Zotec - sacred art, thangka prints and cards

Articles About Tibetan Thangka Painting and Visionary Art - index:

An Introduction to Tibetan Thangka Painting

What is a Thangka?

Female Deities In Tibetan Buddhism

Green Tara and the Twenty-one Taras

The Mandala And Its Symbolism

Wrathful Deities of the Tibetan Buddhist Pantheon

The Wheel Of Life

Visionary Art, Cosmology and the Tree of Life

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Visionary Art, Cosmology and the Tree of Life

This article looks at the realisation of a simple blueprint found in nature and attempts a theory to describe the shape of the universe! The idea of a "World Tree" can be found in the cosmology (spiritual world view) of traditional cultures across the world and can be seen as a pattern that directs the natural movement of energy in the galaxies, stars, planets and possibly within every life form that we know! There is growing scientific understanding that seems to support my theory and I give examples of how the universal form appears in ancient ceremony and ritual. I have also begun to explore the rich subject of symbolism as a universal language - something that has developed strongly in Tibetan visionary art and continues to inspire my life and work.

Each human life can be compared to a tree - as we grow and are affected by the environment, so each of us is shaped by our experience. Like a tree we continue to grow against all the forces of change that surround us, always following our individual blueprint until we develop a unique form and beauty. Each cell in the universal tree, and in every living organism, has its own role and relationship to others around it; each leaf has its part to play in the sustenance of the whole tree.

Symbolic imagery and art hold a key to unlocking a deeper understanding of shared human experience in the same way that music enables us to share emotions beyond the barriers of language and culture. Each individual will always have a different perception or experience from another but through our physical senses we can make profound connections in "conventional" reality and occasionally touch what Buddhists call "ultimate" reality - the truth that infuses all manifest life. The viewing of art and symbolism is a metaphor for the way in which we all perceive the same reality from different points of view - it is a reminder that we are all connected!

There are symbols with the same meanings that are common to many cultures around the world - transcending both geography and language. Some of these universal symbols have been placed at the core of each culture's cosmology (i.e. their "map" for understanding reality), informing their language, art, healing methods and technologies. The source of these symbols is within and around us at all times. The wheel (or mandala) of Elements is one of the best examples of this commonality, each element usually being associated with a colour and direction. Many native cultures still hold this cosmology at the centre of their spiritual world-view - it exists in the Americas, Africa and Asia as well as in European mythology; picking up this key is an ideal way to begin on the spiritual path because it connects us directly with the natural evolution of Earth-based spirituality that is our ancestral heritage. Simply knowing that similar cosmologies and symbols have existed in disparate lands since ancient times, can give any individual more faith in the existence of a shared inner world or a hidden order behind creation. Once we have found a key, we know that there is a door to open! This knowledge will give us more power to awaken our spiritual potential, both individually and as a planetary community.

The visionary experience can be seen as a seed of culture - it brings light, information and beauty to the darkness of the inner world. New ideas and creativity in the physical world are generated by the passion each person feels when they open their own doorway to this inspirational world and access new images, ideas and connections, either in dreams, realisations or in visions. The information we perceive in visions and dreams can help us to overcome obstacles or troubles in our lives, allowing a new step through an impasse or conflict, a revelation about an emotional problem, even the birth of a new technology, scientific understanding or advance in medicine as well as inspiring poetry, music and visionary art! A painted image has the power to open or heal this inner connection within the viewer if it has been obscured - it literally transmits colours (frequencies of light) in a pattern of information, carrying some of the power of the spirit that appeared originally to the seer of the vision, manifesting a glimpse of the other world and giving a new perspective to the circumstances of our lives. In this way, the artist acts as the interface for the manifestation of patterns of energy from the other world.

When we start to share our dreams and perceptions, we can step forward into exploring ways to translate what we have seen into something beneficial for humanity. Sharing visions will also remind us clearly of our unity in life by cross-referencing our perceptions and by understanding that there is a shared symbolic reality, which is also the foundation of all ritual and ceremony. Images that come from the other world are recognised instinctively by others who have glimpsed the visionary world. The awakening of humanity that follows such transmissions of realisation is as natural as the growth of a child after conception. It is most important that we continue to record and pass on experiences that help us to understand our place in the universe as accurately as possible for future generations to access when they are searching for guidance and information.

