Void Diagrammatics – Nagarjuna



When one link has been stopped, the link that follows does not manifest. And thus the mass of suffering itself is brought completely to an end.
– Mulamadhyamakakarika      

The human mind is capable of amazing feats of organization and complication. The concepts it utilizes permit a wide range of abstract thought. By abstracting, labeling, and categorizing, this mind is capable of making new and ever more refined behaviors. This ability has proven to be incredibly useful for humans in crafting adaptive cultures.

However, we also pay a price for this ability. Firmly situated in our concepts and traditions, we confuse our ideas with the cast of the absolute. Much of our thinking is influenced by an uncertain bedrock of habit and culture. Personal and collective madness ensues when we treat our projections as the sole criterion with which to judge reality. We become enamored by our thought and unable to assume other perspectives.

In the Zen Buddhist tradition, there is a strong emphasis on personal investigation. What happens when every belief, word, and thought goes under the chopping block? Through frequent study and interrogation, the student can discover a lack of any fundamental anchor for existence, referred to in Buddhism as emptiness. Emptiness is elaborated on in the writings of Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna. Nagarjuna’s philosophy is a sustained and penetrating inquiry into how humans understand reality. His works are a firestorm that raze our cherished gods to the ground.

According to the Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism:

Nagarjuna . . . Spoke of a middle way between the extremes of existence and nonexistence, sometimes also referred to as the middle way between the extremes of permanence (Sasvatanta) and annihilation (Ucchedanta). For Nagarjuna, the ignorance (Avidya) that is the source of all suffering is the belief in Svabhava, a term that literally means ‘own being’ and has been variously rendered as ‘intrinsic existence’ and ‘self-nature.’ This belief is the mistaken view that things exist autonomously, independently, and permanently . . . His approach generally is to consider the various ways in which an entity could exist, and then demonstrate that none of these is tenable because of the absurdities that would be entailed thereby . . . The purpose of such an analysis is to destroy misconceptions (Vikalpa) and encourage the abandonment of all views (Drsti). (562)

His analysis is found in one of his classic works, The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way (Mulamadhyamakakarika). Nagarjuna is a guide through the strange lands outside opinion, which he shows by way of meticulous critique. He removes the rigid underpinnings of thought, including such dualisms as self/other and observer/observed. Nagarjuna creates a chain reaction, and shows how liberatory consequences follow as we strip the concepts we use to the bone. An excellent example of the type of dialogue Nagarjuna uses is found in a lengthy examination of categories in “An Examination of the Aggregates”:

Separate from the cause of form, no form is found. Separate from the so-called form, the cause of form also does not appear.
If, separate from the cause of form, there were a form, this form would be by consequence without a cause. But something that’s without a cause is nowhere to be found.
If, separate from a form, there were a cause of form, this cause would be a cause without effect. But causes that have no effects do not exist.
If form exists, a cause of form is unacceptable. If form does not exist, the cause of form is likewise unacceptable.
Forms bereft of causes are untenable, indeed they are! And thus concerning forms, conceive no concepts of whatever kind.
To say the fruit is like the cause is unacceptable. To say the fruit’s unlike the cause is also unacceptable.
With feelings and perceptions, conditioning factors, consciousness, with all things, and in all respects, apply the same procedure as with form.
In arguments concerning emptiness, all statements made to counter it are not replies at all, for they exemplify the thesis to be proved.
When emptiness is set forth and explained, all statements made to show its faults, reveal no faults at all. For they exemplify the thesis to be proved. (Root Stanzas of the Middle Way, 15-16, Padmakara Translation Group)

Nagarjuna is providing us with a way of analyzing concepts, and showing how this can be used across all of language. Nagarjuna often begins with a category we typically use, in this case “form.” He shows how attempting to separate the words “form” and “cause” leads to disastrous consequences. There cannot be an independent form separate from the form/effect, which would be an acausal appearance from nothing. There also cannot be a cause that lurks “behind the scenes” without creating effects. Since he has shown that one cannot establish a preexisting cause for form, or an independent form without a cause, he goes on to eliminate other concepts that are linked to form in a similar way. This goes on throughout the Mulamadhyamakakarika, as Nagarjuna shows that even our most carefully constructed foundations are hewn from rotten wood.

It becomes clear from this type of analysis that these categories are socially useful for communication, but do not accurately capture the character of what we experience. Binary relationships allow us to sketch maps of reality, distilled into simplistic chains of concepts that allow the human mind to organize cause and effect. These concepts are easy prey for Nagarjuna’s wide-ranging explorations, as he uses linguistic tools against themselves, logically analyzing these conceptual maps and showing their inadequacy.   In an empty reality, everything mutually links with something else for its own conditions, and no phenomena can live an independent existence. We ascribe far more importance to our beliefs and preferences than they are entitled. We also habitually treat ourselves as if we are independent and try to manipulate reality accordingly.

Defilements, actions, and embodied beings; agents and the fruits of action are like cities of gandharvas. They’re like mirages or dreams. (Ibid., 58)

When we hold our assumptions rigidly, we create suffering. Part of Buddhist insight is to see into our own minds and how we create many of our own problems. It is our inability to notice the conceptual and meaning-making processes of our own minds that contribute to further suffering. Since no life escapes suffering, the way that we relate to it has important consequences. Nagarjuna’s texts are revolutionary in their ability to undermine what we think we know. Once we  have ceased attaching to our beliefs as intrinsic aspects of reality, we no longer have to suffer when things inevitably change. We also connect with the universe in ways that cut much deeper than superficial beliefs.

All human beings without exception are in reality homeless. It’s a mistake to think we have a solid home. – Kodo Sawaki, The Zen Teaching of Homeless Kodo (13) 

Humans have no unyielding position or identity in a changing reality. With practice at pushing our own beliefs and personal limits, we find an existence that does not accept reductive interpretations. Repeated observation and analysis yields a reality that does not conform to any concept we utilize.

The more I meditate, the more I feel that all language dissolves, and any kind of category feels like a mere shadow, a construct of a mind that cannot help but try to divide and conquer. Nagarjuna liberates us from our own minds, and in collapsing its edifice, he helps to reconnect us to everything.

God In the Limitless

One of the main questions that I had when I became involved in meditative practice was: what is truth? Many of the books I had read involved the author’s questioning of truth, and their eventual discovery of an answer that satisfied them. I had reached a point in my life where old patterns no longer served. They had once promised new perspectives and fresh ideas, but had turned desolate in the process. I could see that there was no longer anything for me down those roads. I took up meditation as a way of striking out along an unfamiliar path, grasping at possible answers to questions I wasn’t even aware that I had. A desire to know seemed to permeate every cell, and the practice seemed to catalyze itself further than I could have imagined.

As the practice evolved, other questions arose that seemed equally important. Since meditation gives us an additional perspective on religious writing and symbolism, books looking at the question of God took on further meaning for me. They began to resonate more, provoking feelings that I feel are very much in tune with religious experiences throughout human history.

For me, the experience of God is very closely tied to our own experience. Since meditation often encourages us to look closer at our own reality, it is connected in a meaningful way with the experience of God. We use words like “everyday” experience as if that experience is somehow ordinary, instead of deeply strange and mysterious. A glance at our own experience yields something impossibly deep.

As a simple example for contemplation, look at the skin of your own hand. See each individual cell forming larger patterns and their uniqueness from each other. Notice the cells and hairs making up your limbs and the veins coursing down them. Keep going, noting the pulsations of breath, the feeling of the diaphragm expanding and contracting, and every detail of your vision now coming into focus. Keep going farther outward, noticing as much as possible. You are one part of the universe but an incredibly complex one, and it is just the beginning.

One can do this on any level: the hidden ecosystems within the ground, the shifting appearance of water on a lake, the waves of light across a field, and the varied expressions on other human faces in conversation. These all merge into each other, generating even more complexity. You can keep doing this until it clarifies the singular nature of this “ordinary” experience we so often take for granted.

What is the basis for this? All explanations in this regard seem to fall short for me. Any explanation, whether scientific, spiritual, and so on, seem to miss the point: the mystery of existence. Why should any explanation exist at all?

Who or what is the eye? The eyes that look out into clear sky and that fathom the depths are an eye emerging out of mysterious reality. The organism that is you grows out of universal processes so complex they have yet to be fully understood. It senses and feels, growing through the layers of reality, taking a breath from outside the womb, somehow conceiving “I am me.”

It seems as if all our actions enter into a contingent, diverse, and dynamic reality. Your own thoughts, fears, neuroses, hatreds, and the richness of your human experience all emerge out of this existence. I think that reality is what words such as God are trying to indicate to us. We cannot get too caught up on establishing an eternal definition of God. When you try to conceptualize God, you try to limit it. Instead, it seems that God pushes and pulls at itself, generating and inhabiting spaces; moving away from arbitrary definitions.

To honor God is to appreciate our place in that vastness. It is to sense the wonder of existence and to make the most of this unique, improbable opportunity. It is to know that our own movements contribute to the shape of “the world that is coming.” And that movement is joined to something much larger than what we feel to be ourselves. Perhaps your life is the life of God and of the universe.

Let There Be An Expanse: The Cosmology of the Zohar’s Parashat Be-Reshit

This is a continuation of this website’s series on the Zohar. For the first part of this series, click here.  This commentary used the Pritzker Edition of the Zohar, Volume One by Daniel Matt.


Parashat Be-reshit is a passionate reading of the Book of Genesis. Through its passages it follows the deluge of emanation back into the infinite. Seeking this universal corona is described in the Zohar as “a journey on concealed paths.”

