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Archetypal Symbolism in the Biography of the Buddha

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by Sangharakshita

Aspects of Buddhist Psychology

Tape 43: Archetypal Symbolism in the Biography of the Buddha Mr Chairman and Friends: Tonight we come to what may be described as a turning point. As you've already heard, this is the fourth lecture in our present course, and as we are to have eight meetings, including seven lectures, this means that really, tonight we are half way through the whole series. But when I say that we are come to a turning point, I don't mean just numerically, in the sense that today we come to the middle lecture in the whole series: we come this evening to a turning point in another sense also.

Let me first of all just recall our progress in this series so far. In the first lecture, we studied just a few aspects, just even a few corners of a very vast subject, and we tried to look into the Analytical Psychology of the Abhidharma, the Higher Doctrine or the Higher Teaching. In the course of the second lecture, we studied the Psychology of Spiritual Development. And last week, in the third lecture, we tried to go a little into the Depth Psychology of the Yogacara.

In the course of these three lectures, we saw, throughout, an increasing preoccupation with the spiritual life.

Even though in a sense ostensibly we were concerned with psychology, with aspects of Buddhist psychology, we saw that for Buddhism, for the Buddhist tradition, psychology was not an autonomous subject: it was not cut off from the rest of Buddhism, as it were, not studied for its own sake, but that it was a sort of by-product of the quest for metaphysical self-knowledge, even the quest for Enlightenment.

At the same time, we couldn't help seeing, we couldn't help noticing that though in the course of these three lectures, from week to week we were increasingly preoccupied with the spiritual life, we couldn't help noticing that the approach to the subject on the part of the Abhidharma, on the part of the Yogacara and so on, was very definitely intellectual, very definitely, as it were, conceptual. Both the Abhidharma and the Yogacara aimed at the conscious mind, addressed themselves to the conscious mind. And inasmuch as they addressed themselves to the conscious mind, to the reason, to the intellect, they used the language of ideas, the language of concepts, the language of abstract thought.

But as we know, man is very much more than his conscious mind, very much more than the intellect, very much more than abstract thought. If we look below the surface, if we look below the rational, the conceptual surface, we find that underneath, there are vast, unplumbed depths. And these depths, vast and unplumbed, make up what we call the unconscious mind, or simply, the Unconscious.

And the total man, man in his entirety, man in his wholeness, in all his aspects, in all his developments, consists of both of these; not just the conscious mind, not just the rational surface - but both the conscious and the unconscious. Consciousness is as it were, just like a light froth, playing and sparkling on the surface. But the Unconscious is like the vast ocean depths, dark and unplumbed, lying far beneath.

And it is the Unconscious, the non-rational part of man, which is by far the larger part of his total nature. And the importance of this unconscious part is far greater than we generally care to recognise. So if we want to appeal to man, if we want to appeal to the whole man, man in his totality, in all his aspects, it isn't enough to appeal just to the conscious mind, the rational mind, the intelligence: that only touches the surface; that floats, as it were, upon the surface. We have to appeal also to something more; we have to speak another, an entirely different language than the language of ideas, of concepts, of abstract thought. So what is that language that we have to speak, in addition to the language of concepts, if we want to reach the total man? That extra, that additional language is, we may say, the language of images. In a sense, the language of pictures, not the language of the abstract but the language of the concrete form, the image, or, as I've said, the picture.

We have to speak, if we want to reach this non-rational part of the human psyche, we have to speak in images, we have to use the language of poetry, use the language of myth, the language of legend and so on. But this other, no less important language, is one which, we may say, many modern people have forgotten. Or if they haven't actually forgotten it, they know it not fully, not perfectly, not completely, they don't really speak it. They know it only in a few distorted and broken forms. They as it were, stammer and stutter in this language. They have no real, full, clear utterance in it.

But Buddhism, traditionally, very definitely, does also speak this language, this language of images, this language of poetry, of myth and legend and so on. And it speaks it no less powerfully than it speaks the language of concepts, of abstract thought. And it is to this language, this language of images, language of poetry, myth and legend spoken by Buddhism that we must now begin to listen, and this it is which constitutes our real turning point in this series.

Tape 43: Archetypal Symbolism in the Biography of the Buddha P age 2 _________________________________________________________________________________________________ The turning point is in fact the changeover from the conceptual, the abstract, mental approach to the non- conceptual, the approach in the form or in the terms of images and pictures. It is also a changeover, a transition, from the conscious mind to the unconscious mind. Last week, when we spoke about the Yogacara and its psychology, we were talking about the depths. But from today, from this week, we shall not be merely talking about the depths, but we shall be descending or beginning to descend actually into them.

Today we are going to encounter, as it were, in those depths, some of what I have called the Archetypal Symbols in the Biography of the Buddha. And I say 'encounter' advisedly. We are not just going to think about them; we're not just going to conceptualise about them, not just going to understand them intellectually with the conscious mind. What we have to do today is something more than that: we have, as it were, to be receptive.

We have, as it were, to take in these images, these archetypal symbols; open ourselves to them, listen to them, and allow them to speak in their own way to us - especially to our unconscious depths - the greater part of ourselves, the unconscious mind. And in this way, we have, as I say, as I repeat, not just to think about them, not just to realise them mentally, but to experience them in the depths, to assimilate them, if we can, and even, eventually, to allow them to transform our whole lives.

But before we go into this, before we embark upon our encounter with these archetypal symbols, there is just one serious misunderstanding to be cleared up, and also one or two key terms to be defined.

I've said that Buddhism uses, that Buddhism speaks the language of images. If you like, to use a rather contradictory expression, the language of pictures, the language of poetry, the language of myth, the language of legend. Now this, I know, is new to some people, that Buddhism speaks this sort of language. Some people apparently are under the impression that Buddhism speaks only the language of concepts, only the language of reason, only the language of abstract thought. Some people are under the impression that Buddhism is a strictly rational system, even a sort of rationalism. When you mention the word Buddhism to them, you can at once see from their reaction that they think, "Well, now we're going to have something very dry and very abstract indeed." It's as though they almost heard the skeleton rattle as soon as you start talking about Buddhism. But that there should be such a misunderstanding is in a way quite natural, certainly so far as our understanding of Buddhism here in the west is concerned. Because after all, how do we come to learn about Buddhism, how do we come to know about it at all? The greater part of our knowledge, at least 90% if not 99% of it, is derived from books, is derived from magazines, is derived from lectures and so on. In other words, our approach automatically, without our always realising it or being aware of it, is conceptual; in terms of thoughts, in terms of ideas, in terms of mental understanding, mental realisation - not anything more than that. Because all these things, whether it's a book, or whether it's a lecture, or whether it's a magazine article, all these are aimed at the conscious mind - they appeal to the intelligence, to our power, our capacity, of abstract thought. So we tend to get the impression, without being aware of it, that Buddhism speaks only in this way, that it addresses only the reason, only the mind, only the rational intelligence, only our capacity to formulate concepts. And in this way we get a very one-sided impression about Buddhism, that it's something very intellectual, something very conceptual, something very rational - and only this.

But if we go to the East, if we look at the Eastern Buddhist countries, there we shall see a very different picture indeed. There, certainly Buddhism isn't just a matter of rational understanding or mental realisation or conceptual formulation. There's much more to it there than that. In fact, we may even go so far as to say that in the East, in the Eastern Buddhist countries, they do tend to go somewhat to the other extreme. They rather tend to be influenced by the images and the pictures, as it were, all about them, and to be not very easily able to give a mental formulation or mental realisation of what it is that they actually believe, even though it moves them and influences them ...

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