From the journal Material For Thought, issue number 5
AND THE SEARCH FOR
MEANING IN LIFE
In the Brihad-Aranyaka Upanishad, there is a prayer that could have been written at any time, by any man of any religion:
From the unreal, lead me to the real!
From darkness, lead me to light!
From death, lead me to immortality!
The wish expressed in this prayer lies behind my
interest in the symbolism of the ruined temples of
symbolism portrayed in the temples of
I have dwelt on this process of change in interest and understanding because it has taught me two important lessons concerning symbolism and its use in religion. The first lesson is that such symbolism can be understood on different levels, in different ways at different times by the same person. It is not the symbols that change, but a person’s ability to see what they convey. The second lesson is that a whole or living meaning of a symbol cannot be found by piecing together different interpretations. For a symbol to be understood as a living whole, as a unity, there must be a corresponding search for unity within the man who attempts to explain it. In short, the search for meaning in outward religious symbols must mirror the inner spiritual search. For such symbols to be real, and not merely intellectual fantasies, they must have relevance to life and its meaning and they must be studied as an organic whole. Religious symbols are keys that can help unlock the doors that separate us from a meaningful contact with life. But the desire to look for such keys can only stem from a deep-felt need to find out what life is all about. If a man tries to observe himself, to know himself, then he will find the right keys to open new doors at the right time. Because this is such a personal matter, no other person can give him the key. It has to be his own discovery. A pupil once observed to the Sufi teacher, Bahaudin Naqshband, “You relate stories, but you do not tell us how to understand them.” Bahaudin replied: “How would you like it if the man from whom you bought fruit consumed it before your eyes, leaving you only the skin?”
THE SEVEN KEYS OF
emerged in the 9th century as the capital of the
these years, the jungle overran
The ruins of
THE SNAKE—THE FIRST KEY
first of the Keys of Angkor is the symbol of the snake, depicted as the hooded
cobra or naga. Not only is the naga-serpent the most prominent motif found at
Angkor, but the word “
spread their cobra hoods as they rise up from the balustrades that line the
tank at Banteay Kdei or the Sras Srang—the Royal Pool. Yet other nagas lie
beside the causeway that leads to the
Of the seven keys, it was the naga that intrigued me most. My own subjective feelings of revulsion and morbid fascination where snakes are concerned were hardly helpful in trying to understand the symbolism of the snake. Both emotions certainly excluded any other thoughts when I ran across this snake on a jungle road. What can be observed if emotions are put aside? First, the S-shaped manner in which the snake moves is distinctive. Its head moves in a straight line while the rest of its body oscillates from side to side. The flow of energy and movement in life is like an alternating current, now negative, now positive. The snake embodies this movement and, as such, is the perfect symbol for the vital energy of life, twofold but one. Through its ability to slough its skin, the snake also symbolizes the process of death and rebirth in man’s spiritual life. Whether at rest or in movement, the snake is unobtrusive and blends with its surroundings. It goes unobserved unless disturbed. In this, too, it reflects the manifestations of energy.
Above all, the snake signifies attachment to the earth and represents the dark, chaotic forces of life. The snake is bound to earth by nature. But, as king of the nagas, the cobra is unique, for it is able to raise the upper part of its body towards heaven, a gift for which it must repeatedly prostrate itself. So too is man able to detach himself for short periods from his habitual state of blind involvement in the things of earth.
Many other ancient cultures have recognized the cobra as an unusual and majestic creature; in Thailand it graces the prow of the royal barges, while in Egypt it adorned the brows of the Pharaohs as the uraeus; and the cobra Muchalinda, the naga king, is said to have protected Buddha with his hood from the elements while he meditated beneath the Bodhi Tree.
So the snake has a twofold significance, it embodies
the vital energy of life and it represents the dark forces of earth, the forces
of chaos in life. It is the snake in me that represents the inertia that would
deny me the wish to find a meaning to life. When I would seek the Tree of Inner
Unity, the snake is there to offer me the tempting apples of multiplicity. As
the symbol of earth, the naga-serpent presides over the earthly
THE BIRD—THE SECOND KEY
In contrast to the denying forces of earth and darkness portrayed by the serpent, the bird represents the affirming principle of light, the wish to rise above the chaos of life to find inner unity and a meaning to life. As master of the heavens, the bird is the natural opponent of the serpent. In Hindu mythology, the naga’s adversary is a griffon-like lord of the sky called the Garuda, a word derived from the Sanskrit root gri meaning “to swallow.” To give emphasis to his role, the Garuda is also called nagantaka, or “he who kills serpents,” and nagasana, “he who devours serpents.”
