The Theosophical Society in America

"Effective Art": Imaginal Worlds, Fohat, and Freedom

by Jeff Durham

Originally printed in the Spring 2011 issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Durham, Jeff. " "Effective Art": Imaginal Worlds, Fohat, and Freedom
." Quest  99. 2 (Spring 2011): 65-68.

JeffDurhamSacred art is a doorway from the manifest world of the senses to the unseen realm of hidden potential. This magical portal works in two directions. From one direction, artists use symbols, texts, and icons to show us the unseen realm of sacred realities. From the other, observers contemplate sacred art to move from ordinary reality into other sorts of worlds—places where the black-and-white distinctions of the linear, rational mind no longer hold true. Here is the "imaginal world," where sacred myths, images, and rites reside, where ideas becomes experience and where representation becomes reality. Under these conditions, sacred art becomes a vehicle for transporting awareness from one type of "world" to another; sacred art then becomes "effective art."

In this paper, I would like to suggest how sacred art can lift us from consensus reality into that imaginal place where facile binary distinctions between is and is-not no longer hold true, reawakening us to the fact that we live in a world mediated by symbols and permeated by metaphor—and perhaps thereby helping us to reclaim our ability to shape the course of experience.

Ambivalence toward Sacred Art

To see how the process works, note first that sacred art both reflects and shapes human experience (Geertz, 93-95). For this reason, it is both powerful and potentially problematic. Accordingly, we often feel a quite natural ambivalence towards sacred art. This has generated a biphasic historical cycle. In the first phase, a given culture celebrates sacred art, which expresses truths beyond words. In the second phase, we forget we have made these symbolic expressions (Berger, 87ff.). Consequently these images can gain an "irrational power" over human awareness, seeming to exist by themselves, independently of human action (Looper, 151). At some point, however, we wake up and recognize that we have mistaken the symbol for the thing symbolized, the map for the territory. Now an antisymbolic reaction ensues. The artistic revolution of Akhenaton in ancient Egypt, the iconoclastic movement in eighth-century Byzantium, and the Protestant Reformation all express the second, reactionary phase of this cycle.

This second phase has become especially important in the past half-century, which has seen a strong reaction against sacred symbolism. It has also witnessed several curious attempts to remove symbol and significance from definitions of fine art. Some thinkers have gone so far as to define art per se by excluding cultural products that might have anything at all to do with metaphysical concepts or practices. On this reading, any art that exhibits evident religious symbolism is not art but religion (Mitchell, 106). As in recent debates between religion and science, here there can be no compromise, no gray area. We find ourselves in a dualistic, digital world of yes or no, black or white, day or night; things either are or are not. Here we are "alienated" in Berger's sense from our true nature as artists of our own experience. Here is bondage—but as we shall see, it is seeming bondage only.

Imaginal Worlds and Fohat 

Ironically, the hard-edged, binding world of absolute truth or falsity is itself an abstraction, even though it pretends to be self-revealing; in that sense it is a kind of illusion. But in an even stranger twist, the land in between truth and falsity, the place that Islamicist Henry Corbin called the "imaginal," may hold the key to establishing some rapprochement between truth and illusion.

The imaginal world is a strange place; in fact, it is not a place at all, for in its ubiquity it cannot be pointed out in space as "here" or "there." In the imaginal realm all ideas, all potentials for manifestation, are held suspended "as if in a mirror" (Corbin, 7). Moreover, the imaginal realm reflects itself microcosmically in the human faculty of active imagination, our primary tool of artistic creativity. This faculty enables us to create sacred art. And such art can precipitate the infinite potential of the imaginal world into form. Conversely, it provides the finite mind with a ladder of symbols by which it may ascend back to the imaginal. Finally, and perhaps most interestingly, this capacity is not abstract. It is inscribed into the very structure of the human organism as the hidden energies of the subtle body, sometimes identified as the Sanskrit prana or the Chinese chi (Freidel and Schele, 210-211). In Theosophical thought, it presents startling parallels to the crucial idea of Fohat.

Like the imaginal, Fohat is the subtle electromagnetic force that binds mind and matter. Yet it is much more than just the life force, for Fohat is also "the link to universal and individual consciousness, where abide the timeless ideas or forms of nature expressed in time" (Ellwood [2009], 21).

