The Courage to Look
This is a longer Reflection...
A friend of mine, Amberchele, is in prison. After being in prison for some years he began questioning the way he had been living his life – clearly he had been doing something wrong, to find himself incarcerated. He read books and started meditating. Then he came across the pointing experiment
in an article by Douglas Harding. He almost didn’t do it - it sounded so ridiculous, to point back at your face. He was trying to get enlightened, and enlightenment is a serious business, isn’t it? Pointing your finger at your face – it’s a joke, surely? “Of course I KNOW what
is here – my head!
I KNOW who
I am – I am me!
I don’t have to do this experiment to find that out!” But he did it anyway! I remember him saying that he made very sure that none of the other inmates saw him doing it! Why would that be? Probably because he was afraid of being laughed at, ridiculed, ostracised…
He is very glad now that he was adventurous enough, open enough, courageous enough, desperate enough… to point and then to LOOK – and not just to think that he KNEW what
he was, and therefore didn’t need to LOOK. When he LOOKED he could hardly believe his eyes – well, his Single Eye! He was absent
right there where he was pointing, and the world was present in his absence
. “Me” had been replaced by the world! All this time he had been searching for the truth and it had always been so close, so obvious, so accessible! And so amazing!
for the world - being replaced by the world – so easy to say, so easy to experience, yet so astonishing, so incredible!
Not only did Amberchele do the pointing experiment, he got several others in the prison to do it too – in the little Buddhist group of which he is a member. Here is an excerpt from an article he wrote about sharing the experiments with the other prisoners. Bear in mind that Amberchele hadn’t been to a workshop, nor had he yet met anyone else who saw and valued their headlessness – he had only read an article about it. But he had certainly got the point:
We had finished a short meditation, and one of the men had begun a discussion of the meaning of “emptiness”, which had the effect of opening the proverbial can of worms: bickering ensued, which, since this is a prison, soon morphed into flexing. Better to return to meditation, I thought, follow the breath, but no one was in the mood. The argument continued, and I considered leaving, but then remembered Harding’s words about this Space Here, Capacity even for argument, and I remembered the exercises.
The exercises are incredibly simple and altogether radical. The fact that they are both simple and radical is how I know they are right, although when I first encountered them in Harding’s books I had to laugh, they were so wacky. But then I caught on, I “got it”, as they say, I knew they were pointing in the right direction while the rest of the world was not.
… I asked the group to point to the ceiling, to notice their hand and what their finger was pointing at, in this case the ceiling tiles and lamp fixtures. Then we pointed in turn at the wall, the floor, our lap, our chest, noticing each time that it was an object (our hand) pointing at other objects, with their various descriptive qualities. But finally we pointed at what we were looking out of, and I repeated questions that Harding had asked: “If you drop your conditioning, drop everything you ever learned and proceed only on present evidence, just what is it you are now pointing at: an opaque, round, separate and solid object that relates to those things out there, or are you pointing at Space for those things, Capacity? Isn’t this Space boundless, speckless, and totally transparent, and isn’t this boundless Capacity in receipt of the room and what you are looking at? Isn’t it awake, and will you find Awakeness anywhere else in the world but Here?
No one said a word. We had no mirrors and no cards with holes in them or paper bags for the other exercises, but before they all jumped on me I figured we could deal with confrontation – something we prisoners are familiar with - by pairing up and sitting in front of one another. Harding’s “face to no-face” experiment> involves a standard supermarket bag with the bottom cut off, so that both ends are open. One partner places an end over his face, as does the other partner, and the commonly accepted idea is that the partners are confronting one another inside the bag, face to face. This is our usual way of relating to others. But Harding’s questions reveal otherwise: “Forgetting everything you were ever told, and on present evidence only, how many faces are actually given? Are you face to face, or is it face there and Space Here? Are you confronting that person, or is it Capacity here for that person there, and isn’t it true that you have nothing here, not a speck, with which to keep that person out? Are you not boundless, transparent, void at this end, and at the same time are you not filled with that person in front of you, so that in a sense you have died at this end and been resurrected as that person there? Aren’t we built this way, to die in each other’s favor, and isn’t this the basis of love?”
Well, you can imagine what I expected from my fellow convicts, but they surprised me. What I heard was, “Wow!” and bursts of laughter, and more “Wows.” I don’t know if they caught on, but something happened in that room even if only to me, or should I say, to the Space at this end, the Capacity that is always Here and always filled with what is out there. I came away from that meeting knowing with the certainty of experience that Who I Really Am is always available, always just an exercise away.
And so I returned to my cellhouse watching the sidewalks and the fences and the buildings slide by, while I remained motionless, as I have always been. I have only to point my finger to remember to look at what I am looking out of, and need only the image of a face to know that the end of confrontation is Here. And I realized something else leaving that meeting: that everything sliding past was none other than Who I am; I was, incredibly, walking through Myself, in awe of every step.
You can read more of this article, Harding’s Way
, on the website. As well as several other articles by Amberchele, including one he co-wrote with his daughter – Letters From Home
- you will also find on the website my story of how I came to meet him – Not In Prison
And if you haven’t yet done the experiments, let Amberchele inspire you to do them. You probably don’t have to worry about other inmates seeing you pointing
your finger back at your no-face, so go for it! Reading about
Seeing without actually
Seeing would be like browsing through a travel brochure but never going on holiday!
Warm regards from someone who had the good fortune to be asked to point his finger back at the place he was looking out of and to look at what was there – or not there! Though for others I am Richard, for myself I am capacity for the world. How wonderful!
Amberchele's book, The Light That I Am
, is now (July 2009) available in the bookshop
Send your comments to Richard
Wonderful, touching story and demonstration of how a simple, practical spiritual exercise that reveals true Being can be applied in a hostile, distrustful, seemingly hopeless setting like a prison. Amberchele is a very courageous man I think, and graced with insight. I'm inspired! Dan.
I just read the J. C. Amberchele story! Wow! I was moved to tears.
Hi Richard - your friend in prison is indeed very moving! Heike.
I thank you for this inspiring lesson #3. Matter of fact, I'm grateful for all of the lessons and your website, discovered while finishing 'On Having No Head'. After reading Douglas Harding's book several times, the issue was always the same: it was easy to experience the no head way by practicing the finger-pointing exercise. But maintaining that fram of mind during the day seemed impossible. Your lessons are helping me to achieve that goal. Ransom.
From the moment Mr. Amberchele pointed back at himself, he was no longer a prisoner. Charlie.