Another Book of Nothing Chapters 5-9:
Nowhere Man Saint or Sinner? In our own Image Refuge from the storm Idols
Let’s not discount the nothing and the nowhere. No-where, now-here - back and forth the hyphen goes - the nowhere that is before anything is created, and the very emptiness in which creation exists - and the vast and empty here and now in which each moment appears and from which it departs.
They say if you can meditate on the empty space between two thoughts and stop there 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 a consciousness to perceive it.
When we talk about the ‘universe’ 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, 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 hardly exists 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 itself and the awareness of anything that can possibly be.
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.
Well, where would one expect to find it? You and I are the only ones who can verify our own existence. Individually, we each alone have to know and be the witness as to whether we ourselves or God or anything at all indeed exists, or not.
However, although knowledge might be a means to an end, 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, leaving no cloud in the sky. Then neither imagination nor knowledge remains. Who needs a torch to see the daylight?
Meanwhile, speaking of thorny things, if we are still looking for enlightenment or God - 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 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 a concept of the idea of God at a very early age, when most children we find themselves in the arms of one or more loving, protecting, compassionate and nourishing parental figures - a cradle of safe, unquestionable love and belonging for a newly created, totally dependent infant. But then as time goes on, sooner or later we are introduced to the ideas of obedience and control, initially from parents or older siblings, and later in the wider world around us. When it comes to religion however, this can then extend to the concept of a ‘divine’ will - and with it, a subtle and seemingly dictatorial regime of right and wrong, of power, punishment and reward which, manipulating the conflicting emotions of love and fear, introduces us to the idea that we are not to be completely trusted, and that our actions and even our thoughts are forever being watched and judged by an all-seeing God.
This is where most of us inherit or are 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', especially in regard to our basic human nature - with the inevitable understanding that in this respect 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 as we become subject to the dictates of divine approval! On the other hand it does provide a powerful means of control for those who would insist that our very nature is sinful.
This idea that there is something innately lacking in us and that without determined effort to improve ourselves we are somehow undeserving can permeate a lifetime of seemingly endless struggle and dissatisfaction and can even extend to the quest for enlightenment and our 'not being good enough' taken as the reason for non-attainment - forgetting the wise words of King Solomon...
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, albeit, according to karma or destiny, determined by our actions in this or previous lifetimes, but the actual everyday circumstances of life are not likely to be changed by the experience of 'enlightenment' - which is not so much a goal to be achieved as an ever-present fact of life. Indeed, enlightenment is there to be seen shining lucidly in and as every moment of our existence - regardless of whether that moment is pleasant or not - and imagining it to be somewhere in the future means that to all intents and purposes, that is where it will remain!
Meanwhile, the reality of what is evil or sinful or not, no less than that of beauty, often lies in the eye of the beholder...
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.
... and the very concept of sin, like truth, is always relative, such as...
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 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. Just as he bent down to inhale the perfume 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 spiritual understanding, sin is not so much a crime but anything that hinders wisdom and the knowledge of what we really are. For the Buddha in this story, even the desire to enjoy the perfume of the 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 be imagining Him, Her or Itself as the self of every being, 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. How can God be a Christian, a Muslim or a Jew, Hindu, Buddhist or Jain, let alone the property of any human organisation? Is it really credible to think that the Supreme God who, according to all religions, has created this infinite universe in all its 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 or that some are 'chosen' while others are not, and so on - but the justification for such attitudes is most often lies in having superior power and affluence, conceit, or victory in war - and the vested interest of those in power for the preservation of the status quo. Sadly of course, there are always those who 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 politics and social systems, our prejudices, our competitiveness, and even hate and anger... and this we call love?
Imagine! Making God in our imagination! Then again, don’t we all? But with so many experts here in the world, one may 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 contrast to and far from 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 being that is the complete opposite to 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 are completely disregarded by the world 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 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 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.
Refuge from the storm
Emptiness defies any conceptualization, but although it provides plenty of scope for exploration in terms of what it’s not, there remains no object for us to relate to; no relationship to our 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 need 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.
So it is that we may choose to believe in a personalised form of God - a form to which we can attribute whatever we conceive God to be and through that very process expand and refine our understanding of what the idea of God actually means to us. We can explore the path of devotion and in cultivating a relationship between our human self and that of the divine may see this form as the focus of an absolute abstract, a power before which we are powerless - a knowledge that is beyond our ability to know - and yet, the home of our soul.
Such a belief can become a refuge that is even stronger than the vicissitudes of life. It is up to us to ‘see the world in a grain of sand’, to decide for ourselves the one form, image or name to encompass all forms, a form on which to concentrate our love as being the very essence of the universe, of life, our spirit and everything - and with practice, such devotion can yield a sense of the purest and transcendent joy that is enduring and quite unattainable from worldly things.
However, it is no betrayal, at the same time, to conceive of a formless Reality and attribute to our personal God the ultimate glory of supreme oneness and unity of spirit that is our very self and the 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, symbol or image. 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 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 a symbol may 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 picture 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 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 to dissolve all our imaginings and leave us free in the realisation that we always have been and always are.
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 God, and whatever form or forms you choose to worship and adore is up to you. From a simple stone 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 and religion of their culture or family, while some are attracted to that of another, whereas some see God as their higher or true self and others choose to believe that non-dual emptiness is the 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, and 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 an apparently lesser or ‘other’ self.
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 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?
'The Mirror of Judgement'
(From Michelangelo Pistoletto's installation the Serpentine Gallery, London, 2011)
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 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 which receive our daily devotion!