Buddhist perspectives on society and culture

The Ascent of Beauty

Posted in: Buddhism, Culture
ascent of beauty

Editor’s introduction
In May and November 2014, Subhuti, alongside Padmavajra, held two retreats at Adhisthana on the theme of ‘Eros and Beauty’, at both of which each of them gave a series of talks. Although the talks of the two men were given in tandem and were intended to complement one another, I have long felt that Subhuti’s contained material that warranted systematic presentation in written form. I am therefore grateful that he has allowed me to edit them into two articles, the first of which, based largely on the first set of his talks, is presented here. 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 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. 

Beauty has always been a central aspect of Sangharakshita’s perspective on the Dharma. Even so, it is an aspect of his teaching that one could be forgiven for not really having ‘caught’. It was very much alive in the early days of what was then called the FWBO – partly because Sangharakshita himself was, in his own particular way, such a lover of beauty that it was inescapable for those of us who were around then. It is also evident in his writings, even if not always talked of in those terms. In the 1950s he wrote the collection of essays later published as The Religion of Art; and there is a crucial passage about beauty in The Three Jewels, published in 1967, which I will draw upon heavily in this article. He has spoken and written on the theme in various places since. For example, in the first public talk he gave after losing his eyesight in the early 2000s, the theme he chose was the ‘Six Distinctive Emphases’ of the Triratna Buddhist Community, one of which is the value of the arts. And beauty was the main subject of ‘Green Tara and the fourth lakṣaṇa’, one of the last pieces he ever wrote.

Drawing on such sources, in these two essays I will be further exploring beauty as an aspect of the Dharma. I will first look at how this can be grounded in the Buddhist tradition and how it provides a link with the Western tradition, before looking at how we can apply these ideas in experience.  

Beauty in the Pali Canon

Sangharakshita’s emphasis on beauty is one of his teachings that won’t be found in the tradition but is fully justifiable on the basis of traditional terms (along with the Five Niyamas, ‘Higher Evolution’ and so on). Throughout the Pali Canon there are many references to beauty in various ways. But significantly, the later commentaries on those parts are really unsatisfactory, and it is quite clear when reading Buddhaghosa and a number of other commentators that they have missed the point, and have made an attempt to make sense of it which doesn’t really make sense at all. Sangharakshita’s theory, or perhaps it is more of an intuition, is that the early Theravada lost a whole living part of the tradition, fragments of which were kept preserved in the texts but not understood.

In the background to this there is a large discussion to be had about what the Pali Suttas actually are. There is a lot of discussion amongst scholars about what the Buddha really taught. Even on fairly rudimentary examination, parts of the Pali Canon are obviously post-constructed because they refer to events that happened after the Buddha’s lifetime. The Suttas themselves are quite a mixed bag. According to Reginald Ray in his important work Buddhist Saints in India, what we have is a highly selective reading. There is, for example, very little about bhikkhunis, or lay people. The main emphasis is on the bhikkhus and their particular way of life. On the basis of sound, if suggestive, scholarly evidence, Ray argues that the picture is much richer than the Canon, narrowly read, suggests.

What he shows, or at least offers a persuasive picture of, is that economics began to take over. The monks needed a living, and they were in competition with the brahmins for the support of the laity, so they began to refashion the Dharma in the image of the Brahminical Vedas. They increasingly became a scholarly elite, just as the brahmins were. They began to abrogate to themselves specialist knowledge and the idea of being a ‘field of merit’, according to which a gift to a bhikkhu was more meritorious (and therefore brought more benefit to the giver) than a gift to somebody else. In this way the bhikkhu sangha became a somewhat detached, superior, specialist, intellectual body, to which the laity needed to resort in order to gain merit – in other words, to get to heaven. In later Theravada this became the dominant theme, because of which there was a strong tendency to interpret the Dhamma in intellectual-cum-institutional terms, and indeed, what is preserved in the Pali Canon suggests there was already the beginnings of such an emphasis.

So we shouldn’t look too uncritically at the Pali Canon, and we must recognize that what we have is a highly selective, interpreted glimpse of what the Buddha taught. This is why modern scholarship is so exciting: it is delving into the background of the Suttas, and revealing more and more what a complex and rich picture they emerged from. When you read the Suttas and then the commentaries it is obvious that by the time the latter came to be written they had lost an understanding of huge swathes of the Buddha’s teaching, only hints of which remain. We also get hints through the Mahayana Sutras. Many of them are obviously later developments, but they retain memories, so to speak, of a larger picture, and one has to read them like that. We may tend to think that the Pali Canon tells us who the Buddha was, and the Mahayana tells us how people decorated him later. I don’t think that is true. The tradition was preserved and developed in all these contexts. In the Theravada context it developed a more intellectualised, analytical model. In the Mahayana it took different directions.