The beginning of the cosmos woke within Ein Sof, the endless. To emphasize the non-conceptual nature of Ein Sof, words are invoked and just as quickly discarded. Like a mountain disappearing into the clouds, our landmarks collapse and withdraw into singularity.  The Zohar takes the reader on an odyssey back to the birth of existence as it gives way to its own expansion:

At the head of potency of the King, He engraved engravings in luster on high. A spark of impenetrable darkness flashed within the concealed of the concealed, from the head of Infinity – a cluster of vapor forming in formlessness, thrust in a ring, not white, not black, not red, not green, no color at all. As a cord surveyed, it yielded radiant colors. Deep within the spark gushed a flow, splaying colors below, concealed with the concealed of the mystery of Ein Sof. It split and did not split its aura, was not known at all, until under the impact of splitting, a single, concealed, supernal point shone. Beyond that point, nothing is known, so it is called Reshit, Beginning, first command of all . . . Then this beginning expanded, building itself a palace of glorious praise. There it sowed seed to give birth, availing worlds. The secret is: ‘Her stock of seed is holiness’ (Isaiah 6:13). Zohar! [Radiance!] Sowing seed for its glory, like the seed of fine purple silk, wrapping itself within, weaving itself a palace, constituting its praise, availing all. (107-110)

The Zohar does not shy away from drawing provocative conclusions from its interpretations of Torah. As it continues, it gives the reader a unique rendering of the sentence Be-reshit bara Elohim. The sentence is turned into an opaque treatise on emergence. It is often translated as, “In the beginning, God created.” In the Zohar, God’s origin stands out as a lacuna in that sentence, referring back to Ein Sof, “the unknown concealed one.” This gives an inspired twist to the sentence’s meaning:

With this beginning, the unknown concealed one created the palace. This palace is called Elohim, ‘God.’ The secret is, Ba-reshit bara Elohim, ‘With beginning, ______ created God’ (Genesis 1:1).

This universal history, sketched out in Be-Reshit, is contained within the iconic map of the Sephirot.


The Sephirot are key to understanding Kabbalah in many ways. One level of interpretation describes the characteristics of God as He manifested. These are the qualities of will, wisdom, understanding, and so on. The first three Sephirot are the beginning of this dilation. Out of Ein Sof comes Keter, the will, transitioning into Hokmah. Hokmah is a point of light, the beginning act that moves on to fertilize Binah, creating the palace of the world. The imagery utilized in these descriptions is of the two Sephirot of Hokmah and Binah uniting in a current of energy. Binah then becomes the womb of all forms:

The primordial point is inner radiance – there is no way to gauge its translucency, tenacity, or purity until an expanse expanded from it. The expansion of of that point became a palace, in which the point was clothed – a radiance unknowable, so intense its lucency. This palace, a garment for that concealed point, is a radiance beyond measure, yet not as gossamer or translucent as the primordial point, hidden and treasured. That palace expanded an expanse: primordial light. That expansion of primordial light is a garment for the palace, which is a gossamer, translucent radiance, deeper within. From here on, this expands into this, this is clothed in this, so that this is a garment for this, and this for this. This the kernel; this the shell. Although a garment, it becomes the kernel of another layer . . . All for the arrayal of the world, and so the world is. (152).

After Binah followed Hesed, “Love,” which then fragmented into darkness. The Zohar does not retreat from is its inspection and elucidation of evil in the world, which is represented by the left column of the Sephirot, and referred to as the Other Side. Evil is found on “the Countenance of Days” in a complex and subtle sense. Evil twisted apart from the unity at the beginning of creation as a destructive force.

Good and evil are bound together as the right and left hand of God. The radical nature of this is that evil is not separate from the divine. Instead, the Zohar reveals how darkness is another name of God:

‘Darkness’ – upon it rests the name Elohim . . . Here is mystery in detail, separating upper waters from lower through mystery of the left. Here conflict was created through the left side. For until here was mystery of the right, and here is mystery of the left, so conflict raged between this and the right. Right is consummate of all, so all is written by the right, for upon it depends all consummation. When the left aroused, conflict aroused, and through that conflict blazed the fire of wrath. Out of that conflict aroused by the left, emerged Hell. Hell aroused on the left and clung. The wisdom of Moses: he contemplated this, gazing into the act of Creation. In the act of Creation a conflict aroused between left and right, and in that conflict aroused by the left, Hell emerged, clinging there. The central pillar, who is the third day, entered between them, mediating the conflict, reconciling the two sides. Hell descended, left merged in right, and peace prevailed over all. (127-131).

God absorbed good and evil within itself, creating Tif’eret, “beauty,” “compassion,” or “heaven.” In the same way that good and evil are enjoined, the initial separation allowed for reconciliation. Without separation, there could be no mending. The Other Side remained, its forces responsible for punishing sin, then called Gevurah or “judgment.” Tif’eret combined the other Sephirot’s energy, moving down into Yesod, the Vitality of the Worlds, which feeds our level of existence. The world we inhabit is called Malkhut, or “kingdom,” and is depicted using the feminine symbol of Shekinah. Shekinah is the bride, with the Kabbalist as the bridgegroom.  Human sin has dislocated Shekinah, diminishing the flow of energy to Malkuth. The Kabbalist blends with Shekinah to reconnect the male and female God.

The world trembles in the thrall of judgment. Demons now lie over the altar in a broken temple, their numbers growing into widespread contagion.

One monster below, on the left side, swims through all those rivers. He approaches the side, all his scales iron-hard, stretches to suck, and defiles the site. All lights darken before him. His mouth and tongue flame with fire, his tongue sharp as a steely sword, till he penetrates the sanctuary within the sea. Then the sanctuary is desecrated, lights extinguished, supernal lights ascend from the sea. The waters of the sea split on the left side, and the sea conceals, its waters flowing no more. So the mystery of the word is as written: ‘Now the serpent was slier than any creature of the field that YHVH Elohim had made (Genesis 3:1) – mystery of the evil serpent descending from above, skimming the surface of bitter waters, seducing below till they fall into his nets. This serpent is death of the world, penetrating a person’s blind gut. He is on the left, while another, of life, is on the right, both accompanying each human, as they have established. ‘Than any creature of the field.’ For no other creature of the field is as cunning in perpetrating evil, for his is the dross of gold. Woe to one drawn to him, for he inflicts death upon him and upon all those following him! This they have established. Adam was drawn down toward him, descending to know everything below. As he descended, his will and ways were drawn toward them, until they reached that serpent, discovering worldly desire, straying at that site. Then he rose, drawn toward Adam and his wife, clung to them, inflicted death upon them and all subsequent generations. Until Israel arrived at Mount Sinai, his slime never ceased infecting the world, as has been explained. (288-289)

This reconciliation is also reflected in the Adam and Eve creation story. Since humanity mirrors God, separation is found in us as well. Love and unity fall into evil and sin, only to be redeemed in the light of heaven, found in the heart by uniting what has been cast down.

The Zohar depicts Adam and Eve in the bliss of the garden, culminating in eating the fruit of knowledge. In this reading, Adam and Eve simultaneously absorbed the knowledge of good and evil, becoming like God in the process. Among the roots of the Tree of Life, Adam grasped his own mortality and a world that “embraces all” its accompanying shadow. At the same time Adam became aware of good, then evil presented itself to him:

The blessed Holy One ate from this tree and then created the world . . . Eat from it and you will be creating worlds! So, ‘God knows that on the day you eat from it [your eyes will be opened and you will become like God . . . ]’ (ibid., 5). Because He knows this, He commanded you concerning it . . . Certainly all touched upon this tree, by which they are embraced. Whoever takes it by itself, takes it together with hordes below embraced by it, takes idolatry, murder, and exposing nudity . . . So in them all he was commanded concerning this tree. When he ate from it, he violated them all, for it embraces all . . . ‘The eyes of both of them were opened’ (Genesis 3:7). Rabbi Hiyya said, ‘Opened to perceive the evil of the world, unknown to them till now. Once they knew and were open to knowing evil, then ‘they knew that they were naked (ibid.), for they had lost the supernal radiance enveloping them, which disappeared, leaving them ‘naked.’ (225-229)

In pursuing sin, Adam allowed evil to fracture the world, bringing death and judgment to bear.  The Zohar reads this as Adam expelling God, instantly remapping the Tree of Life and removing Shekinah from the Sephirot. The separation that Adam enacts in himself is transferred upwards through the Sephriot as well.

Come and see: When Adam sinned by eating from the tree, he transmogrified that tree into a universal source of death; he caused a defect, separating the Woman from Her Husband. The fault of this defect stood out in the moon, until Israel stood at Mount Sinai, when that defect disappeared from the moon, enabling her to constantly shine. Once Israel sinned with the calf, She relapsed into defectiveness; the evil serpent prevailed and seized Her, dragging Her to him. (294)

The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil created a new level of understanding for Adam and Eve. In Eden, Adam and Eve are not really free, as they are unable to choose for themselves between good and evil. Since they chose materiality, they removed themselves from the oceanic unity of the garden. This distances the spiritual further from everyday life and helps to articulate evil in the world.

This evil may take the form of an extreme self-centeredness. This selfishness is all too often realized at the expense of others. Ultimately these actions are a bitter salve for our feelings of separation. This separation has its roots in human development, for as we become older we tend to acquire habits, desires, experiences, and propensities to act. These become codified into a self-image which we feel is separate from others. The pursuit of our imagined self’s desires exacerbates this separation, entrenching us in a cycles of dissatisfaction. However, a way out of these cycles remains.  The same action that creates our separateness can show us a way out as our awareness increases.

Both perceptions lay inside reality – self-centeredness and separation, and a cosmic, life-giving expansion. Both these paths exist inside of the human soul as well. Through evil, we understand the full range of our ability to shape cause and effect.

Interestingly, this conception has parallels to the phrase “the kingdom of God is within you.” As we journey along the Sephirotic path in ourselves, we encounter occluded knowledge, rising up like disparate and unknown lands. “Heaven” is the beauty of our fractured, contradictory existence, and of realizing these contradictions within us. Consciously striving for the good cause Heaven and Kingdom to join together.  In order to discover this, we have to take the plunge into the evil that shields love, sifting through our ever-present potential for sin.

