Showing posts with label Imagination. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Imagination. Show all posts

22 February 2008

Recollecting the Buddha

I have been doing a lot of reading around the practice of recollecting the Buddha and making the links between this practice and the development of Buddhist mantra. The practice generally revolves around the Buddha Vandana - the list of epithets for the Buddha - which occurs in many places throughout the Pali Canon and is explained in detail by Buddhaghosa in his Visuddhimagga. The verses containing the epithets are also known as the "iti pi so gatha". My usual experience with the Visuddhimagga is that I find it turgid and confusing, however in summing up the benefits of practising the recollection of the Buddha, Buddhaghosa says:
And his body [sarīrampi], when the recollection of the Buddha’s special qualities [Buddhaguṇānussatiyā] dwells in it [ajjhāvutthañcassa], becomes [hoti] worthy of veneration [pūjārahaṃ] as a shrine room [cetiyagharamiva] - Vism VII,67.
I've been reading the scholarly literature on this subject and surprisingly none of the writers have made much of this passage. It is only one sentence but this seems to have enormous ramifications. It seems a rather remarkable thing for the usually dusty Commentator to say.

By cetiyaghara, translated as “shrine room” by Ñanamoli, we should probably understand a meditation hall with a stupa at one end, rather like the Caitya-hall at the Bhājā caves in Maharasthra. Although the dictionary definition of cetiya (Sanskrit: caitya) is "a sacred mound, cairn or monument", the term is virtuously synonymous with stupa. Allow me to labour the point here: the body of the one who is recollecting the Buddha can be treated as though it were stupa, or monument worthy of worship. The subjective imagined presence of the Buddha is worthy of the respect which was traditionally paid to stupas and relics of the Buddha. The stupa cult continues to this day and has even been transplanted in the West. It relies on the ability to imaginatively connect with the Buddha - to see the abstract shape of the monument in stone or concrete as something more than it's material form.

Even before the death of the Buddha his presence was invoked. The classic description of this comes at the end of the Sutta Nipatta where the new disciple Pingiya sings the Buddha's praises. He says:
“You see, Sir, said Pingiya, with constant and careful vigilance it is possible for me to see him with my mind as clearly as with my eyes, in night as well as day. And since I spend my nights revering him, there is not, to my mind, a single moment spent away from him" - Suttanipātta 1142
The practice of recollecting the Buddha must have been formalised quite quickly as it's representation in the Canon is rather formulaic, ie it always uses the verses from the Buddha Vandana. But in "Pingiya praises" we get a sense of the spirit behind the formulas. Once the Buddha died these kinds of practices would have taken on a new significance, the more so when everyone who had met him has also died. Within 50 or 60 years probably there would have been no one alive who had met the Buddha in person. So the person who could maintain the kind of imaginative contact with the Buddha that Pingiya could may well have been considered worthy of veneration. Some have argued that without direct contact with a Buddha that no Awakening would have been possible, but the canon itself shows that many people were liberated without having met the Blessed One. The texts I've been looking at show why this is so - given the inspiration and the method anyone can make progress in the Dhamma and be freed. Pingiya is freed by faith (saddha-vimutta) as are several of his companions.

We clearly see here the roots of the Pure Land traditions, and of Buddhist visualisation meditations. In Mahayana texts recollection of the Buddha continues to be important - Śantideva devotes a chapter of his Compendium or Śikṣasamuccaya to it. However the hearing or recollection of the name of the Buddha (or a Buddha) starts to emerge - in the Sukhavativyūha Sūtras for instance. A key moment in the history of mantra comes in the Saddharmapuṇḍarikā Sūtra or White Lotus Sutra (the earliest reference I have found) when the practice of recollecting the name of the Buddha, is supplemented by calling the name (of Avalokiteśvara in this case). Of course the easiest way to hear a name is to say it yourself. Then a few centuries later in the Kāraṇḍavyūha Sūtra the chanting of the mantra of Avalokiteśvara is equated with recollection of his name, thus setting the scene for the Tantric revolution.

If we want to experience the presence of the Buddha in these difficult and testing times, we can. Like Pingiya there is no need for you to ever feel out of contact with the Buddha - simply bring him (or even her) to mind. There is a whole vast corpus of Buddhist art which has the precise function of helping us to make imaginative contact with the Buddha. In doing so you find your meeting, and according to Buddhaghosa you become like a holy shrine in the process and perhaps will inspire other people.

Ñaṇamoli. 1997. The path of purification. Visuddhimagga. (Singapore Buddhist Meditation Centre) p.230. (=Vism VII,67.). The Pali reads: Buddhaguṇānussatiyā ajjhāvutthañcassa sarīrampi cetiyagharamiva pūjārahaṃ hoti

Suttanipātta 1142. trans. Saddhatissa 1985. The Sutta-Nipāta. (Surrey : Curzon Press), p.132.

image: votive stupa in the windhorse : evolution warehouse.

