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Ming Zhen Shakya

Sound Versus Sight

by Ming Zhen Shakya, OHY

Only an entity as divinely powerful as the pharmaceutical industry would dare to take on the Surangama Sutra... and seem to win! It's amazing how the recent spate of medicine-huckstering TV spots can be so spiritually provocative.

We all know the story related in the Surangama, that peculiarly Chinese sutra. One by one an assembled group of exalted persons stands before the Buddha and states what in his opinion is the most efficacious way to attain samadhi. The last to stand is Avalokitesvara who advocates sound as the best way.

Manju is asked to pick the best, and naturally he selects the final method given, i.e., sound. We say "naturally" because Avalokitesvara is called Guan Yin in China; and in China, Guan Yin is Numero Uno in the Bodhisattva pantheon. Not easily would Manju have selected another's method as being the best. So, Sound, it is.

It would seem, then, that we've got a problem in emphasis. Why, if it is sound do Chinese temples bother so much with statuary? Which brings us to another aspect of Manju's 'sound over sight' preference: it is generally conceded that as regards the physical plant at least, Chinese Zen stands to Zen the way that Roman Catholicism stands to Christianity and, particularly in the U.S., Japanese Zen stands to Zen the way that Protestantism stands to Christianity. Chinese Zen is the one with ornate temples filled with statuary and artworks that are intended to evoke the archetypal contents of the devotee's mind. Japanese Zen temples, like Protestant churches, are much more austere and comparatively bereft of decoration. We don't find too many sculpted Saints in Protestant churches just as we don't find too many sculpted Lohans in Japanese temples.

Much effort goes into temple artwork, and so we need to wonder how effective all this visual input is. The pharmaceutical industry's commercials demonstrate an answer without actually explaining it.

Judging from the way we process the commercials' audio-delivered information, the advertisements might just as well be delivered in silence. We lock onto images of happy, healthy, carefree people and seem to pay no heed whatsoever to the voice-over caveats. If we paid attention, we'd suspect that the imaged people were the lucky ones who got away with taking the medication. Others who took it - and doubtless wished they hadn't - suffered a staggering range of side-effects. A compilation of nasty reactions includes, to state but a few, bleeding, bloating, nausea, constipation, seizures, stroke, diarrhea, vomiting, increased intestinal gas, and every listener's favorite, uncontrollable bowel movements. This latter warning accompanies a weight-loss medication. If we processed the audio information, we'd immediately start to wonder why anyone would pay good money to lose a few pounds at the risk of having spontaneous bowel movements. Brrrrr.

But Whoa! Before we can conjure up a vision of some horrified fat woman having a surprise bowel movement we are regaled with the smiling face of a jolly plump gal who lost weight - and perhaps a few finicky friends - from submitting to the regimen. So appealing is she that we don't even acknowledge her bravery. No, we admire her for purely esthetic reasons.

The visual, then, would seem to have greater significance than the audial. And we all intuitively agree that this should be so. Despite any love of music or those murmured messages of spousal affection, if we had to surrender one of our senses, either sight or hearing, we'd probably all choose to retain our sight. And yet many of us have in fact attained our highest states of samadhi using precisely the techniques involving sound. The problem deepens.

All sensory associations are powerful. Marcel Proust - and I know that we're all pretty sick of hearing this example - once walked passed a window from which wafted the smell of a certain vanilla cake his Aunt used to make for him when he was a child... and this souvenir smell called up a few thousand pages worth of associated childhood memories.

We touch the petals of a rose and strain, not to compare it to the softness of other roses, but to a baby's skin or something else that we associate with softness.

A bitter taste, likewise, can make us recall the circumstances under which we tasted other bitter things. We don't list the taste in a catalog of bitter tastes, irrespective of the occasions in which we tasted them.

But sound, we instinctively realize, doesn't have to remind us of anything. Music creates a mood, a setting for drama. We don't feel like marching to a soft Gregorian chant. We don't feel morose at hearing a polka - well, some of us perhaps do. But essentially we respond differently to sound than to sight.