The importance of beauty as an aspect of the Dharma has perhaps been a bit neglected in the tradition, and it is time to make it explicit

If you read the Suttas with this eye, you will see that they contain a far greater accent on beauty than you might otherwise recognize. For a start, people tend to discount, or at least minimise, the significance of the devas. They are a very strong presence in the whole Canon, but we will likely miss that element if we select out that which doesn’t suit our cultural predilections. It is not put in conceptual terms, but the Buddha seems to have lived in intimate connection with these higher devic realms, which can be seen as realms of aesthetic experience.

The importance of beauty as an aspect of the Dharma has perhaps been a bit neglected in the tradition, and it is time to make it explicit. Sangharakshita considered it one of the keys to the translation of the Dharma into Western culture. Not only do we have such a rich artistic heritage to gain inspiration from, but beauty is a major strand in Western thought, including figures such as Kant and Schopenhauer, but going all the way back to the Greeks, and especially to Plato.

Plato’s Symposium

Sangharakshita once said that he was by nature a Platonist. What he meant by this we shall see, but it was not in the sense of believing in the split between the realm of ‘forms’ and the realm of ordinary things. He definitely disagreed with that version of Platonism, which in any case some people consider was late in Plato’s doctrine. Often a distinction is made between the ‘Socratic’ and the ‘Platonic’ dialogues: between those that are to do with Plato’s exposition of Socrates’ teachings, and those that are his own expounding upon what he inherited from Socrates. The early dialogues are less formalised and metaphysical than the later ones, and are considered as more directly reflecting what Socrates taught, although it is not known for certain.

Sangharakshita’s interest was mainly in the Socratic dialogues, especially The Symposium, which he described as ‘one of the most sublime works of Western literature’.1 It would usually be classified as philosophy, but actually it reads more like literature, or philosophy-as-literature. Sangharakshita said that one of the things that attracted him about Plato is his ability to translate his ideas into myths, such as the myth of the cave in The Republic. Plato realized that deep philosophical ideas were best communicated through myth. The Symposium is such a myth, or rather a series of myths tied together in a mythical literary encounter. It is an account (whether fictitious or semi-fictitious) of a dinner party between a number of educated Athenian gentlemen, in which Socrates himself plays a leading part. It was a Greek tradition for men to get together, have a good evening of food and drink, and then talk – and of course being Athenians they would talk quite brilliantly. On this occasion they are talking about love, and they talk about it from a number of different points of view, from the comical to the lofty. There is, for example, the famous exposition by Aristophanes, the comedic poet, whose account of love is that originally we were created in pairs fused into wholes, but because we irritated the Gods they cut us in two so that we spend our lives seeking our other halves.

When it comes to Socrates’ turn, he recounts a dream his teacher Diotima, who was an old woman, had of true love, and of what true beauty is. What she said is that first of all there is attraction to the beautiful form of the loved one. That is motivated initially by sexual attraction, but it becomes something more than that, and when properly guided has a flavour of what Buddhists might call kalyana-mitrata (spiritual friendship), insofar as the older man is supposed to educate the younger in beauty. An appreciation of the form of a particular object leads to an appreciation of beauty of form in general; then beauty of form begins to open up beauty of character, beauty of virtue, beauty of mind, beauty of soul. One begins to see that the beautiful body is occupied by a beautiful mind, and one becomes more and more drawn to the beauty of soul, to moral or even spiritual beauty. That spiritual beauty leads one on to an appreciation of the quality of beauty that the soul expresses. In this way beauty ascends to an experience of ultimate Beauty: the Beauty which is the source of all other beauties; a Beauty that cannot exist independent of beautiful things, but is more than them.

It is this sense in which Sangharakshita referred to himself as by nature a Platonist. He saw spiritual life not just as an escape from mundane suffering, but as an ascent towards the highest Good, or in this case the highest Beauty. He was strongly drawn towards beauty himself, and believed not only that the cultivation of a sensitivity to beauty was inherent in the spiritual life, but that the Dharma itself could be conceived of in those terms.

Śubha, Aśubha and the Vimokṣa-mukhas

One of most important expositions of this idea is found in The Three Jewels, which is perhaps generally a neglected book. Sangharakshita spoke to me about it as being at a higher level of teaching than A Survey of Buddhism (often considered his magnum opus). It is a more intricate and complex work with a deeper spiritual perspective. What he has to say about the aśubha and śubha is fundamental to my approach in this article. In discussing the topic we must in effect combine three sets of doctrines: the four viparyāsas, the three lakṣaṇas, and the vimokṣa-mukhas.

