Friday, 12 August 2011

Symbolism is no small Beer (Resources part 2)

Namkha can get just a little more complex than those practised in the Aro gTér Tradition as you can see from this particular version, ascribed to the practice of Tara. This is to be expected, because it is a practice from the Mahayoga section of the Buddhist Inner Tantras, and Mahayoga is highly symbolically sophisticated. On the Aro gTér Apprentice Retreat which ended yesterday, Ngak'chang Rinpoche taught about the principle and function of Mahayoga and the broad scope of the nine yanas. Within this teaching he noted that each of the Buddhist yanas other than Dzogchen tends to have a mode reflective of one of the four philosophical extremes. In the case of Mahayoga, this is Eternalism. That is not to say Mahayoga is Eternalistic, but it can be taken, or mistaken as such. This is noteworthy for what is to follow in this Blog series.

Mahayoga - especially when practised from within it's own framework creates and works with symbolic complexity. With that complexity come symbolic rules. For example there is the symbolic rule that the two skull bowls used during tsog must never be switched. In tsog one bowl contains alcohol (symbolic of the five nectars) and one contains meat (symbolic of the five meats). Within some Mahayoga systems it is taught that should the wrong item be placed in the wrong bowl, and then consumed, instant death will occur. To the post-modern, scientific, rationalist mindset of the West, this notion seems like poppy cock. Such hocus-pocus is a nonsense to us sophisticated folk in the developed world. Symbolism holds no sway, no power over us; it is hollow and utterly without substance, isn't it?

If you understand the principle and function of symbolism within the broad scope of Buddhist Vajrayana, you will already have an answer to this question. If that is the case then I can do little more than recommend to you Robert Beer's excellent work on Tibetan Symbols and Motifs (or, if you are looking to save a few pennies the abbreviated Handbook version, which is also a solid piece of work).

Beer's work contains within it some comments on namkha (which as with Tucci he translates figuratively as 'thread cross') as well as some line drawings from Buddhist iconography. Beer's writing adds a slightly different dimension to Tucci, in that he refers to the wrathful application of the practice in providing a snare to catch malignant spirits, or a prison to constrain them. He also refers to the destruction of the namkha - a vital aspect of the Aro gTér method of practising sky weaving.

If you remain suspicious of ritual and symbol - well, you are not alone - but perhaps you might pause to consider symbolism in a secular context.

Namkha is authenticated in a Fire Ceremony (again, more later). Relaxed about fire? Really relaxed? How about burning the American Flag in the White House - does that have meaning for you?

If it has no meaning for you, I assure you it has tremendous meaning for many - for an entire Nation in fact. Some (Penn and Teller amongst them) feel that they should be able to commit this symbolic act. Some feel to the contrary that this act should in fact be prohited by American law. In fact some feel so passionately that they will be unhappy to even see this 'magical illusion' referred to here. Even as someone disconnected from that direct emotion (I'm a Brit, you see) in writing this I am conscious that some people's passions may be inflamed by mentioning flag burning in this manner. So - a symbol that does not directly influence my own life, still has power, and simply by referring to the symbolic act, that power is tapped into, accessed, infused into a situation. And this is just one example. As we'll see through the Blog series, there are myriad others.

1 comment:

  1. I looked up Robert Beers to learn a bit and found this fascinating autobiographical note of his (thought you'd find it interesting):

    Throughout my life I have had many different mystical and spiritual experiences, some prolonged and blissful, others spontaneous and image shattering. They are part of the imaginative and spiritual landscape that I have chosen to explore and inhabit, with its vast population of peaceful and wrathful deities. All of these experiences are transitory, they come and go, they have a beginning, middle and end, and they no longer serve to condition my understanding.

    In 2006 my eldest daughter, Carrina, died in a diving accident at the age of 23, and from this tragedy I realized that although the Tibetan tradition is rich in its theoretical teachings on death and dying, it is actually quite impoverished when it comes to dealing with an intense grief of this nature. For the death of a child can often take one far beyond any belief system or doctrine, and it certainly has in my case.

    So for the past four years I have been researching the ‘afterlife’ outside of the conceptual doctrines of any religious system, and guided purely by my own intuition I have come to understand all things ‘spiritual’ in an entirely different light. And this understanding is not based upon any doctrine or dogma, but on my own direct insight and experiences of the ‘spirit world’, which I now realize is the source of the supreme intelligence, compassion, awareness and energy that permeates our multidimensional universe. And in the benevolent light of our timeless and formless existence as pure ‘spiritual beings’ the biography of anyone’s life upon this planet is ultimately as insubstantial as a dream. We are such stuff as dreams are made of, and I am only now just beginning to awaken.

    Robert Beer.
    Oxford, England. Spring 2010.