I cannot believe I am writing this, but I would like to reflect a bit on this Grateful Dead song: “Ripple”–words by Robert Hunter, music by Jerry Garcia. It is an extraordinarily beautiful song, haunting in its multi-layered meaning and in its lyrical performance. There are various interpretations of it, some shallow and misleading, others catch the deeper drift of this poem. But here I would like to venture another kind of interpretation. And I would like to do this as a kind of preparation for the final installment of my reflections on Christian advaita, which I hope to have for the next posting. So, first of all here are the lyrics of this remarkable song:
If my words did glow with the gold of sunshine
And my tunes were played on the harp unstrung
Would you hear my voice come through the music
Would you hold it near as it were your own?
It’s a hand-me-down, the thoughts are broken
Perhaps they’re better left unsung
I don’t know, don’t really care
Let there be songs to fill the air
Ripple in still water
When there is no pebble tossed
Nor wind to blow
Reach out your hand if your cup be empty
If your cup is full may it be again
Let it be known there is a fountain
That was not made by the hands of men
There is a road, no simple highway
Between the dawn and the dark of night
And if you go no one may follow
That path is for your steps alone
You who choose to lead must follow
But if you fall you fall alone
If you should stand then who’s to guide you?
If I knew the way I would take you home
Because it is primarily a song, it needs to be heard as a song in order to catch its subtle movements and nuances. There is a studio version done by the Grateful Dead that is especially clear for listening purposes and that can be found here:
But you also have to see it in its actual performance where the words may not be as clear to hear but the trade-off is that you see this amazing dynamic of a rock concert by the Grateful Dead performing this very subtle and lyrical song to a very loud crowd! And here is just one example:
Let’s begin with a most fundamental and basic view of the poem: it is both a song and a poem–in ancient times there was no distinction–and its most obvious theme encompasses the various possibilities and problems in communicating a deep experience or a deep insight in human language and through human art, the built-in limitations of language and art to express that which is most intimate and most transcendent in us. But what I would like to suggest and add that this song/poem also expresses one of the deepest dynamics of spirituality and one of the most crucial dilemmas faced by those of us who are trying to come to terms with a Christian version of advaita. (Obviously this was not the intended meaning of Hunter and Garcia but then no work of art is limited to what its creator intended.)
In talking of advaita, Abhishiktananda always referred to the radically ineffable nature of the advaita experience, the fact that you cannot express it in words or concepts, all words and concepts and thoughts and ideas, all fail in touching this experience. All you get are some images and faint reflections of the reality, the so-called “namarupa,” which in Abhishiktananda’s reckoning includes even the most sacrosanct Christian doctrines. As we shall see in the next posting, the theologians will say, “Not so fast, Abhishiktananda, our words, feeble though they be, are truly connected to the reality we are trying to express and in some sense represent that reality.” We shall argue that one later, but here let us see what “Ripple,” and the Grateful Dead have to contribute.
In ancient times poetry/song was considered a “divine gift,” in fact coming from the divine realm and manifesting it. Consider the opening line of Homer’s Illiad: “Sing, Goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son, Achilleus, and its devastation…..” Also here is the opening line from Homer’s Odyssey: “Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story…..” So in this reckoning the artist is not even really the real creator/storyteller. It is the Divine which uses the poet as a medium to speak/sing the story and in its telling/singing we are connected to the Divine realm as we hear it and take it in. The song/poem participates in a divine vision of the human drama. It is certainly not just the poet “expressing himself.” Underlying all this is an understanding of the mystery of language and knowledge as imbued with the numinous. But the “Divine” in that world is not yet a wholly transcendent realm but one simply parallel as it were with our natural world. It is simply like an “alternate universe” or like “another dimension” of pop science fiction. With the development in human consciousness and a growing awareness of a more profound and transcendent divine reality, the limitations of human language and art to “make present” that reality became more and more painfully obvious.
“Ripple” shares in all this in a most remarkable way. It begins: “If my words did glow with the gold of sunshine,” and this immediately evokes the ancient and classical world where language and song illumine all and convey a kind of transparency to all. The song fully conveys the meaning of the artist, the meaning of the reality it sings about. (Classical Christian theology and spirituality seems to have that same kind of confidence in its language.)
“Ripple” continues: “And my tunes were played on the harp unstrung.” The confidence of the artist/singer is not based on his own skill or the “fineness” of his “instrument,” whether it be the “harp” or his talent or his mind. It is the “harp unstrung” which is the source of this song. This is a symbolic paradox, obviously not humanly possible, which veils the real transcendent source of the song (the theology/spirituality). Such paradox is a common motif in the ancient and pre-modern world as a way of veiling the transcendent Divine Reality as when Aquinas says that we know God best when we know Him as Unknown, and recall the Cloud of Unknowing, etc.
But “Ripple” Immediately infuses a kind of doubt about all this, a problematic that may be inherent in this level of communication between two people. Recall that the very first word of the song is “If,” making the situation more like a wish than a reality, the implication is that my words are not quite like that at all, no so luminous and transparent. But the song gets more explicit: “Would you hear my voice come through the music, Would you hold it near as it were your own?” The point is that every artist (and in a certain sense this holds for all of us in our most intimate and most important communication) has the question whether he/she have really been able to communicate their vision, their knowledge, their experience. Whether the song was done a thousand years ago or just yesterday and you hear it, do you really share in the artist’s vision/experience fully or in some incomplete and fragmented way? “Ripple’s” answer is clear: “It’s a hand-me-down, the thoughts are broken
Perhaps they’re better left unsung.” There is a sadness here, and the whole song has a kind of mellow sadness; but that is only due to a realization of human finiteness and limitation even at the deepest levels of our experience. The song ponders the utter futility of such communication. (And also of course theology and spirituality is a kind of “hand-me-down” and these thoughts are also broken and so totally inadequate in capturing the original experience–Abhishiktananda was saying this with vehemence at the end of his life. The utter futility of Christian theology in capturing the vision of advaita was his concern.)
