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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Eternal Knot and Essential Questions

Since I’ve gotten a decent amount of Buddhist ideas communicated, I thought I’d take a more general approach and use a symbol in Buddhism to talk about a variety of beliefs associated with it. What I speak of is the eternal knot. Its appearance is that of many interwoven strings that create a seemingly endless cluster of bindings. Interpretations of it vary widely, though there are a few I will speak on in later articles, most likely. Consider this a summary of past and future concepts in this series I like to call Buddhist Basics. The endless knot, called shrivatsa in Sanskrit, is one of a group of 7 other symbols called the 8 auspicious signs. They are important in Buddhist culture, especially the Indian from which it began, and Tibetan, where it is of great importance to the people. The symbolism and messages they teach are part of why they are so revered, but also because it is said in lore that they were gifts given to Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha and founder of the teachings, when he achieved enlightenment. Regardless, I’m focusing on one because one finds this almost as much as two used more often, the wheel and lotus.

Some of the ideas associated with the eternal knot should be familiar from my previous articles. There is the idea of karmic consequences from “Seeds and Fruits, Actions and Results”.  When you pull one part of the knot, another part moves as well, similar to how the ethical principle of karma works, though it could also reflect dependent origination more explicitly when you view it in that sense, which I spoke on in “Neither Determinism Nor Destiny” . The infinite nature of the knot could make one contemplate samsara and the rebirth associated with it, talked about in “Rebirth, Not Reincarnation” . Unless you break the cycle of attachment, ignorance and delusion, then you are trapped on the proverbial wheel and locked in the knot. Continuity as the underlying reality of existence is an almost instinctive interpretation that I haven’t related to Buddhism as of yet. When you see the symbol, it is a closed cycle, and similarly, the universe is, for all intents and purposes, a closed system where all events are related to something else. Another interpretation is the dependence upon each other of religious and secular matters. While there is a sense that each focuses on its own affairs, there is inevitably a connection to be made, especially when you consider that politics is worked at with religious fervor many times and decisions of policy are guided in part by religious convictions. Another topic pregnant with possibility is that of the balance of wisdom and compassion, or in another expression, sophia and phronesis. Wisdom, or prajna in Sanskrit, is understood as your ability to discern truth without becoming overly attached to your intellect as the only way to find it, though it certainly is important. Similarly, with compassion, or metta in Pali, you must be able to understand people and be considerate of their feelings and mood without clinging to them as absolute and persistent, when inevitably they will dissipate as any conditioned existence is prone to. Sophia and phronesis from Aristotle’s Greek philosophy are not quite the same parallel, since it relates to speculative and practical reasoning, but it could work well in part, since it connects to prajna’s seeking of absolute truth and metta’s seeking of conventional truth, both of which I spoke of in “Two Truths,One Path” .

The eternal knot, or infinite knot as another expression, is not quite the symbol that has association like the wheel of dharma or a statue of the Buddha (the thin, not the fat one which is a Daoist deity more strictly). These many interpretations might lead one to think there isn’t any consistency in Buddhism, but a diversity of opinion on any symbol doesn’t mean it loses the meaning it has to each individual. It’s when those meanings cease to have an effect or remain in people’s memories that they begin to go away. The five pointed star, for instance, was used in Christianity for a time to represent the five wounds of Jesus on the cross. But today, few Christians could ever make the association of the pentacle with their religion or Islam which also uses it as associated with the Ottomans apparently, but only with Wicca and Satanism. 

The propagation of meaning and ideas that people have discerned from items, symbols and other such representations is a function of our human ability to see patterns and more importantly to associate abstract ideas with concrete objects. A cross makes one think of Jesus, a star and crescent of Islam, and a Star of David with Judaism. But there are other symbols used by each faith. Christians use the ichthys, a representation of a fish with historical background of its association with a Greek expression concerning Jesus’ divinity that corresponds to the spelling of ichthys in Greek as well as reflecting a secret association between early Christians. Muslims use the Arabic character for Allah as a means of simplifying their focus instead of the misinterpretation of the star and crescent’s cultural usage in later Islamic culture and Christian critics connecting the symbol to alleged pagan worship of the moon.  Jews may also use the menorah, reflective of the folklore surrounding the holiday of Hanukkah as well as more ancient uses by Moses in the temple. Any symbol can be misused, such as the swastika, originating in Hindu and Buddhist culture, but appropriated by Nazis in Germany. I welcome many interpretations of symbols and that propagation of memes creates a diversity that, while confusing, is also a benefit to human culture, religious or otherwise. Symbols are art, and we all share an appreciation in some sense of art, even if not the technical jargon that comes with the study of it. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.

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