Buddhist perspectives on society and culture


Buddhist perspectives on
society and culture

The Aesthetic Moment

Posted in: Buddhism
This article is part of the series Eros and Beauty. Articles in the series are:

Editor’s introduction
Once again, I am delighted to present an article based on Subhuti’s ‘Eros and Beauty’ talks (the first, ‘The Ascent of Beauty’ having been published in May of this year). The talks were given in two series at Adhisthana in 2014. Although originally given in tandem with talks by Padmavajra, I believed that the more philosophical nature of Subhuti’s talks lent them to systematic presentation in written form, and I am therefore grateful to him for allowing me to edit them into articles. As with the first, considerable re-writing and re-structuring has been necessary, and the result is inevitably not what Subhuti would have written himself, but he has expressed himself satisfied that it preserves his argument and voice. This important and inspiring material is now being published for the first time in Apramada, and I very much hope that it will thereby receive more of the attention it deserves. 

The imaginal faculty is, in reality, the man himself, because when one truly perceives an image one perceives it with the whole of oneself, or with one’s whole being. When one truly perceives an image, therefore, one is transported to the world in which that image belongs and becomes, if only for the time being, an inhabitant of that world. In other words, truly to perceive an image means to become an image, so that when one speaks of the imagination, or the imaginal faculty, what one is really speaking of is image perceiving image. That is to say, in perceiving an image what one really perceives is, in a sense, oneself.

Sangharakshita, ‘The Journey to Il Convento’

The talks upon which this article is based were given at Adhisthana, a retreat centre in rural Herefordshire. One morning, as I was preparing my day’s talk, I looked out of the window of my room down onto the pond. It was astonishingly still. The surface of the pond was glassy, and the beautiful array of trees – willows and oaks and firs – were reflected in the water. There was a very light breeze blowing, which made the reflections shift and change in relation to each other, but not enough to break the stillness of the water. The play of light and shade on the surface of the water was deeply fascinating, and just for a few seconds it caught my attention and pulled me, so that I wanted to look more and further.

It is the nature of experiences of this kind that I want to explore in this article. I am convinced everybody has them to some extent, and probably you are reading this because you value and know that experience. Such aesthetic moments as may come and go throughout our day may not be anything particularly exalted, but we can stay with them and savour them; and at the same time we can apply a bit of reflective analysis to them, to tease out the various components, understand them more fully, and thereby experience them more deeply.

In part one of this series we looked at beauty as an aspect of the Dharma, and at the pursuit of beauty as itself a path. Considering the Dharma as an ascent towards the highest Beauty provides an important link in particular with Platonism and Neo-Platonism. Here, in part two, I will draw on another strand of Western philosophy, particularly associated with Kant, and following him with Schopenhauer. Kant is generally acknowledged as a pivotal figure in Western thought – indeed, I think without him it would not have been possible for Buddhism to be established in the West. Although perhaps better known for his critique of reason and his moral theory, an examination of the nature of aesthetic judgement is also an important part of his philosophy.

Such aesthetic moments as may come and go throughout our day may not be anything particularly exalted, but we can stay with them and savour them.

Following in such footsteps – and helped also by Sangharakshita, the Yogācāra, and a few of my own reflections – we will examine the aesthetic moment. As we do so I encourage you, the reader, to notice such aesthetic moments in your own life, to hold them, to savour them, and to begin to reflect upon them. I suggest that you don’t do the two things at the same time. Hold the experience and savour it, then after some time, when it is gone from your tongue, reflect upon it. What happened? What was going on? What did it signify? In this article I will be offering some aids to such reflection.

Three Components of the Experiencing Moment

According to basic Buddhism, every experiencing moment has three fundamental components. There is the knower, the known, and the knowing: the subject of experience, the object of experience, and the consciousness, the experiencing itself. In every experiencing moment of whatever kind these three components are present in relationship to each other. All three are part of the moment of aesthetic experience, and all three require our attention.