It is significant that in The Three Jewels Sangharakshita approaches discussion of the lakṣaṇas by way of the less commonly known viparyāsas, which he translates as ‘perversities’, but are sometimes called the ‘topsy-turvy views’. These are the ways in which we misunderstand reality. Thus we see the impermanent (anitya) as permanent (nitya), the insubstantial (anātman) as substantial (ātman), the painful (duhkha) as satisfying (sukha), and the ugly (aśubha) as beautiful (śubha). These correspond to the lakṣaṇas, with the addition of the aśubha, which he deals with first. In a key passage, he makes explicit the connection between the Dharma and Platonism, at least as regards Beauty.

Aśubha, which means not only ugly but also horrid, disgusting, repulsive or impure, is best understood by referring to the word from which it is derived by the addition of a negative prefix. Śubha, literally purity, really means beauty, though beauty of the spiritual rather than of the sensuous order. It is Pure Beauty in the Platonic and Neoplatonic sense of something shining in a world of its own above and beyond concrete things, which are termed beautiful only so far as they participate in its perfection. When Buddhism insists that all conditioned things are aśubha, it does not mean that we have to regard a flower, for instance, as essentially ugly, but only that in comparison with the beauties of a higher place of reality those of a lower plane are insignificant. Beauty and ugliness are relative terms. We cannot really see the conditioned as aśubha until we have seen the Unconditioned as śubha. Similarly, within the conditioned itself, in order to see the ugliness and impurity of objects belonging to a lower plane it is necessary to ascend, in meditation, to one which is higher.2

We have here not only an assertion of the spiritual nature of beauty, but the notion of a gradual ascent towards an absolute Beauty. To show how this is to be understood in relation to more standard Buddhist doctrine, we can turn to the vimokṣa-mukhas. These are the positive, transcendental counterparts of the lakṣaṇas. Sangharakshita has stressed, in a way that I’ve never seen elsewhere, that when you contemplate the lakṣaṇas you should always contemplate the vimokṣa-mukha that corresponds to it. Otherwise the danger is that you fall into nihilism. You think ‘everything is impermanent so let’s just have fun while it lasts’; or ‘the self is an illusion, so why bother making effort?’; or ‘everything is just suffering so what’s the point?’ But the real contemplation of the lakṣaṇa consists in trying to see the relationship in experience between the lakṣaṇa and the vimokṣa-mukha. The vimokṣa-mukha that corresponds to anityatā, is animitta, which is usually translated as ‘the signless’. Because things are impermanent, there are no real entities to which our ‘signs’ may be attached, and their true nature is experienced as a continuous state of flow or becoming, which is completely beyond concepts. Then, the correspondence between duhkha and its vimokṣa-mukha of apranihita – the wishless – is that duhkha arises because we crave, and when we stop craving we experience a wonderful state of freedom from desire. Lastly, anātman means there is no fixed metaphysical self, and its corresponding vimokṣa-mukha is śūnyatā, meaning emptiness, which signifies the complete openness of reality: without boundary, without constriction.

Sangharakshita’s treatment of aśubha and śubha in this context implies that we can think of the śubha as a fourth vimokṣa-mukha, and therefore that we can contemplate it in relation to the aśubha, and this can lead to a real experience of liberation. Indeed, much later, he made this idea explicit. For example, in his vignette, ‘Green Tara and the fourth lakṣaṇa’, composed in the last year of his life, he said,

Historically speaking, Buddhism has not developed a spiritual path in which the goal is envisaged in terms of ideal beauty and the path in terms of increasing love for that beauty. There is no reason, however, why such a path should not be developed within the general framework of Buddhist practice, especially as we have models for such an approach within the Western spiritual tradition.

I suggest we could go even further and say that if we don’t really appreciate the śubha we can’t really see the other vimokṣa-mukhas: that our contemplation of the latter will be effective when they are seen as beautiful. For example, contemplating śūnyatā without śubha entails the danger of becoming over-conceptualized on the one hand, and on the other to alienation, depression and so forth. These dangers do face the modern Buddhist because of the nihilism of our culture, which so often influences how the Dharma is presented. We are constantly influenced by both Buddhist and semi-Buddhist sources that take us away from the kind of rich perspective on the Dharma that Sangharakshita has given us – which includes Beauty, imagination, friendship, community, etc – towards one that is highly conceptualised or so superficial that it doesn’t really have much effect.

