Archive for the ‘Eastern Philosophy’ Category
You don’t need to be a master guru of Eastern mysticism to recognize the sublime beauty of a Tibetan Buddhist Thangka. Simply take a close look at one of these traditional religious paintings, and you can practically feel your heart, mind and soul being swept away to a higher plane.
The magic and mystery of this sacred art form is nothing short of mesmerizing. But the more you know about the stories and symbols that go into these rich religious paintings, the more respect you feel for the wisdom that they depict.
DISCLOSURE: Some of the links in this article are affiliate links. This means that, at no additional cost to you, we will earn a small commission if you click through those links and make a purchase. This helps us meet the cost of maintaining our website and producing great articles.The Thangka Tradition
Devotional Buddhists have special practices for creating a sense of sacred time and space, namely chanting and meditation. And though they don’t exactly worship idols, it is common for Buddhists and Hindus to create altars and decorate them with paintings and statuary to help maintain that sacred presence.
Among the most powerful of such religious images are the Tibetan Buddhist Thangka paintings, part of a tradition that dates back roughly 1000 years. Thought to be a spin-off of the far older tradition of cave painting, these exquisitely decorated artworks are typically created to be light-weight and portable.
Most often depicting a specific deity or bodhisattva, the monks and votaries paint these religious icons on silk or paper, which is further protected by a silk cover, and then rolled up like a scroll. Especially conducive to the nomadic or hermetic lifestyle, the devotee can travel with his Thankga and unroll it whenever he sees fit, for times of prayer and meditation, for example.
I like to think of them as the bonsai trees of religious art. Originally, the Samurai warriors kept bonsai trees, which they could carry along on their extensive journeys. Something like a family member in their solitary lives, the Samurais cared for the trees and were able to enjoy a special connection with nature, wherever they went.
As with the bonsai trees, the Thangka paintings are created with extraordinary care and attention. With a high quality Thangka, the finished work should inspire a sense of divine reverence, and that’s the same sort of devotion and concentration that the artists employ to produce these masterpieces.Religious Imagery in the Thangkas
The variety of imagery in Thangka paintings has grown immense over the centuries, but traditionally, the artwork depicts a single Buddhist deity, a meaningful icon, or in some cases, a narrative scene.DEITIES
Probably the most common subject of a Thangka painting is the Buddha, who may appear in his ascetic, meditating form as Shakyamuni, or in his more portly and jubilant incarnation as the Laughing Buddha. But the variations go on and on, eyes open or closed, hands lifted or clasped in prayer. The possibilities are endless. Check out this brilliant Buddha Thangka on Amazon for an example.
There’s no definitive, orthodox interpretation of the symbolism, but it depends more on the experience of the beholder. You cannot judge a Thangka painting by any objective measure, only by the sort of feeling it produces in you. If you are decorating an altar or shrine, you’ll want to consider the types of energy you wish to invoke, whether calming, invigorating, uplifting, transcendental, or something else.
Besides the venerable Buddha, there are dozens of other deities and bodhisattvas in the pantheon. One of the most popular and frequently depicted is Tara, who herself has a variety of avatars. We generally associate Tara with mindfulness and meditation.Shop for Buddhist Thangka Paintings at AMAZON
The Green Tara, more specifically, invokes powers of protection from darkness, temptations and illusion. White Tara stands for health and longevity, as well as compassion. Here’s an example of a spectacular Green Tara Thangka on Amazon.
Another highly revered bodhisattva, Avalokiteśvara represents the deepest embodiment of compassion. This deity can take either a male or female form, and very often appears as the goddess Quan Yin, frequently holding out a vessel to collect the tears of mankind’s sorrow.
One of the most terrifying images to adorn the Buddhist Thangka is Chemchok Heruka with his twenty-one heads and forty-two hands. The Tibetan Book of the Dead speaks of the Hundred Peaceful and Wrathful Deities, and Chemchok Heruka is the most iconic of the 58 wrathful deities. He often appears in the presence of the 42 peaceful deities, including a panoply of buddhas, bodhisattvas and gatekeepers.Shop for Buddhist Thangka Paintings at AMAZON BUDDHIST ICONS
Instead of depicting a personal deity, another type of Buddhist religious art involves some highly symbolic icons. The most common of these symbols are the Mandala and the Wheel of Life, and both are well worth meditating over.The Mandala
The Mandala holds a very special place in my own spiritual practice, and the first Thangka I acquired was a phenomenal Mandala painting from Bhutan. I have seen a few different explanations of this sacred geometric image, having to do with multiple worlds and layers of reality. But the following is my own interpretation of this cosmic symbol.
Mandalas come in many versions, but generally they feature a small circle at the center, enclosed by a square (or series of squares), finally surrounded by a greater circle. I read this pattern as a metaphor for psychological and spiritual development.
At birth we are in the small circle, at one with all things, unable to differentiate between self and other. This is the level of unconscious perfection. With time and age we learn, like Adam and Eve, to recognize the pairs of opposites. We enter the material world of squares, of us and them, heaven and earth, good and evil, the state of conscious imperfection.Shop for Buddhist Thangka Paintings at AMAZON
Finally, with concentrated spiritual practice, we strive to enter the realm of cosmic unity, where all things are connected and interdependent. This is the state of enlightenment, the grand circle of conscious perfection. And in most Mandala paintings, the outer circle is surrounded by a multitude of Buddhas and bodhisattvas, enlightened beings.The Om
The Om symbol shows up constantly in both Buddhist and Indian religious artwork. Surely you’ve seen the swirly icon on tattoos, yoga mats and tapestries. Often, the Om sits at the focal point of a mandala, in the center of the circle.
So what does it mean?
We frequently refer to Om as the sacred syllable. If you’ve ever attended a group meditation, you’ve probably heard or participated in the chanting of the Om. It represents the sound of everything in the universe resonating together. And in this sense, it signifies the interconnectedness of all things. It is the state of conscious perfection.
But some interpretations take it a step further, dividing the Om into parts. Like the mandala, an Om consists of three or four units. Alternately spelled a-u-m, each letter stands for a member of the Hindu Trimurti, the Indian trinity of gods, i.e. Brahma (creator), Vishnu (maintainer) and Shiva (destroyer or transformer).
