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17 million words and counting!
Eric, FBA Team
Ratnachuda, South London, UK
Nagabodhi, London, UK
Padmavajri, East Sussex
Kalyanavaca, London, UK
Sangharakshita, Birmingham, UK
Jinamitra, Welwyn, UK
... one might say. And therefore one calls it a symbol. Perhaps one needs
to ask oneself why one attaches this particular label to certain things; what is it that makes,
say, the lotus flower a symbol? How is it that it is not just a flower in the botanical sense?
What makes it a symbol? What extra quality does it have? How  does it become a
symbol? Clearly, it isn't a symbol in nature, as it were well, in a sense it isn't. But, again, is
it that, in a purely subjective, projective sort of way, one invests the innocent lotus with all
sorts of qualities which it does not actually possess. Is it that, or is it something more than
that, or at least other than that? (Pause). So when one thinks of a lotus as a symbol,
presumably one is seeing the lotus as sort of illumined by some other, perhaps higher,
dimension of reality; it stands for something which is not otherwise apprehended. To go
back to The Perfection of Wisdom, you don't really experience the sunyata except through
rupa. It is not that you experience rupa and rupa guides you to sunyata and leaves you there,
and you then dispense with rupa and have just sunyata. It isn't really like that, is it? So, in
that sense, anything can be a symbol in the sense that anything of the material world can as it
were be invested with those qualities, or seen as possessing those qualities, which make it a
symbol rather than just a fact. o a symbol is an object which is somehow seen or felt or
experienced as possessing some sort of heightened significance, though what it is you find
difficult to reduce to concepts or to words in the conceptual sense.
Abhaya: So, Bhante, does this mean that it is the subjective, so to speak, element that you
project on to what is normally only an ordinary thing? It is the individual conscious operating
on that object that makes it a symbol?
S: Well, no, I have said that it can't really in a sense be reduced to that, because I mentioned
the possibility not just of investing with qualities but seeing qualities that are there. One has
to ask oneself, I have suggested, what one is actually doing: is one simply investing the
innocent lotus with qualities that it doesn't actually have, which are merely projected on to it,
or whether actually you are seeing something which is there but which you don't usually see?
If you see rupa as sunyata, are you as it were projecting sunyata on to the rupa, or are you
seeing the rupa rather as it really is?
Kulananda: Are you saying that there is a state of mind in which all experience is symbolic
experience, and that seeing all experience as symbolic is more real?
S: One could certainly put it in that way, yes. I use the expression 'heightened significance'.
If you see things as possessing a heightened significance, a significance which is difficult if
not impossible to reduce to conceptual terms, then you are as it were seeing things
symbolically. When I say a symbol is not a sign, I mean it is not that you have got this
particular material thing and it sort of matches that particular nonmaterial thing, and sort of
guides you to it. Correspondence doesn't mean quite that. It is not that, say, the lotus flower
symbolises something which is actually quite other than a lotus flower and could have been
symbolised by something quite different; it is rather that what the lotus flower symbolises, or
what we speak of as being symbolised by the lotus flower, is in fact a deeper dimension, so to
speak, of the lotus flower itself; so that when you see the lotus as a symbol, you are just
seeing the lotus in a deeper and truer way. But, as I said, perhaps one should just ask oneself
what happens when, for you, something is a symbol? One uses that sort of language, so what
is a symbol, or what is it that makes something a symbol for one? Perhaps one needs to
examine one's actual experience, because I gave the example of the lotus; well, everyone
would agree that a lotus is symbolical of something or other, but do they actually experience
it in that way? When does one experience something as a symbol? So  one has to
distinguish, perhaps, between what one personally experiences as a symbol or in a symbolical
manner, and what one recognises as conventionally regarded as a symbol. A symbol is not a
sort of inadequate copy of something existing quite separately on some higher plane.
Sometimes it is thought of like that, but I think that isn't really the case. That comes close to
making the symbol just a sign. Perhaps one should pursue this analogy of a symbol and what
it symbolises, and rupa and sunyata. Does that help at all?
