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In Buddhism, especially, this circle represents the totality of all existence. Tibetan Buddhist artworks (tankhas) depict various mandalas containing both gods and demons, encircled around a center point representing the alleged absolute bliss of nirvana. Contemplating these images is said to help the spiritual aspirant attain a supreme consciousness that lies beyond gods (heavens) and demons (hells).
At times Jung seems to homologize circular Christian and non-Christian symbols, fitting them into his particular interpretation of the mandala, while at other times he differentiates them.
This apparently contradictory nature of Jung’s theory runs throughout his work. But Jung, himself, doesn’t shy away from contradiction. Rather, he admits and embraces this aspect of this outlook.
Jung…notes in Memories, Dreams, Reflections his own inconsistency and suggests that it represents a normal, acceptable human quality. Perhaps the essence of his overall thought is best summed up in this confession:
I had to obey an inner law which was imposed on me and left me no freedom of choice. Of course I did not always obey it. How can anyone live without inconsistency?
As a philosophical argument this itself is inconsistent, for one cannot choose to disobey something which provides no option to choose. On another level, however, the statement is consistent in its admission of inconsistency, much like the coniunctio oppositorum (union of opposites) view of the self which Jung advocates.¹
¹ See, Synchronicity and Poststructuralism, 1997 (Ph.D. Thesis by Michael W. Clark – pdf), pp. 13-14 http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/obj/s4/f2/dsk3/ftp04/nq21958.pdf
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From his considerable study of world myth and religion, Jung came to the conclusion that this collective data is cross-cultural. In fact, he didn’t just see the collective unconscious in myth and religion. He saw universally recognizable motifs among dreams, myth, religion, the arts and architecture. One leading example he provides is the mandala. For Jung, the circular shape of the mandala represents the potentially limitless self.
Jung calls these hypothesized patterns of human existence archetypes.¹ Existing in a larger time frame than most people’s daily awareness, the archetypes of the collective unconscious apparently connect the past, present and future.
Jung speaks to the arbitrary nature of the term collective unconscious. Towards the end of his career he writes that he rendered essentially spiritual ideas in scientific-sounding language for the sake of professional and societal legitimacy. So this, in a sense, makes him something of a postmodern thinker way before the term became popular.
Because he was, in part, doing a sell job, his insistence on the bio-genetic base of the collective unconscious seems confusing to some, especially when he says:
The unconscious has no time. There is no trouble about time in the unconscious. Part of our psyche is not in time and not in space. They are only an illusion, time and space, and so in a certain part of our psyche, time does not exist at all.²
Could a timeless psyche be entirely biological? Perhaps Jung was saying that, although grounded in the body, the archetypes exhibit or resonate with a spiritual component. That is, a bio-genetic ground is necessary for the interplay of body and spirit.
What About Sigmund Freud and the Unconscious?
Freud and Jung’s views about the unconscious differ, but not so much as many believe. Some pop psychologists and New Age gurus quickly dismiss Freud’s ideas, unaware that his model of the unconscious also contains collective elements.
As we’ve seen in the above, Jung describes the archetype as a component of mankind’s psychological substratum—the collective unconscious. Freud similarly spoke of phylogenetic “schemata” and “prototypes.” And borrowing from ancient Greek and Jewish literature, Freud also devised the “Oedipus complex,” a “primal father” and likened the shadowy contents of the unconscious to archaeological ruins.
In addition, late in his career Freud revised his libido theory to include the general ideas of eros (life instinct) and thanatos (death instinct). Because Freud maintained that the fundamental aspects of the unconscious are universal, aspects of his model of the self, like Jung’s, point to a collective unconscious.³ And not only that. Freud, himself, said that Jung introduced nothing new with the idea of the collective unconscious. He wrote that the “content of the unconscious is collective anyhow.”4
¹ Jung’s notion of the archetypes borrows from ideas previously found in anthropology, sociology, philosophy, religion and theology. The term archetype is traceable to St. Augustine, 354-430 CE.
² C. G. Jung Collected Works vol. 18, para. 684, cited in “Time and Space” at http://www.fundacion-jung.com.ar/ingles/citas.htm.
³ Michael V. Adams illustrates this point in The Cambridge Companion to Jung, (ed.) Polly Young-Eisendrath and Terence Dawson, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998, p. 101.
