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 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 speak, in the language of imagery and symbolism, of 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, they lead us into the mystery of how those archetypal energies find somatic embodiment in us as bodily-felt energies.
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 characterise 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 imminently 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.
The three yānas then, are much more than three stages of the historical development of the Buddhist tradition. They also represent three successively more sophisticated approaches to meditation and Mindfulness practice. There is always the risk that our conceptual models may limit us and confuse us, rather than enhancing our understanding, but with that danger in mind, we may characterise these three approaches to spiritual development in terms of: (1) a ‘self-development’ approach (Hinayāna); (2) a devotional-receptive ‘self-surrender’ approach (Mahayāna); and (3) a ‘self-discovery’ approach (Vajrayāna).
What we are looking at in the three yānas, are not three different perspectives, but three ‘nested’ dimensions of the complex and comprehensive understanding that emerged over many centuries of Buddhist practice. All three of these perspectives are implied in the life and teachings of Gautama Buddha, and are personified in the central Buddhist archetype – the archetype of the Bodhisattva. I hope to be able to show in the course of this article, that one of the powers of the Bodhisattva archetype as a philosophical and metaphysical principle, and as an embodied reality, is its capacity to reconcile these three perspectives.
These three approaches do not ultimately conflict with each other. On the contrary, they together form a logically complete understanding. Indeed, if we are to engage fully as spiritual practitioners, we need to be able to move up and down this nested hierarchy of conceptualisations at all times within spiritual discourse. While each of the successive stages are distinct, and challenge us to go deeper, and to view spiritual practice in fresh ways, the three also need to be seen as inseparably linked and nested within each other. Each subsequent stage naturally arises out of the previous one, because it was implicitly present from the beginning. As the ‘later’ dimensions are unfolded, the ‘earlier’ stages are not left behind – rather they are returned to, revisited again and again with new insights and with greater depth of engagement as we go deeper.
While each of the three approaches are essential, all three have a very significant potential shadow side – since each one can be grasped incorrectly by the egoic mind. I shall be reflecting in some detail, in this article, on the shadow manifestations of each one. Because these perspectives have an archetypal, or mythic, basis, it is not uncommon for us to relate to them in deeply unconscious ways – and therefore in ways that give expression to the worst features of the egoic mind. Our ability to recognise these shadow aspects, is largely dependent on our having the awareness and mental flexibility to recognise and acknowledge all three ‘myths’ – since each one serves to bring balance and completion to the other two.
The ‘Self-Development’ Approach – Hinayāna
Dharmachāri Subhuti originally used the term ‘developmental’ in association with the Hinayana approach. While I am deeply grateful to him for making the connections that he does, I have (like many others), because I regard all three frames of reference as broadly ‘developmental’, taken the liberty of using the term ‘self-development’ for the first of these, in order to distinguish it more clearly. Others, reflecting on this model, have also spoken of this first stage in terms of ‘self-transcendence’, but since all three ‘myths’ offer frames of reference for self-transcendence, I find that ‘self-development’ more clearly identifies this particular stage, and more clearly distinguishes it from the subsequent devotional-receptive ‘self-surrender’ stage.
The ‘self-development’ approach can be characterised as Heroic – in the archetypal sense – since it is associated with a conviction that spiritual progress involves a process of heroic self-transcendence that takes place primarily through the effort of a personal moral will. Clearly, this is at least partially true, but if we fail to see the limitations of this view, we will run into difficulties. Because this psychological perspective is so deeply and unconsciously established in the modern collective consciousness, it is often not sufficiently acknowledged, even among Buddhists, that this approach is limited, that it is quite simply not sustainable, and that it will not lead to realisation – at least not until we open to, and integrate, the other two perspectives – perspectives which allow our practice to deepen, and allow us to go beyond a merely Heroic perspective.
The spiritual life involves subtle processes of healing and integration. It involves the release of the dis-integrative and contractive energies of the egoic mind (the kleshas) so that a full range of positive emotional attitudes become deeply established. It does also require the development of skills, effectiveness and knowledge – the domain of the Hero – but these will always tend to have a very limited and ‘egoic’ character, unless they are founded on the integration, positive emotion, wisdom and compassion of the Bodhisattva archetype. The Hero archetype alone, simply cannot take us into the depth of being and transformation that we are trying to find in ourselves. The Hero may be characterised as giving us ‘more of the same’, whereas the Bodhisattva archetype takes us into an entirely different dimension of activity and experience. It is the Bodhisattva archetype that brings the possibility of true self-transcendence – not the Hero.
I am not suggesting that those who see spiritual practice through a ‘self-development’ lens are consciously identified with the Hero archetype – although sometimes they are (which can sometimes be even more psychologically dangerous). Importantly, most people who are operating within the ‘self-development’ frame of reference are entirely unaware of the Hero ‘myth’ that is animating their way of thinking and being – and therefore have a very limited capacity to reflect on, and acknowledge, its limitations. Dharmachari Subhuti pointed out quite correctly, I believe, that all three of the yānas are ‘myths’ in this respect – in that they are governed by archetypal principles, which we may, or may not, be aware of; and which the egoic mind may or may not be able to relate to in an integrated and emotionally positive way.
The great power of Subhuti’s ‘Three Yānas / Three Myths’ perspective is in the way it reminds us that knowledge of the archetypes that are governing our perspective on life can give us great self-awareness, since it gives us a capacity for reflection, and lifts us out of our egoic identification. Ignorance of this mythic dimension, on the other hand, leaves us vulnerable to various forms of ‘inflation’ – to use Carl Jung’s term – states of unconsciousness in which the egoic mind is overwhelmed by the power of the archetype, and loses the ordinary human discernment and logic that might anchor it in objective reality.
The ‘Empty’ Nature of the Personal Will
At worst, the ‘self-development’ approach, when it is applied narrowly, and with fierce conviction – as it often is – produces the very opposite of spiritual development, and the very opposite of wisdom. Buddhists in the West often fall into the humanistic assumption that the assumed personal will is the only basis for our moral agency. The Buddha’s view was very much more sophisticated however. For him the samskaras – the non-personal ‘volitional energies’ that we experience, in our ignorance, as a personal will – were not personal, but insubstantial, ’empty’, and non-personal; and not single, but multiple.
Another way in which this complexity is articulated in the Buddhist tradition, is in terms of the distinction between the karma niyama (the level of conditionality that is related to personal volition) and the dharma niyama (the level of conditionality that is related to the Transcendental, or Dharmic, dimension). While there is a tendency, within the frame of reference of the Hinayāna, or ‘self-development’ perspective, for our practice to be focused predominantly on the karma niyama level of conditionality, it is our recognition of the dharma niyama level of conditionality that ultimately liberates us – and the need for receptivity to, and familiarisation with, the dharma niyama, is much more fully expressed in the Mahayāna and Vajrayāna.
I find it useful to acknowledge a correspondence that we find in Tibetan Buddhist tradition, between the samskaras skandha (the volitional energies of the mind) and the Buddha’s Mindfulness of Dharmas practice – the fourth ‘Foundation’ of Mindfulness. The implication when we make this connection, is that the Buddha was inviting us to recognise the Dharmic principles as energetic principles – as principles that are inherently volitional. This is a foundational idea in this series of articles. When we give our attention to Dharmic principles in this way, we naturally start to see them as suprapersonal spiritual forces and as eternal, or archetypal principles – energies that appear to be at work both ‘internally’, within ourselves, and ‘externally’ in our world. This Dharmic dimension, or ‘Foundation’, of Mindfulness, challenges our tendency to reduce the spiritual life to a wilful personal struggle – one which can tend to deepen our egoic identifications rather than release them. Rather it becomes a process in which we progressively familiarise oursleves with the Transcendental – with benevolent archetypal forces.
Padmasambhava, in the Bardo Thodol, offers an even deeper critical perspective – one which emerged during the Indian Mahayana. He points out the important connection between the samskāras skandha, the associated klesha of irshya (envy, jealousy, and obsessive desire for wealth and power), and the Asura Realm. When the Buddha spoke of the ’emptiness’ of the samskaras skandha, this was his way of talking about the illusory nature of personal egoic will and the problematic consequences of clinging to that illusion. The Asura Realm is an archetype – an archetypal image, which personifies the individual and collective psychology of our failure to recognise the ’emptiness’ of the samskaras skandha, and shows us the embattled and wilful style of egoic identification that follows from that error.
