Chapter 2: On Having No Head

The best day of my life – my rebirthday, so the speak – was when I found I had no head. This is not a literary gambit, a witticism designed to arouse interest at any cost. I mean it in all seriousness: I have no head.
It was about eighteen years ago, when I was thirty-three, that I mad the discovery. Though it certainly came out of the blue, it did so in response to an urgent enquiry; I had for several months been absorbed in the question: what am I? The fact that I happened to be walking in the Himalayas at the time probably had little to do with it; though in that country unusual states of minds are said to come more easily. However that may be, a very still clear day, and a view from the ridge where I stood, over misty blue valleys to the highest mountain range in the world, with Kangchenjunga and Everest unprominent among its snow peaks, made a setting worthy of the grandest vision.
What actually happened was something absurdly simple and unspectacular: I stopped thinking. A peculiar quiet, and odd kind of alert limpness or numbness, came over me. Reason and imagination, and all mental chatter died down. For once, words really failed me. Past and future dropped away . I forgot who and what I was, my name, manhood, animalhood, and all that could be called mine. It was 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

Selectioons from On Having No Head, by D.E. Harding, Perennial Library, Harper & Row. Published by arrangement with the Buddhist Society, 1972 Reprinted by permission.

Downwards in a pair of brown shoes, khaki sleeves terminating sideways in a pair of pink hands, and a khaki shirtfront terminating upwards in – absolutely nothing whatever! Certainly not in a head.
It took me no time at all to notice this nothing, this hole where a head should have been, was no ordinary vacancy, no mere nothing. On the contrary, it was a nothing that found room for everything—room for grass, trees, shadowy distant hills, and far beyond them snow-peaks like a row of angular clouds riding the blue sky. I had lost a head and gained a world.
It was after all, quite literally breathtaking. I seemed to stop breathing altogether, absorbed in the Given. Here it was, this superb scene, brightly shining in the clear air, alone and unsupported, mysteriously suspended in the void, and (and this was the real miracle, the wonder and delight) utterly free of “me,” unsustained by any observer. Its total presence was my total absence, body and soul. Lighter than air, clearer than glass, altogether released from myself, I was nowhere around.
Yet in spite of the magical and uncanny quality of this vision, it was no dram, no esoteric revelation. Quite the reverse; it felt like a sudden waking from the sleep of ordinary life, and end to dreaming. It was self luminous reality for once swept clean of all obscuring mind. It was the revelation, at long last, of the perfectly obvious. It was a lucid moment in a confused life-history. It was a ceasing to ignore something which (since early childhood at any rate) I had always been too busy or too clever to see. It was naked, uncritical attention to what had all along been staring me in the face – my utter facelessness. In short, it was all perfectly simple and plain and straightforward, beyond argument, thought, and words. There arose no questions, no reference beyond the experience itself, but only peace and a quiet joy, and the sensation of having dropped an intolerable burden.

* * *

As the wonder of my Himalayan discovery began to wear off, I started describing it to myself in some such words as the following.
Somehow or other I had vaguely thought of myself as inhabiting this house which is my body, and looking out through its two round windows at the world. Now I find it isn’t really like that at all. As I gaze into the distance, what is there at this moment to tell me how many eyes I have here – two, or three, or hundreds, or none? In fact, only one window appears on this side of my façade and that is wide open and frameless, with nobody looking out of it. It is always the other fellow who has eyes and a face to frame them; never this one.

