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.