Ah, long time no Blog. I had intended. . . but as they say, the road to Croydon is paved with good intentions (or was that Hell, I forget?). Perhaps the Goblin King's magic has caused me to forget - like Sarah in the Labyrinth. To be honest, I hadn't imagined that Jim Henson would be the first thing that came into my mind when I was sitting down to muse about the power of ritual and symbol in spiritual practice. Perhaps it is because my father was interviewed on television last week, celebrating the achievements of Bowie - a local Beckenham boy (our family hometown). Some symbols are not forever it seems - and whilst Bowie himself remains idolised, his Labyrinthine haircut is perhaps best forgotten. There is a glorious eighties cheesiness about the Labyrinth movie that - whilst charming - hasn't really transcended the decades. Like Sarah in the Labyrinth, I look at David Bowie's haircut and although I love his music, I think - truly - 'You have no power over me.' Still, it reminded me...
I think it is important to talk about symbols *in general* before turning to symbolism in a Buddhist context later in this Blog - particularly in the specific context of namkha. I have met people who tell me they feel symbols have no meaning. And I would agree. They have no inherent meaning - no absolute true meaning that transcends our use or perception of the symbol - no intrinsic value that is separate to the value that we place in the symbol. It does not follow that they are utterly without meaning however. They carry the transient meaning which we invest in them, which enables them to act as an interface between the image we see before us, and the experience, emotion or idea that the symbol represents. That meaning might last millenia, like the swastika, and again like the swastika a given symbol might have multiple meanings in different contexts. Unfortunately symbolism in a spiritual context has attracted a fair amount of attention from those who have an eternalistic viewpoint, and the modern rational scientific approach to the world finds it easy to refute such views as hogwash. This is understandable, but doesn't mean that all symbol is without value - rather that an eternalistic view of symbol is untenable. Indeed science itself finds symbol invaluable - and to the non-scientist the symbolism of thermodynamics can seem no less of an occult art than that of the masons, or the writing of Eliphas Levi. So, symbol may not have inherent meaning, but it has value nonetheless.
Even without an inherent meaning, it is evident that some symbols have a powerful emotional or intellectual affect on us, that drives our behaviour at a very basic level. If I were to parade down a public street wearing a full length white robe, and white high conical hat that masked my face, in the company of many others similarly shrouded, bearing a wooden cross, you might think me a member of a very particular sect, with strong views on race and religion. . . but if we were in Semanta Spain rather than the southern USA you might be surprised to find something somewhat different to what you had first conceived. There are plenty of other examples like this, such as the look of surprise when some people new to Indian religion see their first swastika outside of the context of grainy WWII film footage. A white man with a swastika symbol, even dressed in Buddhist robes, can cause people to do a double take.
My own personal experience of the power of symbol in a Buddhist context starts back before Shé-zér & I were together. I was living and working in London, and was at a waterfront bar with a couple of old school friends. Two young ladies at a nearby table kept glancing and smiling in our direction - unknown to my two friends who had their backs turned. I was just about to suggest that we invite the ladies to our table and buy them a drink when suddenly a disapproving look came across the face of one of them. She tugged the sleeve of her companion, and tapped her ring finger. It was bare. . . but mine was not, since one of the vows of wearing associated with ngak'phang ordination include the wearing of golden rings on both ring fingers. I was single, but how were they to know I was not some miscreant behaving badly out of sight of an absent wife. They abandoned their empty glasses, and left the bar. . .
If you still doubt the power of image and symbol, then it is worth considering that clearly other people do recognise symbolic influence. As I started with one music icon, perhaps I should close with another. John Lennon is clearly held to be such an iconic figure in British culture - even though he has been dead so long - that the olympics closing ceremony dedicated a whole section to him and a 'from beyond the grave' performance of his classic piece, Imagine. And at the end of that piece we the audience come face to face with a symbol that communicates everything about Lennon - the symbol of his face - the symbol of those classic Lennon specs, and we are left simply to imagine. . .