Reimagining the Buddha – Images, Unity and Language

This is the third piece I’ve written for Shabda catalysed by Subhuti’s paper Reimagining the Buddha. In February’s Threads I welcomed the paper’s call to explore the Buddha’s Awakening in terms of our own culture, whilst also marvelling at the many ways in which the traditional visualization sadhanas work. In March I explored some points relating to sadhana. In this article, I want to share some other issues with you.  Although I don’t want to enter into dialogue about them whilst I’m on retreat, it feels better to communicate my thoughts now rather than have them bouncing off the wooden walls of my circus wagon. Otherwise, by the time I’m back in November, the whole issue will have been talked to death, and I shall be like a TV detective trying to re-open some old case that everyone was happy to see closed.

Using Images as Touchstones

The Mahayana explores doctrine and image far more fully than the Buddha and his immediate disciples did, but whatever emerged in that exploration must be tested against the Buddha’s image and his own words. (p.32)

This sentence raises the issue of how far an image can be a touchstone for what is spiritually helpful. As with music, our responses to images can be quite personal. So it seems wise to rely on the Dharma meaning assigned to an image as well as the image itself. If we were simply to look at images of the historical Buddha and then try to judge other images on that basis, then we might have to discard many of the Mahayana figures. Manjushri? That sword doesn’t suggest non-violence. Green Tara? All those jewels and ornaments don’t convey renunciation of the mundane, and what’s her right leg doing? Can’t she sit still in meditation?

This problem of interpreting imagery becomes more acute in the Vajrayana, and unsurprisingly Subhuti says that Bhante (Sangharakshita) considers that much Tantric imagery, especially its demonic forms, does not ‘feel’ like Buddhism, however much primal appeal it may have. (p.33) I wouldn’t use the word ‘demonic’, but let’s leave that aside for now, in general it’s clear the kind of figures he means. I agree with Bhante that these images ‘don’t feel like Buddhism’, but in my understanding that is an important reason why they are used. When you focus on beauty, refinement and an ‘ascending’ movement of consciousness, you can easily develop aversion, gross or subtle, towards less refined aspects of your experience. Then you start creating new mental barricades within which you try to shelter – Subhuti mentions Tennyson’s image of the ‘Palace of Art’ in this connection (p.26). This leaves some of our energy split off in ‘unacceptable’ unrefined emotions. These ‘wrathful’ figures, used in the right way, help us integrate this energy and channel it into the quest for Awakening.

In addition, these figures can show us that ugly, dark or overpowering experiences (whether in the ‘external world’ or in our ‘inner world’) are not different in nature from the beautiful and refined. They are equally just empty dependent-arisings. They can help us learn to work with powerful negative emotions by seeing through them, recognizing their insubstantiality. So although these figures definitely don’t feel like Buddhism, their practice is Buddhist in intention – they are skilful means to overcome one-sided views and practice.

I know that people can pick up on these figures for the wrong reasons: confusing their responses to primal energy or a powerful archetype with something spiritual. So those thinking of taking up practising them need good advice. But practices such as Wrathful Vajrapani and Vajrayogini have served some Order members (even a public preceptor or two!) well over the years, so I would be sorry to see them disappear altogether from our range of possible practices.

What Makes an Image ‘readily capable of being illumined’?

The whole question of what constitutes, and how to recognize, an ‘illuminable image’ is rather problematic. Some unlikely figures have proved in the past to be ‘genuinely illuminable’. Bhante, we’ve just seen, is ‘wary’ of some of the ‘demonic’ images from the Vajrayana tradition. Yet they have functioned successfully as illuminable images in India and Tibet for over a thousand years.

On the other hand, some images may not be as illuminable as you might expect. I was struck by Subhuti saying that Bhante thought it might take many millennia, even kalpas – if at all! (p.45, note 40) for the image of Apollo to become ‘illumined’. I would have imagined that a solar deity associated with music and the arts, truth and prophecy, would be quite a good possibility. However, even allowing for Bhante having his tongue in his cheek when talking of kalpas, it doesn’t sound as if he thinks Apollo is a likely candidate (and I can’t imagine him believing that Dionysus would fare any better). So if, to put it paradoxically, it will take aeons for the Sun to be illumined, what sort of image, connected with our western cultural heritage, could one hope to become illuminable in, say, ten or twenty years?

Of course, as Subhuti says, what will be much more decisive than the image will be the attitude of faith and devotion that an image inspires in someone – like the old story of the Tibetan woman given a dog’s tooth believing that it was a Buddha relic. Finally, perhaps, the only completely unilluminable image is the one we have of ourselves as separate and inherently-existing. But still, it sounds as if private preceptors will need a good deal of skill and intuition, or at least very good guidance, to decide whether the images that people come up with are likely gateways through which something of a transcendental order can enter.