It seems that the world continually remakes and goes beyond itself. The world is free, and humans have the privilege of remaking the Tree of Life.  Enlightened individuals recognize this, and see the light of creation in every existent thing. In the Zohar’s conception, these individuals hold up the pavilion of Shekinah. They are caretakers that work to heal what humanity has torn asunder. Moving outside of the self-centeredness that many humans take for granted, they aid the world in all its forms. They are “the mending of the moon,” restoring Shekinah through beneficial action. As they meld with her, they harmonize the full span of the Sephirot.

The enlightened will shine like the radiance of the sky – these are pillars and sockets of that pavilion. The enlightened – supernal pillars and sockets, contemplating in wisdom everything needed by that pavilion and its supports. This mystery accords with what is said: ‘Happy is one who considers, the poor’ (Psalms 41:2). ‘Will shine’ – for unless they shine and radiate, they cannot contemplate that pavilion, looking out for all it needs. ‘Like the radiance, of the sky’ – standing above ‘the enlightened,’ of whom is written: ‘An image above the heads of the living being, a sky like awesome ice’ (Ezekiel 1:22). ‘Radiance’ – illumining Torah. ‘Radiance’ – illumining the ‘heads of that living being. Those ‘heads’ are the ‘enlightened,’ who constantly radiate and shine, contemplating that ‘sky,’ the radiance flashing from there, radiance of Torah, sparkling constantly, never ceasing. (117-118).

For they constitute the mending of the moon.’ (168)

The Zohar’s radiant words show us to wholeness, and in exploring it, we find our participation in God. Let there be an expanse, above and below, to fuse all into unity. May there be good and evil, so that humanity can know them both, and be free. And let those who see this become like Tif’eret, guiding others back to the paths of judgment and compassion.

The Concealed Of All Concealed – Haqdamat Sefer ha-Zohar

Yet perhaps above all else, it was the worldview of the Zohar – through its establishing a reciprocal relationship between the world of humanity and the world of divinity – that left an indelible impression on the hearts of its readers. In this ever-changing, constantly evolving relationship, the divine flow seeks to be revealed and to saturate the world of humanity; and humanity, for its part, seeks to attain, to take part in, and to cleave to the divine world. Indeed, the Zohar created a view of reality that bestows upon humanity the ability and the responsibility to rectify, constitute, and beautify over and over again the figure of the Godhead-and in so doing, itself and the world. (Loc. 81-87).  

 – Melila Hellner-Eshed

In addition to essays with original content, this site also seeks engagement with a variety of world philosophical theory and practice. In this engagement, theory and practice are as fused and complementary as two sides of the same coin. These concepts ask to be experienced anew and perhaps even be called into being. They are reminders of the delicate, fluid web of cause and effect, and the paramount importance of our beliefs and actions.

I can think of no more fitting place to start this exploration than the Zohar, the 13th century Jewish mystical text. Combining stunning poetry with exacting biblical analysis, the Zohar provides a basis in which to effect the healing of creation. Reconnecting male and female elements of the divine, the Kabbalist helps to make “the world that is to come.” Although God is often shrouded in mystery, the Kabbalist nevertheless tries to understand and participate in His continuing revelations. Humanity’s own efforts when waking to the mystery of God help determine the course of His creation.

In honor of this great work of ages, I would like to do a series on some sections of its writings. Connecting it to diverse scholarship on the Kabbalah, I hope to help shed some light on this challenging text. The Zohar’s view of the religious life is difficult to match in its density of interpretation and depth of feeling, so each section will try to elaborate on some of its diverse themes. How we then attempt to practice these concepts is up to each of us. Reading the Zohar is a charged experience, and we may be drawn into its rapturous heights as we ascend further into its world.

Excerpts are from the first volume of Daniel Matt’s Pritzker Edition, unless otherwise noted.


In its first section, the Zohar frequently discusses the mystery of existence and of God. This exploration of mystery generates some of the Zohar’s most amazing passages, describing the summiting of the inner life to probe the beginning of all. Some of these passages also refer to something called Ein Sof. As mentioned and explored in a previous essay, this is the infinite, unnameable source out of which all existence flows. It means “there is no end.” The One God that is wrapped up in all created things emerged from Ein Sof, and is intriguingly labeled “the Concealed of all Concealed.” God can be known in some ways, but there remain forever untapped and unknown dimensions of the absolute. This God gradually began to divulge itself in and through the shaping of the universe:

When Concealed of all Concealed verged on being revealed, it produced at first a single point, which ascended to become thought. Within, it drew all drawings, graved all engravings, carving within the concealed holy lamp a graving of one hidden design, holy of holies, a deep structure emerging from thought, called ‘Who,’ origin of structure. Existent and non-existent, deep and hidden, called by no name but ‘Who.’ . . . Seeking to be revealed, to be named, it garbed itself in a splendid, radiant garment and created ‘these.’ ‘These’ attained the name: these letters joined with those, culminating in the name ‘Elohim.’ Until it created ‘these,’ it did not attain the name ‘Elohim.’ . . . Through this mystery, the universe exists. (8)

Interestingly, God is named “Who,” as much a question as a designation. God emerged out of a dark, primal Unknowable, and will always remain so. In this understanding, God represents the origin of existence, yet His ultimate meaning and full potential remain uncharted. The Zohar truly brings the reader into an encounter with that arcane causa sui of existence. Even though it follows the emergence of everything from the initial point of divine incandescence, it still acknowledges that this beginning is veiled in secrecy. This is expressed in an incredible passage worth quoting in full:

The holy hidden one engraved an engraving in the innards of a recess, punctuated by a thrust point. He engraved that engraving, hiding it away, like one who locks up everything under a single key, which locks everything within a single palace. Although everything is hidden away within that palace, the essence of everything lies in that key, which closes and opens. Within that palace stand gates built cryptically, fifty of them. Carved into four sides, they were forty-nine. One gate has no side. No one knows whether it is above or below; it is shut. In those gates is one lock and one precise place for inserting the key, marked only by the impress of the key, known only to the key. Concerning this mystery it is written: Be-reshit bara Elohim, ‘In the beginning God created.’ Be-reshit is the key enclosing all, closing and opening. Six gates are contained in that key that closes and opens. When it closes those gates, enclosing them within itself, then indeed: Be-reshit – a revealed word combined with a concealed word. Bara, ‘Created,’ is always concealed, closing, not opening.

As long as the world was locked within the word ‘bara,’ it was not, did not exist. Enveloping everything was ‘tohu,’ [Chaos], and as long as tohu reigned, the world was not, did not exist. When did the key open gates? When was it fit to be fruitful, to generate offspring? (17-19)

So beginning is both revealed in the universe we find ourselves in yet is also concealed from human knowledge. The “single key” is the rune of existence, in which all speculation becomes obscure. This is the “closing” of speculation. One finds the last gate shut, unable to be opened to comprehension. Concepts no longer avail the seeker at this place. Here stretches out the gate to all, at the same time nothing, an impenetrable darkness. However, this creation or tree of life also expounds itself in certain ways which constitute our shared existence. This is “the tree bearing fruit with its seed in it.” The “revealing” is the same creation, seemingly endless in its manifestations.

The Zohar understands this revealing of creation as an emanation from that blazing point of divine light. In divulging some of Himself, progressive attributes of God make themselves known. These parameters, known as sefirot, help determine how God comes to be known to His creation. The sefirot are admirably described in the book A River Flows From Eden:

The Zohar assumes that its reader is familiar with descriptions of the structure of the divine world as they had crystallized in the circles of the first kabbalists in Provence and Gerona, beginning at the end of the twelfth century. These teachings assume the existence of an infinite, abstract divinity termed Ein Sof. From it emanate ten sefirot, constituting the world of active divinity. They are able to be comprehended in different ways. The sefirot are qualities or nodes of operation of the divine outside its incomprehensible and indescribable mysteriousness. They are characterized as masculine or feminine, and the relationships between them are dynamic and (hetero)sexual. (Loc. 215-221)


The sefirot form a complex understanding of reality. They do not solely chart the known aspects of God. They also form a representation of meditative practice, in which the practitioner climbs the “rungs” of the sefirot to the apex of nothingness. The sefirot also reveal how the world progressed out of Ein Sof, and the hidden dimensions that this reality contains.

The Zohar introduces one of its major themes in its first part – the idea of God separated from itself. Although this work discusses more of its creation story in a later commentary, it touches on this in the first chapter. A passage discussing this theme reads:

As soon as He departed, the flow flowing from above ceased. ‘He,’ as it were, ‘smote’ them, destroying and obliterating them, and the Holy Throne fell, as is written: ‘And I was in the midst of exile’ (Ezekiel 1:1) – that rung, called ‘I’ was ‘in the midst of exile.’ Why? ‘By the River Kevar’ ibid.), River of Already, on account of the river gushing and flowing, whose waters and springs ceased, so that it did not flow as before, as is written: ‘A river dries up and is parched’ (Job 14:11). ‘Dries up’ – in the First Temple; ‘is parched’ – in the second . . . All the lights illumining Israel darkened. (39)

God is disconnected from Himself and the nourishing springs that flow down from the celestial worlds and out of Ein Sof. This metaphor is discussed several times throughout the Zohar’s first section. Mentioned later on is the distinction the Kabbalists draw between the masculine God and the feminine God, with the feminine half referred to as Shekhinah. Shekinah, equated with Earth, is separated from the healing radiance of the divine, ravaged by evil forces and the wages of sin. Her state mirrors that of Israel, God’s chosen people, with its Temple destroyed, and exiled among the demonic tribes of other human nations. It is the Kabbalist’s responsibility, through their actions, to restore this lost bond and unleash the healing potency of divinity. We will return to this description again, and in greater detail, as we look at some of the Zohar’s later sections.

Humanity thus occupies a hugely important role in healing the wounds brought on by existence and separation. These wounds are understand cosmically as part of the divine reality, in which humans are an indelible part. Humans can come to these feelings of esteem and protectiveness by engaging in certain kinds of practice. These include contemplating holy works which expose hints of the universal narrative; participating in creative and edifying interpretations of Torah; and resolving their inner conflicts of good and evil.

