Thursday, November 10, 2005

On Having No Head: Douglas Harding

I have read the book On Having No Head: Zen and the Rediscovery of the Obvious by Douglas Harding, sometime back. Like many Zen concepts, the title is both mysterious and informative at the same time.

This very short book (120 pages: with 12pt font and 1.5 spacing) talks about the experience of realization by Douglas Harding. It (the concept of realization) is explained to a modern day human being with western background using the simplest of Buddhist -- mainly from Zen -- concepts. As the title implies, the essence is in "experiencing" headlessness, with the emphasis on experience. Just like many Zen koans, the book carries the essence in the first few pages. All these reasons make the descriptions in the book simple and striking.

Though I am yet to read the book completely, I felt I need not push myself to do so. I found that couple of first chapters contain the crux of the experience of the author. (This is probably why I could not push myself to complete the book.) I also feel that the two ways of experiencing realization are when you experience zero (shunyata) or you experience infinity (purnata).

The following is the first chapter. I found that there is no point highlighting some part of the text. The text is very short, cohesive and all the text is equally important.


The best day of my life -- my rebirthday, so to speak -- was when I found I had no head. This is not a literary gambit, a witticism designed to arouse interest at any cost. I mean in in all seriousness: I have no head.

It was when I was was thirty-three that I made the discovery. Though it certainly came out of the blue, it did so in response to an urgent inquiry; I had for several months had been absorbed in the question: what am I? The fact that I happened to be walking in the Himalayas at the time probably had little to do with it; though in that country unusual states of mind are said to come more easily. However that may be, a very still, clear day, and a view from the ridge where I stood over misty blue valleys to the highest mountain range in the world, made a setting worthy of the grandest vision.

What actually happened was something absurdly simple and unspectacular: just for the moment I stopped thinking. Reason and imagination and all mental chatter died down. For once, words really failed me. I forgot my name, my humaneness, my thingness, all that could be called me or mine. Past and future dropped away. It was as if I had been born at that instant, brand new, mindless, innocent of all memories. There existed only the Now, that present moment and what was clearly given in it. To look was enough. And what I found was khakhi sleeves, terminating sideways in a pair of pink hands, and a khaki shirtfront terminating upwards in -- absolutely nothing whatever! Certainly not a head.

It took me no time at all to notice that this nothing, this hole, where a head should have been, was no ordinary vacancy, no mere nothing. On the contrary, it was very much occupied. It was a vast emptiness vastly filled, a nothing that found room for everthing -- room for grass, trees, shadowy distant hills, and far above them snow-peaks like a row of angular clouds riding the blue sky. I had lost a head and gained a world.

It was all, quite literally, breathtaking. I seemed to stop breathing altogether, absorbed in the Given. Here it was; this superb scene, brightly shining in the clear air, alone and unsupported, mysteriously suspended in the void, and (and this was the real miracle, the wonder and delight) utterly free of "me", unstained by any observer. Its total presence was my total absence, body and soul. Lighter that air, clearer that glass, altogether released from myself, I was nowhere around.

Yet in spite of the magical and uncanny quality of this vision, it was no dream, no esoteric revelation. Quite the reverse: it felt like a sudden waking from the sleep of ordinary life, an end to dreaming. It was self-luminous reality for once swept clean of all obscuring mind. It was the revelation, at long last, of the perfectly obvious. It was a lucid moment in a confused life-history. It was a ceasing to ignore something which (since early childhood at any rate) I had always been busy or clever or too sacred to see. It was naked, uncritical attention to what had all along been staring at my face -- my utter facelessness. In short, it was all perfectly simple and plain and straightforward, beyond argument, thought, and words. There arose no questions, no reference beyond the experience itself, but only peace and quiet joy, and the sensation of having dropped an intolerable burden.


In the next chapters, Harding takes the concept further and gives vivid details of what happened to him after experiencing headlessness. Also he explains various levels of headless ways. The website The Headless way also has nice information about the experience. The videos are also good.

