This article is the fourth of fifteen articles inspired by 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. The first article in the series can be found here; brief summaries of all the articles can be found here; and you can read the previous article in the series here.
I offer these reflections without any claim to the authority of any tradition, or school of thought. I am adding my own personal and idiosyncratic commentary to the other commentaries that are available on the Five Wisdoms, and on the archetypal Buddhas of the Dharmadhātu Mandala, only because I believe passionately in the preciousness of this information. I cannot help feeling that there should be much more engagement with this knowledge than what is evidenced on the Internet – much more discussion, reflection, contemplation and meditative self-enquiry which takes this primordial mandala as the integrated whole that it is. I sincerely hope that the thoughts that I am sharing will be supportive of this work, and supportive of those who share my love of the mandala wisdom.
The Mandala of Receptive Deities
In my last article (here), I spoke about the way in which the ten deities of the mandala fall into two groups of five. In the first of these two groups there are three female Buddhas and two male Buddhas, but all of them can be characterised as more ‘yin’, or ‘receptive’ in their energy as they are experienced in meditation. In the second group there are three male Buddhas and two female Buddhas, but all of them can be characterised as more ‘yang’, or ‘expansive’ in their energy as they are experienced in meditation. In the next five articles, I shall be talking about the first group of five deities – the ‘yin’, or ‘receptive’ group of deities – which are shown below. I shall starting with the deities of the mandala quadrants and finishing with White Tāra, in the centre.
I have chosen to start, in this article, with an exploration of the figure of Pandaravārsini; with the Discriminating Wisdom; and with the Dharmic principle that I have come to call ‘Uncaused Happiness’. It will not be possible to separate Pandaravārsini and the experience she represents, from Amitābha and the experience that he represents, but my focus will be on Pandaravārsini. I hope to show that for meditators, she is of enormous importance for our healing of the klesha of rāga, or ‘craving’, which is one of our greatest obstacles to realisation. More than this, because she represents the essence of our capacity to truly love ourselves, she can be regarded as the source of our capacity for emotional self-healing through meditation practice.
The Samjñā Skandha, the Klesha of Craving (rāga), and the Preta Realms
When, through craving, I wander in samsara,
on the luminous light-path of Discriminating Wisdom,
may Blessed Amitābha go before me,
and Pandaravārsini behind me;
help me to cross the bardo’s dangerous pathway,
and bring me to the perfect buddha state.
The five verses in the ‘Inspiration-Prayer for Deliverance from the Dangerous Pathway of the Bardo’ take us clockwise around the mandala in the traditional way, starting in the centre and then the eastern quadrant. In this exploration, I shall be taking us on a different journey – a journey that aims to explore and embrace the hidden polarities and dynamic tensions within the mandala structure. We shall be starting in the western quadrant with the red light-path of the ’empty’ sanjñā skandha and the Discriminating Wisdom, which leads us away from the egoic reactivity of the Preta Realm and towards the emotionally nourishing influence of Pandaravārsini and Amitābha. Only then will we move across to the eastern quadrant to look at the blue light-path of the ’empty’ rūpa skandha and the Mirror-Like Wisdom, which leads us away from the Hell Realms, and towards the peace and mental clarity of Vajrasattva and Buddha-Locana.
This is not as abstract and divorced from everyday reality as might first appear. The skandhas we should remember, were a pre-Buddhist formulation, which the Buddha made use of and drew upon in different ways – especially in his ‘Four Foundations of Mindfulness’ formulation. The third ‘Foundation of Mindfulness’, which corresponds to the samjñā skandha, and the western side of the mandala, is Mindfulness of Citta, which can be taken to refer to Mindfulness of the evaluative dimension, or the feeling, or emotional tone of our experience of mind and consciousness. The first ‘Foundation of Mindfulness’, on the eastern side of the mandala, which corresponds to the rūpa skandha, is Mindfulness of Kaya, which is usually understood to mean Mindfulness of the ‘Form of the Body’, or Mindfulness of the position of the body in space – sitting, standing, walking, lying down, etc.
When we recognise the way the skandhas and ‘Foundations’ correspond, we begin to understand that the first ‘Foundation’, Mindfulness of Kaya, is concerned with that whole category of experience which is the rūpa skandha, or ‘Form’ – not only ‘the Form of the Body’, but all form, and most importantly with ‘conceptual Form’, or Thinking. The practice of attention to ‘the Form of the Body’, or Mindfulness of Kaya, is used as a way of quietening, and dis-identifying from, the discursive, verbalising, and conceptualising mind (rūpa skandha), in order to come into Presence. I feel a need to mention these connections at the outset, because we need to understand that the Discriminating Wisdom, and the samjñā skandha, and Mindfulness of Citta, are talking about a diametrically opposite style of mental functioning and decision-making, and are concerned with the evaluative, emotional, or Feeling tone of the mind. Citta and the samjñā skandha refer to that aspect of our guidance system in life, which makes decisions by Feeling, and via an accumulation of emotional memories and social experiences – and not via the logical, or verbal, or conceptual content of the mind, all of which comes in the rūpa skandha category of cognition.
