Taoist, Buddhist and Hindu yogis alike make liberal use of visualization, in the context of various qigong, martial arts and meditation forms. Though this can be a very enjoyable and potent aspect of practice, it behooves us to be quite clear about the difference between, on the one hand, visualization practice used in the service of nondual realization; and, on the other hand, mere fantasy or wishful thinking. In both cases, it is our human capacity for imagination -- for projecting mental images -- that is being engaged. So what, then, distinguishes imagination-in-the-service-of-delusion from imagination-in-the-service-of-awakening? In other words, what qualifies visualization as a bona fide spiritual practice?
To assist in exploring this question, I’d like to introduce a Buddhist system of categorization called the Three Natures (or Aspects) of Existence, which “slices the pie” of human experience in a way that may be useful in distinguishing productive vs. non-productive forms of visualization.
The Three Natures (or Aspects) of Existence are:
(1) the imaginary or imputed nature (Sanskrit parikalita, Tibetan kuntag or kun btags);
(2) the dependent nature (Skt. paratantra, Tib. zhenwang or gzhan dbang); and
(3) the perfectly or completely existent nature (Skt. parinispanna, Tib. yongdrub or yongs grub).
In defining each of the Three Natures, I’ll be drawing on the writing of one historical and two contemporary Buddhist scholar/practitioners. For your ease of reference, I’ve posted the relevant excerpts, which you might like to take a closer look at, either before or after reading the more general synopsis and interpretation, in relation to Taoist visualization practice. In any case, here are the links:
There are differences in the presentations of the Three Natures of Existence, articulated by practitioners from various lineages. In particular, I’ll be describing differences between Mind-Only (Chittamatra) and Shentong views. In terms of the question at hand -- when is visualization a form of spiritual practice, and when is it reinforcing delusion? -- such hair-splitting isn’t all that important, though the differences in other contexts are quite interesting and relevant.
The Three Natures/Aspects Of Existence
So, onward now into an exploration of each of the Three Natures:
What is the Imaginary Nature? In brief, the Imaginary Nature is what our dualistic thoughts refer to, what they are projecting, and what they imagine to exist (but never directly experience). In other words, the Imaginary Nature includes: (1) the names and the characteristics (signs) we use to designate particular objects; and (2) the objects themselves -- assumed to be “objectively” existing in an “external world” -- which the names, concepts and ideas supposedly refer to. More on the Imaginary Nature here.
What is the Dependent Nature? In brief, the Dependent Nature includes thoughts, concepts, names and ideas as such (absent the supposed objects that they refer to) -- which do have an actual relative existence, and arise in dependence upon various causes and conditions, including the habitual tendencies (samskaras/vasanas) of the mind. In other words, the Dependent Nature refers to all the things that we actually do experience, e.g. thoughts, perceptions, sensations. More on the Dependent Nature here.
What is the Completely Existent nature? In brief, the Completely or Perfectly Existent Nature is either (in the Mind-Only view) the Dependent Nature completely purified of the Imaginary Aspect; or (in the Shentong view) the clear light nature of mind, which is the essential nature of thoughts, and is empty of both the imaginary and the dependent natures/aspects. The Completely or Perfectly Existent Nature is perfect/complete in virtue of its being wholly non-conceptual and nondual. More on the Completely Existent Nature here.