In the first chapter of Occult Experiments in the Home (see pp. 8-9), I discuss an odd experience with some dice. I was 14, and during the preceding months I’d been experimenting with a Ouija board and friends. Indeed, we’d begun to dispense with the board and were asking ‘spirits’ to manifest directly. One day, I was idly rolling a pair of dice, when it struck me they might be used as a means of spirit-communication. I asked the dice to move if the next throw were a double six. Nothing happened, but I didn’t give up until I’d repeated the trial many times.
The dice were resting upon the carpet where they’d fallen. I put my question to them once more. And this time, I was amazed to see them jump apart from each other by a couple of centimetres. It was the kind of motion you’d expect if two small magnets had been placed against each other with their like-poles touching.
I scooped them up, shook them in my hand and rolled. The result was double six.
In the book I examine the impact this left on me. It shook me up. It has bothered me for years, and continues to bother me. My reason for engaging with magick is mostly a product of this experience. In my magickal career I have witnessed many improbable things, but I have never yet replicated the experience with those dice. The results of my magick have arrived as synchronicites or (occasionally) seeming psychological anomalies, such as telepathy or precognition. But I have never succeeded (either through sorcery or evocation) at causing material objects to move or behave intelligently. And it’s not through lack of trying, as some of my magickal confrères — whose patience I have tested over the years — would surely testify.
Supposing, of course, that is what happened on that first occasion. Because hallucination, misperception or false memory are far more likely explanations.
It began to dawn on me only recently, however, that although I’ve never replicated the moving dice, neither had I made an explicit effort at reproducing the experience.
So I printed off a bunch of forms, each with 36 sets of a small box partnered with two slightly larger boxes. The small box was to be marked with a tick or cross to indicate whether — before rolling, and after mentally inviting them to do so, if the next throw were a double six — the dice appeared to move. The two larger boxes were to record the scores. I had a black die and a red die, and decided that the first box would record the black score, and the second the red. Each form was headed with a space for the date and the time at which the 36 trials began, and at its foot was a space for recording any comments or environmental conditions that caught my notice.
At first, I ran sets of 36 trials whenever I found the time, but soon noticed the lengthening gaps between them. This was no good. I would have to make a proper job of it! A couple of weeks ago I stayed up all night, interspersing trials with periods of meditation. The date was 4-5th February, 2013. The timetable for the evening worked out like this:
2125 Light candles. Banishing ritual (LBRP). Meditation. 2220 Trials. 2330 Meditation. 0020 Trials. (Very sleepy.) 0130-0135 Break for stretching and water. 0135 Meditation. 0225 Trials. 0330 Finish. Banish. Bed.
By the end of the session I’d filled in 54 forms of 36 trials each, a total of 1,944 rolls of the dice.
And guess what? The dice didn’t move. Not once.
Before each throw, I mentally invited the dice to move if the next throw were a double six. By chance alone, one throw in 36 will produce a double six (which is the reason why I designed each form to contain 36 trials). 54 filled-in forms should have produced 54 double sixes.
Guess what? They did.
It would’ve been nice if my demon botherer had reappeared, if only to clear up to my own satisfaction that what I remember happening when I was 14 actually did. Certainly, at various points during the evening I sensed ‘a presence’. I found myself a few times glancing over my shoulder in response to feeling stared at. On two or three occasions there were odd knocking or tapping sounds within the room that I couldn’t easily explain. But I wasn’t willing to be bought off easily. No way. Those dice had to move, or nothing doing.
The only odd occurrence was soon after 2326, when one of the dice landed upright on its corner. Cautiously examining whether it was fixed there by paranormal forces, instead I ascertained it had lodged in a recess in the carpet pile. I scrapped that trial and re-rolled.
It was not the most comfortable evening. I was very tired. Sitting in the same position, repeating the same movements over and over, exacted a physical toll. Most surprising was that despite wanting something to happen, a mind fuzzy with fatigue, intermittent creepy feelings, and (until 0237) the only source of light being flickering candle flames, the dice not once appeared to move. And not once did I even doubt that they hadn’t.
I am happy to have made the experiment, however, because (although it proves nothing) to me it revealed, at least, that hallucinations are more difficult to arrive at than I imagined. I’d supposed that on a few occasions I would have thought the dice had moved. But, candlelight or electric light, tired and spooky or just plain bored — my mind refused to oblige with nary a misperception or illusion. Not once in 1,944 trials.
Which begs the question, whether a waking hallucination is even more rare than a pair of sentient dice.
That in which awareness arises, beyond time and space, is totally mind-blowing.
One day, it’ll be recognised by everyone within their awareness.
For now, let’s ensure our immediate material needs are met, but that we don’t become trapped in what our ignorance produces, nor in the effects on us of others’ ignorance.
Let’s not be distracted by whatever is not working towards this, but repeatedly step back from it.
Because that in which awareness arises is what life on earth is really all about, and this amazing, indescribable realisation is always there, supplying the strength to recognise that everything is okay.
(My paraphrase of The Lord’s Prayer.)
Inspired by the work of Thomas Yuschak, previously I tested the effects on lucid dreaming of the dietary supplement alpha-GPC, with some positive results. I have now been able to test a combination of supplements Yuschak suggests is even more effective: alpha-GPC and galantamine. The latter is available in the UK only on prescription, but I was able to obtain some from a supplier in the US.
The variety I used is a plant extract from the red spider lily (lycoris radians). Synthetic forms and extracts from other species of lily are also available.
Galantamine is an inhibitor of acetylcholinesterase, which is the substance that breaks down acetylcholine in the brain. As described briefly in the previous article, acetylcholine has been demonstrated to play a role in dreaming. Galantamine, by interfering with the brain’s ability to break down this substance, seems to extend and strengthen the neurochemical process that underpins dreams. Galantamine reaches its peak effect quickly (in about 1 hour). It has a half-life of 7 hours, but takes approximately 48 hours to clear from the body.
Because galantime prevents acetylcholine from breaking down, rather than actively raising its level, Yuschak recommends combining galantamine with a choline salt (of which alpha-GPC is one of the most efficiently absorbed). This supplies an added boost of acetylcholine, in addition to the action of the galantamine.
I went to bed at 10.15pm and fell asleep as normal. At 3am I got up, went to the toilet, and took 4mg galantamine with 300mg alpha-GPC. Instinct advised me to use plenty of water. I returned to bed, but took a long time to fall back asleep – at least an hour. I also got up once more for the toilet, which may have been due to the water.
I lay awake for so long I started to wonder whether the effects would wane before I’d even started to dream. But then I noticed my mind slipping into fugue-like meanderings, where I was neither quite asleep nor awake. I was homeless and cooking a pan of rice outdoors. Then I realised I’d lit the gas but had forgotten to add water. I rushed around, trying to find water before the rice burnt, but problems and obstacles kept springing up that I had to deal with first.
Even though it seemed that I wasn’t, actually I was sleeping – and dreaming too, but non-lucidly. Things suddenly seemed very, very clear, and I wondered if the night had started at last. I lay for quite some time, assessing whether I was dreaming or awake. But when the room around me remained steadfastly normal, I concluded I must be conscious. Nevertheless, I took the uncertainty as a promising sign.
Later, I became aware of absolute darkness, but I was fully aware within the darkness. I felt vibrations throughout my body. At certain moments, my body would shoot off in a particular direction at huge speed. There was no sensation of rushing air, or any motion sickness, just pure movement in a straight line, either behind or to one side.
I was struck by the total lack of imagery. I seemed to sink down into a place that was completely black and silent. The thought arose that I had descended to the lowest point of Hell, but thankfully I was aware that it was only a thought.
It’s interesting to note that the plant from which galantamine is extracted (red spider lily), is supposedly described in Chinese and Japanese translations of the Lotus Sutra as ‘ominous flowers that grow in Hell’, guiding the dead into their next reincarnation. (This is according to Wikipedia, at least, but I should say that searching English translations of the sutra didn’t turn up any more details, or anything to support this assertion.)
A couple of times, I ascended from Stygian darkness into a place lighter, but still dim, where rudimentary imagery began to form. There were vague outlines of a room and of a couple of people I recognised. There were erotic sensations in the body. But the imagery seemed ‘made-up’ and I was unimpressed by its level of realism.
‘This is still not working,’ I thought.
At one point, having returned to the absolute darkness, I tried to move my limbs and realised I couldn’t. I recognised this as sleep-paralysis and was not perturbed by it. I couldn’t physically move, but I still had the sense of my body, so I ‘moved’ this instead, in the hope that I might leave the physical behind and finally get the show on the road.
I moved my astral limbs, and pulled up my astral body a little, but as soon as I tried to roll completely out of the aura of my physical body, I was roughly pulled back.
This part of the night’s adventures came to an end with an unexpected return to waking consciousness, and a feeling – somehow – of the closing of a definite phase. I sensed that a window for what might have been the night’s most powerful experiences had now closed.
The way now seemed clear for some orthodox lucidity. I was walking with my partner through sunny winter scenery. The landscapes and architecture were dazzling and intricate, including a curious housing estate of mock Tudor dwellings, with beams that connected the buildings themselves to form ‘meta-mock Tudor’ patterns. There were also endless lagoons, reflecting the cold, golden light.
We walked a fixed, straight path that sometimes led through narrow doorways in and out of houses and shops. People politely stood aside and let us through, as if they were accustomed to giving priority to travellers on this route.
Not entirely convinced I was lucid, I made an effort to recall my previous intent to witness the raising of Lazarus. Immediately, by the side of the road, a wooden cross appeared and a passer-by announced that Lazarus would soon be raised onto it. This struck me at the time as somehow not quite right. In any case, we didn’t seem able to stop, so the cross receded behind us as more scenery and more of the road ahead came into view.
Later, the walking ceased and a new principle had taken hold: that there was an undiscovered basement in the house, rarely used, although we found some evidence – in the form of displaced objects and the remains of meals – that, unknown to ourselves, we sometimes spent time down there. Again, I decided to take the opportunity to find out more about Lazarus.
On a table before me a small blue-grey statue appeared, of a woman suckling two male children (who, it must be said, looked a little too old for breast-milk). The statue had a Grecian look, but seemed a little primitive and unformed. A commentary spoken by an unseen woman began: ‘Lazarus and Jesus were sons of the goddess Moong. They were born in 1356BC. After they had grown to young adulthood, they travelled together in Italy.’
