LATEST DIALOGUES How Does an Awakened Person Perceive the World?
“The eye is made to wonder, just as the flower is made to bloom.”
~ Claude Nurdisany
How does the world appear to an enlightened person?
Obviously, that’s an important question for nondualists including Advaitins and Buddhists. ‘Waking up’ – attaining moksha or nirvana, experiencing satori, realizing your true nature, etc. – is the ultimate goal for both, and we naturally want to know what difference that makes to one’s perceptions. In what ways is the experience of someone who is Awake (the literal meaning of ‘a Buddha’) transformed?
Curiously, the best description I know is not from a tradition that we normally think of as nondualist. It’s in Centuries of Meditations, by a seventeenth-century English clergyman and poet named Thomas Traherne. His book was not published until 1908 but has since become widely regarded as a mystical masterpiece – and for good reason. The fact that Traherne was a Christian cleric, and apparently unaware of Buddhism, Vedanta, Taoism, Sufism, and so forth, is important because it reminds us yet again that no religious tradition has a monopoly on spiritual insight.
The passage below is one of the classic passages of world mysticism. It employs some old-fashioned language and requires some reflection in order to appreciate its deeper meaning. In particular, two words in the first sentence need some explaining. An outdated meaning of ‘corn’ is ‘grain’, which is why Traherne can say that the corn he saw was wheat. And ‘orient’ is used in its old meaning of ‘iridescent’ or ‘lustrous’, one of several references to the luminosity of the world he describes so wonderfully.
“The corn was orient and immortal wheat, which never should be reaped, nor was ever sown. I thought it had stood from everlasting to everlasting. The dust and stones of the street were as precious as gold; the gates were at first the end of the world. The green trees when I saw them first through one of the gates transported and ravished me, their sweetness and unusual beauty made my heart to leap, and almost mad with ecstasy, they were such strange and wonderful things. The Men! O what venerable and reverend creatures did the aged seem! Immortal Cherubims! And young men glittering and sparkling Angels, and maids strange seraphic pieces of life and beauty! Boys and girls tumbling in the street, and playing, were moving jewels. I knew not that they were born or should die. But all things abided eternally as they were in their proper places. Eternity was manifest in the Light of the Day, and something infinite behind everything appeared; which talked with my expectation and moved my desire. The city seemed to stand in Eden, or to be built in Heaven. The streets were mine, the temple was mine, the people were mine, their clothes and gold and silver were mine, as much as their sparkling eyes, fair skins and ruddy faces. The skies were mine, and so were the sun and moon and stars, and all the World was mine; and I the only spectator and enjoyer of it… So that with much ado I was corrupted, and made to learn the dirty devices of this world. Which now I unlearn, and become, as it were, a little child again that I may enter into the Kingdom of God.”
I first read this description many years ago, but reflecting on it from a nondualist perspective has unlocked treasures unappreciated earlier. I am eager to share it because it is so similar to basic Advaitic and Buddhist claims about the nature of reality, when we experience the world (including ourselves) as it really is. Here are the main aspects that stand out for me:
Light and ecstasy. The world that Traherne describes is incredibly beautiful and blissful. The trees ‘transported and ravished’ him, their unusual beauty made his heart leap ‘and almost mad with ecstasy.’ And he is specific about the nature of that loveliness, referring again and again to the luminosity of things: the corn is ‘orient,’ the young men ‘glittering,’ angels ‘sparkling,’ and playing children are ‘moving jewels.’
Mystics in many traditions have emphasized the world’s radiance: things that we usually perceive as solid objects now glow. A distinction that we normally take for granted, between physical objects and the light that they reflect, no longer applies. The difference between them is actually something that has been constructed: it is a product of our ways of thinking about the world, including the names that we assign to things. I overlook the radiance when I see that as simply ‘a cup.’ I don’t really pay attention to it: it’s just something I use to drink my tea. That is how we learn to grasp the world, yet that habitual way of perceiving can also be unlearned. When we see things as they are, without unconsciously distinguishing between objects and the light they reflect, the visible world is no longer a collection of fixed, material, self-existing things but appears as a confluence of interacting, luminous processes. The cup on the table next to my computer is not just a piece of molded baked clay that just happens to be there. Its being-there is an activity. And such processes are not self-sufficient: they manifest something, which Traherne later points to.
Time. Religions tend to be preoccupied with immortality – helping us qualify for an eternity in heaven with God, for example. Traherne describes a different type of ‘everlasting,’ which is not about surviving death and living forever into a never-ending future, but experiencing here-and-now in a different way: dwelling in what is sometimes called an eternal present. His most wondrous line begins: “Eternity was manifest in the Light of the Day…” The ‘immortal’ wheat he sees was never sown and will never be reaped, having stood there ‘from everlasting to everlasting.’ In that regard Traherne doesn’t distinguish between wheat, stones, trees, or humans: not only are they all radiant, each abides eternally insofar as it manifests the Light of the Day. In another Centuries of Meditations passage, he declares: “All time was Eternity, and a perpetual Sabbath.”