In both the skandhas and the ‘Foundations’, the Buddha was advocating the same comprehensive four-fold analysis of the mind, but in the ‘Foundations’ he translated the skandhas into areas of Mindfulness practice that would support the realisation of the emptiness of each of the corresponding skandhas. I hope to be outlining this four-fold analysis in the course of this series of articles, but we need to begin by understanding something of this west-east axis of the mandala and why, although there is great value in practicing Mindfulness of Kaya – i.e. Mindfulness of ‘the Form of the Body’ to quieten the verbal-conceptual (rūpa skandha) dimension of the mind – our initial focus, as Westerners in need to emotional healing, needs to be on Mindfulness of Citta.
Our point of entry into the mandala in this regard, is Pandaravārsini, because her particular gift is the gift of love, and because she connects us with the way that Consciousness appears to have an infinite capacity to hold us, and soothe us, and value us, and because she is the key to our healing of the klesha of rāga, or ‘craving’, which is so psychologically dis-integrating, and so undermining of our capacity for relationship.
There is great value in becoming deeply familiar with the connections between the five skandhas and their various associated Dharmic principles, because the Buddha’s key teaching on the ‘Emptiness of the Five Skandhas‘ is frequently incorrectly presented – and, I might even say, often rendered useless by mis-translation. The arrangement of the ‘Five Skandhas’ and ‘Four Foundations of Mindfulness’ as a mandala, was almost certainly very common among the beautiful hand-copied books of the Indian Mahayana, that were so cruelly destroyed in the course of the Moslem invasions of India, but it is in the teachings of Padmasambhava and of the Tibetan tradition, that this mandala wisdom has been preserved.
The samjñā skandha is the evaluative skandha. We can think of it as describing both the function of ‘evaluative discrimination’ and also as the category of ‘evaluative data’ that is mediated by that evaluative discrimination. In my opinion, the closest single word equivalent in the English language to samjñā is Feeling. This is not ‘feeling’ as the perceptual function of sensation, or ‘sensing’ (vedanā), but Feeling as an evaluative, discriminative and decision-making function. Jung’s distinctions are really useful here – he called Sensation (vedanā) a Perceptual function. Feeling (sanjñā) on the other hand, he called a Judging function.
So Feeling was the word that Carl Jung and his translators into English used for this fundamental psychological principle of evaluative discrimination, that in ancient Indian tradition was called samjñā. I like to capitalise the word Feeling (for clarity I capitalise all of Jung’s terms for the cognitive-perceptual functions) to make it clear that this has nothing to do with the English use of ‘feeling’ to refer to sensation or sensing. The Sanskrit term for Sensation in ancient Indian tradition is vedanā. It is of paramount importance that we distinguish these two skandhas. I shall be aiming to clarify this further in the course of this series of articles.
Integration and Disintegration; Contentment and Craving
The flavour and tone of the early Buddhist teachings on rāga, or ‘craving’, need to be understood in their historical and social context. The fact that the whole theme of craving, greed, attachment, passion, sexuality and desire, was such a charged and crucial issue in the context of ancient Buddhist monasticism – necessarily so, before the availability of contraception – has clouded the issue to some extent, but there are core understandings here that we need to grasp. The effort of untangling the threads of this are worth the effort, because there is such liberation, and so much profound contentment to be found, when we do the self-healing work and release our identification with the sanjñā skandha, which is the cause of the klesha of rāga, or ‘craving’.
Recognising the empty, or impersonal nature, of the samjñā skandha, can be the doorway not only to the release of the klesha of rāga, or ‘craving’, but to Enlightenment itself – in its Discriminating Wisdom aspect. In the early stages of meditation practice, when our goal may only be to become more psychologically integrated, the same understanding applies. The initial ‘Integration’ stage of meditation practice requires that we understand why it is that the egoic functioning of the sanjñā skandha has such a dis-integrating effect on the psyche when we are identified with it.
This task is made much easier in the context of this exploration of the ‘Inspiration-Prayer’ and of the symbolism of the Dharmadhātu Mandala, when we understand that the klesha of rāga, or ‘craving’, that we are talking about here, is that klesha which causes us to be drawn towards rebirth in Preta Realm, and shows itself in psychological states and behaviours that have the archetypal character of the pretas (Hungry Ghosts) of Buddhist tradition – a helpless, emotionally blunted restlessness, in which discrimination is lost, and in which we find ourselves acting compulsively in endlessly repeated vain attempts to comfort or nourish ourselves, or to sooth the vague emotional pain, loneliness, and existential emptiness that hangs about us.
I have talked in detail about the archetype of the pretas in a previous article (here), which I strongly recommend. The Discriminating Wisdom and the associated brahmavihāra of mettā (Loving Kindness) are powerfully integrating Dharmic principles. They are both associated with the attitude of welcoming everything in our experience and valuing it, holding it unconditionally in Consciousness. If we can learn to rest as Consciousness and recognise this inherently present ‘Loving Kindness’ attitude within Consciousness – that which has the capacity to relate to our experience with unconditional acceptance – then we will have begun our journey of emotional healing, and will have begun to release the klesha of rāga, or ‘craving’.