Some Thoughts on Formal and Informal Meditation

The paper discusses three ways in which you can practise with images: 1) using the traditional sadhanas with their predefined ‘drama’ of unfolding appearance and connection (p.33); 2) focusing on the traditional Mahayana figures wholeheartedly, if less formally (p.40); and 3) exploring your own imaginative response to the Buddha’s Awakening. I hope that even people who are using the second or third ways of practice will still learn how our traditional sadhanas work. As I mentioned in February, they are crystallizations of the experience of previous generations of meditators, and are artfully constructed to lead the mind in a positive direction and demonstrate aspects of reality. Once you understand how they function, you can experiment to see if you can find ways of producing the same beneficial effects through more informal methods.

Although they are outlined as three separate approaches, presumably one person could use all three of the methods Subhuti outlines. For example, you might sometimes dwell on Vajrasattva and his unstained purity, but without following the traditional Mula Yoga sadhana. At other times you might drop the figure and mantra altogether and just dwell intuitively on the purity aspect of what Shakyamuni experienced under the Bodhi Tree, letting that take its own form for you, if it needs one. And then you might return to the formal visualization and mantra recitation – either to learn more of the lessons about samatha and vipashyana that are encoded in it, or because you feel the need of the clarity and direction that a structure can provide.

In a way, the three methods all need to be there, even when you practise a formal sadhana. There has to be an ‘informal spirit’ to it, which allows for creativity and a sense of freedom within the structure. You also need the aspect of dwelling on the Buddha’s Awakening. The visualized figure is an expression of that Awakening, but there is also in the practice a more intangible background sense of  the ‘direction’ in which you need to ‘move’ in order to take the practice deeper.  This internal compass, which allows you to ‘steer to the deep’ in the practice, has been forged from all your knowledge and experience of the Dharma over the years. If sadhana goes dead, I find it is usually because I have lost touch with this intuitive guidance. I am on autopilot, going through the motions of the sadhana. Part of what Bhante is encouraging us to do is ensure that this intuitive inner compass has been calibrated by referring as much as possible to the historical Buddha’s teaching and example, and rely less on the later developments in Buddhism.

One other thought about all this. If your regular practice is quite free-form and unstructured, then continuity and consistency of focus become an issue. In meditation practice we need to find a middle way beyond rigid concentration, that doesn’t allow for the mind’s creativity, and a laissez-faire attitude, in which we don’t develop any deep and enduring absorption over time because our meditation object keeps changing. If you explore your own imaginative responses to the Buddha’s Awakening, without the structure and continuity of content that practising a traditional sadhana gives, my hunch is that the images, sounds or feelings that come up will tend to be much more fluid and labile than the figures in our current sadhanas. So we may find that many people are in effect practising Jungian ‘active imagination’. This has its own value, but may not go as deep as a more focused practice. People practising in this way will need to consider balancing things out, by doing some meditation with a focus that they don’t change.

The New Approach and the Unity of the Order

The paper raised several questions for me concerning unity:

1) As people find their own personal expressions of the Buddha’s Awakening, we shall have less obviously in common with one another. At the moment, all Order members have a mantra and virtually all have been given a visualization practice.  This gives us links through common practice, mantra chanting in pujas, sadhana retreats, etc. These links will be weakened if Order members are increasingly working on their own personal responses to the Buddha’s Awakening. Will a greater common focus on the historical Buddha make up for this?

2) Subhuti raises a concern that the use of Indo-Tibetan imagery by western Order members doesn’t conduce to unity with the Order in India, so that over time it will be increasingly difficult for Indians and Westerners to identify themselves as members of a single spiritual community (p.4). I fully appreciate that some of the Indo-Tibetan figures look like Hinduism and produce aversion in some Indian Order members. In theory, a common emphasis on Buddha Shakyamuni should alleviate this problem. However, the paper’s discussion of the issue left me with two unanswered questions:

a) The Order Database tells me that in April 2008, before I started retreat, there were 331 Indian Order members. The visualizations they did were: Shakyamuni 112, other figures 63, unspecified 156. Even if we assume that the vast majority of those for whom we have no data were meditating on Shakyamuni, it would still mean that around 20% of Indian Order members have connected sufficiently strongly with other Buddhas and Bodhisattvas to take up their visualization. Is this an issue currently for the unity of the Indian Order? (It’s not one I’ve heard mentioned, but then I’m rather out of touch with the Indian situation these days.) If such a significant proportion of Indian Order members have managed to make the leap to establish some emotional connection with the Mahayana, how seriously need we be concerned about this as an issue for the future harmony of the Order as a whole?

