A Schema for the Imagination and Ritual based upon the Five Buddha Mandala
We are used to thinking of logic as dealing with concepts, but we can think of poetry too as having its own logic. In this short article I will try to explain what I think poetic logic is using an iconic system from Tibetan Buddhism called the Five Buddha Mandala, in which the qualities of Enlightenment – such as wisdom and compassion – are represented by five coloured Buddhas. A mandala is simply a pictorial organisation of symbolic forms.
In the centre of the Mandala is the white Buddha Vairocana: the Illuminator. He holds an eight-spoked wheel called a Dharmachakra, which symbolizes the teaching of the Buddha. Vairocana represents the central principle in Buddhism of personal transformation. The individual is transformed through contact with the teachings of Buddhism. But more importantly transformation happens through contact with any teacher who embodies Enlightened qualities to some degree or other.
Surrounding Vairocana is the dark blue Buddha Aksobhya: the Imperturbable, in the eastern direction: the yellow Buddha Ratnasambhava, or ‘Jewel-born, to the south; the dark red Buddha Amitabha: Infinite Light to the west; ; and the dark green Buddha Amoghasiddhi or Unobstructed Success is in the north. Each Buddha has a different hand gesture – called a mudra – and is associated with a particular Enlightened quality. So for instance Aksobhya has the ‘earth-touching’ mudra and he is associated with Wisdom; Ratnasambhava’s mudra is that of generosity and he is associated with seeing the value in things; Amitabha’s mudra is that of meditation and he is associated with Compassion; and Amoghasiddhi’s mudra is that of fearlessness and he is associated with successful activity.
The reason why it is helpful to use the schema of the five Buddhas to explain the fields of Imagination and Ritual is that 1) the five Buddhas are themselves symbols of the imagination, and 2) there are five key areas that are pertinent to the fields of Imagination and Ritual and there are five pitfalls that we can fall prey to with each area if we are not careful. The five key areas are whether or not we set out with a poetic sensibility; the quality of the image we are attending to; the question of whether we have faith or confidence in the image, what we then do in terms of ritual and devotion, and finally whether we are helpfully transformed through the process of exercising our imagination. The corresponding pitfalls are ‘literalism,’ ‘philistinism,’ ‘scepticism,’ ‘superstition’ and ‘fantasy / delusion.’
As the embodiment of the teaching principle, Vairocana represents the fact that when we engage our imagination with images myths or symbols, we have the opportunity to learn – in the sense that we can become transformed – but also we have the opportunity – when we get it wrong – to become deluded. We may end up in some wild fantasy that takes us further away from reality rather than towards it. For instance, when we have a fantasy about ourselves, but that fantasy is never realized, that is delusion. But when we have a fantasy and it is realised, then that is imagination in the true sense of helpfully moving us towards reality. So if we believe in Santa Claus but doing so means we become a better person, then that is imagination in its helpful sense. Somebody who refuses to believe in any myth on principle, even one which might be spiritually helpful, effectively stays untransformed, which is a form of delusion.
Traditionally we begin the journey around the Mandala in the eastern direction with the dark blue Buddha Aksobhya. This is where we normally enter the Mandala. Aksobhya is connected with Wisdom and he symbolises whether or not our initial approach to image and symbol is wise. We need to see symbols for what they are, that they are poetic, and not to be taken literally! Akshobhya touches the earth, he touches the reality of the image: the reality that the image is an image, it is a symbol, not reality: a finger pointing at the moon rather than the moon. But when we don’t have Wisdom we confuse the finger with the moon, which doesn’t help us get any closer to Enlightenment. So the first pitfall we can fall prey to is Literalism.
Once we are in the appropriate frame of mind, we move around the Mandala to the South, to the realm of the yellow Buddha Ratnasambhava. Ratnasambhava’s symbol is the jewel and he is associated with abundance. We might say he represents the value of the image itself in helping us to become Enlightened. A valuable image may be powerful, deep, emotionally engaging, but it also needs to be conducive to Right View, the Buddhist perspective that is in line with reality. Different images may meet some of these criteria but not others. For instance, the Sistine Chapel is a powerful and emotionally engaging image, but but because of its Christian message it would not be conducive to Right View. A simple drawing of the Buddha, though it may not be great art, will be conducive to Right View. So we need to choose an appropriate image, myth or story, that will draw our mind and emotions towards Enlightenment. With any image the proof of the pudding is in the eating. We need to ask ourselves: are we transformed by having contact with it? Does it make us think? Does it make us want to be a better person? And as well as the quality of the image or story, do we have the sensibility to receive it? (Ratnasambhava is associated with feeling.) But when the image is too base, or our state of mind too coarse, we cannot be lifted by the image towards Enlightenment. So the second pitfall we can fall prey to is Philistinism.
