Eternity was manifest in the Light of the Day… -Traherne
Click here to read Part 1 of David Loy’s exploration, How does an Awakened Person Perceive the World?
Light and Ecstasy
The world that Traherne describes is incredibly beautiful and blissful. The trees ‘transported and ravished’ him, their unusual beauty made his heart leap ‘and almost mad with ecstasy.’ And he is specific about the nature of that loveliness, referring again and again to the luminosity of things: the corn is ‘orient,’ the young men ‘glittering,’ angels ‘sparkling,’ and playing children are ‘moving jewels.’
Mystics in many traditions have emphasized the world’s radiance: things that we usually perceive as solid objects now glow. A distinction that we normally take for granted, between physical objects and the light that they reflect, no longer applies. The difference between them is actually something that has been constructed: it is a product of our ways of thinking about the world, including the names that we assign to things. I overlook the radiance when I see that as simply ‘a cup.’ I don’t really pay attention to it: it’s just something I use to drink my tea. That is how we learn to grasp the world, yet that habitual way of perceiving can also be unlearned. When we see things as they are, without unconsciously distinguishing between objects and the light they reflect, the visible world is no longer a collection of fixed, material, self-existing things but appears as a confluence of interacting, luminous processes. The cup on the table next to my computer is not just a piece of molded baked clay that just happens to be there. Its being-there is an activity. And such processes are not self-sufficient: they manifest something, which Traherne later points to.
Religions tend to be preoccupied with immortality – helping us qualify for an eternity in heaven with God, for example. Traherne describes a different type of ‘everlasting,’ which is not about surviving death and living forever into a never-ending future, but experiencing here-and-now in a different way: dwelling in what is sometimes called an eternal present. His most wondrous line begins…
“Eternity was manifest in the Light of the Day…”
The ‘immortal’ wheat he sees was never sown and will never be reaped, having stood there ‘from everlasting to everlasting.’ In that regard Traherne doesn’t distinguish between wheat, stones, trees, or humans: not only are they all radiant, each abides eternally insofar as it manifests the Light of the Day. In another Centuries of Meditations passage, he declares: “All time was Eternity, and a perpetual Sabbath.”
Nondualist traditions such as Buddhism emphasize realizing the ‘deathless,’ and often mention ‘the unborn’ as well. What would it mean, to transcend life and death? Do such claims refer to an afterlife? Traherne’s account suggests a different perspective. It’s the nature of all living creatures that they are born at a certain time and sooner or later die at another time. Buddhism does not offer an escape from such impermanence. But if living beings, like all other things, are not self-existing – if they too are interdependent processes that manifest something – then perhaps they cannot die insofar as they were never really born in the first place.
Manifest what? According to the Buddhist tantric tradition, our minds have three inalienable and inseparable aspects: they are luminous, blissful, and ’empty’ (shunya).
Written by David Loy and originally published as How does an Awakened Person Perceive the World in Science and Non-duality, February 2015.