The Asura Archetype – Shadow of the Personal Will
There is a deep paradox here, that we must try to understand if we are serious about meditation. While we might imagine that spiritual development only requires our engagement with the karma niyama level of conditionality – the level of the personal moral will – this is not in fact the case. We might imagine that ethical action requires only the rational application of the values and the psychological logic of the Buddha’s ethical precepts, and that our cultivation of compassion is only an extension of these through a fierce application of effort. Rather than taking us to the threshold of realisation however, our identification with the egoic will can get us into all sorts of trouble. The idea that the road to hell, “is paved with good intentions” has become proverbial. By not recognising this paradox, we persist in our naive belief that good intentions, and a relentless application of the egoic will, are all that is needed to acheive the radical spiritual transformation that we call Enlightenment.
It is worth noting that Māra, the ‘Devil’ of Buddhist tradition – was an asura. The asura archetype is a personification of the ‘power mode’ in human behaviour. The Buddhist tradition does not point to a substantial metaphysical ‘evil’ such as we see in Christianity. It prefers to talk of the failure of our mindfulness or our ethics; of our failure to value others; and of our lack of empathy and compassion for others. If we are to have a clearer understanding of why we fail so consistently, it would help if we acknowledged that the image of the asura is actually one of the wisest and most eloquent archetypal images of evil in the whole of human culture. Indeed, I regard it as a something of a failure on the part of the Buddhist tradition, that even with its great popularity in the modern world, it has not been able to bring this important archetype into the collective consciousness of humanity. Nowhere in the domains of sociology, social psychology, politics, economics, international relations, and war, where its destructive impact is so clearly seen, is there any cultural awareness that this extremely negative archetypal principle is at work.
Even as the cruel effects of the asura archetype continue to wreak havoc down through the centuries of human history, and even as the asura attitudes of conquest, dominance, and power over the other, is being misguidedly upheld as necessary for the vitality of capitalism, there does not appear to be any widespread Buddhist critique of what is happening. Worse still, Buddhist groups may even find themselves falling into asura modes of thinking: tending perhaps to seek to expand their cultural dominance rather than seeking wisdom; tending to operate through hierarchical internal power structures; feeling a need to police internal discourse to maintain cultural purity and conformity to tradition; sometimes even provoking ideological warfare with other Buddhist groups; and (usually without realising it) adopting a narrowly muscular and scientific materialist view of the body. At worst, this sort of perversion of Buddhist thinking by the asura perspective, can lead to dangerous notions of ‘breaking’ or ‘destroying’ the ‘ego’, and to some Buddhist teachers appearing to advocate our engagement in a continuous state of heroic psychological warfare within ourselves.
If we are not aware of our myths, and of the dangers that they show us, we can end up enacting those myths in our lives. Those who live by the Hero myth are in danger of meeting the metaphorical fate of the mythic heroes. If our advocacy of the a Heroic attitude is actually expressing an unconscious devotion to the asura archetype, this can have the effect of reducing Buddhist practice to a feat of physical and mental endurance in which, to use a mythic metaphor, many of the tradition’s would-be heroes are destined to end up turned to stone in the lair of the Gorgon Medusa. Medusa, the female adversary of the hero Perseus, is a powerful symbol of the paralysing power of the Unconscious – the complementary forces in the psyche that become more and more oppositional as the hero strives to expand egoic consciousness without turning towards the Transcendental for help.
The judgemental, objectifying, coldly conceptualising gaze of Medusa has the capacity to turn would-be heroes instantly to stone. She provides us with an eloquent archetypal image of the fate of those heroes who only know the power of the egoic will and the intellect, and fail to make themselves receptive to the support of the Transcendental. Perseus, when he reaches the lair of the Gorgon Medusa intent on killing her, finds himself in the grim graveyard of the innumerable heroes who had made the attempt before him – all of them turned to stone.
But Perseus is a different kind of hero. He has a lot of divine help, and the fact of his receptivity to that help places closer to the archetypal Bodhisattva than the Hero. He is a demi-god, son of Zeus and a human mother called Danae. Hades, god of the underworld, gives Perseus a cap of invisibility. Hermes, the quick and cunning trickster, gives him a pair of winged sandals. Humble Hephaestus, the smith god, and god of hard work and fine craftsmanship, gives him a sword. Athena, goddess of strong women, and of feminine skill and intelligence, gives Perseus a mirror-like shield. This mirror-shield is the same powerful symbol of the characteristics of mental clarity (objectivity, reflectiveness, and imperturbability), which Buddhist tradition speaks of in terms of the Mirror-Like Wisdom. It was this mirror-like shield, that allows Perseus to walk backwards towards Medusa and cut off her head – a wonderful symbol perhaps, of how best to approach the Unconscious in a way that respects and fully acknowledges its power.
One of the Five Wisdoms represented in the Buddhist mandalas, the Mirror-Like Wisdom is said to arise with recognition of the ’emptiness’ of the rūpa skandha – the rūpa skandha being the concretising, form-creating, conceptualising, and objectifying function of the mind. By giving us the capacity to use the thinking mind without identifying with it, the Mirror-Like Wisdom gives us a penetrating psychological intelligence and creativity, which eradicates the klesha of dvesha, (the hatred, judgement, condemnation, and projection, associated with the Hell Realms) and brings an experience of what we may call Being – great mental stillness, calm and equanimity.
The power of the Mirror-Like Wisdom is in its non-reactivity to the minds contents. Resting equanimously, as Consciousness (the ’empty’ vijñāna skandha), and allowing everything in the mind to be as it is – however afflictive the mind’s contents may be – the practitioner is indeed approaching the mind in a ‘backwards’, or paradoxical, way. Approaching backwards means: ‘being with’ the minds contents; not confronting the minds contents directly; not giving them any energy; not identifying with thoughts and evaluations; just letting it all be. The Mirror-Like Wisdom is indeed our shield against the paralysing momentum of our unconscious thinking mind – our shield against that habitual identification with old thoughts, which would turn us to stone.
The Bodhisattva is ‘Not’ the Hero
One of the things that our study of the Dharmadhātu mandala presents very strongly to us, is this disturbing similarity between the asura archetype and Hero archetype – both being archetypal personifications of the egoic will. As Westerners, we are culturally attached to the Hero archetype, and would like to believe that it represents nobility and wisdom as well as power and skill – but this is simply not the case. Indeed, if we were to fully acknowledge how inseparable the asura and the Hero are in the Western imagination, we might speak of the Warrior-Hero, or Hero-Warrior archetype.
The psychological and cultural danger of this archetype is enormous. Many of the so-called heroes of Western myth and legend are no more than warriors – powerful steel-willed psychopaths, military leaders who gained renown as brutally effective killers on the field of battle. We should remember also, that Aries (the Roman Mars), was only secondarily the lover of Aphrodite (Venus). An important archetypal personification of the youthful, of the masculine, and of the heroic personal will, in the collective psyche of the West, he was primarily the God of War. The notion that the Hero-Warrior is integral to, and necessary for, human civilisation is a pagan one that was adopted into Christianity, but in reality, war always represents the greatest possible failure of human civilisation. Just as it is a terrible mistake to believe that war should be regarded as noble, right, and necessary, so it is a mistake to engage in spiritual practice as if it required us to engage in a war within ourselves.
Thankfully, the Buddhist tradition presents us with an archetypal figure that resolves this collective psychological Hero problem – the very rich, very subtle, and very multidimensional figure of the Bodhisattva. But if we are to fully recognise the Bodhisattva archetype, it is imperative for us to distinguish it from the Hero. As I have said elsewhere, while it is tempting to think of the Bodhisattva as a Buddhist Hero, there are huge psychological dangers in this idea – it risks a dangerous reduction of, and confusion of, what the Bodhisattva actually is, in order to make it more ‘accessible’.
