Photograph as Icon 4: The Unstruck Sound & Created Image

The Photograph as Icon IV  
The Unstruck Sound & The Created Image   

Sound, Letters,Words, Creation   
There is an important relationship between the Icon and the Mandala: both are enlivened with the creative power of the heart, which in the Sufi tradition is named himma, and in the Hindu tradition is named shakti.  And there is a direct relationship between the Mandala and the enlivened Mantra: words, syllables and letters which are vibrating with himma or shakti.  The Creative Power of Sound is a recurring motif across many traditions and I want to briefly survey this idea in relationship to the creative process in general and the making of Icons, or symbols, in particular.  

I will draw from several sources: Guuseppe Tucci's 1961 overarching study of the Mandala;  Swami Shantananda's contemporary commentary on an ancient yogic scripture, the Pratyabhijna-hydayam; Samer Akkach's recent study of Creation theory according to the Sufi tradition; Swami Kripananda's commentary on yet another ancient yogic scripture, the Paduka Panchaka; and then I conclude with teachings about the power of sound, words and images by my meditation teacher, Gurumayi Chidvilasananda, and her teacher, Baba Muktananda.

I have spent many years working on photography projects which explore the idea that photographs can give visual form to my experiences of music.  This of course is nothing new, even in the history of photography.  In the 1920's the great photographer Alfred Stieglitz made several sets of photographs which he called equivalents that he felt succeeded in visually embodying the spirit of music.  The material I will be offering below adds a new dimension to what had already been for me important and familiar creative territory.  (Note: I have provided a list of music inspired project links at the bottom of this page)               

The Mandala & the Mantra
In the previous part III of this project I had drawn heavily from Giuseppe Tucci's book The Theory and Practice of the Mandala.  He writes about many kinds of mandalas manifested within the Hindu and Buddhist traditions, some of which are abstract (and even linear) symbolic diagrams; some are elaborate figurative designs; and some consist only of letters, syllables or words, or a combination of all these.  In any case he makes it clear that the mandala's visual form is directly related to sound: the letters, syllables and words of powerful enlivened mantras.  This brief excerpt from Tucci's book begins with a quote from a yogic text:   

'Twofold is the aspect of Divinity, one, subtle, represented by the mantra, and the other, coarse, represented by the image'.   The syllable is . . . the secret essence or 'seed' of the Divinity. . .  [In many gnostic traditions of symbology] cosmic evolution and its reabsorption in the primordial matrix are reproduced according to a precise and subtle alphabetic scheme, which, in its combination, reflect the weaving of the universal Becoming and determines, so to say, it various phases. 

Icon 4, #1  (source image: gnarled clothesline)


The Point at the Center of the Icon Photograph
The visible or invisible point at the center of each photograph should  
 serve as a seal of the divinity in this or any created world; it    
should serve as a constant reminder of the origin 
from which everything proceeds; 
it should serve as a reminder  
 of one's own 

So'Ham, The Lotus Flower & The  A, Ka, Tha Triangle
Swami Kripananda, a teacher of Siddha Yoga, devotes part of her book The Guru's Sandals ~ Threshold of the Formless on the relationship between the mantra and mandala.  She writes several fascinating commentaries on selected verses from an ancient yogic scripture, the Paduka Panchaka.  Essentially, this scripture states that the sound of our breathing, the in-breath and or out-breath, manifests the natural mantra So'ham (I Am That).  It is this natural mantra, she explains, which is the source of our entire universe.

One of the verses Swamiji writes about speaks of a triangle made up of all the letters of the Sanskrit alphabet, each side symbolized by the letters A, Ka, and Tha.  The triangle exists in the center of the sahasrara, the supreme chakra located in the crown of the head.  The scripture says the triangle has the "character" of a mandala.  Swamiji writes:  

Imagine two white lotuses, one above the other, with their centers touching.  The larger upper lotus, [brilliant white, of a thousand petals] is downward turned, and the smaller twelve-petaled lotus is beneath it and upward turned.  These lotuses are extremely subtle, they are not made of solid substance but of light, visible only to the subtle eye.

