There was something about how SFPD forensic artist Sgt. Stansberry was able to help crime witnesses calm their minds that reminded me of the Buddhist meditation I had studied many years ago. To check on some ideas, I yesterday visited with Lama Lodu Rinpoche of the San Francisco Tibetan Buddhist Center.
In particular, I was curious about the role of visualization in Tibetan (or Vajrayana) Buddhist practice. Lama Lodu patiently described for me some of the ways in which Tibetan monks use visualization as a meditative practice, in particular the mental and physical creation of mandalas (circle-based images of palaces and deities).
According to Lama Lodu, meditation is practiced in all types of Buddhism for many reasons, primarily as a way of gaining wisdom through the calming of the mind. Much of this wisdom leads the practitioner to the enlightening realization that the ego is an illusion, as impermanent as grains of sand in the wind. For this reason, the practice of creating intricate sand mandalas and then destroying them is a core teaching in Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in India and around the world.
Lama Lodu explained that while an advanced student of meditation can achieve remarkable levels of clarity -- including clairvoyance and the ability to heal physical wounds -- visualization serves as both a training and practice ground. "Once the mind is calm", he said, "it is possible to focus the mind's eye in infinite detail. We practice the visualization of the celestial palace of deities as a way to locate ourselves within the framework of the universe and to understand many religious concepts."
I recall that when I studied Buddhism and meditation in Thailand twenty-five years ago, I was able after much practice to calm my mind enough to mentally see details of my family home that I had no idea I even knew. When I explained this to Lama Lodu, he was nonplussed. "I am not impressed with that as you are", he said with a smile, "of course you could see such detail -- with a little practice you can easily visualize anything that you cling to." He paused. "The better goal, you know, is to stop the clinging."
(Mandala images from http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/george/mandala.html)