From the point of view of archetypal psychology, it is more useful, more accurate, and more clear, to say that the Bodhisattva is absolutely not the Hero. What we need to acknowledge however, is that if we are to truly evolve though the yānas, the archetype that is governing our approach to practice must also evolve in our awareness – the egoic Hero must evolve into the Bodhisattva. Indeed, the Hero must be replaced by the Bodhisattva. The heroic Bodhisattva of the ‘self-development’ (Hinayāna) perspective, must become the much more humble, but ultimately much more powerful, devotional-receptive Bodhisattva of the ‘self-surrender’ (Mahayāna) perspective; and then must go further and become the Bodhisattva whose compassionate activity is rooted in the recognition of Emptiness – and in a ‘self-discovery’ (Vajrayāna) perspective. The ‘Three Myths’ that Dharmachari Subhuti was pointing to in his talk in 2003, can perhaps then, be regarded as three phases of a single myth – the Myth of the Bodhisattva.
For more on the Hero myth, and on the narcissism that the Heroic approach is prone to, please consider reading my previous article on these themes (here) – and for more on the asura archetype, read my previous article on it (here). The Hero myth that I referred to in the first of those two articles, was the myth of Perseus, who is a relatively complex and reflective figure, who has divine support in his quest to kill the Gorgon Medusa. A more prominent hero in ancient Greek mythology is the figure of Heracles. Heracles can always be distinguished in ancient Greek art by that fact that his preferred weapon is a club – symbol of his forceful, wilful and somewhat crude approach to things.
The Nemean Lion, Heracles’ adversary in the first of his Labours, is invulnerable to weapons, but Heracles kills it using brute strength of muscle and will – wrestling it to the ground and strangling it. The strength of Heracles is only a little more refined than that of the animal he has vanquished. It could be argued that Heracles represents the way the Heroic egoic will initially integrates not spiritual powers, but instinctual and animal ones, into the service of the egoic self. We can always recognise Heracles, in ancient Greek art, by the lion skin that he wears – the skin of the Nemean Lion. The beast within may have been beaten into submission, but by wearing the flayed skin of the creature, Heracles indicates that its animal vitality is actually still very much part of his nature.
The ‘Self-Surrender’ Approach – Mahayāna
The Mahayāna Buddhist approach gives great importance to receptivity, self-surrender and devotion. Whereas the Hinayāna practitioner can be characterised, usually incorrectly, as primarily engaged with his own liberation, and with achieving Buddhahood by an effort of his own personal will, the Mahayāna practitioner is engaged in a much larger cosmic drama. He or she aspires to become a Bodhisattva – a realised being who lives for the sake of the liberation of others. Furthermore, the Mahayāna vision is an unashamedly mythical one, in which the universe is peopled by a vast number of male and female Buddhas and Bodhisattvas – who exist in almost infinitely various realms and states of being, both material and and non-material.
Significantly, from the point of view of these articles, the most important of these Buddhas and Bodhisattvas of the Mahayana imagination are best understood as archetypes. Rather than thinking of them as beings existing in other realms, we need to think of them as existing in the ‘collective unconscious’ of humanity. Carl Jung’s notion of the ‘archetypes of the collective unconscious’ corresponds very closely indeed to the way in which Buddhist tradition came to view these central figures. Rather than being ‘persons’ and separate from us, they are non-personal and intimately connected with us – personifications of aspects of our own true nature, waiting to be discovered as we release our egoic identifications. This is especially true of the ten archetypal Buddhas, which are the subject of this series of articles.
While the devotional-receptive ‘self-surrender’ approach might at first appear to be strongly in contrast to, and even opposed to the ‘self-development’ approach, I would like to emphasise that this stage can be seen, at least in some respects, as a natural progression from the previous ‘self-development’ stage – and even as nested within the frame of reference of that stage. The attitude of receptivity can, after all, be seen as simply a more refined and discerning application of the personal will – the expression of a discerning personal choice to engage in relationships of devotion-receptive self-surrender to suprapersonal forces beyond the egoic mind. It is however, a radically different way of seeing spiritual development – and it creates a foundation for the practice of active self-enquiry and ‘self-discovery’ in the Vajrayāna stage.
Awakening to the Sambhoghakaya – to the Archetypal Dimension of Being
We are dynamic and systemic, and without self-nature – but nevertheless unique. While the mandala describes the ’empty’ and universal structures of cognition and perception from which the self-illusion is assembled, the apparent beings that find embodiment in this way, are infinitely various. This paradox is beautifully described in Buddhist tradition by the Trikaya Doctrine. This foundational teaching distinguishes the three ‘bodies’ of the Buddha – the three aspects, or dimensions, of the Buddha’s being. These three are the Dharmakaya, which is the absolute level; the Nirmānakaya, which is the physical and historical reality of the Buddha’s existence; and the Samboghakaya, which is the level in between – the archetypal dimension in which the seemingly incongruous realities of the Nirmānakaya and Dharmakaya are reconciled. It is through our contemplation of this Samboghakaya, or archetypal dimension of Enlightenment – especially in the form of the mandala of the ten archetypal Buddhas – that we can begin to grasp how the relative and the absolute came together in the Buddha’s experience.
The archetypal realm is a place in which historical and cultural elements come together with absolute spiritual realities. This reconciliation of the relative and the absolute in the archetypal Buddha figures is truly mysterious, and it is always difficult to discern to what extent any particular Buddhist deity is expressing either an eternal truth or merely a culturally important story. The journey of the modern Western practitioner of the Mahayāna is almost always a very personal and unique one – one in which we follow our intuition and respond to a non-rational sense of attraction to certain figures and Dharmic principles. When I say non-rational, I mean that in a profoundly positive sense – since it is through our willingness to be guided by our non-rational discernment and intuition, that we come to acknowledge the liberating spiritual forces that these figures personify. We might even say, that it is the Samboghakaya dimension of our own being, which is being awakened by our contact with these archetypal deities.
Traditional practitioners in the East, might not make the distinction that I am making between story and myth, or between cultural and eternal truth. The modern Western practitioner of the Mahayāna approach does not necessarily make these distinctions either, but will generally, either consciously or unconsciously be open to an ‘archetypal’ view of psychological and cultural phenomena – a view in which our most fundamental psychological structures and motivations are recognised to be reflections of an objective and collective dimension of mind. The Buddhist wisdom leads us to a clearer conviction in this regard. It asserts the fact that we are persons in appearance only, and that all of the cognitive-perceptual processes from which we are assembled are universal. In making this observation, it is by implication saying, that who we are ultimately, can only be described using the terms and the imagery of an archetypal psychology.
By approaching the mandala deities in the spirit of archetypal psychology, the modern Western practitioner of Mahayāna Buddhism can, I believe, approach that dimension of the Buddha’s experience that the tradition came to call the Samboghakaya – that dimension in which the tension between the relative and the absolute, and between the individual and the collective, is creatively held and ultimately resolved. The mandala of the ten Buddhas is a multidimensional archetypal symbol by which a great many seemingly irreconcilable opposites are held and reconciled. It is only by systematically acknowledging and holding the numerous stark dichotomies that the mandala shows us, in a bodily-felt way, that we can subsequently find ourselves moving towards a reconciliation of those opposites, and towards a sense of the underlying non-dual reality of the Dharmakaya, whose nature is not knowable directly – but only by its reflection in the Samboghakaya.
Spiritual ‘Inflation’ – the Shadow of Spiritual Receptivity
So, the Mahayāna ‘self-surrender’ approach recognises that our spiritual development requires us to learn to relate with receptivity and devotion to spiritual forces that appear to be coming from outside of ourselves – or at least from beyond the egoic mind. This holds the potential to be an extraordinarily significant and positive step forward. It can usher in a profound shift of consciousness, especially for the Buddhist practitioner in the individualistic West, partly because it represents such a liberation from the constraining assumptions of scientific materialism. It can also be challenging, and possibly even disastrous however, if not engaged with very consciously.
When the reality of the divine ‘other’ is truly encountered, this is not an easy experience for the human mind to integrate – especially for the Westerner. All manner of egoic distortions may ensue as people try – and often fail – to make sense of the experience. Most common of these egoic distortions, is the important, but little acknowledged phenomenon of ‘inflation’, which Carl Jung spoke of so persistently and with such clarity. Inflation is a way of talking about the way our contact with the suprapersonal forces of the transcendental often does not humble the egoic mind, or heighten its empathy and wisdom as we might expect, but rather propels the person blessed – or cursed – by the experience, into various unconscious and grandiose styles of thinking and activity in which they believe they are wise and compassionate when in fact they are not.
