Visualisation and Insight                                      Kamalashila


At the very apex of his being man is possessed by a transcendental element of which he is normally unconscious

Sangharakshita in The FWBO and ‘Protestant Buddhism’, p.34 [paraphrase]



On a solitary retreat I did on the Lleyn Peninsular in Autumn 1994, I used to take a walk after my evening meal along a track running west that gave a magnificent view of the sea bordered by distant cliffs. This was by no means just a constitutional drill, for I always made sure I was in time to watch the sun as it set, deep and red, over the golden sea.

A cottage situated near the end of this track has a remarkable gate. It is made of wrought iron, and the size of the usual five – bar farm gate. However in place of the typical set of horizontals slashed with a diagonal, it has many bars which radiate up and outwards from a semicircular sun formed at the base. Inside this semicircle, the blacksmith has wrought curling spirals, suggesting perhaps the energy and fire inside the sun. I gathered this was a deliberate reference to the siting of this cottage. It is an ideal spot, certainly for Amitabha devotees, who on every clear evening can enjoy watching the sun slipping beneath the sea. Another gate, along the same track,  has a hole in it which causes it to sound like a flute when the wind blows over it, like an Aeolian harp.

The fact that I became aware of these two gateways, the gateway of sight and the gateway of sound, was an indication that my faculty of Imagination was beginning to open up. An enhanced imagination is afforded by sensory deprivation. I had noticed that my capacity to visualise and imagine the sensual, the beautiful and the horrid, had deepened greatly over the previous couple of days. That day, visualisation in my sadhana was noticeably more vivid, particularly Amitabha above my head.  As I began the mantra recitation and prayer to Amitabha, the colour was just as it had been in the sunset    the gold on the water and the deep ruby red of Amitabha.

relativity of reality in and out of meditation

I saw more deeply than usual that the reality one creates in visualisation has a relative reality to it in exactly the same way as everything else has. This is, I think, a vital point relating to the reflective element in the visualisation practice.

The visualised image of Avalokitesvara had become extremely vivid.  I did the ‘mirror’ visualisation    a method Bhante once suggested for self-visualisation, in which you imagine that there is a large mirror in front in which you are reflected as the Bodhisattva.  This method strongly enhances the feeling of presence: it really was as though I was Avalokitesvara and he was actually there. But the question is, what does it mean actually to be ‘there’?

What does it mean actually to be here, or ‘to be’– at all? This one could very well call the ultimate existential question, and it is implicit in all the sadhanas. What is the nature of being, the nature of existence itself? When what one is questioning is one’s being, one’s existence, this can hardly be a merely theoretical question.

I reflected on the question, ‘do I imagine this (candle) in front of me?’. In a sense I do, don’t I, since all percepts are sense based and therefore have to be imputed by the mind as real. There is no way anyone can really verify that they are not merely dreaming whatever is happening. Therefore, the image seen vividly in the imagination is no less real. In my case, I imagine looking in the glass and seeing Avalokitesvara in my place. That is really no less real than seeing myself in the way that I ‘normally’ do – since this ‘myself’ is no less of an idea. It’s an imputation, an assumption, based on sense experience, in just the same way. The only difference is that one is deliberately imagined, the other is habitually imagined. Both pertain equally to the paratantra nature. Neither are ultimately real, neither are illusory. I really do see Avalokitesvara in the mirror. I really do see a candle burning in front of me. I know that Avalokitesvara is only relatively real, but when I think carefully, I know also that the candle is only relatively real. Both exist in relationship to my own mind and conditioning, and to many other aspects of reality also.

Looking at it another way, to neither my Avalokitesvara nor my candle should I impute some kind of ultimate reality. For what could that mean, anyway? For a candle flame or anything else to be ultimately real in some sense, it would need to be permanent, and it clearly is not permanent – since it changes every instant. It would need to have some kind of essence or ‘entity-hood’, which again, and for the same reason, it clearly does not. Something that changes cannot be ultimately real. It cannot be ultimately real yet impermanent and changing, since the ‘it’ we are referring to has no substantial existence. It has nothing but a momentary, imputed, assumed, existence. Even though we experience that imputed ‘existence’ very clearly, we should be aware that we may only use that term ‘existence’ as a manner of speaking. Existence is really a mystery.

six element practice: ego identification and false perceptions

The morning after the sunset comes, of course, the sunrise. The sun sets over the sea, and rises over the Snowdon range. This morning the whole range is bathed in subtle dawn colours, and amidst the violet clouds and cream coloured sky streaked with pink and orange, I watch the aeroplanes coming over from America. In twenty minutes or so, I count ten planes arrive from the west, one after the other.  Perhaps two thousand people, or more, are passing before my eyes.

