The Symbolism of Experience

The topic of symbolism is not just for artists or art historians, but for people who would like to understand and develop themselves.

The goal is not to teach lots of gimmicks, but to help you understand something about yourself, your view of life, and of the phenomenal world in general. In turn, you might understand how to apply that viewpoint audio-visually as well.

Symbolism is based on what we experience personally and directly in our lives: pain, pleasure, or whatever. From that point of view, symbolism is a state of mind.

First of all, before we know anything about anything, we have problems with motivation. If we view the whole world as raw material, like a simple sheet of canvas, a simple piece of wood, or a simple piece of clay-what is its relationship with ourselves?

That piece of canvas or clay, being an inanimate object, has no particular personal interest or desire to form itself into a painting or a sculpture. But as human beings, we do have ideas about how our life should be, how our understanding should take place. So we are caught in a double bind: we want to understand, but we would also like to reshape the universe according to our own expectations.

Symbolism doesn't have to be poetic, or spiritual, or mystical;
it is the ordinary truth that takes place in everyday life.

There are two basic understandings of symbolism: the theistic and the non-theistic. Theistic symbolism is a constant self-existing confirmation; that is, whenever symbolism exists, you exist and your world exists.

In the case of a non-theistic symbolism such as Buddhism, you don't exist, symbolism doesn't exist, and the universe doesn't exist. That's quite shocking! "How do we go beyond that?" you might ask. But we don't actually go beyond that. Instead of trying to go beyond it, we try to get into it.

The basic notion of non-theistic symbolism is that whatever exists in our life-our birth, our death, our sickness, our marriage, our business adventure, our educational adventure-is based on symbolism of some kind. This type of symbolism may not be the vivid visions you see by tuning your system into a mystical state of mind, such as fantastic auras with symbols in the middle.

In fact, from the point of view of non-theism, such perceptions are regarded as bullshit. Maybe you need more rest or another cup of coffee. We do not go along with any kind of high-falluting colorful adventures, cosmic explosions of color after color, or fantastic visions. Looking for magical messages, as opposed to a direct relationship, creates a barrier to understanding symbolism.

In the non-theistic discipline of Buddhism, we do not glorify that because we want to confirm this. Instead we simply go along. We are not denying God, but we are simply trying to approach reality as simply as we could. A tortoise walks and carries a heavy shell; a cow walks along and grazes by itself in a green meadow, depositing its dung; pigeons make their own noises and live on the roof. Things have their own place. They don't have to be commanded by the higher or the greater, particularly. Things are as they are, ordinary and simple. Seemingly, that is a very simple-minded approach-but actually, it is very profound and extremely deep.

Symbolism usually comes as messages. It is a very simple eye-level relationship: me and my world. You could forget the sky, or the It, Him, or Her. That makes the whole thing extremely simple: there's no Big Brother watching you. Symbols of all kinds occur throughout our life, and whether you believe it or not, the most penetrating and powerful symbol in our life is pain.

Every activity is basic symbolism. The universe
is constantly trying to reach us to say something or teach something,
but we are rejecting it all the time.

That discomfort or pain is based on a general sense of uncertainty, which tends to bring flashes of very powerful memories in our heart. We have our own life to live: our relatives, our husbands, our wives, our children, our washing machine, our motorcar, what have you. All kinds of things occur, and those hassles take place on earth. Therefore, the symbolism of suffering is very important and realistic.

Complaints occur right here, not up there or down below but in the middle, where we are living, where we are actually experiencing our life on this particular earth. We are not underground and we are not up in the air-even though people get fascinated that Tibetans can levitate. In fact there was one eccentric old gentleman in England who wrote me and said that he wanted to start a laboratory of Tibetans levitating behind glass, but his plan didn't come off.

Basic suffering is very powerful ground, and the basis of man's attitude toward symbolism. The only immediate symbolism we can experience is pain. It is the direct message that we have been constantly involved in seeking pleasure of all kinds-and when the search for pleasure becomes our theme, that automatically provides a reference point to pain. We may feel relatively good, with nothing to complain about particularly. But then we would like to entertain ourselves more. We go to the movies, but the movie is terrible; so we decide to go to a restaurant, but the food isn't so good-or for that matter, we go and see a great movie and have a fantastic meal in a restaurant! All of that is an expression of basic pain.

The existence in our mind of basic pain is extremely powerful and difficult to shake off. Basic pain involves a sense of uncertainty, wanting so much and trying to make the best of things. There is so much struggle taking place. We tell our friends that everything is going fine, no problem; but in the deepness of our heart, something is grinding, in the process of destroying us, all the time. Though we might be having a great time, even then there is that grinding, like grinding one's jaws. Basically we feel captured by our life. We can't get out of it, we are stuck with it. We don't want to get into it, maybe it is too much for us. So we are stuck in the middle of it all the time.