Amitabha and Pandaravarsini – Loving and Being Loved
Amitābha, the great red male Buddha of Loving Kindness (mettā), who is seen in the western quadrant of the mandala, and who personifies the extraverted aspect of the Discriminating Wisdom, is always recognisable, even in a Buddha image that has no colour, because he is always seen with his hands folded in his lap in the traditional dhyana mudra – thus symbolising the foundational importance for meditation practice, and for our cultivation of Integration and Positive Emotion, of the basket of insights and energies that came to be known as the Discriminating Wisdom.
It is certainly possible, and indeed it is common, for people to love in ways that are disintegrating, and even to practice Mettā Bhavana (the traditional meditation for cultivating mettā) in ways that are disintegrating. I have touched on this in my previous writing – here. This is why I have identified the female Buddha Pandaravārsini as representing an even more necessary and even more foundational support for meditation practice than her male counterpart Amitābha. We need to connect to an authentic source of love within before with can truly love others from a place of psychological integrity – and it is Pandaravārsini that personifies that connection. Mettā, or Loving Kindness, or loving unconditionally, is much more than just Extroverted Feeling – much more than valuing others, tuning into them, idealising them, harmonising with them, aligning with their values, attending to their needs, and (often) instinctively colluding with them. True mettā springs from the Discriminating Wisdom, and has the character of individuality, authenticity and balance – and ultimately comes from familiarity with the mystery of Being.
As a point of entry into our understanding of her, we can say that Pandaravārsini represents the emotional ease and contentment, and even the bliss, of receiving love and knowing we are loved – loved absolutely and unconditionally – but we need to go much deeper than that, if we wish to recognise her as a suprapersonal force in our everyday lives. She personifies the modest and introverted aspect of the Discriminating Wisdom. She shows herself in our capacity to love ourselves, to become emotionally authentic, to allow vulnerability, to take complete responsibility for our feelings, to be curious and acknowledging of our emotional complexity, to become self-possessed and emotionally contained, to slow down in our emotional expression, and to learn to express only what is true, beneficial, and conducive to relationship, personal development and wisdom.
Confidence and Trust – The ‘Spiritual Faculty’ of Faith (Shraddhā)
It is helpful to remember that in the Buddha’s ‘Five Spiritual Faculties’ teaching, the ‘Faculty’ that is associated with the western quadrant of the mandala (and with the samjñā skandha, and with citta – the feeling tone of the mind – in the Four Foundations of Mindfulness), is shradhā, or Faith. Pandaravārsini embodies that introverted aspect of the Discriminating Wisdom that manifests as self-valuing emotional confidence, and as trust in life, both of which are aspects of shradhā, or Faith.
Our path to the cultivation of this quality, if we are not blessed with it already – and most of us are not – is through resting as Consciousness, and recognising through inward receptivity, that the ‘love’ aspect of Consciousness, which the Buddhist tradition calls mettā, is actually always available to us. Faith, in the Buddhist context, is not a belief in external deities, so much as a direct recognition, in our own experience, that there are benevolent suprapersonal forces inherent in Consciousness.
Our response to the ten archetypal buddhas of the mandala will sometimes be purely emotional and evaluative – or devotional – as we see in the traditional ethnic forms of Buddhism in the East. A modern, more Western approach to the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, can however, as the higher level practitioners within the Mahayana and Vajrayana always have, see these traditional archetypal forms as personifications of suprapersonal forces that can recognised within us all. This deeper, more sophisticated, and more complete, response to the deities, can be characterised in modern terminology as a form of archetypal psychology. This is an approach that appears very similar, if not identical, to the traditional Buddhist one, in that all aspects of mind, including the apparent ‘ego’ are recognised to be ’empty’, transitory, and non-personal, and the archetypes – or universal Dharmic principles – are regarded as providing the fundamental dynamic structures of the psyche.
How do we Love Ourselves?
There is much that needs to be said in connection with Padaravārsini, because she is so pertinent to the question of ‘How do we love ourselves?’ This is a key question to anyone who is on any sort of path of self-healing, and it relates directly to the core Buddhist insights into the empty or non-personal nature of the self. It is also, of course, foundational to our practice of the Mettā Bhāvana – the meditative cultivation of Loving Kindness, which most Buddhists are familiar with.
There are various visualisation techniques, mental tricks, and positive affirmations that people use to connect with a sense of love towards themselves, as in the first stage of the five stage version of the Mettā Bhavana practice, but it is not uncommon to find that these sometimes fail us. The Buddha made so clear that there is no self anyway – only a dynamic constellation of the self-serving energetic identifications that appear as a self. This being the case, it is perhaps not surprising that we finds it difficult to truly love ourselves. Even Buddhists who are wonderful, kind, well-motivated people, can find, if they are practicing in the wrong way, that their mettā practice dries up, leaving them in deep despair and self-hatred as a result. Who, or what, then, is loving who or what, when we are loving ourselves? If our mettā practice is to be sustainable, we need to a find deeper answers to this question.
Because, ultimately, the source of love, like everything else, is not personal, ‘loving ourselves’ can only ultimately, be understood as an internal receptivity to a suprapersonal source of love that is inherent in Consciousness – and ultimately it involves Faith (shraddhā) in that suprapersonal source. Amitābha is the deity which came to personify that source of unconditional love in Buddhist tradition, and Pandaravārsini became the archetypal image of that confident, trusting, attitude of Faith – and of that spiritual receptivity, which is confidently connected with that internal source love. It is Pandaravārsini that allows us to know feelings of contentment and emotional fulfilment that are independent of external causes – independent of our social relationships, independent of our status in society, independent of our achievements, and independent of our psychological history.
