Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

The Experience and
The Meaning

flower picture

by D E Harding

Douglas Harding was born in 1909 in Suffolk, England. He grew up in a strict fundamentalist Christian sect, the Exclusive Plymouth Brethren. When Harding was 21, he left. In London in the early 1930s, Harding was studying and then practising architecture. In his spare time, however, he devoted his energies to philosophy, trying to understand the nature of the world, and the nature of himself.

In the mid-1930s, Harding moved to India with his family to work there as an architect. One day, Harding stumbled upon a drawing by the Austrian philosopher and physicist, Ernst Mach. It was a self-portrait � but a self-portrait with a difference. Most self-portraits are what the artist looks like from several feet away. But Mach had drawn himself without using a mirror � he had drawn what he looked like from his own point of view, from zero distance.

When Harding saw this self-portrait, the penny dropped. Until this moment he had been investigating his identity from various distances. He was trying to get to his centre by peeling away the layers. Here however was a self-portrait from the point of view of the centre itself. The obvious thing about this portrait is that you don�t see the artist�s head. For most people, this fact is interesting or amusing, but nothing more. For Harding, this was the key that opened the door to seeing his innermost identity, for he noticed he was in a similar condition � his own head was missing too. At the centre of his world was no head, no appearance - nothing at all. And this �nothing� was a very special �nothing� for it was both awake to itself and full of the whole world.

Following this discovery, Harding spent eight years working on The Hierarchy of Heaven and Earth. Prefaced by CS Lewis who called it 'a work of the highest genius', The Hierarchy was published by Faber and Faber in 1952. In it, Harding explores, tests and makes sense of his discovery in the broadest and deepest terms. It is not a book for a popular audience, but it is a book that will surely, in time, be recognized as a truly great work of philosophy. He died in January 2007, shortly before his 98th birthday.

For more information about the work of Douglas Harding, visit the Headless Way website.

We had the experience but missed the meaning.
TS Eliot

Part I


I can't read this well-known line from T.S. Eliot's The Four Quartets without adding, mentally, 'Or perhaps we had the meaning but missed the experience.' We may be suffering from the first deficiency-disease or the second�or possibly from both. And most likely with no clear idea of what's the matter.

Hence this chapter. I propose, having sharply distinguished what I take to be the essential Experience from what I take to be its meaning, to enquire what it is to have either one of them without the other, and what can be done to correct this lop-sidedness. How (I shall be asking) can we recognise and overcome this imbalance? For who wants to live this way�to live (you might say) a half-life? I have the feeling that a man hopping on one leg or a bird with a broken wing is less crippled, more stuck. But let's see.

The Experience

First, then, let's be clear about the Experience

Three words cover it�seeing our Nothingness. It's that simple. Or, to drive the point home, turning our attention round 180� and looking into What we are looking out of, into our Absence, our Void Nature or Emptiness or Speckless Clarity, into our lack of characteristics, distinguishing marks, attainments, you-name-it. It is not�emphatically not�knowing all about Natureless Nature, or understanding it profoundly, or believing in it sincerely, or even feeling it acutely, but seeing it with such finality and such intimacy that we see this Absence which we are and are this Absence which we see. But alas, how liable even the most apt words are to complicate what is, after all, simplicity itself!

The awkward fact is that this Experience, which is none other than the substratum of all experience, is impossible to describe. It's as ineffable and incommunicable as the redness of red or the sweetness of honey or the smell of wild violets. Try telling a man colour-blind from birth what purple is. Well, telling him about his Empty Core is even more futile. Somehow you must get him to look in for himself at himself by himself instead of just out at you. Then and only then nothing could be easier or plainer, more blazingly self-evident to him, than his Nothingness, his disappearance in your favour.

However, three things can be said, and need to be said here, about this essential in-seeing.

First, precisely because it's void of all qualities of its own, because there's Nothing to it, it is for all beings of all grades and of all worlds one and the same. There are no angles or perspectives on This, no variations. There are no preliminary or private views or privileged showings, no more enlightened or less enlightened versions of This, no heights to mount to or fall away from, and certainly no religious or spiritual or aesthetic qualities to cultivate.

Second, (and for the same reason) one's 'first fleeting glimpse' of one's Nature doesn't differ at all from one's 'latest and clearest and most sustained seeing' of that Nature. No matter how brief or how sustained it may be, this Experience is unique among all experiences in that it has no degrees of clarity or intensity or familiarity. It's as if every time it happens happens to be the first time. Like it or not, there's no encouraging upturn, never any progress to plot on one's spiritual progress chart. Either you see This or you don't. Here's the one skill you can't get better at, but only exercise more frequently and for longer periods.

Third, it follows that, whoever and wherever and whenever you may be, your Inside Story is the plainest of all plain tales, and identical with the Inside Story of all creatures. So that to see What you really are is not only to see What they really are but to be What they really are. Beyond all doubt you are me and him and her and it, and all the rest. And at once you have hit on the answer to all the loneliness and alienation in the world. You rest on the Ground of Being and of all loving and caring. Secretly you are healing, along with your own wounds, the wounds of this wounded world.

The Meaning

Notice how the foregoing observations, along with all observations whatever about the Experience, belong to its meaning, and none of them to the Experience itself. And how there's no way through from the one to the other. Not even the most accurate and profound description of What you really are can give a clue to What you really are, any more than the letters R E D can give a clue to what redness is. Anything that can be said about the Experience�anything having any content or conveying any information�is light years adrift from the thing itself, and quite incapable of hinting at what it's like. In fact it's like nothing whatever because it is Nothing whatever. Or let's say No-thing whatever, inasmuch as a Nothing keenly aware of itself as Nothing (which This certainly is) is surely more wonderful than the most wonderful some-thing. And there's no creeping or edging up to this wonderful No-thing. Only a sudden, unpremeditated quantum leap will see you over from what's about you to what is you, to your Void Nature.