The Path of ‘Self-Surrender’
When Westerners engage in the regular practice of Mahayana Buddhist worship (puja), or chant the mantras of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, or study the Mahayana Sutras, they will usually come into a keen intuitive sense of the vast transpersonal reality that is the landscape of the Mahayāna. While this represents a hugely beneficial opening to profound symbols and personifications of wisdom and compassion, Westerners are usually not aware of the way in which this vision can also create psychological challenges – experiences that are difficult to integrate.
Ideally, the practice of puja carries us through the ‘self-surrender’ stage, allowing us to transition from the Hinayāna ‘self-development’ perspective to the threshold of the Vajrayāna ‘self-discovery’ perspective. Indeed, our initial practice of puja is likely to have a devotional-heroic, rather than devotional-receptive, quality – expressing a heroic idealism and a heroic wish for self-transcendence, which are both characteristics of the ‘self-development’ attitude. It may only be when we start to approach the more sophisticated ‘self-discovery’ attitude of the Vajrayāna, that our puja practice more truly expresses the Mahayāna characteristic of devotional-receptive ‘self-surrender’.
Just like the Buddhist practitioners of medieval times who developed these practices and evolved the Mahayāna vision, we can find ourselves having moments when we feel very keenly that we are living within a vast cosmic drama peopled by a great hierarchy of spiritual beings – a spiritual landscape animated by the wise and compassionate Bodhisattva principle. But as Westerners, our emotional responses to this can be complicated. We may find ourselves devoted to a spiritual teacher without discrimination, or seized by a grandiose sense of the cosmic importance of the lineage in which we are practicing, or simply depressed and confused because we have glimpsed heights of inspiration that we cannot sustain.
As Western practitioners of the Mahayāna, the antidote to all this can perhaps be found through the integration of some of the key Vajrayāna principles into the way we practice – and through a serious engagement with the non-dual wisdom that is symbolised by the mandala and its male and female archetypal Buddhas. In my experience, there is a deep ‘grounding’ that comes into our practice from the sort of appreciative and body-based, or somatic, practice that can be found in Vajrayana Buddhism – especially in the sort of pared-down essence of the Vajrayāna, which I am trying to present in these articles. I shall be talking more about this below – and in the course of the later articles in this series.
The Mahayāna World-View and the Western Mind
Engagement with the Mahayāna perspective can be an extraordinary experience of expansiveness and inspiration – one that lifts the individual out of the ‘self-development’ frame of reference – beyond mere ‘personal’ development and ‘personal’ liberation and into a sense of participating in, and living in service to, a cosmic evolutionary process of life and consciousness that may be symbolised by the archetype of the Bodhisattva.
While we may recognise this grand perspective, and the sense of meaning and purpose that it bestows, parts of the superficial egoic self will inevitably respond to it in ways that are defensive – involving a compensatory reaction to our existential suffering and vulnerability rather than a spiritual response to it. There is therefore a need for great ethical vigilance and psychological self-awareness for those who travel in this territory – but ultimately what is required is that wise perspective which Buddhist tradition speaks of in terms of ’emptiness’.
We cannot afford to personalise our experience of the Mahayana – and neither can we allow ourselves to be persuaded into undiscerning self-denial. If we do not yet recognise that everything in our experience is actually ’empty’ and non-personal (i.e. the Vajrayāna emphasis on ‘Emptiness’), then we may struggle to find psychological congruence, and in that struggle will often find ourselves prone to forms of inflation. It therefore seems important to me that the Western practitioner of the Mahayana must find a way of engaging with the Vajrayāna, which holds the potential to resolve the seeming incompleteness of the Mahayāna perspective. It seems clear that the completion of the practice of ‘self-surrender’ is to be found in the practice of ‘self-discovery’ – in stepping onto the Vajrayāna perspective.
The Hero as Saviour
Inflation is a huge and ever-present danger, especially for the Westerner, in both the Hinayāna and the Mahayāna contexts – and in the Vajrayāna, as I shall be explaining below. In the ‘self-development’ myth of the Hinayāna, it is the brutal asura shadow of the Hero archetype that we can fall into; while in the devotional-receptive, ‘self-surrender’ myth of the Mahayāna, the inflation can be even more complex. The central archetype in the Hinayāna myth, when experienced by the Western mind, is the self-conquering spiritual Hero. When the Western mind embraces the Mahayāna however, the central archetype is the Bodhisattva as Saviour. This archetype, the archetype of the Messiah, or Saviour – and its dysfunctional shadow side – is something that the West knows very well indeed. Indeed the myth of Jesus Christ is always in the background for us in the West. Even when we consciously reject that myth, it continues to be part of our collective psychology.
What I am saying here, is not that traditional Mahayāna Buddhism sees the Bodhisattva as a Messianic saviour figure. Rather, am wanting to highlight the fact that the Western mind, viewing the Mahayāna through the conscious or unconscious cultural lens of the Greek hero myths and the Christian myth, can tend to reduce the Bodhisattva archetype to what it knows best, and can miss what the tradition is actually pointing to. We even need to take care with Subhuti’s conceptualisation of the Mahayāna as a ‘self-surrender’ myth. This notion of ‘self-surrender’ could easily be taken incorrectly by the Christianised Western mind, with it’s violent story of mass salvation through the submission and self-sacrifice of the crucified Saviour.
Individuality Through Devotional Receptivity
Because of the dominance of the self-development ‘myth’ in modern Western culture, Western practitioners of Buddhism can tend to see all three yānas through that lens – as modes of activity of the heroic personal will. The Mahayāna and Vajrayāna however, are much more than more highly developed expressions of the wilful idealism that sometimes characterises Hinayana (‘self-development’) practice. We should perhaps qualify our characterisation of the Mahayāna attitude as one of ‘self-surrender’. One way in which we can bring some refinement to this conceptualisation is by pointing out that the Mahayāna can be seen as a process of transition from the apparent individualism and apparent heroic idealism of the Hinayāna, to the complex reconciliation of the individual and the universal that we find in the Vajrayāna.
I have already spoken above, in connection with the practice of puja, about how our initial engagement with the Mahayāna frame of reference can take the form of ‘heroic self-surrender’, and that over time that self-surrender evolves into an attitude that is not only better characterised as ‘devotional receptivity’ to suprapersonal forces, but involves the recognition, or ‘self-discovery’ of a resonance of those forces within ourselves. It is easy for the Western mind to understand self-surrender incorrectly – the Mahayāna stage of development does not represent a giving up of individuality. Rather it involves self-determination, self-responsibility, and true individuality – but these are cultivated by paradoxical means. The self that is surrendered is the egoic false self. Indeed, potentially, the various false selves that the egoic mind identifies with, can be surrendered in a very organic and non-violent way, through an approach to meditation that adopts as is foundation a devotional-receptive relationship to the Dharmic principles.
The Hinayāna self-development approach tends to see meditation practice as relentless heroic labour, wrestling the mind into a more integrated and emotionally positive state by vanquishing the hindrances and kleshas. The corresponding tendancy to understand the Buddha’s ‘Four Right Efforts’ (and Right Effort in the Noble Eightfold Path) in the same heroic terms can be very limiting – especially for long-term meditators. The Mahayāna approach however, when we learn to distinquish it, is better characterised as a self-healing of the mind through a developing relationship of ‘meditative receptivity’ towards suprapersonal forces. Most meditators will recognise that while it may take some initial effort and self-discipline to sit on the cushion every day, once they are sitting in mediation posture a much more subtle application of the will is required. When we arrange the Buddha’s Five Spritual Faculties in their corresponding positions in the Dharmadhātu mandala, with virya, or ‘effort’ in the north and samādhi, or meditation, opposing it in the south, our recognition of samādhi as an activity characterised by ‘meditative receptivity’ is further reinforced – the northern and southern poles represent the methodological complementarity of the ‘active’ and ‘receptive’ principles of the spiritual life.
I hope to be able to show, in the course of this series of articles, that when we go really deeply into the Mahayāna stage, and begin to emerge into a Vajrayāna perspective, we find that it is actually the suprapersonal forces of the Transcendental that drive out the egoic kleshas – not the egoic will. Ultimately, the true self of true individuality is discovered through an attitude of devotional receptivity towards the real archetypal sources of that individuality, which are extraordinarily well personified by the ten archetypal Buddhas of the mandala.
