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Amitabha Sadhana - Questions and Answers

by Sangharakshita

... the Buddhas of Infinite Life',
which clearly ties up with the conception of the Buddha or Buddhahood as infinite life.
Suvajra: It's interesting you mentioned Apollo, because Subhuti quoted Ruskin a few months ago with regard to Apollo
where people had been saying in the last century that they thought they knew what Apollo was, having gone to the British
Museum, and he said it's nonsense, Apollo is a spiritual principle, not a statue.
S: Ah, who quoted that?
Suvajra: Subhuti quoted Ruskin on that.
S: Ah yes. Incidentally Ruskin's writings on mythology, Greek mythology, are very very interesting and illuminating. He
worked relatively late in life but he had some quite profound things to say and this seems to have been one of them.
All right then let's go on from there. Another somewhat connected two questions from two different people. First of all,
I'd like to know a little more about the so-called 'new' Amitabha sadhana which is based
on your own visionary experience. To me the form seems to have moved to something
a little more active from the stable, symmetrical 'dhyana' mudra form to an
asymmetrical one where Amitabha holds the lotus up in an almost dramatic way. Could
you say a little more about this please? What might be the significance of this for
you/us/the movement?
And then there's another question:
Do you have anything to say about the traditional 'dhyana' mudra and Amitabha
holding up the lotus?
You've suggested that we reflect on this. Well, it does seem that Amitabha holding up the lotus is not completely untraditional,
because I happened to notice only just today that someone had sent Paramartha a postcard, a picture postcard from Kathmandu
with.... (murmurs as Bhante, presumably, hold up the postcard) Has anyone seen it before, because I haven't. I hadn't seen
it before. So it does seem that there's some parallel with tradition. [Laughter] I certainly hadn't seen any Amitabha figure
represented in this way. I did - I think there is another question somewhere about whether I was acquainted with the figure
of Amitabha before I had that experience, and yes I had seen the figure of Amitabha in a book on Buddhism, but it hadn't
registered particularly, not consciously anyway. But it is rather interesting to find that he's this quite elegant Buddha holding
that lotus flower in just the same way. It's not quite the same lotus flower that I saw because, well first of all it's not a brilliant
red, which is how I saw it, and also it's rather stylised.
Incidentally the lotus in Indian Buddhist art and Far Eastern Buddhist art is very stylised. It doesn't really look like a lotus
at all. Someone by the way has asked a question - another question - about whether one might substitute the rose for the lotus,
the rose being apparently more a part of our own culture. But then again the rose in our art has been stylised. And the lotus
is not completely unknown to Western culture. 'Lotos' is a Greek word and the Egyptians of course had lotuses, you find
plenty of lotuses, but I think not exactly the Indian lotus, more like a water lily, in Egyptian art. But I think the main idea is
that you have a multi foliate flower, that is a flower with many petals radiating from the centre in layers. I think that is the
basic idea of lotus or rose. In the case of the lotus, from the point of view of symbolism it has an advantage inasmuch as it
grows out of the mud. Of course the rose grows out of the earth. But earth, at least in emotional terms, is not quite the same
thing as mud, is not quite the same thing as muck. [Laughter] So to speak of the lotus growing out of the mud doesn't have
quite the same sort of connotation as speaking of the rose growing out of the earth, if you see what I mean.
So if you opt for rose rather than lotus you'll have to give up mud, [Laughter] and you'll have to adopt earth, because so far

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as I know roses don't grow well in mud.
Suvajra: You have lots of dung!
S: Dung! [Laughter] Perhaps you could have not lotuses growing out of the mud but roses growing out of dung. [Laughter]
Ananda: You do have to renew them every year.
S: Yes, but it's not just dung, is it. [Laughter] There's a mixture. But anyway I'll leave you to sort that one out among
yourselves and you can have perhaps a comparative discussion on the respective merits of mud and dung. The underlying
principle of course is the same.
But to come back to this first question, yes it's interesting that it's from a stable, symmetrical form to an asymmetrical form,
but it doesn't exactly look unstable, does it. Not here. Would you say it was dramatic?
__________: Almost.
S: Almost. But I'm also asked,'Could you say a little more about this please. Why, or rather what, might be the
significance of this for you/us/the movement?'
I can't say that at the time I attached any particular significance to the fact that Amitabha was holding up the lotus. I probably
didn't realise that it wasn't very usual, probably not, because I just didn't know enough about Buddhist iconography then. And
as far a I remember I didn't reflect on whether it had any particular significance. I'm not even sure whether at that stage, and
this did happen when I was, what 23, I'm not even sure whether I'd heard the famous story about the Buddha holding up the
golden flower to Mahakashyapa. It certainly didn't figure very much for me then, so I doubt if there was that sort of
association. But I suppose one just has to reflect and see what meaning one can give it. It's not necessarily that it has a cut and
dried meaning which has to be pinned down. So what does it represent? Has anyone got any ideas or has anyone had any
reflection?
__________: I was struck by the fact that it is a lotus that he's holding which is exactly the same as what the figure's sitting
on, so it's as if he's taking part of that and demonstrating that, as opposed to holding a book of scriptures or a sword or any
other iconographic...
S: This was something that I noticed, just in visual terms, at the time, that the red lotus which was being held up, the flower,
was the exact replica on a smaller scale, of the red lotus on which the Buddha was sitting. That was certainly very noticeable,
though I didn't work out any particular significance for it. The one is of course much smaller than the other, and no doubt that
has a significance.
__________: But it feels as if the figure is saying 'look more closely'.
__________: I'd find it more challenging. Holding the lotus upright. Very challenging.
Amoghavajra: It a sort of statement.
S: Yes it's as if to say that the lotus on which I'm sitting - this is just what occurs to me now - the lotus on which I am sitting,
is not just for me. It's also for you. (General agreement) So even though you start off with your lotus on a very much smaller
scale, it's the same lotus, it's the same red lotus. It's not just for me, even though mine is fully blown and yours is very small,
even though you're able to accept for the time being just a very small lotus flower. But, yes certainly I noticed that parallelism
between the two.
And regarding this particular figure, it's almost as though the lotus is being held up but it's like this, it's not like this, and also
in my vision it was like this. It's as though well it's here for you, it's not that I'm giving it to you, it's here for you. It's for you
to come forward as it were and take it. It's more like that. It's displaying it rather than giving it. It's not being thrust on you,
not like those people in India and also sometimes other countries, where they give you a flower and you think they've given
it to you and five minutes later they come round to collect the money for it. So it's just being held up for your contemplation,
possibly for your acceptance. Hopefully for your acceptance. I think that comes out quite well in this particular figure.
__________: Was that how it was held in the vision you had?

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S: Yes, though I must say the elbow in my particular case was much more up. I don't know whether that has any significance.
Here the elbow is kept fairly close to the Buddha's side but I saw it more like that, not so much like that. [Loud Laughter] .....
significance. Perhaps the way I saw it was, as this questioner suggests, a wee bit more dramatic. Maybe that was just my
Western temperament. I don't know.
Anyway any further point about that or can we just leave that? It's actually a quite fine thangka.
__________: Just a question about the detail. I was thinking about this today. In the vision itself what were the robes like.
You say embroidered with gold....?
S: I can't remember now any particular pattern except the red brown with a gold patterning. You do quite often see that in
Tibetan thangkas. It could be that at the time I did see a particular pattern but I can't remember now. And that gold patterning
would make the robe glitter as it were.
__________: What for you would be the symbolism ...

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