There Is No Thing To Know

There Is No Thing To Know
The Mystery of the Void, the Point, Creation, 
the Symbol and the Unknown

Sacred Art must necessarily be about the Unknown, and yet it manifests in many creative forms including praising and prayer, and more generally as a celebration of life in its infinite, mysterious presences.  When there is not mystery, there is no true life.

When I was a graduate student back in the early 1970's and was faced with the dilemma of coming up with a theme for my required MFA written thesis, I had by then become interested in the depth psychology of Carl G. Jung.  I was fascinated with Jung's definition of Symbol; he said a symbol was "the best possible expression of that which is Unknown."  I gradually came to understand that if I were to make a photograph about anything else, for example about what I already knew or believed in, I would quickly become bored with the image.  What interested me most about making pictures was the feeling of mysterythe feeling of "spirit" or presence in the image; the feeling that an image was pregnant with "hidden treasures," meanings I did not possibly understand and yet filled with an unsayable, intuitive kind of knowledge.

In 1987, when I met my Siddha Yoga meditation Master, Gurumayi Chidvilasananda and experienced her divine presence and her mysterious, profound teachings, I recognized that what I had been longing for in my practice of photography was radiantly present in my teacher and her yogic teachings and the practices.  For example, in a talk that Gurumayi presented at her ashram in South Fallsburg, NY in 1989 on the theme of austerity, she quotes the Kena Upanisad on the mystery of knowing the True or divine Self:

It is not understood by those who understand;
it is understood by those who do not understand.

Gurumyai then goes on to explain:

This is everyone's dilemma before the final enlightenment:  How can you understand the Understander?  How can you know the Knower, or think the Thinker?  If you claim to know the knower, then you actually reduce the Knower to the status of an object that can be known.  Then it is no longer the Knower; it is the known.  

When you say you know something, you are referring only to that which is known by you -- which is very little!  Whatever you know has to be the known, and not the Knower.

If you truly do not understand . . . because there is no thing to understand (since nothing, no thing, is separate from the Absolute), then you really
do understand.  The entire cosmos has come out of that nothingness.  So you don't understand, you don't know, because there is no thing to know.  Then you really do know.

The key is to become the Knower; to know, that is, who you really are.  This pure understanding, to know that you are the Knower, to know that you are the Truth, can come only from the fire of austerity.

#1    Symmetrical Photograph, from the project: "There Is No Thing To Know"  

Mahasunya : The Great Void  
I want to follow up on Gurumayi's statement:

no thing is separate from the Absolute . .  
the entire cosmos has come out of that nothingness.  

To do that I must go back to the Blue Pearl which is said to be the source of everything.  The Blue Pearl, or bindu (point) the size of a sesame seed, was--according to yogic scriptures--the first form to emerge out of mahasunya, the Great Void.   Swami Kripananda, a teacher of Siddha Yoga, writes in her book The Guru's Sandals - Threshold of the Formless:

"Mahasunya is emptiness in the sense that it is without manifest creation, and yet it is filled with the potential of all conceivable names, forms, and worlds.  The bindu is the state of the gathered-up power of Consciousness that is about to create the universe.  Therefore, it is called the "primordial seed of the universe" . . .   All the combined energies of creation--from lightning bolts and raging rivers to the subtlest radiance of God--lie in a potential form within the Blue Pearl."

We can look at this mystery from a slightly different perspective by considering the creative power of Universal Consciousness, which is named Chitishakti.  It is Chiti which takes the form of the entire universe.  But, as Swami Shantanada, another teacher of Siddha Yoga, writes in his book The Splendor of Recognition:

". . . from the transcendental perspective, Chiti has neither form nor content, only an unfathomable boundless depth, which the sages of Saivism call mahasunya, the Great Void.  The term "void" can be confusing.  This is not to say that the Great Void does not exist; mahasunya exists.  It is void, or null, only in the sense that there is no subject to perceived objects, for in the Great Void all manifestation has fused with the light of Consciousness.  Here one experiences neither happiness nor suffering, knowledge nor ignorance, but a thought-free, steady, peaceful state."