Psychotherapy and the ‘Insight Trap’
The reason, of course, that we need to ‘love ourselves’, is because of our egoic life inevitably causes us to accumulate residues of shame, of deprivation, of exclusion, of isolation, of feeling ‘not good enough’, of feeling different, and of feeling un-wholesome. It is not easy to release all this without a way of recognising and opening inwardly to a suprapersonal source of love – and this is what Pandaravārsini can show us. When we connect with her there is a recovery of acceptance, belonging, connection, value, dignity and Faith (shradhā). She allows us to be present, in vulnerability, with our emotional pain without ever becoming identified with it. She allows us to grieve and to be present with our sadness without entering into a victim identity. Without the confident receptivity to love that she represents, we can easily be caught in a pattern of instinctively numbing ourselves to our pain. This is the hopeless, helpless, restless, strategy of the pretas – a strategy that never works, and will only compound our shame and despair.
There is a conventional wisdom that comes from the world of psychotherapy, which says that the process of emotional healing always requires the ‘container’ of a therapeutic relationship with a trained psychotherapist – that a wounding of our capacity to trust and love, requires a relationship of trust and love, such as (we may be told) can only be found by paying for it in psychotherapy sessions. While there is profound wisdom in this psychotherapeutic theory and practice, a therapist is only ever a facilitator of their client’s inner relationship to themselves, and those who are engaged in psychological self-healing would do well to focus on finding a sustainable source of love within – though self-enquiry and meditation. Responsible psychotherapists also, would do well to point their clients to the source of love within.
The journey of psychological reflection may involve insights into the way our previous deprivations and traumatic experiences continue to shape our behaviour, but ultimately the healing journey must also be a bodily-felt or somatic one. This is why meditative practices, in which we attend to somatic, body-energy processes, are so important. The ‘insight trap’ of seeing our emotional conditioning, and perhaps hating ourselves because we remain so helplessly stuck in our conditioning despite our insights, can be largely avoided if we see the emotional trauma as an ultimately impersonal somatic phenomenon with a feeling character (samjñā skandha) – a mere energetic residue that can be released through an approach to meditation in which we aim to familiarise ourselves with the ‘Uncaused Happiness’ of Pandaravārsini, and with a suprapersonal source of love.
The Samjñā Skandha – Evaluative Discrimination
We gain a clearer sense of the nature of the samjñā skandha when we understand that it is one of two ‘Judging’, ‘discriminative’, or ‘decision-making’ functions, that are arranged opposite each other at west (samjña / evaluative discrimination / Feeling) and east (rūpa / conceptual form / Thinking) across the mandala. Whereas Thinking uses concepts, ideas, and logical processes, for judgement and decision-making, Feeling is an emotional guidance system, and uses accumulated memories – especially emotional memories – for judgement and decision-making. The evaluating mind of the samjñā skandha accumulates a vast amount of life experience – and stores it somatically for future reference in what we can call the Emotional Body (more on this below). This samjñā skandha accumulates both personal evaluative experience, or personal Feeling of ourselves; and the evaluative data of others – the evaluative experience and values of our culture, our family, our society, our group, or our tribe – and it uses all this as a basis for decision-making and discrimination.
While making decisions according to values is rational, it is undeniably subjective. It makes no claim to objectivity, and in a sense is ‘only a perception’ – indeed samjñā is often translated as ‘perception’. I have written several articles previously (here, here, here, here, here, here and here) about evaluative discrimination (samjñā) and the mysterious subjective discernment process that we call Feeling.
While we are in habitual identification with either Thinking (rūpa skandha) or Feeling (samjñā skandha), and there is a failure to recognise that both are ’empty’ – better regarded as just non-personal discrimination processes, or as the non-personal data of our decision-making – then both these functions cannot serve us well. In reality, rūpa / conceptual form / Thinking, fails to function as the objective decision-making function that the egoic mind imagines it to be – because it cannot be objective while we are identified with it. Similarly, samjña / evaluative discrimination / Feeling, fails to be a valid subjective mode of discernment and decision-making that the egoic mind might imagine it to be. When we are unconsciously identified with our emotional memories, and with our defences against the more painful of those emotional memories, then discernment is excluded by the presence of some degree of preta-like restlessness and inability to be present – which the Buddhist tradition speaks of in terms of the klesha of rāga, or ‘craving’.
The Emotional Body – both Trauma and Uncaused Happiness
When we do recognise that the samjñā skandha is ’empty’, it is transformed into a mode of true evaluative discrimination – the Discriminating Wisdom. The klesha of rāga, or ‘craving’, needs to understood in this context. It is best understood as the restless craving that arises when our natural ability to be unconditionally present with memories and emotional experience has become impaired by life’s inevitable emotional challenges and deprivations. To understand how, in the egoic mind, our natural discrimination is impaired, and how meditation practice can heal this impairment, it is very helpful to acknowledge the notion of an Emotional Body – a level, or dimension of the somatic field that we experience within and around the physical body, and that appears to function as a repository of emotional memory, and of all the evaluative data accumulated by the samjñā skandha.