In the center [of the sahasrara] where these lotuses meet, there is a triangle with its apex pointing down.  The lines of this triangle are actually composed of letters of the Sanskrit alphabet.

Inside the triangle is a full moon . . .  [and in the center of the triangle and moon] is the supreme bindu, or Blue Pearl.  It is a small, brilliant blue dot the size of a sesame seed, yet it is the source of everything.  

The bindu is the first form to emerge out of Mahashunya, the Great Void.  Mahashunya is emptiness in the sense that it is without manifest creation, and yet it is filled with the potential of all conceivable names, forms, and worlds.  

The bindu is the state of the gathered-up power of Consciousness that is about to create the universe.  Therefore, it is called the "primordial seed of the universe" . . .   All of the combined energies of creation--from lightning bolts and raging rivers to the the subtlest radiance of God--lie in a potential form within the Blue Pearl.  

The Paduka Panchaka tells us that the A~Ka~Tha triangle--which is visible only to the subtle eye--is self-created.  Swamiji comments: This object of worship [i.e., the triangle with the bindu in its center] is not just built into us; it is from this place that our very being has evolved.

The Four-fold symmetrical photographs above are from the Epilogue  
for my project Acadia : Arcadia?  There is much more of 
 Swami Kripananda's commentary available 
 in the Epilogue.  click here


Islamic-Sufi Cosmology
In a fascinating book entitled Cosmology and Architecture in Premodern Islam,  An Architectural Reading of Mystical Ideas  Samer Akkach examines the Creation theory of Ibn 'Arabi, the great and very influential 12th century Spanish Sufi mystic who was so important in Henry Corbin's work.  As you will see, creation of the world is based on the word or Divine Names, divine thoughts and imagination, and the written and uttered sounds of words, letters and syllables.  Before addressing alphabetical symbolism and the idea of the World as a Book, I have first provided some excerpts on imagination and art, unity of being, and the point as Divine Essence.  Speaking of "the point" be sure not to miss the section below labeled "The dialogue between the letter and the point" under the letter Ba' (B).  

Imagination and Art
"Know that you are an imagination," Ibn 'Arabi says, "and everything that you perceive, and of which you would say "this is not me," is also an imagination.  So the whole being is an imagination within an imagination."  

The notion of  imagination, however, designates two different, yet related, things:  Detached imagination, explains Ibn 'Arabi, is divine imagination, God imagining the world; Attached imagination is human imagination, man imagining the forms of existents brought into existence by the creative power of divine imagination; it is the presence of things in the human mind.

The Sufis associate art with knowledge.  Knowing, they say, is nothing but "the soul imagining the form of the known" . . .  whereas "art is nothing but the bringing out of this form, which is in the soul of the artificer, the knower, and placing it in matter." 

Unity of Being, God and His Face
This doctrine, which the Sufis advocate, emphasizes that there is only one modality of Being and that Being proper is none other than God in his most transcendental state.  Everything else depends in their existence on this Being who is externalized in many colorful manifestations.  A Sufi writes: "Each thing has two faces, a face of its own, and a face of its Lord; in respect of its own face it is nothingness, and in respect of the Face of God it is Being.  Thus there is nothing in existence save only God and His Face."

The Geometrical Point & the Divine Essence 
It is the presence of the Divine Essence that the Sufis compare to the geometrical point, which is referred to by one Sufi as "the meaning of unity, but not Unity." . . . The meaning of the point is that it is seen as a potent symbol of the ultimate Reality, a graspable geometrical principle capable of revealing the relationship the divine Essence bears to the world.  

The point is a nonspatial principle that has no parts.  All that is manifested in the bodily world is divisible; the point cannot be determined by sight because it is indivisible.  The perceived point is an expression of its reality, a mental concept, the definition of which is "a single, indivisible substance."

The ungraspability and incomprehensibility of the point renders it a potent symbol of the ineffable divine Essence or God in the state of nondetermination.  One Sufi writes:  "the Point is a symbol of God's essence that is hidden behind the veil of his multiplicity."