There exist, then, two sorts – two widely different species – of man. The first, of which I note countless specimens, evidently carries a head on its shoulders (and by “head” I mean a hairy eight inch ball with various holes in it) while the second, of which I note only this one specimen, evidently carries no such thing on its shoulders. And till now I had overlooked this considerable difference! Victim of a prolonged fir of madness, of a lifelong hallucination (and by “hallucination” I mean what my dictionary says: apparent perception of an object not actually present), I had invariably seen myself as pretty much like other men, and certainly never as a decapitated but still living biped. I had been blind to the one thing that is always present, and without which I am blind indeed – to this marvelous substitute-for-a-head, this unbounded charity, this luminous and absolutely pure void, which nevertheless is – rather than contains – all things. For however carefully I attend, I fail to find here even so much as a blank screen on which they are reflected, or a transparent lens or aperture through which they are viewed – still less a soul or a mind to which they are presented, or a viewer (however shadowy) who is distinguishable from the view. Nothing whatever intervenes, not even that baffling and elusive obstacle called “distance”: the huge blue sky, the pink-edged whiteness of the snows, the sparkling green of the grass – how can these be remote when there’s nothing to be remote from? The headless void here refuses all definition and location: it is not round, or small, or big, or even here as distinct from there. (And even if there were a head here to measure outwards from, the measuring-rod stretching from it to the peak of Everest would, when read end-on – and there’s no other way for me to read it – reduce to a point, to nothing.) In fact, those colored shapes present themselves in all simplicity, without any such complications as near or far, this or that, mine or not mine, seen-by-me or merely given. All twoness – all duality of subject and object – has vanished: it is no longer read into a situation which has no room for it.
Such were the thoughts which followed the vision. To try to set down the first-hand, immediate experience in these or any other terms, however, is to misrepresent it by complicating what is quite simple: indeed the longer the postmortem examination drags on the further it gets from the living original. At best. These descriptions can remind one of the vision (without the bright awareness) or invite a recurrence of it; but the most appetizing menu can taste like the dinner, or the best book about humour enable one to see a joke. On the other hand, it is impossible to stop thinking for long, and some attempt to relate the lucid intervals of

One’s life to the confused backgrounds is inevitable. It could also encourage, indirectly, the recurrence of lucidity.
In any case, there are several commonsense objections which refuse to be put off any longer, questions which insist on reasoned answers, however inconclusive. It becomes necessary to “justify” one’s vision, even to oneself; also one’s friends may need reassuring. In a sense this attempt at domestication is absurd, because no argument can add to or take from an experience which is as plain and incontrovertible as hearing middle-C or tasting strawberry jam. In another sense, however, the attempt has to be made, if one’s life is not to disintegrate into two quite alien, idea-tight compartments.

* * *

My first objection was that my head may be missing, but not its nose. Here it is, visibly preceding me wherever I go. And my answer was: if this fuzzy, pinkish, yet perfectly transparent cloud suspended on my right, and this other similar cloud suspended on my left, are noses, then O count two of them and not one; and the perfectly opaque single protuberance which I observe so clearly in the middle of your face is not a nose: only a hopelessly dishonest or confused observer would deliberately use the same name for such utterly different things. I prefer to go by my dictionary and common usage, which oblige me to say that, whereas nearly all other men have a nose apiece, I have none.
All the same, if some misguided skeptic, overanxious to make his point, were to strike out in this direction, aiming midway between these two pink clouds, the result would surely be as unpleasant as if I owned the most solid and punchable of noses. Again, what about this complex of subtle tensions, movements, pressures, itches, tickles, aches, warmths and throbbings, never entirely absent from this central region? Above all, what about these touch-feelings which arise when I explore here with my hand? Surely these findings add up to massive evidence for the existence of my head right here and now, after all?
They do nothing of the sort. No doubt a great variety of sensations are plainly given here and cannot be ignored, but they don’t amount to a head, or anything like one. The only way to make a head out of them would be to throw in all sorts of ingredients that are plainly missing here – in particular, all manner of coloured shapes in three dimensions. What sort of head is it that, though containing innumerable sensations, is observed to lack eyes, mouth, hair, and indeed all bodily equipment which other heads are observed to contain? The plain fact is that

this place must be kept clear of all such obstructions, of the slightest mistiness or colouring which could cloud my universe.
In any case, when I start groping round for my lost head, instead of finding it here I only lose my exploring hand as well; it too, is swallowed up in the abyss at the centre of my being. Apparently this yawning cavern, this unoccupied base of all my operations, this magical locality where I thought I kept my head, is in fact more like a beacon-fire so fierce that all things approaching it are instantly and utterly consumed, in order that its world-illuminating brilliance and clarity shall never for a moment be obscured. As for these lurking aches and tickles and so on, they can no more quench or shade that central brightness than these mountains and clouds and sky can do so. Quite the contrary: they all exist in its shining, and through them it is seen to shine. Present experience, whatever sense is employed, occurs only in an empty and absent head. For here and now my world and my head are incompatibles, they won’t mix. There is no room for both at once on these shoulders, and fortunately it is my head with all its anatomy that has to go. This is not a matter of argument, or of philosophical acumen , or of working oneself up into a state, but of simple sight – LOOK=WHO’S-HERE instead of THINK-WHO’S-HERE. If I fail to see what I am (and especially what I am not) it is because I am too busily imaginative, too “spiritual,” too adult and knowing, to accept the situation exactly as I find it at the moment. A kind of alert idiocy is what I need. It takes an innocent eye and an empty head to see their own perfect emptiness.

