This article was written as Post 43 in the ‘Meditation Guidance’ series, but like the previous one (here) it also serves as part of a series of introductory articles in the ‘5 Wisdoms’ series, in which my intention is to guide my readers even deeper into some focused reflection on what the Buddha meant when he spoke of the ’emptiness of the five skandhas’, and of the illusory nature of the self.
Following on from my last article (here), there is much more that we need to explore in regard to the Dharmadhātu Wisdom. This is the Wisdom which is associated with the recognition of Consciousness, and with the centre of the mandala, and may be regarded as representing the source of the other four Wisdoms. Metaphorically, we can think of the relationship between the white centre of the Buddhist mandalas and its associated Dharmadhātu Wisdom, and the four colours of the quadrants – the other four Wisdoms – in a somewhat similar way to the way we might think of a source of pure white sunlight being split into the colours of the rainbow.
The Dharmadhātu Wisdom is the Wisdom that Buddhist tradition personifies in the figure of the archetypal Buddha Vairocana, the ‘Illuminator’, or more accurately in his female Buddha partner, the mysterious and powerful figure of Akashadhatvishvari (please see my note at the end of this article on the two different spellings of this name). Strictly speaking the male Buddha Vairocana represents the compassionate activities of wisdom teaching that arise from the experience or the Dharmadhātu Wisdom, whereas the female buddha Akashadhatvishvari personifies the Dharmadhātu Wisdom itself. The Sanskrit word ākāsha has a ring of profound mystery about it. It is akin to the quintessence, or ether, in western alchemical thought – the subtle, intelligent substance that pervades all space, and from which the other four elements are created. Perhaps the best modern equivalent would be something like ‘Quantum Space’ or ‘the Quantum Field’. Vibrant with energy and information, ākāsha is the primordial space of Consciousness that is the basis of everything. A reasonable English translation therefore, of Akashadhatvishvari, would be something like ‘Sovereign Lady of Infinite Space’.
Consciousness: Presence and Connection; Light and Space
I have previously talked of the Buddha couple in the centre of the mandala as personifications of Presence and Connection (here), which are the principles at the centre of my ‘NVC mandala’ (the four components in Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication model – more on that here), but these archetypal Buddhas are multidimensional figures, and are much more than this – indeed all conceptualisations in regard to them are only ways of drawing a little closer to an indefinable mystery. My first response personally, when I reflect on this central ‘divine marriage’ image and its traditional names and associations, is to think of them as representing the metaphorical union of Light and Space in the experience of Consciousness.
The experience of Consciousness, or awareness of being aware, is difficult to describe. The words and images that various spiritual traditions have used to approach that experience are often misleading – being religious projections rather than attempts at objective description. Buddhist tradition, especially that of the Indian Mahayana, whose libraries and culture were unfortunately destroyed by Moslem invasions, is clearly distinguishable from other religions by both its commitment to objectivity in its intellectual analysis, and by the subtlety of the myths, images and metaphors by which it points to the unconditioned reality of Consciousness. Central among these metaphorical pointers were Light and Space.
It is as if Consciousness is an ever-present light within – a bright inner luminosity that never fails us, but is rarely acknowledged or examined. It is the diamond in our pocket that we do not know about; the beautiful gift that has been delivered to us, never to be actually received and unwrapped. It is not surprising perhaps, that in general, humanity fails to recognise Consciousness. While Consciousness is an objective reality, it is not an object like any other, and neither is it the subjective personal self that we often take it to be. The Buddha described it as ’empty’ – empty of self. As the Buddhist tradition established itself over the centuries, it increasingly acknowledged that this impersonal emptiness was also luminous and spacious – still difficult metaphors, but they bring us closer to the experience. And the word shunyata, Sanskrit for Emptiness, came to have these extremely positive associations of luminosity and spaciousness – connoting an infinitely abundant collective source of all truth, goodness, healing and positive transformation.
The Basic Space of Consciousness – the Quantum Field?
