Symbolism of the Centre in Sacred Art
Extract from a longer exploratory, reflective essay by Zangmo Alexander, first written in 1991, representing my thinking and understanding at that time. Currently under revision.
I remember lying in my pram as a baby being pushed along a pavement in a busy main road in Hull UK. To my right was traffic and on my left were shops. I also remember be aware, not verbally, but as a somatic, perceptual knowing through the orientation of my body, that had we been walking in the opposite direction, the traffic would have been on my left and the shops on my right. I was aware that while the left and right sides of my body did not change, what was outside of my body did change in relation to my left and right. I was the centre of a relative, changing world.
By the time I had experienced separation from my parents between the ages of five and nine, the suicide of my brother when I was fifteen, and the suicide of my alcoholic husband when I was 28, this relative, changing world seemed frightening and confusing. Was there anything permanent within the transitory nature of life? Why had there been a repeating pattern of loss in my life? The values which had worked so far – atheistic materialism – offered no help for the sense of utter futility which overwhelmed me at times.
Shortly after my husband’s death, I met a woman who was a spiritually minded Jungian psychotherapist. As we became very close friends, it was not appropriate for her to be my therapist, but the healing power of her love and insight enabled me to find the strength for negotiating my way through the labyrinthine nightmare of this traumatic period. Initially I was skeptical about the value of psychotherapy and spirituality, coming only gradually to an acceptance that they could offer opportunities for learning to live more intimately connected with a sense of the numinous and timeless in this confusing world.
Carl Gustav Jung is recognized as one of many bridges linking the perennial world spiritual traditions with twentieth century consciousness. In his patients, he recognized a search for a self, or essence beyond the limited, grasping ego; the fundamental message of the perennial teachings is “Know Thyself”. In studying the inner journeys of his patients, Jung not only developed his theory of the archetypes and the collective unconscious, but he also became aware of the centre as an active force in the human psyche:
“The centre….. acts like a magnet on the disparate materials and processes of the unconscious and gradually captures them as in a crystal lattice …….often one has the impression that the personal psyche is running around the central point, like a shy animal at once fascinated and frightened, always in flight, yet steadily drawing nearer….."(1)
- C.J. Jung
Although modern civilization has been blindingly impressive in its ability to solve (and create) physical problems, it has been impressively blind to the survival needs of the human soul or spirit:
“Science and technology, philosophy and sociology all flow from this source, but when they forget their source, they lose their meaning and lead to disaster. This is the root cause of the failure of modern civilization. It has lost touch with the centre, the ground of reality and truth.” (2)
- Bede Griffiths
Dom Bede Griffiths, a Benedictine monk who lived in India, did not condemn the achievements of modern civilization, but he did maintain the need to be inspired, informed and guided by a “sense of transcendent reality”:
“What is intrinsically evil is the pretence that this world has being in itself, that the physical world presented to the senses, which is the object of science, is reality. What is sinful is the belief that humans are independent of any transcendent reality and can control the universe – or at least as much of it as he can bring under his control – for his own purposes.” (3)
- Bede Griffiths
We are more bombarded and seduced than ever before by external stimuli having limited ability to nurture one of our deepest needs, which is to reconnect with our innermost, timeless essence. To do this requires deep commitment and practice. As Jung observed, it seems as though the pathway to the centre is blocked by resistances, fears, conditioned habits and all the disparate processes of the unconscious.
In many cultures, life has been depicted as a labyrinthine journey in which the way to the centre must be found, and in finding it, the seeker not only comes to the birthplace of the cosmos, but also to an inner, timeless essence in the midst of all life’s hurly burly. One way to view this is as a search for one’s true home, not only in the sense of belonging, place and rootedness, but more deeply in the sense of a timeless and universal home within:
“In this body,
in this town of spirit,
there is a little house shaped like a lotus,
and in that house there is a little space.
One should know what is there.
What is there? Why is it so important?
There is as much in that little space within the heart
as there is in the whole world outside.
Heaven, earth, wind, sun, moon, lightening, stars;
whatever is and whatever is not, everything is there.
If everything is in our body,
every being, every desire,
what remains when old age comes, when decay comes, when the body fails?
What lies in that space does not decay when the body decays,
nor does it fail when the body fails.
That space is the home of the spirit.”
- Chandogya Upanishad
That many modern artists have been inspired by these views is indisputable. Yet often the art they have made seems separate, or running parallel to, the mainstream of culture in which it has been made. Is this because it is only in traditional Hindu, Christian, Muslim and Buddhist, pagan and indigenous cultures that we find sacred art foms which are inseparable from everyday life? In many instances these forms have an archetypal quality which can still speak to the mind immersed in modern material and technological culture; there is still vitality and meaning which resonates regardless of time, place or culture. Here the timeless enters the temporal. Sacred space has a tangible feel, whatever the creed: San Redentore Church on Judaica in Venice has the same ineffable atmosphere as the Anandamayi Ma ashram in Benares, India. Both have been tended by dedicated, loving seekers, and in both I experienced an opening of the heart, a sense of light, peace and release which reduced me to tears because I was reminded of who I really was. A transmission had occurred between my body-mind and the energy of the space my body-mind was within.