The World as a Book
The metaphor of the world as a book is common in premodern Islam.  The Quranic imageries of the pen, the ink-well of nun, and the divine act of writing provide the basic conceptual tools used by Sufis and other theologians in the development of their metaphorical interpretations.  The concepts of the "Pen" and the "Preserved Tablet", the analogy of the trees as pens and the seas as ink, of the word as a tree, and so on, form the foundation of the alphabetical symbolism of Islam.  In the parallels Sufis draw between the world and the Quran, letters and words acquire individual presences just as other beings do.

Alif  (A)
The letter Alif (A), written as a vertical stroke, is the first letter of the Arabic alphabet.  According to Islamic mythology the alif became the origin of all letters.  "Indeed the Alif is non other than the Point itself which is an eye that wept or a drop that gushed forth and which in its downpour was named Alif."  Numerically the alif is number 1; geometrically, it is the line; and calligraphically, it is the diameter of the circle within which the other letters are differentiated.  Accordingly, the alif represents the first definable form of unity that emerged from the undefinable point.

The analogy between the manifestation of the world and the differentiation of the letters is a common theme in the Sufi literature.  In the same way the manifestation of the divine presence was not caused by anything other than the irradiation of Essence itself and its inward love to be known, so was the manifestation of the alif caused by the overflowing of the point.

Ba' (B)
The letter ba' (B) written as a horizontal line with a point underneath it is the second letter of the Arabic alphabet.  It is the first letter of the first word in the Quran, bism, "in the name" with al-basmala considered as the first verse.  The ba' is taken to stand for the human presence, the Universal Man, that is, the outward mode of the divine presence. 

As a horizontal extension, the ba' grafts the shadow of the vertical alif standing before the radiating light of the point.  As the shadow of the alif, the ba' carries within it a visible trace of the original source, which is the point that appears beneath it.  The point of ba' becomes the shadow of the higher point that resides "in its hidden-treasurehood" before its first self-disclosure as an alif.  The transcendental point that lies above the alif descends to appear underneath the ba', just as divinity images itself in the human form.  The Sufis see in this a reaffirmation of the universal realities and a clear illustration that the things of the lower worlds are manifestations of the things of the higher worlds.  The point beneath the ba' becomes the seal of divinity in the created world, a constant reminder of the origin whence everything proceeds.

The Dialogue between the letter Ba' and the point
In the Sufi tradition there is a dialogue that takes place between the letter itself and the point that lies beneath it.  The point says to the ba':  "O letter I am your origin because you are composed of me. . . Without you I would not have been the point of the ba' and without me you would not have been the ba' with a point.  How many symbols have I struck for you so that you may understand my unity with you, and know that your expansion in the world of the seen and my concealment in the world of the unseen are two modalities for our same essence. . . If you want to conceive of me, imagine yourself, the letters, all of them, and the words, small and large, than say point, that totality is none other than myself, and myself is none other than that totality."

The Word and the World : (Be!) God's First Uttered Word 
Kun (Be!) was God's first uttered word, and kawn (the world) was the immediate outcome of this utterence.  Ibn 'Arabi 's treatise 'The Tree of Being' is a fascinating exposition on his mystical reflections on the relationship between the command and the outcome, the word and the world.  Among the poetic imageries he constructs is the correspondence between the spatial structure of the human presence (the three dimensional cross) and the "tree" of realities that grows from the "seed" of the divine word kun.  In Sufi terminology "tree" is defined as "the Universal Man who governs the structure of the Universal Body."  The Sufis identify the tree with the Universal Man because both embody the pattern of the three-dimensional cross, which expresses notions of both verticality and opposition.  The seed whence the tree grows corresponds to the center, the heart of Universal Man, which is the place where all complements are united and all opposites are reconciled.  Ibn'Arabi writes:  "I have looked at the universe and its design, at what was concealed and its inscription, and I saw that the whole universe (kawn) was a tree, the root of whose light is from the seed 'Be!' (kun)."