So we can ask, what is it about the object that lends it to an aesthetic moment? What has happened to this object that makes it an aesthetic object? Some change has taken place in it. You could even say it is a different object.

And what has happened to you, that shifted you from the subject of everyday perception and conception to being the subject of aesthetic appreciation?

And then what has happened to the consciousness, the experiencing itself? When you are just perceiving something ordinarily the experience is of one kind, and when you enter into an aesthetic experience it is of another kind. What has changed?

This is what I am going to unpack, and I encourage you to use my reflections to explore your own experience of the aesthetic moment. What is the known in that aesthetic moment? What is the knower? What is the act of knowing? And how are these different from another moment?

The Aesthetic Object

I will focus first on the objective dimension, on the known, and I will approach it from two points of view: first of all in terms of our actual experience of it – what the object feels like to us in the aesthetic moment; then from a more philosophical, metaphysical point of view.

In the aesthetic moment the object appeals. You don’t have to think about it or work it out; the object just calls you to it, inviting you into itself. One of the wonderful things about the aesthetic approach to the Dharma is that beauty is pleasurable. The beautiful object pulls you; you don’t have to force yourself into it. If you think about it too much or approach it through a technique, you kill it. It is not about your head, not about technique; it’s about the direct, immediate appeal.

So much criticism that I read in the papers, of film for instance, is so clever, and it points out things I haven’t noticed; but it leaves me thinking that the critic didn’t actually see the film! They were so busy preparing their copy for the next day that they never really let the film appeal to them. A lot of criticism – as well as a lot of so-called art – is mere cleverness: too much thought and not enough direct aesthetic experience. Although one can be educated in this, it is an education not in knowledge, but in knowing how to look. In this connection I remember going with Sangharakshita to the Musee Cluny in Paris, the museum of medieval art. We went into a room which was full of hundreds of small carved ivory plaques, and Sangharakshita was, in his meticulous way, examining each one, while I tried not to show that I wasn’t really with it. But at one point he looked at a particular plaque and said ‘look at the shape of that figure and its interaction with that figure’, and immediately it leapt out at me and pulled me into an aesthetic moment. In that sort of way an aesthetic educator can be extremely valuable, and I think that is one of the functions that we in the Triratna Buddhist Community need to be performing: helping people to see beauty.

In the aesthetic moment you feel you are touching on the pulse of life, and you are satisfied with that. 

Sometimes the aesthetic object is more seductive, enticing you subtly and gently. Sometimes it grabs you and pulls you in with a strong sense of delight. In whichever way it does it, the aesthetic object appeals, it draws you in. But that is not all, because the more fully the object is an aesthetic object, the more it communicates meaning. When you engage with it you sense that you are touching on deep meanings in life. This is what I believe Wordsworth meant when he wrote of ‘something far more deeply interfused’ (in the poem ‘Lines Written above Tinturn Abbey’). He never says what that ‘something’ is – and if you can spell it out, it is not ‘it’ – but it is deeply felt and resonant with meaning. In the aesthetic moment you feel you are touching on the pulse of life, and you are satisfied with that. You don’t come away from the painting, play or poem saying ‘this meant this, that meant that’, since such shallow application of concepts loses the meaning. Concepts can help us look, but the felt meaning is what is important. Aesthetic experience defies conceptualisation.

The Object as Image

I want to move on to the philosophy of the aesthetic moment, although it is a very substantial topic which I am going to deal with fairly briefly. In order to look at the aesthetic moment we need to look more at the perceptual moment itself. For this I will borrow from Schopenhauer, whose epistemology was itself a development, and simplification, of Kant’s. They both said that in aesthetic experience some of the elements that enable us to create an intelligible perceptual framework for ourselves in the world begin to break down. When we perceive we take in the data of our senses and construct out of that an intelligible world, made up of objects distributed in space and time, and arranged in terms of causality. These are the basic building blocks of our ordinary perception. They are aspects of what Schopenhauer called ‘the original disposition of the mind’. You don’t have to learn how to do it – or rather you do learn, but in a completely natural way. As children develop, they slowly learn how to interpret the world in terms of ‘out there’ and ‘in here’. They learn to differentiate the flow of sensory experience into discernible units, which they then relate to each other. That is the arena for ordinary lives, and in fact we are part of the arena.

