Photograph as Icon 3: Symbol, Mirror, Mandala

The Photograph as Icon III  
Symbol  ~ Mirror ~ Mandala 

God is your mirror, 
the mirror in which you contemplate your self,
and you are His mirror, 
the mirror in which He contemplates 
His divine Names.

Ibn 'Arabi

The Symbol, the Mirror,  the Mandala 
An image that functions for me as a symbol--that is to say, when I respond to an image so intensely, so intimately to an image that I am seeing it with the eyes of my heart rather than with my intellect-- I sense a presence . . . a subtle feeling, an intuition, of mystery, of divinity.  The Icon photographs I am presenting in the various parts of this project are Four-fold symmetrical constructions which function for me as symbols.  Two mirroring pairs of the same one source image are conjoined with each other horizontally and vertically, one pair of reflecting images above mirroring the second pair, below.  The four images, united at the center point of the image constellation, invoke in their symmetry a sense of harmony, an invitation to enter more deeply into the heart of image.  Inside the image, inside the heart of my contemplative vision, I come face to face with my own reflections, my own divine identity, or Self.   A Sufi poet once wrote: In this house of mirrors, I see a lot of things, but only you exist.  No matter what the subject matter of the source image, these images of transmutation, these Icon photographs, invoke in me the feeling of the Unity of Being.

These photographs have the character and look of a mandala, however, truly speaking they are not mandalas, at least in the traditional sense.  The symmetrical Icon images share many of the formal aspects of the mandala in the Hindu and Buddhist traditions; and the the decorative designs, or arabesque-like visual movements in the Icons are similar to visual motifs one could find in the domes of mosques.  The overall structure of the Four-fold photographs mirror the basic structure of the sacred paradisal gardens described in the Qur'an.  All these sacred art forms celebrate and manifest the Unity of Being, reflect back to us, and remind us, our own divine nature.  If only we could see the world through the eyes of the heart we would see not only creatures, the creation, but the Creator.  All the world is an Icon, "a reflection of You."  

Oh my Beloved!  
Wherever I look 
I see You.
Wherever my eyes turn,
They meet a mirror in which  
I see the reflection of my own heart.
This life, truly speaking, is only a reflection of You.

Sufi saint 

The Sacred Garden
In Emma Clark's excellent book The Art of the Islamic Garden, she writes about the sacred symbolism of the natural world, the sacred  Islamic garden, and the garden's relationship to imagery found in the Qur'an:

Nature and beauty are outward symbols of an inward grace.  Throughout the Qur'an the faithful are exhorted to meditate upon these signs or symbols, since everything in the created world is a sign or symbol of God.

The world should be seen for what it is--an illusion (maya in Hinduism) that both veils and reveals the archetypal heavenly world . . .   But human beings are forgetful and need to be continually reminded that the things of this world are transparent and not an end in themselves.  This is where, firstly, religion comes in, and secondarily, sacred art.  The Islamic garden can be seen as a kind of open-air sacred art, the content, form and symbolic language all combining to remind the visitor of the eternal, invisible realities that lie beneath outward appearances. 

Clark writes extensively about the presence of water in the Islamic garden, water that is continually flowing and renewing itself in the four cardinal directions to or from a central fountain or basin in the garden:  

'Gardens Underneath which Rivers Flow'   The idea of water flowing 'underneath' suggests the nurturing of the 'garden within', the "Garden of the Heart', by the ever-flowing waters of the spirit, which serve to purify the soul of those on the spiritual path.  Indeed, water is symbolic of the soul in many sacred traditions. . . 

The constant and sincere remembrance of God (dhikr) through the nurturing of the garden within, the garden of the heart . . . is the domain of the Sufis, those who concentrate on the inward or mystical aspect of Islam and who understand profoundly that the visible world is a symbol, a transient mirror-image of an invisible eternal reality.  

The classic four-fold garden design is quintessentially Islamic.   Inherent within the number four is a universal symbolism based on an understanding of the natural world.  It encompasses the four cardinal directions, the four elements and the four seasons.  The cube, the three-dimensional form of the number four, represents solidity, the Earth.  The four-fold plan also recalls the fundamental mandala of the Vedic tradition.  Buddhist tangkas are also based on a square diagram within a circle, representing the earth encircled by heaven.  [note: also, see below the section on the Hindu Yantra]

In the Qu'ran, not only are four rivers described but also four gardens are described as two pairs. . .  These four gardens are divided into the first or lower pair, which are the Garden of the Soul and the Garden of the Heart.  The second and higher pair, is the Garden of the Spirit and the Garden of the Essence. . . 