You can think of the Om encompassing the three stages of life: birth, life and death. And you might also add the silence after the closing “m”. In the silence we have a return to the source, and a restoration of the life force. The Om inside the mandala reminds us to meditate upon this and recognize that life and death, joy and sorrow, are all parts of an endless cycle in which all is one.The Wheel of Life
A powerful symbol throughout world religions, but especially in the far east, Hindu and Buddhist traditions look the Wheel of Life as a representation of endless and ongoing reincarnation. Metaphorically, we can also think of the Wheel as a symbol of the ongoing back-and-forth struggle between desire and fulfillment, one of the chief themes in Buddhist philosophy.
One of the primary goals of Buddhist spiritual practice is to break free from this arduous cycle. The cycle, after all, is based on the illusion (Samsara) that desire can be fulfilled and that fulfillment will bring satisfaction. In fact, we know from experience that the fulfillment of one desire only leads to the birth of new desires and dissatisfactions. The initiate must choose then, to break the cycle, or to accept its inevitability.
The iconography in these Wheels of Life can be some of the most fascinating and intricate. Keep an eye out for the rendering of the Three Higher Realms, in the upper portions of the wheel, occupied by humans, gods and demi-gods. And then look at the bottom spokes of the wheel to find the Three Lower Realms, including the hells, the animal realm and the hungry ghost realm.
Check out some of these stunning Wheel of Life Thangka paintings at Amazon.NARRATIVE SCENES
Less common, but more visually appealing for some, narrative scenes make up another genre of Thangka paintings. These works depict various scenes from Eastern mythology, including episodes from the Mahabharata or from the life of Lord Buddha. This type of imagery might look better in other parts of the house, not necessarily confined to the altar corner.
If there’s a particular passage from Buddhist or Hindu mythology that really resonates for you, you can might find of beautiful Thangka painting of it somewhere. Although these sorts of Thangkas are much less common.
I’d be especially interested to find a detailed illustration of Arjuna and Krishna talking things over on the battlefield. The speech delivered by Krishna is one of the most profound passages in any sacred text. A depiction of young Buddha venturing outside the palace, encountering old age and sickness for the first time, would also make brilliant wall decor. Or, an image of Shiva lopping the head off of young Ganesh and replacing it with an elephant could really tie a room together.Further reading
If you enjoy these sorts of philosophical excursions and interpretations, you’ll also want to check out the following articles.Meanings in the Mandala: Roadmap of the Mind Tibetan Buddhist Sand Mandalas Om is where the Heart is: Meditations on the One The Symbolism of the Indian Ganesh Archetypal Dimensions of Kermit the Frog Bamboo Symbolism and Mythology
No doubt, we spend plenty of time talking about bamboo, writing about bamboo, and thinking about bamboo. So sometimes I even get meta about it. That’s when I start to think about what people think about bamboo. And that can get really interesting, because people have been using and thinking about bamboo for at least 10,000 years, making it about 10 times older than the Magna Carta and 5 times older than the Bible, just to give a little perspective.Bamboo Meanings and Allegories
Throughout Asia and beyond, people look to bamboo and admire it as kind of miraculous plant. Since time immemorial they have used bamboo to build houses for shelter, to build weapons for hunting and defense, and to eat its tender shoots for sustenance. It’s no mystery why primitive people would assign bamboo a sacred status, and revere it as a bona fide gift from the gods.
Besides these life giving properties, bamboo also contains a spiritual message that resonates deeply in the Far Eastern ethos. We’re all familiar with bamboo’s remarkable strength and hardness, qualities that inspire respect among both man and beast. But the real genius of bamboo lies in its pliability and resilience, its ability to flex and bend without breaking. More than a mere model of brute force, the one who knows when to give in and how to sway in the breeze is the one who will truly weather the storm and survive.
As important as it is to go with the flow, in the spirit of Taoist philosophy, bamboo goes beyond even that. Characteristically hollow, bamboo is emblematic of Buddhist enlightenment. When the initiate has learned to embrace emptiness, s/he becomes a vessel for the universal spirit. Once free from worldly attachments, s/he begins to find relief from suffering and to attain real wisdom. Such are the teachings of the Buddha.
Consider also the Zen koan, which states that “Emptiness is form, and form is emptiness.” A koan is a riddle meant to be contemplated, not solved, but one interpretation of this saying would suggest that objects and beings do not take shape according to what they contain, but rather from what they lack and from what surrounds them. The structure of bamboo embodies these mysteries almost to perfection.Bamboo Legends and Myths
Such a fast-growing and ubiquitous plant, it’s easy to see why sages of the East would associate bamboo with fertility, long life, and even immortality. Across Asia, there are legends, myths and folktales describing bamboo’s supernatural capacities. Here are a just a few examples.BAMBOO FOLKLORE FROM CHINA
From The Twenty-four Filial Exemplars, a classic Confucian text from the Yuan Dynasty (13th century), there comes a story entitled “He Cried and the Bamboo Sprouted.” In this ancient folktale, a boy named Meng Zong lives alone with his mother, as his father died when he was quite a young. When his mother comes down with a serious illness, the country doctor prescribes a hearty soup made with fresh bamboo shoots.
The boy looks everywhere, but because it is winter he can find no bamboo shoots. So he goes into the forest and weeps profusely. As his tears sink into the soil, new bamboo shoots beginning sprouting from the earth. Quickly, the boy gathers a basket of shoots, takes them back to his mother and prepares a pot of soup. On the verge of death, she drinks the soup, and slowly she recovers until her health is fully restored.BAMBOO MYTHS FROM THE PHILIPPINES
A fantastic creation myth from the Philippines, entitled “Malakas and Maganda” (The Strong One and the Beautiful One), tells a story of the first man and woman being born from a stalk of bamboo. This etiological legend describes a time before time, in which there was nothing but the sky, the sea, and a single bird.
The bird, lonely and exhausted from always flying, goes looking for a place to rest. Eventually, it stirs up a commotion and causes the sky to rain down islands into the sea, and at last the bird has a place to build a nest. Still alone, but relieved to have a nest and a resting place, the unlucky bird is one day struck by a falling bamboo pole.
When the bird retaliates by pecking at the fallen bamboo, the hollow pole splits open and out comes a man (the Strong) and a woman (the Beautiful). Naturally, these two decide to get married and produce a great number of children, but with time the parents grew weary of their children and chased them off.
