Douglas Edison Harding was an extraordinary man. Born in England in 1909, he grew up in a strict Christian sect called the Plymouth Brethren, apostatizing from the group at the age of twenty-one. This led to a search for the divine that culminated in an experience Douglas had about twelve years later when at the footsteps of the Himalayas, whilst serving in the British Army there. Douglas has given a vivid account of this experience in his classic little book On Having No Head: Zen and the Rediscovery of the Obvious:
“Reason and imagination and all mental chatter died down. For once, words really failed me. I forgot my name, my humanness, my thingness, all that could be called me or mine. Past and future dropped away. It was as if I had been born that instant, brand new, mindless, innocent of all memories. There existed only the Now, that present moment and what was clearly given in it. To look was enough. And what I found was khaki trouserlegs terminating downwards in a pair of brown shoes, khaki sleeves terminating in a pair of pink hands, and a khaki shirtfront terminating upwards in – absolutely nothing whatever! Certainly not a head.” (‘On Having No Head’, pp.1 & 2)
From that moment on, Douglas was gobsmacked, as it were, spending the rest of his life exploring this headless experience and its implications, and sharing his insights with anyone who would listen. Facilitating countless workshops, he toured the world conducting experiments into our true nature as it appears in this present. He also wrote over a dozen books on the subject with such eye-catching titles as The Little Book of Life and Death, The Trial of the Man Who Said He Was God, and To Be and Not to Be, That is the Answer. Throughout these various activities, he continued to be an engaging and eloquent advocate of ‘the headless way’, even when in an article called *On Having a Head written later on in life, he admitted that in fact we do have a head, it’s just that we can’t see it. *Published in the book ‘Face to No-Face’ by Douglas E. Harding.
The central point of what Douglas often referred to as ‘seeing-who-we-really-are’ is that in place of a thing here at center, there is in fact no thing at all, as he indicated in the quote above. Sights, sounds, tastes, smells, tactile objects, and mental objects all occur in a void; ‘I’ am empty of a self, if the facts are really looked at with an unbiased and clear eye right now. Moreover, as Douglas always emphasized, in place of my self here there is everything else: ‘I’ disappear in favor of you, and you – if you look – are empty for me, too. This is a concrete manifestation of the famous words in the Heart Sutra of Mahayana Buddhism:
Form does not differ from emptiness;
emptiness does not differ from form.
Form itself is emptiness; emptiness itself is form.
Here is where the subtitle of On Having No Head comes in: Zen and the Rediscovery of the Obvious. For, after his initial in-seeing, Douglas searched for parallels in traditional religion, but found very little to match his experience, until his discovery of Zen Buddhism with its scriptures such the Heart Sutra, and the remarkable statements of its masters. Zen Buddhism is known as the direct path to enlightenment, as well as the most demanding. In the words of its many teachers, stretching back over one and a half thousand years, exist myriad ways to present the Truth to those of us somewhat slow to ‘get it’. In On Having No Head, Douglas Harding quotes them with much gusto:
“‘Mind and body dropped off!’ exclaims Dogen (1200-1253) in an ecstasy of release. ‘Dropped off! Dropped off! This state must be experienced by you all; it is like piling fruit into a basket without a bottom, it is like pouring water into a bowl with a hole in it.’ ‘All of a sudden you find your mind and body wiped out of existence,’ says Hakuin (1685-1768): ‘This is what is known as letting go your hold. As you regain your breath it is like drinking water and knowing it is cold. It is joy inexpressible.’” (‘On Having No Head’, p.29)
In such enigmatic remarks Douglas had found references to his own headless condition, all be it encased in the language of an exotic oriental religion, very different to the protestant upbringing he had received as a child. The Sixth Patriarch of Zen Buddhism, Master Hui-neng, is well known in Zen circles for talking of Buddhist Awakening in terms of seeing one’s ‘original face’, in which he said nothing is hidden and all things are revealed. Douglas equated this original face with his own ‘no-face’. But, enough of words; let’s look and see what Douglas and Master Hui-neng were talking about, and if our original face is indeed no face at all:
- Point at your feet, noticing their shape, color, size, and opacity – you can’t see what’s behind them.
- Next, point to your legs, taking the time to perceive their particular characteristics.
- Look at your trunk, working your way up slowly to your chest, seeing too that it is made up of specific qualities that you can note.
- Now, point at your face. On present evidence – not memory, imagination or what you think is here – what do you see? At this end of that pointing finger is there a shape? What color is your face? How big is it? And, finally, is it opaque like the rest of your body, or is it in fact clear emptiness?
Here, I find that behind the tickles and throbs of what my hands can confirm to be a face is no such thing. What my eyes tell me is here – a clear, awake no-thing or void – is my ultimate reality beyond the sensations of mind & body. It’s not so much that no head can be found on these shoulders, but that at its center is this aware emptiness. For, if a truth is to an ultimate, unconditioned truth, then it cannot by definition be true for some of the senses and not others, as Douglas himself admitted. And a truth that’s true from the viewpoint of the eyes and ears but not the hands is a conditioned truth, dependent upon certain senses and not others. I do have a face, but it’s somewhat like a mask that hides my original face – the no-face that’s revealed when present reality is observed without preconditions.