This sunrise over Snowdon is as magnificent as last night’s sunset over the sea, though the colours are more subtle. Before my eyes the changes are happening, the sky is changing, there is an aeroplane trail here, a new cloud formation there. But I notice that I very rarely actually see these changes as they happen, and I’m not really sure that I ever see changes as they actually happen. I see changes when I look away, then look again, or rather when my mind adverts to something else, then looks back. So is it the object or the subject which changes? My mind decides that this is what I am seeing, my mind habitually fixes my perception. In order to see something new, a tiny effort of will is required. I do not notice, or I block out, the continual changes in things. In any case, there is something rather mysterious in the whole notion of ‘seeing something when it happens’. Who sees what? What is this ‘I’ that sees, and the phenomena that I see? And what does ‘when’ really mean? The notion of time is highly problematic.

In the six element practice, which we do as a preliminary to sadhana meditation, we explore the notions of mind and matter. We ask, what is consciousness? Consciousness is not some ‘thing’ that can be possessed. It is non-possessible; it is an experience that we do not understand. Yet it is there, we undoubtedly experience consciousness.

Sometimes we have the idea that the six element practice is ‘nihilistic’ and that is the reason why in the sixth stage, for example, we speak in terms of ‘unlimited consciousness’, as Bhante sometimes has done. But that is not done to counteract something inherently nihilistic in the practice.  It is not as though we are being asked to dissolve our consciousness in the sixth stage.  We simply see its nature more clearly.  We remember that consciousness is not ours, that we don’t own it.  We may recollect that at death we shall have to let it go, but we also need to abandon assumptions regarding what that might mean. The object of the ‘letting go’ of the elements is to experience consciousness (and the other five elements) as they really are – without the extraneous ‘thought coverings’ of self and ownership. Consciousness and matter are a complete mystery, yet they are palpably there, whatever their ultimate nature might turn out to be. As the Avalokitesvara sadhana says, mind is free...

Yet clear images cease not; all constructs stilled;

The still  mind-essence, great without bounds, is this.

These elements of matter and mind we thus ‘let go’, while continuing to experience them. It is a very important point.  Our difficulty with letting go is that we identify with the body, with solids and liquids and warmth and space. It sounds shallow to say, ‘why identify, just let go, it is only something temporary, changing all the time’. We know it is not merely a matter of thinking that, we know some deeper kind of change is required.

I wonder if the idea of spiritual hierarchy can help. We can try to see ourselves in the much longer term, in terms of the Bodhisattva Ideal, in terms of what we are aiming at in this life and future lives. If we look at ourselves, in the midst of the mass of humanity, striving to develop for the sake of the world, without naivety, with eyes wide open – seeing ourselves in this way, isn’t it easier to let go ownership of one’s temporary self, even ownership of one’s own mind and body? To describe ourselves in these terms, and in the light of the Bodhisattva Ideal, we are just a moment, just a temporary blip leading to other moments and other blips. At any particular moment, we are just as it were a single point on the scale of spiritual hierarchy. From this perspective it is much clearer that identification with a particular body and a particular set of mental conditionings is bound to delude us. We should just experience what we experience and enjoy the mystery and its beauty. Beauty arises when we suspend our limited judgement, suspend our limited expectations, suspend our assumptions of ownership.

the beautiful

There is according to the Buddha, a release, a vimokkha, called the Beautiful, to which Bhante refers in the 3 Jewels [note 17]. The Buddha rejects the assertion that he teaches that on experiencing this Release, one realises that everything is ugly. The Buddha insists not that all is ugly but that on reaching the Release called the Beautiful, one knows what Beauty really is.

For a while, I imagined that this Release called the Beautiful would be a state actually defined in the tradition – perhaps as part of a set of greater and greater liberations. But apparently the Release called the Beautiful is not part of any such set. It is used somewhat indiscriminately, using that term in a positive sense. ‘The Beautiful’ cannot be tied down: it is a symbol    indefinable, and highly accessible to positive projection. If one tries to imagine ‘the Beautiful’ as one meditates, or indeed as one does anything, one may be at once drawn into a higher, more beautiful, state of consciousness. One can decide to do something in a beautiful manner, or live in accordance with ‘the Beautiful’. In The Religion of Art Bhante says that

Religion... is essentially a life of egolessness; and egolessness... is fundamentally a willingness to accept new experiences. The Religion of Art may therefore be defined as conscious surrender to the Beautiful... as a means of breaking up established egocentric patterns of behaviour and protracting one’s experience along the line of egolessness into the starry depths of Reality. It will be noted that we speak not merely of experiences but of new experiences, for only a new experience is capable of making a breach in that thick wall of selfhood with which most of us are surrounded. By `new’ we do not mean, however, the relative newness of, for instance, a young man’s first experience of love, which is new only to him, but of what is, within the limits of average human experience, the absolute newness of a symphony of Beethoven or a sonnet by Keats.