Some children hid in different rooms the house and later became chiefs of the islands. Other children hid in the walls of the house and became slaves, while others escaped to the forest and became free. Some hid in the fireplace and acquired dark skin, while others fled to the sea and returned some centuries later with white skin. This explains the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century.BAMBOO FABLES FROM VIETNAM
The Hundred-Knot Bamboo Tree is a popular fable from Vietnamese folklore. It’s the story of a wealthy and devious landowner with a very beautiful daughter, and a hopeful young man who works for the landowner and longs to marry the daughter.
Learning of the young man’s ambitions, the landowner offers his daughter’s hand in marriage if the innocent bachelor will agree to stay and work as a servant for another three solid years. Naively, the man agrees, but meanwhile the father makes other plans to marry his daughter off to the son of a wealthy village chief.
When the young man discovers the dishonest plot, he confronts the landowner. The wicked man then tells his servant he can still marry the daughter if he can go into the forest and find a bamboo tree with a hundred knots. Try as he may, this turns out to be an impossible task, another dishonest trick. But the young man meets a wise sage in the forest who shows him an even better trick, with which he can take a hundred pieces of bamboo and make then magically stick together like a single piece with a hundred knots.
The young man returns and finds the landowner and the chieftain celebrating, as the wedding of their daughter and son is already underway. When the servant presents the hundred pieces of bamboo, the members of the wedding party all have a good laugh at his expense. But then he magically commands the bamboo to stick together, which it does, along with the landowner, the chieftain and his son. In exchange for setting them unstuck, the young man is finally awarded the lovely daughter. Thus the two marry promptly and live happily ever after.BAMBOO IN JAPANESE FOLKLORE
One of the oldest examples of Japanese folklore, The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter dates back to the 10th century. In this intriguing story, a beautiful princess named Kaguya who is a discovered as a baby living inside a glowing bamboo stalk. A childless woodcutter discovers the mysterious phenomenon in the forest one day, and he decides to bring the infant home to his wife. They decide to feed and look after and essentially adopt this young girl.
Soon after this, the man discovers that each time his cuts down a stalk of bamboo, he finds a nugget of gold hidden within. Quickly he and his wife grow rich, and also the news of the girls and her unmatched beauty spreads across the kingdom.
Many suitors come proposing marriage, but the man and his wife turn down every request. To discourage more proposals, they assign impossible tasks to the hopeful suitors, and so every effort fails. Even the Emperor, learning of this exquisitely beautiful princess, comes and asks to marry her. But she rejects him, telling him it cannot be done because she is not of this kingdom.
Over a serious of mystical events, it is revealed that the princess Kaguya actually came from the moon, and to the moon she must return. The Emperor, entirely smitten with the otherworldly princess, does everything he can to prevent her departure. But ultimately, she is transported back to the moon on a beam of light.
Before leaving, she granted the Emperor a phial of the Elixir of Eternal Life, but he refused to drink it if he would have to spend eternity without her. After she’d left, the elixir was sent to the top of Mount Fuji to be burned. This explained the trail of smoke rising from the top of the mountain, back in the times when Fuji was more volcanically active.BAMBOO IN ANDAMANESE MYTHOLOGY
A small archipelago in the Bay of Bengal between India and Myanmar, the Andaman Islands actually have quite a rich tradition of mythology. According to one story, the first man was born from a bamboo cane.
Jutpu, they say, emerged from inside the joint of a large bamboo stalk, like a bird hatching from an egg. When the bamboo split open, the little boy stepped out. For shelter from the rain, he built a small shack from bamboo. He also used bamboo to make little bows and arrows for hunting.
As he grew older, Jutpu realized that he was lonely, living all by himself with no other humans. So he went to a hill of white ants, gathered some clay (kot), and formed it into the shape of a woman. The woman came to life and became his wife. She was called Kot.
The two lived together, and Jutpu continued to make more people from clay. This was the first race of ancestral people, and Jutpu taught the men how to make canoes and how to hunt and fish. Meanwhile, Kot taught the women how to weave with natural fibers and work with clay.BAMBOO IN MALAYSIAN FOLKLORE
There’s a popular story from Malaysia in which bamboo features prominently. In this legend, a young man falls asleep under a flourishing grove of bamboo. While he sleeps, he dreams of a beautiful woman. When he wakes, he feels compelled to break off a stem of bamboo. As he crack it open, he discovers the woman hiding inside. Of course, the two live happily ever after.BAMBOO LEGENDS OF HAWAII & POLYNESIA
Hawaiian mythology speaks of a family of gods living inside of Kilauea, an active volcano located on the big island. These are the children of Haumea, the goddess of childbirth and fertility, and her husband Moemoe. Among the several siblings, Pele is the most well known as the goddess of the volcanos.
According to one popular story, Pele and her siblings migrate or are expelled from their distant homeland. Some versions say that Pele makes love to her sister’s husband, and then the older sister chases her away in an oceanic fury. Crossing the open seas, they go in search of a new home, where they will dig into the ground and make a hole or pit to contain their powerful fire and smoke.
As they flee, some of the brothers and sisters separate. The youngest brother, Kāne Milohai, gets left behind. But because Pele goes back to rescue the little one, her older sister Na-maka-o-kaha‘i is able to catch up with Pele. At this point the big sister, an ocean goddess, exacts her revenge and tears Pele into pieces.
Pele’s body is scattered into the seas, but her spirit continues on and settles safely in the great crater of the volcano, along with most of her family. And although she fails to rescue young Kāne Milohai, he takes root on one of the other islands, and begins growing in physical form as a shoot of bamboo. With time, the bamboo proliferates and covers the islands of Hawaii.
Another Polynesian legend associates bamboo with the creator god Kāne. Yes, it gets confusing, because Kāne Milohai and Kāne are two different deities. And even the experts have a hard time keep their stories straight. This is partly because of the way that Polynesian folklore gradually migrated to Hawaii in bits and pieces.
But according to Polynesian mythology, in the beginning there was nothing but chaos and endless darkness, called Po. Then Kāne emerged and felt himself to be something distinct from Po. As he formed himself from the chaos, two more gods followed his example, Lono and Kū.
Kāne slowly pulled himself away and then managed to created the light. Then the light grew more powerful and pushed away the darkness until they were two. Meanwhile, Lono created sound and Kū created substance.