Nondualist traditions such as Buddhism emphasize realizing the ‘deathless,’ and often mention ‘the unborn’ as well. What would it mean, to transcend life and death? Do such claims refer to an afterlife? Traherne’s account suggests a different perspective. It’s the nature of all living creatures that they are born at a certain time and sooner or later die at another time. Buddhism does not offer an escape from such impermanence. But if living beings, like all other things, are not self-existing – if they too are interdependent processes that manifest something – then perhaps they cannot die insofar as they were never really born in the first place.
Manifest what? According to the Buddhist tantric tradition, our minds have three inalienable and inseparable aspects: they are luminous, blissful, and ’empty’ (shunya).
Emptiness. “Eternity was manifest in the Light of the Day, and something infinite behind everything appeared…” Traherne does not mention God, except at the very end when he refers to becoming a little child again so that he might enter the Kingdom of God. The only other place in this passage where he perhaps alludes to God, or to some other spiritual reality, is this ‘something infinite.’ We are reminded of a better-known aphorism by William Blake: “If the doors of perception were cleans’d, everything would be seen as it really is, infinite.”
What is striking about this infinity for both Traherne and Blake is that it is not described as existing separately from perceived things. If things are really unborn – because they do not self-exist but are always just manifesting something else – then the infinity they manifest is not something experienced apart from the ’empty’ things that manifest it. The Heart Sutra says it better: “Although form is not other than emptiness, it’s also true that emptiness not other than form.”
Mahayana Buddhist teachings sometimes talk about ‘the nonduality of emptiness (shunyata) and appearance.’ The distinction between the conventional or relative ‘lower’ truth, and the ultimate or absolute ‘higher truth,’ is the difference between how things usually appear to us, and what they really are. But the term ‘appearance’ can be misleading insofar as it seems to imply that the world we normally perceive is nothing more than a dream-like illusion.
Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche clarifies the Mahayana understanding of the relationship between manifestations (which we usually misperceive as separate, self-existing things) and that-which-they-manifest: “‘Appearance’ is a funny sort of word. It means some kind of surface thing, but with something else called ‘reality’ that is behind it. ‘Presence’ is a much better word. Something is presenting by itself, whose essence is emptiness. What appears is the phenomenal world, but it is empty because it has no real substance (in “Empty Splendor,” Buddhadharma Fall 2013).
Presence is perhaps the best English word to describe what Traherne is pointing at. What we normally perceive as solid objects, is the luminous presencing of something infinite — something not-finite, un-bounded – which is manifesting in these ways. This ’empty’ infinite has no name and form: it is literally nothing in itself, or, better, a no-thing that therefore can presence as anything.
Transcendence. Religious dogma often postulates a cosmological dualism: the duality between this created world and God in heaven is a common example, and the Buddhist distinction between samsara (this world of suffering) and nirvana (the Buddhist goal) is another. Salvation usually means escaping from this vale of tears by attaining access to the ‘higher’ reality. Such an orientation inevitably involves some devaluation of this ‘lower’ world, and encourages us to turn away from its problems. The spiritual path is not about fixing this world but transcending it.
In contrast, Traherne does not allude to any other reality that transcends the magnificent world he describes. The implication of his account is that this is ultimate reality. It can still be understood as transcending the way we usually experience this world, but it is still this world. As Nagarjuna put it: “The koti [location] of samsara is the koti of nirvana.” The place that we usually experience as a realm of suffering is not other than what we seek, nirvana itself – when we see this place, right here, as it really is. Traherne makes the same point by referring to Eden and Heaven: The city he tells us about, which usually appears to us so commonplace and unremarkable, now ‘seemed to stand in Eden, or to be built in Heaven.’ There’s no need to aspire to anyplace else, for he doesn’t need anything more than what’s already here.
Nonduality. Traherne’s account builds upon itself, becoming more moving and profound, until it reaches a climax: “The streets were mine, the temple was mine, the people were mine, their clothes and gold and silver were mine, as much as their sparkling eyes, fair skins and ruddy faces. The skies were mine, and so were the sun and moon and stars, and all the World was mine; and I the only spectator and enjoyer of it.” What are we to make of this mine-ness? Is his experience solipsistic?
It depends on what we mean by solipsism. It is usually defined as the belief that the only reality is the self, yet that claim can be understood in different ways. To insist that atman (the true self) is brahman (the ground of the cosmos), as Vedanta does, is to assert that the self is the only reality – but we need to realize what the true self really is.
