Ratnasambhava - Forever Giving
This is the text of a talk given at Windhorse on 15th August 2009.
I have been asked to talk about Ratnasambhava. I assume the reason I have been asked to speak about RS is because I have been meditating on Ratnasambhava for the last 21 years. Ratnasambhava is part of the very rich symbolism of Vajrayana Buddhism and the reason why someone ends up meditating on a particular form of Tantric symbolism is quite mysterious. It is quite mysterious to me why I have come to have this association or relationship with RS. It began very simply with something I read about Mamaki who is the female consort of RS and represents the Wisdom aspect. However beyond that it seemed to be a spontaneous arising of images in meditation that sealed the bond with RS. As with any Tantric image the symbolism is rich and intricate and has all sorts of connections with the whole system of symbolism which is the language of the Tantra. It is as if our minds have a deep pattern of wholeness which is not expressible in words and concepts but which images and symbols are able to embody and communicate at deeper and deeper levels of integration and awareness. And the images of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas give expression to the most awakened states of consciousness possible. Each Buddha and Bodhisattva expresses in symbolic form the whole of the Enlightened experience and each emphasises some particular aspect at the same time. So each figure speaks to us individually in different ways and is also a complete symbolic communication and embodiment of Enlightenment.
Ratnasambhava is one of the Buddhas in the mandala of the five Buddhas or five Jinas. The whole Mandala is a symbol of Enlightened consciousness and each of the five Buddhas is also a complete symbol of Enlightenment, but each one emphasises a particular aspect. Akshobya, the blue Buddha, emphasises patience, imperturbability and objectivity. Amitabha, the red Buddha, emphasises tranquillity, depth, love and the wisdom that sees uniqueness. Amoghasiddhi, the green Buddha, emphasises courage, confidence and compassionate action. Vairocana, the white Buddha, emphasises communication of the Dharma. Ratnasambhava, who is yellow or golden yellow, emphasises generosity, beauty and the wisdom that sees how all beings are the same.
So the image of RS is of a Buddha seated in full lotus posture on a white moon disc which is in the centre of a yellow lotus. The lotus throne is supported on the backs of four golden yellow horses. Ratnasambhava’s body is made of golden yellow light and he is wearing richly embroidered yellow robes. His right hand is resting on his right knee with the open hand facing outwards – this is the gesture of supreme giving, the varada mudra. His left hand is resting in his lap with the palm facing upwards and resting on the open palm is a shining jewel. His hair is blue/black in colour and he is smiling compassionately. Around his head is an aura of green light and around his body is an aura of blue light. Ratnasambhava is associated with the qualities of giving, richness and abundance, expansiveness, beauty, creativity and the Wisdom of Equality.
I want to go into some of this symbolism in more detail and draw out it’s significance for the life of spiritual commitment.
I will begin with the horses. Horses were a symbol of wealth. Anyone who possessed horses was wealthy – a bit like owning a BMW or SUV. So because Ratnasambhava is associated with spiritual richness and the attitude of abundance and generosity, the horses became the symbol of that. More psychologically the horse symbolises the natural animal energies which are gathered together, integrated and focussed so that they come to be supportive of spiritual endeavour and spiritual experience. Energies which would be expended in craving or aversion are sublimated and channelled until they are no longer a hindrance but rather a help to spiritual efforts. Or to put it more simply rather than illwill, resentment, arrogance, pride, greed, and so on we transform our energies into something more positive and this transformation is symbolised by the horses steadily supporting the lotus throne of Ratnasambhava.
Pablo Neruda, the Chilean poet, evokes something of this energy in his poem called Horses (Caballos).
I saw horses from the window
I was in Berlin, in winter.
The light was without light,
the sky without sky.
The air, white like soaked bread.
And from my window I saw a desolate arena
bitten by the teeth of winter.
Suddenly, conducted by one man
ten horses stepped out of the fog.
Gently wavering, they emerged like flames,
yet for my eyes, they filled the whole world,
empty until this hour.
Perfect, burning, they were like ten gods
on large, chaste hooves with manes like the dream of salt.
Their rumps were worlds and oranges.
Their colour was honey, amber, blazing.
Their necks were towers
cut from the stone of pride,
and energy, like a prisoner,
rose up in their furious eyes.
And there in silence, in the middle of the day,
in a dirty and dishevelled winter,
the intense horses were the blood,
the rhythm, the inciting treasure of life.