4 Sigmund Freud, Moses and Monotheism, p. 209, cited in R. J. Lifton with Eric Olson (eds.), Explorations in Psychohistory: The Wellfleet Papers, New York: Simon and Shuster, 1974 p. 90.
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The terms contemplation and meditation are often used synonymously. In Christian mysticism, however, contemplation is regarded as a higher and nobler activity than mere meditation. As the scholar of religion, Evelyn Underhill, puts it:
Now meditation is a half-way house between thinking and contemplating: and as a discipline, it derives its chief value from this transitional character.¹
This definition represents a developmental approach. Instead of being ‘this or that,’ as so many fundamentalists and conservatives tend to depict the world, meditation leads to contemplation. Along these lines, many Christians hope that those who don’t understand the unique beauty of their contemplative experience would come to realize it with the assistance of the Holy Spirit.
Contemplation emphasizes and encourages an inner union of the individual with God, which, at some point, involves intercession. By way of contrast, meditation doesn’t necessarily imply the existence of the individual or God, as we find in most forms of Buddhism.
Some Buddhists, however, use the word contemplation within their own social and religious framework. Whether or not Buddhists entirely escape the cultural assumptions and obligations bound up within that religion, as so many claim to, seems highly debatable.
In Catholicism, contemplation (as intercession) is recognized as a type of work distinct from more visibly active works, such as teaching or ditch digging. However, not all Catholics – to include priests, monks and sisters – immediately recognize this type of work when present in saintly individuals. Some Catholics are arguably just too thick (or perverse) to see a holy person when they’re right in front of their eyes.
For instance, St. Faustina Kowalska is now hailed as a great contemplative saint within mainstream Catholicism. But in her Divine Mercy Diary she writes that she encountered harsh skepticism from some of her religious superiors who really should have known better.
Perhaps part of the difficulty in recognizing bona fide saints whose contemplation is, in fact, their main work has to do with cultural preconceptions and stereotypes about the idea of holiness. We tend to applaud people who make their good works highly visible. Imagine, for example, a churchgoer who’s having clandestine sex with her minister and cheating on her husband. As long as everyone thinks she’s a “good Christian,” organizing religious events and sitting on the boards of charities, she can fool almost everyone into thinking she’s a saint.
Aside from religious hypocrites who never try to improve their immoral behavior, as in the above scenario, many people expect a saint to be flawless and without sin. This too is misguided.
In addition, the psychologically injured or, perhaps, spiritually deceived among us might claim to be saints when they’re not. And then, if that’s not enough, there’s the reality of outright charlatans and hoaxers. Taken together, these pseudo and potential saints complicate the picture as to just what a saint is. At least, they do in the eyes of humanity.
At a Catholic Mass the following was written in the church bulletin. No mention is made of intercession, which arguably is crucial to the contemplative life. But this brief passage probably represents the average Catholic’s understanding of the idea of contemplation:
In contemplative prayer, we learn to create silence to allow God to transform us; to strive to create a peace which surpasses all understanding; and to heal the wounds of a lifetime.²
¹ Evelyn Underhill, Practical Mysticism: A little book for normal people (London, Dent: 1914), p. 46.
² From “Contemplative Prayer Workshop” in Bulletin (September 5, 2010), St. Michael’s Cathedral, Toronto, Canada.
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Most religious and mythological traditions attest to the reality of demons. For the most part, demons are regarded as dark, evil spiritual beings whose sole purpose is to wreak havoc on individuals and the world.
In Hinduism, demons appear in the Puranas as Rakshakas (evil beings capable of shape-shifting) and tramp souls. Also in Hinduism the, at one time, god-like asuras of the Vedas devolve into demonic spirit beings which, the mystic Sri Aurobindo says, try to place false and harmful ideas into the minds of impressionable, vulnerable human beings.
In Tibetan Buddhism, immediately after a person dies a priest reads the Tibetan Book of the Dead aloud over the dead body, instructing the departed soul how to avoid different spiritual lights and deceptions that demonic beings use to try to trick the deceased into falling into another earthly incarnation. And Mahayana Buddhism portrays many hells, each presided over by horrific entities
In China demons are thought to be able to inhabit dead bodies and haunt various places, both inside and out.