* * *

Probably there is only one way of converting the skeptic who still says I have a head here, and that is to invite him to come here and take a look for himself; only he must be an honest reporter, describing what he observes and nothing else.
Starting off on the far side of the room, he sees me as a full-length man-with-a-head. But as he approaches he finds half a man, then a head, ten a blurred cheek or eye or nose; then a mere blur and finally (at the point of contact) nothing at all. Alternatively, if he happens to be equipped with the necessary scientific instruments; he reports that the blur resolves itself into tissues, then cell groups, then a single cell, a cell-nucleus, giant molecules … and so on, till he comes to a place where nothing is to be seen, to space which is empty of all solid or material objects. In either case, the observer who comes here to see what it’s really like finds what I find here – vacancy. And if, having discovered and shared

my nonentity here, he were to turn round (looking out with me instead of in at me) he would again find what I find – that this vacancy is filled to capacity with everything imaginable. He, too, would find this central Point exploding into an Infinite Volume, this Nothing into the All, this Here into Everywhere.
And if my skeptical observer still doubts his senses, he may try his camera instead – a device which, lacking memory and anticipation, can register only what is contained in the place where it happens to be. It records the same picture of me. Over there, it takes a man, midway, bits and pieces of a man; here, no man and nothing – or else, when pointed the other way round, the universe.

* * *

So this head is not a head, but a wrong-headed idea. If I an still find a here, I am “seeing things,” and ought to hurry off to the doctor. It makes little difference whether I find a human head, or an asse’s head, a fried egg, or a beautiful bunch of flowers|: to have any topknot at all is to suffer from delusions.
During my lucid intervals, however, I am clearly headless here. Over there, on the other hand, I am clearly far from headless: indeed, I have more heads than I know what to do with. Concealed in my human observers and in cameras, on display in picture frames, pulling faces behind shaving mirrors, peering out of door knobs an spoons and coffeepots and anything which will take a high polish, my heads are always turning up – though more-or-less shrunken and distorted, twisted back-to-front, often the wrong way up, and multiplied to infinity.
But there is one place where no head of mine can ever turn up, and that is here “n my shoulders,” where it would blot out this Central Void which is my very life-source: fortunately nothing is able to do that. In fact, these loose heads can never amount to more than impermanent and unprivileged accidents of that outer” or phenomenal world which though altogether one with the central essence, fails to affect it in the slightest degree. So unprivileged, indeed, is my head in the mirror, that I don’t necessarily recognize myself in the glass, and neither do I see the man over there, the too-familiar fellow who lives in that other room behind the looking-glass and seemingly spends all his time staring into this room – that small, dull, circumscribed, particularized, ageing, and oh-so-vulnerable gazer – as the opposite to every way of my real Self ere. I have never been anything but this ageless, adamantine, measureless, lucid, and alto-

gether immaculate Void: it is unthinkable that I could ever have been confused that staring wraith over there with what I plainly perceive myself to be here and now and forever.