One of the most useful perspectives on evil in world literature is found in the Zohar, in both its description and emphasis on human action. It interweaves an incredibly rich mythology that describes how humans ultimately perpetuate evil. Demons continually try to inhere in human expression and occupy “a dual earth, dualized by darkness and light.” (63)

Some of the Zohar’s most inspired lines comes out of these intense experiences of darkness:

In darkness they turn into the image of the two-headed serpent, moving like a serpent, then swooping into the abyss, bathing in the vast ocean. Reaching the chains of Uzza and Azazel [fallen angels] they agitate and arouse them. These then leap into the dark mountains, thinking the blessed Holy One is about to call them to judgement. These two officials swim the vast ocean and fly through the night to Na’amah, mother of demons, after whom the primordial deities strayed. They intend to approach her, but she leaps 60,000 parasangs, transmogrifying herself into countless figures confronting human beings, so that they stray after her. These two officials fly and roam throughout the world, then return to their abode, arousing those descendants of Cain to generate offspring by the spirit of evil impulses. (63-64)

The demonic is sometimes referred to in the Zohar as “the Other Side” and exists as a necessary corollary to the divine. Evil existed as an outgrowth in the beginning of creation and became a shell encasing the divine light. In order to access this light, one must penetrate through the shells around it.  Bringing evil into awareness allows humanity access to its creative role without fatally being drawn into the Other Side. This is to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. According to an article by Paul Levy:

From the Kabbalistic point of view, evil brings into the world the possibility of choosing between sin and virtue, which is to say that evil is the very origin of the possibility of the highest good. Freedom of choice is a necessary postulate for responsibility, morality, and the creation of values. Evil becomes the condition for free choice, and hence, the condition for the full realization of good. As if the revelation of everything is through its opposite, an idea is only complete when it reveals its opposite to be inextricably linked to its very significance, e.g., darkness is only known through light, just as light is only known through darkness. According to the Kabbalah, the world and the soul of humanity are partly immersed in the “Other Side,” which is to say that the evil impulse can’t be banished, but needs to be harnessed for the good. To quote Jung, ‘You can’t reject evil because evil is the bringer of light.’

Seeing the evil in ourselves is part of our recognition of the unity of God and the necessity of our restorative work.   The Zohar places a great deal of emphasis on righteousness in this regard. It describes its adherents as “sturdy pillars.” It describes “the world that is to come,” the potential experiencing of ourselves and our creative place in reality with new eyes. This is an arduous and lifelong task. It is also a rousing call to action:

O high, hidden, concealed ones, open-eyed, roaming the entire world, gaze and see! O low, sleeping ones, close-eyed, awake! Who among you turns darkness into light, bitter into sweet, before arriving here? Who among you awaits each day the light that shines when the king visits the doe and is glorified – declared King of all kings of the world? Whoever does not await this each day in that world has no portion here. (21-22)

Since this knowledge of our facility for good is found within an interior pilgrimage, the Zohar refers to it is “hidden.” We must remind ourselves of this fact as the world proliferates its own darkest impulses in its confusion. Our imagined separation is part of the separation of God, and access to this knowledge becomes lost as humanity falls prey to the Other Side:

Since [your goodness] is hidden within you, it plays no part in this world that I am about to create, but rather in the world to come. Furthermore, because your goodness is hidden within you, the gates of My Temple will sink, as is written: ‘Her gates, have sunk, into the earth (Lamentations 2:9). (15)

This understanding is finally remembering the overwhelming generosity of the Holy Ancient One.

How great is the precious, supernal goodness the blessed Holy One intends to lavish upon humanity – for the supremely righteous, dreading sin, engaging in Torah – when they enter that world! The verse does not read ‘Your goodness,’ but rather ‘Your immense goodness.’ Who is that? ‘The memory of Your immense goodness they express’ (Psalms 145:7) – joy of life flowing from the world that is coming to Vitality of the Worlds, who is ‘the memory of Your immense goodness’ – ‘immense goodness for the house of Israel . . . ‘ – Isaiah (63:7).

Your goodness’ – the light created on the first day. ‘That you have hidden away for those in awe of You,’ for He concealed it for the righteous in that world. (44-45)

The last theme we will discuss ties into and develops the others to such an extent that it will make a fitting conclusion to our discussion on this first section. In the process of investigating what lies hidden within the Torah’s wings, the Zohar requires its practitioners to expound new and interesting ways of interpreting these canonical texts. Creativity is expressed in the Torah as a communion that all its adherents must enter. This is not numbing repetition for its own sake, but ecstatic discovery. Philosopher Alfred North Whitehead described something similar in his opus Process and Reality:

It follows from the first category of explanation that ‘becoming’ is a creative advance into novelty. It is for this reason that the meaning of the phrase ‘the actual world’ is relative to the becoming of a definite actual entity which is both novel and actual, relatively to that meaning, and to no other meaning of that phrase. Thus, conversely, each actual entity corresponds to a meaning of ‘the actual world’ peculiar to itself.

The novelty of each moment is unique to that situation, and cannot necessarily be predetermined arbitrarily. The novel is defined relative to the situation at hand. Becoming is the entire universe changing into the new, perennially changing the meaning of “the world.”  Interpreting the Torah in new ways is to participate with the becoming of divine creation. The broadening of the Torah’s meaning is brought out in the Zohar’s exegesis of “let the waters teem with swarms of living creatures” (Genesis 1:20). This creativity makes new methods of swimming in the waters of the world.

The Torah then comes alive, a matrix of associations branching into unique places. Interpreting the holy text becomes a religious imperative, as the Kabbalist makes new heavens and participates as the world. One’s connection to the Torah is thus extremely important. In creating new interpretations and new “heavens” for humans to dwell in, we add to the aesthetic beauty of the universe. We also devise enduring opportunities for salvation. These new heavens become part of “the supernal crown” and the glory of God. “The waters swarm” with the results of this abundance. Humanity’s religious goals become re-centered in expanding the image of God.

How vital it is for a human being to engage in Torah day and night! For the blessed Holy One listens to the voice of those who occupy themselves with Torah, and every word innovated in Torah by one engaged in Torah fashions one heaven . . . All the words of the Ancient of Days are words of wisdom, conveying supernal, concealed mysteries . . . So each and every word of wisdom is transformed into a heaven, existing enduringly in the presence of the Ancient of Days. He calls them ‘new heavens,’ newly created heavens, hidden mysteries of supernal wisdom. . . (25-26)

The Zohar is a paean to humanity’s deep creativity and the effects of that creative urge on all the worlds. God is permanently linked to humans through the consequences of our combined actions. These actions join us to the divine reality, as we add to creation, finding our own beauty, wonder, and awe.

The sixth commandment: to be fruitful and multiply. For whoever engages in this causes that river to flow constantly, it’s waters never ceasing, and the sea is filled from every direction. New souls are innovated, emerging from that tree, while above, numerous powers increase along with them, as is written: ‘Let the waters swarm with a swarm of living souls [and let birds fly above the earth]’ (Genesis 1:20.) This is the holy sealed covenant, a river streaming forth, its waters swelling, swarming with swarms of souls for that living being. (87-88)


The truth about the world, he said, is that anything is possible.  Had you not seen it all from birth and bled it of its strangeness it would appear to you for what it is, a hat trick in a medicine show, a fevered dream, a trance bepopulate with chimeras having neither analogue nor precedent, an itinerant carnival, a migratory tentshow whose ultimate destination after many a pitch in many a muddled field is unspeakable and calamitous beyond reckoning.

The universe is no narrow thing and the order within it is not constrained by any latitude in its conception to repeat what exists in one part in any other part.  Even in this world more things exist without our knowledge than with it and the order in creation which you see is that which you have put there, like a string in a maze, so that you shall not lose your way. For existence has its own order and that no man’s mind can compass, that mind itself being but a fact among others.

     – Cormac McCarthy

 What is it the lurks beneath the apparent facade of everyday experience?  Are there terrors that dwell in the mountainous regions of dark matter?  Or is there a beneficent, all-loving God who has our best interests close at hand?  Upon looking inward, is there nothing beneath the unfolding of phenomena?  A cavernous void with no fixities?  These questions catalyze our inquiry, prompting our exploration of the world.

Searching for certainty, we may attempt to describe this reality and discover an island in a perpetually roiling sea.  In setting these limits, we also attempt to distill their essence into systems we create.  Thought builds a temple with the graven image of the symbol.

Global religion and philosophy have attempted to smooth the contours of the world, totalizing it and advocating for their own justifications.  Some religious movements and practitioners claim their personal holy book as the sole source of revealed truth.  Initiation into these schools of thought may amount to little more than absorption and regurgitation of doctrine. However, throughout their histories, many of these disciplines have had works that attempt to look seriously into the limitations of their own beliefs.  Some seekers have had experiences that diffuse reality beyond the grasp of human understanding.  Rather than aborting this procedure, and attempting to find an unassailable position for thought,  they follow this radiant outflow to its terminus.  They join with the rippling swells of the cosmos.

In Buddhism, this aconceptual experience of reality is termed shunya, which is translated as emptiness or voidness.  This points us towards an iconoclastic strain of feeling that prompts a complete revolution in our understanding of reality.  Through our questioning, and in the fruition of our meditative practice, we may come to feel this firsthand.  It is described and experienced as the total unfolding of the universe moment by moment, without any form of conceptual or experiential restraint.

This can completely change our philosophizing, denying the all-encompassing reach of human reason.  Reality undulates, unfettered by how the human mind carves up its experience.  It severs the necessity of our concepts and embraces the ambiguous.  Importantly, it also turns our lives, language, and experience inside out.  Our words and actions do not denote a separate abstract self or reality.  They become part of the original creation itself.  In the immeasurable and empty center of zero, existence spills into actuality, united by the circle’s never-ending line.  

