Books and Covers

When, as children, we first hear the proverb, ‘You can’t judge a book by looking at its cover’, we would probably take it as purely concerned with books—warning us, for example, not to make a hasty purchase, but to test the book’s value by looking inside. Only later, when we have heard the proverb used in other contexts, do we realise it is pointing to the general principle: don’t be deceived or misled by appearances. Don’t judge a person by the way they look; don’t trust the claims of advertisements; be wary of political manifestos; don’t jump to conclusions on inadequate evidence.

Yet the book-and-cover saying need not be negative in its implications. The ‘cover’ may be plain and unassuming, whereas the content may be sublime. A person may look unremarkable, yet their mind may be a treasury of rare qualities. The appearance, far from masking defects, may also conceal virtues.

This leads us to a consideration of meditation and our view of ourselves and of our mind. Our present experience has a particular range and we may feel that the best in us has already been brought to light and that there cannot really be any hidden greatness awaiting discovery in our own being. Yet the way of wisdom urges us to investigate our own nature more deeply, to forget the ‘cover’ of our revealed personality and character, and open up and read, so to say, the inner chapters of the book of our heart. This will be time well spent, for, as it is taught in this tradition, we all harbour an infinite world of beauty and goodness in our mind.

Meditation practices based on the non-dual teachings are relatively simple, compared, for example, to the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius Loyola. We are invited to dedicate a short time to our breathing practice, visualisation, and contemplation of a text, and that text itself usually comprises a short sentence indicative of higher Truth. Yet the process, if regularised, is comparable to opening and reading the book of our own heart and discerning here something inexpressible but of the highest quality. Or this interior focusing is like the positioning and turning of a key—a key whose small size is no clue to the greatness of its function. For the meditation practice of the non-dual teachings points to something great and all-encompassing yet not separate from our own innermost being.

Going further we can say that the highest revelation of Truth is concealed under the cover of extremely brief statements found in the Upanishads, the most famous of which is ‘That thou art’. If one fully understands the meaning of the words ‘that’ and ‘thou’, and their linkage in the sentence, then one has grasped what really matters on the path to enlightenment. For ‘That’ denotes ultimate reality as it is, without the superimposition of any mind-spun ideas drawn from our experience and learning in the realm of relativity. And ‘thou’ likewise denotes the reality of Self in us, similarly purged of all limited associations. What remains is limitless and attribute-less, self-evidently one without a second, and That thou art. So the short sentence, which seems to say nothing, indicates everything.

This point of what is simple and unremarkable opening out into what is vast and sublime is expressed poetically in the Tao Te Ching:

The way that is bright seems dull.
The way that leads somewhere seems to lead nowhere…
Dim and dark,
Yet within it is an essence.
This essence is quite genuine
And within it is something that can be tested.

In other words, do not underestimate teachings because of their seeming simplicity, but through meditation and enquiry, penetrate that genuine essence. To go beyond all partial interpretations is the way to transcend limitations.

This article is from the Spring 2020 issue of Self-Knowledge Journal.