I came to realize clearly that mind is nothing other than rivers and mountains and the great wide earth, the sun and the moon and the stars. -Dogen
Traherne’s account builds upon itself, becoming more moving and profound, until it reaches a climax: “The streets were mine, the temple was mine, the people were mine, their clothes and gold and silver were mine, as much as their sparkling eyes, fair skins and ruddy faces. The skies were mine, and so were the sun and moon and stars, and all the World was mine; and I the only spectator and enjoyer of it.” What are we to make of this mine-ness? Is his experience solipsistic?
It depends on what we mean by solipsism. It is usually defined as the belief that the only reality is the self, yet that claim can be understood in different ways. To insist that atman (the true self) is brahman (the ground of the cosmos), as Vedanta does, is to assert that the self is the only reality – but we need to realize what the true self really is.
Buddhism emphasizes that there is no self, but if the basic problem is a sense-of-separate-self confronting that which other than itself – inside vs. outside – there may be no difference at all between an experience of all-Self and the experience of no-self. What’s important in both cases in that the delusive duality between self and other has been dispelled. Nisargardatta has made this point better than anyone else: “When I look inside and see that I am nothing, that’s wisdom. When I look outside and see that I am everything, that’s love. Between these two my life turns.”
The difference between these nondualist traditions and Traherne is that nondualists usually prefer to say that ‘the streets were me, the temple was me,’ etc. I am reminded of Zen master Dogen’s description of his own enlightenment experience:
I came to realize clearly that mind is nothing other than rivers and mountains and the great wide earth, the sun and the moon and the stars.
It seems to me, however, that the difference between their accounts is less important than the similarities. Both have transcended the usual dualism between an alienated and anxious sense of self that is trapped within an external, objective world.
Yet Traherne says that he was ‘the only spectator and enjoyer of it.’ Doesn’t that still dualize between the seer and the seen? No: the mind that Dogen refers to still sees itself from a particular perspective, the presencing we call Dogen. It is the same with Traherne’s account: it is with him – or, better, as him – that the ’empty,’ infinite Brahman/nondual mind awakens to its own true nature. For a while, anyway.
Traherne’s exalted depiction concludes with a sudden deflation. The experience he has just described to us has been lost, for he ‘was corrupted, and made to learn the dirty devices of this world.’ But there is hope: those devices he can ‘unlearn, and become, as it were, a little child again that I may enter into the Kingdom of God.’ The allusion is to Matthew 18, where Jesus says: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” This verse is normally understood to refer to where we might go after we die, but we do well to remember something else Jesus reputedly said: “Behold, the kingdom of God is in your midst” (Luke 17:21; more familiar to most of us is the King James version: “The kingdom of God is within you.”). In the context of everything else that Traherne has just written, his desire to enter the Kingdom of God should surely be understood in the same way. The point is not to attain some otherworldly salvation, but to ‘return’ to the beautiful, luminous, blissful, eternal, nondual heavenly world he has so poetically depicted for us.
‘Return’ is in scare-quotes because he has not really lost it. He cannot lose that world, because his experience was a glimpse into what it really is, whether we are aware of it or not. Having had a taste of it, Traherne knows what he has to do: to unlearn the ‘dirty devices of this world’ – the world, that is, as normally experienced by ‘corrupted’ people. It’s not obvious what he means by corruption and the world’s dirty devices. We may suppose that he is referring to immoral behavior, and that dirty devices are the ways people deceive and abuse each other. Yet corruption here might also include the types of delusion that the nondualist traditions also emphasize…
Delusions collude with cravings to reify the sense of a self that feels separate from the world it is ‘in.’
Then I am motivated to pursue my own supposed self-interest indifferent to the well-being of others. Grasping at things in (what we understand to be) the world, we lose our birthright: the world that Traherne so lovingly portrays. But we can always return to it, because it is always there. It becomes here whenever we open up to it.
It is important to notice also what Traherne does not mention. Everything he describes is visual: what about the other senses – such as the sound of the wind blowing through the trees, and the laughter of the children? Were they also ‘mine’? We wonder if he heard them nondually, like T. S. Eliot’s ‘music heard so deeply/ That it is not heard at all, but you are the music/ While the music lasts.’ And we don’t read anything about how Traherne’s bodily awareness may have changed.
The biggest lack in Traherne’s account is perhaps something that he would not consider a shortcoming – and that some nondualist teachers would also not emphasize. In Buddhist terms, the ‘higher truth’ that he describes so well is sundered from the conventional ‘lower truth’ that we are more familiar with. Traherne’s world has no problems: each luminous thing is a way that ’empty infinity’ presences, including the children playing in the street… but do they go to bed hungry at night? Although everything manifests eternity in the Light of the Day, in his day most of those particular manifestations died before their second birthday. Yes, the ‘higher truth’ is that they didn’t really die because they had never been born; from the perspective of the lower truth, however, there is birth, and death… and suffering. Traherne’s society was organized hierarchically, for the benefit of those at the top of the class pyramid. Patriarchy and slavery were the norm.
To dwell blissfully in the world that Traherne describes so well, while ignoring such problems, is ‘clinging to emptiness.’ It is important for us to experience the infinity he refers to, and not to rest there. We all start from an awareness of the ‘lower truth:’ the world as a collection of separate things, including me, anxious and insecure within it. We are eager to become enlightened and realize the true nature of the world, including ourselves: the empty infinity that presences as you and me and everything else. But it is just as important not to devalue those presences – in Buddhist terms, the forms whereby emptiness (shunyata) manifests. As William Blake also wrote, “Eternity is in love with the productions of time.” Empty infinity is in love with its presencing! Because they aren’t really separate from each other.
The spiritual challenge is to realize that these two truths are two sides of the same coin, and to live in the light of that realization.
Written by David Loy and originally published as How does an Awakened Person Perceive the World in Science and Non-duality, February 2015.