Stirring of Elements as Syllables Unspoken
by Erin Johannesen, M.A., MD.
As breathless breath unbreathing, without pause, we go. Into an elemental opening of word and symbol and space unending, we go. Like free-diving, we immerse ourselves in the deep, organic stir of elemental wetness whose soaking and immediate embrace cannot help but awaken us into being… into the pure wonder of immersion.
It is here in this depth that our senses, incessantly tugging on us, may finally overwhelm us, so that we, exhausted, can at last do nothing but give way to the opening of letting go of everything we have. And in this moment, insensate, we can now be so pulled into the unequivocal no thingness of opening that we may drop completely through the experience of saturation.
It is perhaps in this blind depth that our falling may deepen into new knowing forming within us. For our plummeting through and beyond our body’s senses of self somehow re-infuses and emboldens our self-made skin – warm-blooded and fine-haired – with the stir of fire rising within us so we may know, so we may feel, beneath our skin, within our flesh, and born in the bone, the stir of earth as ground itself.
We may, if we like, turn so slightly – and just like that, a drawn syllable unspoken, a symbol that lives beyond our words, may become for us a language of this deepened realm. In our unstoppable frame of being – our house of Being – a doorway opens when we (as signifiers), become so thoroughly exhausted that we become unbound, and so may enter finally as our naked selves.
Through this unclothed dance we may come, stripped now of whatever we once meant, or thought, or were, or sensed we might one day be. And as our layered trappings fall away, as we too finally fall, so naturally and completely fall, into the depths of our yet unknowing selves, we enter all and are already in the all of everything. And all of it, absolutely all of it, is nothing more than what we already are.
Introduction To bring this dance with immersion, this stirring of elements within us, into a story, it does not matter whether the story is about a man or a woman, a boy or a girl. So let the story be told from the perspective of a third person omniscient, and perhaps as we read, we may imagine the story, or better yet, we may perhaps enter into it straightaway and so may experience as possibly happening for us this story of openness opening and unfolding in a way that what is written, what is heard, or what is read becomes our own.
The story begins in an old Buddhist temple. The temple walls and its large interior columns are made of light grey stone; the rest of the interior is of darkly stained wood, and the space inside the temple is filled with golden light streaming in through the high and large, thick, glass-paned windows. A heavyset, older lama in maroon robes is instructing a group of monks; a young man sits among them, and although he is not a monk, he is considered as belonging there. They speak in a language that he understands, but cannot speak; the young man speaks in English. The older lama sits cross-legged on a large cushion atop a wide, dark-wooden chair. The monks and the young man are sitting gathered in a close circle around the older lama’s feet. The old lama has been their teacher for many years.
Drawing of Lama is from the public domain of Google Images.
Now, their teacher is giving all of them instructions on something like skillful means, but it is skillful means on a more profound basis than the young man knows possible. As in earlier skillful means practices, they are opening channels and centers, but these channels, these centers are not in their bodies; they are in dimensions of both the world and time. The young man is learning the mastery of the manifestation of movement and light in the great, vast, and timeless realms of space.
The teacher calls on them one at a time to demonstrate their level of skill in this profound method. Each monk in turn stands up in the great hall of the temple and demonstrates whatever the teacher asks to be done. Each one accomplishes the task beautifully and perfectly. The young man watches as through each monk’s body and from each monk’s fingertips universes of space and time flow as streams of light through the temple hall. Then it is his turn. Whatever profound ‘task’ the teacher asks the young man to do, however, he cannot complete it. At this multi-dimensional, cosmic level, he gets lost somewhere in the doing. He loses track of and becomes entangled in countless strands of multi-dimensional no-thingness, and so whatever skill he may have, fizzles, or diminishes, and uselessly drops away. He cannot yet ‘hold it’ as the other monks can. And for many months, the young man continues to perform in this way.
Then one day, while each one of them is again called upon to ‘demonstrate’ their level of mastery, their teacher, who has been so patient, stands and steps down from where he sits. He walks slowly over to where the young man is ‘practicing.’
“You’re just not getting it in this way,” says the teacher kindly, and, after a pause, he continues, “So…we’ll have to do it another way.”
