issue 21 autumn 03
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Image Conscious

In certain states of mind the world is alive with significance. Sangharakshita illumines the power of symbols to fire the imagination and stir unconscious depths

In the course of 1,500 years Indian Buddhism passed through three great phases. The first phase was named the Hinayana, the 'lesser way', by followers of later Buddhist schools, but we can think of it simply as early Buddhism. In this first flowering of the Buddhist tradition, the emphasis was placed on ethical observance and psychological analysis. With the development of what became known - at least to its own adherents - as the Mahayana, the 'great way', the focus shifted to devotional practice and what could be called metaphysics, although it was of a rather different kind from the metaphysics of the western tradition. But the third phase, the Vajrayana, the diamond way - also called the Tantric path - placed special emphasis on the use of symbols, ritual, and meditation.

Each phase emerged in response to, or even reaction against, existing tradition, but did not entirely replace it; the essential features of the preceding traditions were preserved in each new synthesis of the teaching. Even when a change of cultural setting was involved, when the Vajrayana or Tantra was introduced into Tibet, the Tibetans elaborated upon the Indian Tantric tradition rather than changing it in any substantial way. The only real innovation was the incorporation of indigenous Tibetan deities into mandalas, but those figures never occupied a prominent position. Even the songs of Milarepa, which seem so distinctively Tibetan, have antecedents in Indian literature.

The Tantra went on developing in the Indian Buddhist community until the final disappearance of Buddhism from India. But the Indian tradition was always just one step ahead of developments in Tibet. For several hundred years Tibetan monks and scholars were coming down into India and eagerly enquiring after the latest Tantric teaching, so that they could study it, practise it, and take it back to Tibet. The Tibetans did not rely entirely on Indian forms of practice; they assimilated the spirit of the teachings and practised them in their own way.

But before the introduction of Buddhism the Tibetans had very little culture of their own, so their culture has always been mainly Buddhist, and that included the adoption of Indian cultural forms. The situation was more or less the same in Sri Lanka, and even in Japan. The great exception was China. The Chinese did not always take kindly to the Indian culture that came along with Buddhism because they already had a highly developed culture of their own.

Our own position, as we adopt Buddhism in the West, is most akin to that of the Chinese; we too have a highly developed culture already, and that will have its effect on the way we approach Buddhism. We may be as eager as were the Tibetans all those centuries ago to acquire the latest teachings. But we may find that we experience - in a way the Tibetans never did - a clash between Buddhist tradition and the culture in which we have been born and which has exerted its influence on us throughout our lives.

This is perhaps especially true when we try to understand Tantric Buddhism, with all its symbols, rituals, and apparently arcane practices. The increasingly rationalistic and secular outlook of western society has given many people a thirst for myth and symbol. All the same, we will need to make a special kind of effort if we are to grasp the true nature of those myths and symbols, so that they can become part of our lives in a creative and natural way.

This has been my own experience, anyway. When I first encountered the Tantra I was living in Kalimpong, a small town in the foothills of the eastern Himalayas. Thus I was surrounded by the great kingdoms of Tantric Buddhism - Sikkim, Bhutan, Nepal, Tibet - and Kalimpong itself was full of Tantric practitioners, mostly Tibetan refugees who had fled the Chinese invasion. But although I was surrounded by the Tantra, it took me some time to understand what that meant. At that time, in the 1940s and '50s, I had been a committed Buddhist for a number of years, but nothing had prepared me for the Tantra, and there were no reliable books on it in English. But in Kalimpong I began to meet people who were actually engaged in the practice of the Tantric path. I came in contact, a little later on, with Tantric art and ritual, and I eventually met a number of great Tantric gurus, and came to experience Tantric initiation and practice for myself.

As I tried to penetrate a little into the Tantra I felt that it was a jungle in which one could easily get lost. There were so many different traditions, so many meditation methods and forms of ritual observance, so many kinds of offerings, scroll paintings, so many figures of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and gurus, and dakas, dakinis and dharmapalas.

