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At the edge of the woods behind our house, there is a small gazebo. Often, we sit there, and consider seeker’s stuff. There are no rules governing considerations in the gazebo except this: There are no rules. The mind, guided by the heart, is encouraged to explore whatever spiritual ideas it can conceive. Sometimes, these are ideas we are working on. Sometimes they are ideas that are working on us.
The Heart’s Desire
Consider these two quotations, the first from Lao Tsu and the second by moi meme:
The nameless was the beginning
of heaven and earth;
The named was the mother
of the myriad creatures.
Hence always rid yourself of desire
in order to observe its secrets;
But always allow yourself to have desires
in order to observe its manifestations.
These two are the same
At the body’s birth, and often beginning even before then, the parents weave a basket of thoughts about their new creation. They give it a name, make plans for it, talk to it, express its beauty, remark on whom it looks like, and so on. Slowly but surely, the basket fills. … The basket of thoughts is the personality. When I say, “I am Stefan,” what I mean is, I identify with the basket of thoughts (memories, expectations, and so on) originally weaved by Stefan’s parents, and that now, taken all together, compose what I call “me.”
A couple of days ago, Nancy and I watched (again!) a DVD “I Am That I Am” by Stephen Wolinsky talking (brilliantly) about the Teachings of Sri Nisargadatta. Later that evening, there came to mind the lines quoted above from Lao Tsu, and particularly the word “desires” in them.
Instead of a basket of thoughts, or maybe as well as a basket of thoughts, is it a basket of desires? And if so, is it possible (in an infinite universe, of course it's possible!) that what I am is simply (!) undifferentiated awareness that somehow from time to time (whatever that may mean in this context) latches onto a floating by desire, and instantly becomes that desire by indentifying itself with it. That is, the desire, every desire in the basket, contains or includes a unique “I” which I then adopt as “mine” and “me.”
Gurdjieff, I think it was, talked about our having “multiple I’s” which he used to explain why our behavior is so inconsistent: we are, in effect, more than one personality, although not in a clinical sense. In other words, as I understand the argument, each of us behaves not necessarily according to a well-defined, consistent set of standards, but instead our reactions, our performances, are defined or informed by the conditions or circumstances in which we find ourselves, not by any concrete standard “within” us. In a word, the I that I think I am is pliable, constantly (or at least frequently) changing, and therefore so, in effect, am I.
Further to this basket of desires idea: Perhaps each and every desire contains or includes not only its own I whose traits and characteristics are consistent with the desire, but includes also specifications that design, configure, inform the world associated with the desire, the world in which the desire lives, manifests, is executed. Thus, the world, the reality, we perceive at any given momet (including the people, things, activities within it) is consistent with, is shaped by, the desire we have adopted as our personality, and are pursuing (inhabiting, incarnating). We see the entirety that each of us call “my life” through the I (eye) of the desire we are enlivening.
In the lines above, Lao Tsu tells us that having desires, or as I might be suggesting here, being desires (adopting or accepting the desire’s I as our own), enables us to observe “manifestations,” but to know the “secrets” we need to be free of desires (of any sense of being a self, a me). That’s in line with the Teaching of Nisargadatta, Ramana, et al.
These Lao Tsu lines are from the Wang Pi (sometimes Wang Bi) text which I came across recently. The more common text (translation) apparently is the Ma Wang Tui text. I do not know what the significant historical or critical differences are between the two; but I know this, one line leapt out at me when I first read the Wang Pi: “These two are the same”! In other words, whether we are observing (being) with desires or without desires, we are perceiving (being) the same “thing”. Of course, that idea appears throughout TZF, but nowhere as clearly as in that line by Lao Tsu in the Wang Pi text.
These two are the same. The Ma Wang Tui text (which I believe is more common) translates those words “These two have the same origin”; a Gia Fu Feng & Jane English translation has it, “These two spring from the same source.”
To be sure, those latter two are close in meaning to the former, but they are not quite as powerful, as attention-getting, as startling as the simple expression, “These two are the same.” No matter how intently, no matter how devotedly, no matter how sincerely we struggle spiritually, we are going to end up in the same place we started: Right Here. Because the One and the other are the Same, the Same One. (Compare Ibn ’Arabi “Thou art not thou, thou art He without thou.”)
