After the Absolute
When Rose and I arrived back at the farmhouse Augieís van was there, along with an orange Volkswagen. Augie and four guys I didn't know were standing around the parking area. Rose asked Augie if heíd picked up everything he was supposed to for the lecture and they discussed the details. As it turns out Augie had forgotten something. Rose became irritated and we all gave him plenty of room as he transferred a couple of boxes of books from the Volkswagen into the van. When Rose got into the van himself, everyone opted for the other car except Augie and me.
"Let's go," Rose said impatiently.
Rose sat in a lawn chair in the passenger seat area, while I searched through the rubble in the back for a place to sit. Rose watched me struggle with the clutter.
"Christ, Augie. Why the hell didn't you clear some of this junk out of here?" he grumbled. "We might've needed to take more people."
Augie offered a weak explanation, which Rose summarily dismissed.
"Augie's the kind of guy who'd throw people out of a lifeboat to make sure he had room to stretch out," Rose said, turning to me without smiling. "It don't occur to him people might need a spot to sit in his van."
I arranged some carpet foam into a fairly stable seat for myself and was glad to be in the back out of the line of fire. After a few miles, though, Rose seemed to ease up.
"I used to hitchhike this route a lot when I was a kid," he said. "Not this interstate, of course. Old Route 40. But it ran through the same towns. This was during the depression. We didn't have any money for entertainment so sometimes we'd stick our thumbs out just to go somewhere. If you were lucky you'd pick up a meal along the way. Otherwise you might not eat for days.
"We never really thought of ourselves as poor, though. Back then, everybody was starving. Going hungry was a way of life. In college I lived on a quarter a day. A candy bar and a quart of milk. That's what I ate for two years at West Liberty."
"You didn't finish?" I asked.
"No, even on a quarter a day my money ran out. It was probably just as well. Time to move on. I went there to study chemistry and physics--as a reaction to the brainwashing I got in the seminary. I'd had a bellyful of faith, so I went looking for some scientific proof about God and existence, that sort of thing. I thought if you could peer inside an atom you might find the secrets of the universe in there. Later, of course, I saw that science was just another endless tangent.
"So by twenty-one years of age I was burned out on religion and science. It was traumatic in a way, but Iíd come to realize that if a man is ever going to grasp anything it wonít be by learning. His being has to change. You are what you do, not what you know. A man never learns, he becomes. To become, you must find ways and means to change your entire state-of-mind. This in turn will lead to a change of being."
"Anyhow, thatís when I started experimenting with yoga and celibacy and meditation. I made my body a laboratory. I traveled around the country looking for people who knew about other ways a person might change his being and become something more than he is. I also spent a lot of time alone out on my back farm. Solitude is beautiful."
"You have two farms?" I asked.
"Used to. I gave a ninety-nine year lease on the back farm to a couple of guys who said they wanted to start a non-denominational spiritual community. Turns out they were Krishnites. As soon as they got the papers signed they started wearing bedsheets and chanting gibberish. We don't get along too good now."
"You know, Mister Rose," Augie said tentatively, "I've always wondered how that could happen to you, letting the Krishnaís get your farm like that. I mean, you're an enlightened man..."
Rose squinted at him like the answer should be obvious. "I was duped," he said. Augie glanced over at him then the two of them broke into uproarious laughter.
Rose moved from one story to another and the miles passed quickly. When we reached the outskirts of Columbus he asked what time it was. Augie told him we still had about three hours before the lecture.
"Let's get something to eat, then," Rose said.
Augie took the next exit and pulled into a fast food restaurant, the orange VW close behind. As we all got out there was joking and small talk, but after listening to Rose's stories in the intimate atmosphere of the van I found myself resenting the presence of the others. The feeling surprised and embarrassed me and I held back as we walked to the restaurant, waiting for the feeling to pass. Augie drifted back from Rose's side to join me.
"I know how you feel," he said softly. "But no matter how close you get, you can never stake a claim to him."
The restaurant patrons stared at us as we walked in--six young men circling respectfully around a sixty-year-old man in a bright orange hunting cap. Knowing we had plenty of time we ate slowly and lingered awhile afterwards, talking over coffee.
The girls behind the counter could not take their eyes off of Rose. They seemed to strain to hear every word, blushing a little at his ribald humor and whispering to each other when the conversation drifted into more esoteric matters. One of them went into the back and returned with the manager, who then also stood listening, trying unsuccessfully to be unobtrusive about it. Rose didn't seem to notice, but later, as we filed past the counter on our way out, he waved good-bye to the manager.
