"...the Imagination (or love, or sympathy, or any other sentiment) induces knowledge, and knowledge of an 'object' which is proper to it..."
Henry Corbin (1903-1978) was a scholar, philosopher and theologian. He was a champion of the transformative power of the Imagination and of the transcendent reality of the individual in a world threatened by totalitarianisms of all kinds. One of the 20th century’s most prolific scholars of Islamic mysticism, Corbin was Professor of Islam & Islamic Philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris and at the University of Teheran. He was a major figure at the Eranos Conferences in Switzerland. He introduced the concept of the mundus imaginalis into contemporary thought. His work has provided a foundation for archetypal psychology as developed by James Hillman and influenced countless poets and artists worldwide. But Corbin’s central project was to provide a framework for understanding the unity of the religions of the Book: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. His great work Alone with the Alone: Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn ‘Arabi is a classic initiatory text of visionary spirituality that transcends the tragic divisions among the three great monotheisms. Corbin’s life was devoted to the struggle to free the religious imagination from fundamentalisms of every kind. His work marks a watershed in our understanding of the religions of the West and makes a profound contribution to the study of the place of the imagination in human life.

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Monday, March 23, 2009

Gary Snyder on the Buddhist Imaginal

Corbin was of course familiar with the Buddhist tradition and D.T. Suzuki was a lecturer and colleague at Eranos. Early in his career Suzuki drew parallels between Swedenborg's theological imagination (one of Corbin's many enthusiasms) and certain developments in Buddhism (see his Swedenborg, Buddha of the North reviewed here). The nature of the religious imagination in Buddhism was of some interest to Corbin. The American poet and zen practitioner Gary Snyder has made some interesting comments in this regard. In his conversation with Dom Aelred Graham, (Graham, Conversations: Christian and Buddhist, NY: Harcourt, 1968, pp. 64-5) Snyder discussed in some detail the differences between Zen and Tibetan practice: "Vajrayana leads a person to enlightenment through the exploitation and development of powers. . . . This is, in Buddhist terms, the Sambhoga-kaya path, the path of the realm of ideal forms and the Bliss body of the Buddha. Zen has proceeded on the Dharma-kaya path, which is the path of emptiness, the path of formlessness. Consequently, in its practice, in working with a Roshi, if you have hallucinations, visions, extraordinary experiences, telepathy, levitation, whatever, and you go to your Roshi, he says, "Pay no attention to it; stick to your koan." So Zen does not explore those realms. Although in the process of Zen studies, koan study, especially in your first koan, when you're doing zazen for many hours, for many weeks or months, you become aware of these different realms, you block yourself from going into them at all. You leave those all behind; they're classified as mozo, delusions, in the Zen school. Whereas in Shaivite Yoga and in certain schools of Tibetan Buddhism you take each of those realms up one at a time and explore it as part of your knowledge of yourself. Both of these schools of Buddhism, Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, have the same historical roots, the Madhyamika and the Yogacara. They're both schools of practice. In distinction to the Paramitayanas, both schools assert that it's possible to become enlightened in one lifetime, and that you do not need to perfect yourself in countless lifetimes. So they're extremely close. They're closer than any other schools in Buddhism. However, one proceeds in Zen by going directly to the ground of consciousness, to the contentless empty mirror of the mind, and then afterward, after ten or fifteen years of koan study, coming up bit by bit, using each of the koans as an exploration of those realms of the mind, having seen the ground of the mind first. The other, Tibetan Buddhism, works by the process of ten or fifteen years of going down bit by bit, till the ground of consciousness is reached, and then coming up swiftly. So that ultimately they arrive at the same place, but the Zen method is the reverse of the Tibetan.” (In Gary Snyder, The Real Work: Interviews & Talks 1964-79, New York: New Directions, 179-80.)

Kurukulla and seven other divinities, 18th-19th century, Tibet, Freer & Sackler Galleries.

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