The four-fold form of the archetypal Islamic garden is fundamentally a reflection of a higher Reality and a universal symbol of Diving Unity.

Icon 3, #1  (source photograph: tree limbs, sky and earth)

Icon 3, #2 (source image: frozen water on glass)

The Temple  Meeting place of Heaven and Earth 
Tom Cheetham writes in his book The World Turned Inside Out that the function of sacred art, and the Icon particularly, is not representation, but rather transfiguration . . . of both the world and the soul.  

He says the purpose of sacred art is to enact the psycho-cosmic transformation that it symbolizes.  And to illustrate this he quotes from a talk Henry Corbin gave about the Friday Mosque at Isphahan.  Corbin states: At the geometrical center of the enclosure we find a basin whose fresh water is perpetually renewed.  This is a water-mirror, reflecting at the same time the dome of heaven, which is the real dome of the templum, and the many-colored ceramic tiles which cover the [dome's] surfaces.  It is by means of this mirror that the templum brings abut the meeting of heaven and earth.  The mirror of the water here polarizes the symbol of the centre . . . 

The phenomenon of the mirror enables us to understand the internal dimension of an object or a building situated in the space of this world, because it leads us to grasp its spiritual dimension, the metaphysical image which precedes and shapes all empirical perception.  Cheetham then adds:  "Here in this sacred place, mirror, space, and contemplation come together at the center of the world."  Corbin perhaps would say as well, after the 12th century Sufi mystic, Ibn 'Arabi: God created the world as a mirror in which to contemplate His own Image, His own beauty.

Icon 3, #3 (source image: plant shadows in light)

The Mandala
Corbin and Cheetham say very little about the mandala.  They have at times referred to it as an image which can help focus and concentrate one's being in the act of prayer, meditation and contemplation.  Just as I felt I needed to better understand the idea and history behind the Icon, the Heart, and the act of Prayer as it related to my creative process in photography and to Corbin's, Cheetham's and Ibn 'Arabi's world view, so I felt I needed to look more carefully and deeply into the idea of the mandala.  

I found a book by Giuseppe Tucci, entitled The Theory and Practice of the Mandala which has been very helpful to me, especially his chapters on the doctrinal basis of the mandala, and the mandala as a means of reintegration.  I will be presenting several text excerpts from Tucci's book, below.  However, to be clear, I do not see my symmetrical photographs as mandalas in the traditional sense that Tucci writes about them in his book.  He elaborates with great detail on the "symbolisms" and allegories that relate to the mandalas in relation to the religious traditions in which they are used in spiritual practice, particularly the Hindu and Buddhist traditions.  The "symbolism" of the mandalas he writes about is really established doctrine and traditional wisdom which informs the particular mandalas being discusses.  This kind of information, and the liturgy upon which the images are constructed, is beyond the scope of my interest here.  Indeed, I understand my photographs as functioning as symbols . . . but I regard the idea of the symbol in a very different way, and I will be writing about the symbol later, below.  

Archetypal Image
The mandala, writes Tucci, is an archetypal phenomena innate in the soul of Man.  As such we find this kind of imagery in different lands, cultures, and at different epochs and yet they share similar aspects.  Above all, they are images of Unity.  And Tucci acknowledges the groundbreaking research that the great archetypal psychoanalyst Carl Jung has contributed to the history of understanding related to the mandala. 

Tucci states that despite the differences in each tradition, the spiritual essence of the mandala remains constant: the contemporary psyche is fragmented; the ego has split off from the original timeless unity of the Self and thus we live in a dualistic world ruled by the dogmas of time and intellect, the world of Maya, illusion.   The human soul, writes Tucci,  yearns to find a way from time to eternity, to the primeval consciousness, which is fundamentally one.   The mandala can help us to recover the integrity of our consciousness. 

The drawing of a mandala is a rite . . .and in whose details the individual must participate with all the attention demanded by the importance of the result to be obtained. . .   But, Tucci writes:  a mandala is much more than just a consecrated area that must be kept pure for ritual and liturgical ends.  It is, above all, a map of the cosmos.  It is the whole universe in its essential plan, in its process of emanation and of reabsorption.  ~  It is a geometrical projection of the world reduced to an essential pattern.  

