Book review

On Having No Head

by Douglas E. Harding

On Having No Head by Douglas E. Harding

This is a true gem of a book – it sparkles in the light and when viewed from some angles it is beautiful indeed, but there are some sharp pointy bits, and it’s quite hard. I first read it more than 30 years ago, borrowing a copy from the local library. It stayed with me ever since, and it’s recent return to fame (being liberally quoted by Sam Harris) has caused me to re-read it.

If it seems like I took the whole “gem” metaphor too literally there, then that’s what this book does, with its own metaphor of we ourselves having no head, using it to drive home some very deep points.

From where we look out to the world, Douglas Harding points out that we quite literally can’t see our own head. There’s this vague pink cloud which on other people seems to form a nose, but from where we look, it’s translucent and appears either on the left or the right, depending on which way we’re looking, so that doesn’t seem to be like other people’s noses. If we see our head in a reflection, we aren’t seeing our head itself, we are seeing a reflection – often distorted, in water, at an angle on glass, in a shiny door knob or the back of our spoon. Which of these is the real shape of our head? We are indeed unreliable witnesses:

If I fail to see what I am (and especially what I am not) it’s because I’m too busily imaginative, too “spiritual”, too adult and knowing, too credulous, to intimidated by society and language, too frightened of the obvious to accept the situation exactly as I find it at this moment.

Which is the start of the deep points that are being made. We seem, if we look from this point of view, to be directly connected to the whole world. The whole world is where we used to imagine our head was, and we are deeply, intimately, as one with that world:

There are no obstructions here, no inside or outside, no room or lack of room, no hiding place or shelter: I can find no home here to live in or to be locked out of, and not an inch of ground to build it on.

Douglas Harding had these revelations on his own, and his pursuit of others who might at least understand what he was talking about led him eventually to Zen Buddhism. This short book, then, is really about the Zen experience from an intensely first-hand point of view. Harding found that the Heart Sutra, daily recited in Zen (and other Buddhist) monasteries, declares that the body is just emptiness: “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form”, it famously declares. This is the profound experience of Zen. Hardin quotes the 16th-century Zen master Han-shan:

“I took a walk. Suddenly I stood still, filled with the realization that I had no body or mind. All I could see was one great illuminating Whole – omnipresent, perfect, lucid, and serene. It was like an all-embracing mirror from which the mountains and rivers of the earth were projected… I felt clear and transparent”

This is the direct experiencing of non-duality, of Advaita, as the Buddhists call it, the Zen experience of Satori It’s not a Zen or a Buddhist concept alone, either – you see it in Christian mystics, in the writings of Hindu and Muslims as well. Even Shakespeare knew of it, when in Measure for Measure he has Isabella say, in a much-quoted speech:

…man, proud man,
Drest in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he’s most assured,
His glassy essence, like an angry ape

This is indeed a short, but profound, book, directly confronting our inner angry ape. Harding ends with a sketch of a path, of experiences and exercises, that might help us along our way to finding this truth at the heart of reality. He achieved the “direct path” to this insight, and I toil along the lower slope of the mountain daily, with rare glimpses of the glorious peaks when the clouds break. But Werner Erhard, self-help guru and founder of the est movement, at least had it right with this line:

This is it. There are no hidden meanings. All that mystical stuff is just what’s so.

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