Imagination, Desire, and Aesthetics in Engendering a Vision of Śambhala

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DOI https://doi.org/10.31696/2618-7043-2019-2-1-40-50
Affiliation: Калифорнийский университет
Sections HISTORY OF THE EAST. Historiography, source critical studies, historical research methods
Pages 40 - 50

Abstract: the legend of Śambhala and a related eschatological battle between the twenty-fifth kalkī king of Śambhala and the enemy of Dharma, which initially appeared in the eleventh-century Indian, Buddhist tantric tradition of the Kālacakratantra, proliferated in the later Tibetan and Mongolian sources. In the nineteenth, and particularly in the early twentieth-century Mongolia, when the demolishing of Buddhist monasteries and persecution of Buddhist monks were carried out by the Mongolian Peoples’ Revolutionary Party, a wealth of literature on meditational and ritual practices related to the transference of consciousness (‘pho ba) to the Buddhist kingdom of Śambhala emerged. Witnessing the executions of monks and a destruction of Buddhism in Mongolia, Mongolian lamas in the country’s capital felt the urgency to compose practical guides to a swift transference of consciousness to Śambhala for the lamas who were facing an immanent death. The instructions on the transference of consciousness to Śambhala abound in meditations with visualization and imagination practices and accompanying rituals.

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Among the abundant Tibetan-language sources in Mongolia that date from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, one finds a number of ritual texts and prayers dealing with imagination and visualization prac­tices pertaining to rebirth in Sambhala. Sources that form a basis for this presentation are Agvan Damdinsuren’s (Ngag dbang rta mgrin bsrud) The Swift Path to Kalapa: A Compilation of the Layout of Sambhala and Ritual Offering to The Dharma Kings and Kalkis (Shambha la'i zhinggi bkod pa'i 'don sgrigs chos rgyal rigs ldan rnams la mchod pa'i cho ga ka la par bgrod pa'i myur lam zhes bya ba bzhug so), Minjuur Dechin Shiirev's The Jewel Steps of a Fortunate Disciple, A Prayer for a Sure Rebirth in the Land of Sambhala of the Great Siddhi, in the Land that Captivates a Person's Mind for a Definite Meeting with the Dharma of Raudra Kalki (Khunii Oyunyg Barigch Oron, Deed Buteliin Shambalyn Orond Magadtai Torokh khiigeed Rigden Dagvyn Shashintai Magad Uirakhyn Erool, Khuvytai Taviin Erdeniin Gishguur Khemeekh Orshvoi), and Zava Damdin’s (Blo bzang rta dbyangs) Elucidation of the Swift Path - A Guidance Manual to Transference of Consciousness to the Pure Land of Sambhala (Zhing mchog shambha la'i 'pho 'khrid myur lam gsal byed ces bya ba bzhugsso). All three of these transference of consciousness ('pho ba) texts were composed in the early twentieth century, on the eve of the Communist revolution and shortly after, during the period of the immanent peril of Buddhism in Mongolia. The anxiety caused by social and personal crises and the sense of helplessness intensified desire for escape into an alternate world of experiences and enhanced the proliferation of literature related to 'pho ba practices for rebirth in Sambhala. As one would expect, the imagina­tion and visualization practices described in these 'pho ba texts are about transformation from death in this troubled and perilous world to a new life in the idyllic Sambhala, in the enduring realm of Buddha Dharma. The imagi­nation and visualization practices in the mentioned texts are ritual, trans-his- torical processes that look beyond the present world and its troubling cir­cumstances. They function as a means for achieving the specific, intentional result and the practitioner's transformation in a new world.