According to some ancient Indian poets the essential quality of Beauty is that it remains from moment to moment ever new (tadeva rupam ramanyatayah ksane ksane yanavatam vidhatte). Since every new experience compels a fresh modification of character it might be possible to describe Beauty not only as that which is always new, but also as that which, far from allowing us the luxury of remaining satisfied with ourselves as we are, demands from moment to moment a fresh transformation of our lives.

Newness, in this sense, seems to exist a little out of time, or just before the sense of time comes into being.

From the Beautiful, which we can connect with the visualised image of the Bodhisattva, we may easily turn to another vipassana theme that is woven into our sadhana practices. That is the theme of rupa and sunyata.

rupa and sunyata

Throughout our sadhana practice we can reflect on rupa and sunyata, form and emptiness: all forms are essentially empty. And emptiness itself is a form – that is, it’s an idea for us, like our idea of pratityasamutpada. Our idea of emptiness is a form, it’s a model that we superimpose on to Reality to help clarify what it is. Rupa    in the formulation of the skandhas, which is what the Heart Sutra is quoting    means form in the sense of ‘body’.  Rupa is, according to the Three Jewels:

the forces of cohesion, undulation, radiation and vibration, plus secondary qualities that may be said to comprise on the whole ‘the objective constituents of perceptual situations (colours, sounds etc.).

[quoting Jewel Ornament of Liberation. Translated by Herbert V. Guenther (London 1959), p. 34.]

For the sake of reflecting on rupa and sunyata, however, we need to extend the notion of rupa to include all forms whatever, including the variety of forms taken by mental events – for clearly they do have forms. Anger has a different form as compared with envy. Thoughts or feelings are forms in the very basic sense that they are existents. Anything that can be said to exist has some kind of form, except space itself. Even the objects of the formless dhyanas can be said to possess subtle form inasmuch as colour is perceivable. Colour is a kind of form even though it may not, in the arupaloka, possess shape.

Extending our definition of rupa to include all possible forms makes the contemplation of rupa and sunyata more straightforward. It makes it easier for us to contemplate the nature of emptiness as a universal characteristic. Of course the Heart Sutra, the classic source of the reflection on form and emptiness, goes on to include the other four skandhas – feeling, recognition, consciousness, volition, yet each of these may be regarded as having a certain distinct form. A volition certainly has a particular form    it’s not a physical one, but it is a form nonetheless.

existence and non-existence

Right where I was sitting, in the pasture by the old wall below the caravan, there was a odd shaped lump in the grass which I used to fiddle with as I thought and looked at the landscape. After a while I started digging something out, something that was embedded there, something that had begun to rot away and return to earth from whence it came. There were a few pieces of ancient ironwork left over from an earlier farming technology. After a while I found myself digging out the remains of a huge old cart – wheel. As is the case with some schizophrenics, on solitary retreat everything tends to become symbolic, everything has a meaning. The old wheel seemed tremendously significant. As a Wheel it was a symbol of the Path; and also as a cart – wheel, as a disembodied portion of a cart, it was a symbol of non-selfhood .

In what sense do I exist? Where am I situated? Am I in my body? Am I in the head or in the heart? In what sense can that have meaning? It is interesting just to roam along, walking and drawing that mystery to mind. It isn’t possible to describe one’s existence in space, or one’s relationship with space in any satisfactory way, because both one’s self and space are both totally mysterious. You have to define both of them, and both elude description. Selfhood, particularly, eludes description. The space element is not mine..., space is not me..., I am not space..., space is not in ‘me’..., ‘I’ am not in space. 

Can I say I exist? Of course I must, but in what sense, in what way? It isn’t that I could be satisfied with a mere explanation in words. I want to understand the matter. Existence is indescribable. It cannot adequately be justified in a description. So in the sense that nothing does, I do not exist. According to one Order member I know, this way lies madness. True, to assert that things do not exist at all would be a one – sided and false view. Yet all that ‘exists’ is contingent, is dependent on other things, and therefore cannot ever be fully ‘existent’. Nothing is independent. ‘I’, too, am contingent, therefore I share that mere relative reality.

But what practical relevance can this kind of pondering have on actually living the spiritual life? What effect can seeing this relativity of existence have on Bodhicitta, on developing the will to Enlightenment for all?

non-selfhood and unselfishness

Seeing the play of dharmas; perhaps, through letting go ownership of the six elements, experiencing what the Avalokitesvara sadhana calls the ‘pure play of jnana’, and all such experiences – do they actually help one become more compassionate and generous? I believe that is the net result, but I think I need to articulate more clearly how that is the case.

What is the link, if there is one, between realising sunyata and the arising of the Bodhicitta? Perhaps it is that taking that very long term, broad perspective on one’s life, and future lives too, and thereby realising ‘I do not exist’ in any permanent sense,  means that I will not even feel like valuing my own existence over that of another. In this way, seeing one’s conditioned nature makes easier the responsibility inherent in the Bodhisattva Ideal. In the end, realising the universal nature of sunyata is itself the factor that makes the Bodhisattva Ideal sustainable.

