Stephen Batchelor made a return virtual visit on 6 September, 2020 to the Community Meditation Center (CMC)’s Sunday sangha meeting. CMC is an Insight meditation center based in Manhattan’s Upper West Side in New York City, USA. Stephen led an online meditation session and then offered a dharma talk on ‘Creativity, Imagination, and Magic.’ A Q & A session followed the dharma talk.
Stephen’s initial point was that imagination and creativity are not discussed much in various Buddhist lineages. In fact, these qualities are somewhat discouraged, especially among monks and nuns. The focus instead is on meditative attainments, following the ethical precepts, and the path to nirvana. In his talk Stephen argued that imagination and creativity are actually integral to early Buddhist teachings. For example, the second limb of the Eightfold Path – samma sankapa – is normally translated as right intention or thought, but could also be translated as imagination. In this context imagination is the ability to go beyond our reactive patterns and socially-imposed norms to envision different possibilities and outcomes which are more skillful and mindful. Imagination is thus an essential component of the dharmic path.
Similarly, creativity – iddhi in the Pali language – is crucial if we want to liberate ourselves and create a ‘culture of awakening.’ Stephen explained how Gotama, the historical Buddha, often compared our development along the dharmic path with the creative labor of craftsmen, musicians, artists, and doctors who apply their desire, effort, intuitions, and willingness to experiment to their projects. Using these skills and qualities, creative laborers begin with the ‘raw materials’ of their work and transform them so completely into useful and beautiful products that the process is, in a fundamental sense, magical.
If the goal of the dharma is human flourishing, then we need both creativity and imagination to move forward on this path. However, creativity and imagination are not limited to a special group of people. According to Gotama, all of us have the capacity for imagination and creativity, provided that we cultivate the desire, effort, intuitions from our heart/soul, and the willingness to experiment, to try out new ways of doing things and understanding the world.