Again, superfluous words are beginning to cloud the issue at hand, so let’s return to the main point – ultimately, there’s nobody home, or as Douglas delightfully put it, I’m permanently out to lunch! Prior to coming into contact with Douglas and his teachings, I also had a ‘Himalayan’ moment, although it took place in a suburban sitting room as opposed to in the shadows of the tallest mountain chain in the world. At the tender age of seventeen I was reading a book called An Introduction to Zen Buddhism by D.T. Suzuki (a favorite author of Douglas Harding’s) that was a gift from a friend, when something incredible happened. Upon reading a certain passage, just like Douglas in the Himalayas, all thought stopped. Indeed, initially there was no thought, no emotion and no one here to produce either. Just the bare experience of a book, hands, and a room. Pure silence reigned, whilst a gradual bliss seemed to fill the room. Then the first thought, which arose in response to a teenage fear of my mortality which had been concerning me a lot at that time; if I die now, it really doesn’t matter! Following this initial thought, other thoughts came, until the usual flow of the mind was restored.
That experience changed my life, but at first I didn’t understand what had happened nor did I know how to repeat it. A week later it occurred again while I gazed momentarily at a plastic bag caught on the branch of a tree as it fluttered in the wind. After that, ‘it’ didn’t happen again for some time - despite desperate attempts to reread the same passage of the book looking for a repeat performance - until I read On Having No Head, which someone had deposited in the local library, and viola! No more haphazard approach to seeing this void, just point home, to what Ajahn Chah called our real home – and the innate Buddha-nature reveals itself most clearly. But here’s an important point to take note of: it’s not really my Buddha-nature or original face, for ‘I’ occur in it, arising from it, but it is not part of me and neither does it belong to me – quite the reverse!
“Seeing Who I am Here is not only a case of surrendering personal will. It is a case of surrendering the person who has the will. So implicitly and in principle, this in-seeing that we are talking about is already total surrender because it doesn’t leave a speck of anything Here. It doesn’t even leave a person to exercise will, let alone will.” (‘Face to No-Face’ by Douglas E. Harding, pp. 144 & 145)
In the early Nineties I had the pleasure and privilege of meeting Douglas Harding many times, even staying at his house a couple of times. (He often played host to people who wanted to meet ‘the Headless Man’.) Douglas made it clear to me that what he promoted in the shape (or ‘no-shape') of seeing-who-we-really-are is no different to what Zen Buddhism calls seeing one’s Buddha-nature or becoming awakened. In my humble experience too, these two different approaches to seeing our true nature have the same result. A major difference is that Buddhists have the whole history and culture of the Buddhadharma to support (or hamper) their awakening, whereas headless types are pretty much left to their own devices, which can result in many problems also, as Douglas himself acknowledged. And yet, what are these systems of awakening we can call the Buddha Way and the Headless Way, but conditioned phenomena, even if they point to the unconditioned? And that which is conditioned is by its very nature imperfect and limiting, which is why such great Buddhists as Ajahn Sumedho have said that ultimately even Buddhism must be let go of to reach what he called ‘ultimate simplicity’.
Seeing who we really are, at least initially, is as easy or as hard as we make it for ourselves. In time comes the living of the truth, and it’s then that all the past karma that we’ve done will need to be ‘worked off’, or let go of. It’s during this period that the real problems with living as we truly are rather than as we think we are will arise to challenge the more enlightened perspective of the two. We may have times when we consider ourselves fully awakened just like the Buddha, and other times when we feel as wretched as the worst egotist in existence. But these are conditioned states arising in the unconditioned realty of our true Buddha-nature, and as such are impermanent, unsatisfactory, and not self. As conditioned things they will drop away of their own accord if we have the patience to let them be, resting as the unconditioned void in which they arise. And, as many followers of Ajahn Chah know, patient endurance was a quality that, like the Buddha, he emphasized to his disciples continuously.
Douglas certainly seemed to cultivate such patience himself, experimenting with and sharing ‘Seeing’ with thousands of people, not always to their liking, resulting in many instances of people questioning or rejecting his well-intended efforts. Indeed, he lived until the ripe old age of ninety-seven, still sharing this vision in his last years even though restricted to a wheelchair. An example to us all of the dedication and determination required if we want to live a life of awakening to the Buddha within us all. To end this limited account of the limitless, let’s return to the lively language of Douglas Edison Harding, propagator of Zen and the Rediscovery of the Obvious:
“For all of us, our two-way meditation is essentially the same, whatever sense we happen to be employing. Always the set-up is two-sided yet absolutely asymmetrical. That birdsong drops into the Silence here; the taste of those strawberries makes itself felt against this steady backdrop of No-taste; that horrid smell arises in contrast to this on-going absence-of-smell, to this Freshness; and so on. Similarly our thoughts and feelings appear only on the blank screen here which Zen calls No-mind, and leave no trace on it as they disappear. Just as, when I ‘confront’ you, it’s your face there presented to my absence-of-face here – face to no-face – so, whatever I’m taking in, I have to be free of: to be filled with water the cup has to be empty of it. The difference is total. This doesn’t mean that, engaged in our two-way ‘meditation for the marketplace,’ we think of all this: we just get on with the job of not losing touch with our Absence.” (‘On Having No Head’, pp. 58 &59)
The books mentioned in this article – On Having No Head, Face To No-Face, The Trial of the Man Who Said He Was God, The Little Book of Life and Death, and To Be and Not To Be, That is the Answer - are all available from the following website: