Some years ago I was talking to a friend, who is also a Zen teacher, about prayer. He mentioned that he had been in the practice of talking to Kuan Yin, [the bodhisattva of compassion], every day for some time until he realized that he was talking to himself and decided to stop. This left me with a question: why should he have stopped just because he was talking to himself?
Kuan Yin, also known as Kanzeon and Avalokiteshvara, is one of the cosmic, or archetypal, bodhisattvas of Mahayana Buddhism. These larger than life figures are beings dedicated to the salvation of all beings, whose presence and powers are cosmic in scope. Kuan Yin, Jizo, Manjushri, Tara, and dozens of others have been real and important presences in Buddhist history.
Throughout Buddhist stories they have been mythologized, prayed to, depicted in Buddhist art, worshipped, channeled, and even identified with. Some Buddhists think they are real, and others view them as products of the mind—focuses of meditation or imagined embodiments of archetypal forces. Still others refuse to make a clear distinction between them being real and being unreal, as in the case of one Tibetan teacher who, when asked if cosmic bodhisattvas are real, replied, “Yes, but they know they are not.”
It is, I think, natural, when one takes up a Mahayana practice like devotion to a cosmic bodhisattva or the deity yoga practices of Tibetan Buddhism, to wonder if the being one is imagining is real or not. Certainly this question occurred to me when I was experimenting with Tibetan deity yoga practice where one imagines a Buddha or bodhisattva and identifies with them.
As for myself, I concluded—with all due respect to others who view it differently—that cosmic bodhisattvas are imaginary characters who Buddhists have invested with a degree of power that may be transpersonal. In other words, although I don’t believe Kuan Yin is an objectively real being outside of human minds, I believe her power transcends that which I give her with my own personal mind. I think there is room for mystery here. Has Kuan Yin really appeared to lost pilgrims in the mountains of Asia and guided them home, as many have reported? Maybe she has, even being a “mere” product of human minds.
This way of viewing the bodhisattvas is similar to the way archetypes of the collective unconscious function in the psychological theories of psychiatrist Carl Jung, who in fact invented the term “archetype” I have been using here. Archetypes are imaginary beings, yet they exist outside of any particular human mind and have a certain autonomy. They function within the collective psyche and the world due to the mysterious powers of our collective human mind. Jung developed a way of accessing the figures of our unconscious-—both archetypal ones and more local, personal symbols, in a practice he called “active imagination.” It consists of actively dialoguing with symbolic figures who are invited to appear in one’s imagination. “Active imagination is distinct from fantasy,” wrote Jung, “meaning that the images encountered in active imagination have a life of their own and that the symbolic events develop according to their own logic.” Jung himself had a long series of conversations with a being called Philemon, which he recorded in his Red Book. The technique was further developed by Jungian analyst Robert A. Johnson, whose approach informs my own practice. “Active imagination is a special way of using the power of the imagination to develop a working relationship between the conscious mind and the unconscious,” wrote Johnson in Inner Work.
Having practiced and led active imagination sessions myself, I wondered, could bodhisattvas be accessed this way? Within the paradigm of active imagination, the bodhisattva is a figure that embodies and channels the wisdom they represent to us. They become a way to access the wisdom we hide from ourselves—the wisdom that is unconscious. I thought this was worth an experiment, and I asked another Zen friend of mine which bodhisattva I should talk to. In true Zen fashion, he gave me a wise and surprising answer. He thought I should talk to Fudo.
Fudo is depicted as a fierce warrior, a manifestation of the wisdom mind of the primordial Buddha. He is a guardian—a defender of boundaries and an incinerator of obstacles to enlightenment, often depicted carrying a sword and a noose.
He would not have been my first choice.
I was thinking of Jizo, the gentle monk-like bodhisattva who protects children and the lost, ferrying them through darkness. The more I thought about Fudo, though, as well as my own struggles to maintain good boundaries in my life, and my longstanding struggle with certain persistent obstacles, the more I thought Fudo might indeed be just right. I decided the only way to decide would be to talk to him.
