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Creative Symbols of the Tantric Path - Unchecked

DISCLAIMER - This transcript has not been checked by Sangharakshita, and may contain mistakes and mishearings. Checked and reprinted copies of all seminars will be available as part of the Complete Works Project.

by Sangharakshita

QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS with Study Group Leaders on the Lectures.

CREATIVE SYMBOLS OF THE TANTRIC PATH TO ENLIGHTENMENT
PRESENT: The Venerable Sangharakshita, Ratnaprabha, Tejananda,ulananda, Kuladeva,
Surata, Cittapala, Satyaraja, Priyananda, Dharmapriya, Chakkhupala, Susiddhi, Vairocana,
Ratnabodhi, Abhaya, Ruchiraketu, Sarvamitra, Saddhaloka.
8 December 1987: THE TIBETAN WHEEL OF LIFE
Tejananda:
Tonight we've got five questions on 'The Symbolism of the Tibetan Wheel of
Life', starting with a general background question from me, which is simply: Could you
recommend any suitable background reading matter for study leaders on Tantra in general?
Sangharakshita: Hm! In a way, there is almost too much material. There is nothing very
unified, nothing very comprehensive. One has got translations of particular Tantric texts, and
one has books on different aspects of the Tantric tradition: for instance, there were two or
three books recently published on Dzogchen, which is, one might say, an aspect of Ati Yoga,
which is the third and last of the three highest yanas of the Nyingmapas.A fairly old, but still
useful, book is Snellgrove's Buddhist Himalaya, and he has recently published something
even fuller and more comprehensive on IndoTibetan Buddhism; I don't remember its title,
but I have seen it and it does seem to contain a quite thorough discussion of the Vajrayana. It
may be worth looking into that.I think it is quite important to get an overall picture. One
mustn't, of course, forget the appropriate sections in chapter III of the Survey; they do give a
bit of general perspective. Some of the more popular things that have been put out are not
really very useful.
Tejananda: Could you name any that aren't worth looking at?
S: Ha! That would be perhaps a bit invidious. I am afraid there [are] a lot of relatively new
ones I have just glanced at but which have not seemed very useful. But Snellgrove is on the
whole very reliable. One can easily get lost in a mass of detail. I think I have made the point,
years ago, that it isn't only the Hinayana that developed, in the form of the Abhidharma, a
scholasticism. The Mahayana developed a scholasticism; the Vajrayana, too, strange and
paradoxical though it may seem, developed a scholasticism of its own, and some at least of
the books on the Vajrayana that emanate from Tibetan sources are, one might say, highly
scholastic, and don't, therefore, give a very adequate impression of or feeling for the spirit of
the Vajrayana. Perhaps I'll try and look through some of the books on the subject that we
have and refresh my memory, and see whether there are any that I could actually recommend
apart from the two by Snellgrove that I mentioned, and possibly see [2] whether there were
any I should warn you against. I warn you against Lobsang Rampa, of course! (Laughter).
Tejananda: It would be especially useful to know of any books which are in print, which one
could actually get hold of.
S: All right, then. Remind me before the end of the week.
Tejananda: The second question is from Dharmapriya, about symbols.
Dharmapriya: In the talk you define or describe a symbol as something that stands for
another thing, the other thing not being able to be known in any other way. In our group, we
couldn't think of any example of this: i.e. for anything we could think of Enlightenment,
spiritual truth etc. we could think of a conceptual representation as given by the Madhyamika
or the Yogacara. Could you give an example of something that can only be represented by a
symbol, or otherwise elucidate your description of a symbol in this context?
S: I looked through my notes just before I came along, and it did occur to me that there might
be a question on that particular point, or perhaps that there ought to be a question on [it]. In a
way, I suppose, the question is selfcontradictory; because if a symbol does represent
something which cannot be communicated in any other way, you can't, as it were, compare
the symbol that stands for that thing with that thing as known in some other way. So you just
have the symbol. In a way, you don't know what it's a symbol of; you don't know what it
stands for, because you don't know it other than through the symbol. You can give a meaning
to a symbol, if you like, but in a way that is a quite different kind of activity. You can use a
symbol or your understanding of a symbol or experience of a symbol as a starting point for a
series of ideas, of concepts; but that is not to say that you have really exhausted, or got into
