Dharmakãya Light

I think I could have easily ended my discussion of Pirsig’s Lila with the entry on the conflict between Victorian morality and the intellect, because those seem to be the most important ideas in the novel. Actually, the work tends to just trail off at the end, rather than building to a climax as in ZAMM.

However, I found the following discussion rather curious, perhaps because if you’ve looked carefully at some of the photographs I’ve included on my site you have noticed that at times I’ve enhanced what Pirsig refers to as “the Dharmakãya light,” a concept that I’ve heard about but never in Pirsig’s terms.

It introduces the idea as an example of cultural “blindness:”

It was a parable for students of scientific objectivity. Wherever the chart disagreed with his observations, he rejected the observation and followed the chart. Because of what his mind thought it knew, it had built up a static filter, an immune system, that was shutting out all information that did not fit. Seeing is not believing. Believing is seeing.

If this were just an individual phenomenon it would not be so serious. But it is a huge cultural phenomenom too and it is very serious. We build up whole culture intellectual patterns based on past “facts” which are extremely selective. When a new fact comes in that does not fit the pattern we don’t throw out the pattern. We throw out the fact. A contradictory fact has to keep hammering and hammering and hammering, sometimes for centuries before maybe one or two people will see it. And then these one or two have to start hammering on others for long time before they see it too.

Just as the biological immune system will destroy a life-saving skin graft with the same vigor with which fights pneumonia, so will a cultural immune system fight off a beneficial new kind of understanding like that of the Zuñi with the same kind of vigor it uses to destroy crime. It can’t distinguish between them.

Phedrus recognized that there’s nothing immoral in a culture not being ready to accept something Dynamic. Static latching is necessary to sustain the gains the culture has made in the past. The solution is not to condemn the culture as stupid but to look for those factors that will make the new information acceptable: the keys. He thought of this Metaphysics of Quality as a key.

The Dharmakãya light. That was a huge area of human experience cut off by cultural filtering.

Over the years it also had become a burden to him, this knowledge about the light. It cut off a whole area of rational communion with others. It was not something that he could talk about without being slammed by the cultural immune system, being thought crazy, and with his record it was not good to invite that suspicion.

Though I’d never heard of the Dharmakãya light I identify it with the luminous glow often found in Morris Graves’ paintings, one of the striking elements that first drew me to his bird paintings long before I’d taken up bird watching as a hobby. I’d always associated the use of that techniques in my own work with Graves. Now I wonder if there isn’t actually something more to it.

Pirsig ties this phenomena to paintings that most of us are familiar with:

Once when Phaedrus was standing in one of the galleries of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, he saw on one wall a huge painting of the Buddha and nearby were some paintings of Christian saints. He noticed again something he had thought about before. Although the Buddhists and Christians had no historic contact with one another they both painted halos. The halos weren’t the same size. The Buddhists painted great big ones, sometimes surrounding the person’s whole body, while the Christian ones were smaller and in back of the person’s head or over it. It seemed to mean the two religions weren’t copying one another or they would have made the halos the same size. But they were both painting something they were seeing separately, which implied that that “something” they were painting had a real, independent existence.

Then as Phaedrus was thinking this he noticed one painting in the corner and thought, “There. What the others are just painting symbolically he is actually showing. They’re seeing it second-hand. He’s seeing it firsthand.”

It was a painting of Christ with no halo at all. But the clouds in the sky behind his head were slightly lighter near his head than farther away. And the sky near his head was lighter too. That was all. But that was the real illumination, no objective thing at all, just a shift in intensity of light. Phaedrus stepped up to the canvas to read the nameplate at the bottom. It was El Greco again.

Most of us have been struck by this symbolism because of our religious and cultural upbringing. We don’t have to be told what this signifies; we know it without asking.

But Pirsig is right that:

Our culture immunizes us against giving much importance to all this because the light has no “objective” realty. That means it’s just some “subjective” and therefore unreal phenomenon. In a Metaphysics of Quality, however, this light is important because it often appears associated with undefined auspiciousness, that is, with Dynamic Quality. It signals a Dynamic intrusion upon a static situation. When there is a letting go of static pat- terns the light occurs. It is often accompanied by a feeling of relaxation because static patterns have been jarred loose.

He thought it was probably the light that infants see when their world is still fresh and whole, before consciousness differentiates it into patterns; a light into which everything fades at death. Accounts of people who have had a “near death experience” have referred to this “white light” as something very beautiful and compelling from which they didn’t want to return. The light would occur during the breakup of the static patterns of the per- son’s intellect as it returned into the pure Dynamic Quality from which it had emerged in infancy.

During Phaedrus’s time of insanity when he had wandered freely outside the limits of cultural reality, this light had been a valued companion, pointing out things to him that he would otherwise have missed, appearing at event his rational thought had indicated was unimportant but which he would later discover had been more import- tant than he had known. Other times it had occurred events he could not figure out the importance of, but which had left him wondering.