I would even argue that there is something about the śubha that is more compelling and direct than the other vimokṣa-mukhas. To some extent this depends on individuals and circumstances. It may be that śūnyatā has been brought very much to life for you. It could be that the ultimate ineffability of Reality is something you can strongly engage with. It may be that the idea of being completely free of all craving has become for you a living experience. But with Beauty there is a direct route to transcendence through your more mundane experience of it. The hierarchical nature of Beauty means that if you can get hold of its tail on one level it traces itself through to higher levels.

This ascent of Beauty is what Plato taught via Socrates in the so-called Socratic phase of Plato’s dialogues. As Buddhists, however, we have to understand beauty in the context of the other lakṣaṇas. One of Sangharakshita’s reservations about Platonism is that Plato had a metaphysical doctrine of ‘Forms’ which is quasi-eternalist – though there are different ways of interpreting it. Sangharakshita dissociates himself from that metaphysical element of Plato’s teaching, yet he strongly identifies with the aspect of ascent through Beauty, which he considers to be a key to the transmission of the Dharma in the West.

But before further exploring the path of beauty- the śubha-marga, to coin a phrase – there is an important part of the picture to fill in. The idea of beauty as an ascent implies not only a higher Beauty, but a powerful attraction from us towards it. This is what I mean by the term ‘Eros’.

On Eros

The Greek figure of Eros has its roots simply in sexual attraction. But Plato, and then the Neo-Platonists, elevated the notion of Eros to indicate the strong desire for a higher Beauty. This is a very important equation or connection, since Beauty will be forever inaccessible to us unless we can connect it with our desire. To make this clearer let us now consider the nature of desire. We could say that it functions on three levels – with many gradations, sub-levels, and interactions between them.

The first kind of desire is the straightforward one of the body’s needs. Thirst, hunger, desire for sex, the instinct of ‘fight or flight’, and so on; even quite complex instincts such as those that bring the swallows from the deep South to nest in my barn: they come on the wings of desire.

Obviously desire at that level is not self-aware. But with human beings, desire comes into the service of self-awareness, or self-awareness comes into the service of desire – it is difficult to say which. This level of desire is focused on the preservation, expansion, and prolongation of ego-identity. When we become self-aware we become capable of thinking ‘I’. We bifurcate our experience into an ‘I’ in here that has experience and a ‘world’ out there that is experienced. We assume that ‘I’ has some ultimate validity independent of the flow of time, and we assume that the world exists independent of the moment of perception as a stable, enduring field, within which our experience takes place. This sets up a tremendous tension both within us and between us and the world that surrounds us. Every moment is telling us that ‘I’ is not permanent, not stable, and therefore not ultimately defensible, in a world that both threatens us perpetually with extinction and offers us the possibility of solidifying our identity.

Desires that have their origins, from an evolutionary point of view, in our animal instincts, come into the service of our assumption of a separate self. We crave; animals don’t crave, they are hungry. We hate; animals don’t hate, they instinctively defend themselves, or seize upon prey. We seek to preserve our identity by craving what we think will solidify it, by repelling or even seeking to destroy what we think threatens it, and by ignoring the reality of things.

But sometimes the objects of the senses escape our mundane, ego-based perception of them. Something about the object hints at something beyond merely self-reference, at a larger, broader, possibility within reality. That is when the third level of desire begins to take off, which I am calling Eros. It is when the desire for the ‘other’, which is based first of all on self, becomes the desire for Other as representing something more than self and other, which we have been looking at in terms of Beauty.

I see the gradation between the three levels in this way, but of course it is much more complex than that in the act. When you fall in love, for example, all three kinds of desire are present. Your body wants sex; you want the other person to affirm your identity; and there is something intuited of a real union beyond the selfish, something of a higher pleasure, something even of beauty. Moreover, there is a continuity between the levels of desire: each feeds into, and is to some extent involved in, the other. The desires of hunger and thirst, the drive for sex, the need for protection and so forth, cannot just be eliminated. One of the wonderful things about Sangharakshita’s approach to the Dharma is that he doesn’t ask you to do that. In fact he says quite explicitly, don’t try to get rid of the lower pleasures until you have a strong grasp on the higher. Otherwise you end up with the weirdness of so much religion. The art of applying this is of finding within the objects of mundane desire those that have a gleam of the transcendent. Sangharakshita calls this the ‘intermediary’: something that stands within your experience and faces towards you, offering an object of desire, but flashing with something from beyond.

