If one wished to find an example of a young man who was not willing to accept the extreme religious conditioning in which he was reared, it would be hard to find one more striking than Douglas Harding. In the face of tears and entreaties he broke away from his family's Christian fundamentalist sect, and then set out on a long journey of self-discovery. The result, 20 years later, was a groundbreaking work of philosophy, The Hierarchy of Heaven and Earth: a new diagram of man in the Universe (1952). C.S. Lewis wrote an enthusiastic preface and the book is still in print.
Douglas Harding was born in Lowestoft in 1909 into the Exclusive Plymouth Brethren, a community in which newspapers, novels, theatres, cinemas and even laughter were forbidden or frowned upon. Studying architecture in London at the age of 21 he confronted the Elders with a 10-page thesis of his objections and was promptly excommunicated. He was estranged from his family for the rest of his life.
He had been staying with a Plymouth Sister, and had to leave at once. With no money from his parents, he took cheaper lodgings, but was told by his new landlady that he was in league with the Devil - by chance, she was another Sister and had heard of his apostasy.
Harding excelled in his examinations and began practising architecture in London and later in India, where he was commissioned into the Royal Engineers during the Second World War. But all this time he was driven by the burning question "Who am I?" Since boyhood he had been alive to the wonder and mystery of existence and he felt it a waste of the gift of life not to enquire into who, precisely, was living it. If he was wrong about "the Centre" he might be wrong about everything. Questioning all things that could not be verified by direct observation, taking nothing on trust, he began with the attitude of a scientist and ended with the insights of a mystic.
A key moment in his enquiry was discovering a drawing by the Austrian physicist and philosopher Ernst Mach (whom Albert Einstein called "the forerunner of Relativity"). It was a self- portrait, but not as seen in a mirror. Mach had drawn what he actually saw from where he was - feet, legs, hands, arms and torso - but no face or head. Harding realised that this was how he saw himself if he looked objectively, with the innocence of a child. It was like having the universe on his shoulders instead of a head. He describes the odd experience in a later book, On Having No Head (1961), now regarded as something of a spiritual classic: "I had lost a head and gained a world."
It was on the thread of this perception that the whole of The Hierarchy came to be hung. Harding had a genius for developing the implications of his vision and relating it to the insights of philosophers, poets, mystics and scientists, and the book grew so large as to be unpublishable. He sent a condensed version to C.S. Lewis, who later reproached himself "that this celestial bomb should have lain undetonated on my table all these months". Having read it he wrote to the author,
Hang it all, you've made me drunk, roaring drunk as I haven't been on a book since reading Bergson in World War I . . . how have you lived 40 years without my hearing of you before? . . . my sensation is that you have written a work of the highest genius.
He added, "England is disgraced if this book doesn't get published."
After the publication of The Hierarchy Harding wrote eight shorter books aimed at a wider audience. They all address the same theme - that one's central identity, or inmost being, is immediately accessible through direct experience; empty, simple and silent in itself, it contains or manifests all the forms, colours, sounds and complexities of this ever-changing world. He identified this perception with the Original Face of Zen, the Self of Vedanta, and that "glassy essence" of which, Shakespeare tells us, we are most ignorant though most assured.
Harding had a resonant voice, benign presence and delightful humour. His workshops took him all over the world.