The Awakening of Douglas Harding
Excerpts from On Having No Head
(first published in 1961, available in different reprint editions since then. Emphases added to the original text are given by Timothy Conway in italics).
The best day of my life—my re-birthday, so to speak—was when I found I had no head. This is not a literary gambit, a witticism designed to arouse interest at any cost. I mean it in all seriousness: I have no head.
It was eighteen years ago [circa 1942], when I was thirty-three, that I made the discovery. Though it certainly came out of the blue, it did so in response to an urgent enquiry; I had for several months been absorbed in the question: "What am I?" The fact that I happened to be walking in the Himalayas at the time probably had little to do with it; though in that country, unusual states of mind are said to come more easily. However that may be, a very still clear day, and a view from the ridge where I stood, over misty blue valleys to the highest mountain range in the world, with Kangchenjunga and Everest unprominent among its snow-peaks, made a setting worthy of the grandest vision.
What actually happened was something absurdly simple and unspectacular: I stopped thinking. A peculiar quiet, an odd kind of alert limpness or numbness, came over me. Reason and imagination and all mental chatter died down. For once, words really failed me. Past and future dropped away. I forgot who and what I was, my name, manhood, animal-hood, all that could be called mine. It was if I had been born that instant, brand new, mindless, innocent of all memories. There existed only the Now, that present moment, and what was clearly given in it. To look was enough.
And what I found was khaki trouser-legs terminating downwards in a pair of brown shoes, khaki sleeves terminating sideways in a pair of pink hands, and a khaki shirtfront terminating upwards in—absolutely nothing whatever! Certainly not in a head.
It took me no time at all to notice that this nothing, this hole where a head should have been, was no ordinary vacancy, no mere nothing. On the contrary, it was very much occupied. It was a vast emptiness vastly filled, a nothing that found room for everything—room for grass, trees, shadowy distant hills, and far above them snow-peaks like a row of angular clouds riding the blue sky. I had lost a head and gained a world.
It was all, quite literally, breathtaking. I seemed to stop breathing altogether, absorbed in the Given. Here it was, this superb scene, brightly shining in the clear air, alone and unsupported, mysteriously suspended in the void, and (and this was the real miracle, the wonder and delight) utterly free of "me," unstained by any observer. Its total presence was my total absence, body and soul. Lighter than air, clearer than glass, altogether released from myself, I was nowhere around.
Yet in spite of the magical and uncanny quality of this vision, it was no dream, no esoteric revelation. Quite the reverse: it felt like a sudden waking from the sleep of ordinary life, and end to dreaming. It was self-luminous reality for once swept clean of all obscuring mind. It was the revelation, at long last, of the perfectly obvious. It was a lucid moment in a confused life-history. It was a ceasing to ignore something which, (since early childhood at any rate) I had always been too busy or too clever to see. It was naked, uncritical attention to what had all along been staring me in the face—my utter facelessness. In short, it was all perfectly simple and plain and straightforward, beyond argument, thought, and words. There arose no questions, no reference beyond the experience itself, but only peace and a quiet joy, and the sensation of having dropped an intolerable burden. […]
Zen Buddhism has the reputation of being difficult …, and almost impossibly so for Westerners, who for this reason are often advised to stick to their own religious tradition if they can. My own experience has been exactly the other way round. At last, after more than a decade of largely fruitless searching everywhere else, I found in the words of the Zen masters many echoes of the central experience of my life: they talked my language, spoke to my condition. Many of these masters, I found, had not only lost their heads (as we all have) but were vividly aware of their condition and its immense significance, and used every device to bring their disciples to the same realization […]
Hui-neng (637-712), the Sixth Patriarch of Zen, counseled his brother-monk Ming, to stop all his craving and cogitation, and see: "See what at this very moment your own face looks like—the face you had before you were born." It is recorded that Ming thereupon discovered within himself that fundamental reason of all things, which hitherto he had sought outside. Now he understood everything, and found himself bathed in tears and sweat. Saluting the Patriarch, he asked what other secrets remained. "In what I have shown you," replied Hui-neng, "there is nothing hidden. If you look within and recognize your own 'original face,' secrecy is in you."
Hui-neng's "original face" is the best known and for many the most helpful of all Zen anecdotes: over the centuries in China it is said to have proved a uniquely effective pointer to enlightenment.
Mumon (13th C.) has this comment:
You cannot describe it or draw it,
You cannot praise it fully or perceive it.
No place can be found in which to put the original face;
It will not disappear even when the universe is destroyed…
As an aid to such a realization, Bodhidharma, the First Patriarch of Zen, is said to have prescribed a good hammer-blow on the back of the head. Tai-hui (1089-1163) was equally uncompromising: "This matter (Zen) is like a great mass of fire: when you approach it your face is sure to be scorched. It is again like a sword about to be drawn; when it is once out of the scabbard, someone is sure to lose his life. . .The precious vajra [diamond] sword is right here and its purpose is to cut off the head." Indeed this beheading was a common topic of conversation between Zen master and pupil. For instance, this 9th century exchange: Lung-ya: “If I threatened to cut off your head with the sharpest sword in the world,what would you do?” The master pulled in his head. Lung-ya: “Your head is off!” The master smiled.