The teacher will, he then evenly explains, do a procedure that is ‘physically invasive’ in the young man’s brain. The young man recoils and pleads with his teacher,
“But I’ve almost got it. If you’ll just give me a little more time, I know I can get it the other way…”
His plea, however, falls as though unheard, and as the old lama now moves closer to him, the young man sees his teacher carries by his side in his right hand a probe of slender and condensed light; its handle too is made of light and appears as the dull color of brushed silver. The remainder – the ‘working end’ – of the probe is light shining as the color of highly polished silver, and at its tip, the light sharply bends back on itself to become a tiny, yet luminously brilliant, silver-colored loop, or ring within a ring, like what children use to blow soap bubbles, only smaller.
When the young man sees the probe, fear instantly fills him, and he shouts a prolonged “No!” as sharply as he can as he scrambles to get out of his teacher’s reach. But the moment the young man starts to move, several monks – the same monks he has been studying with – surround him. They never ‘grab’ him; they very quickly and lightly, place their open hands – palms down – upon him, and their light touch holds him as sure as though he is shackled in place. He struggles to break free of them, but he cannot.
The monks hold the young man very still. Now that he is held or contained, his teacher again approaches him, raises the probe of light above the young man’s head and calmly begins. Without pause, the teacher, using light, efficiently peels back the top part of the young man’s scalp; with light, he cuts and opens a hinged flap of skull and exposes the young man’s brain. Then, he deftly inserts the probe deep into the brain’s left side. The young man can feel the teacher’s turning the probe, like a screw made of light, first clockwise, now counterclockwise, but it does not hurt. Throughout the procedure, there is no pain, and the last thought the young man has is that of how his brain is now forever changed, is now irreparably ‘damaged’. Then everything goes away.
Within him now, there is only silence. No thoughts, no language, no frame of any kind. Not only has his ability to talk with the outside world vanished, but also he can no longer talk to himself within himself. He can no longer think. And cues of any kind – nonverbal, cultural, tactile or other sensory cues – are now insensible to him. Any syllables he may utter are nonsense. All – everything – that he (that his brain) once knew is gone.
The young man’s teacher puts down the probe and the young man’s skull and scalp quickly become intact again. The teacher leaves the young man in the care of the monks, and the monks tell him he will need a long recovery now. He is not sure how they tell him, but he understands; in the blankness that is now he, he ‘feels’ them in a way that goes beyond where he is; he can feel or sense their communicating with him in an entirely new way...a way without grammar and without a linguistic frame. In this new speech that is not speech, there is a bewildering simultaneity of dimensions.
The monks carry him to a different place in the monastery, and this place is in a different realm from the usual world of the temple hall; it is a realm diffused with light where the young man can rest, where he can just ‘be,’ and where they tenderly care for him. Here, in this place, he is lying in a simple hospital-like bed for a long time. He is carefully watched and never allowed to see what lies outside of the monastery walls.
How very odd it is to be always in this new place that is completely non-conceptual, not yet knowable. In this new way of being, he is like a child, and he must learn, in every way, all over again.
After much time passes, the young man is slowly learning a new way of being, and is improving. He has learned to walk again on his own and, in a profoundly different way from previously, how to navigate so he can find his way from the bed and back again. Still, he is never allowed outside, and is never alone. The monks are always with him.
Then, one warm, sunlit day, the monks and their teacher take him outside of the monastery. They seat him in the back seat of a pale yellow car that looks like a roadster from the 1920’s. The back seat is raised, and so he is aware of sitting up high, as though on a perch. The car’s dark tan leather top is folded back so the car’s interior is open to the air. His teacher is driving; a monk sits beside him in the passenger seat, and two other monks sit one on either side of the young man in the raised back seat. The car pulls away from the monastery and soon gathers speed as they drive on a single lane road in the open countryside. The land is softly rolling with green grass and trees.
The young man is unused to being outside and is initially dazed. He sits still, and with all of his senses, he takes in the feel of where he is, of his hair being blown by the wind and of the warmth of sunlight upon his face and arms. Sensations make sense to him now. Looking at the green and open landscape, he is feeling more freedom than he has felt in months. Yet, he is aware too that he is still being ‘kept’ by them, by his teacher and by the monks, for their hands – palms open and barely touching him – lightly hold him in their strangely powerful way.