This is likely to be the experience of any westerner beginning to investigate the Tantra. The impression of richness and variety, growth, fertility and abundance is quite bewildering to begin with. But to become intellectually lost in the context of the Tantra is quite a positive thing. One may find oneself moved by the symbols without being able to say exactly how or why. With more experience, one comes to discover that the Tantra is not really the jungle it appears to be. It is more like a garden or, rather, a complex of gardens. Despite the exuberance of the Tantra there is a pattern running through it, or a number of interlocking patterns. These patterns are not intellectual, but spiritual. They are not imposed on the Tantra from the outside, but unfold from within it, expressing its innermost nature and essential purpose.

Tantric Buddhism is concerned not with theories or speculations, not with formal religiosity or external piety, but with the direct experience, in the depths of one's being, of what one truly and essentially is. It seeks to reveal to us our essential nature - not just psychologically but existentially, even transcendentally. So far as the Tantra is concerned, this experience cannot be mediated by concepts. In fact, concepts give no idea of it at all. It is beyond words, thought and the conscious mind and personality. But this direct experience can be evoked, or at least glimpsed, with the help of symbols. The whole Tantric path to Enlightenment is strewn with symbolic images, mantras and rituals; indeed it largely consists of them. And they are all intended to give a glimpse of this direct experience.

What is a symbol? The very nature of symbols makes it impossible to define them; it is best to let them speak for themselves. But we can at least make one generalisation: a symbol is not a sign. It does not stand for something that could be known in some other way. You can only get at what the symbol represents, or develop any feeling for it, through the symbol itself. You don't know what it stands for, because your only means of access to it is through the symbol. You can give a meaning to a symbol if you like, but that is not to say that you have got in touch with what the symbol stands for. Symbols are not concepts, so their meaning cannot be exhausted conceptually. There is usually something quite concrete about them - they have form and colour - and they do communicate something. But it is not easy to put what they communicate into words. They are like dreams, which leave a vivid impression, but cannot be expressed in conceptual terms.

To take one of Buddhism's favourite symbols, consider the lotus. Let your mind dwell on it, and then ask yourself what you are experiencing. What is this flower? What does it mean? Clearly it is not just a botanical specimen. It conveys something; it gives you a certain feeling that goes beyond its botanical characteristics. That is what makes it a symbol. But how does that work? Is it that we invest the innocent flower with qualities it does not possess, or does it really have some quality of its own, apart from our projection onto it? When you see the lotus as a symbol, you are seeing it as being illuminated by some other, higher dimension of reality. This reality is described in some Buddhist texts by the term sunyata (emptiness) which is a synonym for the unfathomable, indefinable mystery of the true nature of things. However, we cannot come at that mystery except through what is around us every day. As the Perfection of Wisdom sutras put it, we cannot experience sunyata except through rupa ('form'), referring to the objects we can perceive through our senses. A symbol is an object seen or felt or experienced as possessing a heightened significance that cannot be reduced to words or concepts. There is something there other than that form, that colour, or that sound, which is both communicated through that form and inseparable from it.

So it isn't quite accurate to say that a symbol stands for something. It is more that the symbol is that thing as it appears under a certain set of conditions, in a certain mode. What determines how something appears is the quality of perception of the person who sees it. For example, the figure of the Buddha is well known to be a symbol of Enlightenment. But how do we know that? We are unlikely to be able to recognise it from our personal knowledge of the Enlightened state. We may have some conception of what Enlightenment is, and we may also, if we are receptive, get some inkling of Enlightenment through the Buddha's symbolism of it. But that inkling will not necessarily coincide with our conception of Enlightenment.

And to get even an inkling, we have to be receptive to the symbol. It isn't that it definitely means this, that, or the other, and will deliver its meaning to us automatically. The symbolism is in the eye of the beholder. That is one of the differences between a symbol and a concept. In certain states of mind - the kind of states of mind developed in meditation - all experience is symbolic, and everything is seen as possessing a heightened significance. To continue to use the language of the Perfection of Wisdom, in as much as all forms are empty (all rupas are sunyata), whenever we are in contact with rupa we are in contact with sunyata. Everything we see - a tree, the sky, the clouds - is therefore symbolic: 'huge cloudy symbols of a high romance', as Keats says.