Spontaneous Revelation
Mandalas are the creations of spontaneous visions which saints and religious leaders have experienced in dreams, in prayer and meditation.  Tucci writes: these visions . . . assume definite forms with rays, flowers, round and square patterns about a luminous central fountain.  Men by introspection, discovered these things by reflecting on them, and then by combining them with cosmological conceptions, fixed their pattern in regular paradigms.  Rules were defined, classifications were established . . . The mandala born thus, of an interior impulse became in its turn, a support for meditation, an external instrument to provoke and procure such visions in quiet concentration and meditation. . .

Lotus Flower
A usual representation of this interior mandala vision is a flower--properly speaking, the lotus.  Its four or eight petals disposed symmetrically about the corolla symbolize the spatial emanation of the One to the many. . .  In the space of the heart, magically transfigured into cosmic space, there takes place the rediscovery of our interior reality, of that immaculate principle which is out of our reach, but from which is derived--in its illusory and transcendent appearance--all that is in process of becoming.  ~  In this process the God who is visualized in the center of the lotus-flower miraculously arises in the space within the heart.  This space is then changed by meditation into primordial space, into the very point where the ideal history of the Universe eternally develops.  In this process the Ego and God coincide in seminal synthesis and the illusions of time, space and the individual psyche disappear.  [to see my project about the lotus mandala:  click here

In Hinduism, yantras, [see image above] purely linear design expressing the principles of Universal Consciousness . . .  express the mystical essence in a symbolism of sounds, by complex combinations of different-sized triangles, or by the louts flower on whose petals are written the mystical syllables.  The yantra represents, in its essential plan, the linear paradigm of a mandala.  

Mirror Images
In the gnostic liturgy of India a mirror is employed.  This serves to remind the mystic that the images before which the rite is performed are reflections to be burned by the fire of gnosis; they have no nature of their own, they are but creations of our karmic state.  

Macrocosm~Microcosm : As Above, so Below
The psychic life of the individual reflects that of the universe. . .  In myself takes place the eternal flux, in me are all the worlds, in me is the mysterious glory of the Buddhas who are disposed in degrees in the spheres of my body which correspond mystically to the various phases of the universal expansion and reabsorption.  

The Center Point~Luminous Origin
We are, essentially. illumination of 'Buddha essence' says the Buddhist; and 'Supreme Consciousness', that is Siva, assert the Saivites . . .  In us is reproduced, from instant to instant, the same process which that primeval light directs to individualization.  The force of thought that flows through the five stages and phases of varied luminosity . . . is imagined as a luminous point, equivalent to that primeval Light, that uncreated and eternal Origin of all things.  This is the centre of the individual just as the symbol of the first principle is in the center of the mandala.  It is the instant point in which is contained the infinite and the eternal.

Binary Division
This illumination splits into two--gnosis and means, intuitive element and active element, moon and sun, man and woman, mother and father, female ovum and seed . . . by whose conjunction is engendered the egg, the eternal embryo, Vajradhara [primordial Buddha] reborn.  It is a binary division which develops on the opposite sides of the two canals, one to the right, one to the left, that guide and continue the objectivization of the world of appearances, the splitting of the first principle into duality.

The Return~Union
[Regarding a Chinese Mirror mandala reproduced in the Appendix of his book (the image above] Tucci writes: The mandala schemes of the universe depicted in the mirror--round heaven, the pole star or axis mundi in the middle; square earth; the four gates of the royal palace . . . serve a magic end, that of Return, of Unification with the central point from which is derived the omnipotence of him who has achieved this.  The Tao--first principle and Prime Mover of all things--is identified with the centre and unity.  [Two inscriptions on the mirror say:]  "May your grandchildren unite themselves with the Tao, the Supreme Mover, source of immortality and the the power of miracles." ~ "If you ascend the mountain, may you see the divine beings who have attained the Way of Heaven."

Icon 3, #4 (source image: hallway bench, scattered spots of light)

The Symbol
I have written about the symbol and the symbolic photograph many times in various projects and essays available on my website.  click here   In fact my MFA written thesis (1972) was based on Carl Jung's idea of the symbol and the relationship between medieval alchemy and the creative process in photography, which included Jung's ideas about synchronicity.  Over the years, my ideas about the symbol have changed very little, and when I came upon the writings of Corbin and Cheetham in 2011 I was happily surprised to find that their use of the word symbol coincided with Jung's and thus was "in sync" (so to speak) of the way I think of my photographs as symbols.  