In Red Pine’s commentary on the Heart Sutra, he describes the line in which Avalokiteshvara, Boddhisattva of Compassion, perceives the emptiness of all things:

Here, Avalokiteshvara looks at the skandhas and sees that they are empty, or shunya.  The Sanskrit word shunya means ‘hollow,’ ‘void,’ or ‘zero.’  What is hollow, void, or zero is the existence of a self.  But if there is no self-existence, there is is also no non-existence.  According to Mahayana Buddhism, this is the second greatest of all delusions, the belief that nothing exists.  Emptiness does not mean nothingness.  It simply means the absence of the erroneous distinctions that divide one entity from another, one being from another being, one thought from another thought.  Emptiness is not nothing, it’s everything, everything at once.  This is what Avalokiteshvara sees. 

 Emptiness also has parallels across many different religions.  Meister Eckhart, a Christian mystic, describes human concepts as being unable to measure up to God.  The graces of God become their own kind of language:

I can briefly summarize this copious introduction by saying that God’s speaking to us is nothing else but God’s becoming known to us through his gifts (gifts and inspirations, either of nature or of grace) that raise us up and irradiate our minds by his light.  This is utterance, speech and word in the most proper and pleasing sense; its exterior utterance, speech and word does not measure up to it.  (Classics of Western Spirituality, 115).  

 Rather than a basis in despair, emptiness is the fertile loam in which always begins.  It indicates that which has no name and perpetually overflows all our limitations, leading us towards the limitless.  I will explore this experience from two poles.  The first is how meditation and emptiness alters the human experience and enactment of language.  When language no longer denotes a stable reality, it liberates our actions to be truly situational and all-embracing.  It also releases us from accepting any conclusions to our inevitable and often necessary world-building.  Secondly, I will describe what happens once emptiness breaks down this linguistic experience of the world, which puts us more in touch with flowing truth.  The universe can then be said to not only be empty of any overarching concept or principle, but also empty of any constant form.  As said in the Heart Sutra, form is emptiness, emptiness is form.


One possible way of looking at the human process of conceptualization is that we partly operate on abstraction.  We create increasingly elaborate conceptual frameworks that we use to navigate and survive.  It does not appear that humans could do without these concepts.  They allow us to make useful distinctions between what is safe and dangerous, communicate this to others, and extrapolate from past experience.  Tempering these experiences into memories, we continually update our working models of the world.  These frameworks are what we constantly reference in our day to day life as something unremittingly existent or “real”, overlooking their largely provisional nature.  We can witness ourselves while we meditate as we incessantly label all experience.

We run into problems when we attempt to take these temporary frameworks and turn them into something static.  Some philosophical, scientific, and religious models encourage us to do just this: to passively accept the results of their search for truth as somehow given, omniscient, or permanent.  Concepts, while extremely practical and sometimes effective, seem to operate contingently and without the necessity to make them into eternal law.  Abstractions are a double-edged sword, screening out even as they allow us the ability to think.  The experience of emptiness seems to disclose something beyond thought that is always unfinished and processual.

In understanding the moment to moment arising of experience, we can see how concepts and frameworks remain incomplete.  Thought reflects on our perception of the past, and remains bound to it.  Conceptualization cannot remain in tandem with the speed of present experience.  This is increasingly realized during meditation as we attune ourselves to life’s constant development.  It always remains possible that the present negates all our old maps, and our understanding of things changes completely, making everything unrecognizable.

An excellent example of using language to express its limitations and point beyond itself can be found in Eihei Dogen’s Mountains and Waters Sutra:

Even if you have an eye to see mountains as grass, trees, earth, rocks, or walls, do not be confused or swayed by it; this is not complete realization.  Even if there is a moment when you view mountains as the seven treasures’ splendor, this is not returning to the source.  Even if you understand mountains as the realm where all buddhas practice, this understanding is not something to be attached to.  Even if you have the highest understanding of mountains as all buddhas’ wondrous characteristics, the truth is not only this.  These are conditioned views.  This is not the understanding of buddha ancestors, but merely looking through a bamboo pipe at the corner of the sky.

Robert K.C. Forman, mystic and religious professor, has an extremely interesting account of how this use of language “deconstructs” our habitual modes of conceptualizing:

. . . I have linked up a perceptual object with a phrase or word in an automatic or habitual way.  This process is well documented.  When we encounter the same thing over and over again, we tend to pigeonhole it without looking at it in detail.  These are perceptual ‘automatisms.’  They allow us to save psychic time and energy and ‘see’ only what we generally need to see.  The categories in whose terms we ‘see’ with, our automatizations, are determined by our set, concepts, context, needs, etc.  On the other hand, some language serves to undo such automatized connections between words and perceptions . . . Sundering perceptual automatizations help us deconstruct perceptual experiences . . . Taking such expressions seriously, the key process in mysticism seems not like the horse of language pulling the cart of experience, but rather more like unhitching the experience-cart from the language-horse.  Mystical experiences don’t result from a process of building or constructing mystical experience, we’ve suggested, but rather from an un-constructing of language and belief.  It seems to result from something like a releasing of experience from language.  Some forms of mysticism, in other words, should be seen as decontextualized. (Mysticism, Mind, Consciousness, 98-99).

This realization allows us to reflect on our use of theorizing, in which categories remain subject to change.  Possibly seeing through the screen of words allows us to notice how they contrive human action.  They can prevent us from acknowledging the enormous diversity all around and within us.

Considered as emptiness, language becomes part of the ripening of all reality.  The one who comprehends this can use language in a startling and reflective manner, mutating it into new and diverse species.  It can be then used actively as a form of expedient means.  This is where language is changed into different patterns to fit the audience and can best serve the unique needs of each individual’s awakening.

Once a seeker has begin to experience reality in this way, the change in perception can be cataclysmic.  We see language in a different light and become its adept, deploying its capacities without ascribing privileged status to any single thought.  It is equally important to remember not to “get stuck on emptiness” as a concept.  This would hinder the way that emptiness encourages us to examine and render transparent all of thinking.  Once this happens, we no longer depend on habit and abstract conviction.

This removal of linguistic barriers prompts a changed view of the world.  Without stable abstractions to adhere to, the universe becomes a wild place, irreducible to any entity.  Signifiers such as emptiness, the universe, chaos, and God all seem to reveal this radical openness.  In the Zohar, a work of Jewish mysticism, God emerges from the enigmatic Ein Sof, meaning “there is no end.” Ein Sof is the zero through which reality is birthed, the infinite nowhere which is always becoming apparent.  The Tao as the mysterious source of existence has similar connotations.  A passage from the Tao Te Ching reads:

The valley spirit that doesn’t die
We call the dark womb
The dark womb’s mouth
We call the source of Heaven and Earth
As elusive as gossamer silk
And yet it can’t be exhausted

Many of these mystery traditions reference the “bright darkness” about which nothing can ultimately be said.  One description of this reality comes from philosopher Quentin Meillassoux, and his excellent work After Finitude.  His work details what is described as an “absolute that would not be an absolute entity,” or a reality which undermines any sort of stability.  The absolute is the cosmos in its perpetually shifting nature.  He describes this as “hyper-chaos”:

Our task was to uncover an absolute that would not be an absolute entity . . . The only absolute we have managed to rescue from the confrontation would seem to be the very opposite of what is usually understood by that term, which is supposed to provide a foundation for knowledge.  Our absolute, in effect, is nothing other than an extreme form of chaos, a hyper-chaos, for which nothing is or would seem to be, impossible, not even the unthinkable . . . We have succeeded in identifying a primary absolute (Chaos), but contrary to the veracious God, the former would seem to be incapable of guaranteeing the absoluteness of scientific discourse, since, far from guaranteeing order, it guarantees only the possible destruction of every order.

 Hyper-chaos points toward a transmuting, nonlinear cosmos, a chaos not only limited to chaos.    These words that attempt to move beyond themselves draw our attention to a world that is free of these concepts and cannot be fully contained within them.  Certain Zen dialogues seem to reference this, with masters regularly confounding their students’ intellectual expectations.  In the commentary for the following Koan, this is called “intimate talk,” with teachers precisely pointing at the deep, profound, and mysterious reality of which they are a part:

Boshui Benren said to the assembly, ‘Normally we don’t want to confuse descendants by talking about what is before sound and after a phrase.  Why is this so?  Sound is not sound.  Form is not form.’
A monastic said, ‘What is sound that is not sound?’
Boshui said, ‘Can you call it form?’
The monastic said, ‘What is form that is not form?’
Boshui said, ‘Can you call it sound?’
The monastic would not say another word.
Boshui said, ‘Let me say that if you understand this, I will approve that you have entered the place.’ 

It takes time to acclimate to this lack of reliance on systems, symbols, and concepts.  Once we fathom this and harmonize it with our practice, it becomes a fount of inspiration.  Changing states of affairs offer countless ways to partake in what is.  It seems that “there is no end” to the novel and unexpected, in which life  can be felt as a perpetual source of realization.  Experience this infinity for yourself, engaging in the sincere expression of your being beyond all words.

Crisis and Dissolution

A traveler sets out on a journey; crossing into verdant hillsides. Her route undulates and snakes into unseen territory. Roaming farther beyond the previous confines of her own maps, the wilderness is suddenly upon her. The moon hangs red in the sky, enormous and swollen like a leech. The night is thick and tangible now. It draws around her, pulling tighter, until she wears it like a second skin.

Peering into a nearby lake, she catches sight of her distorted reflection. It ripples and fragments in the gentle currents. She feels her heart begin to beat faster as the image breaks. An ancient, terrible laugh echoes through the forest. Looking up, she sees forms dancing in the trees and crawling up out of the water onto the shore. Their eyes, teeth, and skin blur together in a welter of confused perception.

Beyond her borders, something waits, watching her with her own eyes. The unclaimed parts of her slide forward with an accompanying agony she only distantly remembers.

The Crisis can be one of the most important experiences we undergo. It is a journey into humanity’s common darkness in which we are tested and reshaped. This helps us access feelings and memories that have lain dormant in us, waiting to grow into renewed intention . These are deep clefts in our inner life that go unloved and unnoticed; doomed and lurking at the periphery. They exist on the margins; subsisting in unseen spaces.