Two weeks later:
In the context of the Lao Tsu quotation above, think of the mind as the line between “rid yourself of desires” and “allow yourself to have desires”; or, in Ibn ’Arabi’s language, it is the mind that is “the veil” (that which conceals or obscures “His existence in His oneness”). Thus, it is the mind that latches on to a desire, incorporates or assumes its “I,” and which then we take on as ourself, and behave accordingly. Or is it that desires themselves are the veil (I am going to start capitalizing that word as Veil because it just seems right to do so)? In other words, is there any difference, any space, between “my mind” and “my desire” (at any given moment)? I am beginning to think not. As my mind changes, my desire changes; as my desire changes, my mind changes. When I am rid of desire(s), I am rid of (my) mind. Is it possible to have a mind and not have a desire? At the very least, there would remain the desire to be. Rid ourself of every desire, and we rid ourself of “ourself.”
And all of this “activity” takes place on what we might call this side of the line, this side of the Veil, because it is on this side that the mind resides, on this side that multiple I's can surface, each associated with, each manifesting, it’s specific desire. On the other side (or is it Other Side?) of the Veil, there is only His “I” … and so there are no desires, no mind. From the perspective of His side of the Veil, there is no Veil: If the Veil is desire (AKA mind), and desire has dissolved (coincidentally erasing or dissolving “the line”), then all that remains is “His oneness” — which is all there ever was anyway … except “veiled” by desire.
And the beat goes on.
The Very Stones
I have written suggesting that, as seekers, we do well to assume that, when speaking or writing, Teachers choose their words carefully, obliging us to hear or read them accordingly.
Well, last evening, reading Ramana Maharshi in “The Teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi,” I came across a line that I do not recall having seen before … never mind that Nancy and I have each read this book several times, underlined and margin-noted numerous passages. This line takes place in a discussion between Ramana and a seeker about the effects on the mind of the foods we eat, and so predictably the subjects of vegetarianism and non-violence arise. Here is a piece of it:
Questioner: Are there restrictions for the realized man with regard to food?
Answer: No. He is steady and not influenced by the food he takes.
Q: Is it not killing life to prepare a meat diet?
A: Ahimsa (non-violence) stands foremost in the code of discipline for the yogis.
Q: Even plants have life.
A: So too the slabs you sit on!
So too the slabs you sit on! Who can read that line, and not have leap immediately to mind this passage from the Gospels:
And some of the Pharisees in the multitude said to him, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.”
Ramana and Nisargadatta and others like them tell us repeatedly that from the perspective of their Self-Realized Position, their body is the Universe, not the physical human organism we believe them (and of course ourselves) to be. In other words, for them the universe is itself alive, one single, undifferentiated living organism, and It is They, They are It. (Actually, they would not use the plural pronoun “They”, because from their perspective there is only One, only I.)
Here are the words of Nisargadatta, speaking of the Nature of a gnani (sometimes jnani), one who has united Love of God and Knowledge of God, one like himself: The entire universe is his body, all life is his life.
Our instinct, our first inclination, is to take words like these of Nisargadatta and those of Jesus and Ramana as metaphor or even poetry. On reading such lines, we insist to ourselves that Jesus and Ramana do not really mean that stones and slabs are alive, not literally. I mean, look at them, we say: They are obviously lifeless.
But by whose definition of life?
Are we to believe ourselves, we who do not even know or understand the true nature of our own life, of our own nature?
Here’s Lesson 3 from A Course in Miracles: I do not understand anything I see.
Reading in Nisargadatta’s “I Am That” this morning — “Like water is shaped by the container, so is everything determined by conditions. As water remains water regardless of the vessels, as light remains itself regardless of the colors it brings out, so does the real remain real, regardless of conditions in which it is reflected.”
Like water is shaped by the container … What container?
Here’s what transpired in my mind as I wrestled with Nisargadatta’s words first thing this morning.
There is no such thing as “Stefan”. That’s clear. Stefan is not a thing, meaning — despite appearances — it is not an entity with shape or form or measurements or substance.
An assortment of thoughts, memories, and expectations evolved, maybe one after another, maybe simultaneously, which, leaning against one another, merging into one another, reinforcing one another, enclose an area of space which has taken the shape of a “Stefan”.
