Friday, June 8, 2007

Worth and possession

What is a mandala worth? An inscription such as a Nichiren Gohonzon?* A crucifix? A statue of an honored saint or avatar or Bodhisattva? At some points in my life I might have said "everything", and at other points I might have said "nothing." I think I was correct on both counts.

The nicely phrased answer is that such icons have no significance other than that which we ascribe, which is to say, it isn't the form per se but what is being symbolized. What counts is whether it affects an individual and what in invokes and inspires. I am not satisfied with that answer. It isn't too difficult to say that any symbol, even the letters I am writing, do not have an specific inherent message encoded within them. We learned what sounds they represent and how they fit together to represent our spoken language.

When we see such imagery specific teachings, doctrines, parables, etc, that come to mind. The crucifix calls to mind the person of Jesus from the Gospels. A stature of Avalokiteshvara vividly projects the image of the Bodhisattva of Compassion. Great. And we can then go on to talk about the lessons and philosophical and historical dimensions of such figures. We can also do similar reflections on less personified symbols, like characters such as OM and TAO. That is fine. I am not disputing that. But why are we so often possessive of such icons? I have definitely felt that way before. If the meaning transcends the symbol, then why would I feel a need to "own" and "keep" and affirm my connection with that form of representation? Or why, more often, I have instead rejected such association and these kinds of symbols?

The personal and general psychological factors, socio-cultural influences, and other components of my history, or of anyone who has ever had such an impulse, are beyond the scope of this writing. We can talk about the need to establish identity, or to display affiliation, or to keep mementos. We can talk about whether such needs have an "evolutionary" basis (i.e. whether they are adaptive, as people tend to assume a conflation between evolution and adaptation). Yet whatever the other contributions are to my love-hate fascination with and collection/rejection of such icons, at least part of the basis of such interest and disinterest is the idea that I could own or disown the beliefs or attitudes represented. That isn't quite right, but it's close. There was a sense that my validation or repudiation of the ideas mattered, and that my beliefs could in turn be validated or empowered by manipulating my relationship with the relevant symbols.

Going back to what I wrote before, it becomes clear why I wasn't quite satisfied - "[Such religious] icons have no significance other than that which we ascribe, which is to say, it isn't the form per se but what is being symbolized. What counts is whether it affects an individual and what in invokes and inspires." But that leaves out the personal negotiation of why we ascribe significance, including the significance we ascribe to ourselves and our own beliefs. In the same way, it is accurate but too vague to merely say that such symbols have the power to affect individuals. Specifically, they can provoke a mediation and clarification of values and identity with regard to spiritual and religious questions. Even for avowed nonreligious atheists.

So, the possession and control of such icons can serve as a kind of proxy for possession and control of a part of ourselves, even if we are eschewing such items. That is certainly something to which we might assign worth. But I am also reminded of the lesson of dependent co-arising and emptiness. In the light of such teachings one can never truly possess anything. To believe we possess something we must see that something as separate from ourselves and as fixed. That is easy to think from a limited, relative perspective, unless we have already accept that all thing are in constant flux. In time they will no longer even vaguely resemble what they appear to be now. Neither will our components.

That which we think we can possess is therefore the idea of a thing, like a snapshot of the item rather than the item itself. A phantom. A counterfeit and a shadow. By clinging to such ghosts and memories of things, the ever-changing phenomena of the real world, of which we are and which we are in, goes unappreciated. When we notice these items we believe we possess have changed, that they are no longer in close proximity, or when we no longer feel we can claim possession of them, we can become frustrated or distraught. We remember how our child or friend used to be rather than accepting who they are now. Hence the expression that if you love someone you have to let it go. You can't control them or keep them from changing. In the same way, I am continuing to relearn and slowly accept that this is true of all phenomena.

Going back to the consideration of the worth of religious and spiritual icons, what does this lesson about possession mean? I believe that it means that we can become overly attached to our views and then transfer this attachment to our attitudes towards the symbols to which the views are connected. And in so doing, even if those symbols represent the highest teachings of the spirit, the purest motives of the heart, and greatest calling of our nature, if we have a possessive attitude we will fail to realize such virtues, instead grasping after the snapshot rather than the living reality. In place of the experience of the teachings and virtues of the sacred tradition as an ongoing process informed by both the past and the present, a wooden dogma. If we try to possess such symbols or beliefs, or any other phenomena (mental, physical, emotional, etc), "they" (the counterfeits) are worth nothing. When we accept them as they are, they can have their fullest value (which means in the case of specific views, even those we believe are wrong, letting them be wrong for what they are, not what we wish them to be).

As I was typing this, my email client played a recorded message to tell me I had received a new message. I opened the message, which was a daily mailing from Beliefnet, and ironically it contained the following quote:

To cling to oneself as Buddha, oneself as Zen or the way, making that an understanding, is called clinging to the inward view.

Attainment by causes and conditions, practice and realization, is called the outward view.

Master Pao-chih said, “The inward view and the outward view are both mistaken.”


*Thanks to the first two paragraphs of this post by Reverend Ryuei for inspiring me to discuss this topic.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Hello! Thanks for leaving a comment.

Everything but spam and abusive comments are welcome. Logging in isn't necessary but if you don't then please "sign" at the end of your comment. You can choose to receive email notifications of new replies to this post for your convenience, and if you find it interesting don't forget to share it. Thanks!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...