How would you introduce your two books in just a few words?
They’re about our deep potential as human beings. They describe a number of different Buddhas and Bodhisattvas that have been meditated on in the Buddhist tradition over hundreds and hundreds of years. But all these figures are just mirrors showing us what we can become as human beings, and they take many different forms because we have an incredible potential – for freedom, wisdom, compassion, and many other qualities.
Many people in the West are attracted to Buddhism precisely because it seems to be empty of the God (or gods) we have ceased to believe in. At first glance, the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas described in your books may appear quite God-like. Are they?
I don’t think of them in that way at all. I was brought up a Catholic and in my teens I decided I didn’t believe that there was a creator God or anything like that. I came into contact with Buddhism which struck me as being very rational and undogmatic, and this was a really refreshing and exciting discovery. But I had felt a kind of power in the symbols and rituals of Catholicism, so as my understanding of Buddhism deepened it was a revelation to find that you can engage with symbols, visualization and ritual, but all at the service of seeing things as they really are. You can bring together your head and your heart – more than your head and your heart – your guts, everything! Everything can be put into the Buddhist path. This really inspired me.
But there’s no idea of a creator God in Buddhism at all. In a certain sense, we create the world out of our own minds – at least our state of mind determines our experience of the world – so these figures are all about the different creative ways we can use our own minds. Some of these Buddhas and Bodhisattvas can look quite strange when you first come across them, so the question you always have to ask yourself is ‘What state of mind would I be in if I looked like that?’ The Bodhisattva of compassion is sometimes represented with a thousand arms, for example, and if you take that literally, as some kind of physical state, it’s just strange. But if you think, ‘OK, if that represents a mental state, why would I want to have a thousand arms?’ ‘Well I’d want a thousand arms to reach out in a thousand directions to help a thousand suffering beings!’
So to what extent is what we imagine real?
The first difficulty is what we mean by imagination, and the second is what we mean by real! But, if we keep things simple and take the question at face value, imagination is certainly decisive in all our experience. Everything that we do in life begins with imagining – all the terrible things that happen in the world and all the positive things that happen in the world originate in someone’s imagination. (Hitler imagined taking over Poland, for example, or an individual may imagine a charity that can work in many different countries.) Things usually start on a mental level and then trickle down into the area of physical action. From the Buddhist point of view, even just wishing someone well or wishing someone harm is already an action that will have real, karmic consequences. So imagination is very real in this kind of way – I would say that it is much more real than we tend to think.
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 – we can develop our imaginations, and this will have more and more of an impact on our lives.
Many people are also attracted to Buddhism because its core teachings appeal to our basic common sense, yet the content of your books demands that we take great leaps with our imagination. How would you convince those who are sceptical of the importance and efficacy of visualization practices?
We use the term ‘basic common sense’ and if you think about what we actually mean by it, most of that relies on imagination. It’s basic common sense that I don’t put my hand over an open flame, for example, and why don’t I do that? Because I can imagine very well what’s going to happen if I do! So much of what we think of as practical, down-to-earth ‘common sense’ is actually highly imaginative.
In meditation we begin to see more and more that we overlay a whole lot of interpretation on to our basic sense data in order to be able to interact with the world, and all this, you can say, is imagination. Imagination is not a kind of fantasy add-on that we can use as a kind of home entertainment system when we need one, it’s actually fundamental to who we are as human beings, and there’s no great leap between day-to-day imagination and the imagination we use in visualization practices.
So what is the use of visualizing Buddhas and Bodhisattvas? I think they can be helpful in two main ways. Firstly, if we’re going to transform ourselves by following the Buddhist path, we need to make the goal as real for ourselves as possible – the more tangible the goal, the more it will draw us towards it emotionally. We can talk about the goal of the spiritual life as ‘freedom’, ‘wisdom’, ‘compassion’ and ‘serenity’ but these are just words, they don’t really move us very much. It is when we can actually see what it’s like to be transformed, that we are moved to transform ourselves. If you have been fortunate enough to have met a realized person, for example, then you will know that what’s special about coming into contact with them isn’t just listening to the teachings they give but also witnessing how they live and act – how kind and open and free and relaxed they are.
Unfortunately we don’t meet realized people every day, but because we have this amazing faculty called the imagination, we can conjure up for ourselves what it would be like to be free, compassionate, wise and so on. So, in a way, the practices are just doing what a top athlete will do before a race: athletes will visualize their goal, picture the way they want to run and the pace they want to run at as if they’re telling their body, ‘Right OK, what we want to do is this’. In the same way, through Buddhist visualization practices we are living out what it would be like to be enlightened.
I think the other main use of visualization practices is that they help us see clearly how things are in reality. In order to function in everyday life, we see things in terms of fixed objects that are all nice and solid and steady. Actually, they’re impermanent, but because we don’t know this we get taken by surprise and turned upside-down when something that we relied on suddenly isn’t there any more.