Not to be outdone, Kāne picked up a piece of white clay, shaped it after his own image, and blew life into it. Thus did he create mankind. The word Kāne also means man, which adds even more confusion in the naming of the Hawaiian gods.
Of course, bamboo also grows in canes, and bamboo is considered to be the earthly incarnation of Kāne the deity. Bamboo separated darkness from light. And perhaps the hollow space inside the bamboo contains the air that blew life into the world.BAMBOO MYTHS FROM INDIA
A myth from India tells the story of Rama’s wife, Sita, who had an extra finger on one hand. So she cut off one finger, buried it in the ground, and from it sprouted a bamboo plant. Then along came a pig who began chewing holes in the bamboo stalk. Through the holes, people found different grains inside each segment of the bamboo. And this, according to the legend, is how rice and the ancient, sacred grains of India were discovered: millet, sorghum, and amaranth.
We have one last story that has appeared in southeast Asia, but seems to have come from India. In “The Raja of Bamboo“, we hear of a king who goes on a hunting expedition. After great success in shooting tigers, he dismounts from his elephant to take a rest. As he sits down, he notices an unusual stalk of bamboo with a great bulge in the middle. The king finds this oddly shaped bamboo somehow irresistible, and he asks his men to cut it down for him.
Bringing the bulging bamboo back to his palace, the king keeps it at his bedside. Week after week, he admires it and sees it growing larger. At last, on one lovely day, the bamboo stalk bursts open and out comes the most handsome young boy anyone has ever seen. The king takes the child and raises him as his own. As he grows older, the king makes him a prince (raja), and the “Raja of Bamboo” is destined someday to rule the kingdom.
The story of the Raja’s wife is equally fantastic. One day the king’s consort is out sunbathing by the river when she sees the waters quickly rising. She looks upstream and sees what looks like a great white mountain coming down the river. In fact, it is a great mass of sea foam.
Reaching out to touch the mysterious foam, the queen takes hold of a small girl. She carries the child back to the palace, and like the king with the Raja of Bamboo, the queen adopts the Princess of the Foam. Not surprisingly, the supernatural children grow up and fall in love.
It seems these two were made for each other. And yet, this couple does not live happily ever after. Perhaps a healthy relationship requires a little more humility and a little less parthenogenesis.BAMBOO IN AFRICAN FOLKLORE
Nowhere else in the world does bamboo play such an important part as it does in Asia. But bamboo does grow prolifically in the west African country of Ghana. And the people of Ghana have been using bamboo for many centuries. No surprise then that we find a bamboo episode in their mythology.
The most popular character of west African legend is Anansi the Spider, a trickster character who is always making mischief. Like most tricksters, Anansi defeats his enemies not with force or violence, but with wily craft and cunning wit.
One of Anansi’s rivals in the forest is the snake. Always a symbol of treachery, the snake is powerful and dangerous, a force to be reckoned with. The spider has no chance of overpowering the snake who is mighty and strong. As usual, Anansi the spider will have to outwit him.
So the spider approaches the snake with humility, and confesses that he is no match for the serpent. Seeming to admire the snake’s great length, spider invites the him to stretch itself beside a bamboo pole so they can measure him in all his reptilian glory, and prove that he is indeed the longest animal in the forest.
Flattered, the snake agrees. But when he crawls over to the bamboo and stretches out, the spider quickly and stealthily begins tying him to the pole. Before the snake realizes what’s happening, he finds himself thoroughly ensnared. Another victory for the bamboo.
NOTE: Many legends and folk stories of west Africa were carried over to the Caribbean during the times of slave trade. So you will also find Anansi appearing frequently in Jamaica and elsewhere in the islands.Conclusions
Bamboo obviously plays an incredibly important role in Asian thought and culture. The way bamboo appears in so many legends and creation myths tells us how vital the plant is to their way of life. In fact, it seems that most Asian cultures cannot imagine a world without it.
Whether it is the source of human life or a secret repository for divine power, bamboo does seem to possess some magical properties. We can eat it, we can build with it, we can write on it. We can even make clothing from it. So let’s all take a moment, once in a while, to stop and give thanks for the mighty bamboo plant. A gift from the heavens.
Do you know of a good bamboo legend that we overlooked? Please let us know in the comments section.Further reading
If you’re into symbolism and mythology, check out more of our articles on eastern philosophy.The Ten Thousand Things of Taoism Meanings in the Mandala: Roadmap of the Mind Om is where the Heart is: Meditations on the One The Symbolism of the Indian Ganesh The Magician and the Prince Bamboo Wisdom and Transcendence
For more fun facts about bamboo, check out some of our most popular articles.What’s so great about bamboo? 10 Best bamboo varieties for your garden 20 Best bamboo gardens of the world Bamboo shoots: delicious and nutritious Bamboo Q & A: Ask the experts
Even before the emergence of myths and drama, our ancestors produced symbols to express the meaning of existence and explore the mystery of their condition. No image encapsulates the pattern of human experience quite so precisely and succinctly as the ancient mandala, rendered most elegantly in the icons of Tibetan Buddhism, but dating back dozens of millennia to man’s most primordial symbol making and as far forward as his most contemporary dream weaving.
DISCLOSURE: Some of the links in this article are affiliate links. This means that, at no additional cost to you, we will earn a small commission if you click through those links and make a purchase. This helps us meet the cost of maintaining our website and producing great articles.The circle in the square
Stripped bare of its elaborate ornamentation, the mandala essentially consists of three basic elements: a small circle, enclosed by a square, enclosed by a large circle. As I see it, these three simple shapes correspond ever so neatly with the three elementary components of every great story, namely every great myth that has endured the ages. In The Odyssey, the classic hero’s tale, we have departure, adventure and return. In the Riddle of the Sphinx we hear of childhood, manhood and old age. The Book of Genesis speaks of Paradise, Paradise lost and Paradise regained, or in the parlance of the New Testament, we have birth, death and rebirth. These are but four of the best known examples, from which we could extrapolate endlessly to draw parallels with every familiar storyline.
