Notes to Imaging Buddha

Posted on 15. Aug, 2015 by in Blog

0. Three points

We live among fragmented images, perhaps even as fragmented selves, thus the art of imagination often stands neglected. I want to look at – 1 – how creative imagination is important, 2 – how tradition provides good examples, and 3 – how we don’t know what to do with what’s available.

1. Imagination is important as a key aspect of practice

1a. Imagination is a resource, it brings together heart and mind while creating new possibilities that move us beyond the confines of our perception. Images are delivered by each sense, not just the visual. Plus, imagination isn’t confined to aesthetic and artistic pursuits. It shows up in every challenge, every inquiry, innovation and discovery. Thus, awakened imagination is closely related to unfettered perception, and is the original psychoactive agent.

1b. Imagination is intrinsic to our being. The first two modules of the eightfold path, namely view or outlook and aspiration or ideation, are very much about imagination. Our experience is awareness, plus imagination, plus perception. To be transformative, and even liberating, imagination has to be approached with care and discernment, or else its immense potential easily falls prey to confusion, and ultimately – banality. Cultivated imagination is based on a willingness to face the unknown and stay with it, trusting where it takes us. It sprouts as faith (shraddha) and comes to fruit as a form of knowing (prajna). Ignoring repressed imagination causes serious problems. Neglected imagination leads to stagnation, imbalance, and insanity.

1c. Function of imagination is to open, uplift, and inspire awe. Great works of art engage our senses, emotions, and awareness. When this happens, we often become aware of our own contraction, reluctance, and holding back. Thus, imagination also puts us in touch with these patterns, while opening the way for other possibilities. To follow the awe is to experience the contraction and distraction while choosing to step into the open space of possibilities.

2. In traditional sources we find many good examples

2a. In classical Buddhism, we don’t find an explicit treatment of creative imagination, or an approach to its cultivation. Opening verses of Dhammapada say everything in experience is mind-wrought. Imagination is concerned with both creation and dissolution of images, again not just visual ones. Awakening can be understood as a threshold between two modes of imagination: a passive imagination twisted by confusion, and a translucent imagination expressive of wakefulness and  responsive to the immediacy of whatever may be the situation.

Sutras and tantras are amazing literary achievements, products of an exuberant creativity. Arts such as painting, sculpture, architecture and ritual practices, developed alongside scriptural canons, the influence between textual and contextual going both ways. One thing standing for another thing is the basis of symbolism and language, and Buddhists have developed a particular symbolic language, based on  interdependence and empty form.

2b. Examples    Buddhist methods that harness imagination, such as contemplation of death and the four immeasurables, have been in use since the earliest times. Remembering buddha is another crucial method, used by virtually all schools. Buddha is imagined in front, above, within, around, or as oneself. These and other methods have been used by countless practitioners in every culture where Buddhist teachings were practiced, and continue to be very beneficial for so many.

Early Buddhism was aniconic for several centuries, which does not imply the earliest teachings are not fond of poetic language. From what we know about Siddhartha Gautama’s teaching methods, he used metaphor with flexibility and humor, mostly in the context of a dialogue. Episodes in Gautama Buddha’s life were soon symbolised: footprints for birth, tree for awakening, seat for authority, wheel for teaching, stupa for passing away. Such images were venerated as signs of buddha-presence and in time became icons. According to Buddhaghoša, a 5th century Theravada master, devotion has four correct objects: „The senior in sangha, the bodhi tree, an image of buddha, and the stupa.“ All four are substitutes for buddha.

In Mahayana, various buddhas and bodhisattvas make up the pantheon, with their particular samadhi, mantra-dharani, vow, and manner of awakening, sometimes their own pureland. It’s impossible to say which come first – the vision of buddha-body captured in an illumined image, or the hearing of buddha-voice captured in a sutra discourse.

In Vajrayana, the vision of countless buddhas, intoning of dharma-syllables, and simultaneous ritual actions, come together to merge the practitioner, the art, the teaching, and raw materials of experience into one dynamic whole without an outside.

