If the doors of perception were cleans’d, everything would be seen as it really is, infinite. -William Blake
Although form is not other than emptiness, it’s also true that emptiness not other than form. -Heart Sutra
“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.
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 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.
Written by David Loy and originally published as How does an Awakened Person Perceive the World in Science and Non-duality, February 2015.