Then a woman with a professorial appearance (she reminded me a little of Mary Beard), came in and said: ‘Those dates are far too early, and they never would have come to Italy. It’s just too far west.’
I reflected that, even so, this might make some kind of mythical sense. The idea that Jesus and Lazarus were brothers and the progeny of a primal goddess was certainly interesting.
After waking, the suckled brothers and the reference to Italy brought to mind the myth of Romulus and Remus, who were raised by a she-wolf and became founders of the city of Rome. Like Jesus, according to some versions of the myth, Romulus ascended to Heaven after his death – he became the god Quirinus (the divine personification of the Roman people). Christianity itself, of course, ultimately became the religion of Rome. But the fate of Remus, like the fate of Lazarus after his revival by Jesus, is uncertain. In some versions of the myth Remus simply disappears, although in most he is killed – often by Romulus himself. Jesus and Lazarus, like Romulus and Remus, are ‘rivals’ in the sense that both of them lived on after death, but true divinity belonged to only one of each pair. The other died (and also, in the case of Lazarus, was brought back from death) in order to legitimate his rival.
Returning to the dreams – later still, the council had closed the offices of a Pakistani businessman implicated in all kinds of malpractice, but Conservative Party activists had forcibly reopened the building. They accused the council of racism and of harming the local economy.
The likelihood of Tories defending the rights of the oppressed appeared to me rather slim; this crook was probably one of their donors. Their angry and tight-lipped response to my allegations confirmed my suspicion.
‘Why am I dreaming this?’ I wondered. In waking life I’d noticed recently a growing tendency in myself to express what I think is true, even though it might not go down well or present me as likeable. ‘This is good practice,’ I decided, and continued making a nuisance of myself to the Tories.
The lucid dreams were similar in quality to those I experienced using alpha-GPC alone. However, they seemed to last longer and – when I awoke – gave the impression they would have continued indefinitely if I’d chosen to sleep on.
Side-effects and unusual physical sensations were more pronounced with the galantamine in combination with alpha-GPC. My stomach seemed a little perturbed, and a ghostly nausea surfaced once or twice, but it was too insubstantial to attract much attention. More noticeable was a throbbing sensation inside my skull, at a specific point to the left and slightly to the rear from the crown of my head. It was semi-painful, a bit like a headache, but came and went and was mild enough to remain mostly in the background.
Having checked some brain diagrams, the affected area might have corresponded with the left superior parietal lobule, which has been related to the function of spatial orientation. (I’m not qualified in neurology, so this is just my observation.)
I noticed another peculiar sensation, partly dizziness, partly muscular weakness, that became especially evident when I climbed the stairs for the toilet, and made me extra watchful, because I felt as if I were slightly not in control of my body. It seemed as if awareness were so much focused in my head that the rest of the body wasn’t quite so available as usual to attention. This dizzy feeling remained in the background for several hours after waking and whilst going about my normal tasks.
I would certainly use the combination of galantamine and alpha-GPC again, but I would not be inclined to increase the dosage. I would try to focus more on the out-of-body phenomena that dominated the earlier part of the night (because this seems to be galantamine’s unique contribution) and I would try to ensure that I fell asleep much sooner after taking the pills.
Taking alpha-GPC on its own is pretty much like taking vitamins. The effects of galantamine are more noticeable, however, and I would advise anyone thinking of using it to do some thorough research and make sure they are fully aware of the risks.
In Advanced Lucid Dreaming: The Power of Supplements (Lulu, 2006), Thomas Yuschak describes how a combination of galantamine and alpha-GPC (glycerophosphocholine) can help induce powerful lucid dreams and out-of-body experiences, and how other substances can be used to support this.
Unfortunately, galantamine is now available only by prescription (in the UK, at least), probably because it has been found effective in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease, so my experiment was limited to alpha-GPC alone.
The following is a simplified description of how alpha-GPC effects dreaming. To anyone seeking more detail and ideas for further experiments, Yuschak’s book is likely to be of interest.
Alpha-GPC crosses the blood-brain barrier and acts as an acetylcholine precursor. Acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter that research has linked with the ability to think, learn and remember. It also plays a major role in the regulation of sleep: its levels gradually rise during the night, in tandem with decreasing levels of serotonin.
Our sleep consists of alternating phases of deep, dreamless sleep, and of relatively lighter, dream-filled sleep – also known as ‘REM sleep’. As the night begins, the phases of dreamless sleep are longer at first and the phases of REM shorter. This relationship gradually reverses as morning approaches. REM sleep is therefore associated with lower levels of serotonin and higher levels of acetylcholine, whereas in deep, dreamless sleep the ratio is reversed.
I went to bed at 10.30pm and fell asleep as normal. Then, at 3.40am, as my acetylcholine levels were naturally beginning to rise and the phases of REM naturally growing longer, I took 600mg of alpha-GPC and returned to bed. I had some difficulty getting back to sleep, and after about 30 minutes I got up again for the toilet.
Some time later my landlord came in to say he was taking his niece out for the day. I heard him explain, ‘Duncan is testing the effect of supplements on dreams’. But then I remembered I was at my partner’s house – so the appearance of my landlord could only mean one thing…
‘You’ve got to be kidding!’ I exclaimed.
It was totally indistinguishable from being awake. It didn’t feel at all like I was dreaming; I only knew, logically, that this had to be the case. When I looked closely at articles in the room (some coloured chess pieces near the window, for example) I knew they didn’t exist in reality – and then I noticed how other items were in different places from where I knew they really were.
Still a little nervous that I might be making a huge mistake, I drew the curtains apart and forced myself through the glass. It gave way like jelly.
So now I was certain – and I recognised it had to be the drug, making the dream more vivid than usual. As I floated to the pavement, the dream showed no sign of breaking apart. The concrete under my feet was as solid as reality.
Beforehand (for reasons I won’t explore here) I’d set myself the task of visiting the gospel scene where Christ raises Lazarus. ‘Take me to Lazarus!’ I shouted at the sky, spreading my arms. Darkness rushed over me and I sank into the ground. But then, disappointingly, I awoke.
Hoping to regain the dream, I lay still with my eyes shut. But whilst awake, I was becoming conscious of the effects of the drug. The mind felt fluid, in a state of rapidly rolling forward. For a time, there was hypnagogic imagery of a printing press. Black characters on white scrolling past. The typography and arrangement of letters was gorgeous: isolated characters, sometimes in combinations, as if to draw attention to their beautiful shapes.
This gave way to some internal dialogue, which immediately detached itself and became an external character: a tall woman, hair in a black bob, wearing a floral-print dress. My reaction to this also split off and became a person. In an instant, there were four of them, distinct personalities, all gabbling away in conversation on the effects of the drug.
The next I remember, I was at my parents’ old house, helping my mother stack food in the cupboards, our long-dead cat weaving between our feet, looking as scraggy as she had during her final months. I was holding a sack, and when I bent to sniff inside, discovered it was full of huge cornflakes, each a couple of inches wide. Making sure Mum didn’t see, I let some drop near the cat, who wolfed them down gratefully.
I’m not sure I was always entirely lucid. It seemed that four or five times during the night, I realised I was fully conscious, threw myself out through the window, and tried to realise my Lazarus goal. But the drug wasn’t particularly improving my habitual shortcomings when it comes to lucid dreams: either I wasn’t quite lucid, or – when I was – it lasted only a short time. The drug was heightening the intensity and fluidity of my usual experience, but it wasn’t fixing its usual problems.
After a couple of failures, I gave myself a break and simply enjoyed the scene from the window. My partner lives on one of Brighton’s quirkier shopping streets. The architecture was now augmented, upwards and outwards, with hardly any sky or road between the facing buildings. Everywhere were ramshackle stalls and entrances, giving the place a third-world feel.
When I jumped down, someone told me that two Buddhist monks had come to work on a neighbouring stall. I grabbed some cartons of lychee juice – which seemed an appropriate gift. The two monks had shaved heads and dark-red robes. As we chatted, it became clear they were more concerned with the rules and culture of their tradition than in mastering meditation and gaining insights. Still, they were nice guys, and it was interesting to talk about their travels.
In fact, everyone, everything, seemed to want to talk. The mind itself was in a state where it felt far easier than usual to discourse at length, to spin out stuff in a swift and ceaseless stream. But it was a problem to make any of it stick. It seems I have forgotten a great deal. I had to make a conscious effort to rescue these fragments.
Things other than dreams were occurring. Before bed, I’d read an email from a friend about working with spirits. She was wondering how supplication of spirits or gods relates to that deeper level of religious insight, in which we recognise all is well – right now – just the way it is. If the goddess Yemaya gives us something that isn’t this all-pervading sense of wellness, then what is Yemaya?
I didn’t have an answer until, between the dreams, one arrived. It said: ‘The question is wrong.
‘Yemaya isn’t anything. This is the realisation that everything is well. But if we can’t help having to take something from her, then with the infinite compassion of nothingness, the goddess will give.’
I made another tilt at Lazarus. Transitions in lucid dreams between scenes and states are always tricky, and can often chuck you out into waking consciousness. Yuschak describes a technique he calls ‘seeding’ (p. 163). Whilst falling asleep, we drop into our mindstream conscious images which, if our timing is on, will grow into our desired scene as we slip into dreaming. The challenge is to do this lightly enough. If it’s too conscious, we won’t fall asleep. If it’s too lax, the images will grow in unintended directions.
Of course, I failed. Despite picturing myself outside the tomb, hoping Christ might show up once I’d dropped off, I was too loose. My images took on their own life and meandered far, far away. Somehow, I ended up sitting on the floor beside four people on a sofa, explaining what I was trying to do. A plump girl in glasses, with curly hair, seated closest to me, kept talking across everyone. Finally I realised it might be good to shut up and actually listen to her.
‘There was a phone call for you,’ she said.
‘Who was it?’
‘A beautiful voice. Can you imagine,’ she went on, ‘picking up the phone and hearing this most beautiful voice reciting the most beautiful passages?’
‘What were those passages?’ I asked.
She repeated the name.
‘I don’t know who Captain Pigeon is,’ I apologised. ‘We don’t have him where I come from.’
The people on the sofa stared in amazement and pity.
‘Of all the TV programmes,’ the girl explained, ‘Captain Pigeon is the only one with no death or violence.’
I smiled, because although I hadn’t made it to the tomb of Lazarus, this felt like some kind of sign. The pigeon or dove is an important Christian symbol for the Holy Spirit, for peace, and for John the Baptist. If I’d been awake, this might have been a synchronicity. But I wasn’t awake, so it was only a dream of one.
