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Useage See seperate section for: BUDDHA and STUPA

Buddha Mind - get one, be one.



keep your eye on



but which symbol?

As I was writing my defininition of symbols in the introduction I thought that a seperate discussion on the use of symbols might be fruitful. This has been done to a degree in LIFESTYLE - RITUALS but here we are looking more at the material manifestations of religion - the things created and the etiquette and symbology in relation to them.

Using symbols can be a delicate juggling act. On the one hand (left brain?) we know that a Buddha statue is just a piece of cast metal and on the other hand (right brain?) we can worship it as a sacred symbol. We use symbols so extensively as part of our everyday life that their value can easily be overlooked. Words, money, street signs, internet icons (does the little house above need the word as well?), these are all symbols and we agree on their value and meaning over time. I was tricked recently in Latvia. Their toilets have symbols to indicate (female) and (male). They know which is which but - of course - I chose wrong. It's obvious - when you know that: ladies have skirts (wide at the bottom) and men have broad shoulders (wide at the top). Symbols are not meaningless, they do have value but it is only relative. Words are just a series of noises; different languages talk of the same things, they just use different noises. Banknotes are just fancy bits of paper with markings. We could just as well use shells or beads or axes to trade - except the natives aren't quite so gullible these days. And so we use symbols a great deal with a great deal of reverence. Why should religious symbols be any different?

The trouble with religious symbols is we can't agree as to what is being symbolised. Religion points to a transcendent possibility and the transcendent, by definition, has: 'continuous existence outside the created world' so there is nothing 'of the world' that can be it - it can only be represented. We can have a direct experience of the transcendent but how do we explain our experience. How would you explain your experience of time? The taste of an orange? The sound of the sea? And so we develop symbols - to help us remember or recollect what we know, either directly or intutively. Many people have a clear sense of the spiritual dimension and depending on their experience they (may) develop symbols. If you were brought up in a Christian society (as I was) the tendency for those symbols to be Christian is high.
The best way to work with symbols is not to get rid of or devalue them but to understand how symbols work and use them appropriately. When I am in Spain I try to use the Spanish symbols (words, etc.) but find that occassionally some English ones work as well. If you travel in Japan use the Yen (symbol = ¥) but don't feel you must throw your dollars ($) and pounds (£) in the trash.

An interesting example of the power of symbols is the 'shoe question' that existed in Burma during British colonial rule. The Europeans refused to remove their shoes in sacred places and such was the degree of resentment by the Burmese that this became a significant factor in the first phase of National independence, unifying a wide range of diverse political movements. There is the practical aspect in that shoes track in things stuck to the sole (no pun intended) but the issue is in relation more to a much deeper, symbolic perception (that the head is high (and noble) and the feet are low (and tainted). Also footwear is a form of 'armour' and removing it makes one less powerful, more humble / vulnerable. The irony here is that there is a rule in Thailand whereby soldiers can wear their boots in Thai monasteries - in case they suddenly get called into action!

low & high
An extension of the shoe principle is the height at which things must be symbolically placed. Feet are low(ly) and should be kept thus. It is improper to point ones feet at anything holy - stupa, buddha image, monk, nun, etc - and impolite to move things with the feet (unless you are playing football). Things of the lower regions should not be used for the higher - a sitting cushion ought not be used as a pillow. I recall a monk giving a talk on superstition to a group of Thais and at one stage he put one of his rubber sandals on top of his head. Jaws dropped, aghast! He made his point but I doubt he proved it. Seating is an issue in many cultures - e.g. father sits at the head of the table. The height (and size) of seats can also be problematic. In a monastic context it can come down to the thickness of a sitting cloth or cushion. Generally lay people should not sit higher than monastics. When someone is giving a talk on dhamma the speaker should ideally sit higher. The seat - left - can vary, both in height and ornament, according to the situation and the speaker. The larger form looks remarkably like a Christian pulpit and although there is the practical aspect of projecting the voice it is the symbolic elevation of the teachings that is of most concern.
Generally that which is worthy of respect should be in a higher place and religious symbols should always be elevated. This is part of the principle in bowing. We lower our head - the important bit - below ..... what? What do you raise up (or bow down to) that is higher than your own, personal, ego-self? What is worthy of veneration, respect? Having nothing to bow to is a source of great despair. Generally, books, images, artefacts, etc of any religion should be respected.