Swami Shantananda then quotes Gurumayi who describes the full attainment of this supreme thought-free state of being, which, she says, is explained differently by each person who has experienced it:

When you sit quietly, everything comes to an end, because that which is transitory must end; that which has begun must also cease to be.  Only the beginningless beginning, the Self, which is always new and yet always the same, is unchanging.
          When you become quiet, this is the abode that you find within yourself.  Different sages have called it by different names.  Some have called it the Great Void; some have called it the Great Bliss; some have called it the Eternal Light.  Each one has explained it in his or her own words, but it is a true experience.    The Splendor of Recognition, by Swami Shantananda, a Siddha Yoga teacher

#2    Symmetrical Photograph, from the project: "There Is No Thing To Know" 

Para-vac : The Sounds of Creation
Swami Shantananda's commentary on sutra 12 of the Pratyabhijna-hrdayam provide us with yet another fascinating explication on the creation of the physical universe.  In this case he writes about the creative power of sound vibration and its esoteric relationship to the silence of The Great Void. He says fundamental reality could be viewed as pulsating Chitishakti who projects the universe of forms from her own exquisite vibration.  Swamiji writes:

"Para-vac [literally, the voice of God] contains all letters, words, objects, all beings--everything that is to compose the created universe.  It vibrates subtly as aham, 'I am,' the very pulsation of the Self.  This is equivalent to saying that at this highest level, speech and the objects named by speech are undivided and indivisible, coexisting as a vibrating power . . . The totality of sound is the source of everything and simultaneously contained in everything.  Of course, this vibration cannot be perceived, as there is nothing at this level either to hear or to be heard.  All of creation, and the vibrational sounds associated with it, exist in the vast silence of mahasunya, the Great Void.  It is from this silence that they will emerge into boisterous activity."  The Splendor of Recognition

The yogic scriptures say the created universe began with the primordial sound OM which spontaneously emerged from the silence of mahasunya.  From this primordial sound emerged all other sounds, letters, words . . . their meanings and the material objects which make up the entirety of the universe.

The A-Ka-Tha Triangle
Related to this discussion is the vibrating, luminous a-ka-tha triangle, which is located in the crown of the head in the upper-most energy center, or chakra which is named the sahasrara.  Each line of this triangle is made up of the letters of the sanskrit alphabet, thus the lines vibrate with all the sounds and words of the created universe.   The three lines also represent the light of the sun, the moon, and the light of fire.  At the very center of the triangle, in the center of a thousand-petaled lotus, is the Blue Pearl.   see these two projects:  The Blue Pearl  and  Threshold of the Formless.

#3    Symmetrical Photograph, from the project: "There Is No Thing To Know" 

The Point &  Divine Unity
In Keith Crithclow's book Islamic Patterns - An Analytical and Cosmological Approach, the author makes it quite clear--in a quote he uses at the beginning of his Introduction--that his mathematical exploration of Islamic pattern is not simply grounded in "intelligible geometry."  Rather the science behind the arts is "one of the gates through which we move to the knowledge of the essence of the soul, [which] is the root of all knowledge."

Crithchlow then writes:

"The nature of origins or the creation point of a subject is grounded in mystery.  The nature of a point--the simple, self-evident origin of geometry--is one such mystery:  is it possible that a point 'has no dimension', except that it be a metaphysical point, and how can it occupy 'place' if space has not yet been created from its unfolding?  Clearly there has to be a precise differentiation between physical and metaphysical, between idea and expression, yet both are embraced by one reality."

I feel a deeply personal affinity to Islamic sacred art; indeed my symmetrical photographs were inspired by my experience of some Qur'an illuminations, which I have explained in my project "An Imaginary Book."  I like the balanced tensions that exist in my symmetrical photographs between representation and abstraction.  Crithclow writes about this tension in his introduction:

"Islam's concentration on the geometric patterns draws attention away from the representational world to one of pure forms, poised tensions and dynamic equilibrium, giving structural insight into the workings of the inner self and their reflection in the universe.   ~  In the effort to trace origins in creation, the direction is not backwards, but inwards."