We try our best, but we still are not quite making it. Whether we are in a state of happiness, or pain, or a state of relative grayness where everything is okay-that fundamental concern is always there. We may try to blame our pain on the past, but what we are experiencing is in the present, here and now. Even if our pain did develop in the past, it is impossible to change that. We are stuck with our regular thinking, our regular world as it is. We have to take what we are given. It's our world, whether we like it or not. As they way, "America-love it or leave it." That's great symbolism. The American flag: you can't take it, you can't leave it, it's always there.

People's usual idea of symbolism is that it is something outside them, like a signpost or billboard, that gives them signs, perhaps of religious significance. That's not quite true. Symbolism is connected with your self, your inner being. In others words, you are the biggest symbol of yourself. That is symbolism.

Often you don't want to listen to yourself talking on tape, and if you see photographs that have been taken of you, you get embarrassed. You think they could be better, and you don't want to see what you look like from somebody else's point of view. But maybe you should look into that more. You are a caricature of yourself and a symbol of yourself. Everything is its own caricature, by itself. That is symbolism on its own, the symbolism of experience itself.

For instance, when you create a visual symbol, first it presents itself-ideas come afterwards. That's the whole point. If you do interior decoration in a room, it speaks for itself. Later, people may get conceptual or metaphysical feelings about it. So everything stands by itself; and as far as you are concerned, you are a symbol of yourself.

Pain takes place all the time, and pleasure takes place all the time. The problem is that we really don't want to relate with the actuality of things as they are. We don't want to relate with that kind of symbolism, but it is always there. You have to share the meaning of symbolism personally, the pain and pleasure aspect of symbolism, definitely so. Otherwise, we cannot discuss the meaning of symbolism; we have nothing to talk about.

That basic symbolism of pain and its hang-ups pervades our entire life. There is symbolism when you wake up, when you feel dirty and wish you could take a shower, when you take your shower and feel refreshed, when you feel hungry, when you eat your breakfast, bacon and eggs sunny side up, toast and marmalade, quite possibly a waffle or pancakes, and when you are willing to face the day after a hearty breakfast and coffee.

That is all symbolism. The idea of coffee, and in fact the word coffee, is very provocative, it is mantra. Pancakes, eggs, bacon. That is all extremely powerful, very poetic, although we don't want to get into any trip about being a poet. Everything that goes on in our life is related with some kind of symbolism.

Our simple daily life could be involved with that kind of statement all the time, but we reject it as a purely mundane thing. We regard it as a terrible hassle and forget the whole thing. We drink our coffee and eat our bacon and eggs, just to get it over with. Then we go to the meditation hall and sit on a cushion and think maybe that will be a big thing for us.

Somehow symbolism doesn't work that way. The basic point of tantra is interest and awareness in every activity we are involved in throughout our life, at every moment.

At every moment, our every move usually has a thought provoking quality. The universe is constantly trying to reach us to say something or teach something, but we are rejecting it all the time. In categorizing your experience as mundane and sacred, good and bad, significant and insignificant, you are rejecting symbolism, right and left, all the time. You are rejecting the whole thing. By fitting everything into categories and pigeonholes, you have nothing left in your life except your own pain. But this pain is not really productive pain, like the original basic pain we were talking about. Instead, you just rot yourself into a grain of sand. That is not really very romantic, it's a terrible thing. Finally it is as if your ingrown toenail becomes monstrous and eats you up, not only your toe but your whole body and your expansive energetic vision. Everything is disheveled.

The basic point is that we have very many possibilities of symbolism: every activity taking place is basic symbolism. I would like you actually to appreciate the world around you, and begin to understand the facts and figures, the basic realities. There are a lot of things taking place. Symbolism doesn't have to be poetic, or spiritual, or mystical; it is the ordinary truth that takes place in everyday life.

There is always some kind of message taking place. What message? We don't know. It's up to you. There's not going to be a fantastic dictionary or encyclopedia. This is simply a reminder that every activity you are doing-smoking cigarettes, chewing gum-has some kind of meaning behind it. The simple point is that the things you do shouldn't be missed. You should experience what you do. but don't be heavy-handed, as if you were going to write a book about it. I don't want to take this into a trip. Buddhist symbolism is both unique in its non-theistic approach, and very ordinary. Altogether, it is simply our living situation-life and experience, life and experience-very simple and direct.

From Dharma Art by Chögyam Trungpa, edited by Judith Lief.
© 1996 by Diana J. Mukpo.
Excerpted in the Shambhala Sun, March 1996, Halifax,
Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc., Boston,