Sight, in particular the images of holy persons, evokes the archetypal characters of the drama. Yes, we can sentimentally attach a specific song to an event or person, but usually sound is not sufficient to reproduce a particular image. Sight can obviously present us with the necessary stimulus.

When the subject is a religious figure, there is, of course, the temptation to see the apparent worship of an image as idolatry, as if we have imparted supernatural power to the plaster or bronze. (We deny this possibility even as we rub Ho Tei's "Buddha belly" for luck.) Automatically we explain to those who visit Buddhist temples and watch us bow to effigies of the Buddha that the Buddha to whom we actually are bowing is the Buddha inside us. In short, we quickly reassure visitors that we are not idolaters. This is not an unwarranted precaution. Some religions prohibit representations of the divine for this very reason; and even those which do permit it often suspect that within their own ranks there are those who fail to comprehend the deeper meanings of the art. A case in point is the famous Iconoclasm of the Catholic Church in the 8th and 9th centuries. For fear that his people were venerating icons, Byzantine Emperor Leo III ordered the destruction of all sacred images. The Pope and the Patriarch of Constantinople both disagreed, insisting that the veneration of such images conformed with church doctrine. Feeling ran a little high on the subject and there being no question of separating church and state, the Emperor soon found himself excommunicated. Ultimately the "iconoclasts" were defeated and the sacred images were restored to their positions of honor in homes and churches.

But why should images be so powerfully attractive?

Assuming that the artwork is not being judged according to any academic or esthetic criteria, the veneration of sacred images can generally be classified according to four functions: substitution; emulation; transition; and recognition.

In substitution we imbue image with spirit. Anthropologists often notice how certain "primitive" people frequently decline to have their photographs taken because they fear that their soul will somehow be captured in the photographed image. We laugh at this as we insouciantly say "Cheese". But the laugh is on us for we do, in fact, impart spiritual value to many images. To us, an image can be much more than a photographic representation, a sentimental reminder of a person. We often feel a spiritual connection to the photograph... and yes, it is as if there is a soul inside it.

When, for example, the victims of a flood stand amidst the ruins of their homes and list their lost possessions, the first thing they invariably name is their photographs. Other objects can be replaced - but not those precious images that have virtually no intrinsic value. Surely they do not require photographs of their mother and father - faces they saw daily for years - to remind them of what their parents looked like. But somehow, whether they displayed the photographs on the mantelpiece or glued them in a scrap book, they derived a sense of security from this evidence of shared history that linked them to the persons depicted. What they are expressing in their lament is the fear that their connections to the imaged persons have been broken.

That "more than mere sentiment" which we value in the photograph is the connection established by archetypal projection. We project The Mother archetype upon our own mother; The Child upon our own children; The Friend upon our buddy or brother; and no less than The Lover (Aphrodite/Anima or Hermes/Animus) upon our Significant Other; and so on. To the extent that these archetypes function like Olympian gods, the devotion we feel for these individuals is decidedly divine in nature. Our photographs of them are not so much photographs as they are icons.

But suppose through personal misfortune we had no effective mother upon which to project this Mother Goddess. It is then that the sacred image becomes a vital substitution. Frequently we find that those who are most devoted to Guan Yin or the Madonna are those who suffered a maternal absence in their own lives. The image of the benign maternal figure soothes an ancient pain or fills a psychological emptiness. They study the goddess' image and form a sympathetic link to it, imparting a child's devotion and extracting a mother's protection. To advertise this bond, this chain, and to reassure themselves of its efficacy, they may wear a "miraculous" medal struck in her image. Comforted by the nearness of her image, they enjoy a trusted and abiding relationship with the Universal Mother who has become their own personal mother.