In a synchronicity, mind and reality come into alignment: a girl dreams of a golden scarab, and the next day a golden beetle flies through the window. I had wanted to see Christ raise Lazarus, but instead I’d had a phone call from Captain Pigeon. This might have been a synchronicity inside the dream, but – I realised – outside the dream it would not be meaningful at all.
‘Wow,’ I thought. ‘In here, I have absolutely no terms of reference.’
And then, bizarrely, the meaninglessness suddenly assumed an intense and paradoxical meaning. The non-synchronicity became one. Because Captain Pigeon, by drawing attention to his own senselessness, had transcended the dream. It felt like a message smuggled from another dimension.
I woke at 7.04am, when the drug would have reached its peak and was starting to decline. I could tell I wouldn’t sleep again, so I took the opportunity to examine the remaining effects in a more conscious state.
Its basic quality was that state when we’re consumed by an activity and cannot let it go; the feeling of being interested in and happy to work away at something all night. The label on the jar promised ‘mental acuity’. I’m not sure I quite agree with that. It seems to provide momentum rather than focus.
I can also confirm Yuschak’s observation (p. 71) that dreams under the drug seem inclined to feature music. At one point, from no visible source, I heard a funky piece played on a harpsichord; and whilst sitting by the people on the sofa, I heard trashy, but oddly light, dubstep being played. Whenever the music played, it was loud, which created an odd effect: because it was not actually sound, but a mental image of sound, it was possible for it to play at an ear-splitting volume, yet I could still ‘hear’ perfectly well (at the same time) conversations and other events in the dream.
Reported side effects for alpha-GPC include insomnia and nausea. At 600mg I experienced none of the latter. The former was mitigated by ensuring five hours sleep before taking the drug. After this, indeed, my sleep felt rather light and brittle. After waking at 7am, I was fine at first, but 3-4 hours later started to feel tired. I also felt a little low and irritable as the effects wore off, but I’m a miserable git anyway, so this was nothing extraordinary.
I’ve seen numerous posts on forums from people who tried alpha-GPC without results. This is not surprising. It’s a diet supplement, not a psychedelic; it only enhances the conditions for lucidity and does not directly induce it. Combining psychological techniques with alpha-GPC makes it more likely to trigger lucidity, and it’s absolutely necessary to time the dosage correctly. A few hours of sleep should always be taken beforehand, not only to guarantee some rest, but also to ensure maximisation of effect during the later stages of the night (or early morning), when the REM phases are at their deepest and longest.
I shall definitely be using it again – sparingly, so as not to build tolerance. But I won’t be following the directions on the jar to use it as a dietary supplement and chug a couple every day. However, as I make my living mostly from writing code, it struck me that it might occasionally prove handy in this context.
Suppose that a woman believes she is haunted. She has recently found a new partner, and he’s about to move in, but various odd experiences suggest the continued presence of an ex-partner, who tragically killed himself in the same house several years ago.
The woman calls a friend, a self-professed magickian, to help uncover what’s going on. The friend takes some photographs in the house, and on one of them an ‘orb’ appears, precisely in the spot the ex-partner’s head had lain on the day the woman found his body.
This is not a scientific, rational investigation. This case finds its resolution in a magickal ritual to lay the ex-partner’s spirit to rest. But was the house ever really ‘haunted’, and did it ever actually contain a ‘ghost’?
We might be able to decide, if anyone knew what a ‘ghost’ is, or what ‘haunted’ means. As things stand, ‘spirits of the dead’ is only a theory for the nature of ghosts – one that, so far, lacks any substantial evidence. But the ‘orb’ in the photograph – there’s now some good evidence as to the nature of those: they’re particles of dust or moisture, reflecting light from close to the sensor of a digital camera .
Rather than assuming the return of a dead person’s spirit, this case is more adequately explained by a misattribution of natural phenomena, perhaps motivated by the widow’s guilt over finding happiness with a new partner.
The mind (or brain) is hard-wired to find meaning where none exists. ‘Ghost’ and ‘haunted’ are two such meanings projected onto experiences that are actually nothing of the kind.
This sounds like a rational view, but it pretends to an authority it cannot support, because its assertion of non-meaning is also itself an instance of the mind manufacturing a meaning in order to explain something to itself – in this case, the nature of misperception.
Rationalism usually has nothing to do with transcendent realities, so it seems odd to appeal to a notion of meaninglessness beyond what any human being can experience, because although we can have the experience of ‘seeing a ghost’ (albeit mistaken), we can never have the experience of ‘not seeing a ghost’.
This is not to claim there is no misperception, or that any view or meaning is as valid as any other, but simply that mind is always meaningful, and so the battle for rationality is not on the side of meaning against non-meaning, but on the side of meanings that are faithful to perception against meanings derived from other mental faculties (such as thought, imagination or intuition).
Although a rational investigation of the case would have reasonably concluded there was no evidence for a ‘ghost’ or ‘haunting’, nevertheless ghost and haunting can remain meaningful terms for describing what happened – the kind of experience that the woman had. There’s no evidence for ‘ghosts’, but there is evidence for things that could give rise to the experience of one. Likewise, there is no evidence for consciousness, mind, or the self – although there are neurological correlates, which might or might not indicate something that gives rise to them – because these are terms for entities that by their nature fall outside of our perception . Nevertheless, we would find it difficult to get along without those terms. They are three privileged ‘ghosts’, with whom we have become so familiar, it seems unlikely they shall ever be exorcised.
Turning now to the photograph of the ‘orb’ (that speck of dust), its appearance encapsulates the whole issue of using magick or ‘spiritual methods’ in approaching the allegedly paranormal.
There are some evidence-based theories for how Ouija boards, mediums, EVP recorders, etc., obtain their supposed results. None of these theories has anything to do with post-mortem communication, but everything to do with autosuggestion, misperception and possible fraud. Even so, many have found that if we persist in the use of these methods, eventually they can yield a result that seems so mind-blowingly improbable we might be left wondering if they might work after all.
Our ‘orb’, albeit a humble dust mote, had the temerity to appear in a meaningful place. No matter its mundane origin, we can’t deny its random and yet exquisite sense of position. Likewise, during a Ouija session, when the board spells out information known only to the observer seated apart at a safe distance, who cares if the operators’ fingers are unconsciously driving the planchette? Results are results!
Or are they? This is the point at which we must evoke coincidence. Rightfully so, for if a means of manifestation is provided, then stuff can and – given enough opportunity, eventually – will appear. To manifest any concept expressible in English, all we have to do is provide 26 letters and some kind of randomised selection process. (If it’s non-random, then even better.) A human voice is but sound within a certain acoustic range: make that range available, provide some form of random sounds within it, and eventually a ‘voice’ shall speak.
This is the essence of magick: decide on a goal; provide some kind of format or means through which it can be said that the goal is met. Often, eventually, it shall then in some form come to pass. Not because the chosen technique or magick itself ‘works’, or has any effect (in the sense commonly understood) upon physical reality, but because it enables us to have an experience of its having done so . Because human experience is inherently meaningful, this can have a shaping impact on our lives indistinguishable from a more conventionally direct experience.
Occasional ‘hits’ like these, in themselves, prove nothing. To achieve proof, a sub-branch of magick is used, known as ‘science’, which cleverly defines a goal and a means of manifestation that are both limited to perceptual phenomena, augmented by instrumentation where appropriate.
Because, through perception, we share the same physical reality, the ‘magick’ wrought by science is repeatable and objectively verifiable. It becomes possible to predict and to know the results of certain procedures, rather than simply to experience them as true.
The magickal or spiritual goal of creating meaningful experience is not ‘evidence’ or ‘proof’ (a common confusion, perhaps especially among those who seek it), but is instead the empowerment it can confer through meaning. Meaning is a source of motivation in life like nothing else.
For the woman in our example, the appearance of the ‘orb’ could provide confrontation with her grief, and perhaps the means of coming more fully to terms with it. But magick is always risky, especially for those with no support-structure or previous experience in occultism; it offers no guarantee that we will find it easy to cope with the powerful experiences it can throw in our direction.
For this reason, the role of the paranormal investigator is to stick with science, collecting evidence for rational causes (where this is to be found) and handing the meaningful or experiential dimension of the phenomena back to the experiencer. In most cases, this should help to safeguard from harm the person affected by the experience.
 ‘Orbs! At last some definitive evidence that they are not paranormal‘ (2010), by Steve Parsons.
 ‘Self’ is that for which we suppose experience arises, so whatever falls within experience is not self. ‘Mind’ is supposedly what thinks and experiences, not necessarily those thoughts and experiences themselves. ‘Consciousness’, we assume, is what provides all the qualities and things of which we are aware – which makes it problematic to suppose that consciousness itself has qualities or is a thing.
 My personal view is that the paranormal is real, in the sense offered here: an effect upon physical reality that has no physical cause other than the intention of a person or discarnate entity. But apart from subjective experiences, I have no evidence for this, and no notion of what form the evidence could take. Until I do, I accept that this is merely my opinion.
Scientists can make discoveries, or they can fail to do so. The scientific method is what it is, and no one argues that the scientific method itself is what makes bad scientists. Yet in the case of religion, it’s very often argued that religion itself is what creates ignorance.
In practice, of course, it’s not a level playing-field. It’s accepted that to do good science you must be capable of a certain level of understanding, but the same is sadly not applied to religion. It is supposed that in the field of religion any idiot’s opinion is as valid as any other’s.
So let us reflect on religious idiocy…
In general, the biggest idiots of any persuasion tend to turn nasty over little things: a football team losing, or someone’s pint getting spilled. This reflects a primitive level of engagement with the world: namely, that certain things are ‘mine’ and these should be defended. Primitive it may be, but in primitive contexts it’s effective at safeguarding survival.
It’s not difficult to imagine how geniuses of this calibre behave when they come into contact with religious traditions: they identify with one tradition above all others and defend it by any means against the rest. This is the root of tribal and sectarian conflict, which has nothing to do with the doctrinal contents of any religion, but everything to do with how frightened animals react when their identity feels threatened.
But it truly is stupid, because although it works fine as long as we’re kicking someone else around, eventually someone bigger comes along and kicks our arse. ‘Hang on a minute,’ someone will declare, ‘this isn’t much fun any more. Wouldn’t the world be better if someone put their foot down and exerted a little authority?’