Any activity that we engage in while we are out of touch with our inner world gives a feeling of disappointment and loss of potential; if this kind of dissociated activity is repeated throughout a lifetime, the source of inspiration recedes further into the subconscious. There must be a framework for the visionary to relate his/her glimpses of the other world and this is where symbols become the precious language of inner experience - without the cosmological wheel there is so often isolation, chaos, confused meaning and disharmony. The mental prison of a modern society's rules and unspoken restrictions means that visionary experiences are commonly believed to stem from either sickness or madness, becoming demons in the psyche of the seer.

All of the religions and traditional cultures of the world carry a heritage of stories about enlightened individuals, or "masters", who have transcended the limits of the physical world in different ways and have demonstrated magical abilities; unfortunately, these great traditions have developed popular belief systems that pass judgement on individual freedom to express a unique point of view, causing denial of the spiritual heart. Many great scientists, artists and mystics have received inspiration through the power of dreams and visions and all of us alive today have glimpsed or witnessed such phenomena to some degree. These stories and experiences inspire us because we know that there is a greater potential in us - they restore our faith in the power of life to transform us, to renew itself within us and to empower us to continue on our journey of awakening to the true nature of existence. In addition to this, the realisation of the presence of a universal source can give us a sense of the unity behind all worldly phenomena.

It is crucial that a safe framework is created in a community or society for true benefit to come from a visionary experience - alongside the understanding of symbolism, it is the development of a community that values its elders and ancestral culture that will allow us the freedom to express our unique truth and to place our trust in the power of a vision - the stronger our roots and connections, the more inspiration we can receive and act upon. Somewhere inside us, we all know that we have to rebuild our local and global communities for a balanced human way of life to survive and for living culture to flourish again on this Earth.

It is helpful for anyone seeking spiritual knowledge to explore the symbols in their dreams and visions until they start to become more familiar with their own unique view of the bigger picture. A glimpse of the vastness of life beyond our physical senses can be both terrifying and awe-inspiring! The cosmology of indigenous peoples gives us reassurance and guidance in the way that a true elder encourages a young person to embrace life - this helps the work of our ancestors to continue growing in us.

A true vision is like a view through a keyhole to a new dimension of life - the door can become an open doorway and the key is that which empowers us to overcome our fear and allows us to step through to a new paradigm. We know this experience already; it is fundamental in the passing through the doorway of birth or death, which is cosmologically situated in the singularity at the centre of the Tree of Life, where the spiralling energies of the cosmic soul condense to a single point and break through the veil into the physical world, reversing their polarity and beginning to grow and spiral in the opposite direction; mirroring this spiritual unity, all living beings grow from a single cell (or a pair of cells) that begin to divide, initially forming a sphere. The aim of initiation in tribal cultures is to guide the process of making a similar, conscious transition within a human lifetime - for many of us this is not accessible in a clear form but often comes as a long term result of major life changes or traumatic experience.

The Tree of Life can be seen as the energetic form of the universe and perhaps describes its physical form as well. This form is the cosmic blueprint, the Dharmakaya, for worldly phenomena and the forms of living beings. The universe, in spiritual terms, can be seen as the physical body of the divine so it would be reasonable to suggest that this physical universe is a living being itself, as well as each of the galaxies, stars and planets within it, each one containing an aspect of consciousness and capable of the generation of life and reproduction. The tree within the sphere represents the microcosm and macrocosm ("as above so below") - the "image of God", in whose likeness we are all made. So many natural forms have a branching pattern: think of the shape of plants and trees, the shape of our human form, its many blood vessels, the hemispheres of the brain and its neural pathways, even the pattern of streams and rivers across the Earth. Think also of the yew tree, that regenerates where its branches touch the Earth to produce a circle or "sacred grove" of trees, and the relevance and symbolic nature of its presence in the burial places of our ancestors.

Every galaxy, star, planet and living being in existence is a generation of life which is physically informed by this same fundamental code. A recent astrophysics theory describes the shape of the universe as toroidal - a toroid is a "ring doughnut" shape - which is also the shape of the space that exists around the trunk of the "tree within the sphere"; this recognition leads to the concept of the Tree of Life image being able to illustrate the existence of both matter and anti-matter components of creation - these could be equated with the physical and spirit worlds of animistic cosmology as well as the male and female aspects of living beings. Another interpretation of this image could be that the toroidal surface that describes the form of the universe is shown by the interface between the "tree" (the manifest universe) and the space that it contains and defines (the stillness of the unmanifest) - these two depicting the duality of form and void. Furthermore, one only has to cut an apple in half to see the same form revealed - it is no coincidence that the fruit in the story of Genesis is said to convey the knowledge of good and evil (representing the duality of phenomena). This knowledge is present in the most direct form possible - the ultimate in symbolism!