Usually all such attachments occur at vulnerable points in our lives, and the image fulfills an archetypal need that has not been met in the person's life. Loneliness being the principal instigator of attachment, a lonely man may quite literally fall in love with a "lovely" image of Guan Yin. Here she is depicted not as maternal nor, certainly, as an androgynous Bodhisattva with bosom and beard... but rather as a young, beautiful and completely chaste girl... for example, as the Princess Miao Shan personating the goddess. Although a substitute goddess does not permit the kind of psychological growth provided by human interactions, she is better than no companion at all. For so long as his devotion does not inflate into stratospheric irrationality, there is nothing bizarre in it. Outward signs of "courtship" may be limited to placing fresh flowers before her image or lighting fragrant incense, the smoke of which will carry up to heaven his orations. He may also decorate the room which houses her image as finely as possible. In his mind, the devotee may even communicate with her... talk over the events of his day in much the same way as he would discuss these events with a wife. Ovid tells us of the sculptor Pygmalion who, unable to find a mortal woman who could meet is rather high standards of beauty and character, created for himself a flawless statue which he literally adored, kissing and crediting it with every quality worthy of address as "My Fair Lady". Venus, moved by such uncommon devotion, took pity on him and brought the marble figure to life for him formally to wed. (Despite such an auspicious beginning as this, the couple stayed happily married.)

Pygmalion's statue, it must be emphasized, was of a mortal woman. No devotee in his ego-identity may suppose himself to be the paramour of god or goddess. Fate deals harshly with such sexual hubris. The ego's relationship to any divine person must remain at a discreet, non-intimate distance.

Once an emotional connection to the divine form is established, the process of emulation can occur. Those rules of conduct learned through the interaction of mother and child, teacher and student, or friends can be accomplished by emulation of the ideal. This is one of the principal benefits of the Bhakti approach to the divine: that which we admire we strive to become, the rule here being that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. These are no vain blandishments. Qualities or attributes are transferred from the divine personality to the human. When confronted by our teenager's newly pierced tongue and torso, we look to Guan Yin (it is pointless to look elsewhere) for an appropriate response. What would the Goddess of Mercy do? Ah, we say, she would have forgiven him, and we find ourselves tending to be more tolerant even as we wonder how on earth he will ever get through airport security. We see statues of heroes and are inspired to be brave and self-sacrificing; we see attendants, loyal servants of deities, and by their expressions of devotion, are inspired to behave towards our leaders more responsibly. The images and their anecdotal complements are then inspiring.

The transitional phase occurs later as the devotee severs his connection to the persons, places and things of his life. This period of detachment constitutes the principal discipline of Zen; but other religions require it as well. The most famous injunction against maintaining old sentimental bonds and relationships is given by Jesus in Luke 14:26. "If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple."

In Zen, instead of hatred, killing is mandated. In our teaching stories we relate the exchange in which a master instructs a novice to sever all his social ties, to destroy all sentimental attachments, emotionally killing off his relatives. The novice asks, "And my parents? Must I slay them, too?" The master replies, "Who are they to be spared?" And the novice asks, "And you, Master... must I kill you, too?" And the master smiles. "There is not enough of me left for you to get your hands on."

But the emotional impulse is not eradicated. Instead it is shifted away from the worldly recipients of archetypal projection back into the ethereal realm of the gods. The images in a temple are then transitional images... replacing, for example, our devotion to a specific mother to the universal, archetypal mother Goddess. This removal from the particular to the general and therefore to the symbolic universal divinity is essential.

Says Kunti in the Mahabharata: "When one prefers one's children to the children of another, war is near."

This war is the great conflict: samsara's bitterness and pain.

In his Bodhisattva of Compassion, John Blofeld relates how his profound devotion to Guan Yin originated in precisely this manner. It occurred in a temple in China.

He sets the sensory stage: "The night air, drenched with the mingled perfumes of burning sandalwood and of jasmine and champak flowers, quivered as the mallet thudded upon a large hollowed block known as a wooden-fish drum; its throb was punctuated by the clang and tinkle of bronze and silver instruments used to mark the rhythm of the chant. Though the same few words, Namu ta tzu ta-pei Kuan Shih Yin P'u-Sa, were intoned repeatedly, the ardour of those taking part and frequent subtle changes in the rhythm dispelled monotony, so that the music lifted me into a realm of beauty and enchantment."

