The Experience of No-Self

The subject matter of this blog-series must be prefaced with a little personal anecdote. It was August in the summer of 1999 and I was just returning from a leave of absence and was pondering what lay before me by reading and reflecting upon a book I had just purchased from the old Border’s Bookstore. It was The Experience of No-Self by Bernadette Roberts (1931-2017). What I was reading was an amazing chronicle in the annals of contemplative mystical experiences. The author was a former Cloistered Carmelite Nun who had since been married and raised a family with four children. She was in her mid-40’s when her actualized “beyond the mystical” experience occurred:

This is the personal account of a two-year journey during which I experienced the falling away of everything I can call a self. It was a journey through an unknown passageway that led to a life so new and different that, despite forty years of varied contemplative experiences, I never suspected its existence. Because it was beyond my expectations, the experience of no-self remained incomprehensible in terms of any frame of reference known to me and, though I searched the libraries and bookstores, I did not find there an explanation or an account of a similar journey which, at the time, would have been clarifying and most helpful. Owing then to the deficiency of recorded accounts, I have written these pages, trusting that they may be of use to those who share the destiny of making this journey beyond the self.

While I was not aware of it at the time, what she had encountered in those dark depths of contemplative realization was coming face to face with the awesome reality of the Void—which in the final scheme was bracketed by being devoid of Voidness itself. It was unfamiliar territory for me then, just before my encounter with Tozen and his school of the Unborn Mind. Returning to it now in August in the summer of 2021 has proven to be an enlightening experience. When I first purchased the book it was the 1993 edition, published by the State University of New York Press,

Unbeknownst to me was that the original edition was published in 1982 by Iroquois House Publishers in Sunspot, New Mexico,

This was another one of those superlative synchronistic occurrences for me. 1982 was the year I entered Seminary, so this newfound piece of information spurred me to hunt down and purchase that original edition from which I read on the front porch to my outside hermitage this summer. I prefer the feel of the original to the 1993 edition I had been reading from along the banks of the Mohawk River back in 1999.

Bernadette’s groundbreaking work transcends her own Catholic background and nicely transports the reader into a non-sectarian transcendent environment. Her own Contemplative Spiritual Principles reflects our own here at Unborn Mind Zen:

So it doesn’t matter that we start out on our journey with our holy cards, gongs and bells, sacred books, and religious feelings. All of it should lead to growth and transformation, the ultimate surrender of our images and concepts, and a life of selfless giving. When there is nothing left to surrender, nothing left to give, only then can we come to the end of the passage — the ending of consciousness and its personally subjective God. One glimpse of the Godhead, and no one would want God back. (Taken from the Yoga Journal, November/December 1986)

And yet, Buddhism itself never essentially entered into her contemplative acumen:

Actually, I met up with Buddhism only at the end of my journey, after the no-self experience. Since I knew that this experience was not articulated in our contemplative literature, I went to the library to see if it could be found in the Eastern religions. It did not take long for me to realize that I would not find it in the Hindu tradition, where, as I see it, the final state is equivalent to the Christian experience of oneness or transforming union. If a Hindu had what I call the no-self experience, it would be the sudden, unexpected disappearance of Atman-Brahman, the divine Self in the “cave of the heart, “and the disappearance of the cave as well. It would be the ending of God-consciousness, or transcendental consciousness — that seemingly bottomless experience of “being,” “consciousness,” and “bliss” that articulates the state of oneness. To regard this ending as the falling away of the ego is a grave error; ego must fall away before the state of oneness can be realized. The no-self experience is the falling away of this previously realized transcendent state. (ibid)

And yet, the Buddha himself arrived most prominently in her mindset.

Four years later, however, I came across two lines attributed to Buddha describing his enlightenment experience. Referring to self as a house, he said, “All thy rafters are broken now, the ridgepole is destroyed.” And there it was— the disappearance of the center, the ridgepole; without it, there can be no house, no self. When I read these lines, it was as if an arrow launched at the beginning of time had suddenly hit a bull’s-eye. It was a remarkable find. (ibid)

We will be journeying with Bernadette now as she enters into the Great Void Unknown, and whose imageless rafters alights our own Supernal Flame. The following is a photo taken of her in later years—she bears an uncanny resemblance to my own Spiritual Directress in Seminary.

*Just a little qualifier, when we speak of no-self (human quotient) here we are not referring to Self as in the Unborn Absolute.

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