"These are my six illegitimate sons," Rose explained to him. "It took a lot of work and persistence, but I was finally able to get them all furloughed from the penitentiary so their mother could see them one last time before she died."
A couple of hours later, Mister Rose stood in front of a hundred or so people in a large room at Ohio State University's Student Center. The crowd looked like the same eclectic mix of people who attended the Pittsburgh meetings. Rose had asked me to handle the book sales, which was an unexpected honor, and I sat proudly at a card table in the back of the room with a dozen copies of The Albigen Papers stacked neatly before me.
His first few words were drowned out by the screeching of the microphone, which he then took off, asking loudly, "Can you hear?" There were nods and affirmatives from the back, so he set the mike aside and started again.
His talk began slowly, almost awkwardly. He shuffled his notes and fumbled for words. I knew he wasn't nervous, and I wondered why he didn't just let loose with an effortless stream of articulate thought like he did at the meetings or in his house, or everywhere I had ever heard him speak. Augie, who had remained on stage after introducing Rose, fidgeted in his folding metal chair.
And then suddenly his tempo changed and the mood shifted. It was almost as if another person took over inside him.
"I have the sense that time is short," Rose said. "We only have a couple of hours together and I want to answer as many of your questions as possible. So even though I have some notes prepared, I want you to ask questions. Don't be afraid to interrupt me if you don't understand something or if you want me to elaborate.
"Now, even though I want to encourage a dialogue, we need to set some ground rules. And the main thing is that I don't want to argue with you. You can't argue people into the Truth. If we disagree, that's fine, that's what we're here for, to sort out the true from the false. But I won't stand here while you throw loaded questions at me in order to prove that you're smarter than me. If you need to believe that, fine. I'll admit it up front-- you're all smarter than me." There was some nervous chuckling, and Rose briefly smiled, too. Then he unzipped a blue plastic folder and removed a handful of papers.
"While I was waiting for Augie to introduce me I was talking with somebody in the audience and he asked me if my talk was going to be about my philosophy. I told him no. Because my life isn't about philosophy. It's an experiential story of discovery.
"Iím not saying that if you do everything I did there's any assurance you'll discover something, too. In fact, I actively discourage people from imitation. You need to discover the underlying conditions that are conducive to an Experience, not try to duplicate the surface mannerisms or characteristics of a teacher.
"But I have read about people who've had spiritual experiences similar to mine--even met a few others personally--and I've noticed some common denominators in our lives. Regardless of geography. People who have experienced this knowledge have come from all parts of the world, and all times in history. You don't have to go to India or Tibet to find the Truth. You start from wherever you are, right now.
"Anyhow, I've come to believe there's three basic things a person must have, or cultivate in himself, in order to have any hope of success in these matters--to have any hope of becoming.
"First, You need to want the Truth more than anything else. Not at first maybe--you might start with just a mild curiosity. But eventually, if anything is going to crack for you, you'll need a tremendous hunger for the Truth.
"There's a story of the student who asked a Zen master what it took to reach Enlightenment. The master led him into a nearby lake until they were chest deep in water, then he grabbed the student and held his head under water. At first the student didn't resist because it was the master and he figured there must be a good reason for it. But as he started to run out of air he began to struggle more and more until eventually he was fighting with everything he had to get free. Finally the master let him up and the student gasped and coughed and almost collapsed. When he got control of himself again he asked the master why he had held him under. The master said, "When you want the Truth as much as you wanted air just now, thereís no way you can miss it."
There was scattered laughter in the audience, but Rose did not smile or pause.
"Second," he continued, "you need energy. You need to become dynamic enough to do the digging and work it takes--finding the books, the teachers, the methods, and acting on the things you discover along the way. This requires a lot of energy, so you'll need to conserve what you have and use it for this purpose.
"And third, it takes commitment--a simple pledge to yourself and any God who might be listening. These are the three things. Without these, all philosophies are empty words."
Rose had yet to look at his notes. He seemed to be taking his cues from the mood of the room.
"There are no guarantees in this line of work, this business of becoming," he said. "Anyone who tells you otherwise has something he's trying to sell. The only thing I, or anyone else who's been down this road, can do is give you the benefit of his own experiences."
So Rose proceeded to do just that, recounting for the audience the stages of his life's search--the time of faith in the seminary, the pursuit of logic and science in college, the years of meditation and ascetic disciplines.
"Then," he said, "at thirty years of age I had an experience that came about as a result of none of these factors."