And – lo! A slightly less moronic structure springs from the daftness of the first: the appeal to authority. When this makes contact with religious traditions, now we encounter the idea that holy books are ‘the Word of God’; that every sentence is a literal truth to be obeyed to the letter. So the Earth is only a few thousand years old, because that’s what the Bible says. Indeed, whatever old book we borrow our morality from, well, it has to be applicable to the present day – otherwise, that would just plunge us back into chaos, wouldn’t it?
Ultimately, this structure collapses also under the weight of its own crappy assumptions (for those brave enough to allow it). To illustrate, I had a conversation recently with someone in this mindset, who told me how his obedience to God was so absolute, he would willingly kill his kids if God told him to.
Rather than notifying social services, I convinced myself this probably wasn’t going to happen. It’s rarely fruitful to argue with those in this mindset, because the very purpose of it is to safeguard its own authority; the less it accommodates, the better (from its point of view). But if I’d wanted to argue, I would’ve reminded him of a recent tragedy, in which a guy drove his children into the woods and killed them. ‘So would you agree,’ I would’ve said, ‘that if this man told us God had commanded him to kill his kids, then he’d committed no crime?’
The ‘authority’ mindset fails because religious experience is subjective. If someone hears the voice of God, does that mean other people have to jump to attention? Religious experience is a shoddy, useless arbiter of human affairs. Any book can say what it likes, but if what it says is contradicted by our own experience, which should we stick with? If it’s authority you crave, then stick with the Book of Rules. But if it’s knowledge, you have to follow where experience leads, even though it can be difficult and scary.
Thus we arrive at the next structure of understanding, which is the point where scientific reason becomes possible, because here we accept direct experience as the only reliable guide.
When this mindset comes into contact with religion, often it turns away in disgust. There is a general falling-off of religious practice in cultures (like our own) where this view has become fairly dominant. But religion can survive contact with it. Meeting people who seem to inhabit this perspective, I sometimes get an odd feeling that in one sense they’re not really ‘religious’ at all.
Scripture, for them, tends to be a guide rather than the rule, interpreted according to individual conscience. The everyday experience of everyday people is important to those in this structure, which can call down upon them, from less sophisticated cohorts, accusations that rather than ministering to spiritual concerns they are dabbling in politics. In fact, they are simply remaining faithful to experience of the world as it is, to the here-and-now.
It’s striking how similar (in some senses) the discourse of liberal religion is to contemporary scepticism. Like liberal clerics, sceptics are often passionately and genuinely concerned with exposing and combating injustice, abuse, and shining light onto cruelties.
Blessings upon both their houses! But even this mindset crumbles, because if my experience is the arbiter of what is real for me, then the same is true for you, and for the next man, and for the next woman, and so on for everyone. Every view – it begins to seem – is as valid and equal as any other. Even science is just a ‘discourse’.
Oh dear. We seem to have fallen into what commonly passes for post-modernism!
When this mindset engages with religion, we get The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Believe in whatever you like, as long as it makes you happy and you gain from it what you intend. Some forms of New Age belief fall into this perspective (but only some, mind you), and certain branches of modern occultism. Also, quite a few of those who have consciously chosen a non-local religious tradition: western Buddhists, Kundalini yoginis, and suchlike. And why not? We’re all on the same journey, right? All following different paths toward our own equally valid notions of truth.
But, guess what? This viewpoint fails too – once it becomes apparent that although every person’s experience is indeed as valid as anyone else’s, this is only true in the experiential sense. In other words, our experience is of equal worth, but what about our understanding of that experience?
And so we end up right here, the place we’re looking from right now, which is the view that the understanding that informs our experience varies wildly from person to person. Some views are less stupid and intolerant than others. Hence the view that is most comprehensive (which here is also the criteria for ‘most true’) is the view that can include and yet discriminate between the widest range of other views.
When this mindset connects with religion, we arrive at the spiritual investigator, who engages with a number of traditions, or perhaps with a number of practices within a tradition. He or she arrives at the following observation, gained directly from his or her experience: that although some of these traditions and practices lead us to the same destination, many do not.
Dianetics – for instance – leads to a different set of experiences from those arrived at through Zen, which leads to something comparable with (say) Ramana Maharshi self-enquiry, but which is different again entirely from what a Jehovah’s Witness experiences when they succeed in luring you to your front-door.
To anyone acquainted with spiral dynamics or integral theory, I’ve not said here anything very original or new. I’ve simply tried emphasise how religion, like scientific method, is something people can fail to understand or apply. Science does not produce ignorance; our misunderstanding takes care of that. The function of science is always to produce knowledge.
The function of religion, on the other hand, is to produce direct experience of what has been variously called ‘the Absolute’, ‘Emptiness’, or (perhaps its most widely abused and misunderstood term) ‘God’. This is not conceptual knowledge of the kind that science reliably supplies, but where it is motivated by actual engagement with the nature of experience, neither is it a form of stupidity.
Religion works, just as the scientific method works. But whereas people are more inclined to admit their ignorance in the face of science, unfortunately there are religious morons aplenty with utterly no clue, who still believe they’re qualified to tell you the Meaning of Life or what God thinks. They may indeed be stupid, but that doesn’t mean religion is.
All you need to do is ask them how they know. The answer that they give will probably point to which mindset they currently inhabit.
(If it’s the first or second, you may need to run away.)
A couple of weeks ago I chatted with chaos magician Mark Van Void about the nature of awakening, what happens afterwards, and various other details. Mark brought some pre-prepared questions for our discussion, and generated some extra questions at random using a pictorial dice oracle he has been experimenting with recently. Unfortunately the recording wasn’t clear enough to make a podcast, but here’s an edited transcript.
MARK: Statement: ‘The joy you seek is you.’ Is that true for you, Duncan? Has that been internalized in some way?
DUNCAN: Yeah. That sounds very true to me. What about you? Is that true for you?
M: Yes and no. [Laughter.] The surface me: no, it’s not true for that. Because that’s what moves me to search for things that will bring happiness. But it’s true for the deeper I, because that doesn’t need anything, and it’s always free, always happy. So, yes, it’s true on a deeper level. But how can it be true on a superficial level, because then there wouldn’t be a seeker?
D: I think the whole point of that statement is that it’s getting you to question that sense of ‘I’. I think that’s what it’s for. Because, of course, on the surface it’s apparent that this is not the case.
M: Yes, because without some degree of unhappiness and dissatisfaction there would be no seeking. And perhaps it’s pointing to the fact that all of that is unreal, and deep down that ‘you’ is the enlightenment, the awakening, all the joy you are after. And this is not different from you.
D: What I get, when I’m sitting there, seeing that, the bliss – it’s a sensation as if it just keeps giving and giving and giving… Do you get that at all?
M: Yes. It doesn’t seem to have a beginning or an end. It seems timeless. It seems prior to everything.
D: To be honest with you, though, the thing that gets on my tits is that it’s still just an experience, the bliss. Do you know what I mean?
M: Yes, I do. You are the witness of that.
D: But I think it goes beyond that, because even if the witness has dropped away too, there’s still the sense that this has to take the form of an experience. My hunch is that if there is some ‘enlightenment’ that comes after what most people call ‘the awakening experience’, then it’s got to have something to do with that, the way that all we have is the experience of things – even of emptiness, even of the clear light. It still has a form.
M: Okay. What about the kind of experience where, to describe it later on, really, is just to talk crap because, at the time of the experience, there was no ‘me’, there was no experiencer. To make a statement about it is not to describe it in any way, because even if it is verbally accurate, such as ‘emptiness’, ‘void’ or whatever, I am not there. It is a transcendental thing beyond experience.
D: What strikes me about those kind of experiences is that they don’t include this – you know, the sense of there being an I, of being here. And in that way, they’re incomplete – do you know what I mean? Everything should be included. Even the sense of sitting here and feeling crap. I don’t think there’s anything ultimate about the transcendental kinds of experiences, because they rule out the mundane.
M: I’m not sure what you mean.
D: I don’t think there’s anything wrong or less transcendent about my state of consciousness right now than any other state.
M: Yes. This is like the debate over whether liberation is right now, such as in the sound of us talking. Is that liberation? Is that what you mean?
D: Yes. My view is that it is.
M: It has to be doesn’t it? Do you mean that there’s a tendency to tag a beginning and an end onto some of these deeper experiences? But isn’t that just a concept of the experience, which is like a tarnish, really? It tries to put the experience into time, when this – which is happening right now – is beyond fucking time!
D: I also think that ‘bliss’ is a label. Because bliss is not bliss. It has to be!
M: It’s just a word, isn’t it?
D: Yes, because the bliss that you seek is there even when you’re not seeking bliss, and even when it’s not bliss that you are experiencing.
M: You mean in the sense that your attention can be elsewhere, but it’s still running, as if it’s an undercurrent?
D: Yes. I think this is one of the things that pops up in practice, in the later stages towards the awakening experience, where you get this weird sense that even though you’re not concentrating, you’re still with things, somehow.
M: Yes. Distraction is allowed. Distraction is allowed to be, as distraction.
D: I think that’s a big breakthrough, because when you begin you’re so hung up on staying with things – and then you discover that everything’s a lot more spacious, and your mind can wander, and you can watch it wandering, and it’s completely off the point, and you’re no longer meditating. You’re completely off on one. And yet you can still see all of that, arising and passing. I think the same applies to bliss.
M: It’s like a meta-position to meditate from. Do you have a spatial location for this, Duncan? Where is that viewed from? Behind the head or something?
D: No, you can’t locate it.
M: Okay. I’m just asking you. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong answer. So it would be wrong to think you were looking from above or behind the head, or something?
D: I don’t think that does it justice, does it?
M: No. That would be to assert a ‘me’ doing something, wouldn’t it?
M: Which is located here or there, or wherever… So, could you say that bliss is arising from a particular location?
D: No, but I’m thinking about chakras…
M: I’ve heard it said that bliss arises from the heart. Perhaps it arises from there and radiates out throughout the body. But then, what body? What fucking chakra?
D: To me it feels, when you’re in those states, that it’s like the chakra is receiving it. I know a lot of people say they get it in the heart chakra, and I do too, but most of the time it’s in the ‘third eye’ for me. That’s often where it feels strongest. Also – do you ever get it when it feels painful as well as blissful? It sometimes feels like there’s a hard pebble in the heart chakra, grinding around and around.
M: It can be emotion, which feels a little like pain, but not pain in some physical way. Is that what you mean – like a physical niggle?
