Sangharakshita has said that ‘To live the Buddhist life, to become like the Buddha, we must imagine the Buddha.’ But what is the imagination? Why is it so important to the Buddhist life? And how can we actually bring the image of the Buddha alive in the modern world? At Windhorse Publications, we have been exploring the themes of the Buddha and the imagination in preparation for the Triratna International Retreat which is taking place this weekend (1st – 3rd June) and which also has as its theme ‘Imagining the Buddha’.
If we are to go for refuge to the Buddha, we clearly must be able to imagine him in our own minds. Yet as well as being able to have a sense of his life, his personality and his teachings, we also need to connect with his inner experience, to imagine being the Buddha. Warrior of Peace is an imaginative account of the Buddha’s life in which the author, Jinananda, invites us to read the Buddha’s story as a mirror of our own search for meaning. ‘I think for us, as ordinary unenlightened beings contemplating the life of an extraordinary enlightened being, exploring the mystery of the Buddha’s life is, in a sense, the heart of the business,’ Jinananda explains. We must ‘explore everything that we don’t know about the Buddha,’ and to do this we must activate our imaginations.
But what exactly is the imagination? The new edition of Kamalashila’s Buddhist Meditation was published in March, and one of the major changes he made to the earlier edition was a greater emphasis on and appreciation of the imagination. In Buddhist Meditation, Kamalashila stresses the fact that imagination is a faculty that we use in everyday life, often without realising it. ‘In normal life, you are imagining everything,’ he writes, ‘from what you might have for dinner, to what it might be like to meet someone, to how that person themselves might feel… You even imagine yourself – indeed, you do that more than anything else.’
Vessantara, author of A Guide to the Buddhas and A Guide to the Bodhisattvas agrees that ‘imagination is certainly decisive in all our experience,’ and that through meditating, we can begin to see the extent to which we ‘overlay a whole lot of interpretation on to our basic sense data in order to be able to interact with the world. All this, you can say, is imagination.’
So imagining is the way our mind normally works, and it seems that becoming familiar with the nature and activity of our mundane imagination may be our first step to imagining the Buddha. Kamalashila explains that seeing the imagination at play in everyday life allows us to ‘free up its prodigious energies and enables a far more effective imagination of the state of Enlightenment and its embodiment in Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and enlightened teachers.’
The power of this ‘prodigious energy’ is also emphasised by Vessantara: ‘People sometimes say “Oh, it’s just my imagination,” but that is really to underrate the whole value of the imagination. The Indian poet Tagore once said “The stronger the imagination, the less imaginary the results”. So our imaginations can really change us.’
This change can take place through the recognition that our imagination enables us to see the world as it really is, and as we have never seen it before. Maitreyabandhu, author of Life with Full Attention: A Practical Course in Mindfulness argues that ‘mindfulness and imagination can be seen as two different words for the same deep, human experience’ because they are both powerful ways of developing our awareness and allowing us to ‘ascend to new levels of being and consciousness.’ Maitreyabandhu describes the imagination as ‘what happens when the sense of your self as being separate from what you’re aware of disappears’. Hence not just imagining the Buddha, but imagining being the Buddha.
Vessantara also talks about the importance of engaging with both the objective and the subjective elements of visualization practice. ‘You may visualize a Buddha or a Bodhisattva out there in front of you – which acts to refine the objective pole of your experience – or you may visualize yourself as the Buddha or Bodhisattva, refining the subjective pole of your experience. You can work on either side of the divide and in doing so the divide itself is softened,’ until the distinctions between ‘me’ / ‘you’ – ‘subject’ / ‘object’ are dissolved.
Vessantara goes on to explain that to begin with, we will imagine the Buddha in the same way that an athlete runs through their race in their mind at the starting blocks, because ‘If we’re going to transform ourselves by following the Buddhist path, we need to make the goal as real for ourselves as possible.’ Then, as we contemplate the image of the Buddha in our minds, we ask ourselves the question ‘“What state of mind would I be in if I looked like that?”’ Once we have fully engaged with this state of mind, we will understand that imagining the Buddha is not just seeing what it is like to be enlightened, but living out what it is like to be enlightened.
This is not to say that we will all suddenly transform into Buddhas just by imagining the Buddha, but rather that an imaginative life is one that is radically transformative. Through activating our imaginations, we can gradually reshape our existence from one that is narrow and egotistical into one where we experience ourselves (in Vessantara’s words) ‘not as an individual who ends at the barriers of his or her skin but as living in (or even living as) an all-encompassing field of awareness.’