Looking at this from a less abstract point of view, unless I actually feel the importance of another’s existence, sooner or later I will abandon them in my own favour. I will let them down. That is what will always happen when I value my own existence over all others. This is the normal state of affairs, and everyone is doing this all the time, and everyone is suffering because of it. Their suffering is caused by their failure to see that this is why they suffer, and so unless my long term aim in helping others is to help them see this, I will be wasting everyone’s time. It is precisely the tendency to value their own existence over that of others that causes beings to suffer. Craving arises when we fail to see that we do not permanently exist. We who imagine we exist in some permanent sense necessarily assume that, as that particular kind of existent, we are important in some permanent sense.

There is an equivalence, then, between the realisation of non-selfhood and unselfish action. To the extent that one has realised non-selfhood , one will be unselfish. This I interesting because it means that those who are unselfish have, at least to some extent, realised non-selfhood. Which means that many non-Buddhists have realised non-selfhood  too. Perhaps somewhere in the hierarchy of potential spiritual development there are degrees of unselfishness that only Buddhists have access too. Or on a more familiar level there are many who know nothing of the doctrine of non-selfhood  but who are unselfish to a remarkable degree. Thus they, too, have realised non-selfhood  to some extent. This is not the place to explore this, but to me this fact shines an interesting light on the nature of non-selfhood  and attachment to self. .

spiritual hierarchy and sunyata

I have mentioned the topic of spiritual hierarchy, saying that what I call ‘me’ is no more – and no less – than a temporary point on a scale of spiritual hierarchy, that this is so for all beings, and that the most useful thing that I and all beings can contribute is development on that scale, as an example and model. This is the Bodhisattva Ideal seen in terms of spiritual hierarchy. The present moment is one of momentary experience of self: it’s a self – experience at a particular moment, under the influence of a particular configuration of skandhas, etc. We could call it a ‘blip’. As well as each of us being ‘blips’, each ‘blip-person’ contains within himself  a particular past which has to do with all the events with which that particular impermanent blip has associated. Now this is worth pondering, this business of blips having history.

Remember that in actual fact I am not a blip – remember it’s is a construction, a way of explaining a particular form, a form that is essentially mysterious and empty. In reality there is nothing that can be pointed to. The ‘blip’ is the imputation, or projection, at a particular moment, of a ‘person’ or ‘self’ on to an experience of the five skandhas. So in what sense can this momentary constellation of skandhas be said to have a history? What, exactly, has the history? This is like the question, ‘what is reborn?’ There is essentially no thing that can be said to have a history. Yet specific events have occurred in a particular sequence, there’s no getting away from that, apparently. Whose is the life story?

The blue sky at the beginning of our sadhanas may be said to represent our ordinary sense – based world being resolved, through reflection on its relative reality, into sunyata. Rupa is seen in its sunya nature. Then sunyata is visualised as taking a specific form, that of a Bodhisattva or Buddha. A form representing something higher, or someone higher in the spiritual hierarchy. Sunyata represents the pudgala-nairatmya, the non-selfhood  of beings, as well as the dharma-nairatmya, the essencelessness of all things. It seems to me that the notion of spiritual hierarchy offers a useful way to understanding pudgala-nairatmya, since spiritual hierarchy demonstrates the universal possibility of spiritual development.

nature of consciousness

Just to conclude: in the Avalokitesvara meditation there is a section where one reflects on Amitabha’s instruction on the nature of mind, and then ‘just sits’ in a state of non-discursive receptivity. There are some very interesting things here regarding the nature of the visualised image. Amitabha says:

‘Mind’s essence scan: in colour-shape [i.e. rupa] it’s not; it’s not, and so of one or more it’s Void. Through voidness, from birth, cease and stay it’s free; free, though clear images cease not. All constructs stilled; the still mind – essence, great without bounds, is this’

What is the mind? What is the essential part of the mind? Does mind have an essence? What is its ontological status? In what manner does the mind exist? Something is perceiving something – there is a kind of experience that we call ‘mind’, but it is another mystery. For mind cannot be said to come into or go out of existence. Nor even is it a continuity.  Yet – and this is the interesting thing from the point of view of visualisation meditation – at the same time as its nature is a total mystery, ‘clear images cease not’. In other words, objects of mind manifest despite the fact that in reality there is no such ‘thing’ as mind. There are just forms, which are empty. Of these mysteries there’s no resolution, I believe, outside Amitabha’s compassion – which is another mystery. For the time being I must leave it there; I must leave these ideas, which I confess are still somewhat undigested, yet I hope not completely indigestible.  I shall leave them in somewhere amongst the sunsets that I watched that autumn.