In other words, the simple geometry of a mandala acts as a metaphor for the simple structure of the myth, which is a metaphor in itself. So, let’s see if we can’t do a little unpacking here to unravel the meaning and the symbols of human experience.Birth
Our story begins in the small circle. A one-sided shape with neither top nor bottom, the circle signifies wholeness, unity. This is the circle of bliss, in the ignorance of infancy, where the undeveloped and undifferentiated psyche draws no distinction between itself and the other. Then the child grows and enters the square, defined as having a top and a bottom, a left and a right, perfect pairs of opposites. As she encounters the unknown, the child must learn to classify things, to differentiate between good and bad, and to categorize the objects of her world into neat little boxes. The hero spends a lifetime navigating this terrain, which many mandalas aptly portray as an intricate maze, much like the labyrinth of the Minotaur.Death
The rigorous complexity of the square eventually takes its toll. The unity collapses, fracturing into all those pairs of opposites. In maturity, the mind requires order, logic, and categorization. We learn to identify things as good or bad, male or female, healthy or unhealthy. Everything must belong to one category or the other.
The individual longs for the simple unity it knew in the womb or in childhood. But there’s no going home again. To fulfill his destiny, he must advance to the next level, and this metaphor functions equally well for every stage of development and maturation. When the going gets rough, you can’t just move back in with your parents and resume the life of a happy child anymore than you can squeeze your toothpaste back into the tube.
And yet, how many unhappy adults do we know who try to pass themselves off as happy adolescents?
Finally, the initiate rescues the princess; the martyr is reborn and crowned king; the Jedi knight reconciles the forces of darkness and light. The protagonist overcomes his challenge after grappling with the pairs of opposites, and he comes to terms with good and evil, right and wrong, earthly and divine.
The cycle is now completed in this state of enlightenment. He enters the higher circle and recognizes his oneness with an understanding he never had as a child. He has differentiated himself from the other, wrestled with the unknown, and now he embraces a unity vast enough to include all of it.
The terminology of archetypal psychology describes these three stages with marvelous clarity. The mandala diagram essentially illustrates what Carl Jung calls unconscious perfection (of childhood), conscious imperfection (of middle age), and conscious perfection (of old age). We may recall a passage of the Bible that puts it similarly. “Except ye become as a child, ye cannot enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.” (Matthew 18:3) Indeed, the ultimate destination is a circle, just as the starting point is a circle, but a circle at a whole other order of magnitude.Communion with the Universal Mind
It is vitally important, in the imagery of the mandala, that each shape is contained inside the other. Moving from one level to the next does not mean abandoning the previous stage, but requires the act of transcending and including. This is worth remembering through any and all stages of maturation, for the initiate will inevitably be tempted to reject his prior identity and cling to the “better” and more sophisticated self. But this is a mistake. The true sophisticate will retain all of it, understanding that even those inferior qualities contribute something valuable to the whole.
The large circle seems to represent the highest realm of consciousness, enlightened Buddhahood and oneness with the divine. For most of us then, the mandala provides a helpful roadmap for spiritual development, even as we realize we are unlikely to attain that state of total nirvana on any regular basis. It this case, it is useful to see the image as a metaphor for incremental improvements, as we climb upward step by step. So don’t get too comfortable when you reach the big circle; it is not the finish line, but merely the opening of the next mandala, in a cycle that repeats itself indefinitely, as we continue to step out of our comfort zones and into the unknown, always striving to include and transcend and grow as humans.Evolution of Consciousness
Finally, we can read the mandala as a metaphor for human development on a larger, historical scale. In antediluvian times, our as forefathers gathered around the fire, danced naked in the moonlight, and threw virgins off of the pyramids, they experienced a unity with god, or imitatio dei. Even in more recent history, the prophets and patriarchs of the Old Testament spoke to God, through angels and shrubs.
Only in the last three or four centuries, thanks to the paradigm shattering discoveries of Galileo, Kepler, Newton, etc., whose discoveries literally moved the earth, mankind has been driven into a quagmire of spiritual uncertainty where God is dead. We have succeeded in naming the elements, categorizing the life forms, and dating the universe, but we have separated ourselves from Mother Earth and Father Sky.
We have learned to dominate our environment, but at what cost? The last century has seen a mad rush to return to the comfort of the small, infantile circle, in the form of religious fundamentalism, archaic astrology and backwards-looking wicca. Yet we know that this regression will get us nowhere, unless they can be directed at opening the larger circle of the One.Enter the Kingdom
In order to thrive and regain the state of blissful unity, we must move forward, we must take the next step up that spiraling staircase. Our faith in the forces of the market are no substitute for an immovable faith in the All Father, but this is where we have arrived. Adam Smith’s invisible hand cannot replace Neptune’s triton, but for many it has. To restore the lost paradise we must rediscover one another, we must reconnect with highest forms of human potential, we must abandon the false idolatry of materialism, and we must learn to see through the eyes of others as if they were our own.
Further Reading: If you enjoy these sorts of metaphysical interpretations, you’ll also want to check out the following articles.The Ten Thousand Things of Taoism The Symbolism of the Indian Ganesh Om is where the Heart is: Meditations on the One Buddhist Thangka Paintings: Meaningful and Sublime Tibetan Buddhist Sand Mandalas Archetypal Dimensions of Kermit the Frog Bamboo Symbolism and Mythology
Some call him the elephant head, some call him the Remover of Obstacles. What is this fascination we have with the glorious Lord Ganesh, India’s mighty and most revered elephant deity? None can deny the charm of the thick-skinned behemoth, the largest animal to walk on land since the ice age, with its chunky tree trunk legs, its floppy ears and that ridiculous protrusion of a trunk. Surely this is a creature steeped in symbols and meaning.
Legend of both the savannah and the big top, the elephant lends itself easily to fairy tales and folklore. But take a close look at the iconography of Ganesh and you’ve got a regular circus of mythological exegesis.
DISCLOSURE: Some of the links in this article are affiliate links. This means that, at no additional cost to you, we will earn a small commission if you click through those links and make a purchase. This helps us meet the cost of maintaining our website.Lord Ganesh: Elephant god of wisdom and success
Ganesh stands out unmistakably among any pantheon of gods, with his prepossessing elephant head. Here is an animal widely associated with long life, strength and wisdom, not to mention a perspicacious memory. The symbolism is fairly explicit, and the disproportionate size of Ganesh’s head suggests wisdom in every way.
But a further look at the elephant noggin reveals more. His massive ears and his small, hidden mouth. Indeed, what could be a more universal indication of wisdom than to listen better and speak less?