So we see the world in terms of space and time: it is out there, and it is coming from there, going to there. We see it in terms of causal connections and relationships between things: this is related to that, this comes from that, this gives rise to that. And we see experience in terms of subject and object: I am in here having it, it is out there being had. Space and time are the sort of containers for it, and causality is the relationship between the elements in it.

In aesthetic experience, this begins to get broken down. I believe if one can extend that aesthetic experience deeply and far enough it breaks down utterly, but in our normal aesthetic experience it only breaks down to a certain degree. We experience the beginnings of a breakdown between the subject and the object. We loosen the sense that the object is out there and I am in here, and the two somehow move closer together. The aesthetic object also stands outside the normal flow of time. To say that time stands still would in my case be to exaggerate my own aesthetic capacity, but it certainly slows down and recedes into the background, or else it moves out of its normal mode (depending on the artistic medium). And you cease to be concerned with the object as related to other objects in space, or as being caused by other things. Of course, the object itself is not a single object because a painting or a poem has a number of different elements to it, and it is the relationship between those elements that gives rise to the aesthetic moment. But those relationships stand complete unto themselves; they have no relationship to causal elements outside. As soon as you refer to those causal factors, asking ‘how did the artist do this?’ or ‘I wonder how they got it through the door without breaking it’, you lose it. But when you are just suspended with only the internal relations of the object before you, that is the aesthetic moment.

To delve a bit deeper into our subject, the object isn’t really an object. Even in ordinary perception the object is not really ‘out there’, nor is it ‘in here’. It is in a mysterious state of suspension in between the two. Where does my image of you come from? It is not really an image of you, though that is the way it presents itself to me. It seems to me that I am seeing you, but even from a common-sense point of view I am simply seeing a messenger, as it were, sent by you, and reproduced in some mysterious way in my mind, whatever on earth that is. I really think I am seeing you. But what is happening is that an image is appearing. It is, for practical purposes, a very efficient and effective image, but the way it comes into being is fundamentally mysterious.

I use the term ‘image’ quite consciously. An important insight that I have gained from the excellent Kant is that all perception is an act of imagination. All perception. What you are seeing now is an image. It doesn’t seem like that, but it doesn’t take much reflection to recognise that it is true. There is light bouncing off the page and onto the rods and cones in the back of your eye, going through the optic nerve to the visual cortex, and giving rise to the visual image – an image, an act of imagination. Kant speaks of the aesthetic sense as being the free play of the imagination. In aesthetic experience imagination becomes liberated from its embeddedness in space, time and causality, and the image itself lives free from its context. This is not mere fancy footwork; it is something you can directly experience. When you look at a pond with the mist smoking off the silvery gleam of the surface of the water, the more you appreciate it the less you are thinking of mist and ponds and coldness, and the more you are simply drawn into the image itself, pulled out of the framework of our normal perception. Liberated from its context, the image itself comes to life; and ultimately, in the image is access to truth itself. But that is another story.

The Aesthetic Subject

I hope an old man can be forgiven a bit of reminiscence. My youth is a long time ago, but I remember the turmoil and tumult, the awful identity-incomprehension, of early manhood. I suppose I felt it particularly sharply because I was bred to serve the British Empire, but fortunately or unfortunately that empire had got lost. So who was I? What was I? And always there was the great big issue – girls! Speaking from the wintery end of the autumn of my life, I wouldn’t go back to that spring. It was for me, and I am sure for many, a painful and confusing time.