Of course the three items of meaning which we have looked at so far (the sameness of the Experience for all beings, its unchanging and all-or-nothing character, and its healing power) are only a tiny sample of its inexhaustible significance and consequences, of its practical applications to all the changing circumstances of our life. Here are a few more.

Whereas the Experience of our Nature is served up (if at all) complete in one infinitely generous helping, its meaning is for the most part withheld.

Normally it's doled out in driblets, at other times poured out more generously, but never given in its entirety. The last word about This is never said, the ultimate and all-embracing idea of it is never conceived, the deepest feeling never plumbed. Not that one is complaining. On the contrary, it's a matter of continual admiration and thankfulness that such Poverty should produce such ever-appreciating wealth, that this most negligible and neglected of Seeds should burgeon into this most lasting and prolific of hardy perennials. Thus to have both the Experience and the meaning is to have the best of both worlds. Improbably, you have it both ways: the ever-present and uneventful safety of Home and endless adventure abroad, the Anchor holding you fast to the rock-bottom security of your Ground and high winds and taut sails carrying you forever to new adventures.

One of the most notable aspects of this dichotomy�of the total contrast between the Experience and its meaning�is that whereas the latter is by no means available on demand the former is always available. Once you have hit on the way Home you can take it instantly and at will. No matter how dubious your past or difficult your present or daunting your future, no matter how black your mood or worrying your problems, your right of entry and ease of entry are assured unconditionally. When you most need to go in you can go in�in to the Place you never left. The meaning of what you are doing may or may not occur to you; if it does, be sure that it's provisional and partial and far from all there. But also be sure that the doing itself is perfect, forever unobstructed, opportune, natural, and scot-free. How immensely more triumphant this Homecoming is than all the other things you and I get up to!

On the one hand, the meaning of your Void Nature�its implications and applications, its endless complications and connections�have to be worked at assiduously. The meaning takes all the intelligence and energy you can give it, and even so it is shy and fugitive, never crystal clear, never quite obvious, never free of contradiction. On the other hand, the Experience of your Nature is always transparent and complete. In fact, till you see What you are you don't know what obviousness is! Only you�the real You, you as you are for you, intrinsically�are absolutely visible. All else is more or less veiled. Compared with this Sight all other sights are obscure, fuzzy, groping, dim. There's something unique about its obviousness, a sharpness, a surprise, a quiet thrill or frisson that there's no proper word for.

And all this in spite of its unspeakable ordinariness!

The Experience without the Meaning

So much, then, for our small sample of the endless distinctions between the Experience and its meaning. Let's go on now to discover what it is to have the former without the latter.

'That won't be easy,' I hear you saying.

To which I reply: it may prove all-too-easy. But let's see.

Look at anyone in the room or at your face in the mirror, and check that you are Empty for it, that at this moment you experience yourself as the Space that's taking it in.

Or look at this picture, and check that, on present evidence, the set-up is altogether asymmetrical. Notice how his or her face over there is presented to your No-face here, those two little eyes to your single and immense 'Eye' here, that coloured and textured and patterned opacity to this colourless and untextured and patternless Transparency, that smallness to this Immensity.

Notice how you can never for a moment confront anyone, never get face-to-face with anyone. Notice how you aren't a bit what you look like to them�people over there being too far off and in no position to see What you really are where you really are. Notice how you can not only see what you are looking at but also (and much more clearly) What you are looking out of.

Some call It your Original Face, others your Buddha Eye, others the Light that lights all who come into the world, yet others your No-head. But whatever you happen to call It, This is no passing impression or replica of It but the real article, exactly as the Buddha and all the other Seers experienced It.

Go on looking in, as well as out, a few more moments, please...

Why should you bother?

Why because this is the most momentous Experience you or anyone ever had. Because�in spite of its dreadfully boring plainness (you can see It has nothing whatever to recommend it) �this is the sight of a lifetime, of all lifetimes.

'It's a sight that leaves me cold,' I hear you replying. 'All it means to me is that of course I can't see my own eyes and face and head. So what? What has it to do with the Buddha's full and perfect enlightenment? Or with the enlightenment I'm working towards and hope to arrive at one day�perhaps many years from now, but more likely many lifetimes from now?' Yes of course I see exactly what you mean. But again, SO WHAT?

So there you are! That's it! There's your meaningless Experience for you!

We live in a democracy. Put to the vote, your reaction is the right one. Subject to minor variations, it's what the majority of the population as well as the majority of serious seekers�meditators, disciples of the Masters, followers of the great spiritual disciplines�have been telling me over the past few decades. Whenever I got them to reverse their attention and examine the Spot they occupy (only to discover it's not they who occupy it but the others), their comment has been the equivalent of SO WHAT? I should say that, at a guess, of a hundred who are persuaded to look in and briefly lose track of themselves, not more than five find that their discovery is so surprising and meaningful that it merits cultivation. Even fewer go on valuing and renewing this Insight till it occurs naturally and without prompting, and its life-changing power�its incredible know-how and resourcefulness�are revealed.

But no wonder the essential Experience is dismissed so cavalierly, is so unwelcome and so distrusted. The famous Diamond Sutra has good reason to warn us that, below the surface, we are all terrified of our Emptiness. Till its inexhaustible and breathtaking beneficence and fertility begin to take shape it must seem (to many of us if not to all) not just meaningless but suicidal, mere annihilation.

Part II

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