Proverbs Eastern and Western all point to this noble disposition. And when the face of wisdom has a nose like a 6-foot garden hose, we are reminded that wisdom is unremarkable without the virtue of good sense of humor.Whatever happened to Ganesh’s head?
It’s impossible to study Ganesh without asking, “Where did the elephant head come from?” And sure enough, there’s a perfectly good explanation for that.
Ganesh was born the son of Shiva and his wife Parvati. Shiva is one of the three primary gods (Trimurti) of Hinduism. Along with Brahma the creator and Vishnu the sustainer, Shiva is the destroyer. Born of the gods, Ganesh actually had an ordinary human head as a child.
So one day, his mother Parvati goes up for a bath. She asks her strong, protective son to watch the door because she does not wish to be disturbed. But when Shiva comes home, the two do not recognize each other. According to one version, that’s because Parvati only just created Ganesh from a lump of turmeric, and so the two had never met.
In any case, Shiva insists on coming in to see his wife. But Ganesh refuses and says absolutely no visitors allowed. A great struggle ensues, and Shiva cuts off the boy’s head. But when Parvati finishes her bath and comes out to see what has happened, she is naturally distraught over the condition of her headless son. And she proceeds to give her husband a severe talking to.
Shocked and ashamed, Shiva rushes out of the house and into the forest. Coming across a noble looking elephant, he cuts off its head and brings it back to his wife and her son. Then, bringing all his divine powers to bear upon the situation, Shiva carefully replaces Ganesh’s head with the elephant’s.
And then they all live happily ever after.Grinning Ganesh: Why the big smile?
Something about the face of an elephant, it never looks angry, never overly worried. And what good is wisdom, worldly or spiritual, without the ability to relax and laugh at your own shortcomings? Ganesh’s healthy, round belly reiterates this air of joviality. He is one who laughs often and enjoys life, not overly concerned with asceticism and self-abnegation, unlike many other religious teachers.A show of hands: What is Ganesh holding?
Now, for some deeper layers of meaning, let’s have a look at Ganesh’s busy hands. The Indian deities are notorious for their many arms and hands, and hands are such an essential and defining characteristic of man as a species. (Consider the linguistic root of words like manual, from the latin manu, for hand.) This many-handedness, for me, signifies the super-human status of the gods. Not non-human, as western theology often suggests, dividing us from them (or from Him), but more than human, possessing our vital characteristics, only more so.
Representations of Ganesh typically show him with four or six hands, and although depictions can vary quite widely (with up to 20 or more hands), there are a number of standard accoutrements that the deity generally carries. Let’s take a closer look at each of those hands.One hand always holds something sweet and delicious, and it’s often difficult to see what it is exactly—maybe a mango—but it tends to be in one of the lower hands, held near the belly and the end of the trunk. Materially, this signifies, like his jolly belly, Ganesh’s ability to enjoy some of life’s sweet pleasures. But spiritually, and more significantly, it suggests the sweet rewards of mental discipline, the kinds achieved through meditation and devotional practice. This divine delicacy, something reminiscent of the Manna from Heaven, is frequently held just below the trunk, where Ganesh seems to savor its aroma. In the upper right hand, which we might reasonably consider to be the most important position, Ganesh is almost always wielding an axe. As with most images of destruction found in Indian mythology, this weapon is intended for chopping down evil and cutting it out of our lives. By evil, Ganesh really means to obliterate ignorance and illusion, the kinds of misunderstanding that lure us into cycles of suffering. Only by freeing ourselves from these fallacious paradigms, misconceptions about ourselves and the world around us, can we come close to finding enlightenment. The axe of Ganesh also serves to sever the bonds of attachment, the grasping and clinging. This attachment, to both objects and ideas, constrains us like chains, confining us to a narrow world view and preventing us from experiencing the world through clear, unfiltered eyes. Across from the axe, in his upper left hand, Ganesh usually holds a rope. An implement of attachment, the rope would appear to act as a kind of counterpoint to the axe, suggesting the need to strike a balance between opposites. The rope is commonly identified as a yoke for leading an animal, which offers some interesting interpretation. Some say that Ganesh has harnessed an animal which leads him to his destination, underscoring the need to follow our passions in pursuit of our goals, again counterbalancing the axe which severs our desires and attachments. But I also see the rope as a tool for taming the inner beast, channeling the restless, primal energy and putting it to constructive use, the way our ancestors did when they domesticated the ox. One more hand position worth mentioning, seen in the lower left hand of the Ganesh pictured above, is the open palm of protection. This virtually universal gesture of peace and providence can be found throughout the Buddhist and Hindu pantheon, as well as in the icons and images of western saints, including the Messiah himself. The protective hand reminds us of forces beyond our ken that guard our well being. Less than perfect: A god with a flaw
Another intriguing feature characteristic of many Ganesh masks and sculptures is the broken tusk, which can mean a few different things. One interpretation has to do with accepting the good with the bad, and not demanding perfection. The single broken tusk can also be thought of as the one flaw of an otherwise perfect figure.
Consider Marilyn Monroe’s dainty mole, or more significantly, the limp or scar that often afflicts a mythic hero. There are also a couple of anecdotal explanations. One reports that Ganesh lost a tusk in combat with his father Shiva. Another explains that Ganesh broke the tusk off himself to use as writing tool in transcribing the epic Mahabharata as it was dictated to him by the sage Vyasa.
Various depictions of Ganesh include countless qualities and signifiers, but I’d like to finish by looking at one last element, his vehicle, the little mouse (or rat) typically seen scurrying around the god’s feet. The idea that the elephant uses a rodent as his vehicle strikes me as something like a zen koan, an irreconcilable riddle to be contemplated rather than solved. Like the the yin yang, and numerous other symbols and stories, this partnership leads us to consider the relationship between opposites, as we must learn to embrace light and dark, good and evil, great and small, together as one.
Furthermore, the mouse of legends and lore often acts a symbol for our thoughts. Here comes the squeaky, incessant sound from inside, that inner dialog that races back and forth across the floorboards of our mind. Try as we might, this inner soundtrack cannot be silenced. Likewise, the elephant may try and stomp out the pesky mouse. But his clumsy stumps are no match for a darting rodent.
