Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

The Experience and
The Meaning

flower picture

by Douglas Harding

Part II

Part I

The Experience without the Meaning

We come now to the other sort of one-sidedness, which would seem to be even more crippling. A heart without a body can be induced to go on working, but a body without a heart...? Well, once more, let's see.

But first let's be clear about this. We are not going to take samples of people who alas have the meaning without the Experience, or the body (so to say) without the heart. We shall be looking at occasions or contexts, moods, conversations, lectures, books, in which those people have every appearance of being like that. For it's never perfectly safe to argue from what someone says to what he really means by it, from what he's coming out with to what he's coming from, from one occasion or period of his life to the rest of it. People aren't that consistent or simple. Of no-one would I say that he always lacks access to his Void Nature, or to its significance and power, any more than I would say that he never does so, and has access to both all the time.

For many years I've admired the writings of a number of contemporary and recent pundits, spiritual experts whose grasp of the meaning of our True Nature is quite wonderful. The scope and thoroughness of their work is such that it reads as complete. In fact I have found little or nothing in it to fault, and much instruction. The only thing I miss is the Experience. Here's a fine yana or vehicle, a splendid chariot and charioteer all right; but, in the unforgettable words of the poet Roy Campbell, where's the bloody horse?

Mind you, I'm not accusing these experts of setting out to put the cart before the horse, still less of trying to do without the animal altogether. I'm not saying that they have no Experience whatever of their Void Nature, but that they fail to lead me to it and rub my nose (what nose?) in it. Worse, they are apt (no doubt unintentionally) to drag me away from it, as from some perilous cliff-edge or poisoned well. More and more thirsty, I find myself invited to a nine-course banquet of meaning without a drop of the wine of Experience to wash it down. Naturally I get indigestion, or worse.

To illustrate these remarks the three well-known teachers I'm about to quote will do admirably. You can probably fill in with others from your own shelves.

My first illustrates how ingenious are the dodges by which, given half a chance, we manage to overlook our Original Face; the subterfuges by which we contrive almost to see into our Void Nature (and even to extract some minor psychological advantages from the ploy) while remaining safely blind to its blazing obviousness. How cleverly�and stupidly�we set up the idea of it to mask the reality, its usefulness to degrade it into a convenient fiction. You could call this the As-if method of evading What's-so.

I quote from a chapter ominously entitled 'The Guillotine Meditation': 'One of the most beautiful tantra meditations: walk and think that the head is no more there, just the body. Sit and think that the head is no more there, just the body. Continually remember that the head is not there. Visualise yourself without the head. Have a picture of yourself enlarged without the head; look at it. Let your mirror be lowered in the bathroom so that when you see, you cannot see your head, just the body.

'A few days of remembrance and you will feel such weightlessness happening to you, such tremendous silence, because it is the head that is the problem. If you can conceive of yourself as headless�and that can be conceived, there's no trouble in it�then more and more you will be centred in the heart.

'Just this very moment you can visualise yourself headless. Then you will understand what I mean immediately.'

And the punch-line of the joke is that, following immediately on these exhortations to strenuous mind-work, is the solemn pronouncement 'mind is rubbish'!

My reply is this. I don't think my head off, I see it off. I don't fantasise no head here, I find no head here, and in its place an immense Voidness. Non-violent, I don't behead myself (much less you) but cease denying that, for myself here, I terminate at shoulder level. This is honest and true seeing, taking in what's given, submitting to the evidence instead of mauling it.

(If you think I'm lying or fantasising when I say I have no head here, you are invited to come all the way here and take a good look. I promise you that on the way to me you will lose all trace of the thing.)

My second case is a well-known guru who saw himself as an anti-guru. His favourite topic was 'the absence of the self', its ceasing to be, its giving place to the non-self. 'We are all afraid of being nothing.' But, he adds, 'there is a state of action, a state of experiencing without the experiencer.' It's our beliefs which cover up 'the fear of being really nothing, of being really empty.' And so on, in lecture after lecture after lecture, book after book. What (I ask) could be more true, more worth saying or more clearly said, more meaningful?

And more calculated to whet our appetite for the actual Experience?

Well, the following is part of a conversation, on October 9th, 1977, between this teacher (T) and one of his disciples (D) � or should I say long-time associates?

(D) I wondered if we could talk something over together. It's not a personal matter or a problem, but an aspect of perception I've been wanting to discuss with you for several years... It's to do with visual perception. You have often talked about visual perception, looking at a tree or a cloud, and so on, but mainly as a lead-in to talking about the structure of the mind.

