Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Numinous Symbolism - Pagan, Buddhist and Christian

The mind has several levels, the main distinctions being

(i) Gross mind
(ii) Subtle mind and
(iii) Very subtle or root mind.

The gross level corresponds, more or less, to our waking mind and the subtle level to our dreaming mind.

Buddhists believe that only the very subtle root mind goes on from life to life to life, so it is this level of the mind that we need to transform to make progress on our spiritual path.

There are a number of ways of producing long term changes to the root mind. One of the easiest to understand is analytical and placement meditation, where we use discursive philosophical reasoning and/or intellectual analysis to generate a realisation of a particular idea. We then attempt to hold this realisation for as long as possible (placement), and mix and imprint it into the deeper and more subtle levels of the mind.

As well as analysis and placement, we can also use intuitive experiences to transform the root mind. The three main ways of accessing intuitive levels of the mind are symbolism, visualisation and ritual. Symbolism may be used on its own, or in combination with visualisation and ritual.

The concept of symbolism has two aspects - Representational Symbolism and Evocative Symbolism, though sometimes a representational symbol can, with familiarity, become an evocative symbol.

Representational symbols
These are shorthand representations for substances, numbers, instructions etc. Examples are chemical symbols such as Na, Au, Pb for sodium, gold and lead; p for 3.14159, and the warning symbols in road signs. These types of symbols are interpreted by, and affect, the gross levels of our minds, and are used for our normal day-to-day business.

Evocative symbols
Evocative symbols are interpreted by and affect the more subtle levels of the mind.

Evocative symbolism is associated with art, architecture and poetry, especially where there is a spiritual aspect. Examples of evocative symbolism in the visual arts are icons, thangkas, mandalas, stained glass windows and statues of holy beings.

Evocative symbolism does not use direct representation, reference or explicit analogy. As the symbolist Mallarme said "Don't paint the thing itself, paint the effect that it produces".

Similarly with symbolist poetry. Direct description is avoided because it engages the grosser levels of the mind. Intuitive realisations are produced by indirect allusion and subtle evocation.

Representational symbols may evolve into evocative symbols.

On first meeting with Buddhist teachings, many Westerners ask about the meanings of unfamiliar symbols such as the lotus, wheel, vase etc. These are explained, and at first understood, intellectually (they are thus representational symbols) .

But later, as intellectual understanding of the concepts transform into intuitive realizations, the symbols may become evocative. Merely seeing the symbol may then evoke the associated realization.


Visualization usually begins with representational symbolism. For example, in the Tonglen 'taking and giving' visualization the black smoke and white light represent suffering and happiness. But with practice the understanding may become more deeply intuitive and less intellectual. Presumably the same thing happens as Tantric practitioners gain greater experience of visualizing themselves as the Yidam.

Ritual is acting out or watching someone else acting out a symbolic role in order to bring about deep changes in one's mind. Rituals may be performed individually, but often involve numbers of practitioners.

The theatre may have originated out of pagan Greek religious rituals. For example, ritualised acting out of tragedy was used to produce catharsis in the minds of the audience.

Ritual actions often involve some form of symbolic transformation, purification or gift, such as these symbolic gifts on a shrine at a Kadampa Buddhist festival.

Other rituals evoke a symbolic journey, and may involve traversing a path through a processional or meditational landscape. Examples are the ritual landscape around Stonehenge in England, and the circumambulation of Mount Kailas in the Himalayas.

- Sean Robsville



Cauldron, Chalice and Grail Symbolism in Buddhism and Celtic Wicca

Celtic and Buddhist Symbolism

Buddhist Candlemas

Why Beauty Matters - Spiritual Art versus the Cult of Ugliness

Alchemical Symbolism, Imagery and Visualizations in Tantric Buddhism

Buddhism, Shamanism and the use of Psychedelics

Qualia, Objective versus Subjective Experience

C J Jung, Buddhism, Tantra and Alchemy


lorettazen@hotmail.co.uk said...

Thank you for this post vis a vis 'Why Beauty Matters' - much appreciated.

Rafael said...

excellent, thanks