Light is quite a good metaphor for Consciousness – it is as if we shine the light of Consciousness on mental objects and experiences when we pay attention to them. But when we look for the source of that attention we cannot locate it. There is awareness, but there is no discernible ‘I’, or ‘me’, that is aware. The looking, hearing, smelling, tasting and touching is certainly happening, but there is only a luminous, spacious emptiness within – an experience of self-aware Consciousness, but completely without personal characteristics.
The Advaita Vedanta tradition, and Carl Jung, and other psychological traditions have chosen to call this impersonal experience ‘the Self’ (capitalised to distinguish it from the conventional personal egoic ‘self’). Those who begin to recognise what the Buddha meant by ‘Emptiness’ and ‘no-self’, having begun to release their own identifications with their psychological parts and functions, and instead to rest naturally as Consciousness, will paradoxically often feel they are discovering an authentic ‘self’: a true self; the self they were born to be; a more natural self, more free from neurotic conditioning. The Dharmadhātu Wisdom warns us that this apparent ‘self-energy’, joyful, authentic and creative as it may be, is actually due to our release of egoic identifications. It is not the emergence of a self so much as the emergence within our appearance of separateness, of the energy of Consciousness – the transpersonal energy of the Dharmadhātu.
While such ideas of an authentic self, or of an archetypal Self, are useful conceptualisations in some ways, if they are defined very clearly, I find myself preferring the more radical language of ‘no-self’ that the Buddha adopted. I also prefer to talk about the experience of being ‘aware of being aware’ in terms of the objective and collective field of Consciousness, a term which spirituality now shares with Quantum Physics and Quantum Biology – a very important connection for modern spiritual students, in my view, since Quantum Science is now actually affirming the experience of the mystics.
Vairocana and Akashadhateshvari – Light and Space
The image of Vairocana in sexual union with Akashadhatvishvari gives us an imaginal doorway into a vision of Consciousness as Light and Space – an invitation into an experience of mind informed by an all-pervading transpersonal luminosity, and by the profound spaciousness of non-identification. Both the Light and the Space aspects of this image deserves further investigation and reflection.
In the physical world, light usually has a source that can be located, and the capacity of this source of light to provide illumination gets markedly weaker with distance. The presence of objects causes shadows – places where the illumination does not reach. In this cosmic union of Light and Space however, it is as if every tiny scintilla of infinite space is itself a source of illumination. This therefore, is a space in which there can be no shadow, no place anywhere that is not equally and unconditionally illuminated by Consciousness and supported by its ceaselessly beneficial and transformative energies. The resonance between the Mahayana Buddhist imagination that emerged in medieval India, and the vision of reality given to us by present day Quantum Science is quite obvious and very striking.
Quaker Tradition – the Children of the Light
This way of imagining a union of light and space, as the source of our spirituality, is not peculiar to Mahayana Buddhism. It is also seen in Islam (the Arabic word nūr or noor is used to denote the all-pervading light of the divine); in Jewish tradition (the Hebrew aor, the primordial light described in the Book of Genisis, is from the same root as the Islamic nūr); and in Christianity, especially in Quaker tradition. The very early Quakers called themselves ‘the Children of the Light’. They had a mystical understanding of the profound statement of Jesus: “I am the Light of the World”, and recognised that the indwelling Light was universally and equally available, common to all men and women without exception – a truly revolutionary idea in the social, political, and religious context of mid-17th Century England.
There is a great deal that could be said about the effect of this spiritual insight on Quaker history, practice and psychology. Modern Quaker practice has perhaps lost some of its early mystical foundation, but in the first three hundred years especially, the Quaker tradition made an incalculably positive impact on world history, and has been an extraordinarily clear and courageous force for moral good. Simply be recognising the indwelling spirit of Jesus Christ in the experience of Consciousness, they developed an ethical, compassionate, and humanitarian sensibility that was centuries ahead of its time. I would like to find time to write more about Quaker spirituality and its positive effects on society and world history – because it is quite pertinent to the current exploration of the nature of the Dharmadhatu Wisdom, and the Buddha’s somewhat mysterious ‘remembering’ practice, which we now know as Mindfulness.