Taller than the rest of the congregation, Blofeld had an unobstructed view of the statue of the goddess. A gust of wind stirred the incense smoke, blurring her features momentarily, but in that instant, he says, "...she seemed to fix me with her eyes and gently shake her head." He continues, "Aware that this was no miracle, I was nevertheless entranced and tried hard to believe that the goddess had taken notice of me. What is more, there seemed to hover just beyond the threshold of my mind a teasing recollection of something or someone once greatly loved but long faded from my memory. The effect was so poignant that I wanted both to laugh and to cry. I am convinced that it was this elusive recollection rather than the trick wrought by the incense smoke that produced what seems in retrospect a magical effect; in that moment I conceived a reverence for the Compassionate One which, far from fading with the years, was destined to intensify."

It is during this transitional phase that we remove our emotional claws from the people in our environment and, with Manju's sacred knife, cut ourselves free from their invasions. These excisions can involve some painful wounding; but as the surgeons say, "Nothing can heal like the touch of cold steel."

We concern ourselves not with the petty rewards and punishments of social strategies but instead turn to sacred literature for those anecdotes which have more meaning and better outcomes than the interminable intrigues of the conditional world.

In the recognition function, we find in artwork reproductions of sacred symbols we have encountered in visions. These symbols can be of inanimate objects - such as sword or chalice; or animal - such as tiger, bear, horse, snake, dog, or elephant; or of numinous, anthropomorphic beings. The original epiphany's impact is repeated as a most uncanny sensation whenever we encounter in the sacred image the face of a familiar deity.

Additionally, we find the comforting evidence of commonality, a shared vision of the divine that establishes by consensus what we have already deemed as fact. We are used to having consensus determine the truth of all things in our environment. When we and everyone around us agree that a pencil is yellow, that pencil is yellow. And when we walk into a temple and see the sculpted face of someone who appeared to us in a precious moment in our spiritual life, we feel awe and jubilation. The artist, whoever he was, is a member of our exclusive mystical fraternity.

Again, though most of us prefer not to sully these images by explaining their genesis in terms of some scientific rationale - that they are spontaneously produced, "genetically encoded" images - the fact remains that they universally appear in religious art and literature. Regardless of their origin, they are usually occasioned by two types of situations: samsaric duress and the blissful episodes of spiritual alchemy.

Time and time again we read of persons who while in extreme distress experience an epiphany that relieves them of their anxiety or pain. One of the most common apparitions is of the hidden-faced, striding god. In his pure archetypal form he is the purposeful Wanderer or visitor, often called Votan, Mercury, or Hermes. (In times of crisis we are all residents of Nibelheim.) In Walking In The Sacred Manner, Mark St. Pierre and Tilda Long Soldier recount the story of a Lakota woman who found herself caught in a snowstorm, her only shelter being found beneath an open railroad bridge. "One of the things that you will notice," she said, "if you ever come close to freezing to death, is that there is a point when you get real drowsy. When I was under that bridge I must have dozed off, because I felt somebody kind of touch me on the shoulder. When I came to, it was dark, but there was a man standing there. In Indian he called me 'Sister.' He said, 'Sister, you better walk with me, because it could get really cold here.' When I looked to see his face, it was wrapped in a blanket and dark, so I never got a good look at him. It was as if where his face should be there was just darkness." Then her companion began to sing a song and, though her legs were numb and nearly frozen, he encouraged her to walk with him and to sing along. He stayed with her, walking and singing, until they came to a farmhouse where she would be rescued. Then he disappeared and when she looked back in the snow, only her own footprints were visible.

