Category Archives: Painting

The MWS Podcast 118: Abdul Abdullah on Art, Prejudice and the Other

Our guest today is the Australian artist Abdul Abdullah. His interdisciplinary approach is primarily concerned with the experience of the ‘other’ in society. This, and the wider topic of prejudice will be the focus of our conversation today. The youtube slideshow version also includes around 40 pieces of Abdul’s work.

MWS Podcast 118: Abdul Abdullah as audio only:
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On our recent summer retreat at Anybody’s Barn, I introduced an evening activity of drawing our own mandalas. This is a practice I experienced first in the Triratna Buddhist movement, but well worthy of wider adoption. There was some initial resistance, but everyone involved seems to have then found it a rewarding exercise, enabling them to reflect synthetically on the various factors supporting integration in their own lives or holding them back. It’s that process of reflection that’s valuable about it, rather than producing a work of art, but using visual symbols rather than words can also help to open up new perspectives.

What is a mandala? The terms derives from the Sanskrit word for ‘circle’, and mandalas are circular diagrams in which the spatial alignment of symbols in relation both to each other and to the centre can represent their relationship to an integrative process. The traditional Buddhist interpretation of mandalas is to see them as diagrams of enlightenment: but just by breaking down ‘enlightenment’ spatially one is already beginning to see it as an incremental process, a journey towards the centre, in which one may make asymmetrical progress. It’s for that reason that when Jung encountered mandalas he immediately identified them with excitement as diagrams of integration – a universal psychological process rather than one dependent on particular absolute Buddhist concepts. He found mandalas in many other cultural contexts, as well as in his dreams and in the dreams of his patients. Unfortunately, as with most such symbols, you’ll also find mandalas absolutised as symbols of cosmic order of some kind. The Wikipedia page on mandalas even starts off by saying they are symbols of the universe! But they most usefully represent our experience, not claims about ultimate reality.

It struck me recently that Jung’s adoption of mandalas as universal symbols, even though they were first identified explicitly in Buddhist culture, is a good analogy for the Middle Way. Jung used the idea of the Middle Way independently long before he engaged with Buddhism (see this earlier blog), but in a similar universal way to reflect a general human psychological process. If Buddhists have no problem with the idea that mandalas are universal, there seems no reason why they should not also accept the Middle Way as universal on a similar basis. Just as mandalas should not be defined in restrictive ways that prevent us from recognising the similarity of mandala forms across cultures, the Middle Way should also not be defined in restrictively Buddhist ways that prevent us recognising the absolutisations that may impede us in a variety of human situations rather than only those that applied at the time of the Buddha.

The integration depicted in a mandala is what I would call an integration of meaning: that is, that it depicts symbols that can be mutually recognised and synthesised in terms of a common understanding, even if they appear to be opposed.Middle Way Philosophy 3 Of course that integration of meaning can also provide us with inspiration for an integration of belief: that is, we can reflect on the potential compatibility of some aspects of apparently opposed beliefs associated with the symbols. But a mandala itself doesn’t tell us how to reframe our understanding of opposed beliefs so that we can integrate them : it merely provides inspiration for doing so. The way in which mandalas can depict integration of meaning is the reason I used a mandala on the cover of my book Middle Way Philosophy 3: The Integration of Meaning.

One of my favourite Buddhist mandalas is the Five Buddha mandala, because this depicts five symbolic Buddhas that represent different types of wisdom. These types of wisdom are in constant tension with each other. For example, the Blue Buddha, Akshobhya, represents non-discriminating or mirror-like wisdom according to which all Mandala of the Five Buddhas Vaddhaka versionbeliefs are ultimately empty (because none can be absolutely justified). On the opposite side of the mandala to Akshobhya, though, is the Red Buddha Amitabha, who represents discriminating wisdom as well as compassion. At the same time as recognising the lack of ultimate justification for our beliefs we need to recognise that as embodied beings we can adopt provisional beliefs about our specific environment, and indeed have particular loyalties to the people we know in our embodied experience. Thus we do not need to flip between absolute scepticism and particular loyalty: we can integrate those perspectives, and the White Buddha Vairocana can represent that integration in the middle. Similarly, the Green Buddha Amoghasiddhi represents the wisdom of success, as opposed to the wisdom of sameness in the Yellow Buddha Ratnasambhava. On the one hand we are actually attached to particular desires and wish to be successful in achieving them, whilst on the other we can recognise that from a different perspective, those desires and their fulfilment may not be significant and may be generously renounced for a wider perspective. The White Buddha can simultaneously represent the integration of these perspectives. That’s only a brief taste of the richness of the Five Buddha mandala. Vessantara’s Meeting the Buddhas is a useful guide to this symbolism.