Archetypal Personifications of Consciousness
My approach to explaining the Buddhist mandala deities – the archetypal personifications of Consciousness – is perhaps in some ways the reverse of what is often seen. In my view, it is important to have a good understanding of the philosophical context, and especially a sense of the meditative experience, out of which these archetypal figures emerged. I have tried to provide this background in my previous articles, where I have focused on the brahmavihāras, which are pre-Buddhist descriptions of embodied Consciousness that the Buddha adopted into his teaching framework.
The Mahayana Buddhist deities are believed to have originally emerged partly from visualisations of the historical Buddha, and perhaps more importantly, from spontaneously arising visionary personifications of felt experience in deep meditation – probably meditations on the mahabrahmavihāras, the archetypal sources of the brahmavihāras (more on the mahabrahmavihāras here and here). The male and female Buddhas and Bodhisattvas and the mandala of the five ‘Buddha Families’ only later became established features of what may be called ‘Buddhist religion’.
My preference is to first explore, and hopefully in some way to evoke, the dimensions of embodied Consciousness, before detailing the archetypal figures by which Buddhist tradition came to represent them. To be true to this approach, I will need to share some of this foundational context – exploring each of the Five Wisdoms (and their corresponding opposites among the Skandhas and Realms) in detail in the next few articles. Once again we will be circumambulating the mandala – walking round it in a systematic and detailed way, just as I did with the four brahmavihāras, but this time we will be giving a lot more time to understanding the symbolism of the white centre of the mandala – the Dharmadhātu Wisdom and its associations. Most importantly the Dharmadhātu Wisdom is associated with the practice of Mindfulness, which is a powerful, foundational idea for the Buddhist tradition, and one that is extremely difficult to define accurately – and even more difficult to put into practice.
The Deva Realms: Archetype; Cultural Construct; Reality?
Those who are familiar with my writing, know that I use the capitalised form of the word Consciousness to denote that objective and collective field that pervades the universe, and in which we all rest equally – whether we acknowledge it or not. If however, we see the mandala as completely inclusive of all experience – that is, including egoic experience as well – then the centre of the mandala is also associated with the egoic experience of being a ‘person’; an apparently separate self who dwells in ‘states of consciousness’ (a vague term, which I try to avoid). The Dharmadhatu Wisdom allows us to see that Consciousness is always present – even in egoic identifications.
Buddhist tradition explains to us that states of egoic identification can be very refined and even blissful, while still being very much subject to the bondage of personal identification, as in the various Deva Realms. The devas, or ‘gods’, are said to live in blissful heaven realms where anything wished for is immediately manifested. We are told that, although the devas have taken this positive rebirth because of generous, beneficial, and ethical actions in previous lives, and may continue to dwell in blissful, creative states for extremely long periods of time, they are not able to attain Buddhahood because of a deep-rooted tendency to personalise their experience.
Understanding the distinction, and ultimately opposition, between the awakened state of abiding as the non-personal Consciousness, on one side, and abiding in bondage to refined forms of egoic identification, on the other, is a key aspect of the Dharmadhātu Wisdom. The Buddhist characterisation of highly positive egoic identifications as deva states, provides us with a very valuable perspective on this distinction – one which I shall be exploring in future articles. While I have had personal experiences that lead me to the view that beings can indeed exist as coherent ‘spiritual’ entities in subtle or non-material realms, I find it more illuminating to explore the meaning of the Deva Realms by seeing the deva as an archetypal being, as a personification of a universal psychological reality, and as a collective psychological reality that we can see manifesting in our group psychology as humans.
The Dharmadhātu Wisdom and the Deva Realms
The Dharmadhātu Wisdom can be thought of as that knowing which fully grasps the relationship of these two views of Consciousness – the universalising view and the personalising view – and consistently recognises the spaciousness of the impersonal and collective field of Consciousness as the only true basis of identity. The personalising tendency, when it becomes the usual deeply-held and unquestioned conviction that we are an individual ‘person’, is an enormous obstacle to realisation.