I have commented often about the essential roundness or circular nature my symmetrical images; similarly, Crithclow states that his book is concerned with geometrical form as it relates primarily to the circle which is the symbol par excellence for the 'origin' and the 'end' of both geometric and biomorphic form . . . and the primary cosmological symbol of wholeness and unity all of which unfolds from the center of the circle, that is to say, its creation point, the mystery, the essence of the soul.

#4    Symmetrical Photograph, from the project: "There Is No Thing To Know" 

Unity and Multiplicity : the Point & the Circle
Note: the text excerpts that follow is taken directly from an excellent book by Samer Akkach entitled Cosmology and Architecture in Premodern Islam - An Architectural Reading of Mystical Ideas.  Like Henry Corbin (see below) Akkach looks deeply into the mystical writings of the 12th century Sufi scholar-mystic Ibn' Arabi.  The passages I have chosen are from pages 65-73, and I do so because they provide yet another perspective on the ideas I have presented above.  

"The ungraspability and incomprehensibility of the point renders it a potent symbol of the ineffable divine Essence (al-dhat) or God in the state of nondetermination. “Whenever I speak of the Point I mean the Secret of the Essence,” says the twentieth-century Sufi Ahmad al- Alawi in his treatise on the symbolism of the Arabic letters."37 

"And al-Jili says that 'the point is a symbol (ishara) of God’s essence that is hidden behind the veils of his multiplicity.'”38 

"The point stands for the Essence because it is just as ungraspable and incomprehensible to say that the point is formless, dimensionless, indivisible, and so forth, as the Quranic description of God: 'Naught is as his likeness' (42:11)."   

"Negation is the only way to know of the divine Essence and, by extension, of its symbol, the point.39 Ibn Arabi explains the state of divinity to which the point is ontologically tied: 'Praise be to God before whose oneness there was not a before, unless the Before was He, and after whose singleness there is not an after, except the After be He. He is, and there is with Him no after nor before, nor above nor below, nor far nor near, nor union nor division, nor how nor where nor when, nor time nor moment nor age, nor being nor place. And He is now as He was. He is the One without oneness, and the Single without singleness . . . He is the First without firstness, and the Last without lastness. He is the Outward without outwardness, and the Inward without inwardness.'”40

"Relating this to space, the geometrical point in its two modalities, the sensible and the intelligible, may be taken to represent the ubiquitous presence of Being in both its determined and undetermined states. Viewed from al-Hindi’s standpoint, the point can be seen to be the basis of spatial compositions in the same way that Being is considered to be the inner reality of all beings. Ibn Arabi develops this argument considering the point in its own right and in what it causes to appear in the form of spatial composition. In reality, Ibn Arabi says, a spatial object is none other than the point, but in determination it is other than the point." 

"Explaining the nature of the radius, Ibn' Arabi writes: 'A line terminates at a point. Its beginning and its end are and are not parts of it, as you may wish to say. What should be said of the line is this: neither are the points the line itself nor other than itself . . . The line is made up of points, it cannot be conceived in any other way. The plane is made up of lines, so it is made up of points, and the body is made up of planes, so it is made up of lines, which are made up of points.'”44 

"In summary, the point, itself undetermined and unmanifest, is the principle of determinate manifestation. It is to space what the divine Essence is to the world: the unmanifest principle of manifestation. In its intelligible mode, it encompasses the entirety of space, for potentially all is conceived within it. In its sensible mode, it is the generative principle of space, for all bodies in space can be geometrically reduced to a point: it is both the whole and the part."  

"This is the paradox of unity and multiplicity implicit in the act of manifestation, the paradox of the one becoming many and at the same time remaining one, of God being at once the name and the named.46 The key to understanding this paradox, the Sufis teach, is the double negation: to think of external beings as neither God himself nor other than himself. It is like looking in a mirror and seeing your image: the reflected image is neither yourself, since you are standing apart from the mirror, nor other than yourself, since it is your own and not anyone else’s. If you imagine that you are able to look in a number of mirrors simultaneously and see your reflected images in all of them at once, then the paradox of unity and multiplicity is partially resolved. And if you imagine these mirrors to be infinite in number, reflecting infinite aspects of your personality, then the paradox is almost resolved." 