However we conceptualise the mechanism, it is clear to reflective people that, to the extent that there is any form of trauma held within – however mild – there is a proportional lack of evaluative discrimination, usually in particular areas, or in particular life situations that ‘trigger’ the memory, consciously or unconsciously. For meditators, the notion of an Emotional Body, as the reservoir in which evaluative data and emotional memory is held, is of enormous value, both as a way of understanding the samjñā skandha, and because the idea brings so much more clarity to our purpose when we sit to meditate. The red luminous light-path of the Discriminating Wisdom is a path of energetic healing through meditation practice – and in my experience, it is helpful to keep this healing intention in front and centre in the way we think about our practice, if we are aiming to leave behind the klesha of rāga, or ‘craving’.
So, the red light-path in the Bardo Thodol texts, is that path of self-enquiry which lead us away from the sanjñā skandha and ‘dull red light’ of the Preta Realm, and towards the bright red light of Pandaravārsini and Amitābha. This is the process which heals the klesha of ‘craving’ and re-establishes our Discriminating Wisdom – which is not only a discernment cleansed of neurotic baggage, but a recovery of our innate happiness and capacity to love. From this point of view, the crippling klesha of rāga, or ‘craving’, can be viewed very compassionately, as simply the dysfunctional way in which the egoic mind attempts to manage the emotional pain of particular experiences – either emotionally impacting experiences in the present, or old emotionally charged evaluations from the past that are ‘haunting’ us and turning us into Hungry Ghosts (pretas).
This ‘haunting’ dynamic, by which our emotional life becomes unconsciously preoccupied with managing emotional pain, is too big a subject to explain adequately here, but as meditators it is very helpful if we gain a sense of it. An aspect of the Discriminating Wisdom is the recognition and release of the habitual ways in which we repress emotional pain into unconsciousness, or continuously replace it with experiences that might drown out the voices of our psychological wounding. I have attempted to go into this in several previous articles (here, here, here, here, here, here, and here).
Pandaravarsini – the Yin Aspect of the Discriminating Wisdom
There is much that can be said about the Emotional Body, and about the Solar Plexus Chakra (which Indian tradition calls the manipūra chakra – the ‘place of jewels’), which is where we experience it most keenly (see my previous articles here, and here). Perhaps the most important thing we can say about the Emotional Body, is that while the inherent vulnerability of the human condition is such that every single human being is in some sense wounded on the Feeling level in the course of their childhood and developmental years, the Emotional Body is not only a repository of emotional deprivation and pain. Even in the most tragically wounded of us, the Emotional Body is also the place in us which resonates with the suprapersonal energies of the Discriminating Wisdom, and with the unconditional happiness and love that are represented by the archetypal figures of the female Buddha Pandarvārsini and the male Buddha Amitābha.
Just as we did with White Tāra / Ākāshadhāteshvari and Vairocana, it is useful to reflect first on the female Buddha in this divine pair – the figure of Pandaravārsini. Pandaravārsini is a personification of supreme happiness, bliss, contentment, satisfaction, rest and receptivity – of a deep receptivity that springs from absolute Faith in the love that is inherent in Consciousness. Our connection with her gives us enormous power to side-step, and ultimately completely heal, the restless craving of the egoic mind. Her male Buddha counterpart, Amitābha, personifies that love, which she knows and trusts absolutely, and is completely receptive to. We could say that while Amitābha personifies the energy of unconditional loving, valuing, cherishing, and ‘holding’; Pandaravārsini personifies the energy of receiving unconditional love, of experiencing unconditional value, and of being cherished and ‘held’.
If we are seeking to grasp what the Buddhist tradition means by the Discriminating Wisdom, there is great value in taking Pandāravārsini and Amitābha as a unity – or as two parts of a whole. The spirit of Amitābha can often be misunderstood by the egoic mind, because love can be thought of as an act of the egoic will, whereas our connection with Pandaravārsini requires a release of the egoic will, and requires an opening to the meditative receptivity of samādhi (somatic integration) and shradhā (confidence and faith). Pandaravārsini personifies that aspect of the experience of resting as Consciousness that we can call Uncaused Happiness – the yin, or receptive, aspect of the resonance of Consciousness in the Feeling mind, and in that layer of our somatic experience that we can call the Emotional Body. Uncaused Happiness is inherent in Consciousness, and always present, even when it is obscured by the kleshas of rāga, or ‘craving’.
The Female Buddhas – Guides to the Wisdom of the Mandala
To those who, understandably, find that an egalitarian sensibility in them recoils somewhat at the idea that the female Buddhas ‘go behind us’, while the male Buddhas go before us, I need to say once again that the Bardo Thodol texts speak in the language of archetypal symbolism – the language of the soul. So we need to acknowledge that in part, that which is ‘behind us’ is simply that which is less available to consciousness. The Uncaused Happiness of Pandaravārsini is subtle and cannot be contrived by ordinary egoic effort – but it is nevertheless, a key source of our power; of our transformation; and of our connection to the divine. We can think of the female Buddhas as holding the keys to the more ‘hidden’ wisdom of the mandala.