The deva archetype reminds us that while personalising is an obstacle to realisation, it is not necessarily an obstacle to a more limited form of psychological integration. This is a very important distinction to make, and also a very subtle one. The Buddha was acknowledging that, while the recognition of Emptiness was ultimately the best basis for rapid psychological integration and sustainable psychological freedom, the personalising approach to spiritual development could appear to work for a while (as seen in the experience of the devas), but would not lead to the ultimate freedom of Enlightenment, and would eventually lead to the disappointment of falling back into disintegrating egoic patterns. While the personalised bliss states of the devas will always eventually come painfully to an end, the wise, compassionate samadhi of the Buddhas is permanent – since it arises from the absolute reality of the Dharmadhātu Wisdom.
While it is imperative that we engage in self-enquiry, so that we familiarise ourselves with the impersonal field of Consciousness and recognise it as our essential nature, it would be very unwise to deny our sense of being an individual person as if it were an evil to be judged and punished, or destroyed in various ways (e.g. by surrendering it to the collective in some way, or to a guru, or indiscriminately to a spiritual community). Such an attitude will only divide the psyche and work against psychological integration. In reality the return of egoic identifications does not deny the primacy of the objective and collective reality of Consciousness. On the contrary, the actual experience of individual egoic consciousness, when we examine it carefully and recognise its collective source, is found to be the ever-present evidence of the universal field of Consciousness, which is always holding us and drawing us towards greater refinement and integration – even when we are unaware of it.
The Skandha of Consciousness is empty of self-nature
The ancient Indian ‘Five Skandhas‘ are: consciousness, and the four cognitive-perceptual functions associated with consciousness. The Five Wisdoms in Mahayana Buddhist tradition can be seen in part as an expansion upon, and a clarification of, the Buddha’s view on the ‘Emptiness of the Five Skandhas’. The five dimensions of wisdom that arise as each of the skandhas are seen through, or recognised as as empty of ‘self’ characteristics are the Five Wisdoms. The Dharmadhātu Wisdom is the central Wisdom associated with the recognition of the Emptiness of the skandha of Consciousness (Skt. vijñāna – pronounced vig-nyaa-na). Understandably, after more than 25 centuries of translation, interpretation, and changes of usage in the original Pali and Sanskrit, there is a lack of clarity in the English definitions of the skandhas – and this is undermining our understanding of these profound teachings on Emptiness – the lack of ‘self’ characteristics in the component parts of the process of cognition and perception.
This is a huge area for discussion, and one that I have deliberately avoided so far in this series of articles, primarily by adopting Carl Jung’s ‘Functions of Consciousness’ (Thinking, Sensation, Feeling, and Intuition/Volition) which I have found to work better as modern equivalents of the skandhas, than most of translations that are commonly used. I have however, like many others, been striving to understand why the frequently used, but unfortunately very unclear, definitions have arisen, and to find better English words to summarise these key concepts. I personally feel that the impulse to try to find one word conceptualisations for each of these subtle and multidimensional cognitive-perceptual components is part of the problem, but briefly the following are my current preferred translations of the Sankrit terms: rūpa – conceptual form; vedanā – sensation; saṃjñā – evaluative discrimination; and saṃskāras – volitional energies. I will be giving the ‘Five Skandhas‘ teaching the very much more detailed explanation that it needs in a series of articles in the near future.
The most important of the five skandhas is Consciousness (vijñāna), which, in the original ancient Indian framework that the Buddha was criticising, referred to the apparently personal experience of consciousness. The Buddha could see however, that Consciousness, although it appeared to be personal, was not. This recognition that Consciousness is universal and non-personal, is a key dimension of the Dharmadhātu Wisdom, and is our central point of reference in our approach to the non-dual experience, and in our approach to our self-empathetic healing. The objective and collective field of Consciousness is the source of all knowing, and while it appears to give rise to our sense of being a ‘person’ and a ‘sentient being’, it is in fact empty of self – empty of personal characteristics.