This empty vessel, or we might say, this vessel which contains within its apparent dimensions only empty space, is not a vessel in the sense of a jar or a bottle or even a bag. It is empty space only apparently enclosed by an assortment of thoughts, memories, and expectations. It is those thoughts, memories and expectations, not any solid vessel-making material, which form this apparent vessel.
This non-vessel vessel first began to appear at the appearance of “the idea of Stefan’s mother and father”. From there, evolved supporting ideas — Stefan’s pediatrician, Stefan’s baby carriage, Stefan’s kindergarten, and so on through the so-called past, to the so-called present and into the so-called future, a continuous stream of supporting ideas — again, thoughts, memories, and expectations — which link together into a shape, a shape called “Stefan”.
But the shape is empty. That is, it has taken the form of a vessel, of a “Stefan”, and so it looks like “a thing”, but there is nothing “in it”. Thus, we might say that a sugar bowl contains sugar, a beer bottle contains beer; but the shape “Stefan” contains only the space that was already, priorly there when the initial ideas about it evolved and formed among themselves into a shape that seemed to be a vessel.
We are not talking about a thing here; we are talking about an idea of a thing.
As the Hindu, I think it is, metaphor has it, the vessel is a sieve put into the ocean. The sides of the sieve seem to contain something unique (“the contents of this sieve”), but in fact the sieve does not really “contain” anything, and certainly not anything different or unique from what is “outside” the sieve. The appearance of a container and of a thing contained is an illusion.
So, as I say elsewhere on TZF: “Silence your thoughts, discard your memories, release your expectations”. Do that, and what happens? The vessel collapses. The sieve dissolves. The jar breaks, revealing the emptiness inside that was always not there.
The apparent vessel creates the appearance of something, of someone, inside it. Remove the vessel, and naught remains.
In the words of Ibn ’Arabi: “… thou never wast nor wilt be, whether by thyself or through Him or in Him or along with Him”.
The Making of The Vessel
With joy in their hearts, a man and a woman are looking through the glass at a newly born baby in a hospital crib in a roomful of newly born babies in hospital cribs. The man is the father and the woman is the mother of the newly born baby at which they are staring. The man and the woman are holding hands.
“What is it?” the man asks, with great affection.
“What do you mean, what is it?” the woman replies, with equal affection. “It’s a boy, silly. Didn’t you see that precious little bud between his legs when he first came out!”
“It’s a son? I have a son!” the man said, with evident pride. “We need a name for him.”
“I think we should name him Arthur,” the woman suggests. “My favorite uncle’s name was Arthur.”
“Arthur!” the man exclaims, with apparent distaste, “My son’s name is most certainly not Arthur. Arthur is the name of a cuckold.”
“What are you talking about?” the woman asks.
The man replies, “You know, what’s his name, Lancelot and Genevieve.”
“You mean Guinevere,” the woman says. “It’s Lancelot and Guinevere. What on earth have they to do with our son?”
“Guinevere, Genevieve,” the man answers, “What’s the difference? What matters is, Arthur was a cuckold, and my son is not a cuckold.”
“You Italians, you’re are all the same,” the woman observes, “too much pride”.
“Maybe so. But as long as I am Italian, my son is Italian,” the man insists, “and his name is not Arthur. His name is Stefan. Stefan means crown, and this boy is my crowning glory. Besides, the feast day of Santo Stefano is December 26, the day after Christmas. That makes my son a neighbor of the Christ child.”
“Maybe his name is Stefan,” the woman agrees, “but your son is not Italian. He was born in New York, and that makes him American. And never you mind about your saints. My son has no interest in your saints. We agreed to that. My son will not be raised in the Roman Catholic church. My son is an Episcopalian.”
“We agreed that our child should be exposed to the worship of God your way,” the man responds, “but I am telling you now, my son is going to worship God in my church His way”.
The mother spins around to return to her hospital room. As she does so, she asks, with a growl, “Did you say his way, or did you say His way?”
The man and the woman set off down the corridor. They are no longer holding hands, although they will again soon enough.
With one voice, the babies in the other cribs join together, and exclaim, “Welcome to the world, Stefan”. It is not immediately clear whether they are saying it joyfully or sorrowfully.