In Buddhist tradition, the Vajra (when used as a ritual object) is a symbolic model of the "conventional" and "ultimate" realities existing as two conjoined realities - equal and opposite - perfectly describing the Tree of Life with its "above" and "below", physical world and Spirit World, masculine and feminine, with their unchanging source as a small sphere at the centre. The Vajra is a symbol of transcendence and usually contains four branches and a central column, symbolic of the five elements of existence, or the five "poisons" and five wisdoms on opposite sides of the centre.

There is an understanding present in the teachings of the Medicine Wheel and in Norse mythology, where we all occupy a different place in the circle of life but we share the reality that exists within that circle: in terms of the Tree of Life, the circle of the Medicine Wheel is the horizontal plane, or "Middle Earth", which is seen as the meeting place of the spiritual and physical worlds.

The singularity or unity, the source of consciousness, is the seed that exists at the very centre of this sphere and the Tree grows above and below, outwards from the centre: the physical, visible world above and the hidden world of spirit below ground - the form of the Tree grows as the Earth's power is combined with the power of light. Our "roots" are in Spirit and the "branches" define our physical life. The leaves of the tree represent our ability to access the power of light to feed our growth and to inform our soul's journey through life. The circle at the edge of this sphere is where the duality is resolved, where the opposites meet and merge, and the centre is the source from which the duality emerges - it is the "eye of the storm", the point from which creation constantly expands and the spark of life force within every living being.

As examples of symbolic knowledge existing in ritual we can look at two of the traditional ceremonies of the Native Americans; firstly the Stone-People-Lodge or "Sweat Lodge" and the Sundance ceremony. The Stone-People-Lodge has a physical form and process that contains the symbolic form of the Tree of Life. The ceremony is a return to the elements of Fire, Rock, Water and Nature. Red hot stones occupy the centre as the source of cosmic energy, connected to the source of creation. When water (the essence of life) touches the hot stones, steam moves up and around the inside of the hemispherical lodge, following a convection pattern similar to the shape of a tree - it is the moving energy of life that follows the natural form of the tree. When life force is allowed to flow in this natural way, as it does in a living tree or in our blood, it gives strength and vitality. Traditionally, participants are encouraged to see the lodge as a sphere (with another hemisphere below ground) with the stones at its centre - representing the singularity, the ancestors and the warmth of the Great Spirit's love made manifest on Earth. The ancient volcanic stones give us the physical foundation and substance of our existence. The lodge as a sphere is traditionally seen as a model of the universe (in a true ceremony, the symbolic and actual reality are said to be unified in human experience so that in this case the lodge "becomes" the universe) - it is also a model of the Earth with its fiery core and central axis around which the planet turns. The lodge is also the womb of the Earth from which we are all born. By re-creating such a harmonious form and entering in a ceremonial way, the people make room for the presence of the power of the Creator, by which they are purified and rejuvenated.

The Sundance ceremony involves the symbolic planting of a central tree, to which the Sundancers are tethered, in a circular dance ground - this symbolises the Tree of Life to which we are all connected - and the purpose of the ceremony is a prayer for the continuation of life, to offer physical pain and endurance as a dedication to stand in line with the natural law, and to break through the veil of life and death consciously. The Maypole dance of western Europe is a similar ceremony, celebrating the gift of fertility, and is based on such a similar idea that there seems to be a clear, common understanding of the symbology within each tradition. The power of these ceremonies is due to the symbolic truth that they contain - it is easy to see why they have been practised for so many centuries.

Those who devote their lives to inner realisation, whether followers of a religious path or not, can embrace the manifest world in the knowledge that each of us has a unique and valuable view of Creation and yet we are each a part of the same living being. Elders remind us that it is not necessary always to focus on changing the form of the physical world; we can translate inner power into something helpful by learning to embody our vision and bring it into everything that we do, in other words to turn our gifts into our life's purpose - to awaken to the truth of who we are.

Creation of beautiful art goes hand in hand with any living culture. All of the peoples of the world have made offerings of beautiful objects that they have created as a means of keeping the doorway clear to the divine - as if they are saying "We honour the power of the Creator within us by allowing love and creativity to fill us to overflowing - here is our gratitude for the gift and the mystery of life".