He saw it once on a small kitten. After that for a long time the kitten followed him wherever he went and wondered if the kitten saw it too.

He had seen it once around a tiger in a zoo. The tiger had suddenly looked at him with what seemed like surprise and had come over to the bars for a closer look. Then the illumination began to appear around the tiger’s face. That was all. Afterward, that experience associated itself with William Blake’s “Tiger! tiger! burning bright. The eyes had blazed with what seemed to be inner light.

If it’s a form of insanity, I probably shouldn’t admit that I often sense something like this when I’m taking photographs. Perhaps it’s even what I’m trying to capture in nature, but can, at best, only approximate.

I don’t think it’s entirely irrelevant that Morris Graves moved to the northern California coast where these beautiful birds are prevalent:


Preening Great Egret

Egret Taking Off

Flying Egret

6 thoughts on “Dharmakãya Light

  1. THAT’S what it is about the best of your photos and writing for me. Dharmakaya light. Your recent series of birds in flight continues to move me.

    To quote you quoting Pirsig:

    “They’re {we’re} seeing it second-hand. He’s seeing it firsthand.”

    That’s something I hear William James talking about when he looks at the varieties of “religious” experience and what I hear Robert Pirsig talking about when he talks about Dharmakaya light. A person doesn’t have to be “religious” to have the “sacred” experience of that light. For some people the experience is second-hand, and there is plenty of room for doubt. Some long for for a first-hand experience and never have one.

    Then I think of Simone Weil, a secular Jewish woman from France, who “experienced Jesus” and spent the rest of her life coming to terms with what she had thought not only impossible but ridiculous, and yet she couldn’t deny her “experience.”

    Robert D. Richard said in his book about William James, “. . . he is too religious for the unbelievers and not religious enough for the believers. (p. 406). Simone Weil fits into that category. She declined to be baptized and, as could be expected, has been dismissed by many as mentally unstable. Still, when I reading her words on paper, I know that she is speaking of first-hand experience. Not a theory, not faith, not belief, not proof but simply an inexplicable and undeniable experience which changed the way she viewed everything.

    William James said: “I shall work out my destiny; and possibly as a mediator between scientific agnosticism and the religious view of the world (Christian or not) I may be more useful than if I were myself a positive Christian.” (p. 365, WILLIAM JAMES: THE MAELSTROM OF AMERICAN MODERNISM, by Robert D. Richardson. My only reservation with William James is that although he explored Buddhism, the Upanishads and Christian mysticism, he is pretty much silent on Judaism.

    If I ever left Washington and moved back to California, I would head straight to Humboldt County where Morris Graves lived out his days. The light there is unforgettable.

  2. What do you think would be an example of a new cultural fact that Prisig believes we would reject because it doesn’t conform to our established culture intellectual patterns? What do you think he has in mind in referring to new cultural facts that have hammered for centuries to gain acceptance? In the context of the other selections and comments you’ve offered on this book, I suppose he has in mind something that challenged moral norms. Maybe not. What do you think?

  3. He spends alot of time in the book discussing how what some people sees as mental illness can actually be a new form of accomodation for changes the society is undergoing.

    The Zuni he refers to was a real example of an Indian who had learned how to cope with the white settlers but broke the Indian rules in doing so. He was shunned by tribal elders, but in the end he became a leader of his people.

    Other that, I’m not sure what he would have in mind, Tom.

  4. Okay, maybe yours aren’t better than the best photos of birds and water I’ve seen, but yours aren’t any worse, either! I like to get GaGa from time to time!

  5. I spent a few summers working with schizophrenics, both in experimental drug therapy in a hospital setting and in a day treatment modality that involved editing a weekly newsletter put out by the clients. The front page usually featured a drawing by one of the clients assigned to the Communications Unit. One of the cover drawings featured a coffee pot that dwarfed everything around it.

    Clients failing to show necessitated outreach which meant making a daily round of several group home facilities. MTV was a new phenomena at the time and I remember trying to fathom how a station with wall-to-wall MTV could possibly attract any viewers. But in all of my visits to group homes I never saw a television set tuned in to anything other than MTV.

    I lived for more than three years in the Kingdom of Tonga. There were two stations. The public station consisted of tapes recycled from the government station in Pago Pago, featuring lots and lots of MTV. The private station belonged to the king. It featured the king’s favorite movies (Ferry To Hong Kong, Paint Your Wagons, Love Is A Many Splendored Thing, Donovan’s Reef) interspersed with the king’s favorite televangelists. The king liked romantic movies, but his censors had orders to edit out any scenes that involved kissing. The action would freeze with lips poised inches apart for ten or fifteen seconds and then resume somewhere in the middle of the next take. It took awhile but I acquired a taste for MTV videos.

What do you think?