How can we use our imaginative faculty to good effect in Dharma practice?

Lama Shenpen:

I find myself wondering what exactly we mean by ‘imagination’.  We use the term in various ways. To start with we use it for a faculty we have, the faculty that intelligence has to create – to be creative and to explore possibilities just because we can imagine them – and then come up with something more as if from nowhere. It is all quite wonderful and where would we be without it?

If we imagine we look beautiful we feel great – if we imagine we look repulsive we feel awful – we imagine the future in positive ways and we feel confident – if we imagine it as awful we feel anxious. There is so much going on there isn’t there? Imagination is an essential element of what we mean by intelligence (as in all intelligent life- not computer intelligence).

Then we use imagination for what is merely imagined and is not actually real or realistic. A lively imagination can mean over-anxious, prone to fantasising, projecting, drawing irrational conclusions and so on.

When it comes to Dharma practice – how can we use our imaginative faculty to good effect and avoid the pitfalls associated with imagination? I know some people would use imagination for what we were talking about in the recent MYG Dharma Art group with Katie Morrow – here there is a sense of truth associated with art. Is there such a thing as aesthetic truth and if so how to harness that as an aid on our path to Awakening?

We associate art with the imaginative faculty, especially in the sense of its being creative and exploratory.  In the way Trungpa Rinpoche presents Dharma art it is about connecting to our awareness by exploring how we perceive the world – and this is then experienced as the way we engage with the world.

Trungpa Rinpoche is talking about it all in a meditative context. The only reason why it’s interesting and fruitful to express how we perceive the world, ‘what is’ if you like, is because it hones our skill at letting go of what is not – our habitual tendencies to not notice, make assumptions, be driven by preconceptions, be driven by ambition and feelings of inadequacy – the list goes on.

Exploring that aesthetic sense of rightness and balance that brings an artwork or an action to life – requires us to open into spaciousness and ‘not knowing’. A space in which anything can happen because it’s not already filled with our preconceptions. So you could say this was a step that needed imagination – the freshness of not being totally fixed and predictable – something could come out of nowhere almost complete in itself, emerging from within itself and accompanied by a sense of joyfulness or satisfaction.  Even if the expression is about sadness or something quite negative, the artwork expresses itself in a way that brings a sense of truth, balance and resolution – even satisfaction in a strange way and it even has a flavour of liberation associated with it.

This is all about imagination too isn’t it? This is the kind of imagination that I think has a lot to do with how to practise Dharma – how to listen, reflect and meditate on the Dharma and how to bring Dharma awareness into our lives, into everything we do.  This would be to think of imagination as openness, clarity and sensitivity – the Buddha qualities that are intrinsic to our being and which we can access directly even though at the moment they are covered over by our habitual tendencies that constantly distract us away from recognising our true nature.

So there are many ways of using it for awakening, in every moment of our lives. I think this was what Trungpa Rinpoche was helping us to realise.

We practise the Shakyamuni sadhana every day at the Hermitage at 9am.  It uses imagination in the sense of imagining ourselves in the presence of the Buddha and there is a description of how he looks – some people will automatically have a clear mental image as they read the description – these are people whose imagination works well with visual images. Not everyone does.  For example, some people have vivid visual dreams while others don’t. Yet we all have an imaginative faculty in the sense that when we think the Buddha is present before us sitting in the midst of a huge crowd of monks in a forest somewhere – we all get a sense of that whole scene.

Some people might be so entranced that they come up with poetry, music, dance, stories or dramatic expression without ever having a clear mental image as such. So imagination is a faculty that opens up in all sorts of amazing directions and the expression communicates both to the person expressing as well as to others who are in their presence and there is a sense of truth and genuineness that goes with all of that.  I think there is a sense of heart and/or guts in it too. 

The sadhana practice is about linking into all of that and then using it to focus one-pointedly on and open out into the meaning or significance of that.  If affects us totally – our perception of our body, speech and mind and that of the world around us – it is all imagination actually.

On the one side we misperceive our body, speech, mind and surroundings and yet we have the faculty of choosing to perceive it differently – which you could call imagination.  As we perceive it differently even for a moment, we are freed and liberated from our habitual patterns – and that is how we purify our imaginative faculty.

So, we use sadhana practice in AHS for those who want to give that a try. There is much more to it than merely using imagination to conjure up visual images.  In fact, there is a danger of getting attached to images and imagined states of mind or experience.  Yet without imagination we couldn’t even take Refuge and give rise to Bodhichitta.  The whole enterprise of following the path to Awakening requires imagination doesn’t it? 

Fundamental to the whole path is the stories of the Buddha and all those who have followed the path before us.  That is imagination isn’t it?  Reading life stories of practitioners stimulates the imagination and allows us to envisage a future that we are inspired to follow and commit ourselves to.    

However imagination could be used for distraction couldn’t it? It is our choice and we have to be mindful of that. We have to check for ourselves what the consequences of our actions, including imaginative actions, have on us and on others, short term and long term.

We can use our aesthetic sense to find that place of genuineness, honesty, truth and rightness from which all fine art emerges and points us back to.  Imagination is the faculty we use to explore that and to somehow ease ourselves into that place.

Lama Shenpen Hookham

[Written in response to a student’s question on imagination]

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