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A Schema for Imagination and Ritual based on the Five Buddha Mandala

This is a brief response to Subhuti’s ‘Re-imagining the Buddha’ as I haven’t the space to give a fuller one, but I just want to say that there is a way of envisioning the whole area of imagination that satisfies the rational faculty.  It isn’t simply a theory as it is based on the Five Buddha Mandala, and in that way honours symbolism itself.  Subhuti brought up benefits as well as the dangers around imagination in his article.   I am proposing there are five keys areas and five main dangers inherent in ritual.  The key areas, symbolised by the Five Buddhas, are poetic sensibility, the quality of the image, faith, devotion and learning, and the dangers are literalism, philistinism, scepticism, superstition and ignorance or delusion.

The whole point of engaging with Buddhist images is to realise the state that they represent, namely Enlightenment, and the test of any act of imagination is whether we move closer to that state or not.   This principle is represented by Vairocana.  Vairocana’s mudra is teaching and his associated mental poison is ignorance or delusion.  He represents the fact that in engaging with images and myths there is both the opportunity of learning - in the sense of being transformed - but also, when we get it wrong, the opportunity of staying deluded. 

For instance, we stay deluded when we engage in a fantasy but that fantasy is never realised.   But then, the rationalist stays deluded when they refuse to believe a myth or view when that could be spiritually helpful.   Animism might be seen as such a view.  We could see it as spiritually helpful because it leads away from the sense of the world being dead and our impotence in the face of that.  We can also stay deluded if we take poetic images literally, if the image we engage with leads us away from Enlightenment, or if we perform religious ceremonies out of superstition and fear.  If we can get through the minefield of these pitfalls, and engage with the positive side of imagination, we can move closer to Enlightenment rather than staying deluded.

The journey round the Mandala begins in the East, where we normally enter the Mandala.  Aksobhya symbolises the state of mind we need to bring to the image, namely Wisdom.  Touching the earth, he represents us touching the reality of the image, the reality that the image is an image: that it is a symbol, not reality: a finger pointing at the moon, not the moon.  Wisdom implies we need to see the image poetically rather than literally: a poetic sensibility is appropriate in this situation (obviously, in other situations, such as when we are working with facts and figures we need to engender a more rational sensibility.)  Wisdom helps us see clearly the situation we are in, but when we don’t have Wisdom we confuse the finger with the moon.  And this doesn’t help us get closer to Enlightenment.  So this is the danger of Literalism. 

Being in the appropriate frame of mind, we move round the Mandala to the South, to the realm of Ratnasambhava.  Ratnasambhava’s symbol is the jewel and his association is with abundance.  He represents the image.  And as the jewel is a symbol of value, the image needs to be valuable (specifically in helping us gain Enlightenment.)  A valuable image is abundant in the sense of being powerful, deep, emotionally engaging, and conducive to Right View.  Different images may meet some of these criteria only.  So, for instance, the Sistine Chapel is a powerful and emotionally engaging image, but its Christian message is not conducive to Right View.  A simple drawing of the Buddha, though not great art, may be conducive to Right View.  So we need to choose an image, or story, to engage with that will draw our mind and emotions in the direction of Enlightenment.  And the proof is in the eating.  Are we transformed by contact with it?  Does it make us think?  Does it make us want to be better?  And as important as the quality of the image or story is the sensibility to receive it.  So we need to have a degree of aesthetic sensibility (Ratnasambhava is associated with feeling, which is a sort of sensibility.)   But when the image is too base or our state of mind too coarse, that represents the danger of Philistinism. 

We next move round to the West and Amitabha, whose is associated with faith, and meditation.  We might have chosen an appropriately valuable image or story, be seeing it poetically, but the next question is do we really believe / have faith in it?  Do we really dwell on it, meditate upon it, allow it to inform our lives?  Whether we believe in the image or story and the amount of time we spend on it is pragmatically important because even if it is a valuable image, if we don’t believe it or dwell on it we won’t feel any benefit.  So faith is crucial in the process of imagination.  If we have faith in an inappropriate image (one that won’t lead us to Enlightenment) we are right to be sceptical about it.  But scepticism will get in the way if we are not careful, when we are dealing with valuable images.  We need to be aware particularly of the rationalist perspective, that reason is some kind of safe ground.  Scepticism does not make us safe if it prevents us from engaging with Buddhist images, in fact the opposite.  So this is the danger of Scepticism. 

Fourthly, we move round to the North, and the realm of Amoghasiddhi. Amoghasiddhi is associated with action, and with the quality of fearlessness.  In the realm of the imagination action is symbolic action or ritual.  Such ritual expresses faith / meditation towards a valuable image or story poetically and outwardly.  And this is the origin of all ceremony, religious services, weddings, funerals, etc.  A value, commitment or connection (between those involved in the ceremony) is marked in ceremony.  Amoghasiddhi is associated with the boundary between the inner and the outer worlds.  Expressing our inner values outwardly can be scary but the process of expressing them publically potentially makes them more robust.  Even though it may be practised collectively the practice of devotion is essentially a matter for each individual.   Ritual can never be performance because performance requires an audience who are necessarily not participating in the meaning of the ritual.  With ritual there is a hierarchy between the genuine devotion (of say the advanced Buddhist practitioner) down to the more superstitious manifestations of religion.  Superstition is the shadow side of ritual.  Rather than being a fearless expression of values it is often an action (crossing fingers / performing a Brahminical sacrifice) to propitiate the universe or a wrathful God performed out of fear.  It is this latter manifestation of religious expression that critics of religion such as Richard Dawkins might properly called delusive.  And as I indicated earlier, scepticism, when related to a valuable image or story, is also delusion.

So having entered the Mandala in the East, circled round, and finally gone into the Centre and the realm of Vairocana, depending on our responses along the way, we end up either transformed in the direction of Enlightenment or deluded.  To the extent that we maintained a poetic sensibility, chose an image of great meaning, beauty and truth (in the Buddhist sense,) had faith in it and meditated upon it, and engaged in acts of genuine devotion towards it, we will have been transformed in the direction of Enlightenment.  But to the extent that we fell into one or more of the above-mentioned pitfalls: literalism, philistinism, scepticism and superstition, we will not have been transformed in the direction of Enlightenment, but will have stayed, or become more, ignorant and deluded. 

It is clear that imagination and ritual, primarily because they engage and expose our emotions, are potentially powerful aids to Enlightenment.  They provide something that reason alone cannot provide – a kind of emotional momentum.  But that momentum needs guiding, as it can take us toward delusion.  In approaching imagination and ritual then, there are dangers for the rationalist and for the faith-follower.  These dangers are only really mollified when a person engaging with imagination and ritual manifests the Wisdoms of the Five Buddhas.
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