We next move round to the West and to the realm of the dark red Buddha Amitabha, who is associated with faith or confidence, and with meditation. We might have chosen a valuable image or story, be seeing it poetically, but the next question that comes up is do we really believe in it? Do we have faith or confidence in it? Can we dwell on it enough (meditate upon it) to allow it to inform our lives? Whether we believe in an image or story is crucial as otherwise – even if it is a valuable image, if we don’t believe in it, we won’t derive any benefit from it. So faith or confidence is crucial to the process of imagination. If we are dealing with an inappropriate image (one that won’t lead us towards Enlightenment) we would be right to be sceptical about it. But if we are not careful scepticism can get in the way when we are dealing with a valuable image. We need to be aware particularly that we don’t undermine ourselves by adopting a too rationalist perspective, thinking that reason is some kind of safe ground. Scepticism does not make us safe, it only prevents us from engaging with Buddhist images or myths that may help us. So the third pitfall we can fall prey to is Scepticism.
We next move round to the North and to the realm of the dark green Buddha Amoghasiddhi, who is associated with action, and with the quality of fearlessness. In the realm of Imagination action is symbolic action or ritual. So ritual – and devotion – are ways that we express outwardly the faith or confidence we have developed towards our symbol of value. And this outward expression is the origin of all ceremonies, religious services, weddings, funerals, and so on. When we mark a value, commitment or connection through participating in a ceremony, because we are expressing that outwardly it effectively makes it stronger, or makes us aware of how strong it really is! Amoghasiddhi then is associated with the boundary between our inner and outer worlds. When we express our inner values publicly it can be frightening but in the process of expressing them publicly we potentially can make them more robust. Devotional practices are rituals directed towards religious icons and the word ‘devotion’ reflects this in being etymologically connected with the root: ‘to vow.’ By practising devotion we build our connection with the qualities the icon represents (see my article on the Twelve-Step Bowing programme.) And because of its personal nature, though it is often practised collectively, devotion is essentially a matter for the individual.
Ritual is clearly delineated from performance. A ritual can never be a performance because a performance involves an audience, and an audience may or may not be emotionally committed to the meaning of the ritual. As to the pitfall with ritual and devotion we can think of there being a hierarchy in ritual from the genuine devotion of the advanced Buddhist practitioner to the more superstitious manifestations of religion, in which religious actions may be performed out of fear, or for approval. The first is a fearless expression of values actually held; the second it is an action such as crossing the fingers done out of fear that otherwise the universe will be harsh with us. It is no doubt the latter manifestation of religion that critics such as Richard Dawkins properly calls delusive. So the fourth pitfall we can fall prey to is superstition.
Having entered the Mandala in the East and circled it, we finally go into the centre and its the realm of Vairocana. Depending on our responses along the way, we end up either transformed in the direction of Enlightenment or in the direction of delusion: to the extent that we maintain a poetic rather than a literalistic sensibility, that we choose an image of lofty meaning, beauty and truth in the Buddhist sense, that we have faith in that image and meditate upon it, and that we engage in acts of genuine devotion towards it, we will be transformed in the direction of Enlightenment. But to the extent that we fall into one or another of the above pitfalls we will not be transformed in the direction of Enlightenment, but will instead be transformed in the direction of fantasy or delusion.
Imagination and ritual, primarily because they can engage and expose our emotions, are potentially powerful aids to growth. They provide something that reason on its own cannot provide – they can give us a kind of emotional momentum in a particular direction. But that momentum needs guidance, as as well as being able to take us to Enlightenment, it can if we are not careful, takes us towards delusion. There are dangers then for both the rationalist and for the faith-follower. The rationalist can fail to engage their emotions with their ideals, but the faith follower can let their faith be misguided. Both dangers are mollified when a person engages their imagination with their goals, but they do so with the wisdom of the Five Buddhas.