Pandaravārsini represents that aspect of the Discriminating Wisdom that knows that we are all always loved unconditionally. When we learn to release the sense of conditional evaluation that is inherent in the egoic mind and instead recognise our unconditional value, we can at last truly rest as Consciousness and find a true basis for our identity, and a new sense of what it means to be Mindful and present. Leaving behind the restlessness that is the state of ‘craving’ we find a new authenticity, a new self-awareness, and a new individuality. Indeed, to rest as Consciousness is to receive the love that is inherent in Consciousness, and to begin to allow the self-empathetic processes that burn up the klesha of rāga, or ‘craving’ – rāga being the egoic residue of emotional pain and deprivation that is generated by identification with the samjña skandha, and so inevitably accumulates in the Emotional Body, obscuring our true nature.
Pandaravārsini sometimes finds expression in Tibetan tradition as the red dākini of the fire element. Like fire, she reaches upwards – she is passionate, devotional, aspirational and blissful. She is completely relaxed – she does not have to do anything in order to be loved. She does not just believe in love – she knows it absolutely, she rests in it, she abandons herself to it, and she is consumed by it.
Pandaravārsini and the Emotional Body
I believe that Pandaravārsini and the female Buddha Māmaki, who we shall be coming to soon in this series, have a special place in this systematic contemplation of the mandala deities – and when I meditate on all ten deities, I sometimes like to begin with White Tara, and then Pandaravārsini, and then Mamaki. Pandaravārsini is not only feminine, but she is energetically (somatically) yin as well – so she is doubly expressive of the principle of receptivity – and this same ‘double’ expression of receptivity is seen in Māmaki. So when the ‘Inspiration-Prayer’ invites us to experience the presence of Pandaravārsini ‘behind us’, we need to understand this as inviting us to feel her energy behind us and in the back of the Solar Plexus Chakra, which is were the receptive energy of the Emotional Body is most keenly felt.
If this seems like an odd idea – that Pandaravārsini; the Dharmic principle of Uncaused Happiness; and the receptive functioning of the Emotional Body, can be felt in the back of the Solar Plexus Chakra – I invite you to enter into the invitation that is contained in the verses of the Inspiration Prayer:
When, through craving, I wander in samsara,
on the luminous light-path of Discriminating Wisdom,
may Blessed Amitābha go before me,
and Pandaravārsini behind me;
help me to cross the bardo’s dangerous pathway,
and bring me to the perfect buddha state.
I take this verse almost literally. I see it as meditation guidance – meditation guidance telling us to inwardly attune to a bodily-felt sense of, or resonance of, that in us which knows it is loved absolutely and unconditionally. We can imagine Pandaravārsini behind us if we wish, but it is more important that we ‘feel’ her presence behind us as a particular aliveness in the centre of the back of the body – a receptivity in the Emotional Body felt in the back of the Solar Plexus chakra. I shall be talking more, later in this article, about this way of approaching the meaning of the verses, and about the mysterious somatic structure within the field of the body, by which the suprapersonal energies of Consciousness are embodied in us.
So, the energy that the Buddhist tradition associates with Pandaravārsini, is the energy of Consciousness as it finds ‘receptive’ embodiment in the Emotional Body – because the Emotional Body is yin in women (whereas it is yang in men). This is not the case for all of the female Buddhas. Buddhalocanā and Samaya Tāra (Green Tāra) do not have this double receptivity that we see in Pandaravārsini and Māmaki, because they are each associated with subtle bodies that are yang, or expansive, in women. Buddha-Locanā, for example, is associated with a yang somatic experience, or expansiveness, of the Mental Body in women, and with the back of the Hara; and Green Tara is associated with the yang somatic experience, or expansiveness, of the Volitional Body in women, and with the back of the Heart Chakra.
The Stupa as Somatic Anatomy
In my experience, the little known phenomena of the alternating polarities of the subtle bodies and chakras – and the little known fact that these alternating polarities are reversed in men relative to women – is of enormous importance to meditators. If we wish to familiarise ourselves with the ten mandala deities as universal archetypes that have a reflection in our bodily felt experience – rather than just as inspiring representations of our spiritual values, and objects of our religious devotion – then we need to recognise this somatic reality. I have touched on this ‘alternating polarities’ phenomena before in several articles in my ‘Meditation Guidance’ series (here, here, here, here, here, and here).
The diagram below will be recognisable to some as a schematic representation of Five Elements – which it is – but I am using it here as a schematic diagram of the first four subtle bodies, which I like to call the four ‘surface bodies’. These four are by far the most important subtle bodies because they are the ones that correspond to the quadrants of the mandala, and carry the energies that most obviously find expression in personality. The flame-like shape at the top, is not related to any single subtle body or chakra, but can be thought of as relating to the Dharmadhātu Wisdom in centre of the mandala – and to the infinite field of Consciousness which pervades all of the ‘surface bodies’ – and in which, ultimately, they all rest.
Some readers will be familiar with stupa diagrams like this. As well as providing a schematic representation of the subtle bodies, this arrangement of shapes is used in Buddhist tradition for meditation on the Five Elements – and this arrangement became the basis of the familiar stupa monuments of the Buddhist world. While early Buddhist tradition included meditations on Six Elements, where Space and Consciousness were included as separate ‘elements’, later Buddhist tradition takes Space and Consciousness to be the same. Indeed, Space came to be regarded as a hermetic reflection of ’empty’ Consciousness skandha’; and the other four elements were regarded as reflections of the other four skandhas.