As we will see later one, imagination integrates multifarious, concurrent, and complementary cognitive activities. A mental imagery that is created, evoked, manipulated, and examined in these processes necessitates the activa­tion of the memory derived from previous perceptions of visual presentations such as painting. For example, in his Elucidation of the Swift Path - A Guidance Manual to Transference of Consciousness to the Pure Land of Sambhala, Zava Damdin instructs the practitioner that prior to engaging in the transference of consciousness practice, one should properly display an image of the Buddha Kalacakra and of the landscape of Sambhala as a general and a particular sup­port of the body, speech, and mind with these words:

Here, having relied on the yoga of the indivisibility of one’s own root guru and glorious Kalacakra, one who desires to practice the instruction on a travel to glorious Sambhala, a celestial realm of humans, should in an iso­lated place agreeable to the mind appropriately display an image of Kalacakra or of the layout of Sambhala as a general support of the body, speech, and mind, perform a puja in front of it, and sincerely arrange a beautiful display of whatever one has.

Likewise, the act of imagination in this practice also activates the verbal and physical participation. In the context of these 'pho ba practices, prescribed visualizations mutually differ in their contents, structures, functions, and applications. For this reason, it is difficult to apply a single, theoretical model to all of them. Nevertheless, there are several discernable, common features among the practices of imagination and visualization in the examined 'pho ba texts. In all of them, imagination is an intentional mental activity and not an entirely spontaneous. Memory plays an important role in the production of mental imagery that appears as perceptions. Therefore, we see in these prac­tices the interweaving of imagination and perception, in which a duality between imagination and perception is diminished. The perception of a mental imagery is thus codetermined not only by external visual and linguistic factors but also by imaginary refinements of the reproduced, external world of Sambhala. An imaginative visualization of Sambhala, its kings, and others is a discursive, inter-subjective, and symbolic structuring of that world, which begins in each case with the same view of emptiness. Moreover, although the procedures and contents of visualizations in the examined 'pho ba practices are shaped by theoretical assumptions shared by the Gelug community of Mongolian Kalacakratantra practitioners, the observable, procedural and visu­al differences may be an outcome of the authors’ affiliations with different Gelug monastic lineages in Mongolia and Tibet.

Mental images and their cognitive effects, hidden away from the external observer, remain within the inner, subjective space and discrete experience, shaped by one’s perspective and other factors. While recognizing this, merely for pragmatic reasons, I provisionally classify visualization practices prescribed in the three mentioned texts into two general types: the inwardly and outward­ly oriented visualizations. I refer to those visualization practices that involve some kind of imaginative self-transformation as inwardly oriented. An example of the inwardly oriented visualization is the following practice described in Zava Damdin’s work as preliminary to the core 'pho ba visualization:

On the top of crown of your head, on the upper end of the jati,

Is the supreme, root lama, Adibuddha.

Your body is reddish-white in color, and your facial expression is pleased and smiling,

Clothed with the three Dharma robes and golden pandita hat.

Your two hands hold a vajra and bell while sounding a damaru.

Your two feet are crossed in the vajra posture,

And inside the great central channel in your upright, seated body,

At the level of your heart, in the jeweled palace in Kalapa,

Is the essential nature in the aspect of Kalacakra,

Present in the form of the ten powerful syllables [of the Kalacakra mantra].

The three places [on your body] are marked with the three seed syllables (om ah hum),

And from the syllable hum light spreads forth to the Pure Realms of the ten directions,

Inviting all the buddhas and bodhisattvas,

Which dissolve into yourself, transforming you into an embodiment of all objects of refuge.

In contrast, I refer to those practices that involve visualizations of Sambhala as a geographical space as outwardly oriented. In these practices, the visualization and imagination are inextricably interconnected. In some instances, imagination involves a mental construction of visual images. In other instances, when the imagined evades visual representation, a mental image is not visual but rather a thought. An example of this is a practice in which one imagines that the essential nature of the external offerings and sym­bolic representations of Sambhala and its deity laid out on the altar is that of primordial consciousness, or gnosis (ye shes). While Agvaan Damdinsuren and Minjuur Dechin prescribe various outwardly and inwardly oriented visualiza­tion practices, a considerably shorter text of Zava Damdin, like many other Mongolian, short ritual prayers and 'pho ba practices for rebirth in Sambhala, is exclusively concerned with the inwardly oriented visualizations.