But how does this linkage operate? The Stanzas of Dyzan provide the crucial clue, for it is through symbolic means that we can "recover the lost language of the ancients" (Blavatsky, 1:309), in the process recovering our ability to discern and shape the course of experience. The grammar of this language is symbolism, and its power lies in its ability to give the individual access to the universal, the conscious mind access to the imaginal.

Symbolic potential becomes effective art when consciously constructed into a tableau or composite work. Its deeply encoded and interconnected semantic structures can then be recovered, and the imaginal realm accessed—if a person possesses the key to its cipher. Strangely, the key is simply this: the recognition that we are life artists who use active imagination, Fohat, to cocreate our experience.

Literalism versus Effective Art 

We are fundamentally symbol-making beings; everything we know is symbolically mediated. We can try to banish representation from our world, but to make the attempt is of course a fool's errand. We in fact continually use our symbolic capacities to cocreate our world of experience, both at the individual and the collective levels. Thus to maintain that we can directly access the world in the naevely realistic sense is to remain under the spell of what visionary artist William Blake called "Newton's sleep"—materialism, reductionism, utilitarianism, and above all literalism.

Literalism is anathema to sacred art. Sacred art always has the potential to help human beings "reach into realms beyond their normal command" (Thurman, 17) precisely because it rejects all flat literalism. It only becomes "effective," however, when its world becomes coextensive with our experience, waking us up from our perception of a mind-matter world into a perception of the imaginal world.

Effective art can transport us into imaginal worlds because the sacred symbols from which it is composed—the material of which effective art is made—have the capacity of "participating in what they symbolize" (Ellwood [1986], 39). In so doing, sacred symbols can make something that is actually absent virtually present, just as an image of the god Ptah in an ancient Egyptian temple would—under the right conditions—make him virtually present. Conditions are right for entry into imaginal worlds through effective art when reality and representation become indistinguishable from one another (Clottes and Lewis-Williams, 12-17).

Stacking Symbolism on Om

In sacred art that has become "effective," to thoroughly intuit the meaning of a symbol is to access that which it represents, to climb the ladder of symbol from concrete expression back to the imaginal world, and perhaps beyond. One clear example of how the process works comes from South Asian traditions: the sacred syllable aum or om. Understood as that one thing whereby all others are known (Hume, 240), om condenses all other sounds within itself—very important in the sound-made universe of the ancient Vedas. More than this, it encodes several levels of meaning. The three letters that comprise om—A, U, and M—are each represented on the emblem—as is the silence that comes at the end of the sound. These three letters correspond to three states of awareness—waking, sleeping, and dreaming, while the whole syllable corresponds to the fourth state that transcends them (Hume, 391-393). Moreover, the three letters' web of meaning can easily be expanded to correspond to the gods Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva—each of whom in turn symbolically expresses the continual creation, sustenance, and destruction of the universe. And through concentration (samyama) on this syllable and all its resonances—from physical to mythic to cosmic—it becomes possible to maintain awareness in and through all the various states of consciousness it represents, eventually reaching the immortal realm where time does not reach.

Encoding Buddhist Wisdom in Texts 

If individual syllables can encode vast amounts of symbolic information, literature further expands the potential of art to function as a bridge from the explicit to the implicit. In the Buddhist tradition, there is a fundamental wisdom called prajna—the knowledge that what seems solid is in fact empty (shunya) of any essence (svabhava). Mahayana texts called Perfection of Wisdom (prajna-paramita) condense prajna into their pages as a secret. (Cowell, 118)


Prajna texts progressively reduce from a 100,000-line tome into a one-letter teaching—the Sanskrit syllable for "not" (A)—through the elimination of repetition. Similarly, the teaching of the Perfection of Wisdom can be reconstituted from the letter A by adding detail and clarity regarding the nature and realization of negation. At each level of expansion and contraction, however, from the one-letter Perfection of Wisdom, through the Perfections of Wisdom in eight and eighteen thousand lines, and up to the great hundred thousand–line version, the message remains the same: all phenomena are empty (shunya) of inherent existence (svabhava). Accordingly, the Perfection of Wisdom becomes a "narrative fractal": a teaching that exhibits self-similarity at any level of analysis or synthesis, thus becoming an example of what it discusses. And by exploring these carefully constructed microcosms of emptiness, we can envision how shunyata might, contrary to all ordinary appearances, actually pervade our world of experience.

