-here - back and forth the hyphen goes - the nowhere that is before anything is created, the vast and infinite emptiness of space in which creation, including ourselves, are seen to exist -  and the open and empty 'mind' of pure awareness, the here and now in which each moment simultaneously and spontaneously appears and disappears.

They say if you can meditate on the empty space between two thoughts and manage to stop there, even for just a moment - in that timeless emptiness - where can the next thought come from? 

Does the emptiness in which the galaxies float have any boundaries? If it is circular, where is the centre or circumference and where exactly does the circle exist? The Big Bang that supposedly originated the universe could only happen in a pre-existing emptiness but that would seem to be beyond the scope of human science to deal with.

Or maybe the expanding universe will hit a brick wall one day! More likely it will come to the conclusion that as far as it goes it isn’t actually going anywhere – and certainly not beyond the peripheries of an awareness to perceive it.

When we talk about the ‘universe’ of course we usually only notice and talk about the bits of solid matter - the stars and planets, asteroids and so on - but the scientists say that even all the apparently actual solid particles within the atoms that make up our bodies, if put together without the empty space between them would cover less than the head of a pin, and what indeed of the physical universe in the emptiness out there we call ‘space’? Without a specific destination, a spaceship would be unlikely to ever hit anything at all. So it seems there is a lot more of nothing than there is of something, to put it mildly.

In fact, in comparison with the infinity of space or emptiness, 'something' can hardly be said to exist at all. 

Conversely, there is no thing that can possibly exist that does not do so physically within the vast and empty space that is uniform throughout the universe, but to be even more precise, whatever exists can only truly do so as a form of perception within, yet indivisible from, the pure, unstained, empty space that is 'mind-as-such' and awareness of anything that can possibly be.

                  And so, just as there is nothing in the entire universe -

                       - the universe of all appearances and possibilities -

                  that does not abide within the realm of space,

                  so too the enormous scope of the vast expanse of awakened mind

                  is such that buddhas, ordinary beings, and the entire universe are

                       present therein.

                 Longchen Rabjam - quoting 'The All-Creating Monarch' in 'A Treasure trove of Scriptural Transmission'


Saint or Sinner?

The self that seeks is the self it finds. Allow me to repeat that.

                  We shall not cease from exploration
                  And the end of all our exploring
                  Will be to arrive where we started
                  And know the place for the first time.

                  T.S. Eliot

Well, where would one expect to find it? You and I are the only ones who can truly verify our own existence or that of anything else. Individually, we each alone have to know and bear witness as to whether we ourselves or God or anything at all indeed exists, or not. The verification of others, although it may help us follow our own unique path towards revealing that knowledge for ourselves, has no more practical value than someone else eating on our behalf to appease our hunger!

Although knowledge might be a means to an end however, it is not an end in itself. Sri Ramakrishna Paramahansa (beneath whose feet my heart yearns to be extinguished) said that knowledge is a thorn we use to remove the thorn of ignorance, but then having done so, we can throw them both away, having no need for either.

At the same time, knowledge is not something that accumulates; rather it is ignorance that dissipates like darkness as the light appears. Then neither imagination nor knowledge remains. Who needs a torch to see the daylight?

Meanwhile, if we are looking for enlightenment or God or some resolution to the enigma of our existence - if it still seems dark – the question is, how to see the light?

Pause for a cacophony of persuasions from a million pulpits!

Taking a comprehensive look, what exactly is this product that everyone wants and so many try to give or sell and yet so few tend to get?