Demons in China… are capable of animating dead bodies, haunting cemeteries, cross roads, and the homes of relatives. Some live in Hades…others inhabit the air. Many are hungry ghosts, the spirits of those who have had no proper burial or who have no decendants to feed them sacrifices.¹
Traditional Roman Catholicism doesn’t envision the demon in terms of a psychoanalytic, physiological id or Jungian shadow archetype, as is fashionable in some circles today. Instead, traditional Catholicism makes no bones about the belief in demons. The Prayer Against Satan and The Rebellious Angels, published in 1961 by order of H. H. Pope Leo XIII refers to various “spirits of wickedness,” “diabolical legions” and “infernal invaders” that are to be driven away with the help of this solemn prayer.
Contemporary Catholicism, however, is incorporating secular and psychiatric perspectives on demons, but arguably in a clunky manner that seems to conform to ancient and medieval styles of analyzing issues. This shouldn’t be surprising as certain aspects of Catholic theological discourse borrow from Aristotelian and Thomist analytical categories and modes of analysis. And as history suggests, deeply entrenched patterns of thought and practice usually take time to be positively redirected.
In secular society alleged demons are often described as nothing more than a product of the imagination, hallucinations, an arrested or disturbed personality, mutated chromosomes, or the much debated idea of chemical imbalances. Along these lines the Catholic Catechism makes a sharp distinction between “the presence of the Evil One,” on the one hand, and current understandings of mental illness on the other:
The solemn exorcism, called “a major exorcism,” can be performed only by a priest and with the permission of the bishop. The priest must proceed with prudence, strictly observing the rules established by the Church. Exorcism is directed at the expulsion of demons or to the liberation from demonic possession through the spiritual authority which Jesus entrusted to his Church. Illness, especially psychological illness, is a very different matter; treating this is the concern of medical science. Therefore, before an exorcism is performed, it is important to ascertain that one is dealing with the presence of the Evil One, and not an illness.²
In contrast to the arguably underdeveloped either/or perspective outlined above, a more productive and responsible approach would intelligently consider different perspectives — physiological, psychological, cultural, transpersonal and spiritual — using as many of the analytical tools that are available to us in the 21st century.
Having said that, we should also keep in mind the very real possibility that God could permit a fundamentally good and ‘well adjusted’ person to be afflicted by evil, as we find, for instance, in the Old Testament Book of Job.
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¹ S. G. F. Brandon, A Dictionary of Comparative Religion, 1971, p. 230.
² Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1673.
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In Hinduism a mela is a fair or festival, usually with religious significance. At the men and women deemed holy along with ordinary people gather to celebrate and deepen their faith though dancing, song and purifying rites.
These purifying rites may involve activities such as bathing in the waters of the Ganges or Jamuna/Yanuma, two rivers believed to be sacred.
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A mantra (Skt. “Instrument of thought”) is a sacred word in Asian religions, usually containing one syllable.
Traditionally given by a guru (Skt. “teacher”) to a disciple, when repeatedly spoken or sung the mantra apparently acts much like the Zen koan, transporting the disciple beyond mundane consciousness into the realm of the transcendental.
The mantra is said to operate on a similar principle as music and some types of scripture. It is believed that the right type of vibration can help to deliver a fettered soul to a better plane of existence. That is, it apparently fosters the transformation of consciousness from one state to another, in this life and the next.
Contemporary psychology studies indicate that simple repetition of any monosyllabic word, not necessarily imbued with religious significance, may have a calming effect on the mind (e.g. “tin… tin… tin…”).
Skeptics say that the mantra may be calming, but it may also numb the mind or simply dumb it down. And people like Edwin Schur argue that this kind of alleged “awareness” is really self-absorption that leads to social apathy and inactivity.¹
Such a critique is not only leveled against Asian mysticism. Christian mysticism has been similarly challenged, by both secular and Christian fundamentalist individuals.
In response to these secular and fundamentalist critiques, the bona fide mystic may contend that those voicing them are not yet at a place in their spiritual formation to understand the importance of mysticism, a practice which some say is the most noble of all paths, spiritual and otherwise.
The term mantra is also casually used in the English language as a kind of watchword or slogan that expresses a valued practice or belief–e.g. “Less is more,” “Sex sells,” “Time is money.”
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M. H. Abrams says that at the most fundamental level a symbol is anything that signifies something else.
Abrams also notes that a distinction is often made between the public and private symbol. The public symbol, such as the cross, is apparently understood by everyone in a given culture whereas the private symbol, such as an obscure poetic allusion, isn’t.