In the distance, the young man now sees larger, green and grassy hills rising, and on one hill is a bent silhouette of an old woman standing. When he first sees the woman, they are still very far away from her, yet the young man urgently points to her and begins to shout sharply, “GHA! GHA! G-G-GHA!” The syllables come like an irresistible spasm rising within him. It is the first sound he has made since the surgery. He grows more frantic about the old woman on the hill; he desperately wants to go toward her and tries to leave the car, which is moving quite fast.
Drawing of the syllable ‘GHA’ is from the public domain of Google Images.
His teacher turns around in the driver’s seat and over the sound of the wind, shouts over his shoulder, “Hold him!” and the monks hold the young man fast in the car. But the young man’s eyes stay on the silhouette of the singular and bent woman, and he continues calling unstoppably, ‘GHA!’ It is the only sound he says over and over again. And as he watches the silhouette of the old woman on the hill, she collapses, falling to the ground. The monks too see her collapse, and they immediately realize that this old woman’s collapse now is why the young man beside them was upset. But what is happening confuses the young man, for he was upset before she collapsed, before anything appeared ‘wrong’ with her. And he knows, but he does not know how he knows. He knows the old woman on the distant hill now lies dead.
Then, as though stunned, he suddenly stops shouting and sits very still, for he is realizing what is happening with him: In an immediate and overlapping way, he is experiencing simultaneity of the old woman’s living, of her dying, and of her death. At the same time that he first saw this woman alive on the distant hill, he realizes he could see also, in an immediate and overlapping way, her death. In other words, in a meaningful way, the young man is realizing his spontaneously accessing all at once the three times of past, present, and future. And now, he recognizes why he was shouting. He was shouting to warn the old woman on the hill of the imminent arrival of her death.
The young man’s understanding continues to unfold rapidly within him, for he realizes too that much more is now flowing through him than a spontaneous and multi-layered knowing of time and space. As vast as that experience is for him, in this moment he is recognizing too that the sound of the syllable GHA signifies this new way of seeing, of knowing, and is new language emerging for him. It is a language whose words have ‘shapes’ that naturally capture multi-dimensional simultaneity. This language knows time as forever layering upon itself until condensing into one point that contains everything all at once. In this new frame of knowing and of speaking, there is an overlapping of each moment of every circumstance so that all time is available and, with practice, accessible in any one time. This access into opening he is newly recognizing as the ‘skill’ his teacher wishes him to have; as the skill he has repeatedly only been able to demonstrate such sparse mastery of – until now.
So, the young man is recognizing now that even though he had fought against the invasive procedure of his teacher’s probe, it was exactly that method that enables him now to arrive at this new way of being in the world. Until now (until his experiencing the old woman on the hill), he had no direct experience with which to frame an ability to hold time in this way, and so had no way to recognize its presence already in him.
And while he is realizing all of these things, his teacher, who continues driving the car they are in, has his eyes also on the rear view mirror and is watching the young man, for his teacher realizes too what has just now happened and turning to the young man, his teacher smiles, and speaking evenly says these words directly to him,
“I will teach you the expression of perfection vast and profound. I will teach you the skill to master great magic so that you will see, speak, and live beyond time.”
Then his teacher, now satisfied, turns around, focuses again on the road, and they drive back towards the monastery…
Later, after they have returned to the monastery, the teacher and the young man are alone in the light stone and dark-stained wood of the temple hall. They are in the midst of a ‘lesson,’ when his teacher turns to him and casually says,
“You know, we think it is good to have a wide column of light within us. …We make too much effort to ‘plump up’ this light. Really, that is an error. You want to have a very thin, finely focused, narrow column of light – like a laser. So thin that it emerges from and dissolves into its surroundings. It becomes and is as what it is in. Then, it is no effort at all to have always such light.”
The young man listens to his teacher’s words, and he practices them and, in time, his column of light becomes razor-thin, and, like the narrowest sliver of light, it is simultaneously both immanently visible and nearly invisible. And nothing, no thing, can disturb it. He feels great strength in such a column.
Commentary This story is one of coming into wisdom. Co-emergent wisdom that is Vajradhara cannot be expressed; it is beyond language, beyond mind, and so cannot be sought, cannot be touched, and cannot be grasped. Such wisdom lives in a place of awareness that is nowhere and may perhaps be realized only through a commitment so complete and so vast that there is no turning back. It arises always from the teacher within us and comes just as emptiness pervades all phenomena. And as the teacher likewise pervades the body, so too does light; as light pervades, so too does speech, and as speech pervades, so too does the simplest and most complete awareness directly pervade our Being.