The following are a set of good "koanistic" quotations from the book:

  • Suppose a man were all of a sudden to make his appearance here and cut your head off with a sword! -- HUI-CHUNG
  • Behead yourself! ... Dissolve your whole body into Vision: become seeing, seeing, seeing! -- RUMI
  • My Soul has been carried away, and usually my head as well, without my being able to prevent it. --ST.TERESA
  • Cover your breast with nothingness, and draw over your head the robe of non-existence. --ATTAR
  • Give yourself utterly ... Even though the head itself must be given, why should you weep over it? --KABIR
  • Seeing into Nothingness - this is the true seeing, the eternal seeing. -- SHEN-HUI
  • "I think I'll go and meet her," said Alice ... "You can't possibly do that," said the Rose. "I should advise you to walk the other way." This sounded nonsense to Alice, so she said nothing but set off at once towards the Red Queen. To her surprise, she lost sight of her in a moment. -- Through the Looking Glass.
  • The soul has now no awareness of the body and will give herself no foreign name, not man, not living being, nor anything at all. -- Plotinus
  • After the body has been cast off to a distance like a corpse, the Sage never attaches himself to it. -- Sankara
  • If one opens one's eyes and seeks the body, it is not to be found anymore. This is called: In the empry chamber it grows light. Inside and outside, everything is equally light. That is a very favorable sign. -- The secret of the Golden flower.
  • Vow to acheive the perfect understanding that the illusory body is like dew and lightning. Zen Master Hsu Yun (on his death-bed, in 1959)

4 comments:

V said...

Namaste Sri Ramakrishna ji,

The write-up and the extract from the book are very interesting. The 'Experience' is inspiring indeed. Thanks for posting this.

What you say about 'shoonyataa' and 'poornataa' is extremely nice. I wish to look at the two concepts this way:

The two are not exclusive concepts; the one implies the other. Supposing there is an elephant sculpted in wood. It is there on display. When I look at the elephant, its various physical features, etc. and appreciate the art, I am not concerned about the wood. But supposing a spectator specializing in wood sees this piece. He would study the type of wood, its age, seasoning, weight, etc. He would not 'see' the elephant. For him the elephant is 'shoonya'. At the same time, there is the poornataa of the wood for him.

Likewise, the spiritual aspirant trains to focus on the Truth, Brahman, in everything. He trains to 'disregard' the name-form objective world. When he sufficiently progresses in this, no doubt tough sadhana, there is shoonyataa of the world for him. But at the same time there is the poornataa of Brahman, his Self, for him to appreciate. So, shoonyataa pertains to the objective world and poornataa is of the Truth. It is like emptying a huge hall of all its things and appreciating the fullness of the space, light and air of that hall. When shoonyataa of the objects is achieved, the poornataa of the already existing space there comes to be appreciated.

With warm regards,
subbu

warwickwakefield said...

I met Houglas Harding, had a long conversation with him. I made the mistake of asking him if he'd clear up this matter of headlessness. He went throught his usual routines, the ones he writes about in his book, which revolve around getting you to focus your attention on the fact that you can't see your own head. Then he asks, "Now, tell me if you have a head." Obviously the fact that you cannot see something is no evidence for its non-existence, and I continued to assert that I do indeed have a head. Harding got very cranky and went into a sulk. His wife, a very pleasant and civilized woman, saved the situation by suggesting that there was a lot of work to be done and driving me through the snowy countryside to the nearest train station. When I later got to know what it is that Ramana Maharshi was getting at by suggesting that seekers make the enquiry, "What am I?" I saw that although Harding may have had some experience, his understanding is very limited and distorted by his excessive ego-involvement.

warwickwakefield said...

I met Houglas Harding, had a long conversation with him. I made the mistake of asking him if he'd clear up this matter of headlessness. He went through his usual routines, the ones he writes about in his book, which revolve around getting you to focus your attention on the fact that you can't see your own head. Then he asks, "Now, tell me if you have a head." Obviously the fact that you cannot see something is no evidence for its non-existence, and I continued to assert that I do indeed have a head. Harding got very cranky and went into a sulk. His wife, a very pleasant and civilized woman, saved the situation by suggesting that there was a lot of work to be done and driving me through the snowy countryside to the nearest train station. When I later got to know what it is that Ramana Maharshi was getting at by suggesting that seekers make the enquiry, "What am I?" I saw that although Harding may have had some experience, his understanding is very limited and distorted by his excessive ego-involvement.

Alan Mann said...

My experience of both Harding and Wakefield is that the latter not Harding is the victim of of an excess of ego. I have spoken to Wakefield at length about this and he is incapable of distinguishing between what he knows and what is 'seen'.
Alan Mann