I shall be talking more about the Elements as we progress in this series of articles, and shall be explaining how the symbolic and psychological associations with the Elements are different in the Indian-Himalayan context than in Western hermetic and poetic tradition. Primarily however, I shall be using this stupa schematic to illustrate the somatic locations of the ten ‘Dharmic Principles’. In order to fully receive the energies of the mandala deities into our lives, we need to be able to locate them energetically in our bodies, and familiarise ourselves with the somatic resonance of those energies through self-enquiry and meditation.
You will see, in the diagram below, that I have placed Pandaravārsini to the right of the stupa, to indicate that her receptive Dharmic principle (Uncaused Happiness) is experienced ‘behind us’ as the corresponding verse of the ‘Inspiration-Prayer’ suggests, and at the same level in the body, as the red triangle or cone, which represents the Emotional Body and Solar Plexus chakra. Similarly, I have placed Vajrasattva to the left of the stupa, to indicate that this receptive Dharmic principle (Equanimity) is experienced ‘before us’, also as the corresponding verse of the ‘Inspiration-Prayer’ suggests, and at the same level in the body as the blue circle or sphere, which represents the Mental Body and Hara chakra. I shall be talking about the relationship between these two Dharmic principles, and how we need to see them as a complementary pair, in my next article.
The Five Element schematic form of the stupa, when shown using the five colours of the mandala in this way, has the great advantage of showing us very clearly, the correspondences between, on one side, the skandhas and Wisdoms in the mandala structure of the psyche, and on the other side, the subtle bodies and chakras in the somatic anatomy of the body. In addition, the diagram above shows the all important ‘before us’ and ‘behind us’ dimensions that are highlighted by the verses of Padmasambhava’s ‘Inspiration-Prayer’. All of the ten archetypes of the ‘Receptivity’ (Integration) mandala, and of the ‘Expansiveness’ (Positive Emotion) mandala (outlined in my last article – here) can be represented in a stupa diagram of this sort – but this relationship between Pandaravārsini and Vajrasattva is a particularly good place for us to begin our exploration.
The yin aspect of the Discriminating Wisdom – Pandaravārsini
Our awareness of this association between Pandaravārsini and the Emotional Body can be enormously important for our practice of meditation, and for our healing. When we make this connection, the image of Pandaravārsini ‘behind me’ starts to make sense as practical guidance in our daily meditation practice. Even though the Emotional Body is best thought of a subtle energy body that extends throughout the physical body (and some distance beyond the skin boundary in all directions), it is most keenly felt in the region of the Solar Plexus Chakra. When we open ourselves to the experience of Pandaravārsini ‘behind us’ therefore, we sense her receptive energy in the whole Emotional Body, but especially keenly in the back of the Solar Plexus Chakra.
One of the powerful understandings that comes as we meditate on the presence of the female Buddhas behind us, is that we understand that the nature of our connection with the deities of mandala is not dependent on our ability to ‘visualise’ them – to see them in the mind’s eye. Because we are being invited to imagine them ‘behind us’, we are less likely to try to visualise them, and instead come to recognise that the depth of our relationship with these deities is related to our ability to ‘feel’ them somatically – and to register a sense of their power via the way they appear to resonate somatically in our subtle bodies and chakras in particular ways.
Uncaused Happiness, ‘Holding the Tension’, and Inner Relationship
To close this article, and to sum up the way we can work with the energy of Pandaravārsini in our meditation practice, I need to highlight a principle that I shall be emphasising in connection with each of the ten deities. We need be aware that our task on the light-path of the Discriminating Wisdom, is not simply to cultivate, or attempt to cultivate, love and contentment, by an effort of egoic will. Rather our task is to notice the polarities that are shown to us by the Bardo Thodol verses, and to ‘hold the tension’ between those deeply incongruous opposites. The ‘Inspiration-Prayer’ is inviting us to acknowledge the fact that our Emotional Body carries the energy of both Uncaused Happiness, and our accumulated kleshas of rāga, or ‘craving’, which obscure that Uncaused Happiness.
The All-Accomplishing Wisdom of the mandala invites us to apply effort with great subtlety and awareness. If we apply effort at all, it is the subtle effort of holding the tension between seemingly incongruous realities – fully acknowledging both realities simultaneously. Paradoxically it is only by fully acknowledging both Uncaused Happiness and Loving Kindness (the energies of the Discriminating Wisdom) and the energies of the klesha of ‘craving’, that we can fully extend our awareness of either. They belong together. To know the Emotional Body is to know this incongruous mixture of energies – to know this tension and hold it in awareness. When we hold this tension, it is unclear who we are. Are we the mess of emotional kleshas – the energies of emotional deprivation and craving; or are we the suprapersonal energy of Uncaused Happiness?
Initially we might identify with our kleshas, and therefore find that we are relating to the suprapersonal energy of Pandaravārsini as something external to us. While this is an understandable place to start, we find that, ultimately, it does not fit our experience. As we continue to hold the tension over time, it becomes clear that we are not one or the other – but are the ever-present relationship between these two equally non-personal poles. And when we recognise that we can, at different times, identify with either pole, we also recognise that both identifications are provisional and temporary – or ’empty’ (non-personal) in Buddhist terms.