Ultimately, nothing is any more significant than anything else. Things can't be divided into symbols and non-symbols. They simply become symbolic under certain conditions; a symbol is a particular thing seen under particular circumstances or in a particular way. In principle, anything can be a symbol. One might say that everything is symbolic, but some things are more symbolic than others. It is partly that we experience some things as being more significant than others for subjective reasons. Most people can see the significance of a beautiful sunset more readily than that of a heap of ashes.

One cannot say that a lotus is more real than a dandelion, or that in itself it possesses more significance, but for subjective or cultural reasons it may make a more appropriate symbol. There may also be some objective reason - the way the lotus grows unsullied out of the muddy water, for example - that makes it an especially appropriate symbol for purity. But one must be careful that the association is not just intellectual. You have to feel the purity of the lotus.

A symbol is not an inadequate copy of something that exists quite separately on some higher plane. It is not that the lotus symbolises something that is quite other than a lotus and could just as well have been symbolised by something else. What we speak of as being symbolised by the lotus is in fact a deeper dimension of the lotus, so that when you see the lotus as a symbol, you are seeing it in a deeper and truer way.

This is what the spiritual life is about: trying to find more significance in our daily lives. When you can do that, there is never a dull moment. This is the experience of mystics and meditators who speak of seeing literally everything as being lit up from within, glowing with light. Light, significance, meaning, inner depth, symbolism - it all amounts to the same thing. In a certain state of mind, everything you see has significance. Not that the significance is reducible to a conceptual meaning - it just is significant.

We each need to explore what it is that makes something symbolic for us personally. We might all agree that a lotus - or indeed a dandelion - is symbolic in some way, but what is your actual experience of it? Setting aside whatever it is conventionally said to mean, what does it symbolise for you as an individual? Quite often one finds oneself exploring the meaning of one symbol through others. For example, the significance of a particular Buddha figure may become clearer when we consider what he is holding in his hands.

In any case, the effect of symbolism is not entirely subjective. Whereas a sign simply points towards a reality, a symbol to a degree participates in it. And, as I said, some symbols are more symbolic than others. Some, as Carl Jung discovered, are universal, archetypal, to be found in all cultures in various forms. There is what might be called a hierarchy of symbolism, and for Buddhists, the images of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are certainly to be found at the top of that hierarchy. But in what sense are these figures truly symbols for us? We may have their pictures on our walls. We may even visualise them in meditation. But they are not necessarily symbols for us in the sense of being fully, powerfully and emotionally stimulating. A symbol isn't just something you put up on a wall. It's only a symbol to the extent that you respond to it.

Developing a feeling for a symbol may therefore mean establishing links from whatever we do have a feeling for, however mundane it may be, to more refined things, making them more real to us. The Buddha image is the symbol of spiritual growth par excellence, the most elevated symbol available to us, but we may still find it easiest to approach it through other symbols. For example, a certain Buddha figure may be associated with the symbol of the elephant. While the Buddha may be beyond the reach of your vision, you may for some reason feel an attraction to elephants, and make your connection that way. Its profusion of symbols means the Tantra contains something to appeal to everybody.

At the beginning, we may have to accept that the Buddha image is not a symbol for us, but only a picture. It may represent an inspiring ideal for us, but, to begin with, it is just that - an ideal - something conceived of mentally. If the Buddha image were really a symbol for us, it would rouse and harness all our energies. If we just admire it as a striking picture or conceive of it as an abstract intellectual ideal, it is clearly not a symbol for us yet.

If we dwell upon and are receptive to them Tantric symbols will affect us, work on us and transform us. They stand for something of which we are not yet conscious, but of which we can become conscious, which we can come to know in a spiritual sense. Symbols are not dead, inert counters. They are full of energy, and give birth to life, spiritual life, within us. They are by their very nature creative. The creative symbols of Tantric Buddhism are not just of historical interest. They are not just creative in the abstract, or in the past, or in Tibet and India. They are creative for us. They can act on us, energise us, spark off developments in our own spiritual life, here and now, right now.

Sangharakshita's book Creative Symbols of the Tantric Path is published by Windhorse Publications, 2002