"What remains to be explained is the 'mirrors': what are they and where do they come from? In this analogy, the mirrors are none other than the created beings, the things of the world, whose appearance coincides with the manifestation of the divine reflections or realities."47   

The circle as a symbol of divinity in the state of first determination

The Circle, the Center, the Point
"Sufis see the revealment of the divine’s infinite names from the incomprehensible Essence as analogous to the projection of the circumference’s indefinite number of points from the indivisible center and to the reflection of God’s “forms” in the mirrors of beings. Through this ontological relationship, the circle becomes the symbol of the first comprehensible form of unity the Essence takes on. The circle’s inherent geometrical qualities are thus conditioned by the metaphysical reality it embodies. The circle, therefore, offers effective cues that help us understand the paradox of unity and multiplicity." 

"Although the center and the circle are mutually dependent on each other’s presence, in the sense that circularity demands a center just as centrality demands a domain, the center, as a point, remains autonomous and self-sufficient on its own.50 The circle, by contrast, has no state wherein it can dispense with its dependency on the center. Just like an image in a mirror: its existence depends upon the presence of the one whose image is being reflected while the one remains independent on its own."

[Ibn' Arabi explains:]  "'The point is Being (al-haqq), the space outside the circumference is non-Being (al- adam), or, say, darkness, and that which is in between the point and the space outside the circumference is the possible (al-mumkin) . . . We have been given the point because it is the origin of the existence of the circle’s circumference that was manifested by the point. Likewise, the possible does not manifest except by Being and the circumference of the circle.'51  . . .  Here is an Essence, one with a Will and a creative Word. Without this Essence, its Will, which is its turning towards bringing something in particular into existence, and its uttering of the word 'Be!' to that particular thing at the moment of turning, that thing would not have come into existence." 53

The Circle & Quranic Concepts 
"Thus viewed, the circle’s inherent order provides an immediate expression or materialization of many Quranic concepts. Referring to the verse, 'he is the first and the last, and the outward and the inward' (57:3), Ibn Arabi says: 'The world is between the center and the circumference: the center is the first, and the circumference is the last.'55 He adds: 'every point of the circumference is an end to a line, while the point out of which a line projects to the circumference is the beginning of that line, so he is the first and the last. He is the first of every possible being just as the point is the beginning of every line.'”56 

"And with reference to the verses, 'And God, all unseen, surrounds them' (85:20), and 'Verily, he is surrounding all things' (41:54), Ibn Arabi writes: 'If you assume lines projecting from the point to the circumference (muhit), these will terminate but unto a point. The whole circumference bares the same relationship to the point, which is his saying: ‘And God, all unseen, surrounds (muhit) them,’ and his saying: ‘Is not he surrounding (muhit) all things?’”57

The Circle & the Return
"The Arabic word for 'circumference,' muhit, which also means 'surrounding' and 'encompassing,' provides a linguistic support for the mystical interpretations.58 The symbolism of the circle is also used to illustrate and confirm some theological dogmas, such as the ultimate return to God at the end of the world. The lines projecting from the point of the center to the points of the circumference that stand for all possible beings remind us, according to Ibn Arabi, of our ultimate destination, as stated in the Quran: 'and unto him the whole matter will be returned' (11:123); 'As he brought you forth, so you shall return' (7:29); 'God initiates the creation, then the recreation, then unto him you will be returned' (30:11).59  Ibn Arabi sees in the circle and the spherical form of the cosmos a constant reminder of this ultimate return.  Ibn' Arabi writes:  'Know that since the world is spherical in shape, man longs at the end of his life to his beginning. Our springing forth from nonexistence to existence was by him, and to him we shall return, as he says: “and unto him the whole matter will be returned” . . . Do you not see how when you start drawing a circle you keep encircling the line until it terminates unto its beginning: then it is a circle. Had the matter been otherwise, had we sprung forth from him in a straight line, we would not have returned unto him, and his saying: “then unto him you will be returned” would not have been true, but he is the truthful.'"60


