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Zen - On having no head

from the archive, 2018

Man discovers he has no head

One day a man named Douglas Harding stopped on a hike in the Himalayas and had a mystical experience. But maybe it wasn’t a mystical experience. Maybe it was more of a Zen moment. Harding suddenly realised that he had no head.

In one blazingly stark insight, that apparently changed his relationship to himself and the world thenceforth, he discovered he was headless. That is, he could look down and see his body - his legs, his arms etc - but in the place he expected to find his head, he found instead a great void, filled with a landscape of Himalayan ranges and sky.

There is a little volume kicking around, called On having no head, in which you can read his first-hand account, along with some of the philosophical ramifications. It was not an insight that stayed peculiar to Harding. A Richard Lang found he did not have a head either, and then atheist Sam Harris (known to a younger generation of podcast and YouTube listeners) found cogency in the no-head proposition.

All right, it’s not a proposition in the formal logical sense; it’s a direct seeing. It’s in line with satori-like illuminations of Zen, the offshoot of Buddhism that flowered in Japan.

Zen as the forerunner of the Headless Way

Zen became a minimalist way of being, a methodless method, which produced beautiful expressions in archery, swordsmanship, poetry, architecture and, indeed, any lifestyle activity one might mention. Satori and kensho are Japanese terms that refer to a sudden awakening by seeing into one’s true nature. It is at the very heart of the missionary Buddhism that migrated from India and Himalaya country to China, courtesy of Bodhidharma, and thence to Japan. He it was who advocated a hammerblow to the back of the head (in the cause of headlessness) whereas other Zen teachers threatened to cut their students heads clean off with a sword. Deadly serious humour! When we put these tales together with the koan of koans - the Zen riddle of riddles - the exhortation to find one’s Original and Featureless Face, we realise that the central insight of the Zen tradition is this seeing through no-head.

Parallels in other traditions

Before we ask what this Far Eastern tradition has to do with the Christian West, we might note echoes of satori in the words of Persia’s famous Sufi poet, Rumi : “Behead yourself!” “Dissolve your whole body into Vision : become seeing, seeing, seeing!”. The 15th century Indian mystic-poet, Kabir, who ended up a kind of interfaith icon claimed by Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs, said “I have learned from Him (i.e.God) to see without eyes, to hear without ears, to drink without mouth.” Quite evocative of headlessness. Earlier than Zen itself did the Taoist sage Chuang-tzu contrast his empty head or featureless Face with the familiar seven-holed heads he saw ‘out there’. Obviously, there is no question mark over other people’s heads, which exhibit two eyes plus two nostrils plus two ears plus one mouth.

What would Jesus think?

Looking to the reconciler of all authentic interfaith understandings, I ask “What would Jesus make of the wide testimony of headlessness?” I ask not blithely, but respecting the fact that he taught the supreme Truth to be relational, whereas headlessness can seem the epitome of aloneness. Now, the Incarnation is about God in our midst: Immanuel. Is there something in our midst mysteriously hidden yet obvious? Something or Someone on whom the being of the world depends? Whose all-seeing holds the world in existence; allows it to appear in its fullness?

The ‘Headless Way’ movement of Harding and Lang, a reformulation of Zen for our time, does make the interesting, if not exhaustive contention, that Jesus well knew the difference between those two eye holes observable in others’ heads and the hole of the ‘single eye’ out from which he looked upon the world. “If thine eye be single”, says Jesus, “thy whole body shall be full of light”. There is another saying also: “It is better for thee to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire”. Worth a closer look, through whatever optical means are available.

A few western suggestions of headlessness

Certainly, other westerners of a theological bent lend credence to headlessness. Plotinus (well before Rumi) urged the aspirant to become vision itself. Meister Eckhart made the point that we cannot see the visible except with the invisible. But more secularly-orientated westerners are no more enamoured of their upstairs anatomy than their mystically-inclined confreres. Ralph Waldo Emerson is credited with : “I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing: I see all”. And, eschewing the bias of poetical flourish in favour of philosophical rigour, we note that the existentialist work, Being and Nothingness, by French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, describes consciousness as the nothingness that allows everything to appear. It is pure appearance.

By getting to know examples of appearance and reflection we can extrapolate by analogy to consciousness. I started pondering this article as I looked at the reflections of trees and sky in a lake. If I went to grab hold of those trees in the lake, I’d be passing my fist through water. The only stuff I could have contact with is the water. Yet in the midst of this watery stuff is a spaceless, immaterial reflection of trees. Likewise, my image in a mirror cannot be found anywhere apart from the silvered surface that is the ‘blind’ mirror. The mirror has an interior that permits appearance. No matter how many ‘scientific’ tests I conduct on the silvered surface, where I believe my image and that of all the furniture resides, I will find no substantial, measurable, spatial image. Neither can one find consciousness by probing the brain. It is not there because it is no-where, unlike exterior things that must be somewhere, occupying space, displaying dimension.

“I and the Father are one”

So, again, Who is in our midst - mysteriously hidden from all measuring instruments - yet absolutely obvious as the supporter of all appearances, reflections or representations? It is the subject whose universe it is. When Jesus says “I and the Father are one”, he may be knowing himself in that moment as pure subjectivity. As non-localised Consciousness. As the headless, bodiless, excarnational Divine Person.Transcendent and boundless; an emptiness, a potential, from which all things arise. The complementary incarnational Divine Person is in our midst. In our midst - here for us - with a seven-portalled face of love for us! Working along these lines is fruitful for discovering a point where east and west might meet. Last century’s expositor of Zen, D.T.Suzuki, is reported to have said : “To Zen, incarnation is excarnation; the flesh is no-flesh; here-now equals emptiness and infinity”.

No apologies for the copious name-dropping, quoting and paraphrasing in today’s piece. Here’s another lead. I believe that when the teacher of Christian meditation, Benedictine monk Laurence Freeman, entered into dialogue with the Dalai Lama, His Holiness was particularly interested in what Jesus meant by ‘My Father’. But you’ll have to chase that one up for yourself...

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