This article is the first of fifteen articles inspired by the central five verses of the ‘Inspiration-Prayer for Deliverance from the Dangerous Pathway of the Bardo’, in which I shall be aiming to show meditators how each one of the ten deities of the Dharmadhātu Mandala can be felt in the fields of the body as profound suprapersonal sources of somatic healing and wisdom. Those who read the whole series of articles – and it is intended that these articles should be read in sequence – will be able to incorporate these reflections into their meditation practice in a systematic way. Brief summaries of all the articles can be found here and you can read the five verses here.
As I begin this new series of articles, I would like to express gratitude to Dharmachari Subhuti, a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order. It was Subhuti who set me on the five-fold light-path of the Five Wisdoms, when I attended a seminar on the Bardo Thodol with him in the1980s. Having said that, I should however make it very clear, that the perspective that I am presenting here is entirely my own, and is not intended to reflect any current consensus of thinking that may exist within the Triratna Buddhist Order. All I am doing here is sharing the fruits of my own enquiry – and hoping that this may stimulate others to engage in their own.
I also need to thank Subhuti for the central idea in this introductory article – the notion that the three yānas, the three phases of development of the Buddhist tradition, are like three ‘myths’, or defining frames of reference, within Buddhism – an idea which comes from a talk that he gave in 2003 (and later published online here in 2004). Once again however, I need to make it clear that I have reframed this conceptualisation somewhat, and elaborated it in my own way.
Three Ways of Relating to the Archetypal Buddhas
There is a foundational conceptual framework, which I would like to share as we embark on this exploration of the Dharmadhātu Mandala – the great Five Wisdoms mandala of Mahayāna and Vajrayāna Buddhism, with its five pairs of Buddhas. This is the three-fold conceptual framework of the three yānas. While most Buddhists will be aware of the three yānas – the three great historical phases of the development of the Buddhist tradition: Hinayāna; Mahayāna; and Vajrayāna – it is less common to see these three yānas associated with the three stages of our progressively deepening engagement with the archetypal Buddhas. This however, is a conceptualisation that I find very useful, and I would like to share it at the outset, because it not only guides us in our evolving relationship with the mandala deities; it also guides us in our deepening familiarity with mind and Consciousness, as we progress in our meditation practice.
Essentially there are three ways of relating to the mandala deities. Firstly, we can think of them as personifications of the various extremely positive characteristics of Enlightenment – as personifications of the various aspects of Enlightenment, which we aspire to, and would like to cultivate in ourselves. This perspective, we can say, is an expression of the attitudes of striving and idealism that we associate with early Buddhism – with the stage that the later Mahayāna (the Greater Vehicle) came to call the Hinayāna (the Lesser Vehicle). I do not really like this pejorative and somewhat disdainful characterisation – especially as the spirit of the Mahayāna and Vajrayāna phases are clearly discernible in the Pali records of the Buddha’s life and teachings. The term Hinayāna does however, allow us to make an important distinction. It denotes a set of more limited cultural attitudes and psychological frames of reference in which the later elements of Buddhist tradition (i.e, the Mahayāna and Vajrayāna elements) although they are present in a germinal form, are not yet so fully explored and articulated.
In the second, Mahayāna, phase, we can think of the archetypal Buddhas as existing objectively ‘out there’ in the universe – in a very real but non-material world beyond this material one in which we exist. The popular Mahayāna world-view of many ethnic Buddhists in the east, appears to see the archetypal Buddhas in a personalising way – as if they are divine persons. The more accurate and more sophisticated understanding within Mahayāna tradition however, sees them as ’empty’ and non-personal. In the terminology of modern psychology, we can say that the Buddhist deities exist as archetypes within the collective psyche. Although we encounter them subjectively and inwardly, the more we familiarise ourselves with them, the more we naturally come to think of them as objectively existing archetypal realities. When we say that they are archetypal, we mean that they are beyond the egoic mind but at the same time are not separate from us at all. Indeed they are personifications of our most essential nature.
Through the Buddha’s invitation to recognise that all things are insubstantial and ’empty’, we come full circle. The idealisation of the Hinayāna and the projection of the Mahayāna are resolved as we recognise that all things are ‘appearances’. The Vajrayāna perspective, deeply rooted as it is in the recognition of Emptiness (shunyatā), acknowledges that while these archetypes appear as objectively existing beings ‘out there’ in an objectively existing imaginal realm, they also show us, in the language of imagery and symbolism – in the language of archetypes – of a profound universal psychology. Indeed, as I am hoping to outline in the course of this series of articles, the mandala arrangement of archetypal Buddhas that we find in Tibetan Vajrayāna Buddhism describes the way Consciousness (the ’empty’ vijñāna skandha) unfolds into four cognitive-perceptual functions, whose relationship with each other has a mandala structure. Further to this, the mandala deities lead us into the mystery of how those archetypal energies find somatic embodiment in us as bodily-felt experience.
Just as the Mahayāna perspective is a natural extension of the Hinayana one, so the Vajrayāna is a natural extension of the Mahayāna view. I shall be trying to characterise it in more detail below, but very briefly we can think of the Vajrayāna as a perspective that sees the archetypal Buddhas as personifications of energies of Enlightenment that already exist in some way, embodied within ourselves – albeit obscured by the energies of the egoic mind. The Vajrayāna is concerned above all with deep transformation, and with the energetic and bodily-felt processes by which we come to know our true nature – the Buddha within – and begin to recognise that the play of the Transcendental is ever-present, and indeed immanently present, in Consciousness, and in this world.
The Three Yānas as Aspects of the Bodhisattva Archetype
So, the Buddhist tradition presents three somewhat different perspectives on meditation practice and on the spiritual life – and there is great value in taking the Buddhist tradition in its totality, and therefore developing the ability to move easily between these three perspectives, understanding the way they fit together into a whole. It is also important for us to be fully cognisant of which conceptual perspective we are thinking from, or thinking within, at any one time – and to recognise that each of those perspectives lacks comprehensiveness and objectivity when taken on its own.
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