Well, it looks like almost everyone acquires some idea of a God-like benevolence at a very early age, when as infants we find ourselves in the loving arms of one or more protecting, compassionate and nourishing parental figures - a cradle of safe, unquestioning and unquestionable love and belonging for a newly created, totally dependent infant. So far, so good! Then, as time goes on, we are gradually introduced to the idea that some things are right and others are wrong, and are taught the necessity of obedience and self-control, initially by our parents or older siblings, and later from school and the wider world around us. When it comes to religion, these ideas are often extended further to include the concept of a ‘divine’ will and almighty authority that, while theoretically controlling and determining the fate of all things and all beings on the one hand, paradoxically places the responsibility for a favourable or unfavourable destiny solely on the shoulders of each being and their actions. The basic ideas of right and wrong are thus elevated to the level of virtue and sin with their corresponding consequences of either blessedness, or punishment that in extreme cases is said to be eternal, with no second chances in the 'hereafter'. Whether intentional or not, this manipulation of the conflicting emotions of love and fear can lead us to the conclusion that we ourselves are not to be completely trusted, and that our each and every action and even our very thoughts are forever being watched and judged by an all-seeing God.

So it is that most of us are taught or persuaded, in one way or another, of a long list of ‘dos and don’ts’ - of sin and virtue, of what is 'right' and what is 'wrong', even in regard to the needs and instincts of our basic human nature - with the inevitable understanding that in this respect, whether we like it or not, we are less than perfect. The longer the list, of course, the less chance we have of getting it right, and this means we’re more than likely to be disappointed in ourselves. So then we have a love-hate relationship, not only with our ‘God’ for giving us an ideal that we can’t live up to, but also with our own self for falling short of so many expectations. 

So much for the innate love and innocence of our childhood and the idea of an all-loving God as we become subject to the apparent dictates of divine approval! On the other hand it does provide a powerful means of control for those who would insist, somewhat self-righteously, that our very nature is sinful, albeit that Jesus said, "Let he who has not sinned cast the first stone".

The idea that there is something intrinsically lacking in us, and that without determined effort to improve or correct our imperfections we are somehow undeserving, can permeate a lifetime of seemingly endless struggle, dissatisfaction and a sense of failure that can even affect our quest for enlightenment with the belief that we are simply 'not good enough' taken as the reason for non-attainment - forgetting the wise words of King Solomon that:

                  To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven...

                   Ecclesiastes 3:1, Old Testament of the Bible

As natural beings, we have our allotted lifespan and experience, which albeit according to the idea of karma or destiny, is determined by our actions in this or previous lifetimes, and the actual everyday circumstances and events of life are not likely to be changed or altered in any way by the experience of 'enlightenment' - which is not so much a goal to be achieved as the ever-abiding, ever-present fact of life itself. Indeed, enlightenment is there to be seen shining lucidly in and as every moment of our existence - regardless of whether that moment seems pleasant to us or not - and imagining it to be something limited that depends on a chain of cause and effect or that it is not eternally present but lies somewhere in the future or far away means that to all intents and purposes that is exactly where it will remain!

Nevertheless, underlying even the idea that our so-called imperfection is due to our propensity to sin, it is possible to discern the implication that there must exist in every being, a spark of the divine, such that when sufficiently 'purified' there remains no obstacle to the essential unity between that spark and the fire that is its only nature, in other words, between the soul and God. Thus, Sri Tirtha Lal uses the metaphor of a man completely covered in thick blankets and complaining about the dark, to say that enlightenment is simply a case of removing the covers that obscure the light that is shining within - and that beneath all the peripheral and external ideas of 'self' and identity we have accumulated, our true nature is there to be revealed. Indeed, can anyone with the slightest spark of life, of love and goodness in them really believe themselves to be forever damned - and what exactly is it that is supposed to eternally endure and experience such a fate?

                  By calling themselves sinners, people really intend to be regarded as holy. 

                  But in their heart of hearts they have no faith in their sinful nature. 

                  Everybody is pure to himself.

                  Swami Ramthirtha

In this respect, followers of Eastern religions and philosophies have the advantage of having as many lives as it may take to gain enlightenment, 'moksha' or liberation from the wheel of birth and death, as the sole purpose of existence itself, regardless of whether they remember their previous endeavours or not. On the other hand, those who adhere to a belief in having just one lifetime ostensibly have only one shot at 'getting it right' and must hope that on their final scorecard on the day of judgement they manage to rate at least 51% 'good' to secure a place for themselves in heaven rather than eternal hell!