The Original Idea   Solitude 
The sadness of primordial solitude made God yearn to reveal himself: "I was a hidden Treasure, I yearned to be known.  That is why I produced creatures, in order to be known in them."   The Sufis believe Man is at once the center, the model, and the ultimate aim of existence.  When God thought of revealing his "hidden treasures" the first thing that occurred in his mind was the idea of humanity.  To fulfill this idea, he first had to bring the entire world into existence to form the foundation for human existence.  In the metaphysical order the human presence was presented as a mediation between God and the world.  Acting as a link between God and Man, the cosmos comprises the formal, imaginable, the communicable vocabularies which constitute the alphabet of the language of symbolism. 

Icon 4, #2  (source image: architectural detail, window in background)   

The Pratyabhijna-hydayam  Sutra 12
Swami Shantananda, also a teacher of Siddha Yoga Meditation, has written a fascinating book of contemporary commentaries on the 20 sutras of the ancient Pratyabhijna-hydayam, an 11th century yogic scriptural text based in the Indian philosophy known as Kashmir Saivism.  The 12th sutra is about the divine creative power known as Citishakti and how it manifests the created world of matter through sound vibrations, or matrka shakti.  

Swamiji writes: the fifty phonemes of the Sanskrit alphabet each symbolize an extremely subtle vibratory level.  Taken together, these vibrations create, support and transform the universe. . . .   In the doctrine of Abhinavaguta, the fundamental reality is viewed as a pulsating Citisakti who projects the univere of forms from her own exquisite vibration.  This perspective is not unique to Saivism.  The Gospel of St. John, in the Bible's New Testament, begins with a well-known description:  "In the beginnig was the Word: the Word was with God and the Word was God."

The Bible's Book of Genesis states that when the Lord said "Let there be light," light appeared . . . Divine intention moves into words, and the words give rise to concrete objects.  This biblical image is a metaphor for the creative process that Saivism describes in four stages, beginning with the pure and unconditional para-vac.

Para-vac is Consciousness.  It is self-awareness spontaneously arisen, the highest freedom and sovereignty of the Supreme Lord.  The pulsing radiance is pure Being, unqualified by time and space.  As the essence of all things it is said to be the heart of the supreme Lord.

Supreme Speech
The pulsating radiance of Para-vac: contains all letters, all words, all objects, all being--everything that is to compose the created universe.  Para-vac, immersed in delight, vibrates subtly as Aham, "I am," the very pulsation of the Self.  This is equivalent to saying that at this highest level, speech and the objects named by speech are undivided and indivisible, coexisting as a vibrating power that Abhinavgupta identifies as "the totality of sound" . . . the source of everything, and simultaneously is contained in everything.  Of course, this vibration cannot be perceived, as there is nothing at this level either to hear or to be heard.  All of creation, and the vibrational sounds associated with it, exists in the vast silence of Mahasunya, the Great Void.   It is from this silence that they will emerge into boisterous activity.

Visionary Speech
Then from the depth of the silence of para-vac comes the first creative impulse.  Consciousness manifests as a desire to perceive objects as separate and distinct from itself--that is, duality.  The supreme will begins to leave behind its transcendental state to turn itself into the manifest universe.  The realm of differentiated sounds and forms can be seen as germinating seeds in the womb of Consciousness. . . .  Acting like a conscious mirror, this second level of speech reflects the mass of fifty Sanskrit phonemes . . . 

Intermediary Speech
This third level of speech is  . . . a way to describe an intermediary experience in which the world is perceived as distinctly separate from the words that describe it, although everything is still bathed in the unifying light of Consciousness . . . between unity and diversity. . .    At this third level of sound, we experience vibrations that are perceptible.  Though we "hear" and even "see" these mental images, ideas and feelings embodied in words, they are happening on the conscious screen of our intellect and are not yet "out there" as when we perceive objects with the help of our senses. . .  The shaktis of the letters  function as a matrix of energies, forming a vast vibratory web.  These powers weave and interweave, acting together to generate all the various levels and manifestations of the cosmos.  This is the source of our thoughts and of the discursive mind itself--and along with the thoughts come the objects designated, and vice versa.  