I looked and looked and so returned to life:
not knowing there was the fountain,
the dance of gold, the sky,
the fire that lives in Beauty.
I shall not forget the winter of that dark Berlin.
I shall not forget the light of those horses.
Beneath the lotus is the mundane mind and above the lotus is transcendental consciousness, so the lotus symbolises the transition from the mundane to the transcendental. The transition from the selfish in all it’s subtlety to the selfless in all it’s sublimity.
The horses represent the highest of mundane consciousness – a great concentration of energies which is sufficient to enable a breakthrough into an altogether different level of consciousness – an altogether different perspective on life and it’s experiences.
The mundane experience of life, whether gross or subtle, is an experience that is filtered through a narrow sense of self, a sense of ‘I’ and ‘mine’, a sense of possessiveness, defensiveness, fear, insecurity, pride, status seeking and so on. The fully Awakened consciousness on the other hand, is free of insecurity and status seeking, free of any sense of possessiveness or defensiveness, free of all sense of ‘I’ or ‘mine’.
In between these two – the mundane and the fully awakened consciousness – there is a whole spectrum of relatively more awakened, more transcendent states. In the various Buddhist traditions these are referred to in many ways. For instance there is the sequence of Stream Entrant, Once returner, Non-Returner and Arahant. There is the Bodhisattva Path and the bhumis. There are the levels of Going for refuge.
Practically speaking it is probably best that we see this as a continuum from a relatively self-centred state of consciousness or awareness to a more and more expansive state of awareness. The more expansive state of awareness is equally concerned with self and others and able more and more to relate to the spiritual potential of others rather than to their personalities or their usefulness.
The lotus can be seen to represent this continuum of awareness which is what the spiritual path really is. The metaphor of the spiritual path is an image for the growth in awareness and compassion that gradually becomes an awakening into Reality. We are the path to the extent that we are growing, changing and expanding in awareness.
In the middle of the lotus there is a moon mat of brilliant white light. This represents the purity at the heart of the awakening mind. Perfect morality or purity is associated with the non-returner of the Pali Canon. So we could see the horses as representing dhyanic states, the lotus representing insight or stream entry and the moon mat is the stage of the non-returner or perfect purity. This is a spiral path in symbolic form.
By making an effort to observe the ethical principles in all aspects of our lives and in more and more subtle ways, we pursue a process of purification and this process can continue for a long time, burning up more and more of the scattered debris of our previous unskilfulness.
The practice of purification involves confession of our faults and rejoicing in our merits and aspirations. In order to purify our minds we try to become aware of when we are indulging in unskilful mental states. Meditation enables us to slow down enough to notice the tendency of our mind. When we become aware that our mind is tending towards the unskilful or is completely immersed in unskilful attitudes, then we have to remind ourselves of our higher aspirations and the attitudes and awareness that characterise a purified and skilful mind. Sometimes we may need to look deeper into the roots of our unskilful mental states before we can develop a more positive awareness. For example, we may find that we are angry and going over and over in our mind some situation that has given rise to anger. We may need to look deeper into why our response is one of anger. Perhaps we are anxious or frightened about something and anger is a kind of defence or perhaps we had expectations of love and attention that we didn’t get. Then we can look deeper still and gradually uncover the existential insecurity and constructed ego identity that lie behind our response to the world, our responses to other people.
By reflecting deeply in this way our ethical practice becomes insight practice and we move from developing skilful sates to experiencing a state of purity, a state of pure awareness. This state of pure awareness is what the moon disc in the middle of the yellow lotus represents. This clear pure skilful state is the basis for the awakened mind represented by Ratnasambhava. Ratnasambhava sits on the moon disc in full lotus posture. His body is made of golden yellow light.
Golden yellow is a very rich vibrant colour. This continues the theme of richness and abundance associated with Ratnasambhava. Golden yellow is the colour of ripeness, of harvest, the fruits of the earth, and the rewards of labour. It is the colour most associated with the sun at it’s brightest, so it is the colour of life, aliveness. Ratnasambhava is intensely alive; the Awakened consciousness is here shown as the most vibrantly alive that we can be, bursting with the light of wisdom and drawing out the life and light of others, causing growth and ripening.
If we want to talk about this in terms of practice, then golden yellow represents the practice of encouraging – seeing the seeds of wisdom and compassion in ourselves and others and encouraging them to grow and ripen. Ratnasambhava is the great Encourager. The whole symbolism of richness, abundance and generosity is encouraging – coaxing the best out of us – encouraging the little seedlings of goodwill and affection and awareness to germinate and grow into fully blossoming loving kindness and wisdom and bear fruit in compassionate activity.