07 December 2007

Creativity and Imagination

Creativity is an important quality in the spiritual life, and one I think that is quite poorly understood. There is a categorical difference between being artistic and being creative. Making art in whatever medium is the most high profile, and generally considered to to be the most valuable manifestation of creativity. Not everyone has the talent, dexterity, or the patience to be an artist, but still, everyone is creative. In this post I want to explore some of my ideas about creativity, and to show that creativity is a universal human activity, not confined to art making.

Let's start with a definition. What is creativity? Creativity is the ability to look for, find, and realise, new possibilities. I see creativity as a process that has phases and requires different attitudes and skills in each. The process of creativity has these stages: generating, filtering, focussing, moving towards, internalising.

All of our minds are capable of drifting, of being erratic, of jumping around. The infamous monkey mind. I take two contradictory positions on this. Firstly I celebrate my monkey mind because what it is doing is generating possibilities and ideas. Most of us filter out 90% of what our mind generates as non-sense or not needing to be above the threshold of awareness. The artist however pays closer attention to the 'noise' their mind generates because in it lurk all kinds of new possibilities, new combinations of familiar things. The Buddhist position, my second viewpoint, views the monkey mind as a kind of disaster in progress and seeks to calm it down. A calm and controlled mind is free to move in any direction, and we can choose which direction it moves in. So meditation brings in a tension for me. I know that periods of my life which are difficult, chaotic even, are also the times when I can be incredibly productive in my art - which suggests heightened creativity. Too much chaos and the mind becomes incoherent of course, but equally too much calm might mean a reduction in the flow of ideas. However meditation can make me more observant, more able to sustain my gaze which is an important creative skill, but it is an aspect of the second phase of the creative process.

We always have more options than we can choose from. We are always receiving more sensory data than we can possibly process. We are usually flooded with stray thoughts and memories, each of which produces a cascade of association. So we filter what is in our awareness, sometimes through habit, or cultural conditioning, or perhaps because of personal biases, but mostly from necessity. If we were suddenly able to be aware of literally everything that is going on in our bodies and minds we would be swamped and overwhelmed. However we can always do with being a little more aware. Being creative means paying attention to our internal psycho-physical process. Paying attention to what attracts and repels us, what fascinates and what bores. Either extreme may be where the pay-off is. The tension of anticipation of change can make boredom exquisite. People who are more obviously creative are probably more aware of this process and more willing to entertain seemingly silly or ridiculous information arising from his process. They have looser criteria, or can allow the filters to be less restrictive for periods of time. Some people attempt to use drugs for this purpose, but my experience suggests that in such cases people are creative despite the drugs, not because of them.

Once I picked up the exhaust manifold from an old engine lying by the side of the road. As I turned it over I thought - "Snoopy!". It suddenly looked like a beagle sitting with his head hanging. More profoundly William Blake saw the universe in a grain of sand. Objects in our environment can be the grit in our minds to create pearls of creativity. Having seen something interesting in the stream of output from their churning mind, the artist then gives it their full attention. This is where meditation and art really start to work together because samatha (calming) meditations are excellent for aiding this process. Creativity means we can hold an idea in our thoughts and walk around it, explore it, see where it wants to go, follow it a little way into the future in our imagination. I've come to see this as an important aspect of imagination. The ideas just come, just stand out from the flotsam and jetsam of our minds, but to explore them takes imagination.

I think of imagination as my sense of the future. In memory we examine past experience, in imagination we try to predict what a future experience will be like. This is very advantageous on a practical level - it enables us to plan ahead, to try out a new experience a little to see whether we think it is worth expending energy on. When it comes to art, the artist is usually working from a mental design. When Michelangelo was asked by a child what he was doing in his workshop, he replied "there are angels trapped in these blocks of stone, and I'm trying to set them free". Imagination is not the source of creativity, it is a skill that enables us to take advantage of a natural situation. It allows us to mentally develop an idea when it occurs to us, if it gets past the filters. Imagination can be developed through use.

