The image of a man in a boat in Buddhist iconography represents the combination of name and form. As Alan Watts described it, words bring out shapes. It seems to me this is a description of meaning. It relates, I cannot help but think, to neo-Platonism and the establishment of Christian Dogma. During the first centuries after Jesus, Logos, the naming of forms, combined with the concept of the Trinity to fulfill the call put forth in Genesis, “In the beginning was the Word.”
But this thread, all the way back through Plato, is a renunciation of Being for the sake of an abstraction. Those centuries of turmoil and the collapse of the ancient world fueled a fevered drive to strip meaning from Being and place the act of striving after escape or salvation as the only permissible purpose in life.
If we peel back the progressive narrative of Christian triumphalism we see a different trajectory, one that is much more complex, strewn with hints of the lost possibilities for very different outcomes.
Classic society and its culture were running into intractable limits. The triumph of the Ego that had begun with Gilgamesh, and developed through Odysseus, found its apogee of human expression in Alexander and then in the Roman Emperors from Augustus and Constantine. Lacking awareness of fossil fuels, their power was restricted to what could be grown year by year to feed slaves and soldiers who would do their bidding. It wasn’t until the Twentieth Century that oil allowed us all – those of us in the “advanced” western societies – to wield that sort of power indirectly while those in actual power gained the capacities – inherent in their psychology all along – to destroy the Earth entire at will.
What collapsed in the second to sixth centuries were the particular forms through which power had acted upon the world. What endured, and only grew stronger, was Logos, the logic behind the will to power and its techniques.
In this way, the potential of Christianity, as seen in the life of Jesus, was, by various mechanisms, co opted to become the greatest force for the continuation and consolidation of all that might have ended as the Classic World fell apart.
There were strands and skeins within the accumulated wisdom of that civilization which, if they had not been destroyed by a triumphant Christianity, might have made a difference.
For us now, this is a lesson in how easily collapse can lead right back into an even more virulent form of the mistakes of the past. Yesterday’s heroes, saints, and role models; trotted out as examples to promulgate an intensification of the very atrocities they had originally struggled against. No wonder the “Counter-Culture” of the sixties and seventies was so easily co opted! It has happened to some mighty fine people for thousands of years!
But in this lesson is our advantage. We have from our moment of clarity. We fall down that path clearly forewarned, ignoring the tools at our disposal to resist in ways that will not guarantee any result, but will keep us from a destiny to become the next wave of abusers. Abuse, whose source when traced back to its origins, is at the heart of that power taken by a dominant Ego to beguile us with abstractions at the expense of what-is.
“A man in a boat” is a sign of another way of treating the connection between word and form. In its Buddhist incarnation it is held within a cycle of Being that revolves through phases of growth and collapse. A crucifix, the symbol that came to stand for Christianity, taking the end of a life and glorifying it in its every grisly detail, is a sign of what it means to be caught between the poles of a dichotomy; a symbol of the tortures, of being stuck, nailed to a pair of oppositions with no room to move in any other dimensions. This view of Logos, the connection between word and form, refuses to accept any room for dynamic flow. The only way out is “up.” Seeking salvation, the only desperate out.
The man in a boat is a very different image. We cannot stand in a boat without bending to all the forces that converge upon us. The connection between word and form has a very different meaning in this context. Form is either flexible or resilient. It is robust and its strength, as in an egg, comes from the unimpeded flow of tensions held throughout without their becoming concentrated on points of greater stress.
“X marks the spot.” The cross glorifies just such a point of maximum and enduring – if unendurable – stress.
“A Man in a Boat“ is a very different symbol.