2c. Cognitive, affective, and aesthetic in tradition      While treatises and commentaries often focus on philosophical aspects of doctrines and practices, sutras and tantras are replete with poetic descriptions of buddha. These repositories of Buddhist imagery weave cognitive, affective and aestethic languages to inspire and guide the reader. As in every sacred literary tradition, metaphor of magic and myth are effective in this way. For the literally minded, they provide basis for stupefying beliefs, superstition, and idolatry. Be that as it may, one needs to rein in the conventional suspicion of wonder and marvel. The imaginative dimension of Buddhist teachings belongs to the domain of mythos – expressive of basic values, generative of a particular poignancy – in common with sacred art everywhere. We find the same creative play at the heart of so many rituals – wherein all things, actual, possible, potential, even the improbable, are simultaneous and coextensive. Our participation in such drama entails every faculty and every mode of experience. Therein lies the transformative, but also the unitive power of awakened imagination.

Japanese master Kukai was aware that imagination can be seductive: „Full of strange things is the world of yoga in which many images appear. There is a moment when we are drawn into a luminous world of experience. Do not hold on, do not be deceived; such a vision is yet provisional.“ Yet he was also convinced that imaginative aids are indispensable, since ordinary language cannot fully express the Dharma.

3. We don’t know how to use what we have

3a. According to Sangharakshita, Western culture has seen several iconoclasms – one by the early Christianity suppressing pagan gods, one by Protestant Reformation condemning most imagination, and then rationalism turning myth into either pathology or entertainment, and deeply meaningful images into cliches. Western Buddhists have a rich imaginative legacy, but our images are for the most part gutted of power and significance. Now also elsewhere, including traditional Buddhist countries, modernity poses a challenge to existing models of imagination. Indeed, the question is equally valid everywhere – how do we imagine buddha today?

Western art starting with renaissance is saturated with history and meaning, so we tend to shy away from using existing masterpieces to our purpose, but they are strong reminders of what’s possible. Meanwhile, imaginative and figurative modes of expression are comodified as everything else. Symbols as mere glyphs soon become opaque, then unintelligible, and finally trivial. Symbols are manipulated, vacated, recoded and often imbued with arbitrary meaning, perhaps even opposite from the established one (example, swastika). For people in the past, buddhas and bodhisattvas were first and foremost a vibrant presence, only secondly symbols. For most modern people, even those who follow traditional teachings, deities are symbolic representations, and only then, and just for some, living presences. Just as we speak of living, dying and dead languages, same is true of images, icons and symbols.

3b. Art, music, dance     Although we start with received images, one can encounter buddha only through an image that was born in one’s own mind. Today we need to rediscover how buddha appears to us. Where symbolic gaps are concerned, whether due to different cultures or different ages, we must strike on our own, afresh and anew.

Starting from basic openness, we look for sounds and sights, acts and attitudes, situations and settings, that invoke the quality of being present and awake. This is an important role for sangha, to be an incubator of an aesthetic culture, through arts, music, dance – bringing communities together in celebration, while inspiring awe and wonder.

3c. Future     Classical methods of presenting buddha are valuable, and yet new ways of imagining buddha will continue being introduced. In this process, it is vital to discern between images that empower imagination from those that merely conform to orthodoxy, or those that feed into sentimentality. Reclaiming a buddha that is potent here and now is the task of creatively imagining an awakening that takes place in this world. Imago dei is a central notion in Christianity, Judaism and  Sufism, according to which humans are created in God’s image and likeness. Without drawing too strong a parallel with Buddhism, in particular the teachings on buddha-nature, the image of buddha is also a mirror of deep human potentials. If our natural faculty of amazement and wonderment wil be our guide, there’s no reason to doubt our ability to seek out, create, and cultivate vivid images of buddha, that is to say, reflections of wakefulness.

X. Summary     Buddhist imagination is to be found at the juncture of art and meditation. If buddha is to be a vibrant presence once again, and only secondly a symbol, a rediscovery must take place of buddha as vibrant presence, one that – when imagined and received – readily quickens the same vibrance and presence in most if not everyone.

So, the three points for your further reflection: imagination is an important aspect of practice, tradition exemplifies the creative process and gives good examples, materials are there in abundance – we don’t quite know how to use them.

. . .

Audio of the presentation given at the 2014 Buddhist Geeks conference.

For slides shown at the presentation, and mentioned in the audio, see here (google slides).

Tchaikovsky’s “Hymn of the Cherubim” (youtube) part of which was used towards the end of presentation.

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