Buddhism and Imagination

Last week’s post about dreaming and awakening lead me to wonder if there was much evidence of the use of imagination in Buddhist practice. This might seem like a curious proposition, given that the general idea that many people have about Buddhism is that it is as far removed from imagination as possible. This is in spite of there being many examples of creativity and imagination in Buddhist art, but we nowadays struggle to reconcile these examples of creativity with how we understand Buddhist practice. Avinash Jha summarises this paradox neatly:

“There is a very rich legacy of  Buddhist art especially in synchronic arts like sculpture and painting. We know of Bamiyan Buddhas and of Gandhara art which flourished for centuries. There are so many other examples including Tibetan art.

However the transmission of Buddhist thought that we inherit is so acetic in character that it is difficult to imagine how art could possibly have formed a part of this tradition. The question arises whether Buddhist thought could possibly have space for such practices of imagination as arts or whether the flourishing of art was despite the intrinsic non-artistic character of Buddhist thought.” [1]

This struggle is further compounded for us by the fact that ways of interpreting Buddhism in the West have been primarily through the lens of modern psychology, which by its nature leaves little room for the relevance of the workings of the imagination. [2]

We largely hold an image of Buddhist practice, especially Theravadan, that is logical, rational, in keeping with the scientific method, verifiable, and thoroughly grounded in reality. In fact when I started researching this topic I assumed that I was going to have to focus my attention around the later schools of Buddhism but as Jha points out there is plenty of evidence that early Buddhism too has long been a source of creative expression.

Indeed if we look at the Pali canon we will find plenty of examples of verse and poetry within it. The Dhammapada, which is probably the most famous and popular of these, is a collection of beautifully poetic verses clearly written to be more inspirational than to be instructive, and yet they are still powerfully direct in their teachings. The Theragatha and Therigatha are the verses of the elder monks and nuns, again poetry, and likewise both very beautiful and inspiring. In fact many of what scholars currently believe are the oldest texts in the canon are written in verse, the structured prose style of the four main Nikayas seems to have developed later.

I’ll be completely honest here and say that up until I started researching this topic I considered these verses and poems to be little more than frippery, and the fact that they might be the oldest teachings was something of an inconvenience – what a shame they didn’t write down the more ‘important stuff’ instead of these poems was my line of thinking. It seems that I wasn’t alone in thinking like this, the collection that houses all of these texts is called the Khuddakanikaya which can be translated as the “minor/miscellaneous/trifling corpus” to be understood in contrast to the ‘important’ works in the other four Nikayas. [3]

But through reading the suggestions of many authors, and pulling it together with my own experience of applying imagination in meditation I have come to a different appreciation of what the value of these verses might be and how creative imagination has had a role in Buddhist practice.

It was Eviatar Shulman’s article ‘Early Buddhist Imagination: The Atthakavagga as Buddhist poetry’ [3] that really opened my eyes to the possibility that it wasn’t an unfortunate oversight that lead to the earliest teachings being in verse form instead of prose, it was quite deliberate and in line with the way that the earliest Buddhists practiced. Shulman feels that modern scholarly attempts at examining these verses as statements of doctrine is misguided, they were never intended to be clear statements of truths or teachings:

“…they rely on pre-reflective, non-analytical notions of truth, in which words like ‘Buddha’ or nibbāna are experiences, or even ‘powers,’ before they are ideas; they are not just ‘things’ out there in the world. The genres we are discussing are neither descriptive nor prescriptive; they are an artistic creation meant to allow shared experience, rather than to teach philosophical truth.” [3]

He considers that:

“These poems suggest that the envisioning of the Buddha and of his idealized disciples was a central driving force for the early religious community. Early Buddhists cultivated a deep sentiment for the founding master and employed their creative energies in fashioning compelling images of him”. [3]

So we can understand the early verses as not being a frippery at all, but as a crucial tool for practice for those earliest Buddhists. Last week I speculated that the practice of recollection of the Buddha could be considered as a kind of skilful day-dream, and perhaps I was doing the potential of such a practice a disservice as it seems that it was a fundamental exercise that allowed the teachings of the Buddha to propagate.