But I also remember periods of powerful solace, mediated mainly by music, especially the music of Bach. The orchestral suites to begin with: that stately brassiness and solemn majesty, and the sweetness of the dance themes that ran through them. Such beautiful music would, as we say, completely lift me out of myself; I would forget all about the late-adolescent angst, and sometimes for hours, even days, I would be left with a mood of uplift and release.

Film also could have that effect. In a very painful period of jealousy and loneliness, I went to see Solaris by the great Tarkovsky – the Rembrandt, Shakespeare and Bach of film. It is not his greatest, but a very great film indeed. I didn’t really understand what I was watching, but particularly the image of the planet, Solaris, with its powerful influence, had an extraordinary effect upon me, and I remember coming out a changed man and remaining changed for weeks, the feeling of the film reverberating inside me.

I also remember my first real encounter with painting. My then girlfriend and I went to Italy, and we travelled around and found ourselves in Florence, where I saw a lot of paintings. And after a day or two I realised I was intensely happy. I was full of all that rich, pure colour that especially the early Renaissance is so wonderful for. Fra Angelico and Botticelli affected me powerfully. I didn’t understand them or how to look at them; I now know their flaws, I now know that there are better painters. But they had an enormous effect upon me in terms of my experience of myself.

It is this that I want to explore here: the way in which an encounter with an aesthetic object changes us. But I want first to warn of two possible diversions from the transformative power of art.

The power of art at its best is to release you from your empirical idea of who you are.

I used to listen to a lot of different music, and folk, rock & roll, or psychedelic music, could occasionally have something of the same effect as I have described in relation to Bach, though not to the same degree, and not with such purity. Mixed in with the aesthetic response was an experience of another kind, that had more to do with my own ego’s projection. Sometimes I would have an image of myself as Mick Jagger having an image of himself as the devil! I would be taken in by his bad boy image (rather than the charming old buffer he is today). Or I would feel that Carole King was singing to me personally. I would be carried away with these alternative selves, and for a while that would release me from my particular self into another self which, at least to me at that time, seemed more attractive and adequate. This sort of release from self is not necessarily a very constructive thing: it can be a release into a fantasy self. You come out of the film feeling that you are a gun-slinger, or the hero who saved the day. The escape from your ordinary identity can be merely an escape into an alternative, fantastical identity which is actually even more inadequate than the one you are escaping from. I think this is why, famously, the concentration-camp guards in the Third Reich were supposed to be great lovers of music, especially of course German, aryan music. I imagine that when they heard Beethoven, for example (a lot of which has an element of bombast), they would sort of puff themselves up with a sense of their aryan superiority. I don’t think that was Beethoven’s intention at all, but music, having no empirical referents, is especially multivalent, so one can be taken over by an idea of it which is marred by ego-appropriation.

There can be another danger, which is of going into an alternative self that is in a way higher, but of simply hiding in it. This is the problem of aestheticism: you are released from the burden of everyday pressure, but you just enjoy it for a while, without being changed. Especially if you have a lot of money, you can surround yourself with beautiful things and experience a beautiful self, but without really transforming yourself. A famous incident from the life of Handel makes the point. After the first performance of the Messiah, Handel was met by a certain Lord Kinnoul, who congratulated him on the excellent ‘entertainment’. ‘My lord’, Handel replied, ‘I should be sorry if I had only entertained them, I wished to make them better.’ He wrote the Messiah not just for a temporary relief, but to give people a different experience of themselves, by which they were ennobled.

These are the two alternative simulacra of real aesthetic experience. One is the transformation of oneself in terms of a fantasy self, and the other is the mere wallowing in art. To be aphoristic about it, one could say (using terms from the first of these two articles), that the first is Eros without Beauty, and the second is Beauty without Eros. But the power of art at its best is to release you from your empirical idea of who you are, and give you a glimpse of yourself in a far more essential, pure way, which has an enduring transformative effect.