Over time, our self-image ossifies and becomes more concrete. Hewn from the raw material of experience it hardens into abstraction. The ego pulls at the threads of life, weaving them into a single narrative. Any aspect of our experience is capable of being subsumed into this vast apparatus we call the Self. In this development, parts of ourselves are inevitably cast aside. We make the simultaneous movement of appropriation and rejection, fearing the imagined instability past this image. This rejected material is the province of what we define as the psychotic, irrational, and alien.

Our childhood experience provides the impetus for this ruthless self-selection. Although we attempt to repress certain of our aspects, they simmer underneath the surface. Trying to drown out their urgent whispers, we may lose ourselves in certain experiences and pleasures. This helps us forget, for a time. The extreme control and attempted modulation of these undesirable features are a temporary relief for the terror brought on by their repression. Those outside the gates clamor through the night. Communication ceases as they slip below the lines drawn out in the interior.

A longing for the open ocean gnaws at us, as the land is gnawed by the sea. A dark fluidity at the roots of our nature rebels agains the security of terra firma, provoking a wave of anxiety in which we are submerged, until we feel ourselves drowning, with representation draining away.
– Nick Land

Meditation and other methods can open up these lines of communication once more. Dredging up long forgotten experience, the unloved return once more to the fold. The door leading to unimaginable depth is thrown open and our memories stream into the light. The process begins with the shock of recognition. Our disintegration is aided by the discarded parts of ourselves. Unable to harmonize these aspects, the person’s self image begins to change, becoming something other than what they had supposed.

It is no wonder that this personal breakdown is evidenced across such a wide spectrum of humanity. It is bound up in symbolism that attempts to help the person experiencing it navigate its unfamiliar paths. Often viewed in the context of an initiation into new orders of reality, the person undergoes what is represented as a death to old symbolic, personal, and cultural systems and a birth into new life. Let’s take a look at some concrete examples of this and see how they apply.

The tradition of Shamanism is one of mankind’s oldest spiritual blessings. These men and women underwent a profoundly painful and transformative process in the loneliness of solitary nature. Feeling themselves begin to open, they had to confront and understand what they found there. They learn the shamanic cosmogonies and the plurality of beings. The Shaman can then move among the worlds of heaven, earth, and the underworld. This has been termed an “initiation”.  Religious scholar Mircea Eliade cites several examples of this progression in his book Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy:

For example, a Yakut shaman, Sofron Zateyev, states that as a rule the future shaman ‘dies’ and lies in the yurt for three days without eating or drinking. Formerly the candidate went through the ceremony three times, during which he was cut to pieces . . . The candidate’s limbs are removed and disjointed with an iron hook; the bones are cleaned, the flesh scraped, the body fluids thrown away, and the eyes torn from their sockets. After this operation all the bones are gathered up and fastened together with iron . . . the ceremony of dismemberment lasts from three to seven days; during all that time the candidate remains like a dead man, scarcely breathing, in a solitary place . . .
According to another Yakut account, the evil spirits carry the future shaman’s soul to the underworld and there shut it up in a house for three years (only one year for those who will become lesser shamans). Here the shaman undergoes his initiation. The spirits cut off his head, which they set aside (for the candidate must watch his dismemberment with his own eyes), and cut him into small pieces, which are then distributed to the spirits of the various diseases. Only by undergoing such an ordeal with the future shaman gains the power to cure. His bones are then covered with new flesh, and in some cases he is also given new blood.

This incredibly detailed description evokes the descent into the forbidding regions of ourselves as the Shaman watches his own dismemberment. Undergoing these trials creates new understanding. The Shaman becomes instantiated in their new communal role in the process. This comprehension of levels of the cosmos and planes of reality bleeds out and makes the Shaman the focal point of interaction between these worlds and the Earth. In order to achieve this, they must undergo some of the nightmarish aspects of initiation. Eliade continues with another example of Shamanic initiation:

Then the candidate came to a desert and saw a distant mountain. After three days’ travel he reached it, entered an opening, and came upon a naked man working a bellows. On the fire was a caldron ‘as big as half the earth.’ The naked man saw him and caught him with a huge pair of tongs. The novice had time to think, ‘I am dead!’ The man cut off his head, chopped his body into bits, and put everything in the cauldron. There he boiled his body for three years. There were also three anvils, and the naked man forged the candidate’s head on the third, which was the one on which the best shamans were forged. Then he threw the head into one of the three pots that stood there . . . The blacksmith then fished the candidate’s bones out of a river in which they were floating, put them together, and covered them with flesh again. He counted them and told them that he had three too many; he was therefore to procure three shaman’s costumes. He forged his head and taught him how to read the letters that are inside it. He changed his eyes; and that is why, when he shamanizes, he does not see with his bodily eyes but with these mystical eyes. He pierced his ears, making him able to understand the language of plants. Then the candidate found himself on the summit of a mountain, and finally he woke in the yurt, among his family. Now he can sing and shamanize indefinitely, without ever growing tired. 

These examples (and many others in Eliade’s book) are linked and share a symbolism. The Shaman is taken apart, and put back together, acquiring his powers in the process. He not only gains powers of communication with spirits, but also improves in full-body functioning. The Shaman gains the ability to cure mankind of many of its self-wrought afflictions.

When they came to a high place, the guides showed him seven tents with torn roofs. He entered the first and there found the inhabitants of the underworld and the men of the Great Sickness (syphilis). These men pried out his heart and threw it into a pot. In other tents he met the Lord of Madness and the Lords of all the nervous disorders, as well as the evil shamans. Thus he learned the various disease that torment mankind.

Through the Shamanic awakening, the person discovers new frontiers and lands beyond their “everyday” levels of discernment and common sense. Eliade concludes that there are affinities at work between these accounts, describing a mystical death and rebirth. It is particularly worth pointing out that in this text, the Shaman is instructed by demonic beings:

. . . from the Cosmic Tree and by the will of the Universal Lord himself, he receives the wood to make his drum; semi-demonic beings teach him the nature of all disease and their cures; finally, other demonic beings cut his body to pieces, boil it, and exchange it for better organs. Each of these elements in the initiatory story is consistent and has its place in a symbolic or ritual system well known to the history of religions. To each them we shall have to return. Taken together, they represent a well-organized variant of the universal theme of the death and mystical resurrection of the candidate by means of a descent to the underworld and an ascent to the sky.

As we will see from other examples, many seekers have undergone some variation of this journey, as a descent and purification, culminating in renewed insight. Another author who delved into his unmapped psychological realms and described them courageously was psychologist C.G. Jung. Jung wrote eloquently on this matter, the ancient depiction of man’s descent through darkness, and passing into the light (using symbolism that includes heaven, fusion, and kingship). This procedure can be expressed through the duality of solar and lunar, the liminal and subliminal factors of the human organism.

In his classic work on alchemy, Mysterium Coniunctionis, Jung analyzes this and the movement through the frail walls of the ego.

In this psychologem all the implications of the Sol-Luna allegory are carried to their logical conclusion. The aerobic quality which is connected with the dark side of the moon, or with her position midway between heaven and the sublunary world, displays its full effect. Sun and moon reveal their antithetical nature, which in the Christian Sol-Luna relationship is so obscured as to be unrecognizable, and the two opposites cancel each other out, their impact resulting – in accordance with the laws of energetics – in the birth of a third and new thing, a son who resolves the antagonisms of the parents and his himself a ‘united double nature.’ . . . The moment of the eclipse and mystic marriage is death on the cross . . . It is clear from this text that the ‘hidden’ thing, the invisible center, is Adam Kadmon, the Original Man of Jewish gnosis. It is he who laments in the ‘prisons’ of the darkness’ . . . He is the product of the conjunction of sun and moon.

Interesting parallels can be drawn between this and the story of Adam and Eve. Far from being a literal creation narrative, Adam and Eve is a highly symbolic glyph that helps to clarify the spiritual experience.  The snake is known for having the ability to shed its skin, and for its associations with the nocturnal.  Upon eating of its fruit, Adam and Eve learn of good and evil, and they come to experience life’s privations. One way this can be read is humanity’s knowledge of the myriad potentials of good and evil. For how could humanity be free to act without this choice?

We eat of the tree of knowledge when we experience some version of the Crisis, and its upwelling of unintegrated material. Like many endeavors, this type of self-discovery is dangerous and its outcome is not preordained. There is no way of knowing in advance how we will comprehend this often frightening psychological landscape. Later in this same work Jung clarifies the inherent risk in this type of procedure:

From the (nuptial) impact between the two the spark is struck, the Archeus, which is a ‘corrupter of the body,’ just as the ‘chemist’ is a ‘corrupter of metals.’ This negative aspect of the scintilla is remarkable, but it agrees very well with the alchemists’ less optimistic, medico-scientific view of the world. For them the dark side of the world and of life had not been conquered, and this was the task they set themselves in their work. In their eyes the fire point, the divine center in man, was something dangerous, a powerful poison which required very careful handling if it was to be changed into the panacea. The process of individuation, likewise, has its own specific dangers. Doran expresses the standpoint of the alchemists in his fine saying: ‘ There is nothing in nature that does not contain as much evil as good.’

The Chaos Magician and writer Grant Morrison explains this so artfully that it is worth quoting extensively:

Aleister Crowley embodied the destruction of Egoic Self structures as Choronzon, the Devil 333. Choronzon, we are told, is the all-devouring guardian of “the Abyss” (the Abyss being a suitably dramatic and evocative term for an experiential “gap” in human consciousness.) The term can be applied to that state of mind during which Individual Egoic Self-consciousness begins to cannibalize itself rather than confront the usually frightening fact that Personality is not “Real” in the existential sense and is simply a behavioral strategy.

Most of us have had some small experience of the gigantic boundary complex Mega-ChoronzonnoznorohC-ageM; the Choronzonic Encounter is present in the relentless, dull self-interrogation of amphetamine comedowns or fevers, near-death experiences. Think of the chattering mind, annihilating itself in unstoppable self-examination and you will hear the voice of Choronzon.