Rose then told the story of his Enlightenment experience in much the same way he told it in his kitchen in Benwood that first day I was there. Yet for some reason, that night at the lecture, it had a much greater impact on me. At one point I even had the sensation of being physically touched, but when I turned around there was no one near me. When I looked up at Rose again he was staring at me as he spoke. Without warning the hair bristled on the back of my neck and a cold chill shot through me. Rose then looked away and continued describing what it was like to become the Absolute. When he finished there was a long silence, during which he got a glass of water from the table behind him and took a drink. Finally, a man about Roseís age raised his hand.
"Would you say, then, that you found God in your Experience?"
"You become God, yes," Rose said matter-of-factly. "Although I hesitate to use that word because it comes with a long history of childish connotations. We're not talking about a big guy with white whiskers keeping tabs on how many rules we break."
"I think of God as more of a 'Universal Mind,'" the man continued quietly.
"Well, perhaps," Rose said. "But the Absolute is beyond Universal Mind. Mind is still a dimension. You discover this by losing your own individual mind. Then you realize--because Mind is still there--that what you had all your life was not the individual mind you thought you had, but merely contact with an undifferentiated Mind dimension.
"So, yes, itís accurate to say I found God, or became God, in the experience. But itís also accurate to say I found nothing. There was no one there but me. You command creation, and yet youíre not operating under the illusion that you can change anything."
A tall man who had been taking notes throughout the talk raised his hand.
"Then you encountered no other intelligences during your Experience?"
"I didn't see anybody there but me. And yet, I sensed that something was helping me, maybe even guiding me--something that was just outside the picture. In fact, I sometimes think the whole experience was orchestrated for the purpose of showing me that Richard Rose the body doesn't exist."
"So you had help?" another man asked.
"Yes. I believe the whole experience was engineered. I just never got a good look at who or what was helping me. It was benevolent help, of course, but not protective. If youíre going to visit the Totality and the Void, your Holy Guardian Angel can't tell you beforehand that everything will be all right, that he'll be right there with you. No. You have to die like a dog. Die without hope. Only then can you make the personal discovery that through it all you are still observing--'I'm still here!' It wasn't until I returned that I realized something had created the Experience, even the physical conditions preceding it."
"But aren't there other systems that can bring you to the Truth without all this disaster?"
"To know death properly, a person must die."
"Then why would anyone want to pursue something like that, I mean, if they knew it meant they had to die to get there?"
"Who dies? What dies?" Rose asked, not altogether rhetorically. "Sometimes you have to plow under a city to build something more beautiful."
The room stayed silent.
"I know. Nobody looks for death," Rose continued. "I wasn't looking for death. I didn't want to find Nothingness. In fact, I always wanted to assert my individuality to the greatest degree of it's intensity."
I could hear a young woman's voice from the front row. "The whole experience doesn't sound very pleasant."
"Who said it would be?"
"I mean, its not the type of spiritual experiences I've been reading about."
"Then you're reading about lesser experiences. Enlightenment is the death of the mind. Death. You think you are dying--completely and forever. And it's good to think that because it kills the ego. When a person feels himself dying he immediately drops all his egos.
"It has to be this way. You must go through death with no hope of survival. Because you have to be truthful with yourself--all those tales about life after death could be fiction. But when you die honestly, you die with absolute despair. And that absolute despair removes the last ego you've got left--the spiritual ego that believes the individual mind is immortal.
"But then something amazing happens. After you die, you find yourself still here, observing this mess. And that observing is the secret of immortality. In fact, the only thing I think is valuable to know is that when you die, the Observer still lives.
"What I found in the Experience is that the soul of man is God. Every human being has the potential to discover this. To discover his essence, his soul. And in the act of discovery one becomes what he has discovered. If we were nothing more than the projected illusion we call 'me,' at death we would go out like a candle.
A student sitting on the steps in the aisle raised his hand.
"Where did the soul of man come from?" he asked.
"Does it have to come from something? Couldn't it just be? It is."
"If the soul of man can just be, why can't we just be? Why all this effort?"
"Because we are not the soul of man," Rose said, suddenly animated. "We are not the soul of man! We are shadows on the wall of Plato's cave. Each individual on this planet has the potential to find his soul, to become a soul. But you are not a soul until you discover yourself, your True Self. And yet it is also accurate to say that what you are is a soul. You don't have a soul, you are a soul. What you have is a projected body-mind unit that operates in the vicinity of the soul that is observing your fictional life.
"But you will not gain immortality by listening to me or anyone else try to explain this, or by believing me or anyone else. The only immortality possible is to become fully identified with the soul--the Observer, your True Self--before your body dies. Then you will not die with the body. In traditional Zen this is expressed with the saying, 'If you die before you die, then when you die you will not die.'"