Throw Away The Peel
Okay, in a nutshell, here’s the thing.
The summer of 1974, before I had consciously set out on this slippery slope, there crossed my path a Teacher. Almost immediately, I made him mine. At the time, he and I exchanged only a brief greeting, and since then, I have been in his physical presence less than two dozen times, during which we have exchanged no more than a hundred words. He never gave me a “spiritual” name, no mantra, no secret handshake, no beads, no password, no prescribed diet, no special instructions of any kind. On the surface, it appeared an ordinary enough, even a shallow, relationship. But on the inner, it was intense. At least, so it seemed to me. I dreamed of him frequently; I sensed his presence often. In my heart, I called on him all the time. He was my Guru. I accepted him as such, and I walked my path accordingly. Along the way, there have been phenomena, experiences, auditions, visions, revelations, realizations. Even miracles.
All the while, I read and studied and practiced and embraced the teachings of many Teachers and traditions; and I loved, and I still love, them all, with enthusiasm. I felt no conflict between my devotion to my Guru and my devotion to the others. I knew, on the inner, that they were all one and the same. In Ramakrishna’s words, God alone is the Guru. I knew that to be true, and I accepted its wonderful implications.
Then, decades later, I learned that my Guru had for decades almost certainly been participating in morally questionable sexual practices, and possibly engaging in other, less than honorable pastimes. In a word, the man — like the rest of us — is clay, head to toe, and always was.
Of course, I am angry. And disappointed. At first, at him and in him, then at and in me. But then, I realize it had to be thus. I remember the recent experience of a neighbor in our small, rural community. An elderly woman, she lived alone in the old country farmhouse in which she had been born, a house far too big for her now and well beyond her physical and financial ability to maintain. One day, while she was in town shopping, the house caught fire. She returned just in time to watch the last flames burn out. By then, virtually all the town’s folk were at the scene, consoling her. “Nonsense,” she insisted, “God knew the house was too much for me to care for, and He also knew that I wouldn’t ever leave it. So, He burned it down for me.”
Just so, God knew I would never leave my Guru, so She burned him down for me.
One of my favorite Sufi stories tells about the Teacher who brings home an injured bird, lovingly cares for it until it is fully restored, and then releases it. But the bird won’t leave. It flies around from room to room, but not away. So, the Teacher opens wide a window, and when the bird happens to fly by it, he shouts, and bangs together pots and pans, and claps loudly, altogether making a fearsome racket. The bird, startled and surprised, inadvertently goes out the window. The Teacher slams it shut.
Just so, lest I harbor any lingering doubt, my window too is slammed shut. By U.G.
Right on cue, U.G. Krishnamurti comes crashing into my life, vaulting into my heart, and turns confusion into disorder. Nail by nail, timber by timber, he dismantles all that’s left of my spiritual structure. No consolation here; U.G. rakes the ashes, just to be sure there’s nothing left unburned.
At about the same time, I come across a website where is written “Sri Sri Ravi Shankar says religion is like the peel of a banana, and spirituality is the banana”, and I am reminded of a story my (body’s) father used to tell us about his boyhood. Passing a fruit stand, he saw a banana for the first time. He asked his older sister what it was, and she told him it was a banana, and very delicious at that. Of course, he wanted one; so she bought him one. When he asked how to eat it, she said, teasing as siblings will, “Just bite off pieces, like an apple”. And so he did. He ate the banana, peel and all.
I had done the same. Like him, I ate the peel. To be sure, the willingness to do so, the commitment, the surrender to it, the discipline it required, all served me. But that was yesterday. Today, I have to spit it out, because there is no nourishment in the peel.
And when the peel is gone, what is left?
U.G. talks about having the courage to stand alone. To me, that means standing without any underpinning. Of course, all along I knew that was coming, for I had read the books. I had even written about it, taught it. I even thought I was doing it. And in a way maybe I was.
But not really. Over the decades, I had built a scaffolding, level over level, and I was living at the top of it. It was well built, of good and sturdy stuff, the result of honest and dedicated labor. And it gave me great height, with an extraordinary view. It might have been enough, except that it wasn’t really real. At least, not real enough, because standing on that structure, however high, I wasn’t really standing on the ground.