b) If Order members are encouraged to find their own personal imaginative responses to the Buddha, then this approach may not help much. Yes, at the moment an Indian Order member who does the Shakyamuni visualization and mantra recitation may find it difficult to relate to a westerner doing the sadhana of four-armed Avalokiteshvara. But at least they will be aware, or can learn, that such a figure has been part of Buddhist tradition for over 1500 years. Will they feel more in common with a western Order member whose imaginative response to the Buddha is very intangible and hard to communicate, or takes a form that is very specific to western culture, or expresses itself not in a mantra but in a sound that has a personal significance for them, or even some western music, such as a theme from one of Beethoven’s late quartets?

3) One of Bhante’s major concerns about western society is that people are increasingly retreating into a personal world, and feel less and less in common with those around them. By encouraging people to focus their practice on their own individual imaginative responses we risk exacerbating this tendency. At least at present there are links with other Order members through common practice of sadhana. Although Subhuti envisages ‘clusters’ of common practice emerging from these individual explorations, that will probably take a long time. Meanwhile, people will be left with their personal visions and associations, many of which may not be shared by the Order as a whole.

The Ups and Downs of Language

The paper often uses the language of ‘ascent’ and ‘ascending’. (On their first appearance on p.9 they are in single inverted commas, later not.)  Whilst I accept this is a valid way to talk about the Dharma, and central to our discourse in Triratna in such images as ‘the spiral path’, it is also open to several misunderstandings:

a) One of Bhante’s pointers that I found most helpful in my early years of practice was his aphorism that A dhyana is not a `state’ in which `we’ are, but a way in which we reorganize our being. In my experience, people often take the language of ascent as an encouragement to make willed efforts to ‘get into higher states’. This ends in tears.

b) Subhuti says, on page 26: The transcendental object is encountered not as something we have created but as something that is greater than us and independent of us, reaching down to us. Our imaginations ascend: the image descends. Whilst it’s true that when the samayasattva first starts to be illumined by the jnanasattva it may feel as if it comes from ‘out there’, or even ‘up there’, this is just a temporary stage in an unfolding process. As you enter more deeply into the experience, or vice versa, you come to see that there is no-one reaching up, nothing that reaches down. There is just mind recognizing itself. So talk of ‘ascending’ and ‘reaching down’ is okay, provided you always bear in mind that we are talking the language of ‘as if’. Otherwise these concepts become obstacles to further development.

c) Talking in terms of something reaching down, as Subhuti acknowledges, inevitably sounds very theistic. Whilst I agree that we shouldn’t be scared of such language, it runs the risk of giving people an excuse to fill their ‘God-shaped space’ with something ostensibly Buddhist that may end up being quite theistic. (This has happened in some aspects of Tibetan Buddhism.)

d) The language of ascent can also encourage a tendency I mentioned earlier in connection with tantric figures: to focus on beauty and refinement (which is fine) whilst developing aversion towards the coarse and ugly aspects of life and even repressing one’s own raw, coarse emotions and energy (which isn’t).

Really all this comes down to a matter of skilful means. Subhuti puts it very well when he says (on p. 6): Every metaphor has a front and a back: it suggests a meaning we want to indicate and yet it connotes, to the unwary or unwilling, significance we do not intend. In being wary of language and images that might suggest some kind of inherently-existent Buddha Nature we need to be careful that we don’t become overly reliant on the discourse of ‘path’ and particularly of ‘ascent’ which, like all metaphors, have their own drawbacks.

One way to address this problem is to employ a variety of different metaphors and images. Bhante has in the past suggested that we use imagery of the path counterbalanced by that of the mandala, in which qualities unfold. Perhaps we could keep this language of ascent balanced by talking in terms of rearranging our personal mandala around the image of the Buddha, or dwelling on the Buddha and letting those qualities unfold in our lives. Alternatively, we could resort to an occasional good dose of the perfection of wisdom, to remind ourselves that, as Ayya Khema put it, the ‘spiritual path’ consists of ‘being nobody, going nowhere’.


Having raised so many questions and issues, some people might jump to the conclusion that I am opposed to the main thrust of the paper. That isn’t the case at all. It’s great to have my imagination stretched by Bhante’s vision of imagination! I am very happy for us to put renewed emphasis on the imagination’s centrality for Dharma practice; making connections with the natural world; the ‘greater mandala’; focusing more on the historical Buddha; exploring and discovering new expressions of Awakening; and much else in the paper. But if I’m left with these thoughts and questions, it’s likely that other Order members are as well. So I’m raising these points in the hope that we can clarify these topics still more.


25th February 2011