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From 'On Having No Head'

by Douglas Harding

Contrary, no doubt, to one's first impression, conscious headlessness or transparency — this seeing into the Nothingness-right-where-one-is — turns out to have several unique virtues. There's no experience at all like it. Here are just five of its peculiarities — not for the reader to believe, but to verify:

First, though down the centuries is in-seeing has been made out to be the most difficult thing in the world, the joke is that it is really the easiest. This pious confidence trick has taken in countless earnest seekers. The treasure of treasures they wore themselves out searching for is in fact the most accessible, the most exposed and blatantly obvious of finds, lit up and on show all the time. The Buddha’s description of Nirvana, in the Pali Canon, as visible in this life, inviting, attractive, accessible, is clearly true and makes perfect sense. So does Master Ummon’s statement that the first step along the Zen Path is to see into our Void Nature: getting rid of our bad karma comes after — not before — that seeing. So does Ramana Maharshi’s insistence that it is easier to see What and Who we really are than to see a gooseberry in the palm of our hand — as so often, this Hindu sage confirms Zen teaching. All of which means there are no preconditions for this essential in seeing. To oneself one’s Nature is forever clearly displayed, and it's amazing how one could ever pretend otherwise. It's available now, just as one is, and doesn't require the seer to be holy, or learned, or clever, or special in any way. Rather the reverse! What a superb advantage and opportunity this is!

Second, this alone is real seeing. It can't be done wrong, and is quite foolproof. Look and see now whether it's possible to be more-or-less headless, to perceive partially or dimly the Emptiness where you are. This seeing of the Subject is a perfect all-or-nothing experience, compared with which the seeing of objects (such as this page covered with black marks, and the hands holding it, and their background) is mere glimpsing: a very great deal of the scene is missed, just not registered. The view out is never clear, the view in is never foggy — as Chuang-tzu and Shen-hui imply in the quotations prefacing this chapter.

Third, this seeing goes deep. The clearest and most distant of views out is found to be shallow — a view down a cul-de-sac — compared with the view in, to the headlessness which plainly goes on and on forever. We could describe it as penetrating to the inmost depths of our conscious Nature, and beyond them to the Abyss beyond consciousness itself, beyond even existence, but this is really too complicated and wordy. What a vista of transparency opens out — or rather, in — when we dare to point in all simplicity at the spot we are alleged to occupy! Self-validating and self-sufficient, defying description because it offers Nothing to describe, what's seen is the Seer and his seeing, and it leaves him in no doubt about where he's coming from. Here’s an experience that's uniquely immediate, intimate, and indubitable. It convinces, as nothing else can do. “There is no longer any need to believe,” says the Sufi Al-Alawi, “when one sees the Truth.”

Fourth, this experience is uniquely communicable, because it is exactly the same for all — for the Buddha, for Jesus, for Shen-hui, for Al-Alawi, for you and me. Naturally so, since there's nothing in it to differ about, nothing to go wrong, nothing idiosyncratic or merely personal and private. In headlessness we find common Ground at last. How unlike all those other experiences which are so hard to share! However vividly you describe and try to demonstrate to your companion your perceptions and thoughts and feelings, you can never be sure he is enjoying the same thing. (You and he agree to label the flower red, beautiful, interesting, and so on; but the inner experience the label is attached to is essentially a private one, impossible to get across to another. Your actual experience of red, for example, could be his experience of pink, or even blue.) But reverse the arrow of attention, and at once we enter the realm of Certainty. Here, and here alone, at the level of what’s seen to be our faceless Face and true Nature, is perfect communication, everlasting agreement, no possibility of misunderstanding. This accord cannot be overrated, because it is the profoundest at-oneness about what we and all beings really are. In the light of this basic assent, we can afford to differ to any degree about what we seem to me, about appearances.

In principle, then, this essential experience can be transmitted, without the slightest loss or distortion, to anyone who wants it. In practice, however, appropriate means of transmission are needed. Happily, they are to hand, approach 100% efficiency, and do their job in a matter of seconds. They include the pointing finger and the single eye, which we have already used here. Also the author and his friends have devised, over the last twenty years, scores of others — some of them relying on senses other than vision, many of them involving the whole body, and practically all of them suitable for work with groups of any size. Such multiplication of gates into our true Nature has much value — different gates for different temperaments, contexts, cultures, and epochs — but is nevertheless incidental. It's convenient to have a choice of doors to our Home, but — once indoors — who cares which he came in by? Any entrance — to the place that in fact we can never leave — is a good entrance. There’s no limit to them.

Fifth and last, this seeing into one's Nothingness is always on tap, whatever one's mood, whatever one is up to, however agitated or calm one happens to be at the moment — in fact, just whenever one needs it. Unlike thoughts and feelings (even the “purest” or most “spiritual” of them) it is instantly available, simply by looking in and finding no head here.

(On Having No Head was first published in 1961.)

(All books presented in our Book Extracts are available via Amazon or our website shop.)

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