This is Post 35 in the ‘Meditation Guidance’ series.
Taking the mandala as our guide, I have been presenting the journey of self-enquiry into the nature of mind, as a four-fold one, and as a circumambulation of the mandala – a clockwise series of enquiries into Thinking (east), Sensing (south), Feeling (west), and now Intuition-Volition (north). There has been a traditional logic in this sequence, but in meditation practice there are many orders of priority that can be used, as we systematically progress our integration – or simply respond intuitively and spontaneously to the needs of our integration process.
In this post I shall be exploring, in conjunction with the symbolism and psychological dynamics of the mandala, the psychological symbolism of the stupa – the traditional symbolic monument that is seen in various forms across the Buddhist world. Much like the mandala, the stupa is a five-fold symbolic representation of an ideal state of psychological and spiritual integration. It is a very useful pointer to the nature of mind, because it brings us back to the enormous importance of the energy anatomy of the subtle bodies.
The Stupa – a Monument to the Experience of the Liberation
Whereas the mandala can perhaps be thought of as a larger symbol, which represents both Consciousness itself and also the tensions, or polarities, that exist within the egoic mind, the stupa represents the somatic embodiment, or reflection, or resonance, of Consciousness in the energetic fields of the body, in the so-called ‘subtle bodies’, and highlights the hierarchical dimension of the relationship between them. So, the stupa brings a hierarchical dimension to the way we approach the corresponding brahmavihāras, and the egoic cognitive-perceptual functions (which Buddhist tradition calls the skandhas, as mentioned previously here). While different cultures have elaborated their symbolism in different ways, ultimately the stupas of the east are monuments that celebrate the profound mystery of the energetic embodiment of Consciousness in this world – in the lives of individual human beings.
Consciousness exists everywhere. Indeed it is because of Consciousness that life exists, and because of Consciousness that we are capable of knowing and experiencing life. Paradoxically however, although we are all resting in the field of Consciousness, very few of us have ‘recognised’ Consciousness and fully embraced the non-dual reality that pervades all experiencing. But it is only by deeply acknowledging Consciousness, and learning to ‘turn towards’, or ‘rest back into’ Consciousness, that we allow Consciousness to become energetically embodied in us.
Resting as Consciousness and the Cultivation of Presence
To rest as Consciousness and fully allow its beneficial effects, is to enter a profound and subtle energetic transformation. But this transformation is not a cultivation of Consciousness. Consciousness is always present and does not need to be cultivated. The bodily-felt experience that seems to be cultivated in meditation practice, is actually difficult to define, but that which appears to develop can usefully be called Presence – to distinguish it from Consciousness, which is the unconditioned and always present source, of the always varying experience of Presence.
When a person regularly rests as Consciousness in their meditation practice, they start to heal the egoic patterning in the first four subtle bodies, which I have been calling the four surface bodies, and they start to experience the energetic reflection, or resonance, of Consciousness in those subtle bodies. We can think of this healing process and the development of Presence, as a movement from a state of energetic embodiment that reflects our egoic conditioning, and in which the underlying reflection, or resonance, of Consciousness, is obscured; to a state of energetic alignment with Consciousness, in which the underlying reflection, or resonance, of Consciousness, is revealed.
Consciousness, Mindfulness and Presence
The more consistently we rest as Consciousness, the more the four surface bodies become congruent. These four bodies also become harmonised with each other – no longer energetically polarised and energetically conflicted because of egoic patterning, but energetically harmonised through alignment with Consciousness. Intuitively sensing the changing energy state of a person undergoing such a transformation over time, we may say that they appear to be developing Presence, and that they appear to have more equanimity and vitality, and a greater capacity to ‘be present’, and to ‘be with’ themselves and with others. Presence powerfully supports our capacity for self-empathetic connection and relationship with others.
These increased capacities for patience, sustained attention, and empathy, are external evidence of the inner development of somatic integration through meditation practice. Enquiring more deeply into this appearance of development however, we recognise that what is happening is a revealing, or an emergence, of the person’s true nature. I shall be returning in future posts to reflections on the relationship between Presence and the very subtle and very important idea of Mindfulness – the Buddha’s ‘remembering’ practice. Presence and Mindfulness are in some ways synonymous, but it is useful to distinguish them.
A Hierarchical Arrangement of Energetic Fields
The levels in the hierarchical arrangement of superimposed somatic fields that give us our internal sense of embodied Consciousness, and of being a ‘person’, are subjectively quite different from each other, like the colour bands in a spectrum, but that difference is very difficult to discern, or to talk about in any concrete way – indeed we run into difficulties as soon as we even try. In attempting to talk about these important phenomena, we need to do so in a way that acknowledges from the outset, that we are talking about things that are almost impossible to talk about – that are only available to direct experience, not conceptualisation. As a pointer to the experience however, we can venture to say that the energetic fields appear to form a spectrum, in which ‘lower’ end of the spectrum could be described as more psycho-physical, and the ‘higher’ end could be described as more psycho-spiritual.