* * *

Film directors . . . are practical people, much more interested in the telling re-creation of experience than in discerning the nature of the experience; but in fact the one involves some of the other. Certainly these experts are well aware (for example) how feeble my reaction is to a film of a vehicle obviously driven by someone else, compared with my reaction to a film of a vehicle apparently driven by myself. In the first instance I am a spectator on the pavement, observing two similar cars swiftly approaching, colliding, killing the drivers, bursting into flames – and I am mildly interested. In the second, I am the driver – headless of course, like all first-person drivers, and my car (what little there is of it) is stationary. Here are my swaying knees, my foot hard down on the accelerator, my hands struggling with the steering wheel, the long bonnet sloping away in front, telegraph poles whizzing by, the road snaking this way and that, the other cars, tiny at first, but looming larger and larger, coming straight at me, and then the crash, a great flash of light, and an empty silence . . . I sink back onto my seat and get my breath back. I have been taken for a ride.
How are they filmed, these first person experiences? Two ways are possible: either a headless dummy is photographed, with the camera in place of the head, or else a real man is photographed, with his head held far back, or to one side to make room for the camera. In other words, to ensure that I shall identify myself with the actor, his head is got out of the way; he must be my kind of man. For a picture of me-with-a-head is no likeness at all, it is the portrait of a complete stranger, a case of mistaken identity.
It is curious that anyone should go to the advertising man for a glimpse into the deepest – and simplest – truths about himself; odd also that an elaborate modern invention like the cinema should help rid anyone of an illusion which very young children and animals are free of. But human capacity for self-deception has surely never been complete. A profound though dim awareness of the human condition may well explain the popularity of many old cults and legends of loose and flying heads, of one eyed or headless monsters and apparitions, of human bodies with non-human heads and martyrs who (like King Charles in the ill-punctuated sentence) walked and talked after their heads were cut off --

Fantastic pictures, no doubt, but nearer than common sense ever gets to a true portrait of this man.

* * *

But if I have no head or face or eyes here (protests common sense) how on Earth do I see you, and what are eyes for, anyway? The truth is that the verb to see has two quite opposite meanings. When se observe a couple conversing, we say they see each other, though their faces remain intact and some feet apart, but when I see you your face is all, mine nothing. You are the end of me. Yet (so Enlightenment-preventing is the language of common sense) we use the same little word for both operations: and of course, the same word has to mean the same thing! What actually goes on between third persons as such is visual communication – that continuous and self-contained chain of physical processes (involving light waves, eye-lenses, retinas, the visual area of the cortex, and so on) in which the scientist can find no chink where “mind” or “seeing” could be slipped in, or (if it could) would make any difference. True seeing, by contrast, is first person and so eyeless. In the language of the sages, only the Buddha Nature, or Brahman, or Allah, or God, sees or hears or experiences anything at all.

D. E. Harding


We have been presented with a charmingly childish and solipsistic view of the human condition. It is something that, at an intellectual level, offends and appalls us; can anyone sincerely entertain such notions without embarrassment? Yet to some primitive level in us it speaks clearly. That is the level at which we cannot accept the notion of our own death. In many of use, that level has been submerged and concealed for so long tat we forget how incomprehensible is the concept of personal nonexistence. We can so easily – it seems – extrapolate from the nonexistence of others to the potential nonexistence, one day, of ourselves. Yet how can it be a day when I die? After all, a day is a time with light and sounds; when I die, there will be none of those. “Oh, yes, there will be,” protests an inner voice. “Just because I won’t be there to experience them doesn’t mean they won’t exist! That’s so solipsistic!” My inner voice, coerced by

The power of a simple syllogism, has reluctantly overridden the notion that I am a necessary ingredient of the universe. That syllogism is roughly, this:

All human beings are mortal
I am a human being.
Therefore . . . I am a mortal.