This is where the colour yellow evokes the Wisdom of Equality which is the particular aspect of wisdom associated with Ratnasambhava. The Wisdom of Equality is a very heightened awareness of the spiritual potential of all living beings. If you have a heightened awareness of the spiritual potential of others then you regard them all as equally important, equally valuable and you treat them with equal kindness and consideration. As with all the five Wisdoms associated with the Buddhas of the mandala, when you look closely you see that wisdom is compassion. Compassion in the sense of Maha Karuna –the Great Compassion – is the response of a Buddha to deluded beings.
Sometimes we think of compassion as a response to suffering, a kindly and helpful response to the physical and emotional pains of others. The Great Compassion is a response to the existential pain of deluded beings, it’s a response to the suffering caused by spiritual ignorance. The Buddha’s compassion goes towards all unenlightened beings regardless of whether they themselves realise that they are suffering. For example in the images of the Tibetan wheel of life the Buddha is depicted as playing the music of impermanence in the realm of the gods. This is Maha Karuna in action – the god’s do not know they are suffering but from the perspective of a Buddha they are. Perhaps they don’t even want to be reminded of impermanence!
Ratnasambhava’s Wisdom – the Wisdom of Equality, Samatajnana, is also the Wisdom that sees clearly the sameness of all beings in that all beings live within the Reality of Pratitya Samutpada. Pratitya Samutpada is the reality that everything in the entire universe arises in dependence upon conditions and therefore all beings, physically and mentally, arise in dependence upon conditions and all of the conditions are interlinked. All beings are part of the conditions in dependence upon which all beings arise. There are no beings who do not arise in dependence upon conditions and there are no beings who are not conditions for the arising of other phenomena. Because we inhabit a world of beings we are totally inter-connected and inter-dependent and therefore we are fundamentally, essentially, the same. The Wisdom of equality sees and experiences this so deeply that the only possible response to others is compassion.
The right hand of Ratnasambhava is extended in the mudra or gesture of supreme giving. This symbolises the continuous flow of generosity or compassion towards all beings. This continuous flow is the visible manifestation of the Awakened mind that has seen deeply into the truth of conditioned co-production, or dependent arising, as pratitya samutpada is sometimes translated.
The left hand of Ratnasambhava rests in his lap and a radiant jewel rests on the palm of his hand. The jewel is yet another symbol for the enlightened mind. It is precious, invaluable and it radiates light in all directions. Sometimes it is spoken of as the wish-fulfilling jewel, the jewel that grants all skilful wishes.
The two hands of Ratnasambhava taken together form a symbolism of the internal and the external, stillness and activity, the fullness of being overflowing into the fullness of giving. This is a unification of opposites or at least what can seem to be opposites from an unawakened perspective.
We tend to swing between withdrawal into stillness, followed by activity or a focus on inner life, the inner world followed by a focus on the external world, a concern with self followed by a concern with others – but this symbolism – which is repeated again and again in different ways in the images of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas – this symbolism is telling us that these seeming opposites can be united, need to be united and will be united if we continue to progress spiritually.
We learn to be still in the midst of activity, to be aware of others and the external world without losing awareness of self. We come to experience for ourselves the sense of abundance and richness that is not depleted but rather enriched by giving. The two hands of Ratnasambhava form a kind of circle, an endless flow of energy, an endless flow of compassion – a mind purified and manifesting in compassionate activity and compassionate activity enhancing the purity of the Awakened mind.
Taken all together the symbolism of Ratnasambhava is all about expanding awareness in every direction. It is about including everything in awareness, or to put that a bit more mystically it is about expanding the mind, expanding consciousness until mind and the universe coincide, become synonymous.
What that means on a more everyday, down to earth, level is mindfulness. Mindfulness is the key practice in Buddhism. In the teaching of the five spiritual faculties there are two pairs of opposites – Wisdom and Faith and Meditation and energy – and the balancing faculty is mindfulness. It is the practice of mindfulness that brings everything else together.