So by living our lives with full attention, by meditating on the way our minds normally work, and by engaging in visualization practices, we can transform our experience of the everyday world until we ‘find the Buddha, appearing to us in a form that is deeply familiar yet resonant of an infinite mystery that one day we may understand.’ (Sangharakshita, ‘Re-Imagining the Buddha’)
Warrior of Peace, Buddhist Meditation, A Guide to the Buddhas, A Guide to the Bodhisattvas and Life with Full Attention are all available to purchase at your local Triratna centre or from the Windhorse Publications website. You can also read the full interviews with Jinananda, Kamalashila, Vessantara and Maitreyabandhu on our blog.
Available from the Windhorse online store (Kindle and epub editions also available)
The title of your book is ‘Life with Full Attention: A practical course in mindfulness’. Why would you encourage people to take this course? Why do you think it is so important that we live our lives with full attention?
When Sangharakshita was asked ‘What happens when you die?’ he replied, ‘You’ll soon find out!’ And he’s perfectly right – we don’t know what’s going to happen to us when we die, we don’t know very much about the big metaphysical questions, but do know that we’re alive now. So by paying attention to life as it actually happens, by becoming more mindful, we can really relish the present moment, we can experience it fully and vividly and deeply.
The Buddha said that ‘Those who are mindful live eternally; those who are unmindful are already like the dead’. So mindfulness, really, is the same as being alive, it’s just being alive consciously.
In the book, you mention that mindfulness is best experienced instead of described. For those who haven’t read the book, could you offer a few practical suggestions on how we can begin to experience mindfulness in our daily lives?
‘Life with Full Attention’ is divided into eight chapters, and each chapter outlines one aspect of mindfulness before suggesting how we can put it into practice in our everyday lives. The first chapter is on what I call ‘day-to-day mindfulness’, giving our full attention to our ordinary everyday activities so we don’t forget our car keys or leave our rooms in a mess, for example. And once we have done this, we will have the space to cultivate mindfulness of the body and its movements, which has the effect of really grounding us in direct experience. This is the second chapter, which leads on to the third which is mindfulness of vedana – the ‘felt sense’ of whether our experience feels pleasant or unpleasant or neutral. Then we start to notice how these basic, rudimentary feelings (vedana) are the ground out of which we develop our emotions; so chapter four is about being mindful of our thoughts and emotions. Through this, we can begin to be aware of what is in our best interests and cultivate helpful, positivethoughts and emotions by being mindful of the teachings (chapter five). Then we move to mindfulness of nature and art (chapter six), and mindfulness of other people (chapter seven) and then finally mindfulness of reality (chapter eight). So the course is intended to be a systematic introduction to mindfulness in all its aspects.
In your book, you talk about the importance of the imagination in Buddhist practice. Some people may see a conflict between mindfulness and imagination, which could be understood as the projection of some kind of fantasy onto reality. Can you explain how we can both be imaginative and live our lives with full attention?
Mindfulness and the imagination are difficult concepts to talk about. Definitions are limiting – we only really understand what mindfulness is when we practise it. But mindfulness isn’t a cold analytical looking at things, it is a deep appreciation of things. This is why I talk about mindfulness of works of art in the book, because I really feel that novels, poems, paintings and so on can be important ways of deepening our awareness. In this sense, then, mindfulness and imagination can be seen as two different words for the same deep, human experience.
We listen deeply to a piece of music, for example, and we become lost in it – in a sense we become it (as T. S. Elliot has said, ‘You are the music while the music lasts’). And that’s really what mindfulness is. In everyday life we’re trying to pay attention to our experience in the same way that we pay attention to a piece of music. We’re trying to stay with life emotionally, not just notice it from the outside but be aware of it so deeply that we become it.
So you could say that imagination is a word for what happens when your capacity to become aware is deepened to such a degree that the sense of your self as being separate from what you’re aware of disappears. The poet Coleridge contrasts Imagination with ‘Fancy’. Fancy is just the same old things of ordinary experience – the same aspects of your everyday life – gathered together in unusual or arbitrary combinations to make them appear striking or novel. So a poem might be about a zebra, underarm deodorant, a sunbeam and an orange, for example, and this is all very entertaining, but nothing really changes, nothing genuinely new comes into being. Genuine imagination takes you beyond yourself (even if only a little). It takes you away from who you think you are into a whole new world.
You also talk about the importance of faith, but you explain that when you teach, you find that it is the quality that most people lack. How would you introduce it those who are sceptical?
