“The coming and going
of birth and death
is a painting.
is a painting.
The entire phenomenal universe
and the empty sky are nothing
but a painting.”
Feeling deeply into this moment, can’t we see that there is something terribly heart-rending about the exquisite fragility of any and all appearances? Really, just to pause for a moment and allow our feeling being to communicate from the depths of itself is a truly courageous act — an art in itself — because everything we can see and taste and hear and know is permeated by the looming transiency of existence.
In such recognition the first impulse may be to simply go numb, or to engage in any manner of distraction, due to the overwhelming nature of it all. Nevertheless, for those who are willing to bravely plunge below the surface levels of these feelings in order to inquire at their root, there is a further revelation waiting. That is all I will say about that, except that the effort is a worthy one, regardless of the outcome.
Lying on the lawn in my backyard garden, I would spend hours as a child utterly losing myself in the endlessness of blue, watching the white clouds drifting and changing into shapes both familiar and strange, and letting my consciousness expand out to merge with the totality of the Mystery.
From time to time I would be moved to ponder the nature of the appearance of the world of things, including my own appearance. Inevitably, however, I would always get to a point beyond which my mind could not go, and so I would sink back into the comfort and relative safety of mindless abandonment in the beauty and silence of the infinite display above and all around me.
Since I had no way to account for the awareness of my own being-ness, I realized intuitively that it could come and go. After all, I was apparently here now, but could just as easily not be. In that sense, my life and consciousness seemed totally arbitrary, and hence there was no real security in any object of attention, whether it be a self, a person, a cloud, or a thought.
This recognition immediately disabused me of any notion of permanence, and though I had not yet witnessed the death of a loved one, I knew that nothing that I loved or cherished or even didn’t like would survive the play of time. It all could go away, just as it did when I drifted off to sleep, and like a vanishing ripple on a pond, it would be as if it all never happened – this ripple of my life, of this world, of consciousness itself.
At the young age of 8, I had a dramatic experience of total dissolution – all of my existential supports just dropped away in a sudden moment, flinging me into the vast unknown, and leaving me bewildered and mute. It was this experience – the culmination and exclamation point to my backyard lawn inquiry — that profoundly changed my relationship to the world, as well as my sense of self.
I could never look at things the same way again, from the viewpoint of the “person” I had assumed myself to be. Now all that was in question. I fell into a state of utter not knowing, and any remedial efforts would quickly prove to be nothing more than distractions from the fundamental truth of my inherent ignorance.
Although nominally raised as a Catholic, I did not turn to the religious dogmas in order to make some peace with my experience. All the pious platitudes spouted by the nuns and priests seemed shallow and irrelevant, and certainly unable to touch the depths of what I was feeling and recognizing. Nevertheless, I felt moved to test my hypothesis by entering into a Catholic Seminary, where I spent 7 years exploring that institution before coming to the conclusion that there was nothing there but more ignorance.
Eventually, I realized that any answers would have to come from within myself, and yet I also recognized that my own mind had no way to account for that which preceded it – for whatever it was that pertained prior to the arrival of my own consciousness. Calling it “God” was utterly beside the point, since it was merely another mental construct, and a second-hand one at that.
Furthermore, who or what was “myself”? Whatever self-image that tried to coalesce as an identity was sooner or later replaced by another, and so there was nothing that I could really grasp that was “me” or “mine”. Settling on or fixating on any particular self-sense was strictly related to immediate circumstance, but had no staying power. Only awareness itself persisted, but what is the source of awareness?
Being de facto inconceivable, any effort to comprehend it all by using the mind was clearly futile, and so this left me with a momentary sense of meaninglessness. Even that sense, however, was soon recognized to be a temporary and non-binding superimposition on the Mystery, and so I was left with no foothold to gain some philosophical traction or security. There was nowhere to hide, nowhere to dwell.
Moreover, the concerns of my peers held little interest, consisting mainly of exploiting the possibilities of gross energies for the purposes of self-confirmation, petty gain, and mere entertainment. Observing the lives of my parents and other significant adults, I saw little difference, except in scale. Unwitting players being spun around on a great wheel beyond their knowledge or consent, they seemed not unlike a herd of sheep being led from birth through an often stressful life and then on to a waiting death, without ever seriously comprehending their purpose or true nature.
Paradoxically, a spontaneous feeling of real affection for everyone and everything was discovered pulsing behind the intellect’s impossible search for meaning. This sense of affection had no need for some mental justification and required no rationale. It simply presented itself in my feeling being as a natural characteristic to being alive – this sincerely loving regard, without clinging or attachment, to the appearance of anything and everything. Whatever is, whatever I happen to encounter, is loveable and even beautiful in and of itself, especially considering its poignant brevity and dream-like quality.
However, the pragmatic evidence of experience in the world of relationships also taught me over time that such emotional vulnerability which love and affection elicit could prove dangerous. Humans are complex but still rather primitive animals, often clever and quick to violence, and mostly imbued with certain conflicting traits, such as greed, envy, hatred, and above all, fear. These afflictive qualities make navigating through their midst somewhat perilous, and so I was forced to learn to discriminate in the objective world, at least until I could find the circumstances in which my accumulated armor could be discarded and I could stand naked and free to be myself, whatever that might be revealed to be in the company of Love.
For decades, I diligently studied the various wisdom traditions, strategies, and doctrines that have been promulgated by the spiritual heroes of humanity. I spent time living as a mountain hermit, and later spent 3 years living with a Zen master in a Rinzai Zen Monastery, studying that branch of Buddhism. Although I found much that seemed agreeable and even revelatory, in the end, I came to see all the various concepts as comparable to paintings – subjective fantasies of interpretation that merely served as artful descriptions of that which is ultimately indescribable.
Moreover, as the years passed, I had filled my mind with a great gallery of these magnificent paintings, and yet, despite my appreciation for their awesome beauty, they belonged to someone else. They were not my own experience, in other words, but the renderings from the experience of others. Certainly, there were a number of seemingly profound experiences, but they too soon became artifacts of memory, and although I may have been show amazing revelations, none of it had the power to touch the deeper yearning at my core. Thus, I came to understand that no experience, in and of itself, is anything more than a modification of consciousness, subject to the mind’s conditioned filters.
Prompted by continuous self-inspection (and augmented by a powerfully transformative experience during a near-fatal automobile accident), I arrived at a summary realization that it all must be discarded, every last painting, every memory and trace of identification. There needed to be a systematic room cleaning, right down to the bare bone rafters, and only then perhaps would I be able distinguish the real from the merely provisional.
In the course of this conscious process, I came to understand directly that the only recourse, finally, is silence. Only by plunging resolutely into the heart of silence could the original nature of awareness spontaneously shine forth and reveal itself as it is — both empty and at the same time pregnant with a mysterious impersonal knowing.
In such silence, all thought, feeling, perception, inclination, attachment, and position are naturally transmuted into a kind of wordless wisdom – not as an acquisition, but as revelations of the native state or original nature of being itself. All are intimately unified in the recognition of their inherent indivisibility, and appreciated as nothing less than the manifested display of a divinity beyond words or stories, an unconditionally loving divinity of which I and everyone are unique and completely free expressions.
Indeed, everything is rapturously painting itself on a canvas of its own being, and even though it is akin to writing on water, what beguiling pictures emerge to shine, linger for a moment, and then dissolve back into the Great Emptiness from which they arose! Rather than mourning their fragility, we can delight in the astonishment prompted by the appearance of anything at all – the great magic and miracle of consciousness itself, which expands to infinity like a beam of clear white light, traveling on through the ebony void of endless space and time.
(Picture by Gregory Colbert)