What we are aiming for is an inter-connected mindfulness. We need to be aware of ourselves; our thoughts, emotions, words and actions. We need to be aware of other people in the same way. We need to be aware of our environment, the objects, space, light and colour around us. We need to be aware of reality; of impermanence, of the unsatisfactoriness of worldly things, of the higher truth represented by the Buddha. But our awareness in all these areas, all these dimensions, needs to be interconnected. We need to be aware of how everything affects everything else, how everything is always part of the conditions for something else. How does our environment affect us? How do we affect our environment? What effect do other people have on us and, even more importantly, what effect do we have on other people? In what way does Reality impact on us, on our environment, on other people? What is the effect of the potential for Awakening on our lives? Asking ourselves questions and reflecting in this way we can develop an inter-connected awareness, which is an essential basis for Awakening.
The symbolism of Ratnasambhava is encouraging this kind of interconnected awareness. When we take our awareness deeper into ourselves and further out in to the world around us, the promise is that we will experience great beauty and access to energy that is always flowing out into generous activity. This interconnected awareness is alive, rich and abundant. In symbolic terms it is golden yellow, a sun that gives warmth and nourishment everywhere equally and encourages us to grow and to emerge from the solid resistant earth of our mundane egoistic selves.
Ratnasambhava is known as the Buddha of Generosity and also as the Buddha of Beauty. What is Beauty as an aspect of the awakened Mind? The beautiful mind or the mind of beauty is the mind which sees and experiences everything from a non-utilitarian perspective. It is an aesthetic appreciation rather than a consideration of usefulness. Bhante talks about this in his latest book, Living Ethically. He says ‘ The Buddha remarks more than once in the Pali scriptures that a sign or characteristic of metta is that you see things as beautiful, subha. This is because the key element of both subha and metta, which raises them above ordinary human emotion, is disinterested awareness. …. a pure delight in the object for it’s own sake’. (page 86) He goes on to say, ‘ The aesthetic attitude is one that sees everything, including other people, with a warm and clear awareness, and appreciates things just as they are, without thinking how they could be improved or put to some use.’ (page 92)Our unawakened perspective is often materialistic and utilitarian in relation to the rest of the world. We tend to want to possess or accumulate that which enhances our sense of self and we want to exclude that which threatens our ego identity. The attitude of Beauty excludes nothing. This brings us back to Ratnasambhava’s Wisdom of Equality as represented by his consort Mamaki. Mamaki is known as the ‘my’ or ‘mine’ maker, in the sense that she makes everything her own, nothing is excluded and there is no grasping and no aversion.
What does this mean for us? We are engaged in this project of awakening to reality, the spiritual life, and one way of thinking about that is that we are trying to become bigger – we are trying to expand and develop an awareness that misses nothing, that denies nothing. We are trying to develop an attitude that does not condemn or praise what arises in our own minds too quickly. We accept what arises, reflect deeply on it and rely on the transforming power of awareness in alliance with our spiritual aspirations. Our spiritual aspiration is the context of all our practice. We usually talk about this as faith, (Sraddha in Sanskrit). Because of our spiritual aspirations we are able to distinguish between skilful and unskilful mental states and our task is to bring awareness to all mental states equally, so that they can all be transformed towards the more skilful, towards wisdom and compassion.
The auras around the head and body of Ratnasambhava symbolise the effects of the process of the accumulation of merit and wisdom. When we are skilful in our actions, speech and thoughts it is as if we create a field of influence around us, an aura, which has an affect on others. The green aura around the head of Ratnasambhava represents the accumulation of wisdom and the blue aura around his body represents the accumulation of merit. This word ‘accumulation’ indicates that this is a process – the arising of insight into the nature of Reality is a process, Awakening is a process and the building up of purity of mind and merit, which enables us to be compassionate, is also a process. Our spiritual life is a process of unfolding like the leaves of the lotus unfold or growing like the lotus grows from the mud in the depths of the lake. As the Dhammapada says, using a different image, “Do not underestimate the good, thinking ‘it will not approach me’. A water pot becomes full by the constant falling of drops of water. Similarly the wise man little by little fills himself with good”. (verse 122)
I hope I have managed to convey something of the meaning of Ratnasambhava. I would like to finish off with a poem by the English poet Philip Larkin, which is called Solar and could almost be about Ratnasambhava.
Suspended lion face
Spilling at the centre
Of an unfurnished sky
How still you stand,
And how unaided
Single stalkless flower
You pour unrecompensed.
The eye sees you
Simplified by distance
Into an origin,
Your petalled head of flames
Heat is the echo of your
Coined there among
You exist openly.
Our needs hourly
Climb and return like angels.
Unclosing like a hand,
You give for ever.