Shubha and the Three Gateways to Liberation
from Tuscany ’81 Q&A on The Mitrata Omnibus – précis by Padmavajra
To visualize a Buddha or Bodhisattva requires a great effort of concentration, so shamatha is there. But it’s not just a form. It is a Buddha or Bodhisattva and ‘embodies’ the unconditioned – reality. The Buddha or Bodhisattva has realized reality.
So when you contemplate the visualized image, it’s not just a pretty picture, you are contemplating an embodiment of reality itself and you are occupied with it, you reflect on it, you are drawn to it. It becomes then a means of developing vipassana or prajna. You are contemplating the shubha aspect of reality.
Shubha means pure beauty and ashubha means relative ugliness. The Buddhas and Bodhisattvas who are visualized are different aspects of the unconditioned under its aspect of shubha – the pure and the beautiful – not the void, or the signless, or the directionless, but the purely beautiful.
You could look at the language of the gateways to liberation literally, almost. The mandala has four gateways. The mandala is Enlightenment and there are four gateways to Enlightenment: animitta, aparinhita, shunyata and shubha. Which aspect you concern yourself with is probably down to temperament.
When one concerns oneself with the shubha aspect of the unconditioned, one does not apparently arrive at that through penetration into the ashubha nature of the conditioned. But I am saying that, in effect, you do. But it isn’t a question of feeling whether that picture is on the wall in your mind, but it is a question of being moved by that picture, by being moved by that beauty.
And this can only happen if your affectivity, if your emotions, are no longer tied up with the lower degrees of beauty. And they can only cease to be tied up with the lower degrees of beauty if you actually see those lower degrees of beauty are lower degrees. In other words you see their ashubha nature. Only then can you generally appreciate the shubha nature of the unconditioned.
It’s not enough to be a good visualizer – that’s quite easy – it doesn’t become shubha in the true sense; it doesn’t become a means to develop insight; it doesn’t become an embodiment of the unconditioned. Unless your emotions are transferred to the beautiful form – unless you have a strong emotional response to it and you cannot have a strong response to it unless your emotions at least for the time being are detached from lower levels. And you can only detach from those lower levels by seeing them as ashubha in comparison with what is truly shubha. That’s why I say that it’s not enough to ‘see’, there must be a strong feeling for the image of the Buddha or Bodhisattva.
The form is only a form. If you visualize, say, Avalokiteshvara, that is only a visualized form. It is an object of concentration, which only has dhyanic significance. It only becomes an embodiment of shubha in an effective sense when your emotions, your emotional energy is transferred to it and you start appreciating it as an embodiment of the unconditioned – when you see that that is really shubha in comparison with other things, which are ashubha. In other words it is a question of the transference not only of emotional energy but the drive of one’s whole being. Your centre of gravity has shifted towards that or onto that for it to become significantly an embodiment of shubha or the unconditioned under its nature of shubha.
In the course of the visualization what eventually happens is that shubha, if we go on using that term, detaches itself, so to speak, from the actual image. There is a parallel in the metta bhavana. In the last stage of the practice, the metta is so strong, it goes beyond people – individuals – and becomes even stronger. The original ‘objects’ are not there. The metta goes beyond that framework.
In the same way your perception of shubha goes beyond a particular form or embodiment. You no longer see Avalokiteshvara or Manjushri or the Buddha, or who or whatever, but you are still perceiving shubha, though paradoxically, a formless shubha. You’ve left behind all specific forms. If you are asked if it is red, yellow or green; or square or round; male or female, you couldn’t say. But you would be perfectly certain that it is still the experience of shubha, in fact it is more shubha than ever. The colours and mudras etc. of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are the support, embodying shubha, but eventually your perception leaves them behind. Visualizing them in beautiful scenery is an important accessory factor.
On the relationship between metta and visualization practice:
Inasmuch as metta or the brahma viharas represent a high degree of positive, even spiritualized emotion and inasmuch as emotion, in the form of devotion, is an inseparable part, or element of visualization practice (which is not just a visualization practice) to that extent you need a considerable experience of the brahma viharas, not just metta before embarking on visualization practice. Visualization practice is not just a concentration exercise.
In some of the Pali texts there is a linkage of the experience of shubha, the beautiful, with the brahma viharas. That would seem appropriate as an intermediate stage in between the brahma viharas and the visualization. If you see everything in terms of metta, everything will be seen as more and more beautiful to you. You know quite well, if you like somebody, they look attractive. Or, if they look attractive, you like them. I am speaking of attractive in a positive emotional, even spiritual sense now. And if you are in a good mood, if you are full of metta, well the whole world looks more beautiful. So the more you are into the brahma viharas, the more beautiful everything seems. So you can, as it were, dwell upon this element of beauty: shubha, which is pure beauty you could say – a sort of ideal beauty.
And then, of course, you could ‘imagine’ (inverted commas) this ideal beauty as being condensed into an actual form. And then you get your link with a bodhisattva figure. The bodhisattva figure being, of course, extremely beautiful to begin with, and it’s that which holds and fascinates you, initially, or it’s a very large part of the holding and the fascinating. And you can start developing a definite feeling towards the figure. It isn’t a question of producing coldly, by virtue of sheer concentration an eidetic image of a bodhisattva. That is not the visualization practice. So you need a strong foundation of metta bhavana, of the brahma viharas generally, in order to be able to practice visualization properly.