The Buddhist tradition has developed mandala symbolism in the most extraordinary ways, including not just paintings but also in a multitude of other forms: ageless monuments (at Borobodur and Mandalay – which is named after mandala) at one extreme and temporary sand mandalas at the other. Beyond Buddhism, mandalas are also widely used in Hinduism. In Christianity, you can find mandala forms in Celtic crosses and rose windows. Hildegard_von_Bingen_Liber_Divinorum_OperumPictured here is a Christian mandala from Hildegard of Bingen’s fascinating mystical writings, which are accompanied by a number of illustrations as she was an artist as well as a writer. Interestingly here it is the human body that is the focus of integration at the centre of the mandala, and the depiction of God (who appears to be both males and female) encompasses the mandala as a whole rather than only its centre. The stretched figure, representing the universal man, is reminiscent of Christ on the cross, which is used at the centre of a number of Christian mandalas. Jung remarked that Christ being crucified between two thieves itself forms a mandala, especially as one of the thieves is traditionally said to have repented and responded positively to Christ whilst the other reviled him. There is thus a pattern of opposites in the two thieves to be symbolically integrated in Christ, who can represent the role of the acceptance of suffering in widening our perspectives to accept new conditions.

In the end, it doesn’t matter so much what tradition you approach mandalas through so much as that you make integrative use of it. Whatever the traditional role for such diagrams, they are not ends in themselves and do not usefully represent any kind of ultimate truth. Rather they represent a process by which you yourself can be inspired to reframe your experience. Around the outside of the mandala I drew on the recent retreat were to be found Facebook, bathroom cleaning, negative events in world politics, and the temptations of cake, all of which represent things that could be integrated, but are quite hard to deal with! Nothing is too mundane to be included and ultimately be open to integration.

Pictures: Five Buddha Mandala by Aloka, used on the cover of ‘Middle Way Philosophy 4: the Integration of Belief’ with the kind permission of Vaddhaka; Hildegard of Bingen picture from Liber Divinorum Operum (Wikimedia).

The Baptism of Christ by Piero della Francesca

This is one of the best-known paintings of the Italian Renaissance, a classic depiction of a Biblical scene: that of John the Baptist baptising Jesus in the Jordan. Like many such paintings, there is also much more to it than may initially meet the eye. I have been thinking a good deal recently about the life and teachings of Jesus, and the ways that we could choose to interpret them in terms of the Middle Way. You could ‘read’ this painting only in terms of dogma and discontinuity if you wished: as a symbol of purity (a concept that it often absolute), and of Jesus’ claimed power as the Son of God. But it is much richer and more ambiguous than that. I choose now to understand it more positively.

Piero baptism of Jesus

One of the first things that has puzzled me about this painting is that, although the gospels clearly say that Jesus was baptised in the river Jordan, here there is no sign of the river. The reason for this may be that Piero was following a medieval story that the Jordan miraculously stopped flowing at the time of the baptism – so that we are meant to be looking at a dried up river bed. But this may have quite different resonances today, focusing not on miracle stories but on the meaning of an exposed river bed. The drying up of a great river is an ecological catastrophe, but to engage in a quiet, reflective ceremony in those circumstances has a special power. In the face of dramatically adverse changes in conditions such as droughts, wars and revolutions we more than ever need to find a point of reflectiveness and openness in order to adapt.

The sacredness of the ceremony is emphasised by Piero’s unique use of pallid colours, by the balance of the picture around the figure of Christ, and by the spectators. According to the gospel narratives, Jesus had just returned from his temptation in the wilderness: a story that bears some very interesting parallels to the story of the Buddha going out into the jungle. He is now about to return to society and share the insights that he has found in solitude, but to do this successfully he will need awareness, confidence, resolve and support from others. Interpreted positively and experientially rather than just as a conversion ceremony, baptism is a rite of passage that could help a person to integrate all of these things.

The figure of the dove above Jesus, representing the Holy Spirit, more than anything reminds us of the God archetype as Jesus might have been experiencing it at that moment: as a glimpse of his own potential as a fully integrated figure. To maintain a strong link with that potential we need a stable awareness of a right hemisphere perspective to supplement the narrow and goal-driven left-hemisphere dominant state, and the solemnity of a ritual can help achieve this.

