Buddhist psychology is the analysis of delusion. Where Buddhist practice is either an effort to reach enlightenment, a celebration of enlightenment or an expression of the enlightened state, Buddhist psychology is an examination of why and how we are not enlightened and of how that knowledge about our state of delusion can be applied to assist beings in the problems of daily life as well as to assist practitioners and devotees in their attempt to follow the holy life.
Rupa, Dharma & Lakshana
Here I will focus on three basic concepts. These are rupa, dharma and lakshana. Today I will only refer to rupa and lakshana. Tomorrow I will complete the picture by bringing in the notion of dharma.
Before going directly to these concepts, I would like to establish the idea of a commonly found process in the development of language and terminology that may help us. I'll use an example from English. When people use the word "creature", they are talking about living things. We might say of an ostrich, “It is a strange creature with a long neck that has wings, but can’t fly.” Many people, when they use the word “creature” have no idea or sense that they are saying “something created by God,” yet this is the origin of the word, it being a derivative of "create" and "Creator". The word has ceased to have reference to the sacred and become a mundane term. We can say that there has been a process of desacralisation. Similar things have happened in Buddhism so that words, such as the three that we are going to look at, have a sacred level of meaning and a mundane or desacralised one. However, it is not possible to get the full sense of even the mundane usage without some awareness of the original sacred significance.
Thus, rupa originally meant an object of worship. This usage still exists when we, for instance, talk about a Buddha rupa. The central object on a shrine is called the rupa. This is the object of worship. However, in common usage, rupa has come to mean any form or appearance that has some power of attraction or repulsion for the mind. Thus, the smell of coffee is a rupa for many people, as is the sound of their own name, or the word "sex" on a page of print. The senses are drawn to these rupas. Now you can probably see that there is a connection between the original sacred usage and the common desacralised one. On one side, the sacred rupa is set up in order to exercise a power over the mind of the devotee. On the other side, we can talk about a "coffee-worshipper". Things have power over us because we do, in a certain way, worship them, or, to put it in more Buddhist language, we take refuge in them.
I think you can understand from this that in life we naturally take refuge (or worship), but that there are better and worse things to take refuge in. Some people take refuge in heroin, or in money, or in a political cause. There is also the negative. We take flight from some things and seek refuge by protecting ourselves from them. These are negative rupas. Thus for many modern Europeans, a swastika is a negative rupa, whereas before the Second World War it did not have the same connotation.
You can probably also see that when we are attracted or repelled in some way it is often not so much by the thing itself as by what it represents or is associated with. Many things advertise something else. They advert to it. This state of being something that adverts to something else is what is meant by a lakshana. To say something is a lakshana means that it adverts to something else. The actual smell of coffee may be attractive in itself, but at least half the attraction is that it adverts to the actual drink that we anticipate consuming. So as well as being a rupa, the smell of coffee is a lakshana. It points to something beyond itself.
Adverting to Self
However, we can take this notion of lakshana further. The reason that coffee is a rupa is that I like to drink it. Now this “liking” is partly a direct function of how my senses work - small, taste, sight etc - and partly of my idea of myself. One is 9or is not) a coffee-fancier and that is an element in one’s sense of identity. If somebody makes a remark to the effect that coffee-drinkers are people of fine taste one feels placed. If another person says that coffee-drinkers are foolish people, one feels a reaction the other way. This is because one is identified with that group and that group identity has become part of one’s own identity.
Now in Buddhist theory, attachment to identity is the source of most of our troubles. Being or not being a coffee drinker is a small part of our identity, but I hope you can see that the principle applies across an extremely wide field. For the ordinary person, if something is a rupa it is so because it is, either directly or indirectly, a lakshana for self. It is a prop for the ego.
Adverting to the Divine
So, in Buddhist texts, when there is a reference to lakshana it is generally in this sense of adverting to self. However, not always. This is because the principle of lakshana can also mean something that adverts to things other than self. The Buddha rupa on the shrine is supposed to advert to Buddha, to the sacred, holy object of worship. The original meaning of rupa was "the object of worship". The common usage is by desacralisation of the term The objec t of true worship, the Divine, is not self. This is what buddhism is about - waking up to the non-self - to what Buddha called the Unconditioned, Unmade, Uncreated, Undying, without which, he says, there is no liberation.
Buddhism can be seen as a practice of redirecting one’s signposts or props (lakshanas) to new better objects - more satisfactory sources of refuge and, in general, the less self the more satisfactory. So the object of refuge - Buddhadharma - is not self. This means that taking refuge deeply means rewiring one’s brain so that everything becomes a lakshana pointing at Buddha rather than a lakshana pointing at self. this is how practices like nembutsu and mantras work. They deepen refuge by reorienting our signposts. If nembutsu accompanies every action, every object becomes an advert for Amida Buddha.
Using Rupa and Lakshana in Therapy
Now we can see a relevance here to psychotherapy. Much time in psychotherapy is, in effect, spent trying to trace the indirect pathways of lakshana. The person’s sense of self is constructed out of and continues to be supported and reinforced by the manner in which they see the world which is as a dense mass of lakshana. Almost everything that they engage with points them back to their sense of who they think they are. Now having a map of all the lakshana, in itself, does nothing to change the situation, but it can be useful. To know that you hate the smell of coffee because your father always drank coffee before he came to beat you as a child will not, in itself, change anything. However, if the smell of coffee were to start to point toward something else - a woman you were once in love with, say, - or, alternatively, if your way of construing the ultimate rupa - in the case, father - changed - then there would be a major change in one’s sense of self and that could be therapeutic. If, say, you came to respect father, notwithstanding that sometimes he beat you, and started to think of him as the person who taught you to be strong and brave and you found other aspects of his character that were admirable, then your sense of who you are would become different and the functioning of lakshana would point in new directions.
The Mundane Level
So, I hope that you can see these two terms - rupa and lakshana at both the mundane and the sacred level. At the mundane level, rupa is any object that catches your attention and it does so because, either positively or negatively, it somehow points to, hooks into, supports and reinforces (or negatively reinforces by threatening) one's implicit sense of self. Rupas are props for self. Changing the way a person understands the rupa or changing the directional pattern of lakshanas changes the sense of self. This will work whether the person has consciousness that it has happened or not. one does not need to know how one changed for real change to occur. All of this understanding can be useful to the psychotherapist.
The Sacred Level
At the sacred, original level, rupa is the object of worship or reverence. Perhaps we should now write it Rupa. It is not self and it takes one out of oneself. True worship liberates one from self. The substance of religious practice is coming face to face with Rupa and realising that Rupa really is RUPA! At this level, lakshana does not advert to self, it adverts to the Rupa. Thus, at this level, everything becomes something that turns one toward the Holy. One is enlightened by everything because every individual thing is a lakshana in this original sacred sense.thing serves as a pointer toward the Rupa.
To be continued...
Tomorrow I will bring in the concept of dharma - or Dharma - and you can probably already get a hint of where this line of thinking is going.