In complete contrast to the idea of being born in sin, Swami Vivekananda, supported by the ancient Vedic scriptures of Hinduism, insisted that the essential nature of man (and woman) is divine: 

                  Ye are the children of God, the sharers of immortal bliss, holy and perfect beings.

                  Ye divinities on earth - sinners! It is a sin to call man so; it is a standing libel on human nature.

                  Come up, lions! And shake off the delusion that you are sheep;

                  you are souls immortal, spirits free, blest and eternal.

                  Swami Vivekananda

And similarly, from a Buddhist perspective:

                  Ordinary beings are buddhas,

                  but this fact is obscured by adventitious distortions.

                  Once these are removed, truly there is buddhahood.

                  Longchen Rabjam, quoting 'The Two Chapters' scripture in 'A Treasure trove of Scriptural Transmission'

In the final analysis, perhaps, the reality of what is sinful or not, no less than that of beauty, lies in the eye of the beholder - and the very concept of what constitutes a sin, like truth, is in fact entirely relative, for example...

                  By making pilgrimage to thee, Thy all-pervasiveness has been destroyed by me. 

                  With my meditation Thy transcendence of the mind has been destroyed by me. 

                  Thy transcendence of speech has been destroyed by me by singing thy praise. 

                  Ever forgive me these three sins.

                  The great sage Dattatreya

A favourite story told, I believe, by the latter-day guru Rajneesh, or Osho, describes how the Buddha one day was walking beside a lake and seeing the beautiful lotus flowers growing there had a whim to enjoy their fragrance. So he waded into the water a little way but just as he bent down to inhale the perfume of a flower, a female voice loudly exclaimed, “Stop! Thief!” Bewildered and seeing no-one, he called out, “Who are you?” “I am the Goddess of this lake, and you are stealing the fragrance of my flowers!” came the reply. Meanwhile on the other side of the lake a flower-seller was harvesting the lotuses, ripping them up by the roots, and so the Buddha said, “But what about him?” “Him!” said the Goddess in a voice of great indignation, “I don’t even talk to him!”

From this perspective, and that of the spiritual understanding of the East, sin is not so much a crime but anything that hinders wisdom and obscures the knowledge of what we really are. For the Buddha in this story, even the desire to enjoy the perfume of the lotus flowers represented a lapse from the desireless state of independence from individual likes and dislikes. On the other hand, the flower-seller didn’t get to talk with a Goddess!


In our own image

God may well have 'created man in His own image' and be imagining Him, Her or Itself as the self of every being right now, but the truth is that more often than not it is man that 'creates' God in his own image. 

God is claimed by every religion, yet some would have us believe that only one religion has that right and is the only true way. How can God be a Christian, a Muslim or a Jew, Hindu, Buddhist or Jain, let alone the exclusive property of any human organisation? Is it really credible to think that the Supreme God who, according to all religions, has created this universe in all its infinite variety and detail, can have any partiality towards the endless cultural diversity, names and dogmas on this planet? That would be a very small god! And yet it is claimed by some that, according to divine will, men are superior and fit to be worshipped and served by women and somewhere else, that one race or group are God’s specially favoured people, that some are 'chosen' while others are not, or that 'believers will be saved and unbelievers condemned to suffer in hell, and so on an on. However, the justification for those having such attitudes most often lies in the superior position and authority of their adherents, in affluence, or victory in war - and in the vested interest and pure conceit of those in power for the preservation of their advantage in the cultural status quo. Sadly, of course, there are also those who always believe that they alone are right and everyone else is wrong.

Thus it is that we so often superimpose onto the image of God our own human traits and characteristics, including our hierarchical and divisive political and social systems, our prejudices, our competitiveness, and even hate and anger... and all this in the name of that which we call divine love?