The next thing in the creative process is a response to our mental creation - we have had the new idea, made it stand out from the background noise, explored and navigated it, and now we must move towards it. We have to act on the idea. In art of course this usually means making some kind of object. Or we might bake a cake, plant a bulb in the garden, make a witty comment in the moment, or simply stand for a few minutes to look at a sunset. All of these seem to me to arise out of the creative process as I understand it. This phase often calls for persistence. Thomas Edison is famously quoted as saying that "invention is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration". I'm frequently complemented on my art works. Sometimes people will say "I wish I could paint". I definitely get the sense that they wish to be able to conjure a painting out of nothing. When I have an idea for a painting I generally spend quite a bit of time thinking about it. I might look at art works, or read some books which will inspire me or give me ideas about techniques. Then I will start drawing. This can take some time because I'm not a skilled draughtsman. I struggle with proportion and line. I struggle with shading and colour. It takes a lot of work to get a drawing that will form the basis of a painting. Then I have to transfer the drawing to a canvas or board. The act painting is tedious and takes a long time. I make a lot of mistakes which must be corrected laboriously. It takes many hours, days and weeks to make a painting that I feel happy about. I most certainly do not conjure anything out of thin air.

This is the last phase of the creative process - learning or internalising. Having conceived of and executed a creative act we try to reflect on the experience. Sometimes we can reuse what we've learned, and apply it to other situations and it has a concrete practical value. Other times it's a one off and highly ephemeral. But whatever the utility of what we have learned we allow ourselves to absorb the experience.

The most obvious application of creativity in the spiritual life is the conceiving of, and pursuit of positive change. In the field of ethics for instance we can be creative by allowing for more subtle choices in complex situations - we can allow for more possibilities, explore the potential consequences, move pro-actively towards our best option, and finally to learn about the consequence of our actions. Each phase of the creative process is important and benefits us in it's own way.

14 January 2006

Imagination and Reality

image of flaming koru - creativity imagination mental illnessIn this essay I want to look at one particular aspect of imagination. For many years I have been interested in the link between so-called mental illnesses and creativity. It is now well documented that people who are very creative are much more prone to depression, mania, delusions, and madness. We might all suffer from some form of these ourselves, and most will at some time suffer from the more serious manifestations of them.

Having looked at the various explanations of this phenomena there is one that stands out in my mind. Joe Griffin's theory is that imagination is the key. Creative people have very powerful imaginations. I want to explore this idea by using an example from my own life.

Some time ago I was sitting in my quiet Cambridge room reading. It was a fine day, I was in no possible danger. But I suddenly realised that my heart was racing, my breath was short and shallow, and my muscles were tensed. It was the fight or flight response. Given the almost idyllic setting, how did I come to be experiencing the primal animal response to threat. I have observed, at first hand, this response in the poor earthworms that were the subject of a sixth-form biology class. It is something shared by all life, to some extent.

I can reconstruct the events in my mind. Some weeks early a friend and community-mate had attended a retreat where he had had a blazing row with the study leader. In fact they had a series of very unpleasant exchanges. At the time my friend did not hesitate to lay the blame with the study leader.

It so happened that I was about to attend a retreat during which I knew that I would be studying with the same man. As I sat reading my mind drifted off into a fantasy - what might have been called a fancy 200 years ago. I imagined that I too was finding fault with the study leader, that we were disagreeing, were arguing, were clashing, and even coming to blows. At the point where I stormed out, my mind rewound the fantasy and played it through again, either the same or with a minor variation.

Now I have a pretty good imagination, and it seems as though I was able to make the images so realistic that my body began to prepare for action, just as though I was in the room with my enemy and about to come to blows. How long had this been going on? I'm not sure. Perhaps 10 or 15 minutes, perhaps 30. Over and over. A real fight might be over in a few seconds as I reacted and more than likely bolted. Then it would be over in fact. But in imagination I was not able to come to a conclusion. I kept going over and over it. And my imagining of the scene was so potent as to produce a physical response, a primal response which is designed to help me deal with real threats.

All of this without having met the man that I was imagining myself in conflict with. All this secluded in a quiet room far from any real threat.

And then I shook as I realised that I had in fact been doing this all of my life. Years of emotional difficulties, of recurrent depression and persistent anxiety, started to come into a new perspective. It was a turning point for me. Around that time it was clear that no-one was considering me for ordination. A year later things had completely turned around. By using this insight I was able to begin to really practice the Dharma. To work directly with my mental states and transform them.

One of the ways the Dharma works is by getting us to look into our habits of thinking. We habitually see ourselves as this sort of person, and not that. We like these things, but not those. These kind of people, but not those. These are just mental habits acquired over the years. One of my mental habits is to imagine the worst, to imagine that I will come into conflict with people and that they will try to hurt me. Once upon a time this was in fact true, but it is not true now. By looking into these habits, and seeing the consequences of them I have begun the process of gaining a choice in how I imagine the world. It is quite clear that how I imagine the world is critical to how I experience the world.

The final irony in this story is that I attended the retreat and met the study leader. He and I got on very well indeed. Real kindred spirits. My fears had been completely unfounded.