But “Ripple” doesn’t leave us there; it continues:
“I don’t know, don’t really care
Let there be songs to fill the air “
The poet/singer gives up wrestling with this dilemma, and then suddenly the whole song pivots and becomes something quite new. No matter the limitations and shortcomings and opaqueness of language and art, we must continue the human effort to communicate what is deepest in us. (And no matter the feebleness in our God-language, it is the human thing to continue doing.) From here on the song actually lifts us up. And all this is marked with this remarkable chorus which is really a haiku and gives us the title of the song:
“Ripple in still water
When there is no pebble tossed
Nor wind to blow.”
The image is once more shrouded in paradox and mystery. The “ripple” is seemingly without any cause, without any reason for being. It is not accessible to rational and “scientific analysis.” The Grateful Dead have been seen as promoting a kind of hedonistic nihilism where the human being is but a faint and feeble “ripple” within a vast and empty space and empty of meaning except to join in the pleasures of the moment. Taken out of context, this haiku could be read in that way. But within this song, it is something altogether different. This haiku evokes the paradox and mystery which imbues our real existence and this song, and the music at this point actually lifts the song slightly out of that mellow sadness which otherwise underlies it thoroughly. Recall that most famous koan with Basho’s frog jumping into the pond, as it does everytime you read the haiku, and in the splash and in the ripples from that the whole cosmos is recreated and renewed. So, really this haiku is a zen koan of sorts–what is the sound of one hand clapping? The poet/singer as zen master. Where we will find our “consolation,” our “rest,” our “place,” our essential humanity, is indicated by this koan. No rational analysis here; it eludes all such seeking. This is true of all koans; we discover what we discover as we awaken from our shallow slumber and our petty notions of who we are. But if we are going to say any words they must be imbued with the same paradox and mystery as the koan. Also, like all koans, when we become one with this “ripple” we will awaken and be liberated from our shallow dualistic vision. There is “no wind,” there is no “pebble” falling into the water causing the ripple, there is ONLY the utter stillness and the ripple. There is only ONE reality. This neither the “spirituality of nihilism,” nor the simplistic spirituality that envisions some God standing out there “making” the world and us “happen,” like the clockmaker God of the 18th Century deists who winds up the clock and stands back and watches it work. No, the “ripple” is all there is; there is only ONE REALITY but it is not projections of our ego self.
The song/poem continues in this vein. The issue it is addressing is not on the level of simple human satisfactions, wants, desires, needs, etc. These may or may not be dealt with on a simple human level and human interrelationships. So whether your “cup be empty” or “full,” there is something more urgent, more fundamental to be aware of. “Ripple” continues:
“Let it be known there is a fountain
That was not made by the hands of men.”
Robert Hunter, the man who wrote so many lyrics to so many songs performed by the Grateful Dead, said that this was his most favorite line and the most beautiful he had ever written. The “fountain” is that which refreshes us, recreates us; it is the source from which we draw our art, our song, our spirituality, our feeble ability to communicate the experience of the heart. It is this which we seek in all our other seekings; and it is not something that we create or construct or control. It is that which is Transcendent in us, and it is that which we truly are. Gently the song lays aside our concerns about whether our “cup be full or empty” and moves into a whole different dimension of our identity. Interestingly enough, for all the pessimism at the beginning of the song about its communication being a “hand-me-down,” and the “thoughts being broken,” it does appear that at the very least the song can point us in the right direction for this journey. (And so that would also hold for theology/spirituality.)
“Ripple” continues now with a keen insight into the journey into that divine/ transcendent identity, not made with human hands:
“There is a road, no simple highway
Between the dawn and the dark of night
And if you go no one may follow
That path is for your steps alone”
This is extremely important. The way to that kind of awakening, to that satori on the other side of that koan, to a “mystical experience,” if you will, of who one truly is, well, there is no map, no directions, no “how-to” directions, no “GPS” to guide you. And what’s more, it is excruciatingly unique. That’s why you cannot read spiritual works like cookbooks or imitating other peoples lives. There is a “terrible” uniqueness that one has to go through, each of us knows this in our hearts, that particular “eye of the needle” which beckons us, maybe not until we are dying do we become aware of it; but it is that which we must pass through absolutely alone until we emerge into a whole other vision of who we are. Death and Resurrection.
“Ripple” then concludes with some advice for those who consider themselves artistic or spiritual “leaders.” And then the whole song finishes with a line that is both sad and engaging and evocative: “If I knew the way, I would take you home.” The poem/song began with one kind of “If” statement, “If my words did glow…,” beginning with the problematic of artistic communication; and now it ends with another kind of “If” statement, “If I knew the way….,” the problematic of knowledge in the human heart. No one, absolutely no one knows the Way that You have to take to that universally recognized and yearned-for abode of fulfillment and truth and reality: Home (or whatever else we might want to call it). But the offer is beautiful and it leaves us with a sense of companionship on our own effort to make our way there, a companionship of the poem/song that will go with us into the Silence behind and beyond all words and all songs, into the Light.