Following the protocol for an active imagination session, I sat down somewhere quiet, closed my eyes, and imagined myself entering a space that symbolizes my own unconscious mind. I walked down a stone spiral staircase inside a mountain, into a dark, circular space. There in the center, luminous with fire, was Fudo. I asked him questions and listened to the responses. In this practice you do not deliberately imagine a reply from the being, but rather wait and let them reply in a way that feels autonomous. This does actually happen and the being often says surprising and sometimes shocking things which, by virtue of the logic of the exercise, get around your natural ego filters. By the end of our discussion I was convinced Fudo was the right choice to be my interlocutor.
I vividly imagined myself walking over a green field towards a huge tree, which had a spiral staircase in its trunk that led into the ground. I walked down the spiral into a very dark place where there was a cavern with a simple, empty altar. I left flowers and incense and then invited Fudo to appear. He did, hovering over the altar, surrounded in flames, his body bronze. I asked him what message he had for me.
“You have to be willing to die,” he said.
“How do I do that?”
“You need to die to the things you’re clinging to. Let go of the things you’re carrying. Let them burn away. Be willing for my flames to burn them to ash.”
“How do I do that?” I asked.
“Wait patiently through the pain and anxiety that arises. Trust me, I’ll burn them away without hurting you. You will emerge on the other side stronger.”
I felt carried, or supported by Fudo, who had the look of a fierce but wise and loyal general within the flames. “I’m here for you,” he said, tapping a staff on the ground, like a loyal and strong general speaking to his leader. I thanked Fudo and left an offering again, then walked up the spiral and out of the tree. Knowing the next step was to take action, I thought of things I needed to let go of. A relationship where I am taking excessive responsibility for the other person and the relationship itself. Pet pleasures that take away from my meditation time. I decided that in the week ahead I would work on both, and I would remember Fudo’s advice to wait in the flames while these things burnt away.
For five days I met with Fudo in my internal sacred space, each time talking with him and listening to what he had to say, then leaving imaginary offerings (a Buddhist touch) and walking back up the stairs to the virtual forested ground above. During those days, Fudo quickly became my guide and friend in setting stronger boundaries in my practice and life, and being more willing to be fierce in confronting the obstacles that I say I want to let go while still keeping just a pocketful of around in case I need them.
My conclusion: Buddhist practice and active imagination are a fruitful fusion. Especially, but not exclusively, for those who would like to relate to cosmic bodhisattvas but who, like me, are not of a devotional bent, it opens a unique pathway.
Here are some brief instructions on doing this experiment for yourself. [For a deeper dive I recommend the book Inner Work by Robert A. Johnson, where the following steps are set out].
- Preparation Get writing materials ready and then sit somewhere quiet and private and close your eyes. Imagine yourself entering into the depths of your own mind. You might picture this as walking into a forest glade, or into a cave or a temple, or down a spiral staircase into a cavern (my favorite).
- Invitation Imagine the bodhisattva or spiritual figure you want to speak to, or invite them to appear. Don’t worry if you experience some mental static or false starts. Keep trying until you feel that they are present, or at least that a clear mental image of some kind appears. Ask them if they are who you want to talk to. If they say yes, keep going. If not, invite who you want to appear.
- Dialogue Once they appear, begin asking them questions. I often start with, “What do you have to teach me?” or a more specific question arising from challenges in my spiritual practice. I will ask questions until it feels right to stop, or until mental static takes over, as happens sometimes. Then I leave an offering, or make some other gesture of gratitude or respect, and imagine myself leaving the space.
- Embodiment I then write down what I saw and the conversation as clearly as possible. Johnson recommends integrating what you’ve learned into your life through action, making changes, or a physical ritual of some kind.
One warning: Active Imagination is not possession or contact with a higher authority. It’s a dialogue between the conscious mind and a guide or symbolic force. According to both Jung and Johnson, the ego, with its sense of ethics and values, should remain in charge. The job of the ego is not to submit to the entities encountered in the practice, but to responsibly integrate what they have to say with ethical responsibility and common sense. On the one hand this means one doesn’t have to, and in fact shouldn’t, uncritically listen to whatever they have to say. On the other hand this does mean one is allowed to talk back!