Background to the autumn audio course, part 2
The previous post outlined the transcendent and the particular as two contrasting perspectives that we can take when interpreting a mythological symbol. Yet neither is necessarily a distinct perspective at all times. Often we discover a mix of both perspectives is needed. To illustrate this point, I’m going to use both these terms to interpret some very common symbols from global culture. The first of these will be a very familiar mythological symbol to many of us, that being the Christian Cross.
The Christian Cross.
In Christian religion the cross is a symbol that expresses many transcendent concepts. To begin with its a symbol of Christ’s sacrifice; its also a symbol of his resurrection, and in that sense it can be interpreted generally as a symbol of life after death. That can also be extended to include all Christians who believe they have an opportunity to gain life after death in heaven.
But the particular cross in the image above also offers a particular perspective: as a Celtic cross, more local or regional elements are apparent. In terms of decoration, we can see that this stone cross includes Celtic knotwork carved into its different panels. Also, in terms of its basic form its a standard Christian cross with an added circle. In terms of its metaphorical depth, we have a surface image that we understand as a religious symbol, beyond which there is a mid ground containing those aspects pertaining to the Celtic nations and the peculiarities of Christian culture. We then have a deeper perspective that transcends not only the prior layers of meaning but also, apparently, the symbol’s own limits.
These interpretations are all ultimately dependent upon our own positions as observers. If we refocus on the particular perspective, we can easily see how those regional features could also in turn reveal transcendent perspectives within themselves. For example, Celtic knotwork can be more than just decoration, symbolising concepts such as the weave of time and manifest creation. The adapted form of the cross could even have significance. The circle and cross is a symbol used in many cultures across the world often to represent physical space, the circle of the metaphorical horizon dissected by the cardinal directions. It is sometimes used to symbolise how people can orientate themselves within an abstract space, an idea that is at the heart of the Welsh Eisteddfod tradition of chairing the bard. In general terms, that orientation provided by the cardinal directions focusses in on a still centre, giving this symbol a connotation of transcendence, representing that point which goes beyond manifest time and space. In terms of the historic Celts themselves, we know that the dissected circle or wheel was an important religious symbol for them, often interpreted by modern scholars as a sun symbol. The Celtic cross as we find it today can be viewed as a symbol expressing all of these perspectives of course, showing how one symbol can incorporate many different kinds of meanings.
Some care needs to be taken with value judgments when using these two terms, when taking up transcendent or particular positions, because on occasion more particular aspects can easily be viewed in terms of their own deeper, transcendent qualities.
The T’ai Chi.
Traditionally used in China to represent Taoism and Taoist arts and philosophy, it is now as ubiquitous a symbol as the Christian cross. The T’ai Chi symbol itself is the central circle of the image, the revolving black and white opposites of yin and yang, which is why this is more commonly referred to as the yin/yang symbol. The surrounding lines, known as a bagua made up of trigrams, are those found in the I Ching, and symbolise the 8 different universal conditions that arise out of the dynamic interplay of yin and yang. This pair of polar opposites is described as female and male, yielding and giving, dark and light. This is clearly a transcendent perspective, expressing universal aspects of creation. Yin and Yang and their accompanying circle of trigrams describe the basic dynamic of the manifest universe as it arises out of Wuji, or the void, thereby becoming the Way, or the Tao of Taoism.
This transcendent symbol is often found in more particular settings. For example, many martial arts organisations incorporate the T’ai Chi into their own club logo, often accompanied by other images such as crossed swords or hands or fists. Just like the Celtic knotwork on the Celtic cross, we can easily view this decoration from a particular perspective, even though its a symbol clearly expressing universal, transcendent themes.
The Buddhist Mandala.
A Buddhist mandala is traditionally used as a focus during meditation, either during its ritual creation as in sand paintings, or as an image to contemplate and impress upon the memory. Mandalas often look like temple floor plans, with four gates in an outer wall, often a black circle symbolising the illusory world of our senses. Moving in toward the centre of the temple brings us closer to buddha nature.
Meditation is ultimately a practice towards enlightenment, and a mandala can symbolise many of the elements involved in that practice. We can easily see how this is the transcendent perspective on this symbol. In terms of its particular connotations, the smaller figures and some of the colours used are specific to particular regions.
The Christian Cross, the Taoist T’ai Chi and the Buddhist Mandala are all derived from the same basic form, and that in itself is a reflection of a basic structural understanding of human experience.