— home — top —
All Together Now
The other evening before bed, reading TZF’s excerpt from Ibn ’Arabi’s “Whoso Knoweth Himself” for the umpteenth time, these words hit me like a bolt of lightning: “His Veil is only a part of His oneness; nothing veils other than He. His veil is only the concealment of His existence in His oneness”.
Concealment of His existence in His oneness! Therein lies the fundamental, ever-present, constantly evolving, endlessly frustrating, infinitely promising struggle of every spiritual seeker.
In one of my favorite passages of the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna (who is you and I) asks Krishna (God) to show Himself to him. Krishna responds “these eyes of yours cannot see Me” (11:8, in the Nikhilananda translation). So, Kirshna gives to Arjuna a Divine eye, thus enabling him to see Him. And what does he see? Just what he saw before, except with a difference, and the difference is what the spiritual process — what enlightenment, realization, Christ Consciousness, Buddha Nature, and so on, are all about: What Arjuna with his human eyes had seen as many, he now sees as One: “There, in the person of the God of gods, Arjuna beheld the whole universe, with its manifold divisions, all gathered together in one.”
Manifold divisions now One.
This is the “cloud of unknowing” (from the extraordinary book of the same title). Here is what’s on TZF’s definitions page about that: The “cloud of unknowing” … is that which forever hides perception of the One, God, from our every separative, egoic faculty. That is, however clever we may become, as long as we think, in effect, “I am me, and God is an other,” there must exist an invisible, impassable boundary between us. For, it is indelibly true that in the One, there are no others, and so, the only way truly to Know It, is to Be It. There is Surrender, which is Union.
The cloud of unknowing is the veil of concealment. Or is it the other way around?
Consider this venerable story: After a few years of spiritual study, a seeker, convinced she has deciphered life’s secrets, strides up to heaven’s gate and bangs on the door. “Who’s there?” thunders a voice from within. “It is I,” she replies, with certainty. “There’s no room for you here,” responds the voice, with finality. Surprised and disheartened, the seeker returns to her books and her fasts and her practices. Some time later, she tries again, but with the same result. Eventually, after repeated failures, she gives up. She turns away from all she knows, and she cries — at first, in anger, then confusion, until finally in surrender and in joy. Now, she knocks on the door again. “Who’s there?” asks the voice. “It is You,” the seeker replies. The door opens.
At John 8:21 (and elsewhere), Christ, the Self-Realized Jesus, says to his disciples, “Where I am going, you cannot come.” Where Christ is going, where Christ IS, there is room for only One, the One. Christ knows himself to be the One (“The Father and I are One”), but the disciples still perceive themselves separatively, to be “me not you” — “I am Andrew, not you,” “I am Bartholomew, not you,” “I am James, not you,” “I am Mary Magdalene, not you”. So they can’t go There; because they’re stuck here.
The premise of my book “In The Beginnning” is that the Genesis story of the Fall is a metaphorical explanation of why the One (God) appears to us (humanity) as not One but many. In that story we are told that Adam and Eve ate from a tree whose fruit had been forbidden to them, a fruit that imparted to them the knowledge of good and evil, and that the punishment for having disobeyed God — for having committed Original Sin — is expulsion from Paradise, what we now call “my life”. Here is some of what I write about that:
Consider, for example, the name of the tree, “The Knowledge of Good and Evil”. That single word “and” in the name gives away its secret to those whose ears will hear. In the beginning, when there was only One Thing, there was no word “and”. Of what use would it have been? The word “and” is a conjunction, and conjunctions serve to join or connect things. Where there is only one thing, there is nothing to connect. In the beginning, there was only God, no God and … anything. …
But eating of the fruit of this tree imparted “the knowledge of and”, a knowledge heretofore excluded from, or forbidden to, Paradise. Hence, we call it the “forbidden” fruit, a fruit whose effect is the world we know, the world of things, the world of “and”, a world denied or, again, forbidden, to the One. …
Notice too in this context that in Genesis, God delegates to Adam the function of naming “every living creature”. To God in His Wholeness, there is no need for names. In Truth, there is only One “living creature”, God, and it is nameless, at least to Itself. After all, what use to name It? Who would address It? There is no other. It is only from the perspective of those with “the knowledge of and”, those who see the One as many, that things need to be named, to be distinguished each from another, to be addressed. To God it is all One, Himself. It’s All the Same to Me, God might say; but as Adam, it is quite another story. To Adam, it is boys and girls, and cats and dogs, and chickens and foxes …
My argument in that book is that the Fall was Intentional, part of the Grand Plan of Creation. I suggest there that the purpose of the Fall was the creation of self-consciousnes, leading ultimately to Self-Consciousness or Self-Realization (Resurrection after The Fall).