'Quite Solid' Speech
This is the level of speech that pertains to the physical body: the spoken word.  Communication now occurs through the vocal cords, the organs of articulation, and the breath.  The most telling characteristic of this level of speech is the drawing of a distinction between name and form, between the spoken expression and what it designates.  When we're operating on the level of thought, both the name and the image exist together within our mental apparatus.  When we begin to articulate our thoughts, the name and the object exist separately, in the frame of time and space, or cause and effect.  At the physical level, it's difficult not to perceive differences.  As the levels of speech move toward physical manifestation and the divine powers contract, they become increasingly less powerful. . .  

What we think has much more power over our lives than what we say.

The mental structures with which we organize letters, words, and sentences into meaningful communications are inherent in us like archetypal forces.  Abhinavagupta points to this extraordinary characteristic of humans when he explains that children are able to learn languages because of their innate capacity to associate sounds with objects.

The Origin of both the Words and the Objects they Name
Underlying all the levels of speech is the great light of Consciousness, origin of both the words and the object they name.  Thus all the forms of speech carry weight, for every level is penetrated by the highest, by para-vac.   

Icon 4, #3  (source image: gouges on bedroom wall; edge of chest of drawers)

The Unstruck Sound
The following text excerpt is taken from a talk by Gurumayi Chidvilasanada, spiritual head of the Siddha Yoga lineage entitled The Answers Are Hidden Inside.  I am excerpting the very last part of the 1986 talk which focuses on the yogic practice of mantra repetition.  When the mantra is spoken repeatedly out loud or inwardly it is called japa; one can also chant the mantra over and over with music.  When the mantra being repeated is enlivened, chaitanaya, the practice of japa or chanting can open the heart which releases an inner nectar throughout one's entire being.  

There is a relationship between a chaitanya mantra and a True symbol, or Icon.  What makes a mantra alive, and what makes an image function as a living symbol is grace, or what Henry Corbin terms himma, the divine creative energy of the Heart.  see part II   This aliveness of a word or image is a great and mysterious thing.  In the yoga tradition it is said that only a saint, or True enlightened guru--a sadhguru--can enliven the words or syllables of a mantra through the transmission of his or her grace, or divine shakti, into the word.  

In the Eastern Christian Church tradition, the Icon is more than paint on wood, more than merely a picture of a saint.  In fact, it is not the painting itself that "opens a window onto the invisible" for the contemplator, it is rather the grace that is transmitted through the heart of the painter into the painting and then from the painting then into the heart of the contemplator.  The transmission occurs most successfully when the contemplator gives his or her heart wholly to the Icon in the practice of prayer and contemplation.  

Gurumayi says below: "as you repeat the mantra, you and the mantra and the process of repetition must become one and the same."  Yoga means "to join"; by making a devoted effort, by giving one's self wholly to the practice of mantra repetition, one becomes transformed by the grace of the practice, the grace of the mantra, the grace of the Guru's shakti.

Gurumayi said:

According to the Maharthamanjari [a yogic] scripture "The real japa is that which resounds spontaneously within in the form of mantra.  The sound vibrations.  Many of us are aware of sound--one sound or the other, positive or negative, good or bad.  However, when the saints speak about the vibrations of the sound, they mean the highest Reality, that which has given birth to this entire creation.  Within itself, it contains everything and everybody.  

This spontaneous sound is going on continually.  It is this very sound that creates energy.  When this sound stops, there is physical death.  When this sound stops in the mind, the mind is not able to think anymore.  It loses the power of memory.  As long as this sound is going on, there is life.

However, the saints take this spontaneous sound and energize it more and more.  As they energize this very sound more and more, they have greater and greater powers within their senses.  They have the powers of clairvoyance, of clairaudience.  This why they can know what's going on in another place or in another person's mind.  They have this power of intuition.  So through the repetition of the mantra, you energize the sound, making it more profound.

