My thoughts have returned to the time recently spent in India, after a Sangha evening a few days ago where 6 of us talked briefly about our experiences there on pilgrimage, retreat and convention.
I’ve been thinking about my practice which rests a lot on direct experience, knowing the mind and what it’s getting up to. And I’ve been wondering about the place of the imagination in this type of practice. When my mind imagines, it creates or constructs various emotions; anxiety or paranoia potentially if I’ve been reading a thriller, or awe and reverence if I’m meditating where the Buddha gained Enlightenment.
While in India, I had the opportunity to go to the location where the Buddha is thought to have taught the Satipatthana Sutta for the first time. For the past 20+ years this Sutta has been key to my practice of the Dharma, so on the one day we had in Delhi, my partner and I headed off with the somewhat sketchy description given by a friend, and trusty google on our phones.
After a couple of metro journeys, a long walk through a park and then a rickshaw ride, we arrived at sunset at a small dusty park on the main road. It was populated by groups of men and boys, some with bottles of alcohol. As we walked past some parched looking Bodhi trees and climbed up onto the rocky outcrop in the centre of the park we were warned by a young Indian man in western dress that it wasn’t safe to stay after dark.
So, we couldn’t stay long, looking at the very old rock marked with a faded inscription, from Ashokan times, contained inside a concrete and barred tank. It was unprepossessing, unlike the gorgeous modern Lotus Temple we’d popped into en route. There were no other pilgrims present but previous ones had – as is traditional in parts of Asia – pressed gold leaf squares as offerings onto the concrete walls. It was the closest they could get to the heart of the site.
We took photos of each other on top of the outcrop and watched the sun setting through the smoky, polluted air over the city. I felt edgy after the warning we’d been given and keen to leave. It was only later it sunk in that I’d stood in the spot where the Buddha and his disciples had stood. I could imagine them there, apparently a mixed group of men and women as well as monastics. I imagined them sitting listening to the Buddha speak, his words being drunk in. I was so happy to have been there.
I was aware that the reality of the place didn’t justify the significance and happiness my mind was attributing to it. Did that matter? I don’t think so. I was aware I was using my mind in this way; imagining a scene that connected me more strongly with the Buddha. The emotions produced were positive ones of devotion and confidence, increasing my desire to practice. The use of concepts was a skilful one allowing for more receptivity to the qualities of awakening.
We’re using concepts all the time and one of the natural faculties of mind is imagining. Thoughts and conceptualising are not all we can know. My practice focus’ on direct experience to reveal what is immediate and fresh in experience away from the shadow of the world of concepts. Perhaps imagination is another tool that can help us do that.
Perhaps too, the modes of experiencing and imagining are not so different. In ancient India, whether you saw, imagined or visualised it was all taken as ‘seeing’, it was all ‘real’. The Buddha himself, sitting under the Bodhi tree ‘saw’ all the Buddhas of the past who had previously taken their seat on the great Diamond Throne, the Vajrasana. Sitting there himself he felt tremendous confidence that it was his rightful place.