I recently learned of a man who had a heart condition and in the middle of an electrical power-failure urgently needed to take a certain medication; but his apartment was totally dark, and he could not remember where he had left his bottle of pills. In his pain and confusion he managed to find a flashlight, but the batteries were dead. In agony and barely able to breathe, he reached his phone only to discover that the 911 circuits were busy. He said that as he collapsed onto the floor he whimpered a moment and prepared himself to die. "Thy will be done," was the last thing he thought when suddenly in the doorway a dark cloaked and hooded figure appeared, a brilliant nimbus surrounding it. It walked across the room and touched the edge of a bookshelf - on which rested the bottle of pills. He was so struck by the magnificence of the figure that he roused himself and crawled towards the shelf. The figure, never showing its face, then strode out of the room as silently as it had entered.

John Blofeld additionally relates the experience of a geologist who got lost high on a mountain famous for wild beasts and even wilder thugs. As darkness, cold and terror began to herald the end of his career, the geologist fell to his knees and prayed to his patron saint, Bernadette, to come and help him. Immediately the figure of a little girl wearing a blue dress and white trousers appeared to him, urging him to follow her to a hidden cave in which he could safely spend the night. Her face had Chinese features and she spoke Mandarin but still he assumed that it was none other than Bernadette until a year later in a temple he saw a statue of Guan Yin flanked by her attendants, the boy Shan Ts'ai and the girl Lung Nu. In the face and the exactly duplicated garments of the statue of Lung Nu he recognized his little guide.

Anyone who is not inclined to credit the supernatural can find plausible explanations for these occurrences. Surely the Lakota woman knew of the approximate location of that farmhouse and in her extremity her own mind supplied the saving companion. The man who looked for his heart medication no doubt had an unconscious record of its location just as the geologist surely recognized in the rock formation a likely place for a cave. Scientific explanations for visions are interesting but quite irrelevant to the person who has them.

Other instances of divine recognition occur in the rapture of the alchemical opus. In this protracted visionary experience - one that commences with the stupendous "Union of Opposites", numinous characters appear in the course of the mystical drama. I know of one particularly odd case of mystical consensus in which the Divine Child, Mercurius, was recognized as looking exactly like the comic book character The Submariner. This was an admittedly hilarious identification until the meditator, moved by the recognition, purchased some reissued editions of the original comic book series. In the updated publication, there appeared an interview with the creator of the character, artist Bill Everett, who said that when drawing his young hero he had been inspired by Giovanni Bologna's 16th century statue of Mercury that he had once seen in Italy. He named The Submariner "Prince Namor"; and Namor, the artist confided, was Roman spelled backwards.

We have, then, universal idealized forms or mystical models, the genetic plans and specifications of which are imprinted in our individual psyches. In appropriate times, the models are given objective reality to those, we like to believe, whose motives are pure and whose hearts are receptive. (We must always remember that there have been Lakota women who did freeze to death, heart patients who did die for lack of medication, and geologists who perished for lack of shelter.)

What can we conclude about the impact of images? What are we to think when we watch a medicine commercial and find ourselves so fascinated by pictures of attractive people that we tune-out those threats of nasty side effects? That a picture is worth a thousand even spoken words..? That sight is a more potent message delivery system than sound...?

No one disputes the power of sight. Yet, in Zen we know that meditation techniques based upon it are surely less powerful than those of sound. We know of too many Zen devotees who were called to Satori when hearing a rhythmic sound: a pebble bouncing down a flight of stone steps; a cricket's chirping; the ticking of a clock; or who entered exalted states of consciousness through the portal of music. In Zen we never doubt the peculiar ability of sound to carry us all the way to the Soundless Sound, the 'silent music' of the Lotus of the Heart.

And so we all nod in approval when we read Manju's verdict. Yes, sound is the best way to enter samadhi. But, oh... those images...

I close by reproducing in this Olympic year a photograph of the sculpted head of an unknown athlete, one given no special reverence or rank - simply an Italian copy of a Greek work - which nevertheless astonishes us with its haunting beauty even after twenty-five hundred years of its existence. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) 



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Last modified: July 11, 2004
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