Awareness of Aśubha

This is what great works of art give us: an intermediary between us and Beauty. And to delve further into the idea of Beauty as a path I am going to reference one of the greatest works of art I know: Stalker, by Andrei Tarkovsky. The film is a meditation on desire, on hope and on faith, very powerfully and movingly explored. Tarkovsky famously said that his films don’t have a logic of narrative; they are concerned rather with the logic of images. So the story, if you could call it a story, is told beneath the surface of the conceptual mind. The images speak to one, giving a strong feeling of seeing something, realising something, without being exactly sure what it is. The central character is Stalker, who is so called because he leads people into a mysterious forbidden zone, in which, it is said, all desires are fulfilled. He leads a professor (representing science), and a writer (representing art) into the heart of the zone, which is a desolate post-industrial landscape, and as they are led further in you become more and more sensitive to the zone’s potentialities. Approaching the final entry towards the room where all desires are fulfilled, Stalker is in despair at the lack of reverence of the writer and the professor. He becomes almost furious at their inability to understand what they are doing, their doubts, their casualness and their failure to recognise the dangers of the zone. And he suddenly rounds on them and in a very intense, incantatory way recites this poem, which happens to be by Arsenie Tarkovsky, the film-maker’s father.

But there has to be more

Now summer is gone
And might never have been
In the sunshine it’s warm
But there has to be more

It all came to pass
All fell into my hands
Like a five-petalled leaf
But there has to be more

Nothing evil was lost
Nothing good was in vain
All ablaze with clear light
But there has to be more

Life gathered me up
Safe, under its wing
My luck always held
But there has to be more

Not a leaf was burnt up
Not a twig ever snapped
Clean as glass is the day
But there has to be more

This poem speaks to me of a constant underlying theme of my experience. There is always a sense that although life can be astonishingly beautiful, and at moments even seemingly perfect, there has to be more. You know that something in you is not fulfilled. I have been arguing for Sangharakshita’s view that aśubha could be added to the list of lakṣaṇas, and that śubha could be added to the list of vimokśā-mukhas – the gateways to liberation. If it is a gateway to liberation it must have something from which it liberates, and that is the aśubha: an immediate, felt sense of not having yet seen that which is fully, deeply, fulfillingly beautiful.

For me, duhkha and aśubha are the characteristics of conditioned existence that most closely touch me. I do reflect on impermanence and insubstantiality, but those tend to be mere reflections. What really strikes me on a daily, almost moment by moment basis, is a strong sense of unfulfilment – not full happiness, not full ease, not full peace; and a sense that always the Beautiful is distant, is not fully realised. If we examine our lives closely we will recognise that the experience of a lack of final union with something both fully satisfying and completely beautiful is a powerful factor in them. We are constantly gnawed at by it, and often we are trying to find ways of compensating, of palliating, of deadening. I sometimes think that people who become addicted to drink or drugs often are the sort of people who feel it most strongly, Dylan Thomas being an example. He clearly felt the blinding, burning, brilliance of reality in a way that he just could not bear, and eventually drowned himself in drink.

The aśubha is not just about seeing something as ugly, but recognising that, however beautiful it is, ‘there has to be more’.

It is this sense of lack that we address in the practice of aśubha-bhavana. It does not mean going out to find something ugly to contemplate. That is a practice that is used as a compensation for excessive desire, but too often in the tradition aśubha-bhavana is only seen in those terms. If you are overly-addicted to the opposite sex and cannot get them out of your mind during meditation, you can reflect upon what their bodies are really like when you cut them open or when their corpse is decomposing. Sangharakshita saw this as an extreme medicine for an extreme disease, and didn’t recommend the practice for most of us. If we confined the contemplation of aśubha to such extreme practices we would be missing a huge part of its significance. Conditioned existence is marked by the aśubha, and cultivating an awareness of it is not something we merely use to counteract an excessive desire in one direction – although clearly to do so is related to a more general principle. I believe the aśubha is something that any honest person will find present in their daily experience, pressing up within them or bumping up against them, all the time, in every situation. What Buddhism does is ask us to take that on, to fully recognise that actually the way we live, the way we see things, is not going to reveal real Beauty. We may see some beauty, which can be a means of entry into a higher beauty; but most of the time we don’t experience even that, but rather its lack.

In Buddhism the recognition of absence is a central theme. In the practice of the Buddha-Dharma we need always to start with the awareness of an absence within ourselves. The aśubha is not just about seeing something as ugly, but recognising that, however beautiful it is, ‘there has to be more’. Relatively speaking there is a certain amount of beauty. On a Spring day, with the grass electric green, the trees in all their verdant glory, and the chestnuts with their candles, how can we say there is no beauty? But what we experience is only relative beauty. What aśubha-bhavana requires us to do is not cultivate the lack of beauty, but to recognise it as part of our present experience, recognise that full beauty has not yet flowered. If we don’t do that we will not take the steps that lead to its flowering.