D: It can feel like that, yes. But I don’t think that’s what it is.
M: The emotion is a reaction to it. The emotion is added to it. Often, we can be observing the emotion, which then transcends the emotion, and the emotion stops.
D: Yes. So I don’t think there’s a location for bliss, but it feels like bliss can be in the chakras. But when I look at it more closely, it seems to be like you say – it’s a reaction. The sensations are reactions to something. To nothing.
M: To nothing being everything… Perhaps wherever you focus your attention it can be.
D: But if you concentrate on your fingertip, does that have the same feeling? It doesn’t seem to. It seems to be certain parts of the body.
M: I see what you mean. Next question: Buddha said enlightenment is the end of suffering. Do you think there’s a misconception amongst seeker about this?
D: Yes, I think there’s a massive misconception about that, which is the idea that you’re never going to feel pain again or feel miserable again. After the awakening experience it’s a huge anticlimax to discover that things are still shitty.
M: That irritation can still arise?
D: Yes. [Laughter.] There’s still suffering, but the idea that there is someone to suffer is what changes. It just doesn’t seem as ‘personal’ as it used to. Do you know what I mean?
M: Yes. To the extent, though, that you can develop anger or irritation or any other delusion – if you like – isn’t that due to some sort of karma that remains, or our attention on the thought that gives it some energy?
D: I don’t think it works like that.
M: Isn’t our attention feeding that thought, making it into something bigger and bolder than what it actually is?
D: Well, ask yourself: what is it making more intense? What is there to be made more intense by the thought?
M: Well, more thoughts. Such as ‘this shouldn’t be happening,’ and other such stupid ideas.
D: This is the weird thing: suffering still arises, but – like I said – it’s not personal any more. It is seen straight away as being empty. But that doesn’t stop all the thinking and clinging – that still arises too, but that also is seen through as being empty. So I’m sitting there, unhappy about something, and the thoughts are arising, and I’m totally bound up in the thoughts arising – but the being bound up is seen through as well. I take what you mean about karma, but I don’t think karma takes us away from anything. It’s just karma. And karma is seen through as well. The feeling I had, after my awakening experience, was like a kind of cog wheel, all the suffering and thoughts arising, but spinning and spinning and spinning without gripping onto anything in the way that it used to. It doesn’t find any purchase. The process still goes on, and it gets quite mad and intense, but there’s nothing for it to lock into.
D: I think the karma is what is making that wheel spin. The karma is still there and the wheel is still spinning, but it can’t find purchase because you can see that everything that comes up is empty.
M: So it’s like a duck’s back that has been positioned vertically. [Laughter.] Whatever gets thrown up, can’t stick. It’s just going to run down and fall off.
D: Yes. And I think the karma is what is doing the throwing. That’s going to carry on. Over time, you’re going to gradually learn that there’s no point throwing that water, and it comes up less and less.
M: So the attention given to thought lessens too, in so much as you become a sort of ninja who can block those thoughts with quick reactions?
D: Yes, because you know they’re not really going to go anywhere. But those thoughts can’t really do anything. After the awakening experience, everything that arises can be seen through. So it really doesn’t matter what you think. It doesn’t matter how you react. Whatever that reaction is, it’s seen through.
D: The awakening experience is like a kind of understanding. That’s the nearest word I can think of to describe it. It’s not a state, or an idea. It’s like a kind of understanding that soaks into you, and you just know, see and experience it in that way. So you can think what you want. You know, what could you possibly think that could mess up your whole life? What could you think that could destroy the universe, or stop you from seeing things how they are? There isn’t anything.
M: I suppose not.
D: In some traditions you have the idea of ‘blasphemy’ – if you think certain thoughts or say certain things, then it somehow sticks in the universe and God can see it and will be offended. I think this is an equivalent. But there’s really nothing you can think, or any reaction you can have, that can ever really do that, because reality is just not like that at all – stuff does not stick around. It’s always arising and passing.
M: So the only clinging that occurs, occurs within the conditioning within delusion and – necessarily – isn’t real?
D: Yes. The karma is not in you having those thoughts. It’s seen through. It doesn’t stick anywhere.
M: And as a result of not reacting to these situations, then you won’t be committing any more karma.
D: Well, that’s not how I’ve experienced it, so far. I think you can react, and even the reaction can be seen through at the time. So someone might say something and you become annoyed. Even as the anger arises, even as you lash out at them, you can be seeing through that, seeing that it’s empty.
M: Can there be stages to that? You might have an angry outburst, and it’s only when you’ve said the last word of the sentence that you adopt this meta-position and think, ‘What the hell?’ and it’s like you’ve just watched someone else do something.
D: I think it’s at a much deeper level. You can see through your ‘letting go’, even. Imagine you’re angry, and you can see yourself being angry, but then you decide to let go. Even that is karmic and can be seen through.
M: So it’s a meta-position even of that?
D: I think it’s no position. It’s not having any position at all.
M: It’s like the internal weather is still there but your experience of it is different. Preference can still be there, and doing something that goes against it. You’re still going to try to choose situations that involve less suffering – unless we put ourselves deliberately in a place to test our realisation.
D: And I think that’s a good practice!
M: That’s it. If you can go into situations where previously you got annoyed and ended up ranting at someone, if you can go there and abide in a peaceful state, and walk around with a big smile, then there’s probably nothing left to learn, is there?
D: But, at the same time, you’re probably still getting pissed off. There’s probably still annoyance arising.
M: But it’s being seen through.
D: Yes. And if you keep putting yourself in those situations then, eventually, it probably won’t arise. But that’s probably nothing to do with enlightenment as such; it’s just habituation.
M: Karma is like habit too, isn’t it? Conditions that we’ve built up through belief.
D: I’m starting to find more useful now the idea of the Will of God. Not a particularly Buddhist concept, but the idea of surrender to the Will of God seems a better metaphor than this idea of trying to arrange things in a certain way. What grabs me about this idea is that God’s Will is always the way everything already is. You can’t go against it, because by definition this is already what it is, what’s happening right now.
M: I don’t know… The concept of God, for me, is too karmically polluted!
D: Try this one, then: enlightenment is not ours to fiddle with. Awakening is just awakening.
M: I can detach the word ‘God’ from personification, but sometimes I have trouble. [Laughter.] So, go on. Run it past me again.
D: Enlightenment is part of reality. So you don’t get to think, ‘Oh, I won’t react like this,’ or, ‘I won’t get irritated by that.’ That’s not what enlightenment can be, because that’s us trying to set things up in a particular way.
M: Trying to control things.
D: Enlightenment is just what is. It’s the fabric of reality.
M: Whatever is happening has already been deeply accepted with love, in a sense, because it’s happening.
D: Exactly. So who gives a fuck what you think or how you react – stuff like that. You can’t intervene at that level. Thank God!
M: There’s no one to react. There’s just this.
D: Which – from one way of looking at it – is the Will of God.
M: How about ‘Great Spirit’? I think I’ll go with that one. It’s more faceless.
D: Hasn’t got so big a beard.
M: It’s more comfortably vague. It can be called the Will of the Great Spirit, but it’s still witnessed by us, by ‘I’.
D: But that arises within it. That’s part of it. It’s not standing outside of it.
M: The Will of the Great Spirit, that’s arising within you, rather than you arising within it. You’re a witness of the Great Spirit too, no?
D: It doesn’t seem that way. I remember, I met an old teacher of mine from university and I was telling him about some of the stuff I’d got into. As I continued talking I could see his face taking on this expression of increasing horror, as I went on about Buddhism, magick and occultism. At the end he said, ‘That’s just complete solipsism. You’ve deluded yourself that you are the only being in the universe; that you are synonymous with the universe itself.’ Afterwards I was thinking about this, and I concluded that actually it’s the opposite: all this stuff we’re talking about right now, it’s not solipsism. It’s not like we’re trapped in our own heads. It’s not that we’re saying we’re the only beings in the universe. It’s like everything else exists, apart from us. That’s the way I tend to look at it.
M: That they’re all merely perspectives, and at different times some are more appropriate and useful than others.
M: Solipsism is crap because it’s all about everything being one, and oneness, and that can have a loosening effect on our reality tunnel – if you want to call it that – which can be beneficial, but I prefer the term ‘non-dual’, meaning ‘not two’, and I think there is an important and subtle difference between the meaning of ‘one’ and ‘not two’.
D: Yes. And ‘not one’ either.
M: Yes. And neither ‘non-dual’ nor ‘one’. But both. Sometimes.
M: Next question: going through the meditation or awakening experience, we feel we have ‘okayness’ with whatever arises, but even when this is relatively stable, can there still be resistance to some or certain appearances?
D: Definitely. You can even have resistance to the ‘okayness’. Why shouldn’t you?
M: You’re free to adopt any position.
D: You can’t define enlightenment as belonging to any particular view or state.
M: Even okayness with whatever arises is a perspective. And there can be resistance to appearances, but that is merely a perspective also, one that automatically is seen through as empty.
D: Exactly. If things were ‘okay’ and ‘stable’, imagine how fucking bored you would get! [Laughter.] But then boredom would arise – and be instantly seen through.
M: You must get to a point where you can’t choose not to see through thoughts and experiences and so on.
D: I don’t think ‘seeing through’ is a voluntary process. That’s what I mean about enlightenment being a form of understanding.
M: An intuitive thing? Not conscious?
D: It’s like when you learn a sport or martial art. Once you’ve ‘got it’, you just do it automatically.
M: So there you go – there’s a limitation: you can’t not see through! You’re stuck being free from delusion.
D: Someone said to me once, ‘What if you get enlightened and you don’t like it?’ At the time, I thought this was the most stupid thing anyone could have said. But, after the awakening experience, I thought: ‘Actually, they’ve got a point.’ Because there is no going back.
D: For a while, the effects of the awakening experience did feel unpleasant, in a way. The sense of self changes, and there is a sense that you’ve lost something.
M: What about loneliness? Does that come into it?
D: Initially, I think. What about you?
M: I’ve thought so, yeah. If that’s all there is, and there’s no one among all of these forms; if it’s just ‘you’ looking back from among all these forms, whether they’re people, or objects, or whatever, then I think there is a loneliness there. But not a sad loneliness, as such.
D: It’s weird how the awakening experience includes all this bliss, the end to suffering, and yet there’s unpleasantness and loneliness at the same time.
M: A sweet, beautiful sadness.
D: A boring bliss.