The practices of visualizing the land of Sambhala, as given in the first two mentioned texts, entail bringing to mind an alternate reality and implicitly one’s participation in it. A visualization of Sambhala is a symbolic enactment of one’s visit to Sambhala. Although a visual experience of an imagined Sambhala is a temporal departure from the present time and space, it is deemed conducive to the future transcendence of time and space. A visualiza­tion of Sambhala is a mental process in which one produces new mental imprints by means of the patterns contained in a mental image. This, in turn, one familiarizes the mind with a vision of Sambhala and its culture and creates new memories conducive to the bar do (intermediate state between death and rebirth) experience that leads one to Sambhala. Moreover, based on the prem­ise that a mentally constructed image is not something other than the mind, that it is a reflection of the mind itself, the degree of subtlety of a visualized image is understood to correlate to the degree of the subtlety of the mind that creates it. It is on this premise that the first two of the mentioned texts struc­ture a sequence of visualization practices that could bring about increasingly subtler visions of Sambhala and corresponding mental states.

Various preliminary practices to the core 'pho ba practice, which include visualizations, offerings, recitations of the versified homage, invocations, and eulogies to Kalacakra and the kings of Sambhala, have a theurgical significance. Imbued by intentionality, they catalyze visionary experiences of Sambhala, its inhabitants, deities, and the like. Whether in the context of preliminary prac­tices or in the context of the innermost 'pho ba practices, one finds both the synchronicity of recitation and visualization practices and the turning away from the words of prayer and eulogy to silent images. While certain visualiza­tion practices are characterized by the merging of visual and auditory ele­ments, in other visualization practices one finds the coalescence of light with a wide range of forms, including anthropomorphic, environmental, and syllabic forms. With the words of prayer and eulogy the practitioner establishes an intimate connection with the lineage of the kings of Sambhala and paves the way to the actual encounter with them. In fact, in Agvaan Damdinsuren’s work, soon after the initial expressions of refuge and brief preliminary practices, one is introduced to each of the Dharma-kings and kalki of Sambhala. Only after that introduction is one informed about the location of Sambhala within the world of the Small Jambudvipa:

As for the northern Sambhala, in the center of the Small Jambudvipa is Vajrasana (Bodhgaya), the place where the Buddhas of the fortunate (bhadra) era arrive. In the east is the five-peaked mountain (Wu-tai), which is an abode of ManjusrL In the south is the Potala Mountain, which is an abode of Avalokitesvara. In the west is Oddiyana (Urgyan), which is an abode of dakinis. In the north is Sambhala, which is an abode of human vidyadharas. [3A] The fifth of those five abodes is a residence of the Dharma kings and the kalkis. Moreover, correspon­ding to three types of oceans, Small Jambudvipa [measures] 25,000 leagues from the south to the north and is divided into three regions. The northern section among those three regions is divided into six great territories, and it is in the fifth [of those six territories. [Yet, it is said] in the great Stainless Light Commentary ('Grel chen dri med 'od) that the fifth [territory] is Greater China, and the sixth [territory] is Himalaya. Thus, it belongs to the Himalayan [region].