That of course is not the end of it, otherwise it is the path not to liberation but to self-destruction. We also need the śubha-bhavana

Cultivation of Śubha

I once had a memorable encounter with a minor but not inconsiderable English poet, George Barker. I knew his son quite well and occasionally went to his Saturday evening drinking parties, at which, as his children said, he would eat people. (He ate me for sure, but that is another story). On one occasion I was just sitting, minding my own business, looking at some beautiful lilacs out of the window of the National Trust Rectory where he lived. And he came in, made a beeline for me, stood over me and said ‘poetry is like Perseus’ shield: it enables us to stare at what would otherwise turn us to stone’.

Through poetry, or any of the arts, we are able to look obliquely at what we can’t face directly. We can’t face the aśubha too directly because we can’t accept that the things we are so attached to are by nature impure. And we can’t look at the śubha too directly, because its blinding, brilliant beauty is too much for us to take in. But through the śubha-bhavana we can address our immediate experience and recognise not only that full beauty has not revealed itself to us, but also that we see its shadow as it disappears around the corner. We don’t see the sun, but as it sets we see its rays glowing in the sky. We see that in our experience there is some reflection of that ideal and ultimate Beauty.

I don’t mean simply loveliness; beauty can also be found in the terrible, in the sublime, even in the destructive. Goya’s dark paintings, for example, are indeed dark, in terms both of colour and of theme, but there is also something extraordinarily potent, even beautiful about them. The intuitions of beauty I mean are not merely of the pretty or the lovely, but of something that suggests a full and final Beauty that is completely beyond our earthly realm, but that is reflected, to varying degrees, at varying levels and in varying ways, in our ordinary experience. The path of beauty lies in tracing these gleams. You can see a sliver of light down the side of the door, and you sense that through that door is the final light, a light so intense, so overwhelming that all is resolved. By seeing that gleam, and by addressing it again and again, you come closer and closer to the door. And eventually, when you come close enough, you can open it and pass through.

Four Characteristics of Beauty

But how do we recognise beauty? Although it is an experience we all have to some extent, it is so mixed up with other responses that it may not always be clear to us how to identify it, and how therefore to develop it. In order to help us find beauty in our experience I will identify four of its characteristics.

The first characteristic is described in this extract from Kit Marlowe’s Tamburlaine (which is also quoted by Sangharakshita at the beginning of The Eternal Legacy).

What is Beauty, sayeth my sufferings then?
If all the pens that ever poets held
Had fed the feeling of their masters’ thoughts,
And every sweetness that inspir’d their hearts,
Their minds, and muses on admiréd themes;
If all the heavenly quintessence they still
From their immortal flowers of poesy,
Wherein as in a mirror we perceive
The highest reaches of a human wit –
If these had made one poem’s period,
And all combin’d in beauty’s worthiness,
Yet should there hover in their restless heads
One thought, one grace, one wonder, at the least,
Which into words no virtue can digest.

As the poem illustrates, beauty cannot be fully expressed. It is intuited in the sense of being felt rather than thought, so it is beyond the reach of language. When you see that sunset, you are moved without having to think about it. If you try to find words to express it they seem banal, flat, and inadequate, and don’t do justice to the experience itself. In the field of art, the role of the critic is to help one have the direct experience, not to define the experience – which is where a lot of literary criticism goes wrong.

The second characteristic of beauty is that it is intensely pleasurable. To experience beauty is to experience delight or satisfaction, even if the object is not something necessarily especially pleasant. The last scene of Hamlet, with the stage littered with bodies, is not conventionally beautiful, but the beauty of the whole dramatic unfoldment, and the beauty of what Hamlet discovers in this tragic flow, is intensely satisfying, and leaves one with a supremely uplifted spirit. Tragedy can be pleasurable because a work of art, though it presents itself through the medium of the senses, draws us away from the superficial pleasures of the senses and towards the deeper pleasure of the mind, in a way that overlaps with meditation. 

The third characteristic of beauty is that it has an inevitable tendency to transcendence. When you view anything beautiful it evokes a response of pleasure that engages you, but then the object itself becomes inadequate as an expression of the beauty; and if you know how to, and allow yourself, you pass from that object to a deeper contemplation of beauty. If you watch a really good film you may think a bit about the contents of the film, but the main thing you are left with is a contemplative feeling, which goes beyond the subject matter of the film or even sometimes the experience of watching it. When you experience an object as beautiful you get a glimpse of something expressed through, but not limited by, the object. When you view the sunset, you sense something that is more than merely the colours and the harmony of the scene, something that is expressed through all that, but which is more than that. There is something you intuit in the object of beauty that is more than the object but at the same time is in the object.