To conclude this explication on the circle, unity and multiplicity, Samer Akkach writes:  

"The circle, the symbol of the state of first determination, is the first comprehensible form unity takes on in the process of manifestation. It represents the first polarization that differentiates the unity of the Essence from the multiplicity of the names, but without distinguishing the names from one another. Just like the points of the circumference: they are all alike and equally related to the original point-center."    click here to access the online PDF of Akkach's book 

#5    Symmetrical Photograph, from the project: "There Is No Thing To Know" 

Henry Corbin, Creative Prayer & the Mirror
In his remarkable book Alone with the Alone ~ Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn' Arabi   Henry Corbin explores in great depth the creative power of prayer from the perspective of the 12th century Sufi mystic-scholar Ibn' Arabi.

Corin says that in prayer there is "between God and His faithful not so much a sharing of roles as a situation in which each by turns takes the role of the other."  He raises a question about the image of the God created by the faithful when he or she prays.  Corbin says this image is revealed to the faithful in the form of his own being, as his "mirror image" which is his "hexeity" -- his essence-archetype.  "What incites him to glorify God is precisely his spiritual state, in other words, that within him which determines this God in one form or another. . .  Thus God can give [the one who prays] only what his [or her] hexeity implies."

Corbin continues:  "The supreme gift will be to receive an intuitive vision of this hexeity, for such a vision enables the mystic to know his own aptitude, his own eternal predisposition . . .   The subject who receives the theophany sees only his own form, yet he knows that it is only in this form as in a divine mirror that he can see the Form of the theophany, and in this theophany recognize his own form.  He does not see God in His essence; the response given to Moses is still valid: 'Lan tarani, thou shalt not see me.'"

I will conclude this brief section on Corbin's exploration of prayer, creative imagination, and the mirror with the following remarkable statement which he wrote regarding prayer, God, imagination and the mirror:

"God is your mirror, that is the mirror in which you contemplate your self, and you 
you are His mirror, that is, the mirror in which He contemplates His divine Names."

#6    Symmetrical Photograph, from the project: "There Is No Thing To Know" 


The Mirror 
the Symmetrical Photographs


This project should be seen as a complement to my earlier "thing" project The Center of Being : Thing-Centered Symmetrical Photographs.  Indeed, when the present project, There Is No Thing To Know, is viewed in the context of the Thing-Centered Symmetrical Photographs project, an additional new understanding, though probably unsayable, occurs in the space-between them.  This phenomenon is I suspect close to what in Sufism is known as a "double negation," a paradox that unites two seemingly opposing concepts.

Related to this, I want to emphasize--by way of repeating (from the texts presented above)--some selected passages from Samer Akkach's book Cosmology and Architecture.  His use of the analogy of the mirror sheds light, I think, on the symmetrical photographs which originate in a single source image of the "outside" world.  To be brief: the source image is then multiplied four times, mirrored or reflected in each other above & below, left & right, and conjoined at what becomes the center-point of the symmetrical photograph, an utterly newly manifested, transformed unified version of the original, multiplied source image.  This newly manifested image of unity is mysteriously graced with the sacred presence of the Heart.  Samer Akkach writes:

"This is the paradox of unity and multiplicity implicit in the act of manifestation, the paradox of the one becoming many and at the same time remaining one . . .  It is like looking in a mirror and seeing your image: the reflected image is neither yourself, since you are standing apart from the mirror, nor other than yourself, since it is your own and not anyone else’s. If you imagine that you are able to look in a number of mirrors simultaneously and see your reflected images in all of them at once, then the paradox of unity and multiplicity is partially resolved. And if you imagine these mirrors to be infinite in number, reflecting infinite aspects of your personality, then the paradox is almost resolved.  ~  What remains to be explained is the 'mirrors': what are they and where do they come from? In this analogy, the mirrors are none other than the created beings, the things of the world, whose appearance coincides with the manifestation of the divine reflections or realities."47 


It is my experience that the symmetrical photographs, at their best, are divine reflections, images which open a door into sacred space, the space of the ineffable mystery of unity in multiplicity, the space of the Heart. The space of the Heart is the Pure Self which is reflected in the circle and its center-point.       