At Angkor the sturdy Garuda is portrayed in
caryatid rows bearing a large terrace, upon which was built the wooden palace
of the Devaraja, the God-King of
Before this Universe was given form by the divine fiat lux, formless primary matter, prakriti, was contained unmanifested in Vishnu, the Creator. All was One. With creation, this matter assumed form and the One appeared as many, as comprised of opposites, of heaven and earth, day and night, man and woman and so on.
To those who seek to understand the nature of this world and the meaning of life, Vishnu teaches that the secret lies in the identity of opposites. Indeed, one of Vishnu’s titles is “Teacher of Opposites.” For this reason, the Garuda is also shown as carrying the naga, its mortal enemy, on his back. In the presence of Vishnu, the opposing principles of life as represented by the snake and the bird are One. Neither the serpent nor the bird can ever vanquish the other without a dissolution of the Universe. At the same time, the duality of the phenomenal world is the product only of our senses, an illusion and not reality. Duality results from viewing life as comprised of opposites; but if opposites are seen as being complementary, then it is possible to glimpse the unity of all creation. All that is required to see this is a different attitude.
The duality of the phenomenal world is the product of the means by which I, as an individual, come in contact with the manifested world. This contact is made with my five senses. The One Reality is perceived as Two through the intermediary of the five senses. So, in the Upanishads it is written: “A person is fivefold. This whole world, whatever there is, is fivefold. He obtains the whole world who knows this.” Reality becomes Illusion or Appearance as it passes through the Five Gates of Perception. He who knows this in practice can glimpse the Real Nature of the World.
My inner world comes in contact with the outer world through the five gates or doors of my senses. In the Hindu tradition these doors are held to be sight, hearing, speech and touch, coordinated and interpreted by the mind
fivefold nature of perception is repeatedly echoed in temple architecture at
Angkor as at the small 10th century
gates and towers are similar in that they are points of passage, gates allowing
movement on a horizontal plane, towers in a vertical plane. The towers are
links between the duality of heaven and earth, the bird and the serpent, the
spirit and the flesh, while the gates permit movement between the World of the
Many and the World of the One. Symbolically, the One is to be sought in the
center of the body, which is the
The tower of the mind is central to and stands above
the four smaller towers of the senses, which rise at the four cardinal points.
The five towers of
THE STEPPED PYRAMID—THE FOURTH KEY
Khmer temple with its crown of five towers, is often built
in the form of a stepped pyramid, representing the sacred
pyramid is a solid representation of the triangle which graphically conveys the
co-existence of duality on the lower plane of earth, the sense-world, and the
unity of the higher plane, heaven. As the Two emerges from the One through the
Altogether nine pyramids were built at Angkor as microcosmic
Wat, which is probably the best known of the Khmer temple-mountains, was one of
the last to be built at
At the summit of the temple-mountain there stood the garbha-griha or “womb-house.” In sanctuaries such as that of Angkor Wat was performed the ritual marriage of opposites. This was the hieros gamos, the sacred marriage of Heaven and Earth, in which a woman who embodied the spirit of the serpent, Earth, and the Deva-raja that of Heaven, came together as one flesh in the garbha griha. In a passage describing the sacred nature of the union of man and woman, which is found in the Brihad-Aranyaka Upanishad, the husband proclaims: “I am Heaven, thou art Earth!”
The ritual marriage performed at the apex of the pyramid symbolized the
fundamental unity that lies behind the duality of the sense-world, as did the
geometry of the temple itself. Chou Ta-kuan, a Chinese traveller who visited
central sanctuary of many of the temples of
The geometry of the pyramid, the ritual of the sacred marriage and the symbol of the lingam and yoni are different aspects of the same-key to understanding the life principle that Two are One in Three. While deceptively simple, the ability to apply this principle in life can only come through cultivating a new way of thinking The Tower of the Mind that rises above the garbha-griha proclaims this message.