It is difficult to talk about this in a way that doesn’t imply a challenge to the doctrine of anattā, which of course cannot be dispensed with. But I think quite often when we talk about not-self it is as though we haven’t really grasped what self is. We are not deeply enough in touch with the subtlety and depth of selfhood, as something which is somehow given in experience and which experience is formed upon. This is what Sangharakshita meant with his metaphor of a ‘gestalt’, a whole of you that exists outside time and that your life is an attempt to work out. He gave the comparison of Mozart’s experience of composition. It is said that when Mozart composed a piece of music first of all he experienced it as a whole, in a single moment outside time, and that the writing down of the music or the playing of it was simply trying to bring into the constrictions of time something that existed beyond them. What Sangharakshita is suggesting is, that’s us. There is a sense in which we exist outside time and our temporal lives are an attempt to work that out. In that sense, despite all the agonies of my youthful self, when I listened to Bach I was just the same as I am now. When I am in touch with that subjective correlate of the objective aesthetic image, I am the same as I was then. 

This experience of yourself outside time is hard to find the right words for. Perhaps the best word would be the ‘image’ of self. We are an image, and we live out an image. I don’t mean this in the shallow sense of believing that you are the devil for whom everybody should have sympathy, but in the much more subtle and exalted sense of existing beyond the bounds of time, space and causal relations. If this sounds too much like Advaita Vedanta, bear in mind that I am doing ‘the philosophy of ‘as if’’ to try to give expression to an aspect of actual aesthetic experience. We are not talking about the self as a metaphysical absolute, but as an essential element in the construction of experience, distilled into its purest form. When you come into relationship with the aesthetic object, that object is released from the normal modes of interpretation and becomes a pure image, which stands intermediate between the sensory world and… Reality itself, you could even say. And it is the same with you. When you enter into an association with the aesthetic object, you become an aesthetic subject. It is not that you suddenly grow wings, just as it is not that the aesthetic object actually changes. But in aesthetic absorption your experience of the object comes closer and closer to the image which it is, and your experience of yourself comes closer and closer to the image that you are.

This is a very powerful and satisfying experience. It is satisfying first of all because it is a relief from the brutal unsatisfactoriness of ordinary life, even with the temporary diversions of pleasure and achievement. It is a relief from those worldly winds blowing you backwards and forwards, a relief from the struggle to identify and confirm your ego, to make yourself secure, to interact with the world in a way that doesn’t just blow back in your face like dirty water thrown into the wind on a yacht. I have certainly experienced times when aesthetic experience has whisked me out of quite intense suffering and trouble. On one occasion I had to go into a very difficult situation that I had no idea how to deal with. On the way there I remember looking at the water from Waterloo Bridge, and although I have never had suicidal tendencies I did at least think to myself ‘I wouldn’t be that unhappy if things didn’t go on from this point’. And as I was looking down into those swirling waters I suddenly became entranced by the eddies, by the way in which the water, as it flowed through the piles on which the bridge stood, broke and curled out. I stood gazing down, and for a few moments I was released from this impossible conflicted situation that I was walking into, and I knew that it was all okay. There was something to me that was beyond all that mess. I had glimpsed myself outside time, outside the particularity of that situation. I had experienced the image of myself, an image that came closer to the reality of things than my empirical situation suggested.

Art can throw us into that experience of ourselves, detached to a greater or lesser extent from the trammels of our empirical self and all its confusions. It can throw us beyond the identity that craves, that hates, that ignores the uncomfortable facts. We experience ourselves as pure in the sense of uncontaminated, and as undistorted, as naked. I don’t like to confuse this with the language of the ideal, because that becomes associated with idealism, and the opposition between the ideal and the real. What I am referring to is a more real experience of yourself, which includes the whole of you, ‘prior’ to your involvement in pleasure, in evil, and in transitory self-delusions. Your ‘self’ as it were above and beyond, or below and beneath, all that.

In the course of that entrancement with the beauty of the object, we lose our ordinary selves to a truer, a finer experience of ourselves.