This morning, before my daily meditation, I read this passage from a talk by Gurumayi: 

It is the wisdom of the Self that gives the great ones [i.e., the yogic sages and saints] the strength to endure the extremes of this world.  Even though you may be able to hold your senses in check, you know that the elements and events of the world are completely beyond your control.  Nothing but the knowledge of the Self can shelter you from the unforeseen workings of the universe.    . . . it is very important for each human being to find his or her inner center.  This is the supreme shelter, and this can be found only through ongoing spiritual practices and the grace of the Guru.  Without the discovery of the inner center, one is like driftwood floating on the waves of the ocean, continually battered against the rocks . . .   published in Darshan magazine #136

I was especially struck by Gurumayi's statements: "nothing but the knowledge of the Self can shelter you from the unforeseen workings of the universe," and "the supreme shelter" is finding one's own "inner center."  For me, the creative process of making symmetrical photographs is a form of spiritual practice, a way of finding my "inner center."  

The uncontrollable, unforeseen workings of the outer world does create fear in me at times, and with that fear a desire to gain control over certain aspects of my life.  And yet when I absorb myself in a truly articulate symmetrical photograph--one that functions for me as a symbol--the grace of the image quiets my mind and I become transported to an interior space which feels as if it is at the very center of my being.  The symbol, an image fully present with the sacred mystery of the unknown, invokes in me a sense of intimate, silent, sheltered familiarity--the round, sacred space of the Heart.  Visit "Vision of the Heart" from my Photography and Yoga project. 

#7    Symmetrical Photograph, from the project: "There Is No Thing To Know" 
~  click on this and all other images once, twice, to enlarge  ~

About the Seven Photographs In This Project
Sometimes I make photographs specifically for a project, and sometimes I make photographs just out of a pure joy of seeing, or working.  I surrender to a subtle intuitive impulse, and if I like the image and don't know how to use it in a project I am currently engaged with, I store it in a file folder entitled "Unpublished Symmetrical Photographs."  I just keep adding images to this file as they come along, and I look at them frequently--thus these images are always actively in my mind.  In fact, I think of this process of going back to the file of images as studying them as a form of contemplation.  

(Interestingly, it has just occurred to me that this collection of images which have been unseen by others because they have not been published, represent a category of imagery that could appropriately be named "Unknown Images.")  

When the idea for the present project came along it quickly became obvious to me that I could not make photographs specifically for the project; rather I would have to find them within my archive of collected works.  Instead of using images published in previous projects, I dedicated myself to using images from my file of unpublished symmetrical photographs.  The seven images presented in this project have come from that file. 

The Next Project
For the past year I have been collecting many straight photographs for a new edition of the Studies project.  In the past six weeks especially I have been adding quite a few images to the collection when I have found the time to photograph while baby sitting our grand daughter.  This might be the time to publish a selection of those images.  We will see.    


This project was completed and posted 
on my Welcome Page in the 
"Recently Added" section
April 7, 2016


Related Links & Projects:
Siddha Yoga Path
The Blue Pearl
"Vision of the Heart"
Cosmology and Architecture in Premodern Islam - An Architectural Reading of Mystical Ideas
As Above, So Below : Mirror in the Temple
Symbol ~ Mirror ~ Mandala

The Sacred Art Projects List    
Here is the list of the projects that belong together under the sacred art category.  The projects are listed from the most recent at the top to the initiating project "An Imaginary Book" of 2011-13.  

There Is No Thing to Know   2016 
The Blue Pearl   2016
The Center of Being   2016   
Field of Vision   2015  
As Above, So Below ~ Mirror in the Temple   2015  
Photography and Yoga   2015  
Snow : Photographs from the Silver World   2015  
The Photograph as ICON   2015  
The Angels   2014 
The Space Between Color and Black&White   2014  
The Creative Process   2014  
"An Imaginary Book"   2011-13

Welcome Page  to The Departing Landscape website which includes the complete hyperlinked listing of my online photography projects dating back to the 1960's, my resume, contact information, and more.