We can also say that the hierarchical arrangement of the interpenetrating subtle bodies is reflected in the vertical arrangement of the chakras as they experienced in the field of the body, and it is this same vertical arrangement that we see in the symbolism of the stupa. To adequately conceptualise the complexity of the task of achieving integration and positive emotion through meditation practice, we need both the nested somatic fields symbolised by the stupa, and the mandala with its crossed axes. The mandala shows us the ‘oppositions’ which are present within the hierarchical structure, and which must be reconciled if we are to achieve a high level of integration and positive emotion.
Separation and Reconciliation of the Opposites
The aspect of non-dual wisdom that the mandala emphasises symbolically through its graphical structure, is the need for a separation and reconciliation of the dualities that are inherent in egoic perception – through the experience of resting as Consciousness. There is enormous practical importance in this recognition of the tendency of the components of egoic perception to polarise or split off, generating disowned, or ‘Shadow’, areas in the psyche. I have spoken about this before in several articles (here, and here) and shall be returning in future articles to further exploration of the way in which the mandala with its vertical and horizontal oppositions, helps us to grasp the disintegrative egoic tendencies that maintain our unconsciousness.
The stupa however, points us to the non-dual wisdom contained in the image of our energetic anatomy with its nested subtle bodies and its chakras. As with the mandala symbolism, deeper reflection on this, in the context of meditative enquiry, will most definitely bare great fruit for the meditator.
The Surface is Contained within the Deep
While the stupa is a symbolic representation of embodied Consciousness, or Presence, it is also a symbolic representation of the experience of samādhi – that state of somatic integration in which concentration becomes effortless. The experience of samādhi, and the complex interpenetrating energies of our spiritual anatomy that move towards coherence in the experience of samādhi, are clearly very difficult to conceptualise. They can however, be pointed to symbolically, and it is this important symbolic pointing that is powerfully evident in the enormous number of large and small stupas that have been constructed over the centuries across the Buddhist world.
The image of the stupa provides a very strong cultural reminder within Buddhist tradition of the importance of the hierarchical arrangement of the interpenetrating subtle bodies, in which, significantly, the subtle bodies that a closer to the perceived surface are contained within the subtle bodies that are deeper and more hidden from awareness.
I personally, as a meditator, have found it extremely helpful to recognise and embrace this idea of the surface being contained within the deep. As we go deeper in meditation, we progressively deepen our recognition that the concrete world of sensory experience is not the most fundamental reality – indeed we recognise that the reverse is true. We recognise that Consciousness, and the unity, equality and connectedness that characterise the ultimate nature of mind, are the more fundamental reality – just as it is the single and unified Quantum field that pervades the universe, is more fundamental that the measurable Classical world. As we meditate, we naturally grow in our conviction that the various relative dimensions of our experience – of being a ‘person’ and having a ‘body’ – are nested, or enfolded, within the larger non-dual reality that encompasses everything. While our tendency is to identify with the surface, the self cannot be found in the surface. Indeed the self cannot be found anywhere, except perhaps in the Consciousness that is perceiving – and that is entirely impersonal and universal.
The Stupa as a Symbol of Samādhi
So our experience in meditation, if we are practising in a way that allows us to systematically and routinely enter states of samadhi (states of somatic integration in which concentration is effortless), is often conceptualised as a process of ascending a hierarchy of energetic levels in stages. These are not however, the same levels that we see symbolised in the stupa. The idea of resting as embodied Consciousness in a state of alignment that can be symbolised by the stupa is however profoundly supportive of that process.
So, while it is true that our subtle bodies are organised hierarchically, we have to be careful not to fall into fixed and dualistic thinking about ascending a hierarchy of levels. The mandala wisdom provides a counter-balancing challenge to that hierarchical notion, and reminds us that once we are familiar with the four ‘surface bodies’, we can enter the spectrum at any point. We may even find that we need to start at the top and work down. Indeed for a great many of us on the West, we need to think of integration and positive emotion as processes in which we ‘come down into the body’ – ‘bringing the mind home to the body’ as Thich Nhat Hanh would say.
Our initial goal is wholeness – insight, transformation and transcendence become possible on the basis of integration and positive emotion. So, this process of opening into the full spectrum of embodied Consciousness, is perhaps better characterised as a ‘deepening into’, or an ‘expansion into’, our felt experience – an inclusive attunement to all of the levels of energetic subtlety in our experience of Embodiment. The notion of Embodiment gives us a useful ‘way in’ to the experience of resting the Psycho-Physical Body as Consciousness, but as we expand to include the deeper levels of embodiment, we discern somatic dimensions which can usefully be called Being (Mental Body), Uncaused Happiness (Emotional Body), and Life Energy (Volitional Body).
I shall be returning to these four experiences (Embodiment, Being, Uncaused Happiness, and Life Energy), which I call the Four Qualia, in the next few articles in this series, and I will be outlining this way of understanding the process of deepening into samādhi as best I can. My experience has been that they provide a more modest and experiential way of approaching the sublime brahmavihāras. But first let me set out the traditional correspondences between the structural elements of the stupa and the subtle bodies.