It is through our embodying of an empowering experience that an experience may fully invoke its power in us. An experiential story like the one just told may be interpreted in many ways; one way perhaps is as a tantric text, an empowerment that provides a deepening for us – a nonlinear intensification that can allow us to enter a story and can allow the story to enter us.
The story becomes flesh that is none other than our flesh. Such stories invite us to come alive in a multi-dimensional living body in a way that may enable us to embody a told experience as effortlessly perhaps as one embodies oneself. Through a doorway of words, a deepening of the continuity of self may occur as an experiencing of elements opening, emerging, and manifesting in us as us. It is both a coming into our own awareness of knowing and a claiming of our knowing.
We can then understand that just having the experience, that is, experiencing for experience’s sake is incomplete, for we need to embrace experience, to devour it so that, quite literally, embodying it we thus make ourselves irreparably inseparable from it until the ‘it’ no longer exists. Concepts of ‘outside’ and ‘inside’ slip away. Longchenpa writes about this coming into completion, this utter exhausting of experience, as a river of empowering force with nothing else in it but the beingness of Being.
And in immersion, in a falling so completely through our own knowing as we know it, we cannot help but to become less dependent on concepts, less dependent on linear or propositional phrasings ( if this, then, of course, that). A less focused dependence on whatness occurs, and instead we may let go and dive, without pause, into the swell of openness opening. As we dive into the unframed, the unframed, sensing our readiness, is already coming toward us; is already meeting us. The phenomenon of our falling so completely through our own knowing-as-we- know-it is presented and described by words and by concepts that are the vehicle of story. And so, paradoxically, the unframed becomes intimately known through words that are themselves caged by the frame of the syntax of language.
In Dzogchen Buddhism, this unfolding, or unframing, is given in what is collectively called the Flask Empowerment and has four constitutive parts:
1. Flask empowerment (bum-pa dbang in Tibetan),
2. Mystery empowerment (gsang-ba’I dbang),
3. Knowledge through appreciation empowerment (shes-rab ye-shes-kyi dbang), and
4. Word and meaning empowerment (tshig-don ngo-sprad-kyi dbang).
These empowerments, which are beautifully described in Herbert Guenther’s book, Meditation Differently, are often given together to invoke a growing dynamic spiral of opening for the receiver as each subsequent empowerment among the four becomes less and less dependent on concepts, on linearity, and on causality. Altogether, they embody a synergistic knowing, a dynamic interdependence of action and wisdom. And interwoven through such knowing is impartiality, is an evenness of knowing everything as occurring equally all at once, of our knowing the non-dual, multi-dimensional nature of time occurring in a timeless way.
Similarly, in the story of the young man, time present, time past, and time future as presencing all at once is time not stopped, but rather is time as vibrational or vectorial pull of Being emerging. And this multi-layered moment of time as continuing vibrancy is sponda. Such presencing of time knows no sleep, knows no greater stillness, knows no greater awakening and so is neither blissful nor terrifying. It just is. For the young man in the story, the unhindered simultaneity of all time becomes simply who he now is, for he both experiences fullness and claims it spontaneously and naturally as his own fullness realized. We as readers may be given, through a told story, the experience of a naturally emerging fullness of self completing (it)self. When this experiencing happens with us, then we move beyond reading; we move beyond witnessing, and the emerging occurring becomes our own.
And as what is emerging becomes our own, we more fully become ourselves and may enter into a boundless opening of the syllable unspoken, of speech unworded, of releasing and releasing thought. Here, there is no conceivable form at all, no sound is ever dissonant, and no shape is particular. There is just seamless connecting of self with other that is subtle and equi-vocal; we open as opening into openness.
In the flask empowerment, this radiant openness comes as a drop of water falling onto one’s head, and in the story just told, this drop of water, solidified, becomes a probe of light dispassionately cutting through the young man’s mind. Whether made of water or of light, the probe annihilates our conceptual frames of thinking and of sensing and so may bring us instantly into no-thingness. From no-thingness a field-like expanse can now open up for us that is the source of all meaning, yet holds no meaning itself. And this vast unframing may leave us at first with no way to hold what is happening.