Imagining Sambhala’s geographical location within the Small Jambudvipa, one at the same time imagines the larger world itself. This marks the initial phase in a sequence of the visualizations of Sambhala in Agvaan Damdinsuren’s work, in which the practice progresses from constructing a larger visual image of Sambhala as a physical and geographic place to gradually smaller and subtler visual images of Sambhala as an inner, spatial world of the mind. Like in many tantric visualization practices of mandalas and their deities or in tantric sadhanas on Pure Lands of various buddhas and bodhisattvas, here too, each of these visu­alizations of Sambhala is situated within specific phase of a larger context of the practice in accordance with their individual goals and functions. Analysis of the subsequent meditations on a mentally constructed image Sambhala gives us some insight into the power and value of visual imagination, combined with power of desire. It also reveals the dialectic between the aesthetic features of a visualized image of Sambhala and desire for rebirth there. On the one hand, it is an aspiration for rebirth in Sambhala that drives the visual desire for Sambhala, and on other hand, contemplation on the attractive features of a visualized Sambhala intensifies that desire. An image of the imaginatively recreated Sambhala corresponds to that desire. Moreover, an aspiration to be born in Sambhala is tied to imagination in which one affectively projects oneself into that aesthetically and spiritually alluring place. For instance, in Agvaan Damdinsuren’s work, one is told that in order to generate a strong aspiration for rebirth in Sambhala, one must dwell on the majestic beauty of Sambhala’s landscape, the excellent ethical qualities of its inhabitants, the attractive features of their bodies and clothing, the magnificence and splendor of the kalkTs body, the unparalleled glamour of his palace in Kalapa, the grandeur of his vast retinue of wives, minis­ters, army, and handsome ruling princes with their splendid appearances, 900 million towns with two-storied houses, the unimaginable abundance of wealth and provisions for everyone, including for shaven monks and ascetics who uphold the Vinaya with great devotion, the widespread Dharma teachings, especially those of Tsong kha pa, which, he says, are more widespread in Sambhala than in Tibet, the extraordinary abilities of Sambhala’s vidyadharas, and so on. As for described facets of Sambhala that one cannot visually recreate, like the ethical qualities of its inhabitants and the like, one can imagine them not only conceptually but also visually in the attractiveness of the inhabitants’ bod­ies, which implies their ethical qualities. What we also find at work here, like in other sets of visualization practices within the works of Agvaan Damdinsuren and Minjuur Dechin, is a method of projecting images from a detailed textual description, rich in suggestive imagery, to the derived images, or visualized forms. Although the causal connection between the text and image generated in meditation with visualization is undeniable, the processes of reading and imag­ining are also concomitant, since textual descriptions themselves set images in motion that are reproduced in a silent meditation.

By the fact of being prescribed, visualization practices in these texts, as in virtually all tantric texts, do not allow one to freely choose what to imagine and how to imagine. Disallowing free-floating images, a guided visualization deline­ates the boundaries of a phenomenological horizon, requiring on the part of the practitioner a commitment to suspend his unrestricted and playful creativity. This restriction of autonomy in the performance of a prescribed visualization and one’s mental perception of Sambhala is grounded in the assumption that Sambhala is not exclusively a mental space enacted in the practitioner’s mind, but also an empirical, spatial world with its specific landmarks, measurements, landscapes, and customs, existing in a geographical locale, and verifiable through the physical senses. However, since Sambhala is also understood here to be an interior world, a representation of a mental space, activated through a process of imagination, one can say that the visualization of Sambhala encompasses both realms, mental and physical. For this reason, the mental image must approxi­mate the described image of Sambhala. In other words, before Sambhala can be objectified and verified through the physical senses, it must be internalized and subjectivized as a mentally constructed image. Thus, a mental image of Sambhala, which is precursory to the perception of Sambhala in the future life, also exists simultaneously with the image of the terrestrial Sambhala that it imitates, at the time of its arising and for the period of its duration. According to Minjuur Dechin, among the five types of wishful prayers for rebirth in Sambhala, the first one is a prayer for establishing a connection with structure of Sambhala land through a sadhana on its layout and geographical features.

