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Symbols of Life and Growth

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by Sangharakshita

... in the Buddha's teaching, than is generally supposed. If we go back to the time of the Buddha's Enlightenment, or rather to the time immediately after the Buddha's Enlightenment, if we go back to the time when out of compassion he decided not to keep the truth he had discovered to himself, but to make it known to other living beings, if we go back to that period, that incident, then what, in the scriptural records, do we find? We find that after he had made his great decision, after he had decided out of compassion that he would teach, that he would make known the truth, that he would share with others his own vision of reality, he looked out over the world, we are told, and he saw the whole mass of humanity in a sort of vision. And how did he see them? In what form did he see them? We are told according to the text that he saw them just like a great bed of lotus flowers. He looked out over the whole world, he saw the whole human race, and they seemed to him just like plants, just like lotus plants. In other words, he saw them as being in different stages of development. And the text goes on to say that he saw that quite a lot of these lotus plants were sunk deep in the mud, that they hadn't yet come to the surface, that they were deep down in the water, not only deep in the water, but right deep down in the mud - you could hardly see their buds, they were so submerged; but that there were other lotus plants that had begun to grow, that had come to the surface, that had started lifting the tips of their buds at least above the surface of the water; and again there were other lotus plants which stood free of the water, which had started to unfurl their petals, and there were just a very very few that were on the point of bursting into bloom.

So that right at the beginning of the Buddha's career, right at the beginning of the Buddha's ministry, we see this very beautiful picture, we see this very beautiful vision, according to which the human race is seen in these plant terms as it were, as being in different stages of development, different stages of growth and unfoldment.

And then again if we turn to Tibetan Buddhism we find a very similar sort of symbolism. We find it in the symbolism of what the Tibetans call the wheels, or what we sometimes call, in the West, the psychic centres. And these psychic centres in Tibetan Buddhism are usually either four or five in number, though sometimes seven are enumerated. But whether four or five or seven, they are always symbolised by lotus flowers, symbolised by lotus flowers of different sizes, different colours, and with different numbers of petals. And these psychic centres, these lotuses, are represented as being situated at different points up along the median nerve within the human body. For instance, there's supposed to be one at a point corresponding to the stomach, the solar plexus, another at the heart, another at the throat, another at the head, and so on. And one of the assumptions, or one of the presuppositions of the type of spiritual practice which utilises this specific symbolism is that with meditation, especially with certain esoteric meditation practices, within the human organism, even within the human body, a current, a very powerful current, of energy, of upward moving energy, is generated. In Sanskrit, in Sanskrit Buddhism that is to say, this upward moving current of energy within the human body or the human psychophysical system, is called chandali, which literally means 'the fiery one', and it corresponds to the Tibetan 'tummo', about which some of you may have heard - it's usually translated in English as 'psychic heat', which doesn't really tell us very much about it. And it's more or less the same thing as what the Hindus call the 'kundalini', which means 'the coiled-up one', in other words the potential energy. And this fiery one or coiled-up one, this chandali or kundalini or tummo, this potential energy, is very often represented as a serpent. And again the symbolism is that as this current of energy, this very powerful current of energy, passes up the median nerve, it passes at the same time through these different centres, these different lotus flowers, as it were, and as it moves upward, as it passes through them, the centres become activated, and this is symbolised by the lotuses, the lotus flowers, opening. And the higher up one goes, the bigger and more beautiful becomes the lotus which opens in this way.

Now I'm not concerned at the moment with the question of whether this system, whether this symbolism if you like, of the psychic centres and the current of energy is to be taken literally or only metaphorically or even symbolically. There are a number of different opinions on this point. What I'm concerned with at the moment is with the symbolism of the lotus here. Very clearly the whole process of spiritual growth, the whole process of spiritual life and development, is symbolised again in these sort of vegetable terms, symbolised in terms of life, symbolised in terms of growth.

And then again in later Buddhism there are quite a number of what we call Bodhisattvas, beings who've taken a vow to gain supreme Enlightenment or Buddhahood not for their own sake but for the benefit of all sentient beings, and these Bodhisattvas are often depicted in Buddhist art. And one of the most popular of these Bodhisattvas is the one known as the White Tara. She's called the White Tara because she's depicted completely white in colour. And the White Tara is a very beautiful, very graceful female figure, seated in siddhasana usually, and clad in the usual silks and jewels of a Bodhisattva, and having a very smiling expression. And like all Buddhas and Bodhisattvas in Buddhist art, she is associated with or even carries a certain emblem. And in the case of the White Tara this emblem is the white lotus.

In fact, if we look closely we see that the White Tara figure carries not just a lotus but a whole spray of lotuses, and here's there's a very interesting point to notice, a point which most people don't usually observe, even those who are quite familiar with this figure and this symbolism. If we look at the spray, the lotus spray carried by the White Tara, we find that it contains a lotus bud, completely closed, secondly a half-open bud or half-open flower, and lastly a fully open flower, these three. Now what does this represent? One explanation is that these three represent the three Buddhas, that is to say the Buddhas of the past, of the present, and of the future. But whether or not that is so we can see that these three, the bud, the half-open flower, and the fully open flower, represent the whole process of growth and unfoldment which is the spiritual life itself.

Now one may ask at this point why it is that the White Lotus Sutra in Chapter Five introduces, as it were suddenly introduces, this, as it were, vegetable symbolism. Why does it start talking in terms of plants and their growth? No doubt some people would say it's accidental, it just happened like that. But I don't personally believe that. I believe that the introduction of this sort of symbolism of life and growth at this point has a very definite purpose. I think it's intended as a corrective, Now one may ask a corrective to what? It's intended as a corrective to the previous parables when taken literally. Now if one looks back at the previous parables, what does one find? One finds in the Parable of the Burning House that the children are induced to come out of the building. First they're inside the building, and then later on in the parable they're outside the building. So what has happened? - a change of place. A change of place has occurred. They were inside the house, now they're outside the house. And it's the same in the Myth of the Return Journey. The poor man comes home. First of all he's in a distant country and then he's nearer at hand, he's in his father's city, and then in his father's house, so here too there is a change of place.

Now the general meaning of both these parables is quite clear, especially when they're taken in the full context of the Sutra itself. But even so, there's a danger. There's a danger that unthinkingly we shall take certain details in the parables rather too literally, and in this way, again unthinkingly, misinterpret the whole process of the spiritual life. In both parables the children and the poor man are represented as making a sort of journey. In the first case it's a short journey, from inside the house to outside; in the other, it's a comparatively long journey, but both, both the children and the poor man, are represented as moving in space, if you take the parable literally, as moving in space. Now one may ask, what is the characteristic feature of movement in space? The characteristic feature of movement in space as such is that the moving object changes its position but it does not itself change. In other words, whatever change takes place is external, it is not internal. Now we know, we've surely understood by this time, that the whole spiritual life is a process of development. It's a development of life - that's the lower evolution; it's a development of consciousness - that's the Higher Evolution. And development is of course a kind of change. Now if the parables are understood literally, then the whole process of spiritual development, of the Higher Evolution, will be understood in terms of external change, and not in terms of internal change, which means that we shall, as it were, consciously or semi-consciously think of the self as passing through experiences, having experiences, traversing stages, but as it were itself remaining through it all unchanged.

Now you might think that I'm rather labouring this point, or you might even think that I'm rather flogging a dead horse. But the misunderstanding does represent a very ...

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