Narcissism and the Hero-Saviour Cult
In the context of communities of spiritual practice that are informed by the Mahayāna myth, it is not uncommon for some spiritual leaders to become identified with the Saviour archetype (either by themselves and by others, or by both), and it is also quite common to find these individuals gathering followers who ‘surrender themselves’ to that dubious religious leadership. The mythic, or archetypal, perspective on the yānas as overarching frames of reference in Buddhist tradition, which Subhuti invites us into, leads us to recognise the potential shadow side of this dynamic – a shadow side with the potential to produce the very opposite of the spiritual maturity that the Bodhisattva archetype in reality represents.
All this may perhaps appear irrelevant to my central thesis in this article, which is that the Buddhist tradition offers us, in the three yānas, a nested series of perspectives on spiritual development, that can guide us in psychological safely through a deepening engagement with the Transcendental and with ten archetypal Buddhas that personify the component elements of embodied Consciousness. What I am trying to point out however, is that the maintenance of that psychological safety on our spiritual path, requires that we are aware of the possible dangers that we might meet if we lack discernment in our relationship to those who claim spiritual authority – so I need to say even more about the possible shadow of the Mahayāna for the Westerner. The surrender in the ‘self-surrender’ myth of the Mahayāna is a surrender of the egoic kleshas that give the self-illusion its momentum – and not a surrender of our discernment, self-responsibility and psychological common-sense, to any other individual, or group, or to the tradition as a whole. The Buddha himself imparted this same warning, in the Kalamā Sutta.
It is helpful to acknowledge that those who find themselves drawn to communities of spiritual practice are often psychologically wounded in some way – they have a keen sense of dukkha (suffering; unsatisfactoriness) and are looking for ways to manage, and ultimately heal, their existential distress. In the language of psychotherapy we can say that they are often narcissistically wounded – in the sense that they have defensive psychological parts that carry the trauma of the lack of the specific psychological support that they needed on order to fully evolve their sense of personhood beyond the very early childhood stage that Sigmund Freud and psychoanalysis tradition called ‘primary narcissism’. If we are truly wise in the Western context, we can practice with a sensitivity to these extremely common psychological realities, and can over time heal this sort of trauma in ourselves through spiritual practice. This sort of psychological sophistication is not always available in the Buddhist context however, and in any case the healing of these patterns can take time.
So, we often have wounded individuals in positions of leadership and wounded individuals following them. Indeed we may find ourselves with a whole hierarchy of practitioners within the sangha, who are not yet functioning as individuals, but rather are functioning out of compensatory egoic identities. As I have tried to explain above, the Mahayāna provides ideal compensatory egoic identities for those with feelings of inferiority. There is always the potential for those in leadership roles to be seen as wise even when they are not, and opportunities for those who are surrendering to that ‘wise’ leadership to gain status from their proximity to the celebrity of those leaders. Buddhist teachers are not always aware of the extent of the spiritual authority that they carry – irrespective of their actual experience and level of wisdom or psychological intelligence. And it is very easy for them to abuse that authority – to fail to match that authority with the high level of ethics, care, and responsibility that should go with it.
It is easy to see how very easily the spiritual hierarchy becomes a folie a deux, or co-dependancy, in which both the leader and the followers find themselves going deeper into a psychological entanglement – a spell that is broken only by a dramatic crisis that reveals the whole dysfunction. Those in leadership roles will often become increasingly self-deceiving and grandiose in their identification with the Wise Saviour, even though they are triggered into childish rages at the slightest criticism, or are actually behaving in an increasingly paranoid and irrational way.
The Buddha’s sublime anattā (no-self) teaching can seriously compound the narcissistic leader’s insensitivity. Such an individual can find themselves seized by the idea that ‘the means justify the ends’, and that the individual needs of the followers are of no consequence within the cosmic or global scale of the vision. His closest followers and fellow leaders close ranks, also participating in the inflation and grandiosity – while the foot-soldiers lower down the hierarchy are seized by a delusional sense of the nobility of their self-surrender and self-sacrifice.
All this may seem like a very dark vision of the Mahayāna shadow – when the compassionate Buddhist mission takes on the brutal and self-sacrificial character of a Christian crusade – but it is good to be aware of these dangers. In Buddhist spiritual practice we are not doing penance, or trying to remove the stain of original sin, or trying to make ourselves do something that we do not want to do – rather we are simply learning to relax deeply and become familiar with our ’empty’ and benevolent true nature.
The great tragedy of this possible dysfunctional scenario, in the context of Mahayana Buddhism, is that many of the followers are extremely genuine in their generosity towards the world, and in their commitment to the community and to their practice; but as they start to recognise the shadow dynamics, the energetic residue of their narcissistic wounding remains – both their original wounding and the subsequent accumulated trauma from participating is such a dysfunctional spiritual hierarchy. This recognition of betrayal and self-betrayal is extremely painful, and the associated grief and rage can often be almost impossible to process. Not surprisingly, such people then feel a need to turn on their previously idealised spiritual leaders and tear them down. The emotional connection with the spiritual tradition, which they had previously embraced as their life path, is broken.
It is essential then, that we are aware of, and vigilant for, this psychological phenomenon of inflation in the context of the Mahayāna, because it can be so destructive of our ethical discernment, and has the potential to do so much harm. If we are naive to its effects, the most idealistic person can become an arrogant monster – harshly judgemental, deeply unaware of their own failings, and very much prone to projection. Projection being the psychological tendency to see faults in others that are manifesting strongly, but unconsciously, in ourselves. I have touched on this important theme in several previous articles. Although, the wisdom of the Buddhist tradition tells us that we need Sangha – spiritual friendship and community – on the path of transformation, the Buddha told us (in his discourse to the Kalamas, which I alluded to above) that we must test, in our own experience, the truth of anything that we hear from those who claim to have knowledge and wisdom, and must even be prepared to make the journey alone if we have to.
The ‘Self-Discovery’ Approach – Vajrayāna
The conceptualisation of the Mahayāna as a ‘self-surrender’ myth requires that we fully understand what is being surrendered. It is perhaps helpful to understand the Mahayāna as facilitating a psychological transition to a recognition of the extent to which our practice requires a balance of self-power and other-power – the Hinayāna ‘self-development’ myth representing a ‘self-power’ attitude, and the Mahayāna ‘self-surrender’ myth representing the cultivation of a devotional-receptive relationship to powers beyond the egoic mind.
It is not until we reach the Vajrayāna stage, that the dichotomy of self-power and other-power, and of ‘self-development’ and ‘self-surrender’, is reconciled. This is partly because the Vajrayāna takes the Buddha’s teaching of ’emptiness’ as foundational – not as a distant goal, but as a foundation for practice from the outset. The Vajrayāna can also be thought of as going beyond the faculty of visual and devotional imagination, to bring a focus to ‘the somatic’ – to the mystery of embodied Consciousness; the mystery by which an impersonal Transcendental reality finds a seemingly personal ‘somatic’ expression in the bodily-felt experience of individual human beings. The fact that a non-personal spiritual reality finds embodiment in apparent persons, is indeed a great mystery – and the Vajrayāna attempts to confront this mystery head on.
So, in the ‘self-discovery’ stage, what is ultimately being discovered is the ’empty’ Transcendental reality within; the so-called Buddha-nature; that Unconditioned dimension that is beyond the egoic mind, but is embodied within us – embodied within us, but obscured by the kleshas. The kleshas, the somatic obscurations that accumulate in the egoic body-mind as a result of our identification with the cognitive-perceptual skandhas, are very much part of the perspective of the Hinayāna ‘self-development’ process, and indeed the Mahayāna ‘self-surrender’ process, but in the Vajrayāna ‘self-discovery’ process they are especially important.
The Vajrayāna Shadow
The Vajrayāna is practical psychological approach, which seeks to release and transform psychological and somatic energy through the understanding that the klesha energies and their corresponding Wisdom energies are archetypally connected – and can even be thought of, not so much as absolute opposites, but as two inseparable expressions of the same archetypal principle. This apparent abandonment of moral absolutes may appear dangerous to those whose spiritual points of view are defined consciously or unconsciously by a Hinayāna or Mahayāna perspective. Indeed, once again there is a danger of manifesting a shadow side of the Vajrayāna if its teachings are not set within the culture and framework of, and upon the foundation of, the Hinayāna and Mahayāna.