After bringing to mind the previously described appearance of Sambhala and generating the aspiration for rebirth there, one is to visualize it again. But this time, the visualized Sambhala resembles a celestial Pure Land, a purely mental space, rather than a geographical region. While the previous vision of Sambhala was to approximate the realm within a spatial and temporal world as seen by the ordinary mind, this vision of Sambhala seems to reference the invisible realm devoid of any objective correlate in the physical world. However, this may not be entirely true for some authors. In Minjuur Dechin’s work, Sambhala is a special type of Sukhavati, an esoteric Sukhavati of the human realm, or, as Minjuur Dechin calls it, “the place of the highest siddhi," “where one can attain Buddhahood within a single lifetime". Referencing the Tibetan sources such as Vagindra’s Wish-Prayer for Sambhala, the Second 'Jam dbyangs Bzhad pa’s Response to Questions regarding Sambhala, and Dkon mchog Darmabazar’s Composition on the Land of Sambhala, Minjuur Dechin assures us that this is the reason why even Bodhisattvas in celestial Sukhavati pray for their rebirth in Sambhala. Similarly, in another, not previously men­tioned, Mongolian source, titled The Precious Crystal Stairway: Illuminating the Way to Sambhala, The Supreme and Glorious Abode for Accomplishing Siddhis, composed by Shes rab rgya mtsho (Prajnasagara, Mong. Brazna Sagara) in 1921, Sambhla is spoken of as “a sublime mandala of the earth, rotated by the Wheel of Dharma of the guaranteed Awakening, and celebrated by the illusory dance of the Sons of Jinas - the seven Dharma kings and twenty-five kalkis".

A transition from visualizing Sambhala as a physical, geographical local to a somewhat intangible place in this phase of practice marks a move to a subtler visual realm of a mental state that bridges the initial and the final stages of the 'pho ba practice. It is a phase of a further refinement and approximation of the vision of Sambhala to a spatial world created by the mind of the king Sucandra, an emanation of Vajrapani, which Minjur Dechin calls “a land of Vajrapani” and “the marvelous Pure Land". In this visualization practice, one is to imagine in front of oneself the earth as being of the nature of various jewels, vast, very lovely, and smooth like the palm of the hand, beautified with trees made of various jewels and various rivers perfumed with uragasara sandalwood and the like, covered by a golden lattice filled with various jeweled lotuses. The ground, intervening space, and the whole sky are completely and evenly engulfed by a bounty of pleasures to delight the senses, including divine parasols, victory banners, pennants, and canopies. In the center lies a palace, ablaze with seven kinds of jewels. Great light rays spread forth, expansively filling incalculable world systems. In its center, a great throne made of various kinds of jewels and supported by eight large lions, rests on various kinds of jeweled lotuses, and is beautifully embellished with vast, divine fabric, and is imbued with limitless excellent qualities, and so on. Here, as in all the examined Sambhala related 'pho ba practices, Sambhala as a subtle world is not approached via-negativa, but by means of percepts and concepts, through relatable images. The fact that an invisible reality can be envisioned in sensory images and symbols refutes the notion of it being an ineffable experience. Perhaps this is a reason why in these practices images are not rejected in favor of an unmediated perception of Sambhala. A visual image of the otherworldly Sambhala is an intermediary between the tangible and the intangible realms. Since one is told to mentally place this image in front of oneself, the image can be also described as being both an inner and outer mental perception.

After visually constructing the otherworldly Sambhala, one is to imagina­tively act in that sacred space by generating a bathhouse to which one invites the deities (Kalacakra and the kings of Sambhala), bathes them, anoints their bodies, dresses them in the fine, soft, and light clothing, offers them orna­ments, and imagines them returning to their seats after they have been atten­ded to in this way. Once they are seated, one eulogizes them, addressing each one by his name, and offers them the objects of the sense faculties, mandala offering, and ritual cakes (gtor ma). While making the offerings, one is to imag­ine them to be of the nature of the gnosis of bliss and emptiness, filling the earth, intermediate space, and sky. In this visualization practice, in which one does not dwell on a mentally created image as a mere observer but engages in the imagined ritual performance in the visualized space, one becomes both a visualizing subject and an objective agent in the imaginary event. One is told that by this type of visualization, in which an image becomes a dramatization of the act of worship, one generates a field of merit and induces blessings in one’s mind-stream, conducive to the core practice of 'pho ba and its beneficial results. So far, we have seen that the two varying procedures of visualizing Sambhala and the corresponding contents and levels of subtlety of generated mental images are closely connected to their individual purposes: the genera­tion of aspiration and generation of merit and blessings.