Imagine! Making God in our imagination! Then again, don’t we all? Indeed, with so many so-called spiritual experts and 'authorities' here in the world, one might well lament, “Is my poor weeping heart of any significance at all?”

                 "Above all, to thine own heart be true", said Shakespeare.

So then, in complete contrast and contradiction to the traditional image of spiritual hierarchy, glory and even 'holiness', there is this...

                  The enlightened one, 

                  nude or clad in a patched garment made of rags gathered from the roads, 

                  follows the path which is devoid of virtue and vice and stays in an empty abode, 

                  absorbed in the pure stainless, homogeneous Being.

                  Dattatreya, The Avadhuta Gita

In other words, an image of enlightenment that is the precise opposite of everything that is given importance and value in the world.

It is said that only a realised soul is capable of truly recognising another. According to Sri Tirtha Lal, some of the very greatest of men and women on earth today, spiritual giants if you like, are often to be found among those who have absolutely no concern for the ways of the world, and are often completely disregarded and considered to be of no consequence at all. They might be ragged tramps sitting by the roadside oblivious to the worldly chaos around them; maybe sleeping in drains, or other unclean places – maybe stark naked and wandering the world, sustaining their bodies with whatever comes to them unsought.  Such people have turned themselves inside out and retain but the tiniest speck of identity in emptiness, whereby we may, if lucky, be led to see the speck of emptiness in us. Occasionally pointing them out on the street and sometimes inviting them to stay with him, Sri Tirtha Lal would say that such people are the kings and queens of heaven, and that their very existence here on earth constitutes a supreme blessing to the world. My homage to all such 'avadhutas' (unique ones) is all that I am able to give, but I wish it were more than that. To the very extent to which I am unable to give my all, I am here to ramble on for now:


Here I am, just a bundle of words
tumbling around,
fondled and felt,
washed in what?

There’s nothing cleaner than emptiness,
nothing to cling to,
nothing to be.

Fresher than the tide-swept sand,
- thank God for that!


Refuge from the storm

Emptiness, enlightenment, awakened mind - the non-dual Brahman defies any conceptualisation, but although it provides plenty of scope for exploration in terms of what it’s not, there remains nothing for us to relate to; no relationship to our all too human condition; no image of tender mercy to hear our cries of torment - no loving comfort on the road to death. Life is no joke to be sure, and the common experience of all of us in times of powerlessness is to cry for help - some refuge from the storm, something to sustain us in the face of despair - and the yearning for a greater being to whom we may surrender the burden of responsibility for our fate, just as children we ran to the loving protection of our parents.

At heart, we are all, first and foremost, emotional beings, so it is natural that we may choose to see God in a personal form that we can relate to - a form of the Supreme Reality to which we can attribute whatever we conceive God to actually be - and through that very process expand and refine our understanding of what the idea of salvation or enlightenment actually means. In exploring the path of worship and devotion and cultivating a relationship between our all-too human self and that, as it were, of a responsive, all-protecting and all-loving divinity, we may even come to see this form as a focus of the absolute abstract, a power before which we are powerless, a knowledge that is beyond our ability to know - and yet, an abiding 'peace that passeth all understanding' which is the very home of our soul.

Such a belief can become a support and refuge that gives us strength to face the vicissitudes of life. It is up to us to ‘see the world in a grain of sand’, and to choose for ourselves one particular form, image or name to encompass all forms, a form on which to concentrate our love and attention in meditation or prayer as being the very essence of the universe, of life, our selves and everything else. With practice, such devotion can lead to an enduring sense of pure, transcendent contentment and joy that cannot otherwise be found in lifetimes of busy-ness in the world of matters and things.

