Sunday, February 05, 2017

Zen is the Art of Imagination.


I was thinking of calling this "Zen and the Art of Imagination" but then it became clear to me why I don't like that formulation. They are not two. Zen "and" the "Art of this or that" creates an artificial duality of Zen and whatever "Art" is mentioned.  However, Zen is the Art of Imagination because the Art of Imagination is life and Zen is life.

Imagination is the function of the mind that we call mental activity. Fantasy and scientific conceptualization are both activities of imagining. Memory and hallucinations are both activities of imagining. In modern terms, the central nervous system’s biological activity of recognizing and identifying any aspect of our peripheral nervous system is the psychological activity of imagination. There is no "red rose" except that by our imagination we have designated "red" and "rose." Analyzing the central psychological activity of imagination has been one of the main features of Buddha Dharma for over two millennia.

I have recently heard talks by two American Zen teachers emphasizing the importance of having a clear understanding of imagination when approaching Zen and Buddhism.  One is by Zoketsu Norman Fischer of Everyday Zen Foundation in the S.F. Bay Area, California, who has given talks on the theme of Zen and Imagination before, but in a Zen retreat on 12/07/2016, he gave a particularly important talk on imagination and its central role in consciousness from religion to art and science.  In this talk Fischer refers to Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Coleridge’s use of the distinguishable terms imagination and fancy, which is a differentiation that is central to this discussion. 

The other notable talk is by Ejo McMullen of Buddha Eye Temple in Eugene Oregon, given on 11/10/2016 for the first in a series of classes on the Lotus Sutra. In this talk, McMullen emphasizes the importance of understanding imagination when reading Mahayana Sutras such as the Lotus Sutra. As one anchor to the discussion, he refers to a chapter in the book “Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning” by James W. Fowler, to present the view of imagination as the deep activity underlying religious faith.   

Both of these talks circled around the Jungian view of imagination as imaginal psychology and brought to the fore in my mind how images form and shape our entire worldview and self-identity. “Imaginal psychology stands alongside other major orientations to psychology- cognitive behavioral, depth, humanistic and transpersonal. What is distinctive to imaginal psychology is its care of the soul. The soul expresses itself primarily in images, from whence this orientation derives its name.” 

The connection of the central importance of imagination with Buddhism is found in the teaching known in Sanskrit as "trisvabhava," which can be translated as the "three own-beings" or "three own-natures."  This teaching was promoted and popularized by Vasubandhu and his half-brother Asanga during the 4th century C.E.  Zen incorporates this teaching, as it also incorporates Vasubandhu in its teaching lineage legend. On the one hand, Zen does not emphasize or make a big deal about the formal teaching of the three own-natures as a doctrine, but on the other hand, we find it frequently acting as an unannounced framework for the direct style of Zen teachings.  For example we can see the three own-natures in the framing of the three levels of the teaching, elementary, intermediate, and complete as taught by 8th century Zen Master Baizhang and in the three statements of Baizhang's grandson in the Dharma, Zen Master Linji.

The technical terms for the three own-natures are parikalpita-svabhāva (the fully-contrived own-nature), paratantra-svabhāva (the relatively-dependent own-nature), and pariniṣpanna-svabhāva (the fully-complete own-nature), and these Sanskrit terms naturally result in different English translations of each. In our naïve view as humans, every thing (dharma), as a quantum of identifiable pattern, has these there aspects of its own-being.  So when we perceive any particular thing, our imaging of its own-nature can always be categorized in one or more of these three ways. 

The practice (yoga) of Buddhism as therapy for what ails (dukkha) us can be understood as comprised of learning the distinctions between these three own-natures and how we confuse ourselves and generate our own mental vexations and emotional afflictions out of this confusion by mistaking our imagination of one own-nature for another.  This is a most intimate process as no one else can do it for us.  When we can’t tell what is contrived fantasy from practical relative truths, then on the personal level we become anxious about things we can have no control over and do not change the things we do have control over, and on the social level we go to war over political fantasies.
While no one can cure our delusions for us, we have to practice in relationship with a teacher or other friends in the Dharma to develop our awareness of how we confuse ourselves.   

[slightly edited 2/9/2017]

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