M: So, if you look at an object, then, do you get some sense of ‘you’ – in the deepest sense – that’s illuminating it from the inside, that’s making it be there, because it’s arising within you? In what way is it ‘other’ than you?
D: Again, this makes me think of what we were saying earlier, about how everything exists apart from the self. Pens, screens, microphones and vajras exist, but the only thing I can’t find is the thing that thinks it perceives them.
M: If the person is empty of independent existence, then the many people are empty of it too – there’s not just no ‘you’, there’s no ‘anyone’, either. And similarly, with objects.
D: Yes. But I don’t really experience it that way. Do you?
M: No. There’s an element of ‘otherness’ in objects and things, but it does sometimes look like a practical joke I’m playing on myself, by putting that ‘otherness’ there, by projecting that otherness.
D: ‘Otherness’ arises on the inside?
M: It can’t be ‘outside’, can it? ‘Inside’, ‘outside’ – again, it’s just duality. Just more perspectives on nothing.
D: Let’s roll those dice, then!
[Mark takes up his dice oracle, to generate some further questions. He lights some incense and rings a bell. Whilst reciting mantras, he throws the dice and pauses to interpret the result.]
M: Okay, this is roll number one. This is good! So: ‘When we investigate with the single-pointed arrow of our concentration, is there a need to be able to hold the object of emptiness whilst simultaneously inspecting it from many angles, like a nimble fish, in order to see it directly with our vajra-like mind of bliss?’ Here are the dice, so you can see where I got that from…
D: Let’s have a look… Wow! There’s a key, a torch, a learner-driver sign, a lightning-bolt, an eye and a fish. That is so cool! To answer the question – absolutely, and this practice still goes on. This question is more like an affirmation, I think. It becomes even more amazing after the awakening experience, because holding emptiness in attention deepens it, and deepens it. You can also see how concentration itself is empty – what is concentrating and what are you concentrating on?
M: Does there come a point, then, when the concentrating and the deep inspection of the object vanish, and something beyond the mind arises, like a revelatory experience?
D: Yes. That is the experience of meditating upon emptiness, as far as I’m aware.
M: So it’s like the mind and its object both vanish, revealing emptiness itself, seen directly?
D: Yes. This is just the practice. Your dice seem to have summed up precisely the practice. This is what all practices designed to bring about enlightenment will ultimately lead to, I think.
M: So concentration and the object are like the two pieces of wood that get rubbed together, and the fire gets going, and eventually the fire destroys the two pieces of wood used to start it?
D: Yes. You can now see, in real time, all the time, over and over again, how there’s nothing to concentrate on, there’s nothing to concentrate with, and there’s nothing called ‘concentration’ anyway.
M: Shall we try another one?
D: Yes, I’m impressed!
[Mark rings bell, recites mantras and launches the dice.]
M: ‘This vajra-like bliss from concentration, how essential is it to crossing the river of awakening and seeing the multi-levelled house of samsara as empty, to give happiness?’ [Laughter.] In other words, ‘How essential is bliss?’ Is it the discovery of this bliss that stops the appearance of the ordinary body-mind?
D: I don’t think bliss is something you have to cultivate in order to arrive at the awakening experience. I think for a lot of people it’s a hindrance. You come across a lot of people who are stuck in concentration practices and just sit focussing on their breath, totally off their tits in bliss, but never reach the point where they examine who is concentrating or what is being concentrated upon. Bliss is a result of seeing emptiness.
M: That’s interesting…
D: Not all bliss, of course… Hey, I love these dice. They’re more like affirmations than questions. Rhetorical questions.
M: Would you like to try out one last one?
[Mark rings bell, and does the mantra and dice thing again.]
M: Okay, ‘What does the awakening experience have to say to people who feel they are the victim of circumstance?’
D: Oh, that’s tricky. Isn’t that tricky?
M: It is, isn’t it? But that’s what has come up. What ability or what approach would help a person who feels themselves a victim of society or circumstance or something?
D: One approach to helping people like that is to teach them magick. It reaches out to people more than religious systems, because the first thing it gives you is a sense of empowerment. It can make you feel more empowered and, as you press further into it, then you start to ask deeper questions about, ‘Why do I want the stuff I’m asking for?’ ‘Who is doing this?’
M: Yes. Like you say, it correctly puts the person back in the position of choosing the experience rather than suffering the uncontrollable.
D: I can’t think of any religious system that does that for people. If you take up magick, you are the priest – and the congregation.
M: That’s quite a healthy way to think, really. Isn’t that how religions came about historically, by manipulation of the populace? They didn’t want local shamans popping up here and there to help people.
D: But past a certain point, all the intention to awaken people has gone. There’s no longer anything spiritual going on; it’s all about power. It’s just the attempt to control people through dogma.
M: I don’t think the Buddha had any intention for ‘Buddhist Centres’ or institutions built around what he had said, or whatever.
D: The Buddha’s problems started as soon as he began taking on students. Then he had to impose rules. And people began mistaking the rules for the practice. It seems inevitable, doesn’t it? Whereas the wonderful thing about magick is it teaches you there are no rules. You just make it all up. It doesn’t really matter what you make up, because it’s all going to be reality. You can’t get away from reality. Making stuff up just makes you look closer at what you suppose the difference between reality and unreality actually is. And then you’re confronted with the fact that it’s your mind, your beliefs that do that. And then – you’re on the path to enlightenment.
M: ‘With our thoughts we make the world.’ That’s from the Dhammapada. So with our thoughts we can make our own spiritual system! We can make it all up, if we like.
Bhikkhu Parasamgate dropped by a few days ago. He’s a self-styled monk, whom I hadn’t seen in a while. He brings a bag, a bedroll, and goes around the country staying with people – usually for about a couple of weeks. He’s very low-maintenance. Provide him with access to a bathroom, kitchen, and a space for his bedroll, and he’s more than happy. People who invite him often ask him to teach meditation, yoga, or other esoteric stuff in return for his keep. I just like having good, long chats with him, about his current views, and what practices he’s using to deepen his understanding of awakening. In fact, ‘the Tibetan monk from Bedford’, who appeared in the previous article on this site, was pretty much based on Bhikkhu Parasamgate (although the real bhikkhu was first trained in the Theravadan tradition).
I was glad to see he’d put on a little weight since last summer, when he was looking far too skinny. I like the way he organises his life, always roaming around, completely outside the system, teaching and writing in his notebooks. (I’m not sure where he puts them once they’re full.) It’s a pretty insecure existence, however. We’ve discussed this, and I know it’s something he thinks about occasionally.
He told me about an idea he’d had to make a little cash, which he hoped to put away in case of emergencies. He’d noticed how popular tarot cards have become, and how useful they are for opening up insights into personal issues, or providing forecasts of possible events. But he’d also noticed how Buddhism has nothing equivalent.
This set him thinking. The reason that tarot is so effective, he decided, is because of how it maps the entire panoply of mundane experience. Everything is there in those 78 cards: the suits representing earth, water, air and fire; the minor arcana embodying the 10 sephiroth of the Tree of Life; and the major arcana corresponding to the 22 paths between between the sephiroth. Yet the main concern of Buddhism is with finding an exit from ordinary experience (or ‘suffering’, as the Buddha characterised it), rather than revelling in all its mundane glories.
Of course, for Buddhism to achieve that, it has to provide a full understanding of exactly what must be ‘escaped’. And this was what brought Bhikkhu Parasamgate, finally, to the nidanas – or ‘chains of causation’. These are the teachings within the Buddhist tradition that describe in greatest detail the ordinary, unenlightened world. So it was upon the nidanas that the bhikkhu built his new and uniquely Buddhist oracle. And the more he thought about it, the more amazingly suited to this purpose the nidanas seemed to be.
However, leading the sort of lifestyle that he does, his resources were limited. Luckily, he had a friend who could typeset the book he wrote. Although Bhikkhu Parasamgate is many things, he’s no draughtsman, and sadly he couldn’t find an artist with the time and interest to create original images for each nidana. He had to resort instead to trawling the internet for suitable pictures. Of course, he knew he couldn’t make money from these (that would be copyright theft) but he hoped that a professional publisher would take up the idea, run with it, and hire a suitable artist for the job.
Unfortunately, given the current state of publishing, no one was interested in taking on the substantial up-front cost of producing an original deck of 26 cards. Bhikkhu Parasamgate carried the nidana oracle in his bag, still hopeful, for three or four years, but last week he handed me a USB stick and explained he’d given up on making money from the idea, although he still thinks the nidana cards are too good an idea to waste. He has asked me to release both his book and the cards onto the internet, for free, with an assurance he hasn’t profited financially from anyone else’s work. He can’t remember now where he culled the images from. Hopefully, many of them are already in the public domain.
|The Nidana Cards: A Buddhist Oracle and Teaching Tool, by Bhikkhu Parasamgate. (Book. 112 pages.)||Download [PDF 14.1MB]|
|The cards. (26 cards, plus single backing design.)||Download [PDF 32.6MB]|
|Backing design. (For use in making a deck of cards – see below.)||Download [PDF 64Kb]|
What the cards mean, how they’re used, and what divination has to do with Buddhism anyway, are questions the bhikkhu explores in his book, written in a style more wonderfully concise and engaging than anything I could manage. I hope readers of this website will find it as interesting as I did. It really does seem to offer a uniquely Buddhist system of divination.
The nidana cards are a nuanced and subtle oracle, nowhere near as ‘earthy’ as the tarot or the runes, and probably best applied to issues that are primarily psychological, or concerned with spiritual development. Even if you don’t use the cards, there’s plenty of interesting material in the book concerning Buddhism, meditation, enlightenment and divination. Spiritual geeks will probably enjoy the appendix, in which the bhikkhu shows how the nidanas can be mapped onto the tarot, the Tree of Life, and onto salient concepts from Integral theory. But if you decide you would like to use the cards, then you’ll need to make yourself a deck by hand, from the files supplied.
I never imagined this blog would turn all ‘arts and crafts’, but here are some instructions, based on how I made my own deck of cards:
Bhikkhu Parasamgate sends his best wishes to readers of this website, hoping that you find the book and cards useful, and he wishes you the very best of luck with finding enlightenment in this lifetime. If you have any feedback on his work, let me know, and I’ll pass on your comments the next time he swings by.