A fourth characteristic of the experience of beauty is that it is ecstatic. In its origin the word ecstatic means ‘standing outside’. Beauty makes you stand outside yourself. The beautiful object draws you out of yourself into ‘it’. If you ever go to art galleries you may know the experience of fighting your way through hoards of Japanese tourists to finally look at the famous paintings you have long wanted to see, but initially finding that they don’t do anything for you. You are still too locked up in the busyness and purposiveness of the journey there. Then, if you are lucky, a painting grabs you by the lapels and pulls you into it. You forget the whole business of getting there and all the others around you; all your knowledge about art history or about the painter and his technique becomes secondary at best, and you are simply entranced.

Eros, when it responds to beauty, is ecstatic in this sort of way. This is where Beauty becomes a vimokṣa-mukha, because in your ecstasy, in your entering into the beautiful object, you lose yourself. And in the highest objects of beauty, or when you see beauty at its highest, you finally lose yourself altogether and you don’t come back.

Objective and Subjective

In seeking the beautiful, the ideal Beauty shining in a world of its own, we must approach it through the intermediaries of concrete things. But this raises the questions: Why do we find some things beautiful rather than other things? Why do we find some things more beautiful than other things? And why do I find something beautiful that you do not? The answer has two aspects: one objective and one subjective.

Perhaps the most powerful way in which reality presents itself to us is when we allow ourselves to respond to beauty in the world around us. 

There seems to be something in the experience of beauty that is a claim to universality. You don’t want merely to say ‘I find that beautiful’, you want to say ‘that is beautiful’. The universality of beauty seems to lie in the capacity of the object to mediate Beauty itself. In a sense everything reflects that pure Beauty. If the eye is sufficiently open beauty is everywhere, even in seeming ugliness. But some objects, some people, some situations, some configurations within sensuous reality, reflect pure Beauty more readily than others. It is a bit like how lightning can strike anywhere, but is more likely to ground through particular objects. There is something about the configuration of objects themselves (in the general sense, including persons) that more or less adequately expresses, or becomes a channel for, ideal Beauty.

Precisely why this is so is, in the end, a mystery. Every time we find something beautiful the response is immediate and intuitive. But we can reflect on our responses to try to understand why that particular object reflects ideal Beauty. Why is that particular painting, poem, play, film or scene beautiful, and that one isn’t? It is the subject of so much aesthetic theory, so much literary and artistic criticism, and probably the discussion and debate will never reach a conclusion. In the end what makes something beautiful is the fact that you respond to it according to the four characteristics that I have described. In principle anything, any situation, any object, can be the object of an aesthetic experience, given the right circumstances, the right state of mind, and so on.

The universal nature of an object’s capacity to reflect beauty needs to be emphasised, because these days most people assume that aesthetic judgement is nothing more than an expression of personal preference. It isn’t. Nonetheless, there is a subjective element to the experience of beauty. Why is it that, for example, when we walk round an art gallery full of masterpieces, some grab us and some don’t? Even though intellectually you may know they are all great works, some paintings pull our hearts while others leave us cold. That, to some extent, is to do with us; it depends upon who we are. While it is true that some objects themselves are a more adequate expression of Beauty, some of those expressions appeal to us more than others.

This is to do with our constitution as human beings. To explore this let us first take a step back and look at what it is to be a human being. You could say that the true nature of things is before us at every moment: things are impermanent, they are insubstantial, they lack the capacity to give us real satisfaction, and they are always pale reflections of ideal Beauty. All the time this reality is pressing upon us, and in a sense to be a human being is to defend oneself against it. Our identity is constantly threatened, undermined, denied, by reality, and we constantly fight a rear-guard action against it. At every moment Reality is laughing at our pretensions to independent selfhood, and we are all the time struggling to hold it together, telling ourselves the stories that reconfigure everything around our sense of identity.

My favourite neurologist, Oliver Sacks, described a man who had lost short- and medium-term memory.3 He had about five minutes of short-term memory and then nothing for thirty years. Sacks called him the Confabulator because all the time he was telling a story that connected the last five minutes with thirty years ago. Of course, the last five minutes moved forward with the arrow of time so his story was constantly falling apart and he had to juggle it back together again. It’s a really tragic case, but it is salutary to realise that that is what we are all doing, albeit we may have better equipment for doing it (at the moment!).

