THE REAL DRAGONS
' Do not become so accustomed to images
that you are dismayed by the real dragon'
I was up in the Spanish mountains on my ordination course. I'd never been away from England for quite so long. Life there consisted of a simple routine of meditation, devotion, walking, working and outdoor rituals. Such a beautiful lifestyle, like a flower's blossom, proved fleeting. As four months later, I descended with a heavy heart from that elevated valley. In Alicante airport, I beamed happily, whilst simultaneously being dazzled by the confusing world I'd re-entered. It was familiar, yet what I saw with greater clarity was how ever so slightly mad it all was. Daily we tolerate huge levels of noise,in the foreground, in the background, not just audible, but visual noise too. Advertising grossly imposed itself upon my sensory space, with its ever present seductive undertone of sex. You could not drink or be refreshed by that picture of a glass of beer, nor have sex with the woman holding it. But you certainly might imagine you could have one of them, or if your lucky, both. Everything contrives to evoke a desire for this type of hyper reality. Images, images, images everywhere, yet not one of them was real. Before the course I'd grown accustomed to visual imagery being so 'in my face'. Part of me had become inured, if not deadened, to the effect this aspect of my living environment was having on me. For four months I'd learned to live a life of modest desires, the only imagery religious in focus and intent. I had now to re-learn, all over again, how to live surrounded by the ever beckoning vortex of worldly imagery - to chose whether, or how, I should respond to it.
In Nicholas Roeg's film 'The man who fell to Earth', an alien from a distant galaxy is trapped on Earth. Outwardly he looks and behaves like an ordinary human being, he drowns his despair in sensory stimulation- he drinks, eats, has sex, and watches TV, all to excess. He filled his living room with multiple screens, each showing a different channel. He wanted to understand humans as a species, but despairs of our excessive love of imagery, because it - ' Shows you everything, but tells you nothing.' Today with our ever expanding digital network, this in even more the case. We seem to believe that now everything can be shown, it can therefore be known. So what cannot be seen, cannot be known, is therefore deprived of a true existence. Though daily we discover new things never seen, never known, or never thought to exist before. All imagery is seductive, whether by art, or by design. It lures you into a deceptive certainty that only what you see, is what you can know, or possess. Imagery skilfully misrepresents reality, it lies to you in the very process of portraying even an aspect of the truth.
There was an news article on the radio recently. A researcher was investigating how well we knew our next door neighbour. Only a third of those questioned knew their neighbours well enough, that they'd feel comfortable giving them their house keys. The radio interviewer went to a town in the North of England, to Shipley, once a bench mark for community cohesiveness. Yet even here things have changed. He interviewed an old chap, who could tell you all about the people who lived in his street forty years ago, but admitted he knew nothing about the current inhabitants. He was very revealing about his present neighbours, he thought they could tell you all the names and problems of characters from TV Soaps, but knew nothing about the lives of the people next door to them. Judging from this interview, perhaps our greatest sense of community now comes largely via these fictional characters. Pure, direct experience, not filtered through someone else's imagination, is getting increasingly more alienated. Our experience of life, would appear to be becoming a more passive and virtual one - preferring imagery to pure reality.
These stories tell us three things about imagery - that we become so accustomed to imagery that we stop really noticing it – that the proliferation of imagery can be a beautiful lie – that we can find imagery easier to relate to than the real thing. In our daily lives we are surrounded by this imagery, it seeps into our consciousness, it becomes the working vocabulary of our imaginations and psychology. Religions, of all denominations, draw on it for ways to imagine the unimaginable – such as the inconceivable emancipation of Buddhahood – of Enlightenment, and Enlightened beings. Buddhist iconography and visualisations, depict aspects of the true nature of reality. They can be misleading, however necessary their visual seduction is for spiritual progress . We should take them seriously as methods, but not as literal descriptions.
If we are to believe the advance publicity, Enlightenment is a blissfully calm state of being. We read of it in books, such as those by Dogen, and because we can envisage it in our minds eye, we think we know what we are talking about – though we don't. Dogen describes Buddhahood in countless ways in his writings – he 'shows you everything, but tells you nothing', and does so for a reason. When he says ' Do not become so accustomed to images that you are dismayed by the real dragon' he's issuing a warning about imagery. It is, that constant exposure to images accustoms our imagination, to expect an experience of Buddhahood that will be extraordinary, something completely out of this world. Dogen hints, through this aphorism, that the real experience of Buddhahood, might be very different from our imaginative speculations. That the sensation of Buddhahood might be quite an ordinary one, matter of fact, and down to Earth. The real danger spiritually, is that through being 'dismayed by the real dragon',and perhaps finding it a little tame – that we might actually overlook it, because we are off in hot pursuit of a red winged, raging, fire breathing version.