touch with, even, what the symbol stands for, as I have put it.o in that sense, well, almost
anything is a symbol! Because everything stands for something which can't be apprehended
in any other way. But, having said that, I thought I ought to make a distinction let me find
the actual point, because I think there is room for some misunderstanding here. Yes, I say
that 'the Tantra represents that aspect of Buddhism that is concerned not with theories and
speculations, not with formal religiosity, but with direct experience of what one truly and
essentially is ' Well, that's clear enough. But 'This experience cannot be mediated by
concepts.' When I say that it cannot be mediated by concepts, I mean, or I meant, or I should
have meant, that mere concepts, just as concepts, cannot give you the experience cannot even
give you a taste of the experience but the concepts can, in certain cases, be a basis for the
realisation of the experience. I think that distinction has to be made. I then say that the
experience can be evoked by symbols.n a way, it means that, though I have said that symbols
stand for something, in a way or to some extent they don't; in a way the symbol is that
particular thing, appearing under a certain set of circumstances, a certain set of conditions, in
a certain mode, as it were. You could say a human being is a symbol; the figure of the
Buddha is a symbol, a symbol of Enlightenment. But that doesn't mean that you have a clear,
adequate idea of Enlightenment; [that] you know what Enlightenment is, and for that reason
you can recognise the Buddha as being a symbol of that Enlightenment that isn't really the
position at all, is it? You've got some idea of Enlightenment, you've seen or heard the word
Enlightenment, so you have got [3] some idea about it, but if you open yourself to the figure
of the Buddha, you get a certain experience in that way, don't you? You get an inkling of
something. But that of which you get an inkling doesn't necessarily coincide with your
concept of what you think is Enlightenment!That is why I say, in a way, that everything is a
symbol, because every rupa is sunyata. Is that clear, or does it make things less clear?
Perhaps one should try and get down to the basic question.
Dharmapriya: Well, if I have understood you correctly, I think you have answered my basic
question. I have understood you to imply, more or less, that what lies behind the symbol, as it
were, is something that we can maybe sketch with words; if I can sketch something about
Enlightenment with words, I don't experience it, because of my level of development;
whereas through a symbol of Enlightenment I can get an inkling, a foretaste, perhaps.
S: Yes, but even so you need to be as it were open to the symbol. It is not that the symbol
definitely means this, that and the other and you can read off the meaning without opening
yourself to the symbol. That is the difference between a symbol and a concept, to a certain
extent; or, at least, one of the differences.erhaps one shouldn't think too much in terms of
symbols as symbolising something; just symbols. In other words, they are not concepts; you
can't exhaust their meaning in that way. Very often they are quite concrete: they have form,
they have colour, they sort of communicate something but it is not easy to put what they
communicate into words. [It is] a bit like dreams sometimes a dream which leaves you with
a very vivid impression, a very strong feeling of one type or another, but it's difficult to say
what, it's difficult to put it into terms of concepts. Or do you feel perhaps that the whole
language, as it were, of symbols and symbolism just is misleading, that one ought to find
some other way of putting the matter?
Dharmapriya: No, but, Bhante, the reason I raised this question is that just a couple of days
ago I was listening to your lecture on 'Symbolism in Tibetan Buddhist Art', and there you
have also said, 'A symbol is not a sign, but you have more or less defined a symbol as
something representing another phenomenon on a different mode of being.
S: Yes, on a different level, I think I sometimes say.
Dharmapriya: And I could understand that far better than this lecture
S: Yes, which implies a sort of theory of correspondences, doesn't it, in the hermetic sense?
Dharmapriya: And in that sense I found the whole concept of symbol very useful.
S: Perhaps one should take a simple example of a symbol like, say, the lotus flower and let
one's mind dwell on it, and ask oneself: what am I experiencing? What is this lotus flower?
In a sense, what does it mean? because, clearly, it is not just a flower, it is not just a botanical
specimen. It conveys something, gives me a certain feeling, which goes beyond the purely
botanical parameters, ...

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