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Touching the Void

by Jnanavaca

Touching the Void
by Jnanavaca

Audio available at: http://www.freebuddhistaudio.com/talks/details?num=OM697

Talk given at Padmaloka Retreat Centre, 2004


'All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their
minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity. But the dreamers of the day are
dangerous men; for they may act their dream with open eyes to make it possible.'

So there are some words by T.E. Lawrence (he of Lawrence of Arabia fame) from his
book, 'The Seven Pillars of Wisdom'. I chose those words because they are used in the
preface of a book called 'Touching the Void' by Joe Simpson, and I am going to talk
about that book in this talk.

But, before I do that, I want to reiterate something that Vadanya was saying yesterday:
that the archetype of the hero, or the heroic quest, is just one way of talking about the
spiritual life. I have come to realise that every time I – or anybody – try to say anything
about the Dharma or the spiritual life, it is partial. It is almost like you have to keep
correcting yourself. You say one thing and then you have to say, 'oh, well, I don't quite
mean that, or at least not in all circumstances, or actually there's this opposite view as
well that's equally valid'. So, it's always partial.

But nevertheless I think the heroic quest is a very good and apt way of talking about the
spiritual life. So I am going to use the story of Joe Simpson. He is a man from Sheffield.
He wrote this book: 'Touching the Void'. You might have read the book; you might have
seen the film (it was recently made into a film). He is a mountaineer, a writer, and now
works also as a motivational speaker to businessmen, I believe. And his story, together
with his friend and colleague and fellow-mountaineer, a man called Simon Yates – their
story – is a story of heroism; it's a story of a heroic quest. Not necessarily a spiritual
quest... but I think it is a very good metaphor or analogy for the spiritual quest.

So, if you will indulge me, I want to use it as an analogy. Don't take it literally – I'm not
saying we all have to climb mountains – I wouldn't be here if that was what the spiritual
life was about, frankly! But I think it is a fantastic illustration, and if you give me poetic
license I'd like to try and draw out some of the analogies of the spiritual truths.

So Joe Simpson and his friend Simon Yates, in their twenties (I think they were probably
about twenty-five or twenty-six) – young, adventurous, confident men – went to Peru and
decided to scale this particular mountain which... I'm not sure how it's pronounced... I
think it's something like the 'Siula Grande'. They decided to scale this mountain that had
never been scaled by this particular face – the West Face of the mountain had never been
conquered – this particular mountain was 21,000 feet high, and the West Face was seen
to be particularly treacherous and probably impossible to climb.

So they prepare for this ascent; they realise that they need to prepare, a bit like Hsuan-
Tsang was preparing. Perhaps they do it a bit more consciously and less mysteriously
than seemed to happen in Hsuan-Tsang’s life, but they prepare for this ascent. They
realise that it's full of danger. They are good friends: they trust each other, and they trust
each other's abilities. They establish a base camp. There is a third man, called Richard... I
can't remember his second name. He stays at base camp looking after their possessions,
and they do little forays, little short... uh... I don't know what you do... run up a
mountain? Walk up a mountain? – to become acclimatised, and test their equipment,
etcetera.

I was just thinking that, in a way, climbing a mountain is a good analogy, isn't it, for the
spiritual life? It is often used as an analogy for the spiritual life. You see this goal – this
mountain – in the distance... you are attracted by the beauty of it... and then you move
towards it, and you have to start climbing.

In other ways, it's a very simplistic and simple metaphor that probably doesn't do justice
to anybody's life, and certainly doesn't do justice to the complexities of the spiritual life.
But as an image it illustrates idealism, I think. Climbing a mountain illustrates something
to do with having an ideal – an impossibly lofty ideal – an ideal that seems sort of crazy,
and... well... anti-Confucianism. It's not the sort of thing that you would normally, out of
common sense, choose to do.

And I think that's fantastic – partly because we don't live in a very idealistic age, do we?
This is why I think it is important to try and re-emphasise our ideals, because even us
Buddhists, or wayfarers in the spiritual life, are influenced, I think, by the fact that we
don't live in a very idealistic age. In fact, I think we live in a rather cynical age, but it's so
much around us that I think it's even hard to see the cynicism for what it is.

I was ordained in 1999 in India, and one of the most moving things about being ordained
in India was the un-cynical nature of the response that you have there. It is just fantastic;
it's tremendously powerful. At my public ordination... well, it was all advertised in a bit
of a hurry because I think the dates had been chosen at the last minute, etcetera... and this
retreat centre was somewhere outside of Nagpur... (I'm digressing, but indulge me!) ...and
so for my public ordination they hurriedly put up some notices and posters. And between
five and ten thousand people came!... [LAUGHTER] ...from surrounding cities and
neighbourhoods and villages. And they were all Buddhist, and they were all celebrating. I
mean, they probably didn't know me or the other men who were being ordained – there
were six of us – but they were celebrating! Well... partly they were having a picnic...
[LAUGHTER] ...but they were celebrating the spiritual ideal! And you don't get that in
the West; not in my experience.

But, also, it's not just a cynical age that we live in, is it, really? It is also an age that is
almost defined by our desire, our need, for comfort and for security. It's an age of comfort
and complacency, in a way, isn't it? And consumerism, of course. The 'Three C's' are
probably Comfort, Complacency and Consumerism. That seems to be, again, an endemic
thing. And certainly I recognise that in myself. I must admit I'm not as cynical as perhaps
some people around us are, but I am really, really drawn to wanting comfort, and I do get
very, very complacent. And – well – consumerism doesn't pass me by either.... And yes, I
think that is partly the age we live in, and partly my temperament.

I think there are possibly deeper reasons, though. Perhaps when we have encountered
something like Buddhism – the Dharma – perhaps we have sort of overcome at least the
hump of our cynical age, at least to some extent, but I think there are deeper reasons that
stop us being idealistic. And I think we encounter them again and again in our spiritual
lives. I'm just thinking about how we can have fears – fears of failing – so we don't hold
onto an ideal because we might never achieve it. Or we have fears of rejection, because
being idealistic means opening up to other people, being receptive to something that
might be higher than ourselves. And perhaps we have fears to do with being vulnerable;
being rejected. Perhaps fears of admitting that we don't have all the answers. To be a
successful man today, perhaps we feel that we need all the answers, we need to have life
'sorted'. And – well – spiritual life isn't about having life 'sorted'. Quite the opposite.

So to go back to Joe Simpson and Simon Yates... I think they were naive; they were naive
heroes. They were young – how could they not be naive? They didn't have a lot of life
experience. They didn't have a lot of mountaineering experience. But they were idealistic,
in a very inspiring way. And cynicism is no answer to that naivety.

Let me read you something about ideals, from another man:

'To enquire after the meaning or object of one's own existence, or of creation generally,
has always seemed to me absurd from an objective point of view, and yet everybody has
certain ideals which determine the direction of his endeavours and his judgements. In this
sense I have never looked upon ease and happiness as ends in themselves. Such an
ethical basis I call more proper for a herd of swine. The ideals which have lighted me on
my way, and time after time have given me new courage to face life cheerfully, have been
Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. Without the sense of fellowship with men of like mind, of
preoccupation with the objective, the eternally unattainable in the field of art and
scientific research, life would have seemed to me empty. The ordinary objects of human
endeavour – property, outward success, luxury – have always seemed to me
contemptible.'

Those are very, very ...

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