By Adam J. Pearson
In many Eastern traditions, we come across the notion that not matter, but consciousness is the true nature of things, what is most fundamental to reality. However, deep reflection reveals that, at the most basic level, neither consciousness nor awareness can be called the true nature of things.
Many teachers of the modern Neo-Advaita movement make this claim. At first, it seemed very intriguing to me. However, I had a subtle intuition that there was something wrong with this view that awareness or consciousness was the fundamental reality, but I repressed it. I rejected it. The mind, “I,” was attached to awareness. I had simply shifted my attachment from the forms of the world to the formlessness in which they are perceived. I traded one attachment for another. Only later did I learn that reality in its barest nature is beyond awareness and non-awareness, beyond consciousness and non-consciousness. This realization was the fruit of Zen training, silent meditation, and perhaps surprisingly, working as a dishwasher.
Whenever we try to express the fundamental nature of things, we can’t escape falling into paradoxes and negations. To most people, these expressions appear totally incomprehensible. Only those who have had this sort of insight and experience for themselves can understand these paradoxical words, but they are those who have no need to read them.
The best I can do is to say that all things are of the same ‘substance,’ though neither the concepts of ‘substance’ nor ‘non-substance’ can apply to it. At its most basic level, reality, ‘what is’ is ‘one without a second,’ outside the scope of all notions of ‘whole’ and ‘part,’ ‘collective’ and ‘individual,’ ‘one’ and ‘many.’ On the microscopic level, it goes beyond all of our most fundamental concepts of quantum mechanics, beyond even ‘wave’ and ‘particle,’ beyond even ‘position’ and ‘velocity.’
The naked nature of reality is not opposed to any object or quality whatsoever; neither one polarity nor the other enters into it, and yet all polarities are mere expressions of it. Even ‘unreal’ and ‘real’ ultimately fail to encapsulate it. All words betray it, and yet, all sentences are mere modes of it, as are all of the wonderful forms that the universe contains. The only scripture that can truly express it is silence. When speech attempts to capture it, it moves through the spaces between the grasping fingers, and the words form only paradoxes.
In Zen, they call this basic nature of reality ‘Suchness,’ a name on which no concept can be pinned. It is ‘just this,’ or ‘just like this,’ the Zen masters say. Just slap the ground. Just eat when hungry. Just sleep when tired. If Suchness is the nature of all things, Tao, the Way of nature, is its manner of operation; the laws of physics are the articulation of Tao, Tao defined in precise detail. However, we best express the truth of Suchness when we go beyond abstraction, cut right through all concepts, and speak and act concretely. In these moments of becoming what we are doing, rather than perceiving ourselves as ‘doers’ of action, it is Suchness itself that acts. This is the secret of Zen meditation, archery, sumi-e painting, the tea ceremony, martial arts, ikebana, and many other arts. The action is done best when the doer is out of the way.
I first learned this lesson while working as a dishwasher at Giorgio Ristorante before I became a cook. I became inseparable from my action. There was no thought of “I” at all, just washing the dishes. Just drying them. Just moving gracefully, becoming the movement, the dance of the washing and the drying. Suchness dancing as my fingers, as the bubbles, as the sauce on the dishes, as the dishes, as the space in which the movements happen, as the floor, as the planet rotating around the sun, as the vast expanse of the universe up to the galaxy filaments of superclusters of galaxies… Action without agent… flowing like a lion pouncing on its prey, growing like grass, without impediment or hindrance, just doing…
These words seem to me to express some truth, but even they are are betrayals of Suchness. The truest gospel of the mystic is silence. However, like Rumi and the Zen poets before me, I feel compelled to express the inexpressible. And so I speak words like these (often poorly!). They do not need to be said, but they arise and are spoken anyway. Suchness is unaffected by action or non-action, by speaking or not speaking; it is neither the same, nor different. It flashes like the flutter of a butterfly’s wing, and in a moment, that expression is gone.
The universe at every moment is a unique configuration of Suchness, a configuration that has never arisen before and never will again. This is the sacred character of the fleeting present, and yet, we cannot cling to it; it trickles through our fingers like grains of desert sand. The mind’s concepts are loops through which it swiftly moves, like water through the net of the fisherman.
Impermanence is the character of the expressions of Suchness, but Suchness itself can neither be called ‘permanent’ nor ‘impermanent.’ It lies just outside the reach of the subtlest concepts and their opposites like the vista beyond the map, the meal beyond the menu, the mountain beyond the picture of the mountain…