Luminous Darkness. By Deborah Eden Tull. A Book Review
The book is due to be available in US shops from around 27 September 2022.
Two common metaphors co-exist in the spiritual and psychological world. Application of these two metaphors have become familiar to many of us. We have taken both for granted with light representing the positive and the dark representing the negative.
In her book, Deborah Eden Tull, endeavours to encourage readers to step out of this dualistic metaphor and direct spiritual practice towards the darkness. This reminds practitioners to explore the dark and embrace the unknown.
The desire to hold onto historical impressions and conclusions about the dangers of the dark inhibits the opportunity to penetrate the unknown. It is not easy to take steps into the unknown giving the opportunity to bring light into areas of life frequently ignored, neglected or rejected.
The seeker of Truth has the opportunity discovery insights hidden away due to the attraction towards the light and ignoring of the dark. Spiritual and mystical traditions, including the Buddhist tradition, have given priority to light as the means to dispel the darkness.
The Buddha woke up under the Tree of EnLIGHTenment. Deborah Tull advocates Endarkenment, as a language acknowledging the importance of light and dark. After his experience, under the tree, the Buddha referred to the light, which lit up his whole being and life itself – an ultimate language rather than dualistic.
Her book urges us to address any dark areas of a reader’s life. I would give examples such as hidden corners of the mind, fears, resistance and unwillingness to encounter adventure through stepping into the unknown. Her approach dissolves the edges of light and dark, so our view does not fall into such a dualism.
The book has a special pertinence given the darkness over the Earth – uncertainty, dictatorships (in democracy/non-democracy), climate upheavals, wars, energy crisis and more. The illumination of the darkness and learning to live with insecurity confirms expressions of embracing the unknown.
Her book addresses the physical manifestations of light and dark, as well as the symbolic invitation of darkness including learning to make friendship with the night hours. Deborah Tull’s reminds readers the path of waking up includes understanding that “meditation reveals the human realm is not the only realm.”
Meditation encourages us to open the heart and mind to listen to ourselves, to wise teachings but also to the voices of the animals and the natural world.
The book adopts a frequent four-fold format often found in the current generation of spiritual books with its benefits and limits.
1. The teachings.
2. Frequent use of ‘we’ language in the paragraphs.
3. Author includes regular personal stories.
4. Short section at the end of each chapter for practice/inquiry.
The text provides an overall readability for beginners and those with depth of practice but, in my view, needs more of the sharp, cutting edge of a critique to shake up the consciousness of the reader. Luminous Darkness does offer several cuts to the bone comments.
Here are examples. To her credit, she writes (Page 21) in her chapter on Refining Darkness.
“I believe there are profound implications in our historical and collective rejection of darkness. The continual reference of darkness is negative and sinister. And the assumed divide between light and dark has created a severe tear in the fabric of human relationship.
It has caused a dualistic fracture in how we see everything good, bad, right wrong, higher, lower worthy unworthy.
“These dualistic associations have contributed to systematic racism, plus sexism, misogyny, sexism, domination over nature, and the demonization of mental illness and physical disability. “
“Hierarchy creates an unsustainable order of the human mind.”
These are powerful statements to inspire any thoughtful and caring person to reflect on.
What is the resolution of corrupt systems and hierarchy? What will change patriarchal Buddhism? It is easy to see the failings of our institutions, but we need guidelines and application of the alternatives. One extreme is hierarchy/patriarchy. The other extreme makes gross mythological generalisations that we are all equal. Buddha-Dharma explores the middle way.
In her introduction, the author said the “teachings and enlightenment saved my life.” In a heading on page 5, she wrote enlightenment is neither and end nor goal. I assume she means enlightenment at expense of endarkenment. If there is no goal, then there is no path nor practice or only an endless path and practice.
Features in the Dark
The author reminds readers of the practical aspects of the dark, such as making natural processes possible by physical darkness. Process includes the embryo resting in the dark of the womb for nine months, the caterpillar in a silky cocoon and the seeds in the garden requiring the absence of light for germination.
The mind can produce monsters, demons and painful fantasies out of the dark. Exposure to the unresolved corners of the mind in this underworld can make a major impact. Projections, trauma and forebodings influence our views, perceptions, feeling and emotions, including impacting on our health. A person may not know what to do when facing such painful presentations. This means requires the support of another or others. Rightly so, she endorses exploring the dark and embracing the dark.
Tull refers to her childhood, her relationship with her father (her ‘first spiritual teacher’), her Jewish upbringing, her Dharma practice, dealing with Lyme Disease and daily life.
As a monk, she experienced the hierarchical power structure in the monastery (page 113). She said she “allowed the hierarchical power structure to undermine her kindred relationship with my own female body.” …I had not yet seen the limitations of this structure… Only when I brought more awareness to hierarchy, did my personal practice begin to mature.”
She points out that power is exerting one’s will and force onto the world (page 157). The Buddha expressed deep concern about the abuse of power. He referred to the five powers of mind – trust, mindfulness, unification of mind, energy and wisdom.
Ego constructs of superiority and inferiority support hierarchy, which brings about anger or submission.
The author writes of her wish to integrate her whole self (Page 141) and writes elsewhere whole mind perceives wholeness (Page 152). The integrated self and the whole self are Jungian concepts, with a measure of truth but one can go deeper into the dark than that. She does go deeper from time to time. The book touches the depth of the dark rather than limiting it to self-interest.
In a luminous darkness, the world of I, me and mine lose all substance – neither fragmented nor whole, neither great self nor small self.
The light confirms the dark. The dark confirms the light.
The book needs to pass onto many Buddhist/mindfulness/meditation teachers and psychologists. There is a need to increase awareness of external factors for suffering due to aggressive social behaviour and the darkness in our problematic institutions rather than limit suffering and its resolution to the self.
A strongly recommended book.
An Engaged Buddhist Approach
To Embrace the Unknown
Deborah Eden Tull
Shambhala Publications, USA,
Deborah Eden Tull, a US citizen, is a Dharma teacher, public speaker and sustainability educator. She teaches Zen meditation.