Choronzon then, is Exisential Self at the last gap, munching out its own brains, seeking nourishment and finding only the riddle of the Bottom That is Bottomless. Choronzon is when there is nothing left but to die to nothingness. Beyond Choronzon, concepts of personality and identity cannot survive. Beyond Choronzon we are no longer our Self. The “personality” on the brink of the Abyss will do anything, say anything and find any excuse to avoid taking his disintegrating step into “non- being”.

Most of us in the increasingly popular Western Consumerist traditions tend to wait until we die before even considering Choronzon. Since we can only assume that Egoic Selfsense is devoured whole in whatever blaze of guilt and fury or self-denial or peace perfect peace our last flood of endorphins allow in the 5 minutes before brain death, the moment of death seems to me to be a particularly vulnerable one in which to also have to face Existential terror for the first time.

Better to go there early and scout out the scenery. To die before dying is one of the great Ordeals of the magical path.

The Abyss, then, is that limit to Self consciousness where meaning surrenders and reverses into its own absolute opposite and is there consumed in “Choronzonic Acid,” a hypersolvent so powerful it dissolved the Selfitself. Here you will encounter the immense SELF/NOT SELF boundary wall on the edge of Egoic Consciousness and be obliterated against it. The Abyss is a hiatus in awareness, where notions of identity, race, being and territory are consumed in an agonizing fury of contradiction.

Magicians who have successfully “crossed” the Abyss are considered no longer human, in the sense that survival of this ordeal necessitates the breaking down of SELF into multiple personality complexes.

Alan Moore has also described this in his magical studies, in which we must take a step beyond the limits of what we think we know, “outside”:

Obviously if you’re gonna be exposed to the world of magic, you’re gonna have to have taken a step past the normal perimeters of the rational world. The very nature of magic is connected to the irrational. You’re gonna have to step out of the realm of conventional sanity at the very least.

This is a journey into one’s personal abyss. There we uncover and merge with our own unconscious content. This part of contemplative practice can be associated with mortification, as the intense suffering that the crisis can produce begins to change the ego’s parameters and its self-imposed boundaries. The person then comes to a more all-inclusive view of their own polarities, and the ways in which their experience can no longer be described coherently through the framework of their personality as it has developed.

The lunar fields of our unconscious call to us, reminding us of our shared identity, and beginning the treacherous crossing back to union. This personal underworld is the entrance point for these types of experiences for many people. The modification begins when during a retreat, therapy session, or other form of intensive self analysis, we take the path into the hinterlands to see where it leads.

The shadow (or “gap in consciousness” that Morrison describes) spreads its wings into apprehension once more. This begins the descent down into our recesses, with a sense of what is happening and our own intuition to guide us safely through the labyrinth as it begins to collapse around us.

The idea of God is pale next to that of perdition, but of this I could have no inkling in advance.
– Deathspell Omega

Taking this step is to identify the different phases of the inner life. We can take a look at how our societies define concepts such as sanity and self, and see if these hold up under scrutiny. In order to do this, we have to understand the ways of thinking and sensations that make up what we consider to be beyond the pale. What do we make of these disavowed elements of ourselves? How does it feel to welcome them home? What do we fear from our demons, and what can we learn from honestly understanding them, as an indelible part of our humanity?  Can we honor them, yet still act in ways that honor the whole as well?

Abandoned hatreds, anger, and intense emotionality are only a part of this. One may also encounter the inability to eat or drink fully until the process has run its course. Sleep is often halted by disturbing and malevolent dreams. Variously defined symptoms, such as panic attacks, depression, and paranoia contribute to an atmosphere of all-consuming anxiety. There are many reports of these and similar phenomena that occur through meditation, yoga, kundalini awakenings, psychedelic experiences, and others.

Keep your eyes and ears open, and experience all to the best of your ability. Old feelings cut deep, exposing you to the quick. Once the dust of ourselves settles, we begin to see more clearly. All in all, that should be seen through to completion. The Crisis may begin to ebb when we are better able to mesh all the diverse components of our inner life.

In order to more fully come to grips with what is happening to us, we must become adept at traversing all levels of our humanity. Reject nothing that comes to you, and allow the body to organize itself in a new manner. We have innumerable repressive tendencies, and the gradual recognition of what Peter Carroll calls our “psychic censor” moves us along. It also helps to recognize that the process of ego formation, while part of the personal development process, can severely restrict and limit us in ways that become more apparent as we mature. Self-compassionate care is also of utmost importance when dealing with what at times can feel like an emotional flood. Through this we learn the value of kindness and how to practice it towards ourselves and others.

The breakdown of the self-image gives us the opportunity to drop old behaviors. Although the egoic impulse never dies out, it becomes more porous, allowing us to navigate its changing edifice. We can see, with practice, how anything in our experience can be pulled out of transience and incorporated into our reality if we claim it as our own. Life constantly breaks our imagined solidity.

A strength coalesces out of the Crisis, innermost and bright, fecundity in what had once been barren. This change in our reality truly occurs when we have more fully plumbed ourselves. The olive branch of peace is then extended to all of life, including those aspects we most fear. For we comprehend fully that they are in all of us, inseparable from who we are. A changed vision appears, able to bring together all our seeming disparities and draw from them. This is described in Jungian terms as the “Self” by Anthony Stevens:

The transcendent refers to ideas, images, and symbols which lie beyond ordinary mundane experience. It is as if the psyche is subject to a transcendent imperative which enables it to deal successfully with the opposing or conflicting tendencies of which life is full. Through this transcendent function of the psyche, thesis and antithesis encounter one another on equal terms and achieve a symbolic synthesis which transcends them both. This is a factor of great psychological significance because it enables one to move beyond conflicts which would otherwise prove sterile, and avoid narrow one-sided modes of adjustment. Its action is powerfully enhanced when one attends to dreams and if one assumes conscious responsibility for the transcendent symbols arising from them. This is essential if one is to become committed to the goal of individuation and self-completion . . . The Self is thus the living embodiment in each and every one of us of the numinous power that has always and everywhere been attributed to ‘God.’

In effecting our own healing and completeness, and seeing the “Other Side” (hell, demons, the underworld, psychosis) we can come to understand our own multiple natures. This is a portal to the new life and perspective that many have intimated, and remains for those who wish to know it. All it requires is to cease our running away, and to look honestly within. We also develop a renewed appreciation for the power of our conscious choice. The Crisis as a whole asks us penetrating questions, and how we respond to these questions is how we choose to live, and the life we may make as a result.


What is the source of a guru’s authority? He can tell you that he speaks from experience, that he has experienced states of consciousness that have made him profoundly blissful, understanding, compassionate, or whatever. You have his word for it and you may have the word of other people who likewise agree with him. But each one of them, and you in turn, agrees with him from out of your own opinion, and by your own judgment. So it is you who are the source of the teacher’s authority. That is true whether he speaks as an individual or as the representative of a tradition or a church.
– Alan Watts

Wild-eyed prophets, drunk on the Word, and infused with the power of the Book. Channeling the Holy Spirit in solitude, their experiences are displaced with each new revelation. With appeals to intelligences greater than our own, and their own realizations, they come bearing a new Law and standard for all humanity. A group crystallizes around the promise of the divine. The teacher’s mask of sanity begins to slip as the group’s utopian dream begins to devolve into a nightmare. Bearing witness to the leader’s fragmentation, the aspirants begin to question the authority they had invested in their former master.

In seeking the circumference of truth through practices such as meditation, we are thrust back upon ourselves. We may come to discover that we are the very expression of this truth. New coordinates are always being created, shifting in their configurations. Each development is a frontier. Possibilities loom, beckon, and threaten as we run deep into the unknown. Everyone must create their own path, seeking connection to this deeply personal yet universal source within us all. In this process of mutual co-creation we support each other as we explore our own potential.

Through practices such as Zazen or other types of self-inquiry, we may begin to develop a nascent sense of our own authority. This involves exploring questions that have relevance to us, how they resonate, and seeing how these concepts forge diverse connections. Through fear, many of us cling to outmoded worldviews or devalue our own unique contributions in thrall of a teacher or tradition. In this pursuit of our own truths we may not be able to rely on the opinions of others.

As humans, it is natural to look to others during the process of inquiry. It also makes sense to defer to teachers in certain situations and in certain contexts. However, this does not mean giving up on our root moral convictions. The teacher’s own authority is given back by the students, and they could not survive without the students’ continued belief. The body of their tradition is maintained by its constituents continued enacting of their precepts. Unquestioning acceptance of dogma merely perpetuates these flawed systems. This is especially true in spiritual and religious traditions, as the guru needs others to maintain their own internal dynamics of power. In some cases, this becomes parasitic as the teacher begins to feed on the vitality of its members without recourse to their well being.

However, it may begin to dawn on us, the more we reflect, that there is no firm basis on which this authority can rest. It must always be pushed back an extra step, whether in some experience that confers it, a book that delineates it, or a conceptual system that valorizes it, to name a few. We can begin to move beyond and outgrow our beliefs as we realize that the authority that we seek, and the forms of life that we value, rest within ourselves.

The more we test these teachers, examining their own expanses, the more we may get a sense of their unique limits and contradictions. Rather than the shattering loss that we had feared it to be, we are given a chance to discover what we really value. The student begins to move on their own initiative. With time and reflection, we get used to bearing the increasing responsibility for our own growth and development.

Many concepts in Buddhism are experiential and meant to be understood in an engaged, embodied way. We must move past interpretations that are imposed upon us by the external, and check the veracity of Buddhism’s claims against our own experience and in light of our own explorations. We are then capable of moving out of of our safe enclaves of rote habit and thought. In the process, we become authorities unto ourselves, communicating the light of our truth to others.

Anything that is accepted for any reason apart from its being consistent with one’s firsthand experience will eventually become an obstacle.
– Ngakpa Chogyam, Khandro Dechen

We also may discover that the freedom that this entails is inherently painful. It is much easier to accept a pre-packaged or commodified meaning of life than to create one for ourselves, or to admit our fundamental unknowing. It is much simpler to be told what to do, and to pass on this awesome responsibility, than to continually learn, develop, and change. It is all too easy to retreat behind the veil that others throw out to obscure their own deep mysteries. We are riven open by this freedom which asks everything of us.