We don’t usually notice it, because in the aesthetic moment our attention is on the object. That is the point of art: that it presents us with an object that is so fascinating that we want to go deeper and deeper into it. But in the course of that entrancement with the beauty of the object, we lose our ordinary selves to a truer, a finer experience of ourselves. Look at a Rembrandt painting and you know what a genuine, authentic self is. This is especially true of the self-portraits, where you see that he was prepared to look at himself nakedly but with deep, deep love. When you encounter these very great artists you experience yourself in a deeper way, a higher way, a purer way. You experience an image of yourself, which is what your whole life, in an untidy, inefficient, often even backwards way, is trying to explore, to work out, to embody. We make such a mess of it, and most people never get round to it at all. But if we practise the Dharma broadly enough, that purer experience of ourselves can flow into all our experience. If one has a context of ethics, of active pursuit of more wholesome mental states, of clarity in the doctrine, in connection with a spiritual community and with teachers, one is able more and more to embody the image of oneself to its fullest possible extent, and eventually even to go beyond it.

The Knowing

We have looked at the objective element and then the subjective element in the aesthetic moment: what I have called the known, and the knower. Now we turn to the knowing, which is in some ways the most interesting and difficult to talk about. Let us approach it by way of an experience that is probably familiar to you. I mean the point at which, when you are giving attention to any kind of aesthetic object, you find yourself engaged with it. That shift can be very striking, and must correspond to passing over the threshold in meditation into jhāna. In fact I think a lot of what we are talking about is similar to what happens in meditation, and the relationship between aesthetic experience and meditation is very close.

I remember a very striking experience of my own – not that it was particularly exalted, but it was the unexpectedness and the starkness of it that really struck me. I, along with my friend Devamitra, had been invited to Singapore, to the opening of the Buddhist Library. As you can imagine they hosted us like royalty: paid our fares, treated us to the most exquisite Chinese food, were so attentive to us, and kept us pretty occupied with seeing various sights of Singapore, which is a rather strange and fascinating place. One afternoon they sent us off to the national art museum, which, like many collections of that kind, is an assemblage of minor works by everybody. At first I couldn’t really engage. For a start it was so bizarre, looking at all this mainly Western art – or Western-style art done by Singaporeans – in the middle of this unique city-state. I was there merely because it was on the programme, and I was cursorily looking at this and that. But then we went into a room of French impressionists and I came in front of a painting by Pissarro, of a Normandy harbour. To this day I don’t know whether it was much of a painting, but suddenly it just grabbed me and pulled me into it, and I found myself caught unawares in a completely different state of consciousness. It was the contrast between the previous mode of perception and the aesthetic mode provoked in me by the painting that was so striking. I am interested to try and understand what that difference is, and in order to do so I want to start by offering an analysis of different modes of knowing.

Generally speaking, in the midst of our routine lives, we use two modes of knowing. The first and most obvious one is the mode of perceiving. We perceive a world full of objects in which we stand in some relationship. Our senses deliver us information, and we assemble from that a complex whole, which we view from a single unity of perspective. Again, this is what Schopenhauer called the ‘original disposition of the mind’, the way in which a whole organism is structured so that it knows the world. That is the mode of knowing that we occupy most of the time, and we assume it to deliver us reality. Quite unthinkingly we believe that we are perceiving the real world, occupied by a real person.

The second mode of knowing is the breaking up of the overall flow of our perceptual knowing into generalised concepts. We generalise ‘words’, we generalise ‘book’. Actually every book is unique and cannot really be captured by the blunt term ‘book’; but it is nonetheless extremely useful if I want someone to fetch a book off the shelf. So we translate the minute particularity of our experience into portable concepts, which are generalisations of, abstractions from, that experience. Conceptualising derives from perceptual knowing, and indeed properly speaking returns to it. When I use the concept ‘book’, I do so in order for you to know which elements of your perceptual experience to pay attention to. In this way, knowing in the form of conceptualising is sort of second-hand experience. It is an abstraction from perceptual experience into the medium of concepts, which I can then use to locate myself in space and time, learn from the past and make plans for the future. The whole structure of human culture is mediated by the ability to use concepts.