"But you said you found Nothingness."
"Yes, but a person can't conceive of Nothingness. In the Experience, you don't think of Nothingness. Nothingness descends upon you."
"Isn't that oblivion?"
"Nothingness is not oblivion. I don't think anyone really finds oblivion at death. Certain people--purely instinctive people who are living a basic animal existence--might descend into blackness for a period. But for how long, I don't know.
"Death is different for each person, then?"
"Absolutely. If everyone found the same thing at death--if your actions on earth had no effect on your situation after death--then there wouldn't be much point in me talking."
"So what will it be like for you?"
Rose smiled. "My life is no longer tied to this planet. This place is a stage, and when you leave, you turn out the lights."
There was a long pause before the next question.
"Don't you believe in reincarnation, Mister Rose?" The speaker was an attractive middle-aged woman.
"I don't believe it or disbelieve it. I've got no proof either way. I may have been here before, but I have no memory of it. What I've noticed, though, is that the people who push reincarnation the hardest are generally using it as an excuse to keep from putting out any spiritual effort in this lifetime.
"I will say that as an explanation for human suffering and the inequities you see in society, reincarnation is a more easily digestible system to the human intellect than the concept of 'one chance then heaven or hell forever.' But just because it's more digestible doesn't mean it's true. In fact, the more palatable an explanation for things is, the more likely it is that it's been created out of the wishful mind of man.
"Besides," he added, turning back to the woman who asked the question, "if people do come back, it's only because they don't realize they could just stay dead and be a lot better off. In their ignorance they feel somehow compelled to continue to play the game, to go back on stage."
A young man directly in front of me raised his hand and Rose nodded in his direction.
"What is it like to come back, Mister Rose?" he asked. "Is the world different, or do you leave the Experience behind?"
"The world is never the same again. For me now, it's like I'm an insane man watching all this. Of course that's a very liberating state to be in," he said with a grin. "An insane man is free to do all sorts of insane things."
The laughter provided a welcome break from the seriousness. The whole room seemed to loosen up, including Rose.
"It was pretty rough at first, though. The night I came back I couldn't stop weeping. I just wandered the streets crying uncontrollably, looking for a bridge high enough to jump off of. Seriously. I didn't want to live. I couldn't stand the thought of being back here in the nightmare. The only reason I didn't jump is the rivers are shallow out there and I was afraid I'd just get stuck in the mud.
"Then I passed a church and that gave me hope. I figured that priests spend their lives looking, maybe one of them has read something about what just happened to me. So I knocked on the door. This blob of a priest with an enormous gut answers and he looks at me like I'm some kind of worm. I knew he wasn't going to be any help, so I asked him, 'Are there any older priests around?' There I am, standing on the church steps with tears streaming down my cheeks and he doesnít even invite me in. He just scowls at me and says, 'How long has it been since you've been to confession.'
"And I thought, 'Where's my gun?'" Rose continued talking through the laughter. "Really. I wanted to shoot the bastard. But the anger was good. It helped bring me out of it. It helped me stop weeping.
"Gradually, the worst of the trauma passed and I started drifting back into life again. But I still felt terribly out of place in a world that I knew without a shadow of a doubt was an illusion--having just visited the real place. For several weeks people were transparent to me. I mean literally transparent--I could see right through their bodies.
"So I figured I'd better head back home, because I still wasn't too stable. I had an old friend living in Alliance, Ohio, and he got me a job at the place he was working. That's when everything became beautiful to me. Hills were once more hills, valleys once more valleys. Children looked like baby dolls. The starkness of the Absolute I had visited now made life and motion appear as beauty to me. Those months following my Experience were the happiest of my life, except maybe for the years of peace and bliss I had in my twenties when I was living a very ascetic lifestyle.
"Every day I'd come back to my room after work and sit down in front of the typewriter. I'd given up on trying to talk about the Experience--you just can't describe an Absolute condition using relative terms--but I had hoped to write a book of poetry and at least try to capture the beauty of the illusion I'd been forced to come back to. Most of it I tore up as soon as I wrote it. But then one day something came over me and I was able to write about my Experience. Thatís when I wrote ĎThe Three Books of the Absolute.í
"It was like automatic writing," Rose continued. "The words just appeared on the page."
A hand was raised near the front of the room. "Do you think your years of asceticism brought about your Experience?"
"Not really. It was like a period of adolescence on the way to adulthood. Necessary, but not directly causal. However, I do think that all that experimentation, investigation, and especially conservation of my energy, was definitely part of the preparation for my Experience."