On the path of the Discriminating Wisdom then, we may find ourselves familiarising ourselves with Consciousness (the ’empty’ vijñāna skandha) in two ways. On one hand we can find ourselves identifying with Consciousness, noticing its qualities of Uncaused Happiness and Loving Kindness, and its capacity to be warmly present – and its capacity to empathetically hold the egoic parts of ourselves, with their kleshas of rāga, in an unconditionally valuing embrace. On the other hand, we can identify with our egoic parts, while simultaneously feeling ourselves being held by the healing energies of love all around us – inherently present in the field of Consciousness. The recognition that both of these identifications are only ‘points of view’ – only provisional and temporary – leads us to a release of the conventional egoic self-view.
Consciousness as Sun and Moon
It is very helpful to be aware of both possibilities – both ways of being in the inner relationship and holding the tension – and to notice that the empty and impersonal nature of mind is experienced in different ways in different situations. We inevitably find that the inner relationship is experienced very differently, and more keenly, in meditation and in self-empathetic self-enquiry, than it is in our outer relationships in everyday daily – which call on us to adopt an identity and to function as if we are a unitary separate self. The ‘Inspiration-Prayer’ is inviting us to stay open to both possibilities, and continue to hold the tension, acknowledging the fiery crucible which is the inner relationship path of the Discriminating Wisdom – either recognising ourselves ‘as’ the ’empty’ vijñāna skandha, as Consciousness; or resting ‘in’ the field of Consciousness, knowing it as unconditional love, and knowing that unconditional love is our birthright and our true nature.
So, the receptive nature of Pandaravārsini, and our image of her receiving the great mettā, the mahamaitri that radiates from Amitābha, is a reflection of that receptive aspect of the experience of Consciousness that we have seen in the image of White Tara / Ākāshadhāteshvari. The beautiful image below is a non-traditional painting of Vairocana and Ākāshadhāteshvari. Vairocana is associated with the sun, so this artist has painted him gold, while also specifically associating his female Buddha partner, White Tāra / Ākāshadhāteshvari, with the moon – by having her hold a moon symbol in her left hand. As mediators, we need to familiarise ourselves with the humility of this lunar mode of Consciousness. If we are to sustain psychological and ethical integrity and a process of deepening Integration on the ‘dangerous pathway’ of the spiritual life, we need the somatic foundation that Receptivity (White Tāra) and Uncaused Happiness (Pandaravārsini) provide.
Access to the Four Dhyānas and the Journey of Integration
In this article, I have identified Uncaused Happiness as the first sub-stage in a progressive and accumulative integration process. This sub-stage is one of the five sub-stages of an initial ‘Integration’ stage – a stage in which we progress through the meditative attitude of Receptivity. This Integration stage is itself the first stage in a larger four-stage process – (1) Integration; (2) Positive Emotion; (3) Spiritual Death; and (4) Spiritual Rebirth) – which I shall be talking more about in future articles.
As a way of bringing this article to a close, and introducing the next four articles, I would like to briefly outline the way in which Uncaused Happiness and Pandaravārsini, and the other four ‘receptive’ Dharmic Principles, and their corresponding ‘receptive’ archetypal Buddhas, relate to the four rūpa dhyānas of Buddhist tradition – the first four stages of somatic integration, or samādhi, which the Buddha described. The dhyānas, in this context, are often translated as ‘higher states of consciousness’, but they are better understood simply as the stages of somatic integration which are experienced in the course of meditation practice. Rūpa, in this context, refers to ‘form’ – the world of appearances, and of identification with the self-illusion, which the Buddha spoke about in terms of the cognitive-perceptual skandhas. The four rūpa dhyānas are distinguished from a further four stages, which the Buddha called the arūpadhyānas. Arūpa in this context, means ‘non-form’, and the arūpadhyānas are those more expansive stages of our transformation of the body-mind that can more easily be experienced in meditation once our identification with the five skandhas has begun to release.
The Dharmic principles; archetypal Buddhas; and the rūpa dhyānas; correspond as listed below. This list highlights the foundational importance, in both meditation practice and life in general, of the principle of Uncaused Happiness that we have been addressing in this article. The attitude that we see embodied in the figure of Pandaravārsini, which is the recognition of Consciousness as an impersonal and unconditional source of positive evaluation – of love – is, for me, our most reliable doorway into the dhyānas. Hence, I associate the Uncaused Happiness principle with ‘access concentration’, which is that state of faith, confidence, and energetic composure, that usually precedes our entry into the rūpa dhyānas.
The rūpa dhyānas describe accumulative stages in an Integration process. The later stages of integration within the rūpa dhyanas are built upon the earlier ones, and the earlier stages are recognisable as present within the later stages. When I first learnt meditation, I found that the rūpa dhyānas were more often ‘stumbled upon’ than systematically practiced. If we use this mandala model of meditation practice as our guide however, we can move through these stages systematically. Each of the rūpa dhyānas represents a stage of our healing through Receptivity – our developing familiarity with, and of our developing embodiment of, the ’empty’ field of Consciousness.
To read the next article in this series please click here.