To reflect on the image of Vairocana and Akāshadhatvishvari, is to reflect on this ultimate psychological reality: the impersonal nature of Consciousness – the Dharmadhātu Wisdom. The personification of the union of Light and Space that we are shown in the centre of the Buddhist mandalas is a pointer to the nature of Consciousness – to our mysterious experience of being aware of being aware. Akāshadhatvishvari is that aspect of the divine feminine that is the ever-present holding Space of Consciousness. This holding and containing feminine Space is everywhere equal and even – utterly consistent and reliable, as nothing in the temporal and material world can ever be. It is a pure, unblemished unity, a one-point reality infinitely extended – and it is what we are, in our deepest essence.
Silent Empathy – Healing by Holding Space
The feminine Space of Consciousness is always present when we look within, and it is always seeking to find embodiment in us. To the extent that we are willing to drop our habitual personalising of the experience of Consciousness, we come to embody this holding, containing, connecting, feminine energy – all of us, women and men. Thankfully, the idea of ‘holding space’ as being empathetically connected with another person without needing to fix them, is coming into our collective consciousness – at least in the fields of psychology and spirituality. To recognise the healing power of the apparently non-active practice of holding space, is a wonderful antidote to the long list of painfully un-compassionate and non-empathetic reactions that are seen in everyday communication – as NVC students will know.
To rest receptively in the Space of Consciousness, and to embody that Space of Consciousness while relating to another, is to be non-judgemental; to be appreciative; to be unconditionally valuing; and to be compassionately aware of what Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication (NVC) would call the Life Energy of the Universal Human Needs (more on these here). Even the most able communicators can forget that the foundation and absolute prerequisite for all the various forms of verbal empathy is actually silent empathy – just being fully present for another, inwardly and outwardly connected, and holding space. Perhaps paradoxically, given that space is archetypally feminine, this is an especially balancing and effective practice for men to learn, but it is a universally valuable attitude for all of us – men and women – in all types of relationships. Indeed, the value of the practice of spaciousness, or silent empathy, or Presence and Connection cannot be overstated – it can heal the world.
As we attempt to grasp the meaning of the female Buddha Akāshadhatvishvari and the Dharmadhātu Wisdom, it is helpful perhaps, to think of the meditative embodiment of the Space of Consciousness, as an inner reflection of the outer practice of holding space. This is a key point of entry into the practice of resting as Consciousness, and of the Buddha’s Mindfulness practice that I will be exploring in future articles. When we are meditatively abiding as Consciousness, it is the relational and connecting Space of Consciousness that is allowing us to hold space for ourselves. While it is true that nothing is ‘being done’ by the egoic mind in this approach to meditation practice, the conditions for profound healing are nevertheless created. When we come to understand meditation as allowing ourselves to be held, embraced, and supported by the primordial feminine space of the Dharmadhātu, then we begin to find ourselves easily returning to states of samādhi – states in which all the accumulated egoic identifications that have taken root in us energetically, can spontaneously release, thus allowing us to return to the simple, relational, kindness and joy of our inherent Buddha nature.
A Note on Spelling – Akashadhatvishvari and Akashadhateshvari
There are two variants in the spelling and pronunciation of the Sanskrit name of this central female Buddha that we have been reflecting on – Akāshadhatvishvari and Akāshadhateshvari. While Akāshadhatvishvari is the more technically accurate spelling according to the rules of Sanskrit, Akāshadhateshvari appears to be the more widely used – at least judging by an internet search of each spelling.