Yet, Lord Ganesh, with his superhuman cranium, has somehow managed to tame his thoughts, to quiet his mind, to control the seemingly uncontrollable. And that is the most divine feat of all. For thoughts are the forerunner of all things. Our thoughts become our reality, so when we control our thoughts we control our world.Rodent reminders: Ganesh’s great memory
For an even more sophisticated interpretation, consider the rat. The rat is a pest, and we are pestered by our conscience. Our conscience speaks to us from the other side, reminding us of our transgressions and helping us distinguish between right and wrong. A healthy, well-developed conscience can guide us in our actions and our choices, and this guidance is the vehicle on which an enlightened creature moves forward.
Take a good look at the elephant god. Smile at his flappy ears and laugh at his dangling trunk. But also meditate on his wisdom and his mental prowess. Invoke him for strength and courage. Follow his example, learn to overcome the illusions and accept the contradictions, and soon you will be removing obstacles on your own.Shopping for Ganesh statues and artwork
Hinduism accepts thousands of different deities, and countless variations of each god. So they have no orthodox or correct version of Ganesh. And unlike Islam, for example, they obviously have no strict qualms against depicting their gods in artwork and imagery.
So if you’re looking to decorate your home, altar or yoga studio with an uplifting likeness of the great elephant god, don’t concern yourself with rules and regulations. Just find a Ganesh that resonates with your soul, one who emanates the right sort of energy that you’re aiming to propagate.
Whether he’s joyful and resplendent or peaceful and meditative, it’s all good. Sometimes Ganesh is dancing, sometimes he’s lying in repose, sometimes he’s reading a book. If you don’t have a metaphysical shop in your neighborhood, you can find a huge selection at Amazon.
Besides his attitude and position, you’ll also want to think about the materials. Personally I prefer the bronze statuary, hefty and regal, but generally more expensive. Wooden Ganeshes also have a nice look and feel. And for the most affordable statuary, the resin Ganeshes come in a great variety of styles and colors.
We’d love to hear about your special connections with the glorious Ganesh. Let us know in the comments section below.Further Reading
If you enjoy Eastern philosophy and symbolism, you’ll also want to check out the following articles.Om is where the Heart is: Meditations on the One Meanings in the Mandala: Roadmap of the Mind Buddhist Thangka Paintings: Meaningful and Sublime Archetypal Dimensions of Kermit the Frog Bamboo Symbolism and Mythology
In today’s post, we derive our inspiration from an often overlooked passage of the classic Muppet melody, “The Rainbow Connection,” a song that unquestionably and unapologetically takes up a dialog with the wisdom of the Other Side.
“Have you been half asleep and have you heard voices?
I’ve heard them calling my name
Is this the sweet sound that calls the young sailors?
The voice might be one and the same
I’ve heard it too many times to ignore it
It’s something that I’m supposed to be”
-Kermit the Frog
Messages from the Deep
The role of frogs and toads in folklore and fairy tales is widespread and well-documented throughout the world. As a window into the collective unconscious, fairy tales serve as a kind of secular scripture, and it is no exaggeration to say that the frog takes a preeminent place in this light-hearted yet deep-seeking genre. The Brothers Grimm’s “Frog Prince” is among the best known stories in their comprehensive anthology, and one that has equivalents from dozens of other cultures across Europe and Asia where the motif is repeated and revised into countless variations.
One need not look hard to find the traits that give frogs a unique, if not magical, status among the animal kingdom. Their very life cycle is a wonder to behold, as they mature from aquatic tadpole into amphibious adult. Water itself is an elemental symbol loaded with meaning. As a source of life, water can mean the mother; as a taker of lives, it can equally denote death. It can be clear and cleansing or dark and murky, smooth and reflective or rough and choppy, but always deep and mysterious, like the cloudy depths of the subconscious.
In the variety of frog prince fairy tales, the creature’s capacity for transformation is explicit, but the frog’s greatest fascination comes from its dual nature, as much at home in the water as it is on land. It’s a rare being who has knowledge of both elements and can move effortlessly between the two. Archetypally speaking, this amphibious nature suggests a preternatural ability to move between realms of the conscious and the unconscious, or mythically speaking, between the land of the living and the land of the dead, heaven and earth.Mythic dimensions
Such characters are of chief importance in the mythological pantheon, generally referred to as tricksters or psychopomps, the best known in western culture being Hermes (or Mercury). In addition to his function as divine messenger, Hermes is known as a “guardian and guide,” and “bringer of good luck.” (Iliad) Besides stirring up mischief, deities of this sort serve as the connective tissue between the sacred and the mundane, holding the communicative key that unlocks the secrets of the spirit world.
The frog’s cyclical lifespan and amphibious lifestyle have also earned it a mercurial reputation in the Far East, where Taoist tradition associates these pond squatters with healing and immortality, and regards them as spirits recovered from the deep “well of truth.” (It is noteworthy that Hermes carries the staff of Caduceus, whose twin snakes have come to symbolize medicine, making the link between Greco-Roman trickster and Oriental toad even less remote.)
Certainly Kermit’s keen intuition and ardent empathy support the frog’s legendary distinction as intermediary to the stars. When he speaks of voices who call when you’re half asleep, he is recalling the language of dreams, the language our unconscious uses to address our waking mind. It is a language scarcely intelligible without the aid of a skilled amphibian to perform the translation. But a creature like Kermit has the rare ability to see through what ordinary beings would consider an opaque boundary, and to guide us across the barrier like Charon over the river Styx.
The text further invokes the voyage of Odysseus, whose crew of sailors are lured by the sweet song of Sirens, one more obstacle on his epic journey back to Ithica and his long lost Penelope. The sweet voices in the case of our text, however, are not a distracting temptation, but the true calling. So beware, Kermit warns us, listen closely and discern, for the truth can all too easily be mistaken for the distraction, and vice versa. Listen carefully to the inner voice, trust in your self, and you will know not to ignore it.Resonating rainbows
“And some day you’ll find it, the rainbow connection.” When the light of higher truth penetrates our temporal reality, the deep will suffuse the shallow, and a ray of light will spread out into every color of the rainbow. The imagery points now to Mount Ararat, where Noah has survived the flood and docks his trusty ark on the hilltop. After delivering the devastating, nearly apocalyptic deluge, God promises never again to enact such destruction, and seals his promise with a rainbow, to signify the “everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.” (Genesis 9:12-16)
After showing the way as translator and spirit guide, the prophet Kermit also guarantees his words with a rainbow. Like the Noahic covenant of the Old Testament, the Rainbow Connection seals the pact between the earthly and the divine, the sacred and the profane. The voices have entered from another realm, and with highest thanks and praise to Kermit, we are blessed with “ears that hear and eyes that see.” (Proverbs 20:12)
If you enjoy this sort of archetypal exegesis, you’ll also want to read about the meanings of the Mandala, and the symbolism of the Indian Ganesh. And you can always share your own thoughts and ideas in the comments section below.