Intertwined with this pain lies expansion, moving us through our comfort zone. The void of possibility prevents any one perspective or interpretation from becoming absolute, and we no longer fold under the weight of our own intellectualizations. This would confine the potentials of life and its infinite scope. Understanding this intuitively, without recourse to doctrine, is one possible facet of Zen practice. Without an apparent foundation or direction to life, we can grow in new dimensions at any time. This lack of finality applies to the opinions and perspectives of others, and changes how we confer authority on all that we encounter. We reclaim our natural spontaneity, a liquid intelligence that is sensitive and responsive to situations as they develop.

We no longer have to look to others as the ultimate arbiters in our search for truth. The question then becomes: how we can not only delve into and create our own values, but how we can bring them into our own lives? How will we express this? As Eihei Dogen says in the Shobogenzo, “investigate this thoroughly.” We enter into our own participation. A moral sense begins to dawn anew.

Find the seat from which your authority issues forth. This is to drink from the same boundless waters as the matriarchs and patriarchs.

Witness Yourself Transformed

You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.

The Sermon on the Mount stands as one of the most significant ethical works in the world’s literary canon. It is an articulation of love compassed in humanity’s shared identity and grounded in the one life. Rejecting worldly and ostentatious expressions of prayer and generosity, the Sermon challenges us to live its message to the fullest. It puts before us an arduous and difficult journey that culminates in and continuously realizes a love that knows no limits It asks us to love others as we do ourselves, with an ardor that exists in the deep connections between self and other, fused together in mutuality.

The message of love goes beyond our ideas of self, other, time and space and exists as an intimation of the eternal. For in going beyond ourselves, we come to realize in the importance and necessity of our actions. In loving all that we encounter, the entire landscape of reality is reconfigured.

One of the most exemplary passages from the Sermon is its discussion on the shadow. The shadow lives in the gaps of our self-image, setting into motion in our own lives what we despise in others.

The Shadow is not what we know about ourselves and don’t like (or like but keep hidden) but rather what we don’t know about ourselves and, if accused of it, would adamantly and sincerely deny.
– Bill Plotkin

Immersed in the detritus of humanity we focus heavily on the faults of others. We do not notice that we all share in the dark heart of Eden; the ichor that runs from our universal wounding. We disgorge these judgments like the effluvia of social life. Once we begin a thorough observation of our own behavior, we see how we hypocritically participate in that which we deny. This self-blindness is part of the human condition. Through our practice we begin to bring the light of awareness down into the most neglected spaces of the soul.

Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.

In suspending our constant judgment of others we begin to notice how our judgments turn reciprocally upon us. Our constant criticism pulls us further down into isolation. When we err, and engage in the behavior we project onto others, the wheels of our judgment turn on us once more. Our limited perspective and lack of information guarantees further mistakes. The Sermon, in bringing our attention to this fact, is asking us to look inside ourselves as best we can.

Delving inside our own minds, we understand and transform so that we can more authentically be of help to others. Once we lock eyebrows with the unknown places within, we will be able to reach out and help amend the world’s suffering. Until then, our actions will frequently do more harm than good.

As an extension of this, the Sermon expounds loving one’s enemy, not only as a reflection of oneself, but as God does, nourishing and generating the diverse phenomena of the world without exception. In fact, the following passage asks nothing less from Jesus’ followers than perfection:

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

If we are constantly at war with ourselves and others, we will never know peace, both within and without.

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses . . .

So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.

The Sermon rejects alms that merely perpetuate our selfishness and socially fabricated identities. These actions perpetuate the ego and exist as blatant forms of advertisement. Instead of generosity coming from a place beyond separation and free of the lust of result, the giving becomes a corrupt method of self-advancement.

Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.

Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

The Sermon offers an emphatic critique of those who outwardly profess to be spiritual, but in reality are skillful manipulators and maneuverers for social advantage. One will be able to recognize these people from the effects of their actions:

Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.

This grows into an ethics that is righteousness for its own sake and done for the integrity of the whole.

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.

A person who has gone beyond themselves in this way has given over totally to the redemptive power of love. The way to this all-embracing love is as fraught with danger as a mountain pass. At every turn, we risk subverting ourselves, the ego turning this love as an instrument for its own aggrandizement, plunging back into the depths.

Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.

Rather than keeping us in prisons of our own creation, this deep form of knowledge places us into the all consuming presence of the Heavenly Father. The Sermon then coaxes us even further with this realization. Instead of fortifying ourselves with this understanding, and using it as the basis for an even more rigid and static self, we are asked to continually put this into practice. There is no love without sacrifice, and we offer ourselves up and give fully to creation. We become a conduit of generosity and harmony.

The Sermon also asks us to not to cohere our lives around the temporal and transitory, but on the eternal, the ultimate reality which supports the entire universe.

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

We then actualize a love of all being. Rather than superficial professions of faith, making this concrete becomes the measure of one’s love of God.

Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.

Once we have set store on the eternal, we infuse the bedrock of our lives with love and compassion. The crowds listening at the end are astonished, as Jesus speaks from the heart and lived experience. The Sermon’s words resound from within the dynamic pulse of life.

Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.

And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.

Nothing to Attain

I have been trying to get back to the local Zen Center every week, after a short hiatus. We do 50 minutes of Zazen (seated meditation), combined with some chanting and Kinhin (walking meditation). After the practice, some of us were talking in the kitchen and a student (I unfortunately can’t remember her name, all credit due to her) asked a pretty insightful question referencing the Heart Sutra and practice in general. This question was along the lines of: “If there is no attainment and nothing to attain, why do we sit?” I think this is a pretty common question that arises as we sit, especially as we continue to grow in our practice and the discursive mind begins to seek answers to questions such as these.

A similar question supposedly motivated Eihei Dogen in his own process of inquiry:

As I study both the exoteric and the esoteric schools of Buddhism, they maintain that human beings are endowed with Dharma-nature by birth. If this is the case, why did the Buddhas of all ages – undoubtedly in possession of enlightenment – find it necessary to seek enlightenment and engage in spiritual practice? (Eihei Dogen: Mystical Realist, 22).

This is a profoundly challenging question. If we are the very embodiment of truth and enlightenment is an expression of our original nature why do we sit in Zazen? Is this like the koan where we are polishing a tile to make a mirror?

Let us examine the passage from the Heart Sutra the student is referencing and then I’ll try to give you my understanding of this.

The passage (taken from Red Pine’s translation) is:

No suffering, no source, no relief, no path;
No knowledge, no attainment and non-attainment.
Therefore, Shariputra, without attainment;
Bodhisttavas take refuge in Prajnaparamita
And live without walls of the mind.

The Heart Sutra is an essential Buddhist text that directly inclines us to the heart of truth. This is the truth of our lives, of the present, and of reality. Buddhism is realistic, and derives directly from lived experience. It is a very concrete approach to truth that is not limited to any particular concept or metaphysic. In our meditative practice, the concepts we form about reality begin to fall away, and the immeasurable complexity and richness of the world become starkly apparent. We no longer have to relegate the whole of the world to our opinions about it, and no longer need to take refuge in systems and frameworks of our own devising.

The Heart Sutra is thus a critique of these concepts, and proceeds to negate each in turn. Proceeding through “no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body and no mind;” and come to “no knowledge, no attainment and no non-attainment.” The present opens, teeming with life.  It becomes clear that reality is unfettered by the symbols we traditionally use to describe that experience. Throughout our practice we begin to see our concepts as fundamentally incomplete. We “live without walls of the mind,” open to the boundless possibilities for action in each moment. A vast field opens up, and we become more flexible and fluid.

The Heart Sutra is thus an antidote to our mind’s constantly seeking security in concepts such as “attainment.” When we say that we will “attain” enlightenment, we divorce ourselves from the present reality. We project enlightenment into a state in the abstract, that will be realized in the future.

Asking what exactly we mean when we use concepts such as englightenment can help us as we look into ourselves.  Taking apart this question and exploring it should be gone into deeply and taken to the end.

At the same time, we will not be able to understand the feelings that gave rise to works such as the Heart Sutra without a regular meditative practice. This is similar to how no amount of reading, writing, and intellectualizing about fitness will make someone a stronger athlete. One must begin by looking into the particulars of their own situation. We sit in order to aid us in this process of inquiry, as sitting is one method that allows us to investigate our reality. This understanding will not be brought into our lives without some kind of practice. An example of this is brought out in Genjokoan:

Mayu, Zen Master Baoche, was fanning himself. A monk approached and said ‘Master, the nature of wind is permanent and there is no place it does not reach. Why, then, do you fan yourself?’
‘Although you understand that the nature of wind is permanent,’ Mayu replied, ‘you do not understand the meaning of its reaching everywhere.’
‘What is the meaning of its reaching everywhere?’ asked the monk.
Mayu just kept fanning himself.
The monk bowed deeply.

The actualization of the buddha dharma, the vital path of its authentic transmission, is like this. If you say that you do not need to fan yourself because the nature of wind is permanent and you can have wind without fanning, you understand neither permanence nor the nature of wind. The nature of wind is permanent; because of that, the wind of the buddha house brings forth the gold of the earth and ripens the cream of the long river.

This passage describes and directly points to actualization and action in the present moment, the becoming-real of the monk’s interaction. In our practice, we bring this understanding and appreciation for action into our lives. Sitting in Zazen helps us to see this with more clarity. It is important to remember that there is “nothing to attain” even as we do our best to practice. In this way we always come back to and appreciate whatever is arising in our lives in the present moment, without arbitrarily separating ourselves in thought. Paradoxically, we attempt to attain something in order to realize there is nothing to attain (in the way we have conceptualized it) and begin to feel the truth of it for ourselves.  Zazen helps us remember the truth of who and what we are.

We embody this understanding, always coming back to the present and caring for this reality. This is the beauty, completeness, and blossoming forth of our own lives.