However, it is no betrayal to conceive of an ever-abiding Reality that is completely formless and attribute to our personal Deity the ultimate glory of that supreme Oneness and unity of spirit that is our very self and the true Self of all - or indeed, vice versa! In the final analysis, any concept at all - of emptiness, Gods, Buddhas, and above all, words and names for anything - is a label, a symbol or image and after all, these are the fundamental means whereby we interpret all our thoughts, feelings and understanding about the world around us. Nevertheless, just as a special ring, for instance, may become the most precious, heartfelt and enduring symbol of one we love, in the same way, whatever the form or object of our devotion, it can bring to mind the meaningfulness of that ultimate Reality and the hope, faith, imagination and belief that there is indeed a solution to the puzzle of life that is a completion, free from duality and the confusion of good and bad and right and wrong.

While it is true that a symbol is not be the actual thing it represents, it is all we have to identify something that has no immediately apparent form. The word ‘rose’ immediately brings to mind the image of the flower, and even the scent if any, so in the absence of the flower itself, this is the nearest we can get to the real thing. Looking for a truth within ourselves that is ultimately devoid of name and form - we need some kind of mirror that can reflect the divinity that resides within us all - something whereby we can be led to discover that we ourselves and all we know are also nothing but a symbol of an all-abiding truth - a truth that can finally dissolve all our imaginings and leave us free in the realisation of the uncontrived reality of that which we always have been and always are.

'The Mirror of Judgement'

(From Michelangelo Pistoletto's installation the Serpentine Gallery, London, 2011)



The famous 300 million Gods and deities of India, and also those of Nepal and Tibet, are eminently supported by the prevailing philosophy there, that everything is in essence a form of one supreme 'God', and whatever form or forms you choose to worship and adore is up to you. From a simple stone or piece of wood to the highest esoteric principle, wherever we choose to look, God is there to be found. It is a very simple concept, but totally profound.

In this regard, it should, ideally, be a fundamental right as a human being to see or imagine God wherever and in whatever form one may wish. Of course, most people follow the God or religion of the culture or family in which they grow up, while some are attracted to that of another culture. Others may prefer to see God as their higher or true self or choose to believe that non-dual emptiness is the only truly stainless, abiding Reality of all.

Positioned as we are in duality, imaginary though it may be, and unable to conceive of any existence that does not involve the duality of subject and object, we who seek invariably need some concept of God external to ourselves, a form on which to focus, if only a name. Even those who aspire to realise the supreme, formless Self or emptiness within, do so from the basic standpoint of assuming their own being to be apparently lesser than an ‘other’ or greater Self, or at the very least separated from That by the inscrutable power of, as it were, some divine illusion such as Maya, or Lila, the 'play' of God

Anyway, the upshot of all this is that we can believe God or the Ultimate Reality to be in any form we like, or no form at all - it doesn’t matter. Using the mirror of imagination, exploring the whole concept of what we mean by the idea of God is a way to bring out the ultimate truth that for each of us can only be discovered within ourselves.

                  Buddha is concealed within all sentient beings.
                  If for one instant of thought we become impartial,
                  Then sentient beings are themselves the Buddha.
                  In our mind itself a Buddha exists,
                  Our own Buddha is the true Buddha.
                  If we do not have in ourselves the Buddha mind,
                  Then where are we to seek Buddha?

                  Hui-Neng (638-713)

And doesn’t Jesus say:

                  People will tell you it is here or there, but lo! I tell you, the kingdom of heaven is within you.

                  Gospel of St. Luke, 17:21

This is the purest aspiration. Of course, in different states of being and among the vast array of daily circumstances that life can produce, we may regard many other things as being of paramount importance. For some, their psychoses may even dictate a longing for power or revenge or God knows what else - and indeed there is no end to the horrors imaginable by an abused or wounded ego striving for the restitution of its dignity - but for most of us who suffer from the separateness of things, it is the daily experience of life - its good and bad, the desire for gratification or escape from the unpleasant and our success or failure in this - that tends to keep us busy.

And these concerns, motivations and desires, you may well say, are the millions of gods, ideals and idols - and the forms of God which receive our daily devotion!

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