"What's the other part?"
"The main preparation for Enlightenment is trauma. But you don't need to engage in any special disciplines to induce it. Your life will give you plenty of trauma whether you're on a spiritual path or not. Indulge in it while you can. You'll have plenty of peace in the marble orchard--maybe." Rose laughed in a way that made me uneasy.
"What I mean is," he continued, "you have to go through these traumas in life--now, while you're on Earth--in order to improve your situation after death. Everyone may be immortal, but we don't all go to the same place when we die. Awareness may not terminate for anyone, but you can't expect to advance into a dimension that you haven't mentally vaccinated yourself to beforehand. If the average mind--with its convictions and limitations--landed in an Absolute dimension, it would think it was either in oblivion or hell."
"Will a person whoís been doing spiritual practices, like meditating regularly, get a foreshadowing of what you finally experienced?"
"No. This does not accrue gradually. It happens suddenly and is never anything like you might imagine beforehand. I always thought a spiritual experience would be sheer beauty. I had visions of reaching some beautiful fields of flowers or God knows what. And the fact that I found something so utterly devastating and contrary to my desires convinced me that the experience was genuine, and not the product of wishful thinking.
"It's the effort you put forth--the vector you create--that propels you into this, not an accumulation of knowledge. You're engaged in a relentless pursuit of Truth, yes, but even in the midst of it you suspect that you are incapable of perceiving the Truth. So you engage in the obsessive pursuit of a goal while simultaneously believing you will never be successful. You live this! A person on the spiritual path lives this every moment of every day of his life. You push and push and push without hope. And then, no words or logic can explain what finally happens. It's an explosion. Your being changes."
"But doesn't the wisdom you acquire on your search coalesce in Enlightenment?"
"No," Rose said flatly. "That is not the path. You can't acquire wisdom because you don't know what it is. The path is subtractive. You keep sorting through the garbage pile to see if something real lies underneath it. And after you get done subtracting everything, what's left is an Absolute condition. That's what's real, not the little bits and pieces you set aside because you thought they were true along the way. You don't know anything until you know Everything."
"Do you think other people have had the same type of experience you did?"
"Oh yes, I know that now. But after my Experience I felt completely isolated. It wasn't until years later that I found out about other spiritual incidents. I was in Steubenville, Ohio--we had a little group that met there--and after one of the meetings a woman handed me a copy of Richard Bucke's Cosmic Consciousness." When I read it I knew I wasnít alone.
"But cosmic consciousness isn't the final experience," Rose continued. "The people in Bucke's book describe an experience where they understand the harmonious interworkings of everything in the universe. They see lights and experience bliss, and so on. This is wonderful. But experiencing the Absolute goes beyond all that. In the Absolute there is no bliss or sorrow."
Rose reached into his old black "satchel," as he called it, and rooted around for something. After a few moments he pulled out a copy The Albigen Papers.
"As I said, the closest I ever came to describing this was when I wrote ĎThe Three Books of the Absolute. Ď Iíd tried several times before that to write about my Experience, but gave up. There was just no way to do it. Words and language exist in one dimension, so to speak, and the Experience in another--a dimension without words, a dimension that canít even be imagined in dimensions where words exist. And so, there was just no way. But one day this poem, or whatever it is, just came to me, complete, all at once. I could hear it and feel it and all I did was get it down as fast as I could. Once Iíd finished I never went back and changed anything. I just published it as it came to me. Anyway, itís here in the back of this book. Itís rather long and I donít want to put you through the whole thing, but I thought maybe Iíd read the last few lines to you."
Rose patted his pockets and looked around the podium for his glasses. He found them in an inside coat pocket and put them on, then flipped through the book until he found the spot he was looking for. He stared at the words for several moments before speaking and by the time he began to read the room was impossibly silent.
"...And soon I see, looking ahead, that all my joys are not, that all my love is not, that all my being is not.
And I see that all Knowing is not. And the eminent I-ness melts into the embraces of oblivion.
It melts into the embraces of oblivion like a charmed lover, fighting the spell and languishing into it.
And now I breathe Space and walk in Emptiness. My soul freezes in the void and my thoughts melt into an indestructible blackness.
My consciousness struggles voiceless to articulate and it screams into the abysses of itself. Yet there is no echo.
All that remains is All.
My spark of life falls through the canyons of the universe, and my soul cannot weep for its loss....for lamentation and sorrow are things apart.
All that remains is All.
The universes pass like a fitful vision.
The darkness and the void are part of the Unknowing....
Nothing is everywhere....
Death shall exist forever....
All that remains is All."