The Mayan Long Count calendar was about to expire – most likely because the Mayans hadn’t lasted long enough to add a few more cycles – but, among the esoterically-inclined, it was decided this meant 2012 was the end of the world. There was scant evidence, yet, manifestly, a lot of people wanted something to happen, and this looked to me a basis good enough to ensure that something probably would. Wherever that something happened to be, I wanted to be there.
In the Nevada desert, the Burning Man Festival imploded under the pressure of 2012. Everyone wanted to party at the end of the world. The utopian ethic of Burning Man was trampled, as entry prices and New Age mendacity ran riot, and hordes of the ticketless marched on the playa. In panic, the organisers cancelled. And thus the promised return of the serpent-bird-god Quetzalcoatl, into the body of his messiah (a New York journalist), was denied its scheduled venue. And if it took place elsewhere, then no one noticed.
Luckily I’d foreseen the burnout of the Burn and had switched focus, swapping my ticket (at cost price) for a trip to Bugarach in south-western France. New Agers had been collecting there, quietly, for several years, convinced that an alien base was hidden under its peculiar-looking mountain, whose occupants might be persuaded to airlift the crowd to safety, when the apocalypse hit on December 21st.
A woman who runs a hardware store in Washington, channelling the spirit of a Lemurian warlord 35,000 years old, prophesied that Bugarach would be ground zero for a leap in human consciousness. But it wasn’t only the esoterics with their eyes on the mountain. The army was on alert to prevent a mass influx, and they pulled it off impressively. Two French squaddies marched me out of the station when I tried to board my train in Paris. Whatever transpired at Bugarach, it transpired within a rigid exclusion zone, and the world woke up pretty much unchanged on December 22nd.
Yet my trip to Paris wasn’t a complete waste. Sipping morosely at a coffee, I fell into conversation with a guy in Tibetan Buddhist robes. The cafés of Paris were swarming that week with unlikely characters. I assumed that this guy, European-looking, with a shaved head and little round specs, was dressed for Bugarach, but had been disappointed the same as me. It turned out, however, that despite coming originally from Bedford, he was the real deal. He’d left for Tibet a decade ago, to study in one of the few monasteries tolerated by the Chinese.
‘I’m travelling home, because now it’s all over for me,’ he said.
‘You think everything still might end?’
He looked surprised, and then: ‘God, no!’ he laughed. ‘That’s not going to happen.’
‘Sorry,’ I sighed. ‘You know, I’ve been so convinced that something was going to. If only because enough people believed.’ I flashed back again to that undignified scene of being marched off the platform. ‘I can’t shake the feeling there’s something I need to find. Wherever and whatever it is, it’s not here,’ I said.
The guy in the robes (oddly, I never caught his name) seemed to weigh me up, and then embarked on a very strange story. It was all the weirder for not including any elements of the stories I’d heard before. In it were no grey aliens, no Roswell, no US government cover-up, and no masonic plot. The Illuminati was not mentioned, nor the Knights Templar. The bloodline of Christ didn’t feature, nor – for that matter – Atlantis. But, unsurprisingly, given his costume, there was quite a lot about Tibetan Buddhism.
Whilst in his monastery, my monk from Bedford became embroiled in a controversy, which arose when the Dalai Lama (whom he’d met on several occasions; a very nice man, apparently) asked his followers to cease their homage to a spirit-deity named Dorje Shugden.
For four centuries this entity has been worshipped as a dharmapala, or ‘protector’ of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, but for reasons that the monk took great pains to explain, yet which still remain to me (I’m ashamed to admit) rather hazy, the Dalai Lama decided that Dorje Shugden was not all he’d been bigged up to be, and – indeed – was best left well alone. In short, the Dalai Lama had come to suspect that Dorje Shugden was not an enlightened being and, as such, might not be acting in the best interests of humanity. This presented something of a problem to my monk, because he’d inadvertently ensconced himself in a monastery strongly opposed to the Dalai Lama’s views and fervently dedicated to Shugden, whom its senior lamas regarded as both the ultimate protector of their faith and guarantor of its survival beyond the 21st century.
But there was much more. At the monastery was an old monk, who lived in a separate cell, excused from most of the daily duties. It was well-known that this old monk hadn’t long to live, as a result of a role he’d fulfilled unstintingly for many years, which was to become physically possessed by Dorje Shugden, and relay the spirit’s message to the faithful monks.
The possession rituals were onerous in the extreme. Once Shugden’s spirit had taken possession of the old man, in a ceremony before the entire monastery, it shook him from head to foot, made him scream at operatic volume, and flung him like a dishcloth around the ceremonial platform. Often, it took the poor old boy a fortnight to recover. But as the controversy with the Dalai Lama widened, the necessity to consult Dorje Shugden arose more frequently, until the medium had reached his limits.
On the day of the final ritual, the old monk could barely stand – until the spirit of Shugden sent him screaming and cavorting. It was too much. He died in his cell two days later, but peacefully and with a cheerful smile, because the spirit had known this was its last chance to manifest (until a new medium was found, which might take centuries) and to safeguard the tradition against the double threat of Chinese oppression and the Dalai Lama’s intransigence, it had conveyed a remarkable and very specific set of instructions to the assembly of awestruck monks. And my monk, of course, had been among them.
There is nothing in the world that conveys displeasure more vividly than the body-language of a Parisian café waiter. It was quite late, by this point. Our coffee cups were empty, and it was clear we would soon be required to leave. Luckily, the monk was able to finish his narrative before the management sent us packing.
What the spirit of Dorje Shugden revealed to the monks was that, although it was pretty much ‘game over’ for Tibetan Buddhism in Chinese-occupied Tibet, it was far from the end of the road for the tradition as a whole. But this was only on condition that three objects, which the spirit referred to as ‘jewels’ or ‘treasures’, were located and smuggled out to the West.
Traditionally, in Buddhism – the monk explained – the ‘three jewels’ are a metaphor, standing for the Buddha himself, his teachings, and the spiritual community that receives them. But the spirit of Shugden was quite explicit that his three treasures were actual, material objects, and through their physical ownership not only would the teachings be saved, but perpetuated throughout the entire world.
Unusually for prophecies of this type, Shugden’s message revealed not only their appearance, but also their exact whereabouts. This made infinitely more easy the business of finding and shipping them to the west, but by no means abolished all the hazards, and, although the efforts of the monastery eventually proved successful, from the monk’s grave expression during this part of his story, I divined that probably not a few of his brethren had come to harm.
‘So what were the objects, and where are they now?’ I asked, sensing he was reaching the end of his tale.
‘They’re safe,’ he smiled. ‘What they are is something that anyone can now discover for themselves.’
‘There’s no way I could travel to Tibet,’ I said, weighing his implicit challenge.
And then, through sheer force of disdain, the waiter had ejected us from the café. Outside on the pavement, the monk rummaged in the folds of his robes and handed me a small chunk of pinkish white crystal. ‘When you find the place, show them this,’ he instructed.
‘How will I find it?’ I asked, in rising desperation, as he turned to leave.
‘Firstly, learn to meditate, because you require discernment to recognise the treasures. Secondly, when the time is right, Dorje Shugden will show you the way.’
With a final wave, maroon robes and all, he vanished into the Parisian crowd and I was left staring at the lump of quartz, which was as angular, irregular and opaque as any other lump of quartz I’d ever seen.
Returning home, I signed up for a course in meditation. I never expected it would be so tedious. Each week, I sat in the meditation hall, counting my breaths, waiting for something to happen. Nothing did – except my legs and arse turned numb, and my mind wandered a lot: into why I’d believed the monk any more than I’d believed there were aliens under Bugarach, or that Quetzalcoatl had been due at Burning Man. Not, of course, that I’d believed those literally. I supposed the monk’s story now had a personal significance. Perhaps, in the past, my mistake had been to invest in other people’s stories. Now I’d found one of my own, which wasn’t featured in the pages of Fortean Times – but what to do with it? Sitting in a room, breathing with my eyes shut, didn’t seem to be leading anywhere.
After the tenth and final week, I expressed my frustration to the teacher – without telling the whole story, of course. He was on loan from a northern Buddhist centre, and his soothing Yorkshire accent had sometimes turned the meditation instructions into a kind of poetry. ‘To be honest,’ he told me, ‘I can only teach relaxation in a class like this. To go deeper, you need to go on retreat.’ He took me into the office and produced a brochure. ‘I recommend this place,’ he said, drawing his finger across a map. ‘Near the Welsh border.’
‘Thanks for your help.’
I realised that during the course I’d never caught his name.
‘George. George Sugden,’ he smiled, putting out his hand.
He must have wondered why my shake was so limp, and why my mouth was open in amazement. I felt in my pocket for the crystal, which I now carried most of the time.
‘Does this mean anything to you?’
‘Quartz, isn’t it?’ he said.
I saw him give me a look. Probably he thought I was some New Age nutter. And maybe he was right, because it was only an alignment of sounds: George Sugden versus Dorje Shugden. The monk had advised me, ‘Dorje Shugden will show the way’. He hadn’t. But a George Sugden had… Maybe… Was there really a connection between a Tibetan deity and this bloke from Yorkshire? It seemed unlikely… What the heck! I wanted to learn meditation anyway, and so there seemed no harm in booking into the place Sugden had shown me…
The first week was grim, and the second was worse. A bell woke us at 4 a.m. We meditated for ten hours per day, with short breaks for toilet and meals, until a final bell signalled sleep. The food appeared twice daily, in starvation-sized portions. No talking or eye contact was allowed. There was even an ‘exercise period’, supervised by burly members of staff, during which I stood at the wire fence and visualised my escape across the drizzly fields.
The meditation involved ‘looking at the nature of things’. A Pol Pot dead-ringer was our teacher, who informed us, with a steely grin, that when we looked closely at sensations, we would see them flickering in and out of existence, because they weren’t actually real in the way we thought. But nothing had ever felt more real than the unbearable pains in my back and legs from sitting all day, trying to convince myself sensations didn’t exist. Each night before bed, we were summoned before Pol Pot, who asked each of us in turn if we could see ‘it’ yet. He might as well have held up four fingers and asked if I could see five.
As each 4 a.m. bell roused us to a day slightly worse, yet largely identical to the one before, my fellow retreatants began to capitulate. A trickle at first, then a steady flow, conceded they could see what Pol Pot had said. I studied these turncoats avidly. True, they seemed to be sitting in less discomfort. And often their faces, like his, wore a silly grin. Something was going on.