Once again, inflation is an ever-present danger. Correctly understood the Vajrayāna is a humble path and a path of service to a modest bodily-felt reflection of imminent truth in the midst of our unsatifactoriness and our suffering. Some practitioners may however, take the Vajrayāna as providing justification for an even more irrational ‘ends justify the means’ thinking, or an even greater degree of muscular willfulness. The vajra in Vajrayāna although sometimes taken a symbol of a violent ‘breaking’, or ‘destruction’ of the egoic mind, by a forceful or even violent style of communication, is actually are symbol of stainless purity and primordial purity of mind as Consciousness and of the sophisticated psychological intelligence that flows from our recognition of it.
The Vajrayāna is certainly frequently misunderstood, and I have certainly seen these misunderstandings leading to attitudes and forms of communication and social conduct that is far from ethical, or kind, or wise. There are aspects of Vajrayāna culture that we would do well to steer well clear of a Western context. Unfortunately there are many Western teachers who are drawn to Tibetan Buddhism for merely egoic and compensatory reasons – for its charisma, its mystique, and its exoticism. Great discernment and psychological common-sense is required – such as may be found in serious enquiry into ’emptiness’, and perhaps through deep and prolonged reflection on the Five Skandhas / Five Wisdoms mandala.
The Vajrayāna Perspective and Practice – Some Key Principles
So, there is a high entry-level for genuine Vajrayāna practice:
It requires, firstly, a recognition of the primary reality of Consciousness – and a recognition of that transcendental Dharmic level of conditionality that is collective and objective, and pervades the universe – and that our experience of mind and world arises in dependence on that primary reality.
Secondly, it requires a deep engagement with the close relationship between the archetypal structures and energies of Consciousness, on the absolute, or Dharmic, level of mind, and the parallel archetypal structures and energies on the egoic, or relative level of mind – and the recognition of the ultimate inseparability of these levels.
Thirdly, it requires a deep engagement with ’emptiness’ – the need to really look at our our actual experience, and to begin to notice the way it is assembled from ’empty’, or non-personal, cognitive-perceptual component processes (skandhas).
Fourthly, it requires a recognition of the somatic – and a willingness to investigate the mysterious somatic anatomy whereby an objective and collective field of Consciousness finds embodiment in apparent persons.
Vajrayāna as Familiarisation
Tibetan Vajrayana practices often involves complex and detailed visualisations of the male and female archetypal Buddhas and Bodhisattvas – with the intention of allowing practitioners to become intimately familiar with the embodied experience of Enlightenment. Indeed this principle of ‘familiarisation’ – systematic familiarisation with the Dharmic principles which the visualised dieties personify – can be regarded as one of the keys to understanding Vajrayāna practice. The ornate Tibetan Buddhist temples with their elaborate shrines are called gompas – gom being the Tibetan word for familiarisation. So, the gompa is the place in which the practitioner familiarises him or herself with the ultimate nature of mind, and with the archetypal buddha figures that give us a glimpse of that transcendental reality.
An important characteristic of the visualisation practices of Tibetan Buddhism is that they take the practitioner from the Mahayāna attitude of devotional-receptivity and ‘self-surrender’, to the more distinctively Vajrayāna attitude of recognising the somatic resonance of the Transcendental within the field of the body. The Vajrayāna practitioner is invited to familiarise themselves with the actual bodily-felt experience of Enlightenment – the resonance of Enlightenment, however deeply obscured – within themselves.
The accumulative series of ten contemplations that I shall be offering in this series of articles – one contemplation for each of the ten archetypal Buddhas of the Dharmadhātu Mandala, is offered in this spirit. While this meditation series is not presenting, or advocating, any of the traditional visualisation practices, it takes the visually rich imagery of the ten archetypal Buddhas of the Mandala that are described in the Bardo Thodol, as the starting point for a systematic meditation on the bodily-felt energies of the ten corresponding Dharmic principles. While this is not an approach to meditation practice that I have formally learned within Tibetan Buddhist tradition, or anywhere else, my hope is that these reflections will provide the interested reader with their own bodily-felt process of systematic familiarisation and self-discovery – one that is, I believe, very much in the spirit of the Vajrayāna.
Concerns about the Tathāgatagarbha, or ‘Buddha Nature’?
In the course of the development of the Buddhist tradition, there was an increasingly clear recognition that the central notion of Enlightenment, or bodhi, has to be regarded as somehow existing eternally and unconditionally in the body-mind, if it is to exist at all. According to the logic of this tathagatagarbha teaching, Enlightenment has to be already present in some germinal form, even in our un-Enlightened experience – not just an abstract metaphysical possibility – or it could not ever be realised by anyone.
Tathāgatagarbha is not well translated as ‘Buddha-Nature’. It actually means ‘buddha-womb’ or ‘buddha-embryo’. The implication of this teaching is not that we are all already Enlightened – far from it. It does however, tell us that the fragile growing shoot of Enlightenment is present within us, and that we need to attend to it and nurture it – and that this is something that we have the power to do. This teaching challenges us to relate to the possibility of the radical personal transformation, which Enlightenment represents, with much more seriousness. If Enlightenment is, in some curious and incongruous way, imminent and already present, we are forced to take seriously the possibility of realisation within this lifetime – and we are invited to pay close attention to this imminent and potentially emergent reality. With this understanding, our path does indeed become one of ‘self-discovery’.
Some Buddhists regard the tathāgatagarbha as a dangerous idea, and it can be, in several ways. The egoic mind has an extraordinary capacity for self-delusion, so that even genuine experiences of insight get distorted into psychological defences. Grandiose spiritual identifications can arise, which serve as compensations for existential inferiority and trauma – but as I have already suggested, this is also a feature, in different ways, of the Hinayāna and Mahayāna approaches. I have spoken above about the terrible problems that can occur when those who have perhaps had moments of great clarity, start to believe, as a result, that they are heroes or bodhisattvas – engaged in a collective task of such global or cosmic importance that the needs of their hapless followers cannot be allowed to matter.
The Tathāgatagarbha and the Divine Feminine
It is easy to see the tathāgatagarbha teaching as something that might heighten the danger of this sort of inflation. The Vajrayāna view can, on the other hand, as Subhuti pointed out, be seen as a necessary balancing factor. The delusional and excessive behaviours that I have described in relation to the egoic mind’s misunderstanding of the ‘self-development’ myth (Hinayāna), or the myth of ‘self-surrender’ (Mahayāna), could indeed be prevented, rather than exacerbated, by greater attention to the idea of the tathagatagarbha, and a greater emphasis on ‘self-discovery’ in our approach to practice. The tathāgatagarbha need not lead to inflation and delusions of grandeur, especially if we attend to the actual imagery of embryo and womb at the heart of the idea. This is modest, gentle, feminine imagery – imagery that calls for tenderness, and for the kindness and nurture that is characteristic of a pregnant woman’s ‘womb awareness’. The appropriate attitude of a spiritual practitioner to the idea of the tathāgatagarbha is the tender care of a mother-to-be for the tiny embryo of her unborn child. We might even venture to imagine ourselves as the vulnerable and powerless fetus of a potential Buddha lying in the Buddha-womb of the all-pervading Transcendental.
In connection with this feminine and maternal imagery of the tathāgatagarbha, students of Buddhist iconography may remember the beautiful maternal figure of Prajñāparamitā, the white female Buddha who arose in the collective imagination if the Buddhist tradition as a personification of the Perfection of Wisdom – a group of sutras, of which the Heart Sutra is the most famous. Prajñāparamitā has much in common with Ākāshadhāteshvari, the white female Buddha in the centre of the Dharmadhātu mandala, who personifies the ‘internal’ aspect of the ’empty’ vijñāna skandha, and the Dharmadhātu Wisdom – a figure we shall be looking at closely in this series of articles.
This eruption of feminine and maternal imagery into Buddhist culture as the tradition developed is a curious phenomenon and one which it is important for us to acknowledge, because our attempt to create a Western Buddhism needs to acknowledge the way these archetypal figures reflect emerging spiritual needs in the collective unconscious of the tradition. Below, in this article, I shall be talking about the feminine (and sometimes maternal) figure of Guanyin (or Kwan Yin), whose popularity exploded in Song Dynasty China (960–1279). It is curious that she is an archetypal figure who has changed gender from male to female. She is a form of Āvalokiteshvāra – a figure who first emerged in the Buddhist imagination many centuries earlier as a young male figure who is often seen as personifying heroic qualities.