Perhaps over the centuries our imaginative faculties have waned so much that we can only muster mere day-dreams, but the power of the imagination  of those earliest Buddhists was so strong that it was many hundreds of years after his death before the Buddha began to be represented in the human form that we are so familiar with now. Instead they needed only symbols that represented the main points in his life, footprints to represent his birth, a tree for his Enlightenment, a wheel to represent his first teaching, and a stupa to represent his death.[4]

By considering what it means to recollect the Buddha, Jones offers us an interesting way of reinterpreting the meaning of the word sati, most commonly translated as mindfulness or as recollection which again supports the idea that imagination was an important element in the earliest practices:

“What is meant by sati of the Buddha, however, is not really ‘recollection’, since it is not a matter of ‘remembering’ (unless one personally knew the Buddha); it is more a ‘calling to mind’ of the qualities of the Buddha. Buddhānussati is therefore an exercise of creative imagination, not so much a matter of thinking about the Buddha as exploring perception and feeling.[5]

He suggests that we experiment with treating Buddhānussati as ‘imagining the Buddha’, and we can see that this is perhaps much closer to the kind of practice that Shulman suggests the verses of the Khuddakanikaya were written for.

While it might be not be an accurate translation, it could be said that this ‘imaginative’ use of sati which has a relationship to creativity is echoed in Shulman’s investigation of the Satipatthana Sutta, a sutta which is used as the bedrock of modern mindfulness. [6] He considers whether we can understand the exercises in the sutta as being ones where we observe things ‘as they are’, in a kind of bare awareness way, or whether they actually require some conceptual input. He picks out the contemplations on the foulness of the body as a prime example to suggest that this is not something that is done simply by passive observation:

“… we are patently not dealing here with anything that has to do with our normal intuition about “mindfulness.” Rather, this meditation is a creative act of the imagination, a direction of the mind toward a conceptual contemplation of one’s body and of existence in general, accompanied by powerful feelings of horror and disgust. It should be unambiguously clear that this meditation is not a simple perceptual monitoring of the “here and now” but an adoption of an ideological and emotional choice with regard to being.” [6]

Here he offers an interesting hypothesis on the connection between mindfulness and memory that suggests that the transformative action of this practice lies not in the cultivation of awareness alone, but in the merging of memory and awareness into a what eventually becomes our habitual perception:

“Even if we grant that the body is unclean, we must ask if the consideration of the body as unclean or impure is rightfully described as an instance of “mindfulness.” In essence, “seeing as” is far removed from “mindfulness.” Rather, “seeing as” is more connected with an implementation of memory: one sees according to an understanding developed in the past. This practice suggests that we are involved in more than a careful monitoring experience—indeed, in a shaping of vision so that it will correspond to the contents of a specific Buddhist “memory.” [6]

This would suggest that creative imagination is central to this process, we have to be able to generate this new perception in our minds, we won’t simply ‘see it’ because it is ‘out there’ somewhere. As he states:

“The view that consciousness is not just a passive factor aware of “things as they are” but, rather, an active agent, subjectively forming and coloring its contents has profound consequences for the understanding of Buddhist realization.” [6]

As with Jones’s reinterpretation of the meaning of sati, I don’t think Shulman’s work  implies that every time the word sati is used in the texts that it always points to this kind of creative meditation; like so many Pali words it seems to be richly multifaceted in both meaning and use, but in the context of the execution of the exercises in the Satipatthana Sutta it does seem to flow.