But, apart from Jesus and John the Baptist, there is another very important presence in the painting: the tree immediately to the left of Jesus. Experts say this probably depicts a walnut tree such as Piero would have been familiar with in Italy. It is this tree that for me, more than anything else in this picture, that helps put Jesus’ baptism in a genuinely spiritual setting based on the Middle Way. The tree can represent the process of integration as one of organic growth, taking up nourishment through its roots from shadowy and rejected energies in ourselves and transforming them incrementally into a finished, balanced organism. I have already written in an earlier blog about the Tree of Life motif as it is used by Jung in his Red Book, and the Tree of Life can be a powerful alternative symbol for the Middle Way.

On the left hand side are three spectators that I at first did not realise are intended to be angels. One of them has a pink garment that may be intended to re-clothe Jesus after the baptism. An interesting tradition also links these three figures to a process of reconciliation in the Church (and thus to a Middle Way between opposed beliefs). Nicholas Cranfield explains:

A once popular recension of scholars convincingly argued that the picture alludes to the then recent Council of Florence that in 1439 had briefly, and importantly, forged a concordat between the Western and the Eastern Church, a short-lived salve for the centuries’ old rift that had breached Christendom since 1054 and which re-opened soon after the collapse of Constantinople in 1453. Such a ‘reading’ hinges on the gesture of the two angels closest to the Lord, watched by the third, the (?)Archangel, a seemingly superior angelic being. The angels immediately to the right of Jesus take hands in a classical gesture that is associated with Concordia and the Augustan tradition of peace. (from a sermon given in 2004)

The undressing figure depicted behind John the Baptist is also quite striking. His presence seems to emphasise that Jesus’ baptism was not unique: that there were many other people going through the same process. Jesus was not the first or the last to be baptised, or to go through a process of integration. The water and sand behind the main figures also resembles a winding (flooded) path, so we could also see the undressing man as representing another point in the path behind Jesus. We could even interpret him as Jesus himself at an earlier point in time, following the cartoon-like conventions often found in early Renaissance paintings whereby the same figure is represented at different points in a story within the same picture.

In the end, though, I find that such interpretations can only contribute to an overall impression in which aesthetic appreciation of light and colour, awareness of symbol, and a sense of cultural context merge with a recognition of Piero della Francesca’s overall moral and spiritual purpose. My understanding of Jesus as a figure and of the archetypes he invokes are both affected by this picture and feed back into my understanding of it. It seems to be not for nothing that this is such an acclaimed picture in the history of art.

The picture can be seen in the Sainsbury wing of the National Gallery, London.

Links to earlier art blogs by Robert M Ellis: 

The Tower of Babel by Breughel

The Annunciation by Simone di Martini 

Index to further art blogs by Norma Smith

Annunciation by Simone Martini

I’ve always been struck, even haunted, by this painting, as I have by the Annunciation theme in general. It is quite an early Renaissance painting, still showing many of the signs of the transition from statuary to painting in the gilding and the arches.

If we want to find a Middle Way reading of what it might mean to us, we need to first of all put aside any doctrinal associations that may be getting in the way. Yes, the angel is announcing to Mary that, despite being a virgin, she has conceived the son of God. You don’t have to believe that any such thing happened, or that there was a man who was the son of God, or indeed to support the restrictive notions of womanhood implied by the stress on virginity in the Christian tradition. Just put all that stuff aside, look at the painting, and see what experiences it evokes.

Annunciation Simone_Martini

What I experience primarily is the sacred otherness of the angel’s message, and Mary’s uncertainty and hesitation before it. The angel seems to be bearing a message for her, as for any viewer, that the  potentialities within us are startlingly bigger that we had ever thought. That utter weirdness and difficulty is emphasised by the gold, which puts us in an other-worldly ambience; by the angel’s inhuman wings; by the lilies; and by the dove of the Holy Spirit hovering above them.

Mary is quite right to be hesitant, but at the same time she seems to recognise that this strange event is not a threat. It may be strange and apparently other, but at the same time it needs to be accepted in a wider framework. Perhaps others may read a girlish lack of confidence into Mary’s posture, but I’d rather read a certain provisionality. She’s holding all this weirdness, for the moment, albeit warily. She’s going to see how things turn out.

The whole scene can thus symbolise for us the difficulties of any big new idea or prospect that takes us ‘beyond our comfort zone’, and especially the problems of creativity. Whenever we develop something new there’s an ambiguous Middle Way to be found between a fixed idea of what we want to create and its absolute value on the one hand, and an idea of the many discouraging difficulties, distractions and potential failures on the other that might lead us to feel that the thing we want to create is valueless. Giving birth to the Son of God (before we get into the big question of the significance of ‘Son of God’) is a situation where you can easily imagine both of those extremes presenting themselves to Mary. More traditionally, on the one hand she could feel proud, on the other unworthy. In between there is provisionality, riding the creative wave. And I feel that’s what the artist is trying to depict here.