Buddhism emphasizes that there is no self, but if the basic problem is a sense-of-separate-self confronting that which other than itself – inside vs. outside – there may be no difference at all between an experience of all-Self and the experience of no-self. What’s important in both cases in that the delusive duality between self and other has been dispelled. Nisargardatta has made this point better than anyone else: “When I look inside and see that I am nothing, that’s wisdom. When I look outside and see that I am everything, that’s love. Between these two my life turns.”
The difference between these nondualist traditions and Traherne is that nondualists usually prefer to say that ‘the streets were me, the temple was me,’ etc. I am reminded of Zen master Dogen’s description of his own enlightenment experience: “I came to realize clearly that mind is nothing other than rivers and mountains and the great wide earth, the sun and the moon and the stars.” It seems to me, however, that the difference between their accounts is less important than the similarities. Both have transcended the usual dualism between an alienated and anxious sense of self that is trapped within an external, objective world.
Yet Traherne says that he was ‘the only spectator and enjoyer of it.’ Doesn’t that still dualize between the seer and the seen? No: the mind that Dogen refers to still sees itself from a particular perspective, the presencing we call Dogen. It is the same with Traherne’s account: it is with him – or, better, as him – that the ’empty,’ infinite Brahman/nondual mind awakens to its own true nature. For a while, anyway.
The Fall. Traherne’s exalted depiction concludes with a sudden deflation. The experience he has just described to us has been lost, for he ‘was corrupted, and made to learn the dirty devices of this world.’ But there is hope: those devices he can ‘unlearn, and become, as it were, a little child again that I may enter into the Kingdom of God.’ The allusion is to Matthew 18, where Jesus says: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” This verse is normally understood to refer to where we might go after we die, but we do well to remember something else Jesus reputedly said: “Behold, the kingdom of God is in your midst” (Luke 17:21; more familiar to most of us is the King James version: “The kingdom of God is within you.”). In the context of everything else that Traherne has just written, his desire to enter the Kingdom of God should surely be understood in the same way. The point is not to attain some otherworldly salvation, but to ‘return’ to the beautiful, luminous, blissful, eternal, nondual heavenly world he has so poetically depicted for us.
‘Return’ is in scare-quotes because he has not really lost it. He cannot lose that world, because his experience was a glimpse into what it really is, whether we are aware of it or not. Having had a taste of it, Traherne knows what he has to do: to unlearn the ‘dirty devices of this world’ – the world, that is, as normally experienced by ‘corrupted’ people. It’s not obvious what he means by corruption and the world’s dirty devices. We may suppose that he is referring to immoral behavior, and that dirty devices are the ways people deceive and abuse each other. Yet corruption here might also include the types of delusion that the nondualist traditions also emphasize. Delusions collude with cravings to reify the sense of a self that feels separate from the world it is ‘in.’ Then I am motivated to pursue my own supposed self-interest indifferent to the well-being of others. Grasping at things in (what we understand to be) the world, we lose our birthright: the world that Traherne so lovingly portrays. But we can always return to it, because it is always there. It becomes here whenever we open up to it.
It is important to notice also what Traherne does not mention. Everything he describes is visual: what about the other senses – such as the sound of the wind blowing through the trees, and the laughter of the children? Were they also ‘mine’? We wonder if he heard them nondually, like T. S. Eliot’s ‘music heard so deeply/ That it is not heard at all, but you are the music/ While the music lasts.’ And we don’t read anything about how Traherne’s bodily awareness may have changed.
The biggest lack in Traherne’s account is perhaps something that he would not consider a shortcoming – and that some nondualist teachers would also not emphasize. In Buddhist terms, the ‘higher truth’ that he describes so well is sundered from the conventional ‘lower truth’ that we are more familiar with. Traherne’s world has no problems: each luminous thing is a way that ’empty infinity’ presences, including the children playing in the street… but do they go to bed hungry at night? Although everything manifests eternity in the Light of the Day, in his day most of those particular manifestations died before their second birthday. Yes, the ‘higher truth’ is that they didn’t really die because they had never been born; from the perspective of the lower truth, however, there is birth, and death… and suffering. Traherne’s society was organized hierarchically, for the benefit of those at the top of the class pyramid. Patriarchy and slavery were the norm.
To dwell blissfully in the world that Traherne describes so well, while ignoring such problems, is ‘clinging to emptiness.’ It is important for us to experience the infinity he refers to, and not to rest there. We all start from an awareness of the ‘lower truth:’ the world as a collection of separate things, including me, anxious and insecure within it. We are eager to become enlightened and realize the true nature of the world, including ourselves: the empty infinity that presences as you and me and everything else. But it is just as important not to devalue those presences – in Buddhist terms, the forms whereby emptiness (shunyata) manifests. As William Blake also wrote, “Eternity is in love with the productions of time.” Empty infinity is in love with its presencing! Because they aren’t really separate from each other.
The spiritual challenge is to realize that these two truths are two sides of the same coin, and to live in the light of that realization.
originally published in Feb 2015