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 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 just for a moment in that timeless emptiness - then where can the next thought come from?
Or maybe you think 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 able to perceive it.
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.
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 solid particles within the atoms of our bodies, if put together without the empty space between them would cover less than a pin head, and what indeed of the physical universe, the emptiness out there we call ‘space’? Without a fixed 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 basic space or emptiness, something hardly exists at all.
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 did you expect to find it? Only you can verify your own existence. You and you alone have to be the one to witness that you or God or anything indeed exists, or not.
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 both away, having no need for either.
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?
Nevertheless, speaking of thorny things, if we are still looking for enlightenment or God - if it still seems dark – the question is, how to see and be that 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?
It looks like almost everyone acquires a concept of the idea of God at a very early age, when most children are introduced to one or more loving, protecting, compassionate and nourishing parental figures – a cradle of safe, reassuring love and belonging for a newly created, totally dependent infant. Then sooner or later we are introduced to the ideas of obedience and control, at first from parents or older siblings, and then when it comes to religion, this extends to a ‘divine’ will - and with it, an all-consuming dictatorial regime of right and wrong, power, punishment and reward - manipulating the opposing emotions of love and fear, trust and doubt – and the idea of always being watched and judged.
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' in regard to our natural human condition - and the inevitable understanding that 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 self for falling short of so many expectations. And that doesn’t seem like such a good ideal at all. It does, however, provide a powerful means of control for those who would insist that our very nature is sinful.
However, the idea of evil, no less than 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 concept of sin, like truth, is 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 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 asked “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, “I don’t even talk to him!”
From this perspective, sin is not so much a crime as 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!
The image of God would seem much kinder if the basic aspects of good and bad behaviour, rather than being the sole preserve of religion, were recognised as being already instinctively understood by all beings according to their situation and presented more as advice or suggestions from a heart of infinite tenderness that recognises the Divine in all, which is ever and always solicitous for our happiness and welfare. A gift of loving wisdom, reminding us that our spirit rises or falls and our hearts are filled with light or darkness according to our thoughts and actions - but entirely up to us to discover its truth, and through experience and reflection accept it or not, free from coercion or fear.
Even if the vilest sinner worships Me with exclusive devotion,
he should be considered a saint; for he has rightly resolved.
Speedily he becomes virtuous and secures lasting peace.
Know it for certain, Arjuna, that my devotee never falls.
The Baghavad Gita, 9:30,31
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 or Buddhist? Is it really credible to think that the God who created this infinite universe has any partiality towards the endless cultural diversity, names and dogmas on this planet? That would be a very small god! Somewhere it is claimed that men are superior and fit to be worshipped and served by women; somewhere else, one race or group believes themselves to be God’s specially favoured people - and yet the justifying argument for this so often lies in having superior power and affluence, conceit, or victory in war - and the self interest of those in power for the preservation of the status quo.
Imagine! Making god in our imagination! But then again, don’t we all?
"Above all, to thine own heart be true", said Shakespeare.
Oh God! There are so many experts here in this modern world! One may well think, “Is my poor weeping heart of any significance at all?”
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
I have come to understand that some of the very greatest of men and women on earth today, spiritual giants if you like, are to be found perhaps as ragged tramps by the roadside; maybe even sleeping in drains or latrines – maybe stark naked and wandering the world, sustaining their bodies with whatever comes to them unsought. Disregarded as being of no consequence by the world, they 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. Kings and queens of heaven, I have been told! My homage to them 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 is the absence of all else – Gods, Goddesses, churches and temples - yet the impetus to write came after a visit to a Thai Buddhist temple.
In this temple, people pray and pay homage to quite a collection of Buddhas and monk sages, Chinese gods and Hindu deities, whose statues and images represent the existence and attainment of wisdom and enlightenment. There is one larger Buddha image in the centre, but people pray to their favourite or share their devotion among them all as being different manifestations of one Truth. After offering incense, flowers, a lighted candle, and fixing small squares of gold leaf to their chosen images, people sit before a row of monks who chant rhythmically as they pray. In the gap of silence between the chanting and sprinkling of consecrated water over all the bowed heads, there was a wonderfully empty moment, pregnant with peace and contentment.
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 protection of our parents.
So we may choose to believe in a personification of god - a personal or imagined form to which we can attribute whatever we conceive God to be and through that very process itself expand and refine our understanding of what that idea actually means to us. We can explore the path of devotion and develop a relationship between our human selves and that of the divine and may even regard this physical representation 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, 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 that encompasses all forms, a form on which to concentrate and focus our love as the very essence of the universe, of life, our spirit and everything. However, it is no betrayal 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 - or indeed, vice versa!
Nevertheless, 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 ring, for instance, may become the most heartfelt and enduring symbol of one we love, for those who worship any of these, it symbolises a reality and meaning, and the hope, 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.
A symbol, however, is not the actual thing it represents but 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 the truth within ourselves that is ultimately devoid of name and form, we need some kind of mirror - something that will show us that we ourselves and all we know are also nothing but a symbol of an all-abiding truth - a truth that will dissolve all our imaginings and leave us free in the realisation that we always have been and always are.
The famous 300 million gods of India 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, ideally it should 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 take on that of another. Some see God as their higher or true self, while some choose to believe that emptiness is the truly stainless, abiding Reality.
Positioned as we are in duality, imaginary as it may be, and unable to conceive of any existence beyond subject and object, we who seek invariably need some concept of God external to ourselves, and even those who seek the Supreme Self within, do so from the standpoint of being 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?
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.
This is the purest aspiration. Of course, in different states of being we may regard many other things as being of paramount importance. Our psychoses may dictate a longing for power or revenge and god knows what else - there is no end to the horrors imaginable by an abused or wounded ego in its search for the restitution of its dignity.
Indeed 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, you may well say, are the millions of gods, ideals and idols, which receive our daily devotion!