THE SEVEN STEPS—THE FIFTH KEY
While the temple-mountain portrays the link between Heaven and Earth,
the One and the Many, it is also conceived as a representation of the steps or
stages through which the Seeker for Truth must pass on the inner journey from
chaos to unity. Built as a stepped pyramid, the temple symbolized this progression,
of which a good example may be seen in the small, well-preserved
Yajnavalkya, the great teacher of the Upanishads, was once pressed to state the real number of Gods in the Universe. In response to repeated questioning, the sage gradually reduced the number of Gods in seven steps from 3,306 to One (Brihad-Aranyaka, 3.9. 1-9). These Gods can be understood as representing the influences and laws to which the phenomenal world is subject.
At the first stage, ground level, the number of outside forces that command man’s everyday life are seemingly overwhelming, impeding any attempt to search for reality in life. But it is possible, given the wish. As the Seeker struggles up the steep and narrow path, so his existence becomes, at each higher level, progressively less conditioned by the outside world. As he continues upwards, he comes closer to realizing the spiritual aim of “being in the world, but not of it.” Yet, without denying the physical fact of his existence, no mortal man can aspire to reach the highest level, the Seventh Heaven, for no steps lead to the lotus at the summit. Other temples that clearly resemble the classic form of the stepped pyramid are Ta Keo and the Baphuon.
The seven stages on the evolutionary journey through this world echo the seven worlds of the creation. Each higher world can be thought of as containing all the lower worlds, according to the principle that “as above, so below.” Thus, the three-dimensional world in which man exists contains the worlds of one and two dimensions and is itself contained in a four-dimensional world. Man can have intuitive knowledge of the world immediately below his own as well as the world immediately above.
Angkor, as also in
THE WORLD AXIS—THE SIXTH KEY
Angkor, the temple-mountain, fashioned in the image of
In Arabic, the word Qutub means the magnetic pole, pivot, polestar or chief. Using the Abjad system of letter- number encipherment, the word Qutub can be transposed into the number 111, the three-fold unity. When this number is recoded by digits, tens and hundreds, the letters QYA are obtained, meaning “to be vacant, voided.” So, apart from its cosmological connotations, the world axis also posits the existence of a psychological space, a central point in man in which freedom and balance may be experienced.
THE CHURNING OF THE
THE SEVENTH KEY
The Search for Inner Unity is the hidden meaning of the message conveyed
by the holy city of
manner in which this legend is portrayed at
this myth can be recognized one of man’s most ubiquitous and perennial
spiritual symbols known in different cultures as the caduceus, the staff of
Thoth, of Hermes, of Mercury, of Moses and as the yin-yang of the Tao. The use
of the staff as a churn-stick is to be seen in the Egyptian symbol of the
Uniting of the
So basic a symbol was the caduceus, that it has been repeatedly used throughout the world to express the dynamics of man’s search for inner unity. Like so many elements of the Teaching, those responsible for transmitting the necessary practical knowledge ensured the survival of key symbols by incorporating them in popular legends and iconography that would be treasured for all time.
recounting this story now, I can do no more than hint at its real message by
recounting what I have understood it to mean. However satisfying it may be to
find an “answer,” it must be remembered that the questions raised by a legend such
as the “Churning of the
The Person is a house in which dwell many gods and devils, the forces of Light and Darkness. The Person is many, not One. All is confusion. Positive and negative forces, feeding on the senses, alternately dominate the house in which they live. Although the Person is nominally the Master of the House, he has in fact no control over the gods and devils. His authority as Master is usurped by whichever is the dominant force at a given moment. The Person is as though asleep to his real nature which is to be the Master of his own life. And yet there are moments when he feels that all is not right, when he feels that were he to awaken to his real nature, he would be able to find meaning to life where all is now chaos.
Indra, Lord of the Gods in the Person, was aware of this feeling and this wish. If this wish could be fulfilled, Indra hoped that the gods united could achieve mastery over the devils. Thus it was that Indra, acting in the name of the Person, took it upon himself to seek outside help in attaining this goal.
