reflections of various topics by Ken McLeod, Buddhist teacher, translator, author
Sunday, February 2, 2020
Vajrayana and Archetypal Imagery
In 1986, I was translating for my teacher, Kalu Rinpoche, at a retreat in Big Bear, a scenic resort area high in the San Bernardino Mountains outside Los Angeles. About a hundred people attended the retreat. A couple of days into the retreat, Rinpoche opened the morning teaching with the following remarks, which, as his translator, I had to translate.
“When Ken came to Los Angeles, he was clever. He taught meditation on the breath. Many people liked this kind of meditation. It made them feel better. And the result of Ken’s way of teaching is that you are here in this retreat here today. So, I think Ken was very clever and he did a good job.”
Then, after a pause, he continued, “Maybe he was clever. Maybe not.”
A ripple of nervous laughter spread through the hall. People glanced at me, a quizzical look on their faces. What was going on? Was he teasing me? Where was he going?
“Maybe he was just afraid,” he said. “Maybe he was afraid to tell people the truth, afraid of what would happen if he told them the truth, afraid that they might run away.”
Now the hall was dead silent.
“Well, I’m not afraid,” he continued, grinning from ear to ear. “I’m not afraid to tell you the truth, the truth about samsara, the truth about the workings of karma.”
He then launched into an exposition of the sufferings of the six kinds of beings, from the denizens in the hot and cold hells to the gods in the form and formless realms and everything in between, immediately followed by another exposition of how the workings karma stack the deck against any chance of happiness in endless cycles of birth and death, let alone freedom.
His talk left people a bit confused. Most of them had not heard these kinds of teachings. Was this the Tibetan Buddhist version of fire and brimstone? Or was it something else?
Looking back, I see this talk as an example of the kind of traditional teaching that confuses people in the West. What do you do with these ancient cosmologies? On the one hand, modern astronomy has rendered the ancient cosmological maps obsolete. On the other hand, they provide a different way of looking at our place in the scheme of things and they are often the framework for certain Vajrayana teachings and practices. Reincarnation is deeply embedded in the culture of many societies, but not so much in the West. Do you have to believe in reincarnation and an endless sequence of lives to practice?
In his introduction to Myriad Worlds, Elio Guarisco writes that a culture’s cosmology reflects its psychology. The six kinds of beings and their abodes may not be an accurate description of the universe of matter as we understand it, but they are descriptions of the worlds projected by emotional reactions. They are precise and accurate descriptions of how we experience emotional reactions and attachments if we know how to understand them. When we picture the formless gods with the subtlest of physical bodies resting blissfully in profound meditative absorptions far removed from the perpetual struggles of life in the desire realms or the hungry ghosts wandering in barren deserts, constantly searching for a drop of water or a crumb of food that gives them any sense of satiation or satisfaction, the imagery speaks to us in the way poetry speaks to us. Something goes right in, despite the blocks and deflections of the conceptual mind and our own cultural conditioning.
Having a background in math and physics, I never took Tibetan cosmology as an actual description of the material universe. However, I did use this framework in many practices, notably taking and sending practice and meditation on Great Compassion (Chenrezi). In these practices, as in many other Vajrayana practices I put myself in the worlds described in the practice texts. Most of us are not used to putting ourselves in an imagined world. We don’t see the point, and even when it is explained, most of us are still unable to let that imagined or visualized world become vivid and real to us.
For instance, imagine you are sitting on a small grass island in the middle of a large lake. You sit at ease. Your body is as light and clear as light itself. Dense jungle grows on the shores of the lake. From time to time, you can just hear large animals crashing through the trees of the jungle. As you sit there, relaxed and at peace, you gradually become aware that there are eight white elephants roaming randomly around the lake. They are there, but what they are doing does not disturb or trouble you. You continue to sit, relaxed and completely at peace, resting on the grass of this small island in the middle of this lake.
This image is from the Mati tradition of White Manjusri, a practice I was taught many, many years ago. Manjushri is the bodhisattva of awakened intelligence. Even now, as I write these words, the image elicits a profound sense of peace and presence in me. In terms of symbolism, the eight elephants represent the eight consciousnesses--the five consciousnesses associated with each of the physcial senses, the consciousness of thought, the emotional consciousness and the basis-of-experience consciousness. The image portrays a crystal clear direct knowing (Manjushri) as present in but unaffected by the ordinary operations of mind. You imagine or see yourself as this direct knowing. Through the island and the lake, the image tells us how different this knowing is from ordinary consciousness. However, a conceptual understanding of the image is not necessary--indeed it contributes virtually nothing--to the sense of peace and presence the image elicits. The image acts on much deeper parts of us to instill or imprint the possibility of peace and freedom beyond both the conceptual and the emotional mind. How it does so is a bit of a mystery, but this is one of the key aspects of vajrayana practice.
Much is made of the three components of creation phase practice: clarity, recollection and divine pride. Clarity is the ability to hold the image clearly in your mind. Recollection is the ability to know what each aspect of the image represents. Divine pride is the ability to hold the sense of being the deity, or, to put it in different words, to let the spirit of the deity take over in you. Of these three, I’ve found the last to be the most important. In the case of White Manjushri. I let the sense of being Manjushri, being completely at peace and present, soak into me.
This is not a cognitive process. I feel the peace and ease in my imagined body. This is an important point. Unlike Western thought and speculation of a mind existing apart from a body, in Vajrayana theory and practice, whether alive in this world, floating between death and birth, or in dreams, you always have a body. In fact you always have all three, mind, breath (or speech) and body.
As Manjushri, I am on an island at the center of a lake, and enjoy the peace and freedom from disturbance that that place affords. I am aware of the elephants roaming randomly through the jungle on the shores of the lake. They don’t bother me, they don’t disturb me, as they go about their business. And over time, something changes. The change is not brought about by an act of will. It takes place more by letting something happen to me, letting the practice work on me. The practice works on me in its own way, often at levels I am not aware of. My job is to do the practice as best I can as it was given to me. Something changes only when I spend time in this image and feel it viscerally in every part of my being. The visceral connection, I think, is the key.
That visceral connection is also the key to working with the six realms. In the next few newsletters, I will go through each of the six kinds of beings, how to work with each of them from a vajrayana perspective, and what they have to say about our life and how we interact with others.