Corbin and Cheetham seem to often use the word symbol and Icon interchangeably.  They are however clear about what they mean when they focus on either term separately.  For the sake of clarity, I will provide some text excerpts from their writings which should help define the two terms symbol and Icon


Tom Cheetham: The World Turned Inside Out:  Henry Corbin and Islamic Mysticism
By turning the world inside out, by giving birth in the world to that interiority which is characteristic of the things of the soul . . . we return the hidden dimension to the manifest and uncover the depths that lie just under the surface of the world.  ~   For Henry Corbin the bridge between creature and Creator is ta’wil, the transformation of the sensory world into symbols, into open-ended mysteries that shatter, engage, and transform the entire being of the creature.  ~   Ta’wil transmutes the world into symbols which by their very nature transcend the distinction between the outer and the inner, the subject and the object, and by interiorizing the cosmos, by revealing the Imago mundi [the Imaginal world], transform and lead the soul beyond the literal understanding of the world to its truth . . . its origin.

Creation as Imagination is founded upon Desire, Love, and Sympathy.  Symbolic perception, mystic perception, gives birth to forms, to things, to personifications, out of the depths of the mysteries of the Heart.  And these beings, lifted thus away from their entrapment in the opacity of the world perceived as merely physical, have their true being revealed in the light of the mundus imaginalis [the Imaginal World].

Henry Corbin: Avicenna and the Visionary Recital  [Note: Avicenna was a Persian philosopher, 980-1037]
The symbol . . . flowers in the soul spontaneously to announce something that cannot be expressed otherwise; it is the unique expression of the thing symbolized as of a reality that thus becomes transparent to the soul, but which in itself transcends all expression.

[Regarding The Imaginal World]  An intermediary universe having its own existence, this world of symbols or of archetypal Images . . . is the the world of the Imaginable, that of the Angels-Souls who move the heavens and who are endowed not with sensible organs but with pure active Imagination.  As a universe "in which spirits are corporealized and bodies spiritualized," it is pre-eminenty the universe of the ta'wil, the "place" of our visionary recitals.  From henceforth the soul is committed to the exodus [the journey out of the ordinary world in which it is held captive]  " . . .  into the Orient."

Tom Cheetham:  All the World an Icon: Henry Corbin and the Angelic Function of Beings
Corbin shared Jung's conviction that a true symbol is an expression of something essentially unknown.  He wrote:  "The symbol announces a plane of consciousness distinct from rational evidence; it is a "cipher" of a mystery, the only means of saying something that cannot be apprehended in any other way; a symbol is never explained once and for all, but must be deciphered over and over again."

The symbol mediates between our world and the immensity of the worlds beyond.  We cannot know of that beyond in any other way--we are speechless in the presence of that darkness.  Corbin says, "the symbol is mediator because it is silence, it speaks and does not speak; and precisely thus, it states what it alone can speak."   

The eruption of the symbol is irreducibly individual.  It is a call to consciousness.  As such it occurs only in and to a person--to a unique individual.  The "carrying over" [of metaphorical meaning from the literal world to the world beyond, to the presence of the soul]  only occurs through the interiorization of the apparition in the world-- and with it we enter a world beyond words, an archetypal world of immense energy with the power both to liberate and destroy.  

The function of the symbol is the function of the Angel of Revelation, and that is to be the "hermeneut of the divine silence--that is, the annunciation and epiphany of the impenetrable and incommunicable divine transcendence."

The figure of Sophia is also exactly this mediating figure, standing on the boundary between the known and the unknowable.  She is the guardian of the Fountain of Life, the Spring from which poetry and symbols flow.  Corbin says:  "Because she is a guide who always leads the mystic toward the beyond, preserving him from metaphysical idolatry, Sophia appears to him sometimes as compassionate and comforting, sometimes as sever and silent, because only Silence can "speak," can indicate transcendences."

The symbol is unique because it mirrors the potential individuality of the soul.  It is a call to the enactment of our individuality.  Becoming yourself is the task.  We are born with the potential to become who we truly are . . .  The experience of the Event of the symbol is an initiation, a call that signals the beginning of the process of finding out, and co-creating with the Angel, the Individual that it is your potential to become. 

Icon 3, #5 (source image: outdoor holiday lights-shadows on house siding)


This part III of my project regarding the Icon. symbol, Mirror and 
Mandala was first posted ithe"Latest Addition" section of 
 my Website's "Welcome Page"  0n January 26, 2015

Welcome Page  to The Departing Landscape website which includes the complete hyperlinked listing of my online photography projects dating back to the 1960's, my resume, contact information, and more.