The Mystical Art
Contemplative Visualization

by Gan Starling

First let’s try an experiment, to assay our present level of skill. Most will find a surprising result...that they are far more adept at this art then they had until now believed.

Exercise #1

Just imagine: you are standing in line at the movie theater; a half-dozen folks are qued up before you while nearly as many await behind. There is similar line on your left, and yet another to your right. Do not create this mental image, just remember a like occurrence from your past. Can you see it?

Exercise #2

Now you are inside the theater waiting for the picture to start. The lights are still up and all manner of people surround you: different races, different ages, different styles of dress, etc. They all behave quite naturally. None are completely rigid or inanimate. To varying degrees they move about, talk and gesture amongst themselves. You don’t even necessarily have to close your eyes. Just picture it and they will be there.

Exercise #3

While waiting for the curtain to lift, you loose yourself in an idle daydream. How nice it would be to visit Tahiti... Can’t you just see it? Ah, yes...there you are! You pause while walking along the beach and rest for a moment idlely leaning against an outcrop of rugged, black, volcanic rock. You gaze dreamily at the sunset verging softly ever downward toward the horizon. You wriggle your toes deeper into the still-warm sand while the faintest of breezes tousles your hair. So what if you’ve never been there? Still you can see it clearly

This is the way to visualize. Everyone knows how to do it. Often enough we seem to do it far too well, mostly when it’s not socially convenient. The trick is to be spontaneous, never too overtly deliberate, too firm or too assertive. Don’t even call it visualization. Don’t call it anything at all. The mental image-building process is neither sublime nor profoundly mystical. It is plain, ordinary, everyday imagination. It’s nothing really all that special. So lighten up. Just sit still, relax and imagine.

Don’t stress out and the pictures will come all by themselves. But if you struggle, if you strain, trying to sculpt each smallest detail by deliberate mental effort — then you will fail. All you’ll get is a kind of red unfocused cloud; which just might be actual inside of your eyelids. Don’t look with your physical eyes. Don’t look at all, just imagine.

Of course, to properly imagine something first we must know it in fair detail. How can we picture Tahiti so clearly? Only because we may have read Mutiny on the Bounty, or watched an adventure travel series on television. We know pretty well what Tahiti should look like. It is the same with meditative visualization. Before sitting down upon our cushion (or at least before evoking an image) we need to study up a bit first.

Acquaint yourself with the imagery. After a while you’ll know it by heart. But in so learning, don’t lose your spontaneity. Don’t get hung up on exact precision according to any single artist. Study several such depictions by different artists. Maintain some slight flexibility. Know in general the expression, gesture and pose. Know also the implements, garments and background. And most important, get to know the function of the imagery. What are the ultimate and intermediate goals of this practice? These will be in full accord with those of the deity.

Take Tara, for instance. Her purpose is guide and protect, to rescue from danger, to lead toward Enlightenment, to inspire and give birth to every good quality within us — most especially our Wisdom. In short, She is the perfect Mother. She encourages us to make efforts for ourselves while still sitting always at the ready, willing and able to aid us when needed. She is also eternally youthful and beautiful beyond any words. This is how we should try to see her. In this instance we are the artist. So it is rather more important that our private image of Tara express these ultimate qualities than that it should match with exactitude some other artist’s depiction of Her.

So what of traditional Tibetan iconography, with its detailed metrics and all? My own suggestion is to use it only as an informal guide. First know that there is more than just a single Tibetan school of art; and each promotes a slightly varied iconographic metrology. Secondly know that even the early Tibetan artists did not adhere with slavish precision to the original Indian iconography. They remained true instead to the heart of the matter, its inner ideal. A few certain elements of style and expression were re-interpreted so as to speak to the hearts of Tibetans.

And this may be called for in our case also. An ever so slightly Westernized re-depiction of these same exact qualities will not offend against tradition. Artistic license has its limits, but the boundries are none too severe: Green Tara must be green; She must sit thus, pose thus, gesture thus; we must attire her thus and so. Still we enjoy a rather full measure of individual flexibility. Just page through any Tibetan art book; you will see quite a range of variance in many details.

The image which we create for Tara is just as much an offering as the rest of the depiction. First we remember Her image, then we invite Her into it. Perhaps it may be that the image I offer is a composite of several classically beautiful Western women and enlivened by the tender, concerned expression of a certain, half-remembered student teacher from my fifth grade elementary class (whom I then thought to be in love with). That is not at all improper. In such a case, I will have done my best for Tara. And She will gladly communicate to me through this image. That is the function of visualization.

Note the order of events within our short Green Tara sadhana: first we have refuge prayers, then motivational prayers. After that comes visualization. And after that the invocation. Visualization then invocation! First we imagine sublime environs and a physical body for the deity to inhabit. Then we invite the deity to come into them. So how does this work?

Suppose you were planning to invite someone special, whom you admire, over to visit: what do you do? The very first thing, you’d tidy up, clearing out anything unpleasant or offensive. Then you’d pretty up the place as much as you could with decorations here and there. Properly, you would make these special efforts prior to the invitation, rather than waiting till he or she appeared at your doorstep.

And just where is it that we meet the Enlightened Ones? In their realm? No. Not yet anyway. Until we are able to see on their plane we must perforce invite them here, that is to say...into our minds. So our minds are what we must tidy up and decorate. We tidy up by putting things in their proper places, correcting our internal perspectives through going for refuge. Then we scrub those old motivations until some real bodhicitta shines through. Next we put out decorations and guest offerings through the power of imagination. And more for ourselves than otherwise, we further include an inspiring semblance for the deity to inhabit during our interview.

Perhaps this may seem a bit contrived. Well, contrived is exactly just what it is but only at first. One’s first steps in any endeavor are always awkward: highly deliberate and contrived. This is true for any skill we wish to acquire. Take playing the piano, for instance. First one struggles to hammer out Chopsticks progressing by stages until one can comfortably manage Chopin. But there the similarity ends. Our aspiring pianist may not realistically assume the spirit of Chopin is truly present to offer direct encouragement. We, as tantric practitioners, may indeed rightly do so.

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