The Somatic Symbolism in the Structure of a Buddhist Stupa
The symbolic correspondences between the structural elements of a traditional Buddhist stupa and the subtle anatomy of the fields of the body are as follows:
The square or cubic base in the structure of a stupa symbolises the Physical Body, and corresponds to the yellow Southern Quadrant of the mandala; to the brahmavihāra of muditā, or Appreciative Joy (often translated as Sympathetic Joy); to the Qualia of Embodiment; and to the Base Chakra in the perineum of the human body.
The spherical or domed second level in the structure of a stupa symbolises the Mental Body, and corresponds to the blue Eastern Quadrant of the mandala; to the brahmavihāra of upeksha, or Equanimity; to the Qualia of Being; and to the Second Chakra, or Hara Chakra, in the human body.
The conical or pyramidal third level in the structure of a stupa symbolises the Emotional Body, and corresponds to the red Western Quadrant of the mandala; to the brahmavihāra of mettā, or Loving Kindness; to the Qualia of Uncaused Happiness; and to the Solar Plexus Chakra in the human body.
The complex element that provides the fourth level in the structure of a stupa, and which can be represented symbolically as an up-turned crescent, is a representation of the Volitional Body, and corresponds to the green Northern Quadrant of the mandala; to the brahmavihāra of karunā, or Compassion; to the Qualia of Life Energy; and to the Heart Chakra in the human body.
The spire-like or flame-like element at the very top in the physical structure of a stupa corresponds to the centre of the mandala, and to Consciousness itself.
The ability to locate and familiarise ourselves with the brahmavihāras as energies in the fields of the body, noticing the way that they are most keenly felt at the corresponding chakra positions but are not limited to those regions of the body, is enormously helpful in meditation practice.
Bodily-Felt Energetic Experience in Meditation
I have been endeavouring to present an appropriate emphasis on ethics in this ‘Meditation Guidance’ series by highlighting each of the four brahmavihāras as we have been rotating clockwise through the quadrants of the mandala. This connection between our natural ethics and these four extremely positive attitudes that arise as we rest as Consciousness, was strongly emphasised by the Buddha in the way he taught meditation, and reflects the three-fold Ethics-Meditation-Wisdom (Śīla-Samādhi-Prajñā) framework of his teachings.
Now that we are exploring the wisdom of the green Northern Quadrant, we are still examining the four key ethical attitudes and corresponding felt experiences that we call the brahmavihāras, but we are considering them as somatic energies in the field of the body – the somatic energies that are symbolised by the symbolic structural elements of the stupa.
A key aspect of the value of exploring the stupa symbolism and the energetic anatomy that it refers to, in conjunction with that of the mandala, is that it helps us to understand the important psychodynamic integration that is symbolised by the vertical axis of the mandala. In the vertical axis of the mandala, the green Northern Quadrant with its focus on transforming, by resting as Consciousness, the volitional energies that animate us (and which can be known though the perceptual function of Intuition), is reconciled with the yellow Southern Quadrant with its focus on the somatic and material embodiment of Consciousness and on creative activity in this material world – in the realm of the perceptual function of Sensation.
Sensation as Experiencing and Embodiment
Although we are currently investigating in the territory of the green Northern Quadrant – the landscape of the perceptual function of Intuition-Volition – we cannot fully grasp the depth of the wisdom that this quadrant holds, without also simultaneously going deeper in our understanding of the opposing yellow Southern Quadrant and the perceptual function of Sensation. There is much more that needs to be said about Sensation before we can fully understand, and therefore open ourselves to, the experience of energetic embodiment that the stupa is pointing us towards. I shall be returning to the themes of Sensation (or Sensing), Experiencing, and Embodiment in forthcoming articles.
There is a deep paradox that we need to remember here. While every human being – and indeed every animal, tree, or grain of sand – rests equally and inseparably in the all-pervading Consciousness, most of us ignore this precious and evenly distributed gift. The receiving of that gift is probably best characterised as a process of recognition and of energetic embodiment, and it involves an appreciative and receptive attitude. Hence my preference for translating the brahmavihāra of muditā as ‘Appreciative Joy’. I have been pleased to find that I am not alone among students of Buddhism in preferring this translation. When we are talking about resting as Consciousness, and the subtle sense of blessedness the comes when we recognise the experience of Sensation as a form of embodied Consciousness, it is clear that Appreciative Joy is a better translation for muditā, than the more common one, Sympathetic Joy.
A Four-Fold Energetic Embodiment of Consciousness
Those great Buddhist sages who had stupas built in their honour when they died, were people who chose to recognise Consciousness; and to familiarise themselves with Consciousness; and to make themselves fully receptive to the compassionate and evolutionary energies of Consciousness. They were honoured because they found themselves compassionately engaged with the healing and renewal of their societies, and embodying an evolutionary vision that was deeply needed.
While the impressive stupa monuments of the east may seem exotic and esoteric in both their physical construction and their symbolism, ultimately they are simply celebrations of a complete four-fold energetic embodiment of Consciousness in the lives of those individuals, and of the integrated and effective compassionate activity that flowed from that state of integration and positive emotion.