These are the two primary modes of knowing. And much of the routine of our lives (and my goodness, isn’t most of life routine?) is under the headings of these two. But I hope that from what I have said so far we will already begin to recognise the limits of perceiving and thereby of conceiving. Perceiving is limited because we don’t perceive reality, we perceive images. These images are in some mysterious way related to what we cannot but think of as reality; but what we perceive is images, not reality – not what Kant called the ‘thing in itself’. We don’t perceive whatever it is that the image is an image of. Even the idea that there is something ‘standing behind’ our experience is a spatial metaphor, which is a conceptualised image drawn from perception. Our perception is actually what Schopenhauer called Vorstellung, or ‘representation’, and what Yogācāra calls vijñapti. This is not merely high philosophy, it is also common sense. When you start to reflect upon what is going on in perception it is quite straightforward to see that what you are perceiving are not things but the images that you help to create. Out of what? on what basis? – that is another question which I won’t address now. As for conception, in so far as conceiving is the generalisation from perceiving, which is itself mere representation, it must be what Schopenhauer called ‘representation of representation’.

All our experience ultimately is Imagination.

So much for those two forms of knowing. Useful though they are, as regards the fullness of reality they are strictly limited. How can we go further? There is obviously an immediate problem, because in trying to talk about any means of knowing that goes beyond we are constrained to use concepts that are derived from within the field of representation. Moreover, we have to recognise that we have different languages available to us. The first level of language consists of concepts that are immediately related to perceptual experience as description. The second level is the language of abstract conceptualisation, through which we take a step further away from the immediacy of perception. There may be fine shades between these two but there is a genuine difference. Here I am using a mixture of the two languages. I described my experience in the Singapore art gallery, which consisted largely of perceptual description. Now I am starting to draw larger themes and understandings from that, which is a more abstract use of concepts. But both those languages are bounded by the limitations of perception, since they originate from within that framework.

What lies beyond that, strictly speaking we cannot talk about. The wonder of the Buddha is that he managed to say so much while refusing to say what he couldn’t say. That is, in my opinion, the difference between Buddhism and all other religion. Hinduism, for instance, strays into vast speculations about the ultimate nature of things and their relation to the intimate nature of things, and thereby presents huge hostages to misunderstanding. This is why you can have a caste system whilst believing in an ultimate ātman. As soon as you step into the speculative realm of trying to speak about what is unspeakable, you have led to all sorts of possibilities for the evil that religion so easily lends itself to. The Buddha refused to do that, as he was very well aware of the limitations of language.

However, refusing to say more than is sayable is itself not without its dangers, leading to what Sangharakshita called the ‘charge of nihilism’ that has so often, mistakenly, been made against Buddhism. Unless we have some way of thinking about what lies beyond the world of representation, the danger is we think that nothing does. We think that we are just stuck with the world as it ordinarily appears to us, and when that comes to an end, when the eyes close for the last time, the lights go out and that is it.

Fortunately, we have another language, a language that is very much alive even in the Buddha’s own discourse, but not so consciously referred to as such. I mean the language of images. The language of images – in the form of metaphor, symbol and myth – takes us closer to another mode of knowing, beyond perception and conception, which is closer to the truth of things, and that other mode of knowing is of course Imagination. This is, I would argue, the real mode of knowing. Even our perceptual knowing is a form of imagining. The objects of perception are not independent of us, and we ourselves are an image. All our experience ultimately is Imagination. Even our concepts are derived from representations which are the work of the Imagination. Imagination is our real life, it is our real knowing, it is what consciousness really means.