This intermediate stage of practice, in which one visualizes the subtler, otherworldly Sambhala is followed by earnest prayers for one’s own and all sentient beings’ rebirth in Sambhala and by the core 'pho ba practice. One is here reminded that the best transference of consciousness is to recall the guru Kalacakra for a moment at the time of death. But while one is not yet near the death, one should engage in a visualization practice in which the mental state and images are even subtler than in the immediately preceding visualization. According to Agvan Damdinsuren, in this visualization practice one imagines the guru Kalacakra on the top of one’s head and imagines one’s own mind manifesting as a white vajra at the level of the heart, as sparkling and hovering, light and mobile, as being on the verge of soaring upward through the central nadi imagined as being of the width of a reed arrow that extends from beneath the navel to the Brahma aperture. Having visualized this, praying for guidance to Sambhala, one imagines the hook-like rays of light emerging from the guru's heart, and striking the sparkling white vajra at one’s own heart, and so on. At this point one is instructed to practice a long-life sadhana by engaging in another set of visualization practices for the sake of achieving the siddhi of immortality. According to Zava Damdin’s exposition on the core 'pho ba prac­tice for rebirth in Sambhala, one visualizes one’s own body similar to the nature of a crystal, outwardly and inwardly translucent, empty, and luminous on the right and left sides, in the center, and on the back and front. A little toward the backside, one visualizes the avadhuti as having the width of a bam­boo shoot, with its upper end open at the Brahma aperture, while its lower end is a tube four finger-widths beneath the navel, white and blocked with swirling light, and imbued with four qualities, like an inverted trumpet (rag dung zhabs ldog). The Brahma aperture is white, and in the center of the avadhuti is one’s prana-mind in the form of the syllable hum, about the size of a bean, pulsing with radiant blue light that is quickly transferred to heart of the guru. In both instances of the core 'pho ba practice, the visualization culminates in the sub­tlest image, in light at the heart, in a symbolic representation of one’s prana- mind that will arise in the bar do period and lead to the direction of Sambhala.

As pointed out by Minjuur Dechin in his text, for the aspirant who has suc­cessfully accumulated the necessary conditions for rebirth in Sambhala, at death, when the clear light of death appears along with the dissolution of the four great elements, a stirring of the subtle mind with prana for rebirth in Sambhala occurs, immediately followed by the dissolution of the clear light of death. As soon as the bar do being for Sambhala is formed, a white light appears in the direction of Sambhala in the northern direction. Following the direction of that white light without fear, exhaustion, or shock, the bar do being reaches the land of the majestic Sambhala in a single moment. It appears that by imag­inatively perceiving itself as a spatial realm of light, that subtle mind familiariz­es itself with its eventual appearance in the bar do state, in which it can realize that Sambhala is nothing other than its own, inner light. Thus, the understan­ding is that every appearance and experience of Sambhala, whether as a geo­graphical place or as purely mental, is contingent on the perceiving mind.

In conclusion, on may say that in the context of the bar do practice, the discussed modes of visual perception, imaginative recreation, and familiarization through recollection are the means of generating incrementally new types of awareness. The expressive capacities of mental images in Sambhala-oriented practices provide us with a venue for understanding the power of imagination in recreating the world and one’s own experiences in it. Similarly to physical pictorial representations, mental images are constituents of the tradition, and as evident in the first of the aforementioned visualizations, a mental imagery is grounded in its sectarian affiliation.

For citations: Уоллес В.A. Воображение, желание и эстетика в воплощении видения Щамбалы. Ориенталистика. 2019; т. 2, 1: 40-50