The connection between jhana meditation and creativity is much better established in comparision, as I have written previously it is well understood and largely uncontroversial to say that the jhana states are created in the mind, but whether people would say this was an act of imagination or not is an interesting point to consider. You might argue that constructing a particular mental state and imaging one are two different things, but I remain to be convinced that there is such a clear distinction. As Thanissaro Bhikkhu says:

“When you practice concentration, what are you doing? You’re creating a state in the mind. That requires imagination.” [7]

He feels that understanding you are fabricating your experience in meditation is crucial because that is what will give you control over your experience. You aren’t simply sitting watching the breath, you are using your powers of imagination and attention to make the experience of it. Once you have made connection with that process, then you will become more and more interested in finding out what you can do with it, which will drive your practice further, so Thanissaro Bhikkhu feels imagination is a crucial component in both meditation and practice:

“… you begin to realize it’s not a mechanical process. It’s a creative process. That way it can capture your imagination. When it captures your imagination, you get more interested in what you can do with the breath, not just when you’re sitting here with your eyes closed, but any time of the day.”[7]

As I go through these examples I realise that a lot of how useful we find ideas like these centres on how we understand the word imagination in our own terms. I can make a statement like ‘every thought we have is a dream’, but this on its own doesn’t explain itself well and is likely to cause a lot of disagreement if I don’t unpack it a bit more. I find it intriguing that the English language, which while sparce in vocabulary to deal with the spiritual realm, has an embarrassment of options when it comes to discussing the workings of the mind – dreams, imaginings, fabrications, projections, concepts, constructions, musings, ponderings, fancies, ideas, proliferations, thoughts, and so on. This, I feel, muddies the waters a bit when it comes to trying to figure out what the difference between them all is (if there is any difference at all, of course); when is an idea not the same as an imagining for instance?

So our initial resistance to the suggestion that meditation is an act of imagination may be down to our way of understanding what imagination as a word means. If it means a fantasy, a delusion, something divorced from ‘reality’, then that clearly has negative connotations, it obviously isn’t a good thing to do. But if imagination means the same as fabrication to you then there isn’t as much conflict there – meditation is an act of fabrication.

Every thought we have is on some level a dream, a dream of happiness; as the Buddha said all of our actions aim at happiness, and each of our thoughts is a little day-dream about something that might make us happy, either in that moment or far into the future. As I sit here writing a thought can pop into my head about wanting a drink, or wishing I was doing something else, and these are just dreams really, just projections about things that I think might have the potential to make me happy for a moment or two.

What is important about this process to me though is that these dreams are the starting point of actions in the ‘real world’. They pass from dream to reality when I act on them, in fact hardly any of our actions start without a little dream like this. So imagination and reality aren’t that separate from each other at all, imagination is the starting point of our actions and contains the potential to shape reality within it. When you consider it in this way it makes sense that Buddhist practice utilises the power of our imaginations because if we are trying to develop skilful actions then that needs to start from a skilful little dream of what might lead us to happiness.

But there are some questions that we need to ask before we can attempt a definitive statement on the use of imagination by the earliest Buddhists. For instance, did imagination as we understand it now mean the same thing in 500 BCE India? The author David Shulman [8] suggests that there has been a significant transformation in how imagination has been understood in Indian culture over the centuries. There may be more significance to the fact that there is no single word in Pali that represents the English word imagination than it first seemed then [5]; perhaps the distinction between the real and the creative was quite different, or perhaps because the function it served was considered as more connected to reality than our current connotation of it.

Likewise it is important to consider whether our understanding and use of language has changed across the years and cultures too. Shulman argues that the texts contained in the Khuddayanikaya were not written to be statements of doctrine but were instead intended to be treated as poetry. But this isn’t to devalue them, on the contrary, he feels that we need to take into consideration the function that poetry served at that time. Language wasn’t about defining truths as we use it now, instead it was more about the creation of shared experience and he draws on a theory that suggests language use has gone through three stages of development:

“ In the first of these, which he calls the ‘hieroglyphic’ and which Vico terms ‘the poetic,’ words are more of a power or a dynamic force, working like magic to create shared experiences in which there is little differentiation between subject and object”. [3]