In the aesthetic moment we let go of the modes of knowing that are perceiving and conceiving. We let go of conceiving in so far as, even if only to some extent, we stop thinking. The more your little brain is ticking out concepts, the less aesthetic the experience is. It may be that a certain amount of thinking generates in you a more immediate experience, but it does so by pointing you away from thinking and towards Imagination. This is the function of poetry, as well as really intelligent Dharma teaching.

When the Imagination begins to flower, image perceives image, or even better, image imagines image.

In the aesthetic moment we also leave behind perceiving in the sense of interpreting our experience under the headings of space, time and causality. Moreover, you slacken its interpretation in terms of subject and object, in so far as they both become image – or in Sangharakshita’s words, from ‘The Journey to Il Convento’, image perceiving image. When the Imagination begins to flower, image perceives image, or even better, image imagines image. There is only imagining.

Right now that is what is happening: you are an image, and you are imagining images. These images are arising in dependence upon causes and conditions, which are ultimately unfathomable because you can only follow them so far, and doing so at all is only useful in the world of perception and conception. When you let go of that world you simply experience the creative fountain of images, unfolding like the petals of a flower.

In a wonderful seminar on the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Sangharakshita talked about the mandala of the Five Buddhas, and about how in the ‘bardo’ the Five-Buddha Mandala effloresces. First of all each Buddha-figure emerges one after the other, day by day. And then they begin to riot. Each of the Buddhas explodes into multiple Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, which then themselves explode into all sorts of weird and wonderful figures. Sangharakshita spoke of this being an image for Enlightenment itself. Without such an image you might think of Enlightenment as a coming to an end, and in a certain sense it is. It is a coming to an end of clinging to representations as literally referring to ‘me’ and ‘things’, and to concepts as actually describing reality. But in imaginative terms it is not the end of anything, it is the beginning of everything. When we really allow ourselves to experience the imagination increasingly free from the boundaries of perceptual and conceptual representation, we experience ourselves as image-imagining-image, and that as an inexhaustible spring of creative energy, if you want to call it anything.

That is what art connects us to, in combination with everything else we do in our spiritual lives. Art can lead us deep into the Imagination, and I believe the greatest of artists touch such depths that they lead us to the gateways of reality itself – to things as they really are. They show us Imagination as the life of everything, as the force that generates all our experience. Without art and the language of images our efforts to practise the Dharma very easily become absorbed in technique, and our realisations are merely conceptualisations: clever, penetrating, perhaps even important conceptualisations, but lacking the power, the depth, the ineffability of Imagination, which sweeps us into dimensions where we are just image, and what we are perceiving or imagining is just image. Indeed, I have come to think that the idea of ‘no self’ means not so much recognising that there is no image that is you, but recognising that you are an image. One could say that you are no more than an image, but that sounds like being an image is not very much. On the contrary, to be an image, and for that image to be no different from the image that it knows, is to be Imagination itself, and that image-imagining-image is Reality itself.

Further than that I can’t go, and perhaps I have already given too many hostages to fortune. But I hope I have given you some flavour of the depths to which even our own aesthetic moments can take us, and into which the greatest aesthetic guides that humanity has produced can take us deep, deep indeed. The greatest of art touches those depths because the artists themselves have touched them, and they have the skill or craft to communicate their insight and understanding in the sensuous medium that is before them. Shakespeare, in creating a Hamlet, has not merely created a wonderfully engaging dramatic piece. He has touched on the depth of humanity, of what it is to be alive, what it is to know. Maybe many artists have glimpses and are able to communicate something, but the greatest of them take us right into the heart of reality, because they show Imagination itself – not our imagination or even their imagination, but Imagination itself, beyond the boundaries of perception and conception, beyond space, time and causality, beyond self and other. It is just Imagination, and we are image-imagining-image.


Subhuti is a senior member of the Triratna Buddhist Order, and author of a number of books including Sangharakshita: A New Voice in the Buddhist Tradition and Mind In Harmony. He is based in Wales, though travels extensively as a Buddhist teacher.

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