In my other book, “Take Off Your Shoes”, I write about how it is that we see the One as many. That is, the other book is about the why; this book is about the how:
Consider the simple prism, an ordinary piece of multifaceted glass. As any school child knows, if we hold a prism up to a source of white light, and view the light through the glass, what was a single color will suddenly be seen quite differently: as a spectrum of separate, distinct colors. What was one (the single color white) now appears as many (purple, blue, green, yellow, orange, and red). Explaining this phenomenon in the classroom, we say that the prism has refracted or broken down the white light into its component parts. But, having said that, we must take care not to conclude that the parts exist independently of the whole. That is, the colors are not themselves separate, self-sustaining things which exist apart from the white light. They are not really parts at all. They are aspects of the whole and inseparable from it. The individual, apparently separate colors are just another way of seeing the one white light. Indeed, they are white light, seen differently. The spectrum purple-through-red is not a thing of itself, but simply white light viewed through a prism, and to demonstrate that point we have only to remove the prism, and the “other” colors disappear. They never really could exist at all without the white light, and they certainly were not separate entities, although in the glass they seemed to be. Again, the apparent separate and distinct reality of the spectrum is created by the prism (one color seen as many). Notice, too, that during our use of the prism, the white light is not itself actually changed, does not cease to exist as it was before or after our use of the prism, and in a very real sense, it is all that was ever really there. (Compare Paul at 1 Corinthians 13:12: “For now we see through a glass, darkly ….”)
Once again without seeking to understand why it might occur, suppose that one aspect of Creation were to hold up before its “eyes” a similar prism, and then view itself and the rest through that piece of glass. Instantly, the One would be seen as many. The Whole, artificially broken into its apparent component parts, would suddenly look to the viewer as separate, varied, and distinct elements. Where there had been just white, there would now seem to be purple, blue, green, yellow, orange, and red. The One would not have become many, but it would appear as many (just as white light does not become the spectrum, it is seen as a spectrum). And, continuing with this illustrative device, suppose our viewer forgot for a moment that he was looking through a prism (perhaps in his fascination with the colors); he might eventually forget the exercise altogether, and come to believe that the colors are real in and of themselves, that they are all that there is, and that the image created by the prism is not just a refraction of something else but the universe itself. The universe would then be seen not as the single source of light that it is, the one stuff which is creation, as in “Let there be light”, but as the spectrum which it seems to be. What is one is now — appears now to be — many, and as the prism itself is forgotten, so is the source and nature of the spectrum, and we come to accept as self-sufficiently real and complete what is neither.
At TZF’s “The Sacred Riddle”, a Voice in the night asks, “If I Am Infinite, who are you?”
Ibn ’Arabi declares, “Thou art not thou; thou art He, without thou.”
In the image of the prism metaphor, God holds the glass to His Eye, looks at Himself, and sees not One, but many.
God, the One than Whom There is No Other, perceives Himself as you and me and cats and dogs and trees and mountains and houses and barns. With Ibn ’Arabi, He knows that barns are not barns, that they are He, without barns; but He perceives them as barns, precisely and only because He is perceiving Himself through the prism, which too is Himself. In the prism, He is barns. The prism, like the veil, like the cloud of unknowing, is Himself; He disguises or conceals Himself from Himself by Himself. The prism — and its manifold image of Himself — exists because He exists.
And when He removes the prism from His Eye, lifts the veil, dispels the cloud, drops the dark glass, the removal itself is Himself. He removes Himself from Himself by Himself. And what remains? Himself — there being no thing else.
As we ponder and consider these questions, which as seekers we must do, we do well to remember, God speaks to Himself in metaphors.