Imagination

Evolutionary psychology claims that imagination is what makes homo sapiens sapient.  And somewhat surprisingly, imagination is essential in following the Buddhist Path.  This week, Michael guided our reflections as we explored the various ways in which imagination (often discouraged when we first come to meditate) deepens our practice, both on and off the cushion, and the historical context of those who have used it to good effect.

Below are Michael’s notes from the presentation.

imagination and Dharma

When we first come to meditate, we are troubled by fantasies, daydreams, chaotically wandering mind full of images, and so we may come to think of imagination as the enemy.  But Coleridge’s famous writings on the distinctions imagination and fancy can help us out here, and allow us to see that true imagination is quite different from mind-wandering (papancha), delusion, daydreams.  

Both imagination and fancy produce mental images, but imagination is goal oriented, while fancy is free floating.  Imagination is coherent;  fantasy is often whimsical, scattered. Imagination often yields creativity, producing new ideas, and imagination seeks deeper laws to follow, whereas fancy often follows the mood or novel desire of the moment.  

In his recent and widely read book Sapiens, thinker Yuval Noah Harari posits a crucial cognitive revolution which differentiates homo sapiens sapiens from all other hominids.  — namely the capacity to imagine another reality,  a world beyond our own – beyond what we immediately see, the successful hunt, painted on the walls of the Lascaux caves being a familiar example.  

In a much later example Hammurabi’s code, with the laws of his realm inscribed on pillars placed throughout the empire, set up an ideal of justice for all to follow, by imagining how a just king would act in ruling Babylonian Empire, in which all men were subject to the same laws.  His coherent code is rooted in universal and eternal principles, and claims to be dictated by the gods.   .    

The same is true of our own Declaration of Independence:  which states that “All men are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” in the hopes that this imagined picture of human relations may someday become true.   


Buddhism is filled with imagination . . . as well as being suspicious of its charms early on.  

In early buddhism, there were no statues of the Buddha — only footprints, carved into the earth where he might be imagined invisibly to stand — a tribute to the unimaginable quality of buddha’s realization.

So the first images of Buddhism are of Emptiness – quite difficult to imagine.  Emptiness, the fertile void, out of which all emerges, and yet which always rests as itself.  

The Heart Sutra manages by its repetitive intensity to bring forth an image of  world in which the primary fact is emptiness.  “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.  form is no other than emptiness; emptiness is no other than form.  The same is true of feeling, perception, impulses, consciousness.  . . . there is no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body no mind,  . . . no color no sound no smell to taste no touch no object of mind.  No ignorance and also no extinction of it, and so forth. . . “  The whole world is permeated by emptiness.

Zen paintings and calligraphy also see to “capture” emptiness by the use of blank space.  Think of the Enso, the great Zen circle, both open and closed.

 The Buddhist imagination has plenty of other uses for Imagination as well:  Consider the four great Bodhisattva Vows.

  • Sentient beings are numberless, I vow to save the all.
  • Delusions are endless, I vow to cut through them all    
  • The Teachings are infinite, I vow to master them all
  • The Buddha Way is inconceivable, I vow to attain it.

These vows are manifestly impossible to fulfill, but they body forth an image of a heaven on earth, in which each person who follows these vows creates a new world, imagined in the perfection of human actions.  This affirmation is imaginatively embodied in japan’s largest Buddhist sect (Jodo Shin Shu) as The Pure Land.

Imagination can make excellent use of hard facts, and in doing so can improve and deepen our lives.  Thoreau, in the “Higher Laws” chapter of Walden, said that he sought to have a diet so clean that his imagination can sit down at the dinner table with him.  To eat a piece of meat honestly would require imagining the slaughterhouse it was killed in (and today would require imagining the cages and maltreatment that are part of agribusiness and meatpacking).  The vegan diet, for example, is supported to a great extent by vivid imagination of the hell we have made for our animals, and the denuding of earth by those those that tend them.

On a more heart-warming note, we have all heard Thich Nhat Hanh’s description of eating an orange—and with it, the whole world from which it comes to us.  As was so evident in Payton’s presentation of tea a few weeks back, imagination brings us vividly into the truth of things.  In a single sip of tea, we swallow the world, and become one with it.