Running a business is hard work. But when you have a product you believe in and clientele you can genuinely respect, and who genuinely respect you, then it is truly a labor of love. Even so, it’s very important to make time for diversions. That’s why I set aside a little time for bamboo haiku, combining two of my favorite Asian contributions to civilization.
The multifaceted grass and the 17-syllable poetry seem to go hand-in-hand. They both soothe the soul and inspire the heart, helping to release the mind from the fetters of the daily grind. Haiku poems can take you back to nature and, at their best, they aim to elevate one’s consciousness to a higher plane.
Some prefer chair yoga and micro meditation. But whatever it takes to break up the monotony of the work day and keep your spirit grounded, I say go for it!
A succulent turns Craning its inflorescence Toward the setting sun
Pale ribbons of steam Envelop the aroma Of green tea steeping
Photosynthesis Provides all the great tasting Flavors of sunshine
Many syllables Trickle from my humble font As the Buddha speaks
And perhaps most important of all, it’s essential to keep a sense of humor in all of your endeavors.
All original poetry by Fred Hornaday. Not for reproduction without permission.Further reading
To learn more about the mystical aspects of bamboo and Eastern philosophy, check out some of our other great articles.Bamboo Symbolism in Legends and Folklore The Mandala: Roadmap of the Mind Buddhist Thangka Paintings The Ten Thousand Things of Taoism
“One good thing about music, when it hits you feel no pain,” so says the Rasta wise man Bob Marley. Healing the body with sound and music is nothing new, rather it is an ancient art whose time for rediscovery has come. And as frustration with conventional Western medicine grows and grows—whether you attribute it to new diseases and longer life spans, point the finger at the insurance companies and the ruthless monetization of medical care, or simply blame it on Obama—the popularity of alternative treatments just continues to blossom like a giant lotus in a Japanese garden.
In that vein, the Hearst Cancer Resource Center at French Hospital here in San Luis Obispo just introduced a new class: Sound Therapy with Singing Bowls. Anyone who’s ever picked up a singing bowl (of course, we always have several to choose from here at Bambu Batu) and rubbed it the right way, knows a little about the wondrous sensations produced by the resonation of these mystical Tibetan instruments whose tradition goes back over three millennia. But proper therapeutic use of the singing bowl involves a bit more knowledge and technique.
The class is being offered on the second Monday of each month from 5-6 pm at the HCRC. Instructor Sean Levahn is a licensed massage therapist and certified Reiki master. For more info, call the HCRC at 805-542-6234.
DISCLOSURE: Some of the links in this article are affiliate links. This means that, at no additional cost to you, we will earn a small commission if you click through those links and make a purchase.“The Magician and the Prince” | A Zen Parable from Bambu Batu
Once upon a time in a faraway kingdom there lived a bright young prince who believed in all things but three. He did not believe in volcanos, he did not believe in princesses, and he did not believe in God.
One clear summer day, under a sky as blue as corydalis, the prince took his horse on a long, long ride, beyond the boundaries of his father’s vast dominions. Near the summit of a high mountain he met a strange old man, with a long wispy beard. This foreigner spoke to the prince of his own homeland, near the volcanoes, among gentlemen and beautiful princesses.
The prince did not believe these stories, so he demanded to see proof. With the old man, he traveled for another day until they passed a pair of princesses on the road. And later that same day they climbed to the rim of a volcano.
The prince hurried home on his steed, and ran straight to the king. “Father! I have seen volcanos! I have seen princesses! I have seen God!”
“But son,” the king replied, “volcanos, princesses and God do not exist.”
“But father,” he insisted, “I saw them!”
“Tell me what God looked like.” So the prince described the long beard and the unusual hat as he remembered them. The king sat back and laughed. “You have described a magician. You did not meet God. You were fooled. The princesses and volcanos were simply illusions.”
Disappointed, the prince hopped right back on his horse to cross the hills and find the old man. “You lied to me,” he said. “My father is the king and he has explained your tricks. There are no volcanos and there are no princesses.”
“Aha. Very interesting hypothesis,” said the old man, while stroking his whiskers. “But I haven’t tricked you. There are volcanos and princesses in your kingdom as well. Only you can’t see them, because you are under your father’s spell. For he is a magician as well.”
When the prince returned home again, he looked his father in the eyes and asked him, “Is it true, father, what they say? That you are not a real king, but just a magician?”
“Yes,” the father meekly confessed, “I am only a magician.”
“So the man in the faraway land really was God,” the prince protested.
“No, son, that man was just another magician.”
“But I must know the real truth, beyond magic,” the young man demanded.
“But there is no truth beyond magic,” said the king.
At this the prince sunk his head in despair and declared, “I can’t go on like this. The uncertainty, the meaninglessness, I can’t stand it. I have no choice but to kill myself.”
So the king used his magic and called on Death to appear. Face to face with the reaper, the prince trembled in fear. His mind raced this way and that. Until gradually his thoughts then returned to the incredible volcanos, and especially to the beautiful princesses that he had seen in that faraway land.
“Alright then,” he said, pulling himself together. “I can bear it.”
“Very good, my son,” said the king. “You too are becoming a magician!”
The preceding parable was adapted from a passage in The Magus, a tremendously profound and enjoyable novel by John Fowles. For more enchanted Zen Parables to tickle your mind and soothe your soul, be sure to check out Heaven and Hell, Everything Flows, and Mind is the Forerunner of All Things. You might also be interested in our article on Bamboo Symbolism and Mythology.
PHOTO CREDIT: The Magician from the Rider-Waite tarot deck. With one hand reaching upwards toward heaven and the other pointing down toward the earth, the Magicians embodies the union of the sacred and the mundane. As spirits inhabiting these earthly shells, this is a balance we should all seek to achieve.