For Shulman, the writers of those early verses were using language at its first level, the ‘hieroglyphic’ or ‘poetic’, which is disinterested in truths and concepts but aims more at creating experience. In contrast he suggests that we nowadays are operating at the third level of language where subject and object are clearly differentiated and :

“…language is seen “as primarily descriptive of an objective natural order.” [3]

This difference wouldn’t just impact on our interpretation of language and texts from the past, but it significantly shapes our whole understanding of the world too. If it is the case that language use has changed this much over the years, then our way of reading the early texts would need to be sensitive to this difference.

What these thorny questions suggest to me is that we need to come to issues of imagination with an open mind and a willingness to not take any of our current viewpoints for granted. But one of the greatest qualities of the teachings of the Buddha has always been that they are entirely verifiable by each and every one of us, simply by testing them out for ourselves. Strange as it sounds, the texts that we have don’t actually have to be ‘true’ or ‘authentic’ or even accurate, if the practice of them produces the right results then they are good teachings.

My investigation into imagination in Buddhism has underlined to me the importance of direct experience: the earliest verses were written to instil a direct experience of the Buddha, of his disciples, and of the teachings into those early practitioners, they didn’t want to, or even necessarily operated within a worldview where it was possible to, gain understanding just through ‘knowing’. In our modern world by contrast we instinctively try to understand through knowledge, and yet we have so many different interpretations of what Buddhism and practice could and should mean that the only way to really separate the wheat from the chaff is by putting ideas into practice and finding out for ourselves what works.

And it has given me a whole new appreciation of the abundance of beautiful verses that we can find in the Pali canon, now that I can see them as not being idle distractions from the ‘real business’ of practice. They are very much part of the practice, and their role in firing our imaginations to envisage what it would mean to be as peaceful as the Buddha, or as patient as an arahant, plays its part in helping us to create a new reality for ourselves where we can let go of the ways we cause suffering for ourselves and develop new ways of being that lead to happiness.

So let the beautiful words that have been passed on to us lift your heart and fire your imagination:

Neither the fragrance of the flower,

Nor that of sandalwood, tagara, or jasmine,

Can go against the wind,

But the fragrance of the good does go against the


It pervades all directions.

Sandalwood, tagara, jasmine, and lotus,

Among these perfumes the fragrance of virtue is

unbounded. Dhammapada v54 -55 [9]

Photo by suketdedhia | Pixabay


1.       Avinash Jha Prolegomena to an Inquiry into Buddhist Imagination

2.      Rafe Martin (2010) Past Lives: Entering the Buddhist Imagination. Storytelling, Self, Society Vol. 6:pp. 212-222

3.      SHULMAN E (2012) Early Buddhist Imagination: The Aṭṭhakavagga as Buddhist poetry. Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies:363–411. https://doi.org/10.2143/JIABS.35.1.3078169

4.      Subhuti Re-imagining_the_Buddha. http://subhuti.info/sites/subhuti.info/files/pdf/Re-imagining_the_Buddha.pdf. Accessed 06 Jun 2021

5.      Dhivan Thomas Jones (2013) Through a Blue Chasm: Coleridge, Wordsworth and the Buddha on Imagination. https://thebuddhistcentre.com/system/files/groups/files/Dhivan-Imagination.pdf. Accessed 06 Sep 2021

6.      SHULMAN E (2010) Mindful Wisdom: The Sati-paṭṭhāna-sutta on Mindfulness, Memory, and Liberation

7.      Thanissaro Bhikkhu (2003) Meditations 1: Forty Dhamma Talks: Imagine. https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/meditations.html#imagine. Accessed 11 Jun 2021

8.      Shulman DD (2012) More than real: A history of the imagination in south India. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.

9.      Peter Feldmeier Dhammapada: Flowers. https://suttacentral.net/dhp44-59/en/feldmeier. Accessed 11 Jun 2021

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