The Tathāgatagarbha and the Equalising Wisdom
The Hinayāna (self-development) and Mahayāna (self-surrender) frames of reference can lead to hierarchical ways of thinking about spiritual development and to a hierarchical culture within the sangha. Clearly the tathāgatagarbha teaching is more equalitarian, and invites us to treat each other with a high degree of genuine and mutual respect and a heightened sense of nurturing care. For me, it calls forth an attitude of holding a space of deep psychological safety in which the obscuring egoic defences can begin to naturally and spontaneously release. Indeed, attention to the tathāgatagarbha teaching has the potential to bring a culture of equality and solidarity to communities of practice, which can balance the often very marked differences between the levels psychological, spiritual, and intellectual development of different participants. It balances the necessary but problematic principle of spiritual hierarchy with a foundational sense that all practitioners are experiencing versions of the same fundamental challenge – that of giving embodiment and expression to a divine potential that is already present but obscured by the egoic mind. This understanding is an expression of what Buddhist tradition came to call the Equalising Wisdom – something that I shall be exploring in more detail in the course of this series of articles.
Another danger that concerns a lot of Buddhists in regard to the tathāgatagarbha teaching is the idea that, if it were misunderstood, it might lead people to give up their study and practice altogether, believing that there is nothing to be done – because we are all Enlightened already. I do not believe this is a real danger – especially when weighed against its psychological and philosophical benefits – but it is worth giving some thought to this. It raises questions about what Enlightenment is, and how is should be conceptualised. While the egoic mind tends to want think about Enlightenment as a state, or as some sort of distant final end-point, in reality the most important thing that we can say about Enlightenment is that it is a process – and the ‘Three Yānas / Three Myths’ model that I have been speaking of here, gives us three ways of speaking about that process – three perspectives which together give us a comprehensive understanding. If the perspective that we have been calling ‘self-discovery’, and identifying with the Vajrayāna, in not part of our understanding of the Enlightenment process, we are missing an essential piece of the puzzle – a piece without which the process of Enlightenment is difficult to grasp.
When we conceptualise Enlightenment as a process, and understand the Vajrayāna ‘self-discovery’ myth in that context, we have the potential to understand the essence of Vajrayāna with a new much needed clarity. The Vajrayāna, as we see it expressed in the rich cultural context of Tibetan Buddism is, after all, extremely complex and confusing – and full of apparent incongruities that can distract us from identifying the core distinguishing features of Vajrayāna practice. The core idea of the Vajrayāna, I would like to suggest however, is actually relatively simple. It is an approach to practice which takes our concrete and bodily-felt experience as a starting point for a self-discovery process in which an immanent transcendental reality, which is inherent in Consciousness, is progressively revealed.
I do not want to ignore, or dismiss the fears that some may hold in regard to the tathāgatagarbha. Indeed, it is my intention to address those fears in the course of this series of articles. I would like to show that, while a false understanding of the tathāgatagarbha teaching, and of the ‘self-discovery’ myth, can indeed bring inflation, arrogance and ethical lapses – as can both the other two myths – when correctly understood it has the potential to bring great humility. This humility hinges on the fact that our discovery of a faint resonance of the Five Wisdoms in our somatic experience, goes hand-in-hand with the development of an even keener awareness of the way in which that reality is profoundly obscured by the corresponding five kleshas – the energetic residue of our identification with the five skandhas, and of our habitual personalisation of our experience.
Mindfulness and the Three Yānas
I find the idea of the three yānas as deepening stages of engagement with the Transcendental, to be so foundational, that it can usefully be applied to almost every aspect of Buddhist philosophy and practice. To do justice to the Buddha’s rich and subtle practice of Mindfulness for example, it can be useful to reflect on it in terms of the three yānas. Please bear in mind that I am once again using the three yānas as a way of distinguishing three different, clearly discernible, frames of reference – these three frames of reference do not, of course, correspond to the Buddhist schools of practice that they conventionally refer to.
A Hinayāna, or ‘self-development’, perspective on Mindfulness practice might see Mindfulness as a personal quality of mind – the central idea perhaps being that we can deepen our awareness and expand it into new areas by an application of the personal will.
A Mahayāna, or ‘self-surrender’, perspective, with its Bodhisattva ideal, and characteristic emphasis on shunyatā (’emptiness’), and on the idea of the bodhicitta as a suprapersonal compassionate and evolutionary force in the universe, might also acknowledge Mindfulness as a complex and extremely expansive practice, in which there is an invitation to rest receptively ‘in’ Consciousness – with the idea that Consciousness (the ’empty’ vijñāna skandha) is infinitely spacious, non-locatable and non-personal; and can best be developed in all its many aspects by cultivating a devotional receptivity towards the archetypal Buddhas and Bodhisattvas that personify those aspects.
The Vajrayāna might be characterised as a ‘self-discovery’ perspective that takes the Mahayāna perspective further still – a perspective in which we undertake to familiarise ourselves with mind as Consciousness, recognising it as lucid, luminous, aware, and ever-present. Vajrayāna Mindfulness practice could be characterised as an invitation to rest naturally ‘as’ that timeless awareness, recognising the ultimate inseparability of the absolute and the relative levels of mind and Consciousness.
The Buddha’s ‘remembering’ practice, which modern Western Buddhist practitioners know as ‘Mindfulness’ is extremely profound. Its profundity however, is very difficult to communicate without the sort of synthesis of spiritual perspectives that I have been alluding to in this article. I am not saying, as many others do, that there a ‘higher’ Mindfulness teachings available in Tibetan Buddhist tradition (I am thinking of dzogchen and mahamudra). On the contrary, I am saying simply that Mindfulness, a practice which is common to all Buddhist traditions is a very rich, complex and multidimensional practice that involves dimensions that need to be characterised in terms of devotional-receptive ‘self-surrender’ and ‘self-discovery’, as well as ‘self-development.
The Pali word sati , which in English we translate as Mindfulness, literally means ‘remembering’. If we wish to gain a comprehensive understanding of what the Buddha was asking his students to ‘remember’, we need therefore to listen to the transcriptions of the early Buddhist oral tradition into Pali, with an ear for the practical and philosophical themes that were given greater importance in subsequent centuries. For example, when we look at the Abhidharma Samuccaya in the Yogācāra Abhidharma. This is a Mahayāna version of the analytical commentaries that emerged, primarily in the Hinayana schools, from the 3rd Century BCE, which attempt a comprehensive analysis of mind and it contents. The Abhidharma Samuccaya – (Compendium of Abhidharma Teachings) describes mind (i.e. mind as Consciousness) as having three characteristics: clear, knowing, and momentary.
Centuries later in the tradition’s development, in the Vajrayāna Buddhism of Tibet, we see these characteristics being strongly highlighted in an approach to Mindfulness practice that invites us to be aware of the clear, knowing, and momentary nature of that which is aware. If we act, whenever we remember to do so, on this invitation to rest ‘as’ the present moment of conscious experience, and recognise the unconditionally aware and ever-present nature of that Consciousness (the ’empty’ vijñāna skandha), we are bringing a Vajrayāna dimension to our experience of Mindfulness – and beginning the process of familiarising ourselves with the luminous Dharmadhātu, which Buddhist tradition came to place at the centre of the mandala.
This sort of thinking, which came to the fore over the centuries within Buddhist tradition, does of course have its roots in the historical Buddhas teachings. In one of the Anguttara Nikaya Suttas of the Pali Canon, the Buddha says:
“This mind, O monks, is luminous, but it is defiled by adventitious defilements (kleshas). The uninstructed worldling does not understand this as it really is; therefore for them there is no mental development.”
There have been understandable needs and influences from many sides that have caused Western practitioners of Buddhism to sometimes deny rather that acknowledge the complexity and ultimately un-knowable depth of the Buddha’s Mindfulness practice – so much so, that I have many times in these articles felt a need to abandon the term. In place of Mindfulness, I have therefore often spoken of ‘resting as Consciousness’ – a term which is much more expressive of the Yogācāra identification of ‘clarity’, ‘knowingness’ and ‘momentariness’ as the characteristics of mind. I have also emphasised the practice of ‘self-discovery’, usually using the more familiar term: ‘self-enquiry’. Both terms refer to a direct engagement with, and familiarisation with the ’empty’ vijñāna skandha, the in-definable experience of Consciousness which endures with absolute constancy in the transitoriness of the mind.