: Could you say a bit more about that, please, Bhante?
S: Oh dear. I think it really needs reflecting on. Maybe I have said enough, if not too much.
Because it is a question of so to speak contacting one's own feeling, as we say, about
whatever it is that you speak of as a symbol; otherwise 'symbol' itself becomes just a concept,
doesn't it? 'Oh, that's a symbol. Oh yes, we know all about that, it symbolises suchandsuch.'
But you are not really treating, in that case, it would seem, a symbol as a symbol. It has
become, maybe not a concept, but a sort of counter which you just manipulate.
Kulananda: Is it not possible to understand things as being symbolic without seeing them as
being significant? In other words, when I use a word to .... a chair, I understand that I am
making a symbolic statement at a certain level because there is nothing really there. This is
not to say that the chair is in any way significant, which would seem to contradict the idea of
seeing the lotus as a symbol. In a way, one can see material objects as symbols for ....
S: Well, it raises the question of what you mean by 'significant'. When one says that a
symbol is significant or conveys significance, one means that there is something there other
than the form or the colour or sound which is communicated through that form, that colour,
but which at the same time seems inseparable from that form and that colour. So one also
therefore speaks of that object as being symbolical.
Kulananda: Then what does one mean by saying that one approaches sunyata via rupa, if one
is not talking about highly significant symbolic events?
S: Well, when one speaks of rupa and sunyata, obviously from the Perfection of Wisdom
point of view you are speaking of them as nondifferent, so you can't get at sunyata apart from
rupa. I say that, rather than that you can't get at rupa apart from sunyata because we start from
rupa, or what we think of as rupa, so therefore for us the question is to get from rupa to
sunyata not that they are two things, but that sunyata is the sort of deeper dimension of rupa.
So we are in contact with rupa, though what we are in contact with isn't really rupa! if you
see what I mean so we have to get from rupa to sunyata, not the other way around.
Kulananda: So are you saying that, in terms of the experience of sunyata, all events are
S: Oh, yes, indeed. Oh yes; if one could but see it. Because inasmuch as all rupas are
sunyata, whenever you are in contact with rupa you are in contact with sunyata, and therefore,
yes, everything that happens, everything you see whether it is a tree or the sky or the clouds
are symbolical, one might say. But it is  not that 'This means this, and that means that,' and
not that you can sort of make a list and check off one against its opposite number, but that
everything is imbued with significance.
Kulananda: Is everything imbued with significance of the same order, or are there different
degrees of significance from that point of view?
S: Well, ultimately, no difference of degree. But you may well, of course, experience, in a
sense, things as having different degrees of significance or different degrees of intensity of
significance, the significance being ultimately, in that case, one and the same significance.
Some things it is easier to see as significant than others, for various subjective reasons you
know, it is perhaps more easy to see a beautiful sunset as significant than an ash heap.
Kulananda: This would seem to tie in with what you have been saying about personal myth
in the past.
S: Maybe, yes. But I think that when one deals with these 'Creative Symbols of the Tantric
Path to Enlightenment', one has to be careful that one doesn't think, 'Here are the symbols,
we've got the Wheel of Life, we've got the lotus and all the rest', [and] just really approach
these socalled symbols in a purely mental, even intellectual way. Do you see what I am
getting at? Maybe they are not as yet symbols for you at all.
Dharmapriya: I have noticed often, when you talk about the symbols in lectures, for example
in the 'White Lotus' series as well, you make the point that one cannot explain a symbol, and
then you go on, as it were, to give yes, I would tend to say a meaning, to the symbol; which I
personally find very useful, because when I look at the object again for example, the Tibetan
Wheel of Life I actually experience, feel, a little bit more of it, as if I had been brought a little
bit closer, something has been cleared. For example, when you talk of the significance of
what is in the hand of Avalokiteshvara in each of the Six Realms, it strikes me through this
and other experiences that an intellectual elucidation of a symbol does help one to experience