O C T O B E R 2 0 1 7
From the Tibetan Shangpa Kagyu tradition comes this exquisite riddle:
It’s so close you can’t see it.
It’s so profound you can’t fathom it.
It’s so simple you can’t believe it.
It’s so good you can’t accept it.
What is it?
The wonderful thing about this riddle is that it’s compounded of paradox — pure positivity (so close, so profound, so simple, so good) and pure negativity (you can’t see it, you can’t fathom it, you can’t believe it, you can’t accept it). It’s saying that no matter how we look for, or what we call, this “it,” it escapes the looking and the telling.
In most texts these lines are not referred to as a riddle, but are given the whimsical title: “the four faults of awareness.” But if we think “awareness” is the answer to the riddle, we’ve missed the point. To say “awareness” is to make a conceptual conclusion, and whatever this “it” is, it’s neither bounded like a conclusion nor objective like a concept. Yes, the lines are referring to awareness, but do we really get what that is, beyond the idea that the word “awareness” represents? The beauty of the riddle is that it forces us to the edge of language and then pushes us off.
Although these four lines certainly cannot be improved, I’d like to offer a few thoughts here in the hopes they may help, in some small way, with that push.
It’s so close you can’t see it
One way to enter the mystery of this line is to imagine space. Space is close and invisible too. It’s extraordinary, isn’t it, that we can have a sense of space without being able to see or feel it? Our bodies move through space and though space doesn’t separate to let us by, we feel no resistance — it goes right through us. Whatever our riddle is referring to is that close.
The great nondual teacher Jean Klein says it’s our “nearest.” So near it has no distance to travel to get any nearer. Sufis prize “nearness to God” and mean the same thing. “I am closer to thee than thy jugular vein,” it says in the Quran. In this case the words “close” and “near” are not about location or distance — they refer to identity, being so close to it we are it.
And so it is with our awareness. Can we find anything nearer to us than awareness? It’s so close we can’t see it, just like the eye cannot see the eye. Awareness is not seeable, though it is self-evident. And though the analogy of awareness being “like space” may be helpful, unlike our sense of space, awareness cannot be measured.
It’s so profound you can’t fathom it
This line drops the bottom out. It says we simply cannot understand what this is. To say it’s “awareness” doesn’t take us very far, since no one has ever fathomed awareness. Mystics have continually pointed out that awareness is the ground of all being, and now physicists are beginning to discover the same thing. But to say this is not to fathom it — it simply provides another mysterious description. This that we’re speaking of cannot be fathomed. It is a mystery and will remain that way because it cannot be focused into an object that our minds can surround. Mysterium profundum! The Divine Unknown.
To the extent we can admit this, humility graces our being. Our drive to understand, our insistence on possessing this profundity with our intellects… relaxes. The mind surrenders, making way for something we might call devotion or gratitude or praise or love.
It’s so simple you can’t believe it
What it is is so simple that it can’t provide any kind of story or concept for us to believe in. Every word we use passes right through it. Plotinus calls it “the One,” that which is uncompounded, that has no predicate, the absolutely simple first principle of all. Buddhists call it emptiness. Sufis call it the void of pure potential.
Does its primal simplicity mean we cannot experience it? We can, but not as an experience. In order to open to this non-experience we must ourselves become simple. We must become transparent to ourselves.
In the uncertain light of single, certain truth,
Equal in living changingness to the light
In which I meet you, in which we sit at rest,
For a moment in the central of our being,
the vivid transparence that you bring is peace.
— Wallace Stevens, from “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction”
Becoming transparent is not so difficult as it sounds, since our true nature is already transparent. It is the transparence of pure presence — or as some call it, presence-awareness. If we try to picture pure presence, we can’t. If we try to fathom it, we can’t. If we try to believe in it, we miss it — it’s simpler than anything we can approach through belief.
And yet it’s here, the simple pure presence of being, vividly immanent every moment in how everything appears, while at the same time transcending every appearance, every moment.
It’s so good you can’t accept it
This final line may be the most mysterious of all. We might think that if something is really good we could easily accept it, but the goodness this line points to is beyond the capacity of our acceptance. We cannot contain it — our “cup runneth over.”
We have come to believe that this reality we’re in is a tough place. We’re threatened by illness, violence and death. Everything that we have will one day be taken away. How could the truth be something so good that it both holds and supersedes our pain and grief? The stubbornness of that question is one reason why we can’t accept this that is “so good.”
As in the preceding lines, “accepting it” hits the same limits that seeing, believing, and fathoming run into. As long as we think there is something we have to do — seeing, believing, fathoming, or accepting — we will miss what this is about.
This that is so good pervades all being. It is the pure love-generosity that is so close, so profound, so simple we can’t surround it with our usual ways of knowing and feeling. As Rumi advises, “Close these eyes to open the other. Let the center brighten your sight.”