"If the repeater considers himself to be different from the mantra, the mantra does not bear fruit."  Knowledge of the divine I-consciousness is at the root of everything.  Without it, a mantra does not bear fruit.  The scriptures say as you repeat the mantra, you and the mantra and the process of repetition must become one and the same.  It isn't that you are chanting the mantra with your tongue, and your mind is saying, "ice cream."  When there is this union, then the sound within is energized. 

One of the aphorisms of the Shiva Sutras says:  

By becoming one with the great lake of divine energy,
One experiences the potency of the mantra.

You merge into the Shakti, you merge into this energy.  When this merging takes place, then no longer do you have to repeat the mantra verbally or mentally:

A yogi attains the Absolute if he is steeped in nada,
The divine sound which is the Absolute in the form of sound,
Which is the unstruck sound vibrating within,
Which resounds uninterruptedly,
And which rushes forth like a river.

The Unstruck Sound  
There is this sound inside.  It is called the unstruck sound, the anahatashabda.  As you keep chanting and chanting, many times you hear higher voices.  You feel as if a group of angels is singing along with you, higher and more melodious.

As you chant and chant, part of your being opens up, the part where this sound is hidden.  Even though this sound is inside, it gives life to everything in your being.  As you keep chanting and chanting and chanting, you tap the unstruck sound.  Once that is released, then nectar is released.  And that is true bliss, when this nectar is released. . .  Then the true music is heard.  Then you have seen the Truth, you have heard the Truth, you have experienced the Truth, and you live in the Truth constantly.   

Icon 4, #4  (source image: snow on window screen) 

Stilling the Matrka Shakti 
Gurumayi's teacher, and the founder of the Siddha Yoga Path, was Baba Muktananda (1908-1982).  In the following text excerpts, from his book Nothing Exists That Is Not SHIVA,  Swamiji says this about sound, and matrka shakti:

The world has arisen from the sound-syllables of the Sanskrit alphabet, which are nothing but matrka . . .  the cause of one's pain and pleasure.  All the thoughts and feelings that arise in the mind--happiness and unhappiness, desire, agitation, love, expectation, and jealousy--are the work of matrka.  

Matrka arises in the heart, from the inner speech. . .  Letters combine to form a word.  Each word has its own meaning, the meaning creates its own image, and that image has its own feeling.  Whenever an image is created in the mind, one experiences an emotion, whether it is happiness or unhappiness, friendship or enmity.  

Matrka creates infinite images.  If one doesn't identify with the images or their objects, one doesn't experience suffering. 

Just as matrka helps us to contract, it also helps us to expand ourselves.  When the matrka shakti expands within, in this very body one becomes Shiva.

Sit quietly and watch the play of the matrka shakti.  Watch how the matrka gives rise to letters, how the letters compose words, how the meaning of the words create images in the mind; watch how you become involved in those images.  

The yogi pursues matrka shakti; he watches it and makes it steady. . .  One who understands the play of the matrka shakti and makes it still rises above pain and pleasure.  One cannot attain peace as long as he is driven by the play of the matrka sakti.  Through yoga, the movements of the mind are stilled and the power of matrka is overcome.


A Brief Comment:  Opening Windows onto the Invisible Worlds
An enlivened mantra, or an enlivened Icon, is a window onto the "invisible worlds" of the Self.  They are carriers of grace which can still the mind . . . if we allow it.  

When I am making photographs, or when I am contemplating an image that functions for me as an Icon, or when I am repeating a chaitanya mantra . . . my mind becomes quiet, my heart opens; then I am seeing with the Eyes of the heart rather than my mind or intellect which is always overflowing with thoughts and meanings, images and feelings.  It is the grace, the himma, and our willingness to listen, our longing to receive, that stills the mind; and it is the stilled mind, the open heart, that "opens windows onto the invisible worlds."    


This part IV of my project regarding the Icon was first posted 
ithe"Latest Addition" section of my Website's 
"Welcome Page"  0n January 29,  2015

Music Related Projects

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