This distinction, however, seems open to debate: Surely not everyone in a given culture interprets the cross in the same way.
In literature a symbol is
a word or phrase that signifies an object or event which in turn signifies something, or suggests a range of reference, beyond itself (A Glossary of Literary Terms, 2005, p. 320).
In depth psychology, Carl Jung says the symbol is a meaningful image that mediates healing or destructive forces from the collective unconscious to ego consciousness–for example, the symbol of the Cross or Serpent.
Jung says symbols arise from the unknowable archetypes but are recognized as archetypal images. Archetypes interpenetrate among themselves; likewise, archetypal images are discrete but exhibit similarities. For Jung the flow of psychic energy between the collective unconscious and the symbol is a two-way process.
Jungian Erich Neumann says that the symbol acts as both as an “energy transformer” and as a “moulder of consciousness.” As an energy transformer the symbol facilitates the ego’s experience of the numinous, arising from the collective unconscious. As a moulder of consciousness, the symbol operates on the level of collective consciousness by contributing to the ideology of a given culture.
Jung says the interconnected conscious and unconscious aspects of humanity cannot be severed. He’s widely quoted as saying in The Undiscovered Self (1958):
You can take away a man’s gods, but only to give him others in return.
Likewise, political leaders of the mass state cannot avoid being glorified or demonized. This occurs through brute force, clever calculation and also through public fascination and projection.
Jung believes, for example, that a mass-produced placard image of Joseph Stalin expresses an archetypal force articulated on the conscious level that both sways and oppresses individuals.
A more contemporary example would be the disempowering psychological effect that massive bank towers (symbolizing ‘Big Business’) have on the poor and disenfranchised. And in ancient cultures such as Greece, Rome and Egypt, impressive architecture apparently had a similar effect on slaves, the exploited, the underprivileged and on less powerful visitors from foreign cultures.
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The serpent is a symbol found in most mythological and religious traditions around the world.
Similarities in meaning exist as do important differences.
In Jewish and Christian accounts of Eden, the serpent is the “most subtle” of all creatures that tempts Eve into disobeying God’s command to not eat of the tree of knowledge. Eve then seduces Adam into eating and mankind is expelled from the Garden of Eden and cursed to forever suffer and work.
The Biblical Leviathan was a great sea serpent, “the dragon that is in the sea” (Isaiah 27:1).
In India, the kundalini (Skt: coiled like a snake) represents serpent power that is awakened by carefully opening a series of chakras (body/psyche points of power).
India also has a naga cult with widespread devotees who worship a demi-god cobra with a human face.
The snake is also regarded as a healer in some Native American traditions.
In Mexican mythological art, a giant serpent is often depicted as swallowing a human being, usually head-first.
Australian aboriginal myths also talk of the serpent “swallowing up people and animals” (Mythology: An Illustrated Encyclopedia ed. Richard Cavendish, 2003, Time Warner Books, p. 211).
This might bear a symbolic relation to the Biblical notion that “God is no respecter of persons” (Acts 10:34). That is, the inferior aspects of the human personality must be purged, symbolically devoured or sent to hell so the superior may further develop.
The logo for contemporary western medicine is a snake coiled around a pole, a symbol derived from ancient Greece, as evident in engravings of Aesculapius, c. 100 BCE, where a serpent is coiled around his staff. This symbol is often mistakenly linked to the Greek Caduceus, displayed in myth as a two serpents wound around a staff, sometimes with wings.
The psychiatrist Carl Jung was interested in the Ouroboric serpent, a symbol derived from Gnosticism in which the snake forms a circle by biting its own tail. For Jung this is a mandala, symbolizing his understanding of self wholeness.
The above examples only scratch the surface of serpent symbolism, a topic too diverse to treat adequately here. Nevertheless, J. E. Cirlot suggests that one commonality present among numerous serpent symbols is the representation of psychic energy. And Philip Gardiner argues that snake symbolism as a whole is dualistic, containing elements of salvation and destruction.
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- Articles and Reviews about “serpent” at earthpages.org » http://epages.wordpress.com/?s=serpent
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Tibetan and Nepali Buddhist artworks said to assist the spiritual aspirant in his or her quest for liberation. » Buddhism, Karma, Mandala, Metempsychosis, Moksha, Reincarnation, Samsara
On the Web:
- Excellent article at wikipedia outlines the history and provides more examples » http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thangka
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