Eventually, like the young man tenderly cared for by the monks during his long period of convalescence or ‘recovery’ into no-thingness, we too may realize we have nothing to fear. For the monks in the story are as the field that provides compassionate holding, support and unwavering protection of us throughout our becoming. In the story, the hands of the monks never ‘grab’ the young man and yet, like him, we too are protectively held firmly in place; we are ‘safe’, even when we don’t recognize it. With this understanding, one can let go of the concept of ‘danger;’ one can rest here in the unknowing of knowing.
In the unframed place where there is no-thing, we may become everything, and in this way, we come to know that we are already whole, and the whole is unfolding in us. There is an indivisibility of the field, of experience, and of intensity of the field. This inseparability is what is meant in the flask empowerment by the singularity of the flask and of the water contained in it. It is what is meant in the story by the monks and the young man sitting in the temple hall, or by the young man alone, but never alone, in his convalescence.
As the flask empowerment continues, the flask is lifted to the throat as symbolic of our coming to possess the power of speaking our thoughts simultaneous with the moment of their becoming. The linguistic or symbolic dimension may now be met, or re-embodied, in a fuller, more multi-dimensional way. We discover our own primordial tongue, for now when we speak, we may speak from a ground of dynamically radiating space and time. This dynamic languaging is the interconnectedness of wisdom and action; is embodied and experienced as complete as time past, present, and future and is recognized as occurring all at once in the young man’s singular spoken syllable of GHA.
The uttered GHA can take on further meaning when we recognize too that this syllable occurs in the Sanskrit word for ‘cloud’ (megha) and that GHA now may become a syllable symbolic of thickness and impartiality. ‘Thickness’ here refers to firmness and strength, like that of earth, which is able to hold or store vast quantities. And, as translated from Sanskrit, ‘impartiality’ refers to levelness, like that of the sea, which, without changing, is able to contain the ‘rain of spoken Dharma’.
Our understanding may deepen further as we learn that according to the Wisdom Shastra, upon hearing the syllable GHA, one knows that all the dharmas are the same impartiality, that ‘one (dharma) is neither thicker nor thinner than another’. This aspect of GHA as an impartial holding or evenness is found also in the Avatamsuka Sutra (or Flower Ornament Scripture), “By chanting the syllable ‘GHA,’ one enters the prajnaparamita door called ‘treasuring the seas of solid holding of the clouds of all dharmas.’” This sutra text also describes a cosmos of infinite realms upon realms mutually containing one another that is the interdependency of all phenomena.
In the story of the young man, this interdependence may be depicted by the relationship of student and teacher. The wise and experienced teacher recognizes in the young man a capacity that the young man initially does not yet know how to claim, and so the teacher may help bring the embodiment of the young man’s own primordial wisdom into realization for him. In this way, the teacher and student are perfectly placed in a mutually interdependent and non-causal relationship: The teacher brings forth the potential of the student who brings forth the potential of the teacher to guide and to teach.
In summary, just as the flask empowerment aims at transitioning us from a linearly circumscribed world caught in thinking and sensing to a less and less conceptually limited frame and to launch us, if we allow, into an unframed dynamic where we are in open union with our own knowing, so too may a story or a text allow us to perceive the meaningful whole as a recognizable experience. In short, when we embody the frameless frame, what lights up for us, what occurs as our phenomenal world, is held as an unending whole in every way.
As described in many writings of Dzogchen as well as of Kashmir Shaivism, even if we understand that which already is, we still need to acquire it; we still need to claim it. And what we may claim may itself dissolve in the moment of claiming, so there is neither possession nor non-possession. Our embracing of the dynamic of this continual unfolding enables us to leap into the core of Being’s intensity, into the non-place of no-thought, of no-thingness, of non-duality. And we are not lost there; we are immediately and fully ‘home’ there. Such embodiment allows us to live without birth and without death from a place of Being’s being.
Our claiming of the power of Being’s superb creativity as our own is not grandiose, for we recognize the moment of self coming into existence as non-egoic self-possession that is not subjectively derived, however, we may experience this pure and clarified moment with unbound intensity. In the story, this claiming of creative power is the knowing of time layering upon time in a continuous way so that all time is accessible from any one time through a no longer subjective self. In this way, we are now becoming most fully our own self beyond self.