I tried harder, reasoning this didn’t mean I was submitting to brainwashing; I could always try out ‘five fingers’, to see if it was any good, as long as I remembered there were really only four. But no matter how hard I tried, sensations remained the same. Pain was pain, and it hurt. It didn’t ‘flicker’ or go away. It was stupid to imagine otherwise.
But at the end of the retreat, the silly grins were in the majority. Only a few of us ‘four-fingered’ remained. On the morning of the last day, I felt proud about this. As evening loomed, my mood changed. Probably George Sugden had been a coincidence, and there was nothing to get, but if there was – then the trail was turning cold. Desperation, once again, pushed me to arrange an interview with the teacher. I wasn’t stupid enough to tell him everything – just the parts about seeking truth, meeting the monk, and him advising me to meditate – and I apologised for being such a bad and insolent student. The teacher’s English wasn’t great. I could see he wasn’t getting all of it. But when I took the crystal from my pocket, his grin fell away.
He eyed me coldly for a moment, then gestured for me to wait as he stepped outside. I stood alone in the poky office, reassuring myself that nothing bad could happen, and yet I was painfully conscious of those desolate miles of countryside around the retreat centre, and of how they’d confiscated everyone’s phones on the way in.
After a few minutes, a woman stepped into the office – which was a surprise, because the centre was sexually segregated: men in one half, women the other. I recognised the woman from glimpses during the previous fortnight. She was the teacher in charge of the female half.
‘You have something to show me?’
I held out the crystal to her unsmiling inspection.
‘From a Tibetan?’
Her accent was perfect, which was presumably why the teacher had sent her.
‘Well, he was from Bedford originally,’ I said.
She looked at me blankly, then motioned I should follow.
We left the office and passed along some dingy corridors, away from the public sections of the building, down into the basement.
‘The Tibetan described to you the three treasures?’ she said.
My heart raced. How could she have known about that? At last, I was getting behind the scenery.
‘Not in detail,’ I said. ‘But he mentioned they were hard to obtain.’
She nodded. ‘They are moved frequently, so that as few as possible know their whereabouts. Many people would take them from us.’
‘The Chinese Government?’
‘Certainly. And the Taliban. And the Americans. The Vatican.’ She smiled. ‘And probably the Archbishop of Canterbury.’
We arrived at a featureless door, which I would have assumed was a boiler-room or cupboard. She unlocked it with a single key, flicked on the light, and gestured for me to step in first.
Indeed, it was little bigger than a cupboard. No windows. Narrow. There was a faint and musty, chemical smell. The walls and floor were painted in shades of light brown. And it was empty, apart from three frames, hanging at eye-level on wire from three very ordinary-looking nails. In two of the frames, an object was fixed against white plaster.
‘Are they very valuable?’
‘Only to someone who has come seeking them. Otherwise – I’m sorry. And they have no special powers,’ she said, anticipating my next question.
The first frame contained a lump of burnt wood. The second, a scrap of parchment, with characters written in a foreign script, some of which had been scored over. And the third was empty.
‘They represent something? A truth or teaching?’ I felt my stomach sinking with disappointment.
‘No,’ she said, her voice taking on a more professional tone, as if she’d been over many times what she was about to say. ‘These objects represent nothing. What they are is not the truth, but actually the opposite. That’s why they’re so valuable.’
I nodded, but she continued as if I’d confessed I didn’t follow.
‘We are always in truth. Everything is perfection. Only, our perception is at fault. Many would think these words insane…’
‘There’s so much wrong in the world,’ I interrupted, ‘that it’s not difficult to see why.’
‘Look,’ she said, gesturing at the chunk of burnt wood in the first frame. ‘This object was taken from a laboratory in Russia. It was discovered in a medieval Christian reliquary, once believed to contain part of the cross on which Christ died. But when it was dated in the laboratory, it was discovered far older than a few hundred years old.’
‘You mean it’s authentic?’ I asked.
‘Certainly not. Something more amazing. Something disastrous. Testing suggests this material is older than the universe.’
‘Hah!’ I scoffed. ‘There were pieces of wood before the universe existed?’
I laughed, but her face remained serious.
‘You laugh because something that lasted forever must be wrong – and I agree. So then, why would we view the world as imperfect, just because what is good in it does not last? If there were anything that lasted always, good or bad, then it would be like this object: false. It cannot change. It is fixed forever. That is not how the world is, because that is hell. Instead, because nothing lasts, we are in bliss.’
Had she lured me here just to preach? It felt so. Yet, if it hadn’t been for the crystal, I wouldn’t be here at all. And how did she know the monk had talked about ‘three treasures’? Dorje Shugden was nagging at me, again. The Dalai Lama believed Shugden was a worldly, unenlightened spirit. Indeed, there was something oddly back-to-front about the teacher’s preaching, which I couldn’t put my finger on. Disastrous, was how she’d described that lump of wood. These objects represent nothing, she’d said.
‘What about this next one,’ I said, leaning in towards the second treasure. ‘Is this impossibly old too? It looks like Tibetan.’
‘Only a thousand years, or so. It has killed very many people,’ she sighed. ‘It would be mostly gibberish to a Tibetan speaker.’
‘Some kind of ancient edict, then?’
‘A poem,’ she said. ‘About an ornamental pot. There are rumours that Keats heard of this object, and partly based upon it his famous ode, “On a Grecian Urn”.’
‘No one ever died of Keats,’ I laughed.
‘Many have died from this poem,’ insisted the teacher. ‘It was composed by a monk – thankfully, in one of the remotest monasteries. He was dead in his cell, days after writing it. Whoever reads it is seized by a rapture so intense they can attend to nothing else. Even when force-fed, the human body is unadapted for such absorption. Every reader has been killed by its beauty, its sheer perfection.’
‘Presumably we’re okay because we don’t read Tibetan.’
‘Cutting up the manuscript without looking made it possible to translate the separated parts into other languages, then back again, losing some of the sense. But even that proved too close to the original. Not all, but numerous readers fell into the rapture from mentally piecing together the intended sense. So it is not the language that kills, but the meaning, which makes it even more dangerous. You see those characters that have been written over? This is the standardized, “safe” form. The original meaning can still be worked out, but it would take much effort. Sometimes, nearing the end of their life, a nun or monk will choose solitary confinement and undertake a reading of the poem. Many are successful and die in rapture.’
‘If it’s so dangerous, why not just destroy it?’
‘No.’ The teacher shook her head. ‘It’s still a treasure. It shows us that what is perfectly good is deadly, because if it fulfils us entirely, we will not progress beyond.’
‘Good things are just good, surely?’
‘Of course,’ she smiled. ‘Yet hell is where things are ultimately satisfying, because then there is nowhere else to go. That is death. The monk who wrote the poem stumbled by accident into hell, but his tragedy teaches how dissatisfaction is life. To suffer the lack of good things, when perceived accurately, is bliss.’
For all I knew, those scribbles were just a millennium-old monk’s laundry list, but her story was so peculiarly grim. She certainly had a unique way of selling her shtick.
‘You’ve got me hooked,’ I said.
‘The last treasure, I’m afraid,’ she said, ‘is very hard to explain.’
I examined the frame closely. Apart from an irregular dimpling in the plaster, there was nothing.
‘It’s empty,’ I said. ‘Is that what it’s meant to represent: the void?’
‘I already explained: the treasures don’t “represent”,’ she retorted, a little crossly. ‘Take out the crystal from your pocket.’
For a second I was puzzled, and then I realised the enormity of what she was suggesting. I held the lump of crystal towards the dimpled plaster, and looked at her. She nodded, indicating it was okay. The crystal fitted at once. The cavity in the plaster perfectly received its edges. I withdrew my hand and there it stayed, gleaming faintly pink against the white.
‘How did this happen?’ I gasped, shaking my head. ‘How did I come to be here, and how did you know?’
‘Not me. Not you,’ she replied. ‘This is the nature of the third treasure. It belongs.’
‘It belongs here?’
‘No. It was taken from a mosque. But don’t worry,’ she explained, reacting to my expression, ‘the imams didn’t even miss it. It was there because Islam was the last great world religion. But its significance had long ago been forgotten, except by a handful of sufis, who gladly gave us access. It’s auspicious that now we have it.’
‘And yet I got it from a Tibetan monk…’ I said.
‘Yes. And now it is in a UK meditation centre, run by the Burmese,’ the teacher smiled. ‘There are references in many scriptures to suggest this object has passed through the hands of every enlightened teacher, from Shakyamuni Buddha, to Moses, Plato, Lao Tzu, Christ, St. Paul and Mohammed – and many, many others besides.’
‘And me?’ I laughed.
‘And me, too,’ said the teacher. ‘Why not?’
My head reeled with the absurd grandiosity of it.
‘Everything is shaped by whatever caused it, and is always in a process of becoming something other,’ the teacher explained. ‘But the crystal has only and forever been itself. Wherever it is, it belongs. If it could be said to be in a process of anything, it would be always in the process of being at home.’
We both stared at the nondescript stone, returned to its place, resting innocuously in its frame.
‘Some regard it as a little piece of the Divine,’ she said. ‘It has no business in our world, perhaps, yet here it is. And maybe that’s the reason (although it doesn’t often happen at once) that each person who touches it comes to enlightenment.’ She turned and smiled at my bewildered expression. ‘Some say, that although in our age it appears as a crystal, it may have had various forms throughout history. In that case, we might better view it as a concept. We might call it the Grace of God.’
Her conviction was apparent, and yet I continued to have doubts.
Indeed, I doubted all the way through the next fortnight, through another tormenting retreat, which I sat immediately, without even bothering to return home. And I doubted all the way through the one I sat after that, and the next one too. Yet I couldn’t completely shake off the treasures, nor the teacher’s words, because of all those mad coincidences that brought me here, including Dorje Shugden: worldly spirit, dharma protector, or whatever he turned out to be. I was like a lit stick of incense. I burned and burned, smouldering right through experience, until a few more weeks of meditation passed, and finally there were neither doubts nor any remaining need to go on seeking. I was burned right through, right down to the base, and only a pile of sweet-smelling ashes remained.
The treasures were relocated from the centre. I hope that, just like me, others are drawn to them still and awaken from the experience. I imagine the treasures moving from place to place, keeping alive in many different forms the gift to the world from those monks in Tibet. As far as I know, the crystal relocated too. I would love to know who has it now, and hear the story of their awakening. Or perhaps, like the teacher suggested, it has since changed form. Right now it could be anything: a piece of glass; a coffee mug; an old picture, maybe. Perhaps even a web page.