Reality is pressing in upon us all the time, not just in the negative form of our intimations of the inadequacy of our attachments, but in the positive form of the vimokṣa-mukhas. Reality is constantly pressing upon us with the message that it is completely open, there are no closed boundaries, nothing is fixed, nothing is finished. It is pressing upon us in the sense that there is nowhere to go, nothing to do, everything is here, now. It is pressing upon us with this ideal Beauty. All the time we are defending ourselves against Reality both in the form of the lakṣaṇas and in the form of the vimokṣa-mukhas, and although we resist them they do affect us. If we become at all sensitive we begin to stop resisting, to open up and allow reality at least a corner in our minds and hearts. Perhaps the most powerful way in which reality presents itself to us is when we allow ourselves to respond to beauty in the world around us.

The pursuit of beauty is at the junction of these two processes: the downward movement, as it were, of ideal Beauty, with the upward movement of Eros – the powerful, deep current that is mixed up in all our desire.

Reality impacts upon our empirical self. Each of us is absolutely particular: we have our own unique physical makeup, history, family conditioning, cultural background and so forth. The impact of reality upon us is therefore correspondingly particular. Developing an analogy I once heard Sangharakshita use, this could be likened to the phenomenon of ‘Chladni plates’, in which a metal plate is covered with sand, and then made to vibrate using a violin bow, which creates strange and beautiful patterns which vary according to the frequency of the note and the shape and quality of the plate on which the sand sits. The vibration of the bow here represents the sound of Reality, and the particular patterns represent us. Each of us receives the imprint of Reality in a particular way. There are general patterns that are true of everyone, but also Reality expresses itself in each of us as an absolutely unique pattern.

We respond to beauty in the object because it is a more or less adequate vehicle for ideal Beauty. But we respond to the beauty in a particular way because of an unfolding process within us. The pursuit of beauty is at the junction of these two processes: the downward movement, as it were, of ideal Beauty, with the upward movement of Eros – the powerful, deep current that is mixed up in all our desire. Our desire for anything apparently gross is a surface eddy to that deeper current, which is why we mustn’t deny our desires but skilfully try to lead them where they can really find their fulfilment. Ultimately this becomes faith in the Buddha, but it also comes with a sense of what I must do, of what draws me on towards Him. Our Dharma life is an attempt to work with these forces that are unknowable to us but are trying to express themselves through us. Unless we are in contact with that erotic drive, we won’t really have a Dharma life. We will be living our idea of the Dharma based merely upon theory, which won’t be connected with what is actually unfolding within us.

The path of beauty invites us to find where we are immediately engaged, where our erotic impulses are non-conceptual, pleasurable, have a sense of transcendence to them and take us outside of ourselves. Using these four characteristics we can ask ourselves, where is our eros engaging with beauty, in our own direct experience? We need to be very honest about it because they may not be on the approved list; they may not be what a good Buddhist is supposed to like, or even a good citizen! Of course, one shouldn’t engage in anything unethical, but one needs to know where those interests really are, not where we think they should be, because we are trying to elevate from within us, not impose an artificial interest from without – to do that is alienation, which I think is a great danger of so much modern Buddhist rhetoric.

The quest for Beauty is indeed a quest, so you don’t know where it is leading, but you can know where it starts. You need to work from the inside up, as it were. Start where your real responses are, look for where those responses imply something more, and in a mindful way, gradually elevate from there. In this way, in the context of one’s spiritual practice as a whole, you will ultimately transcend yourself: you will enter the vimokṣa-mukha of the śubha.

There has to be more…

I hope I have given you a pith of what this path of beauty is. Although I have used a lot of words to describe it, part of the power of the path of beauty is that it isn’t about conceptualization. I must confess that so much of what I hear of as insight practice, even within the Triratna Buddhist Community, strikes me as so damned ‘heady’. Of course, the conceptual can be a gateway to something more, but the power of beauty is that it directs us to our immediate sense of imperfection, and to our intimation of the highest Beauty. That, I think, is what we need to focus on. You don’t need special equipment; you don’t need to spend lots of money on an expensive retreat; you don’t even need a leader because you already have what you need within you. It is simply a question of addressing your own constant sense that, as Arsenie Tarkovsky sings, ‘there has to be more…’            


  1. Sangharakshita, ‘Green Tara and the Fourth lakṣaṇa
  2. Sangharakshita, The Three Jewels, Chapter 11
  3. Oliver Sacks, The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat

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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In this second article based on his celebrated 'Eros and Beauty' talks, Subhuti examines the nature of aesthetic experience using the language of 'imagination'.
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