Each of the ten Buddhas (and associated Dharmic principles), that I will be describing in this series of articles, are gateways into the experience of Mindfulness, or ‘resting as Consciousness’, but one simple way to introduce ourselves to this is to stop thinking for a moment – literally a moment. A few seconds is sufficient for us to ‘re-recognise’ or ‘remember’ Consciousness – to acknowledge the mysterious ever-present reality of Consciousness, which is never not there when we turn our attention to it. When we learn to appreciate and treasure the qualities and attitudes that are inherently present in that experience of Consciousness (especially the brahmavihāras, which I have spoken about at length in many articles on this website), we are truly moving forward on the path of Mindfulness – bringing in the ‘self-surrender’, and ‘self-discovery’ dimensions of the practice.
I want to emphasise that the implication here is not that the realisation of the great sages of the Mahayāna and Vajrayāna was in any way superior to that of Gautama, the historical Buddha. What is being acknowledged however, is the development of a greater sophistication in the expression of the core insights, and the increasingly subtle conceptual distinctions regarding the process and the path that are seen in the more developed frames of reference of the later yānas. I need to emphasise once again, that I am using the three yānas here primarily as a way of talking about stages of deepening engagement with the Dharma – not only as the cultural and historical stages in the history of Buddhism, and certainly not as schools of philosophy and practice within contemporary Buddhism.
On the contrary, I am saying that the devotional-receptive ‘self-surrender’ approach and ‘self-discovery approach’, which are characteristic of the Mahayāna and Vajrayāna respectively, are definitely present in the Buddha’s life and teaching and in early Buddhist practice, if we care to develop an intellectual attunement to that presence. While the connection that I am making, between the larger collective process within the Buddhist tradition, and the process within each individual Buddhist practitioner’s process, may seem a little confusing, the value of acknowledging the yānas, both as nested perspectives within the development of the tradition, and as developmental stages within our spiritual growth is too valuable to ignore.
Vajrayāna – Active and Receptive; Self-Discovery and Emergence
I like the simplicity of Dharmachari Subhuti’s ‘Three Myths’ formulation of ‘self-development’, ‘self-surrender’, and ‘self-discovery’ – which echoes the three yānas of Buddhist history so clearly. Others (notably Jñānavāca and others at the London Buddhist Centre), also inspired by this model, have chosen to develop the conceptualisation further, and have pointed out the fact that the third, or Vajrayāna, stage can be seen as having two sub-stages – so that there are four stages altogether. They have identified, I believe correctly, that while the active component of the Vajrayāna familiarisation process can be called ‘self-discovery’, there is also a spontaneous dimension to this process – one which may be characterised in terms of ’emergence’.
The ’emergence’ stage, is nested within the previous ‘self-discovery’ stage and, as with the previous ‘myths’, arises naturally from it. Each of the ‘myths’ are always nested within the previous one in the series, so the ’emergence’ ‘myth’ continues to be one of ‘self-discovery’, but what is being discovered is being discovered spontaneously. So, out of the foundational ‘myth’ of heroic ‘self-development’, and the subsequent emergence of a devotional-receptive sensibility in the ‘myth’ of ‘self-surrender’, the meditative process naturally becomes an active and systematic self-enquiry in the ‘myth’ of ‘self-discovery’ that follows. This third ‘self-discovery’ perspective represents a significant acceleration of the release of the egoic kleshas that obscure our true nature. On the basis of this deep somatic healing comes a fourth and final stage, which is even more fully receptive and spontaneous – and can be characterised as a stage, or myth of ’emergence’. It would seem therefore, that the fourth and final stage of the Bodhisattva’s journey, is characterised by uncontrived Mindfulness and compassionate activity – emerging directly and effortlessly from the continuous experience of resting as Consciousness.
The image above, which I was drawn to choose as the icon image for this article, is of Guanyin, or Kwan Yin – the female form of Āvalokiteshvāra, which became hugely popular in China, and subsequently in Japan as Buddhism established itself in the various cultures of east Asia. As I pointed out above, it is very instructive for us, as we take this sweeping three-yāna overview of the Buddhist tradition, to acknowledge that this is the same archetypal figure that we see in male form as the prototypical Bodhisattva of early Mahayāna tradition. A serene, reflective, contemplative figure, she appears deeply relaxed in her characteristic ‘royal ease’ posture, and yet she also embodies a passionate and active desire for the welfare of all beings. This profound personification of the Bodhisattva Vow to live for the spiritual liberation of all beings appears curiously unperturbed, even as she fully takes in the vision of human suffering.
The Bodhisattva Returns
When we compare the cultural emphasis of the Hinayāna and Mahayāna we are keenly aware that Hinayāna appears to frame the goal of Enlightenment as one of bringing an end to personal suffering by breaking the cycle of rebirth – by gaining realisation into the ’empty’ nature of self. The ‘Arahant’ ideal of the stereotypical Hinayāna practitioner, is to achieve the degree of wisdom and transformation necessary to ensure that he or she will not return – will not ever take rebirth again – when they die. As the Buddhist tradition developed however, this way of framing of the ideal of Enlightenment was recognised as containing an incongruity. The truly Enlightened Ones are, after all, seized by a great Loving Kindness and a great Compassion, for all beings. Hence the ‘Bodhisattva’ ideal of the Mahayāna arose as natural clarification and evolution within the tradition.
So, the Bodhisattva is distinguished by the fact he or she returns – returns out of Compassion for the world. The Spiritual Death of Nirvana, in which the self-illusion is extinguished, leads to a Spiritual Rebirth – a Spiritual Rebirth in which that self-less being who has let go of the world and all its associated identifications, finds themselves drawn back into the world, but in an entirely new way. In the terms of the ‘Three Myths / Four Myths’ model that I have been outlining here, it is as if the Bodhisattva, in this spontaneously arising desire to return to the world, retraces his steps through the yānas.
The true heroism of the Bodhisattva, is in this joyful, generous and compassionate return, after the Spiritual Death of realisation, to the eternal labour of liberating all beings. This Spiritual Rebirth is heroic in the truest sense, since it requires the development of countless concrete skills and personality strengths. The attitude that the Bodhisattva expresses in this final open-ended ’emergence’ stage of his development is, of course, entirely different from that which he expressed as an aspirant Bodhisattva in the ‘self-development’ stage.
Because the Bodhisattva’s spontaneous compassionate activity is rooted in the Spiritual Death of a complete release of the self-illusion, he or she does not return to a crudely heroic mode of engagement, but naturally maintains a lightness, ease and relaxation in the midst of the enormous and relentless challenges that he or she faces. The Buddhist tradition came to speak of this entirely non-heroic and self-less lightness of being in midst of heroic tasks, as the ‘play’ (lila) of the Bodhisattva. It is this mysterious easeful quality of lila that is being pointed to iconographically when Bodhisattvas are depicted in the ‘royal ease’ (rajalilasana) posture, as in the image above.
In the Next and Subsequent Articles ……
The four-fold model that I have presented in this article, is one of two four-fold models, which I shall be drawing on in the course of the rest of this series of articles. To distinguish them, I shall call this one the ‘Four Myths’, which is the term used by Dharmachari Jñānavāca – who clearly wished to acknowledge Dharmachari Subhuti’s use of the term ‘Three Myths’, to describe his perspective on the three yānas. The other four-fold model that I shall be drawing on is the ‘System of Practice’, which Sangharakshita articulated, in 1978, as a four-stage framing of the process of meditative transformation and spiritual realisation – Integration, Positive Emotion, Spiritual Death, and Spiritual Rebirth. The ‘Three Myths / Four Myths’ model gives an overview of our evolving relationship with the archetypal Buddhas, and with spiritual practice in general. The ‘System of Practice’, I believe, has the power to take us deeper into the detail of how the Dharmadhātu mandala can be our guide in a systematic approach to meditative self-enquiry practice in the spirit of the Vajrayāna – by which I mean, as I hope you will now appreciate, in the spirit of the complete three yānas frame of reference, including that of the Vajrayāna.