Evidently master and pupil, both headless, understood each other well.
How well, also, they would have understood the advice of the Muslim Jalalu'l-Din Rumi, Persia's greatest mystical poet (1207-1273): "Behead yourself!" "Dissolve your whole body into Vision: become seeing, seeing, seeing!"
"Mind and body dropped off!" exclaims Dogen (1200-1253) in an ecstasy of release "Dropped off!" "Dropped off! This state must be experienced by you all; it is like piling fruit into a basket without a bottom, it is like pouring water into a bowl with a hole in it." "All of a sudden you find your mind and body wiped out of existence," says Hakuin (1685-1768): "This is what is known as letting go your hold. As you regain your breath it is like drinking water and knowing it is cold. It is joy inexpressible."
All agree that the distinction between mind and body, subject and object, knower and known, is abolished in the great Mirror-Void; seeing into one's self-nature is seeing into nothingness, into no-soul, no-mind, no-body; and this seeing is the never-failing delight and solace, far surpassing all earthly happiness.
[The eminent Zen scholar and adept, Dr. Daisetsu Teitaro] Suzuki himself puts the matter in a nutshell for us: "To Zen, incarnation is excarnation; the flesh is no-flesh; here-now equals emptiness (sunyata) and infinity."
Outside Zen, it is not easy to find statements quite so clear, and so free from religiosity, as this. However, parallels can be found in other religious traditions, as soon as one searches for them. And this is only to be expected: the essential vision must transcend the accidents of history and geography.
Inevitably the closest parallel is to be found in India, the original home of Buddhism. Sankara [8th century] the great Sage and interpreter of Advaita or absolute nonduality, taught that a man has no hope of liberation till he ceases to identify himself with the body, which is a mere illusion born of ignorance: his real Self is like space, unattached, pure, infinite. Confusing the unreal body with this real Self is bondage and misery. This doctrine still survives in India. Its last great exemplar, Ramana Maharshi (1879-1950), would say to enquirers: "Till now you seriously considered yourself to be the body and to have a form. That is the primal ignorance which is the root cause of all trouble."
Even Christianity … sometimes admits that genuine illumination must dispel the dark opacity of our bodies no less than of our soul. "When thine eye is single," said Jesus mysteriously, "thy whole body also is full of light." This single eye is surely a Hebrew version of the precious third eye of Indian mysticism, which enables the Seer to look within at his absolutely pure and luminous nature, his original face… And, St. Bernard (1091-1153) says: "It is no merely human joy to lose oneself like this, to be so emptied of oneself as though one almost ceased to be at all; it is the bliss of heaven … To become thus is to be deified… How otherwise could God be 'all in all,' if anything of man remained in man?" […]
Certainly it was interesting, later on, to find that Ramana Maharshi always advocated self-enquiry as the one infallible and direct means of liberation. He taught that as soon as we start asking the question "Who am I?" the process of inner transformation is set up, though its end—involving complete detachment of the Self from the body—may be long delayed. Again, it was particularly interesting to learn that the essence of Zen training is earnest enquiry into one's self-nature….
I do believe that if we Westerners, instead of feebly abandoning our peculiar objectivity, our freedom from pious axes to grind, were to push it to the limit, we should find ourselves at the heart of Zen. However that may be, it is clear that most of us do not, in fact, begin by asking what we are. More often it is unhappiness which drives us to look for help from a particular religion, whose teachings must then be learned, understood, and applied. Enquiry into the religion comes first; enquiry into the self comes later, as a part of instruction and practice, with a view to spiritual growth and the end of suffering.
Though it has obvious practical advantages, this specifically religious approach is, again, clearly not free from impure motives. Of course it is only sensible to desire to suffer less, and for that reason to discipline body and mind; it is the noblest of ambitions to desire the end of all suffering and the attainment of Nirvana, and for that reason to meditate systematically upon such prescribed topics as one's self-nature, using the prescribed techniques. Thousands of years of profound experience are gathered up in this precious store of practical wisdom, and if we will profit by it ultimate success is no doubt assured. True enough: only it is necessary at once to add that this success is failure, the defeat of all ambition (which, however spiritual, is still ambition); it is the realization that there is nothing to be achieved, that all is well here and now, that we have never for an instant left the goal we are striving to reach one day. Our bondage is not failure to win our liberation, but to SEE it. In fact, it is our aim that stands in the way of its realization; it is our anxiety to arrive at perfection in the unreal and unrealizable future, which hides the Perfection which is at this very moment staring us in the face.
Original story here