I believe that my highest goal as a visionary artist, and as a human being, is to be like fertile ground, a field of potential, for the patterns and symbols of a stream of hidden beauty to manifest in the world. I also feel that part of my duty in creating art is to remind others of the beauty within them - we can all perceive beauty in nature or in our everyday experience - and when we can see it clearly, our minds return to our heart where and we feel whole - we are only uncomfortable if our mind is elsewhere. The prevailing Western paradigm, in which so many of us find ourselves growing up, has taught us to be afraid of our inner life, the reality of death, impermanence of phenomena and all things occult. Fear of the unknown compels us to keep a locked door between ourselves and others. In the process, we keep ourselves locked out of the beauty and freedom that is our natural home! If we are fortunate enough to awaken to a deeper understanding, then we can begin to allow the love and creativity of the divine to manifest in our lives. The practice of art is one way to train the mind to be present through concentration - it is the first goal of all spiritual practice, simply to be present and therefore awake in every moment!

How has human failure to understand the inner world become so widespread, when the miracle of this universe is all around? Every day we are reminded that we can relate to other apparently separate individuals - of course, we don't always experience clear and harmonious communication but it must be clear that we are not entirely separate beings! Despite this logical conclusion, we grow up in a world where the simple truth of connectedness is replaced with a recurrent fear of (and competition with) others that prevents us from being at peace. The idea of "self" and "other" is an idea that we have adopted as the foundation for our shared reality - what an irony! We all share the same desire for connection or intimacy and to reflect to each other the inner truth of our unity, to return to peace with all humanity.

In my visions, especially with my latest vision of the Tree of Life, I have started to recognise something far more universal beyond either verbal language or the language of symbols. Human beings are wired to seek out transcendental experience - it is our nature to be at home in the mystery of life. Visionary inspiration is a common foundation for spiritual communities, religious or otherwise, which shows that there is a direct and recognisable relationship between one person's vision and another's, even though our learned scientific understanding of the world tells us that a visionary experience can only exist within one human mind at a time. The key to a shared vision is symbolism - we know the meaning of symbols directly without the need for words. All that is required to understand them is that we have a clear perception and allow ourselves the emotional freedom to receive a message without judgement, in other words, that we allow ourselves to perceive with an open heart.

Thangka painting, traditional Buddhist sacred art, is full of symbolic language. The word Thang-ka in Tibetan means "recorded message". Buddhist iconography records the visions of deities, each one with a spiritual power. There are also images portraying the Buddha's teachings as well as many historical figures and stories from Indian and Tibetan culture. For many Buddhists, these art objects are living extensions of the spiritual powers that reach from the Spirit World into the physical world to bring wisdom, understanding and balance - they act as a source of information, inspiration and energy or "life force". The use of painted imagery in the Vajrayana tradition enables the Dharma (teachings) to be accessible to anyone who has the power of sight; the art form has developed as a means to pass on sacred knowledge without the need for literacy. The paintings can act as a guide to the meaning and cosmology of the Buddhist religion (as a system of beliefs, with spiritual powers attributed to individual deities, spirits and elements) but I believe that they exist predominantly because of the desire to record visionary experiences and the realisations that accompany them - this is the very same desire that motivated me to begin my work as a visionary artist!

Through sacred iconography, the method and wisdom aspects of the Dharma - the inner masculine and feminine, symbolically shown as the Yab-Yum (father-mother) Tantric images - are represented in a unified form that we recognise and relate to as humans in the blissful experience of sexual union; the vision of this unification enables us to connect with the Dharmakaya or "truth body" - the unmanifest, perfect reality out of which the buddhas emerge - because we recognise instinctively and are attracted to the enlightenment that is alluded to: the transcendental experience of "becoming" the one self that is present within all beings when merging with another, and at the same time remembering our own creation through the unification of male and female - returning to the singularity out of which the opposites emerge. If we understand the message of the Dharma, then we can only conclude that the seed of this unified self is really present at the very core of our being and only hidden from us when we identify ourselves solely with the individual male or female body that we inhabit!

In summary, viewing sacred art and symbolism in images like the Tree of Life gives us a chance to remind ourselves of the connectedness of all life - my hope is that humanity will find a way to work together to create a harmonious and unified way of life for the benefit of all living beings!

by Peter "Zotec" Newman ©2014

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All articles © Peter "Zotec" Newman 2002-2014