I have chosen to use the spelling Akāshadhateshvari in the title of this article because it is the spelling that I learnt (some 35 years ago) from the writings of Lama Anagarika Govinda and Sangharakshita, who were among the first westerners to attain the depth of knowledge sufficient to systematically explain the foundations of the Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism to a western audience. I feel a need to honour the legacy of these two extraordinary and pioneering men (a German and an Englishman respectively) whose work was so significant in bringing the precious knowledge of the Five Buddha mandala to the West. Indeed, I see my own eclectic writing on the mandala wisdom, drawing as it does on both the Buddhist tradition and a variety of other Western sources in the fields of philosophy and psychology, as tentatively offering a contribution to the same broad Western Buddhism that they fostered – a Buddhism that is not merely transplanting exotic cultural forms from the various Eastern Buddhist schools and sects – however valid that my be – but engaged in the very much more difficult task of distilling what is most essential from the wisdom and practice of all the Buddhist traditions, into a new and distinctly Western cultural form that addresses the vast legacy of the Buddhist tradition in a comprehensive way – in the extremely diverse totality of its great historical and philosophical sweep from the Buddha to the present day.
While the anglicised Sanskrit form, Akāshadhateshvari, carries profound associations for me from years of reflection, and I have used it in the title and headers, I have used the more technically accurate Akāshadhatvishvari, in the text of this article. While I would wish to honour Lama Anagarika Govinda and Sangharakshita, I also feel a need to acknowledge the spiritual visionaries of the Indian Mahayana. Their recognition of the Dharmadhātu Wisdom and the personification of that mystery as a female Buddha, was an act, it would seem, of collective spiritual genius. Their choice of the name Akāshadhatvishvari, was also an inspired one – and I have grown to appreciate it deeply for the rich and numerous associations that it carries.
Akashadhatvishvari – the Ultimate Psychological Container
The Sanskrit syllable vish is a powerful word which connotes ‘universal’, as in vishva vajra – the mandala-like primordial Vajra Cross, symbol of the All-Accomplishing Wisdom, and which I referred to previously (here). In modern Hindi vishv means ‘world’ as in the modern Indian word for the World Wide Web. Also, vish has important connotations of absolute dependability and reliability. The combination vishvari therefore, carries connotations of strength, gentleness, containment, and of being securely held – all very appropriate for the benevolent power of this female archetype, and for the particular qualities of the spacious sense of self that starts to arise when we become more deeply familiar with the Space of Consciousness.
The Sanskrit word vari has very rich feminine associations, and a variety of meanings. Not surprisingly vari was already in use in India as a name for goddesses in the Hindu religion. Vari is an epithet for Saraswati, the wife of Brahma (who I have written about previously here) – she is the Hindu goddess of learning, wisdom, music and aesthetics. The same name Vari is used in Hindu folklore for the wife of the sun. There are also associations from daily life, because the Sanskrit vari means a pitcher or water pot, a cloud, or a watercourse (i.e. a container for water). I take vari therefore, as referencing established names for the divine feminine in Indian culture, while also reinforcing the idea of Akāshadhatvishvari as a personification of the universal Space of Consciousness – the ultimate psychological container. Hence Akāshadhatvishvari is the unbreakable alchemical crucible of our transformation. Unfortunately vari also means water in Sanskrit (and in modern Hindi), which leads to the error of associating Akashadhatvishvari with the Water element, when the word akāsha in fact links her very clearly to the Space element.
The white female Buddha in the centre of the mandala was given different names as Buddhist tradition developed over the centuries, and she herself appears to have taken over the role of the very important figure of Prajñāpāramitā – who personifies and embodies the ‘Perfection of Wisdom’ non-duality teachings that emerged in the Indian Mahayana (more on this in later articles). Later tradition came to simply call her ‘White Tara’. Ultimately, names and pronunciation are historical and cultural, and insignificant relative to the eternal archetypal principles that they refer to. What is important is meaning, and the fact that there is an enormously important spiritual reality here for us to explore – the Light and Space of Consciousness itself – a reality that needs to be acknowledged if we are to understand the nature of mind, and begin to see the emptiness of our egoic identifications.
If you have been reading the ‘Meditation Guidance’ series, you may wish to read the two ‘Overview’ articles, which relate to it, and provide some reflection on the approach that I adopted. You can access those articles here and here.
To read the article which follows this one in the ‘5 Wisdoms’ series, click here.
To read the first article in the ’10 Buddhas’ series, click here.