Yes, most people in the West lack faith – Westerners can be very intelligent, very resourceful, but quite often we’re also sceptical, closed, perhaps even cynical. Many of us have lost any sense of there being something other than ourselves, something more than mere egocentricity. We lack imaginative depth and richness. So, in a way, faith strikes me is the most important thing to teach, but also the most difficult, because it is something that we each have to discover for ourselves.
However, I do feel that imagination is the primary faculty through which we discover faith, because it allows us to open ourselves up to dimensions of experience quite other than our usual everyday awareness and ascend to new levels of being and consciousness. I think that this symbolic, mystical side of life is inherent to reality itself, so to be closed to it is to be closed to life in many ways.
Although it’s meant to be the season to be jolly, a lot of people find themselves feeling stressed or depressed over Christmas and New Year. How would you suggest we tackle our winter blues?
I’d say that the first thing is to take responsibility for how you’re feeling – to really feel what you’re feeling, because there’s no point in lying to yourself and pretending to experience things that you’re not. This doesn’t mean dwelling on your thoughts and emotions or necessarily acting on them, it just means kindly and carefully watching where your mind is going until you have the space to remind yourself that you can choose how to respond to every situation. It’s not always easy, but we can choose, each moment, either to be irritable and angry, or to be patient and generous. Perhaps the best response to difficulty is to be generous, in fact, because we can always change a situation if we can give to it.
In the book, you talk about the importance of setting up healthy habits. What are your thoughts on New Year’s resolutions? I find it difficult to bring to mind a New Year’s resolution that I have really kept - do you have any advice on how we can set ourselves up for success instead of failure?
If I’m honest, I do feel a bit dubious about New Year’s resolutions because it seems that we often just set ourselves up to fail. Especially if we are attempting to change deeply entrenched habits, the resolution in itself will be not enough, and I think that if we’re just going to keep setting ourselves up for failure it would probably be best not to make a New Year’s resolution at all.
This is not to say that we shouldn’t try and change, or even make resolutions to change, but they need to be very practical and realistic changes, backed up by smaller changes in our life patterns which support our new resolution. If you want to go swimming every week, for example, don’t try to do it by sheer willpower – buy a pair of goggles and a new swimsuit to commit you to your intention, and get a friend to come with you every week. A resolution shouldn’t really be a private matter – if you have the support of others, you will be much more likely to succeed.
Lastly, I have heard that you are in the process of writing another book. Could you give us a quick preview of what we can expect?
Yes, my next project is another eight-week coursebook exploring the five stages of spiritual life as discussed by Sangharakshita. It will begin with two weeks on developing Integration – especially through body awareness and mindfulness – two weeks on Positive Emotion, or Helpful Action, then weeks on Spiritual Death, Spiritual Rebirth and Spontaneous Compassionate Activity. So the coursebook will introduce people to a whole vision of spiritual life, starting from where you are – becoming a healthier happier person – all the way to complete Enlightenment (at least in theory!). I’m hoping that by reading the book, people will have a real sense of what Buddhism is in practice and a direct sense of whether or not they want to commit themselves to it.
“To live the Buddhist life, to become like the Buddha, we must imagine the Buddha”
Unless we can truly imagine the Buddha in our own minds, we cannot go for refuge to him. So what does the Buddha look like to you? How can we bring the image of the Buddha alive in the modern world?
For the first half of this year, we’re going to explore the themes of the Buddha and the imagination in preparation for the Triratna International Retreat in June, which also has as its theme ‘Imagining the Buddha’. We will be discussing these topics in relation to a number of our books, and asking our authors for their insights and views. We would be very interested to hear your thoughts too, so please offer your own opinions and feedback.
Later in the year, we will branch our exploration out to include the Dharma and the Sangha, and think about how we can begin to fulfill the task given to us by Sangharakshita:
“Our task is to create together a new imaginative culture by taking our imaginations seriously and working to unfold them more and more fully… We will discover creative depths within our own culture from which new works will arise expressive of the Dharma’s timeless spirit. And we will find the Buddha, appearing to us in a form that is deeply familiar yet resonant of an infinite mystery that one day we may understand”.
- Sangharakshita, ‘Re-Imagining the Buddha’, November 2010
You can read the rest of Sangharakshita’s article on the Buddha and the Imagination here: http://www.sangharakshita.org/pdfs/imagining-the-buddha.pdf
Or engage with his thoughts in greater depth by reading one of his books, available on our website: http://www.windhorsepublications.com/