Reimagining the Buddha – Some First Responses

In November 1978 we had a week of opening celebrations for the London Buddhist Centre. The work went to the wire. At 4 am on opening day Jyotipala and I were still painting the toilets, and around the building others were also racing to finish. Thankfully, the first day didn’t involve the media or the general public, so if one or two things were left undone, it wasn’t too serious.

The seated rupa for the main shrine room was being sculpted, down in the basement, by Chintamani. On that first day he was still putting final touches to it, and couldn’t be persuaded to part with it. It was only the following day that about ten of us finally hauled the extremely heavy Buddha up through a trapdoor in the reception room and installed it in the shrineroom.

So we began with a shrine but no rupa. There were just a plinth, a lotus and a moon mat. The moon mat and the space above it, where the Buddha would appear, were illuminated by spotlights. Sitting before it, I actually found it a very effective meditation aid. Although I liked Chintamani’s rupa when it ascended from the depths, in some ways I preferred that luminous, numinous space. It gave me a sense of the Buddha’s illumined mind, his clear, panoramic awareness without any reference points. It was full of possibilities of manifestation, just as the dharmakaya can ‘give birth’ to endless appearances.

This memory came back to me (to be more precise, I recreated it in the present) when reading Subhuti’s Reimagining the Buddha. Perhaps that opening day is a good symbol for our current position in the Order. We have an intuitive sense of Enlightenment or Awakening, but it may not yet have manifested in the most appropriate forms for us. Meanwhile, from the basement of our collective unconscious, sounds of something taking shape can be dimly heard. Still it may take decades or centuries before the forms most appropriate to us now are ready to see the light of day€¦

Maybe we need just to sit with that illumined space above the moon mat. However, lotuses and moon mats are already assuming too much. We probably need to go back to the four traditional basic symbols that Subhuti mentions, especially the tree of Enlightenment. We could begin by imagining Enlightenment happening under a tree from our own landscape: in India still a ficus religiosa, but elsewhere pine, oak, palm, redwood, eucalyptus, kauri, etc. What would that be like?

I’m grateful to Bhante (Sangharakshita) for continuing to share his thinking, and to Subhuti for organising it. The paper did raise a number of questions and issues for me, but the middle of a three-year retreat isn’t the time to start entering into dialogue about them. I shall have to address any that are unresolved after my retreat ends in November.

I particularly liked the section on animism. It is becoming ever clearer to me that all experience is mental. So it makes no sense, in fact it does great harm, to regard anything as ‘dead’. As everything is an experience of consciousness, it is all completely alive!

Although Bhante is proposing a new future direction for the Order, I do hope that no-one who has a good existing connection with a visualization sadhana will lose confidence in how they are practising. (I’m sure that isn’t Bhante’s intention.) Our sadhanas are extraordinary, constructed with a skill and creativity that often amazes me. They are a great gift to us from Bhante, his teachers, and the tradition.

I appreciate that not everyone connects with them, which is fine. But if you do, then they have numerous potential benefits. I’ve just taken ten minutes to make a quick list. It’s far from exhaustive, and the points could all be unpacked in depth. (As I’m close to the Shabda deadline, forgive me if they aren’t very well formulated.)

1. A sadhana has a refining effect. Contemplating a refined ‘object’ refines the meditating ‘subject’.

2. Develops aesthetic awareness through the contemplation of beauty.

3. Provides an absorbing object for the development of shamatha.

4. Contemplation of the blue sky has an expansive effect on the mind.

5. Visualization of the blue sky can be used to balance the mind – calming or stimulating it – or for insight into emptiness.

6. Every aspect of the visualization is a demonstration of some aspect of reality.

7. It develops insight into impermanence. The yidam dissolves into the blue sky. If you’ve been strongly emotionally engaged with the yidam during the practice, this dissolution has a strong effect.

8. All the aspects of the visualized figure have a Dharma meaning and can be used for reflection and contemplation.

9. Can catalyze insights into dependent arising and emptiness, the middle way between existence and non-existence, e.g. through the translucent light-nature of the visualization

10. The sadhana gives you a concrete picture of the outcome of your going for refuge, what ‘you’ will become at the end of the Path.

11. Mantra can be an effective tool for cutting through mental chatter, and developing insight into sound-emptiness.

12. The practice engages our visual, auditory and kinaesthetic ways of experiencing.

13. Provides a gateway to insight through the entry of the jnanasattva into the samayasattva.

14. Can give a strong feeling of connection with Bhante, his teachers and great practitioners through the centuries, who have used this kind of practice, or even the very figure we’re visualizing, to transform themselves.

15. Being bathed in the loving awareness of the yidam helps overcome any tendencies to lack of self-worth or self-hatred.

16. Because a mental action has karmic effects, you can produce much positive karma through, for example, making offerings to the yidam.

17. Has a strong devotional element, which becomes an effective way of opening oneself to the Dharma niyama.

18. From beginning to end, the practice is all about the development of the imagination!


29 January 2011.