Indra approached the Creator himself, Brahma, who, with Vishnu the Maintainer
and Shiva the Destroyer, comprises the great Trinity of Higher Forces in the
Universe. Brahma was sympathetic to Indra’s request for help and directed him
to ask advice of Vishnu, who, as Lord of Maya, the Power of Illusion, is also
the Teacher of Opposites. Vishnu dwells deep in the waters of illusion, the
reply to Indra’s query as to where the Elixir was to be sought, Vishnu motioned
to the all-engulfing
The Person’s gods and devils made ready to commence the work of churning and, without further thought, the gods moved to the serpent’s head, while the devils found themselves at its tail. But when they had taken their places, the devils loudly protested that they were being insulted and demanded that they be allowed instead to hold Vasuki’s head. When Indra took pains to remind the gods of the importance of the work, and of the need to put vanity and self-pride aside, they eventually agreed to change places with the devils and to take the tail.
No sooner had the churning commenced than it became apparent that the sensation of “I” was not firmly centered in the Person, and the churn-stick slid back into the sameness of the waters. Vishnu, Teacher of Opposites, saved the situation, however, by showing with his own being where the hard- shelled center could be found in the movement of life. He turned himself into a sea-turtle and offered himself as the pivot for the churn-stick.
So the work began anew and countless were the times it proved necessary to recenter the sensation of “I.” But then, slowly, like a new-born child learning to see, the “I” of the Person began to observe the gods and devils, who, as in some great tug-of-war, pulled now this way, now that in response to life. What the “I” observed was the Person as he really was. For the first time he was able to see clearly the horrifying appearance of the devils. Indeed it was such a sickening sight that the Person was touched to his innermost being. Vasuki, the Person’s earthly mature, was so affected by what the Person saw that vomit began to rise slowly along the length of his body. Shiva, the Destroyer, had meanwhile been quietly looking on, and he knew full well that should the Person’s inner sickness gush forth upon the outer world, it would engulf and destroy all it fell upon. Fearful of the danger, Shiva stepped forward and swallowed Vasuki’s poisonous vomit as it gushed from the serpent’s jaws; so virulent was the poison that it left a blue burn on Shiva’s throat. Even today, many devotees of Shiva carry a blue mark upon their throats as a reminder of the need for their inner sickness to be neutralized by a higher force lest it destroy all around them.
As the work continued for many years, so the gods and devils came gradually to accept each other and to move in unison. At last, the first of many wonderful signs began to appear in the churning turmoil of life. First, there materialized the marvelous wish-fulfilling tree of paradise, Kalpa vriksa, an indication that the wish of the Person was to be granted.
Next Airavata, the elephant vahana of Indra, was seen standing majestic amidst the churning waters, as he stands today before the gates of Angkor Thom and at Pre Rup. The name of Airavata is also given to Indra’s weapons, the lightning bolt and the rainbow, signs that understanding accompanying inner unity would strike at any time, all-encompassing and all-illuminating.
Then emerged a great lotus, upon which stood Sri Lakshmi, the Lotus Goddess. The lotus was the first product of the creative principle; it was perfect and incorruptible. As the symbol of the creation, the lotus carried the symbol of the wisdom that transcends the duality of the sense-world, the image of the Goddess, for Lakshmi as Prajna-Paramita, is the “Enlightening Wisdom (prajna) now gone to and abiding upon (ita) the Other Shore (para).”
Beautiful Apsaras, the courtesans of the sky, were seen dancing upon the waters, protected by their jealous consorts, the fierce Gandharvas. In effect, the closer the Person comes to fulfilling his aim, the more he stands to lose from being enchanted by the Apsaras, those temporary attractions of the senses. The Apsaras raise the continual question of what is important in life, while the Gandharvas’ drawn swords serve as reminders of the fate that awaits the weak.
goal of the Work in Life, Inner Unity and Truth, finally appeared in the form
of the black-faced physician of the Celestials, bearing the Cup containing the
Elixir of Life. The physician is one who makes the sick whole. In finding wholeness,
that is, unity of being, the Seeker tastes the sweet Elixir of his True
Essence, so long hidden in the troubled waters of the
The Sufi poet, Rumi, wrote: “Cross and
Christians, end to end, I examined, but He was not on the Cross. I went to the Hindu
temple and to the ancient pagoda, and in neither was there any sign. I went to
the heights of