(T) Yes.

(D) When I look at something, and observe the space between it and myself, then here [pointing at his own face], in that moment of attention, I find nothing: it is just emptiness.

(T) I don't understand those words 'nothing' and 'emptiness'.

(D) I know that 'nothing' is not a word to be used lightly.

(T) Then what do you mean by it, sir?

(D) I mean absence, the entire absence here (pointing to his face) of all the qualities perceived out there.

(T) But you can look in the mirror.

(D) It makes no difference. What is seen in the mirror is still absent on this side of the mirror.

(T) I haven't quite got it... What does it mean in terms of action?

(D) I thought we could discuss whether it is true intrinsically.

(T) [Impatiently] I am not interested in intrinsically.

(D) It seems to me that one of the beauties of this insight is that it is always available.

(T) No, I can't accept that.

(D) It seems to me that even the simplest things take on a different significance when seen from this space.

(T) Not space. I won't accept that.

Equally famous and prolific is our third and last exponent of the meaning without the Experience. He was interested, among many other things, in what I was up to, but didn't get it. On one occasion in the '70s, when he was staying with me in England, he hailed me at breakfast with the good news. At last he saw what I was trying to share with him. He had had a vivid dream in which everyone was headless!

Of course I did my best to explain to him that the headless or first-person Experience is essentially singular, and that second and third persons as such are by no means for beheading. But without effect, notwithstanding the fact that he was the most brilliant and versatile Western writer of his generation on Zen and other spiritual disciplines. Or was his very brilliance the trouble?

Neither The Experience nor The Meaning

On the one hand I need hardly point out that most people are unprepared or unwilling to take the briefest peep into their Natureless Nature, let alone explore its wealth of implications and applications. Liberation is even rarer than sainthood. On the other hand, I believe that the welfare of our species, and maybe its survival, depends on liberation becoming a great deal commoner (if not the norm by which maturity is judged) before it's too late.

However, I must at once add that, unqualified, the rarity of liberation is a disastrous half-truth. The primary and saving whole truth is that we are all living from our Space and not our face, all doing it right, all firmly and forever established in our True Nature. To be at all is to be Being. In this sense all are awakened. The very fact that you and I don't fall over the furniture, that we take in these black-on-white printed patterns so effortlessly, is proof enough and to spare. Though the fact that we don't yet want to know this good news makes a huge practical difference, it makes no fundamental difference. In the last resort, there's no other experience than this Experience. Only our Void Nature is aware. All else is what It's aware of, Its meaning.

Truly speaking, our Source has no meaning whatever. In Itself It is infinitely beyond all that limited and limiting stuff, for nothing that can be said or thought or felt about It is It. Or let's put the matter like this: all right, the essential Experience of our Nature does have this most meaningful of meanings�the Source of all meaning is Itself far beyond and absolutely free from all that proceeds from It. And You are That.


To end on a more mundane and practical note, let's ask which is the better way of beginning the Great Adventure? To go all out for the meaning and risk missing the Experience, or to go all in for the Experience and risk missing the meaning? To work towards awakening one day, or to work from it now? To practise with a view to seeing into our Void Nature eventually, or to practise the seeing from the start?

There is no 'better way'. It's instinct which settles which way we shall take�instinct which we go on to find good or bad reasons for, to justify as best we can.

My own instinct is no secret. My bank-balance being limited, I'll buy the horse of Experience before investing heavily in the cart of meaning�at least I can get around on the animal. I choose to start with the engine rather than the chassis�at least I can run a dynamo off it to light my darkness.

Correction: 'buy' is wrong. The Experience is gratis, with immediate free delivery of the whole package in a plain van. It's the meaning that I have to buy on the never-never, unipart by unipart.


For the Diamond Sutra, on the fear of our Void Nature, see Edward Conze, Buddhist Wisdom Books, Allen and Unwin, London, 1958, p. 53.

For 'The Guillotine Meditation', see The Orange Book: Meditation Techniques of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, 1980, pp. 75, 76.

For quotations from Krishnamurti, see his First and Last Freedom, Gollancz, London, 1958, passim.

For an early and outstanding example of the work of Alan Watts, see his Way of Zen, Thames and Hudson, London, 1957.

For Master Han Shan's observations on the two kinds of Zen yogis�those who begin with meaning and understanding, and those who begin with realisation�see Chang Chen-Chi, The Practice of Zen, Rider, London, 1059, pp. 94, 95.

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Page last updated: 10-Jul-2012