But for the substitution of “I” for “Socrates” this is the most classical of all syllogisms. What kind of evidence is there for the two premises? The first premise presumes an abstract category, the class of human beings. The second premise is that I too belong to that class, despite the seemingly radical difference between myself and every other member of that class (which Harding is so fond of pointing out).
The idea of classes about which general statements can be made is not so shocking, but it it seems to be a rather advanced property of intelligence to be able to formulate classes beyond those that are part of an innate repertoire. Bees seem to have the class “flower” down pretty well, but it is doubtful that they can formulate a concept of “chimney” or “human.” Dogs and cats seem to be able to manufacture new classes, such as “food dish,” “door,” “toy,” and so on. But people are by far the best at the piling up of new category upon new category. This capacity is at the core of human nature and is a profound source of joy. Sportscasters and scientists and artists all give us great pleasure in their formulation of new kinds of concepts that enter our mental vocabulary.
The other part of the first premise is the general concept of death. That something can vanish or be destroyed is a very early discovery. The food in the spoon vanishes, the rattle falls off the high chair. Mommy goes away for a while, the balloon pops, the newspaper in the fireplace burns up, the house a block down the street is razed and so on. All very shocking and disturbing, certainly -- but still acceptable. The swatted fly, the sprayed mosquitoes these build on the previous abstractions, and we come to the general concept of death. So much for the first premise.
(Patricks note.. In view of this, why do we insist in still thinking that WE are special and that WE and only WE live after death????)))
The second premise is the tricky one. As a child I formulated the abstraction “human being” by seeing things outside of me that had something in common – appearance, behaviour and so on. That this particular class could then “fold back” on me and engulf me – this realization necessarily comes at a later stage of cognitive development, and must be quite a shocking experience, although probably most of us do not remember it happening.
The truly amazing step, though, is the conjunction of the two premises. By the time we’ve developed the mental power to formulate

Them both, we also have developed a respect for the compelling of simple logic. But the sudden conjunction of these two premises slaps us in the face unexpectedly. It is an ugly, brutal blow that sends us reeling – probably for days, weeks, months. Actually, for years – for our whole lives! But somehow we suppress the conflict and turn it in other directions.
Do higher animals have the ability to see themselves as members of a class? Is a dog capable of (wordlessly) thinking the thought. “I bet I look like those dogs over there”? Imagine the following gory situation. A ring is formed of, say, twenty animals of one sort. An evil human repeatedly spins a dial and walks over to the designated animal and knifes it to death in front of the remaining ones. Is it likely that each one will realize its impending doom, will think, “That animal over there is just like me, and my goose may soon be cooked just as his was. Oh, no!”? ((Patrick’s note.. YES, animals do know, cows at the abattoir know they are going to be slaughtered… smack one dog and my others know they had better go hide….)
This ability to snap oneself onto others seems to be the exclusive property of members of higher species. (it is the central topic of Thomas Nagel’s article, “What is it like to be a Bat?” reprinted in selection 24.) One begins by making partial mappings: “I have feet, you have feet; I have hands, you have hands; hmm . . “ These partial mappings then can induce a total mapping. Pretty soon, I conclude from your having a head that I to have one, although I can’t see mine. But this stepping outside myself is a gigantic and, in some ways, self-denying step. It contradicts much direct knowledge about myself. It is like Harding’s two distinct types of verb “to see” – when applied to myself it is quite another thing than when it applies to you. The power of this distinction gets overcome, however, by the sheer weight of too many mappings all the time, establishing without doubt my membership in a class that I formulated originally without regard to myself.
So logic overrides intuition. Just as we could come to believe that our Earth can be round – as is the alien moon – without people falling off, so we finally come to believe that the solipsistic view is nutty. Only a powerful vision such as Harding’s Himalayan experience can return us to that primordial sense of self and otherness, which is at the root of the problems of conscious ness, soul, and self.
Do I have a brain? Will I actually die? We all think about such questions many times during our lives. Occasionally, probably every imaginative person thinks that all of life is a huge joke or hoax – perhaps a psychology experiment – being perpetrated by some inconceivable superbeing, seeing how far it can push us into believing obvious absurdities (the idea that sounds that I can’t understand really mean something. The idea that someone can hear Chopin or eat chocolate ice-cream without loving it, the idea that light goes at the same speed in any reference frame,

the idea that I am made of inanimate atoms, the idea of my own death, and so on)> But unfortunately (or fortunately), that “conspiracy theory” undermines itself, since it postulates another mind – in fact a superintelligence an d therefore inconceivable one – in order to explain away other mysteries.
There seems to be no alternative to accepting some sort of incomprehensible quality in existence. Take your pick. We all fluctuate delicately between a subjective and objective view of the world, and this quandary is central to human nature.



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Don said...

This commentary on Harding's book might be given to anyone thinking of majoring in philosophy, at the undergrad or graduate level. If the prospective student can't see that it betrays a profound incapacity to understand even the simplest fundamentals of philosophy, the student should be gently encouraged to seek an altogether different path in life.