M A R C H 2 0 1 5
At the moment of our death, when the messages of our senses cease and the contents of our mind become transparent, The Tibetan Book of the Dead offers this instruction:
Remember the Clear Light, the pure Clear Light from which everything in the universe comes, to which everything in the universe returns; the original nature of your own mind…. Let go into the Clear Light, trust it, merge with it. It is your own true nature, it is home.
When I first read that passage as a young man I was deeply moved and reassured — it assured me that the confusion and loneliness I felt as a twenty-two year-old would vanish one day in that great, final homecoming. I didn’t understand what this “Clear Light” was, but it didn’t matter — the certainty of the voice in the Book of the Dead comforted me. The Clear Light would come.
And meanwhile, I would just have to make the best of it. So in the years that followed — my twenties and thirties — I kept attempting to find or build some kind of substitute, metaphorical home in which I could belong during my exile here on earth.
I realize now that I had succumbed to the old polarity of my species: the sacred hereafter and the profane here, heaven and earth, light and dark. As far as I can understand it, this polarity has its genesis in our need to identify ourselves as individual beings separate from the other beings and objects of the world: me in here and all the rest out there. The dominance of the “me in here” sets up the added polarity of my suffering and incompleteness now versus the promise of redemption and homecoming in the future.
Of course, these kinds of polarities are understandable — we are two-legged organisms walking about, seemingly disconnected from the earth and sky, and anxious about avoiding any dangers that might be lurking on our path. It appears we are separate beings.
It took me a few decades of spiritual practice and inquiry — not to mention the normal sufferings life provides — to realize that the nature of reality only appears to be split into these dualities. As one of my teachers, Murshida Sitara Brutnell, once cryptically said, “There is no other.” This whole show is one magnificent Happening, one awesome Brilliance reflected in the infinite prisms of possibility. Which means that we — you and I right now, every humming atom of us, every thought and feeling, every movement — are inextricably part of this blossoming of spontaneous light.
Sufis call this wahdat-al-wujud, the Oneness of Existence. Nothing stands outside of its Oneness and Suchness — there is no other. The multiplicity of the phenomenal world is sometimes imaged by Sufis as a veil over the Absolute, though the veil and the Absolute are not seen as two different things, rather “the veil is the external epiphany of the Absolute.” Or, as the 14th century Persian Sufi Mahmud Shabastari wrote, “The whole world of Being is the beams of the Absolute Light. The Absolute remains hidden because it is so clearly manifest.”
Which brings us back to the Tibetan notion of the Clear Light, surely the same as Shabastari’s “Absolute Light.” The Clear Light is not, as I had first thought, something waiting out there to welcome me when I die. It is present now, right here, both as perceptible as all the apparent things and thoughts and feelings of this world, and as imperceptible, invisible, and transparent as the awareness in which these words appear to us right now. The “light” of awareness, the Clear Light, “the original nature of your own mind,” all indicate this same “light” that can’t be seen or located, though it is unmistakably, spontaneously present. “God’s Light is in the heavens and the earth,” says the Bible and the Quran. And the Quran adds, “whichever way you turn, there is its presence.”
When I die I imagine that one of my last feelings will be, “How beautiful!” I won’t be referring to the beauty of where I’m going (I have no idea about that), but how beautiful is where I’ve been, this astonishing earth, sky, and cosmos, this astonishing body and its capacity to know and love. As the mystic-philosopher Francois Cheng remarked, “The universe is not obliged to be beautiful, and yet it is beautiful.” How extraordinary!
The mystery of the Clear Light and the mystery of the beauty of the universe have become the central contemplations of my life. “Beauty” (I’m fond of repeating these words of Ibn ‘Arabi) “is the welcoming openness of the truth toward us.” Somehow the “truth” of the unchanging Clear Light is revealed by ever-changing beauty. “God is beautiful and loves beauty,” a hadith tells us. Spontaneous, ephemeral beauty — the beauty of a song, a kiss, a passing cloud, a glint of sunlight — each one a momentary revelation of the unborn Clear Light, our home.