Similarly, in our everyday lives, we can often feel separate from the external world and other people, and because of this we experience a sense of isolation. Again, this isn’t how things are at all – really, we are connected with everyone and everything else. It can be very hard to see this, but through meditation it is possible to dramatically enact the true nature of things in a way that makes you see them more clearly. This is the real value of visualization practices – they give you clues and they poke your intuition as if to say: ‘Look, this is how things really are!’
So in a traditional practice you might see a Buddha appear, but because they’re made of light and they dissolve back into the openness of the blue sky at the end of the practice, it’s clear that they’re not permanent or stable. And after visualizing this day after day, the meditation starts to transform your experience of the everyday world – your understanding of it, your expectations of it, and the way you interact with it all start to change. You begin to think and act more in accordance with the way things are and because you’re no longer trying to wring things out of the world that the world won’t ever give you, you become much happier.
Visualization practices also help to dissolve the distinctions between ‘me’ / ‘you’ – ‘subject’ / ‘object’ which contribute so much to our sense of isolation. 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 you start to experience yourself 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.
In your books, you introduce a number of different Buddhas and Bodhisattvas and the gifts they present to us. Is there one Buddha or Bodhisattva in particular that you think could speak to us most directly today? Which of their gifts do we most urgently need?
It’s hard to pick just one, because I could make a case for them all – I could go round the mandala of the five Buddhas which each connect to one of the five main mental poisons that we suffer from. Akshobhya, for example, is connected with transforming hatred and aggression and I read somewhere that in the last century it’s estimated that human beings killed over a hundred million human beings, so I feel that I can’t really leave Akshobhya out. But perhaps I’ll pick Green Tara for one, because she represents empathy, compassion and love. She’s also connected with nature and fearlessness and since we’re compromising the natural world so much and so fast, I think that we will have to take a lot of fearless action if we are to avoid making a total mess of the planet.
Then I think I’d take Ratnasambhava who is the yellow Buddha associated with the south, and his wisdom is the wisdom of equality. You can understand this on different levels, but on one level it’s about recognizing the preciousness of all life – valuing all beings just because they are beings. I think, on a certain level, this is what is often missing in society at the moment – it certainly seems that both politically and economically inequality is becoming greater and greater.
Then, of course, and especially in the West, we have this increasing feeling of isolation – we’re withdrawing more and more into isolated units and there’s something really sad about that, because as human beings we’re social animals, in fact deep down we’re loving animals, and we need this sense of connectedness, this sharing and valuing of all forms of life.
Ratnasambhava also represents a sense of richness, which is the opposite of a poverty mentality – the kind of richness you feel irrespective of how much money you’ve got in your bank account, or whether you’ve even got a bank account! It seems that the world is going into a phase where there will be a sense of lack – of resources, money, water, land and so on. So if we’re going to find solutions to these problems, we’re going to need a sense of inner riches.
You mention in your book that within the Triratna community visualization practices are usually only given to people who are definitely committed to the Buddhist path. So are your books aimed exclusively at experienced Buddhist practitioners, or would you also recommend them to newcomers to Buddhism?
I tried to write the books in such a way that they could speak to a lot of different kinds of people, and going on the feedback I’ve received from readers, people have used them in many different ways. If you’re already meditating on these Buddhas and Bodhisattvas you can certainly use the books as sources of support and inspiration, but equally I think the books can be a useful introduction to Buddhism as they can give you a sense of what it would be like to follow the spiritual path and connect with the qualities of enlightenment. I tried to write the books in such a way that I was not just giving people information about the figures but really communicating what it is like to meditate on them.
Lastly, can we really become a Buddha or a Bodhisattva, or do they just represent dramatized versions of some more mundane qualities that we can develop?
Well Shakyamuni the historical Buddha became a Buddha didn’t he? And certainly at the beginning of his spiritual path there was nothing superhuman about him; he was just an ordinary human being who worked gradually to transform himself. And any of us – any man or woman – has that same potential. Likewise, any of us can follow the Bodhisattva path if we really set our hearts on it. So the basic answer is yes, we’ve all got an incredible potential and most of the time we don’t even really know it’s there, let alone tap into it. That really is the human tragedy.
Vessantara is a senior member of the Triratna Order. Born in London in 1950, he became interested in Buddhism in his teens. After gaining an MA in English at Cambridge University, he was ordained in 1974 and given the name Vessantara, which means ‘universe within’. Since then he has devoted himself to the development of Buddhism in the West. He has written several other books, including A Guide to the Deities of the Tantra, The Vajra and Bell and Female Deities in Buddhism, and is a popular teacher in the Triratna community, focusing particularly on meditation. He recently returned from a 3-year meditation retreat in France, and has started setting up a new programme of workshops and retreats. To find out more, visit his website www.vessantara.net