Some years ago, a samatha practice group was formed to investigate a little known tradition of Thai astrological symbolism and to explore its usefulness as an aid to understanding the meditation practice. Like its much better known western and Chinese counterparts, the tradition in question uses a list of twelve symbols but these are different from those of other systems. It is also clear that they are connected in some way to Buddhist teaching. The twelve symbols are as follows:
- Stūpa – a structure often containing holy relics
- Gold parasol: the parasol is the symbol of royalty in South and Southeast Asia.
- Silver parasol
- Decapitated person
- Golden shrine
- Rahu, the Eclipse Demon who seizes the Sun and the Moon. He is the Hindu and Buddhist god of the eclipse (and is the name of the north lunar node in an astrological chart). In one Buddhist text he swallows up the sun and the moon, but releases them when they recite verses that give their allegiance to the Buddha.
- Devacāra, the Wandering Deva who warns of danger
- Prisoner wearing a cangue (or collar-shackle)
- Nāgarāja: the king of the nāgas, the mythical beings who live under water and can transform themselves magically at will. Although they can appear like humans, their natural form is that of a snake, but with auspicious connotations. A nāga king comes from the depths of the river to shelter the Buddha from wind and rain shortly after his enlightenment.
In keeping with the way we often do things in this school of practice, group members were encouraged to explore these images for themselves without too much initial input. I strongly recommend that anyone interested in exploring the system should have a go at doing just that.
To begin with, I found myself visualizing different arrangements of the symbols as shown in the two diagrams below. Sets of three were prominent. I am sure these are just two of many possible examples:
Next, I found myself wanting to place the images in the body as a way of relating them to my own meditation experience.
The first set of three:
- The stūpa seemed to be located at the top of my head. Stūpas often contain ashes. For me, then, this image contained a reminder of death – that it was coming to me too, not just everybody else! This helped to arouse a sense of urgency and the realization that how I behave now and what I ‘do’ in this life is important! The image also suggested a different way of reflecting on this – that life is a series of possibilities, all of which could open out onto something else entirely, if were to let it happen …
- The gold parasol brought to mind the idea of protection by the Sun, or the male principle – so to speak, our Guardian Angel throughout life. I was reminded of an instruction once given in practice ‘make friends’ with the nimitta. Perhaps the ‘gold parasol’ symbol was for me at that time an encouraging voice urging me to be bold, to be willing to face my fears and doubt! In any case, this ‘active’ principle seemed vital to the process of constructive change – if that was what I really wanted!
- The silver parasol aroused a sense of protection through the Moon or female principle. If the gold parasol represented a challenge to invest-igate, the silver one seemed to convey a balancing quality – the happiness and calm that can arise when equanimity is present. I have found that it is very important to maintain this quality at times while investigation is consciously active! For me at that time I knew I needed to be much kinder to myself, and more accepting of my limitations.
In connection with the two parasols, I was reminded of the Mother and Father principles and the different energies that are associated with them. In relation to the parts of the body, the two eyes came to mind.
In a sense, then, these first three images may be said to represent the Highest Principles.
The second set of three:
- The decapitated person felt like the energy associated with the arūpa (formless) principle. That energy is not ‘ours’ in that it does not belong to us but may be given to us, as a gift. The throat area came to mind.
- The golden shrine seemed to me to be the ‘mind-heart’ area, the source from which that energy becomes available. Finding refuge in this area enables us to use our energy wisely.
- The palace was like the playground of that energy, which is our mode of self-expression, our creativity – and the Dhamma in all its glory! The chest area and shoulders came to mind.
In other words, I was reminded of the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha.
The third set of three:
If one takes the view that the symbols discussed above are linked to our higher natures and aspirations, then the remaining sets may be said to be linked with the more worldly aspects of our nature.
- The devacāra conveyed a sense of our connectedness with our bodies and our kamma. I was reminded of the time before I found the meditation practice, when I was constantly looking for something, not quite knowing what it was.
- The rahu seemed to be located around the solar plexus and to represent opposing tendencies of a single energy, like the two sides of a flipped coin. There was a sensed of instability and the potential for being either good or naughty – in other words, the element within us that often does not quite know what it wants!
- The prisoner wearing a shackle evoked a memory of the time in our lives before there was any sense of a way out, or awareness of the possibility of freedom.
The fourth set of three:
These seemed to revolve around the bodily source of our energies: our base chakras, including the functions of sex and reproduction.
10-11. The sorcerer and sorceress reminded me of occasions on which a teacher teased us with the question: Do you believe in magic? Being female, I found the ovaries came to mind.
- The nāgarāja represented the root cause: our life force. Take care with it; love and respect it; and foster health and happiness towards it. This energy seems to rise from the ground, giving vitality and strength.
Examining the list as a whole, it seemed to me to embody a general principle. As we work through life with our meditation practice as our guide, we begin to realize more clearly that, when issues and problems arise in our lives, we have a choice either to make things worse for ourselves or to ‘go with the flow’ in the knowledge that whatever arises will pass and the less we get in the way, the less painful it will be!
There are many ways to work with this list and it is something for each reader to explore for her or himself. I found myself naturally drawn to further investigation of the connections with the body. This led me to reflect on possible connections between these symbols and the mudras or ‘gestures’ of the Buddha, as portrayed in the varieties of Buddharūpa (‘forms of the Buddha’) encountered in Buddhist shrine rooms. Each of these gestures symbolizes an aspect of the Teaching and has associations with a particular part of the Buddha’s life. Seven of the mudras are especially associated with the seven ‘enlightenment factors’ (bojjhaṅgā), each of which is in turn traditionally associated with one of the days of the week:
During my ‘investigation’ of the astrological symbols (corresponding to the mudra for Tuesday), I found it helpful to relate the remaining six enlightenment-factor mudras to the twelve symbols of the astrological system, as follows:
3.Prisoner wearing cangue
Considering Whether to Teach
Carrying the Alms Bowl
Gazing at the Bodhi Tree
Restraining the Waters
Sheltered by the Serpent
It seemed to me that the symbols in the right hand column somehow represent a transformation of the symbols in the left-hand column into something ‘higher’. The mudra in the middle seemed to represent the transforming ‘third force’ – rather like the element of space, in which transformation may occur. In other words: the symbols in the left hand column all seem to represent varieties of ‘problem,’ while the mudras in the middle column indicated the process of accepting and working skillfully with those problems, leading on to the ‘solutions’ represented by the symbols on the right.
For example, at times when I feel especially stressed (prisoner wear-ing a cangue), I know that I need to practise (meditating mudra); then, as my thoughts and worries, and the mind’s labeling tendency all gradually settle, I find myself becoming calmer and more at peace (decapitated person).
Suffice to say, these are my personal views and may not ring true for others in the same way ... and, of course, that is the depth and the gift of the Teaching!