In the following essay, I explore and discuss how the archetype of the Centre, found in sacred art throughout the world, is often directly linked with the perennial philosophy which lies at the heart of many spiritual traditions. I have focused on this relationship in its esoteric essence, untrammelled by detailed historical or scholarly perspectives. I have no illusions about the suffering which has arisen from exoteric traditions surrounding the esoteric teaching which I am exploring. This suffering may reflect the human condition and ignorance from which springs intolerance and lust for power. This does not invalidate the perennial teachings, but can simply remind us of our ignorance and frailty and that we have much to learn.
"The coincidences of tradition are beyond the scope of accident." (4)
- Sir Arthur Evans
Exoteric and Esoteric
As my interest is in deep experience and realisation through spiritual practice, I need to clarify differences between doctrines and institutions surrounding a tradition and the spiritual experience or realisation at the heart of the tradition itself: the former is the exoteric aspect and the latter constitutes the esoteric aspect.
From an exoteric viewpoint, one is confronted by the differences between various traditions: Jewish dietary laws are not the same as Hindu dietary laws; the semitic religions of Judaism, Islam and Christianity are monotheistic, whereas Hinduism tolerates a pantheon of gods and godesses. On the other hand, the study of religion from an esoteric viewpoint presents us with a remarkably unified picture of a perennial spiritual wisdom, which, according to F.C. Happold (as one of many) can be summarised in three principles:
"That the Godhead is absolute stillness and rest, free of all activity and inaccessible to human thought, yet alive through and through, a tremendous energy pouring itself into the created world and drawing that world back into itself
That there is complete unity in everything; all is in God and God is in all
That the real self is divine" (5)
Goal of the Perennial Philosophy
Within these three principles we encounter the meeting point of many world spiritual traditions in a common goal which can be summarised as "Know Thyself", since it is only from this knowledge that a direct experience of unity and one's divine nature is possible. I do not intend to prove this point as it has been eloquently discussed by Dom Bede Griffiths in Return to the Centre; by F.C.Happold in Mysticism and by Professor Raimundo Panikkar in The Vedic Experience and The Unknown Christ of Hinduism.
I would, however, like to illustrate it with quotes from the sacred texts some world traditions:
"That which is the supreme Brahman,
The Atman of all, the great foundation
Of this whole universe, more subtle
Than the subtle, eternal - that are you!
Thou art That!"
(Hinduism: Kaivalya Upanishad)
"And the kingdom of God is within you, and whosoever
Knoweth themself shall find it. And having found it
You shall know yourselves that you are in
God and God is in you. And you are the city of God."
(Christianity: from the Oxyrhynchus sayings of Jesus)
"One in all,
All in one -
If only this were realised,
No more worry about your not being perfect."
"Within your mind there is a Buddha, and that Buddha within us is the real Buddha. If Buddha is not to be sought within our mind, where shall we find the real Buddha? Doubt not that there is a Buddha within your mind, apart from which, nothing can exist."
(Buddhism: from the Sutra of Wei Lang)
"For the various grades of created things are
theatres of His revealed beauty, and all things that
exist are mirrors of His perfections. And in this course thou must
persevere until He mingles Himself with thy soul, and thine
Own individual existence passes out of thy sight.
Then, if thou regardest thyself, it is He whom thou art regarding:
If thou speakest of thyself it is of He whom thou art speaking.
The relative has become the absolute, and 'I am the truth' is equivalent to 'He is the Truth'."
(Islam: Jami, trans, by E.H. Whinfield)
If spiritual traditions show some commonality in their esoteric aspect, the question arises as to whether there is any common vision within their sacred art, a vision transcending their differences and embodying the principles of the perennial wisdom. Initially I was cautious about assuming that just because there was a common goal, there would automatically be a common symbol or image for this goal. Yet in exploring this question I noticed that within the diversity of traditional sacred art there were certain universally recurrent themes, namely: rites of orientation, the axis mundi, mandala forms such as wheel, cross, yantra, rosette and other radial images and practices such as prayer, circumambulation, meditation and sacrifice, all of which had one principle in common: the presence of, or alignment towards, a centre as focal point. In a spiritual tradition, a centre in any image or structure could not be separated from the practices associated with it. Constantly I found esoteric texts and sacred writings referring to "The Centre within" as synonymous with non-egoistic Self, pure being, and also the Absolute or God: it seemed as though the Centre was a universal archetype within human consciousness and thus hardly surprising that as a focal point it should be such a universal phenomenon in the art and practices of spiritual traditions. Since spirituality is born from the desire to be unified with what has given rise to existence - particularly one's own - any spiritual practice involves orientation towards, and a particpation in, the nature of the centre or source.
To summarise, it appears that in sacred art and traditional symbolism, the centre and its surrounding spaces may be visual expressions of the three principles underlying the perennial philosophy:
The centre is a symbol - inasmuch as it can be symbolised - of the Godhead/essence/source as stillness and rest, the source from which everything manifests and to which it returns
In relationship with the surrounding spaces, the centre is crucial in visually describing unity
The centre is both a symbol of the Godhead and also a symbol for essence of ourself
Jung, C.G., 1980, Psychology and alchemy, RKP, pp.217-218.
Griffiths, Bede, 1979, Return to the centre, Collins, p.68.
Griffiths, Bede, 1979, Return to the centre, Collins, p.67.
Coomaraswamy, A., 1977, Traditional art and symbolism, Princeton University
Happold, F.C., 1979, Mysticism, Penguin, p.66.