 Entering Virtual Worlds in Three Dimensions

 Sacred literature's ability to metaphorically become our entire experience, a whole world, can take some very concrete forms. Some sacred texts might even be said to "emanate" architectural versions of the symbolic worlds they contain. At Mogao in northwestern China, for example, Buddhists created elaborate caves that mimicked the virtual realms described in the popular Lotus Sutra. These cave shrines are obviously not the "real" worlds discussed in the sutra, but to insist on this would be to miss the point. For these are symbolic worlds whose intent is "the creation of an imaginary topography to situate and immerse the beholder" (Wang, 74). Here we find a symbol complex created to collapse the meditator's experience into the world depicted in the cave. Under these conditions, the cave becomes a means of virtual transportation "into" the world of the Lotus Sutraa metaphorical space-time vehicle precisely engineered for effective travel into an imaginal realm experienced as fully actual.

Afterlife Maps and Vehicles

The Egyptians were similarly adept at creating three-dimensional effective art. In the Old Kingdom, the pharaoh Unas (whose reign is dated to 4375–4345 bce) built an entire funerary complex intended to function as effective art. To do so, Unas carved the so-called "Pyramid Texts" on the walls of his funerary monument. These hieroglyphic books have a dual function: they both describe the Egyptian afterlife and enable anyone with these texts to travel through it successfully. They occur in specific locations within the pyramid which are themselves symbolically linked to stars that never sink below the horizon and are thus "imperishable" (Stadelmann, 57). A set of rituals activates the metaphorical wormhole between these two locations. And since in Egyptian thought a virtual model of an actuality is not different from the thing it pictures, virtual rituals keep the wormhole eternally open (again metaphorically). Under these conditions, the pyramid is certainly something magnificent, "a book we walk into that encompasses us on all sides" (Naydler, 151), but something more as well: a means of interworld travel enabling the deceased to transcend the earthly and ascend to the undecaying realm of the stars.

Shaping Experience through Art

The ancient Maya possessed a very sophisticated understanding of effective art. For the Maya, all the levels of symbol, from the individual hieroglyph to the text to sculpture to the religious complex as a whole, "had the effect of a magical formula, making the inscribed event happen, regardless of whether it was seen by human eyes" (Looper, 23). That images could work automatically in this way is perhaps the key concept of Mayan sacred art. For the Maya, art was intimately connected with life itself, and this identity was expressed on the linguistic level. The term itz, similar in meaning to the Sanskrit word prana or the Taoist chi, is the life force that carries organisms through time. It is also the subtle substance that all artists manipulate in creating their work. Thus, for the Maya, to create sacred art was to work with the sacred essence of the world in its most concentrated form. This understanding of art as itz is unique and has profound consequences: by creating works of art of any kind, Mayan itz specialists were giving manifest form to the protean potentiality of cosmic itz, thus shaping the flow of experience, fixing and altering it to adapt to present circumstances (Gillette, 27).

Effective Art and Everyday Life

The methods of comparative religion can help us understand how effective art facilitates entry into imaginal worlds. This special kind of understanding may seem abstract, but like a comprehension of Fohat, it can exert powerful phenomenal effects. In particular, it can help us recover our remarkable capacity to shape the course of experience. Indeed, when we clearly see how artistic images both reflect and shape experience, we will never again be deceived by the literalist tendency to assume that we have direct access to unmediated reality. Instead, we will see clearly how all experience is symbolically mediated, and that this same symbolic capacity is our own. The literary critic W. J. T. Mitchell observed in this connection that "if we see how images got power over us, we can re-possess imagination that produced them" (Mitchell, 31). In so doing, we break a metaphorical code whose symbolic elements we can then consciously use to "participate in ultimate reality" (Ellwood, 39)—that realm that defies even the most magnificent artistic figuration, and in which lies our ultimate freedom.

Works Cited

 Berger, Peter. The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religions. New York: Doubleday, 1967.

Blavatsky, H. P. The Secret Doctrine. Adyar: Theosophical Publishing House, 1938.

Clottes, Jean, and Lewis-Williams, David. The Shamans of Prehistory: Trance and Magic in the Painted Caves. New York: Abrams, 1996.

Corbin, Henry. "Mundus Imaginalis or the Imaginary and the Imaginal," Cahiers internationaux de symbolisme 6 (1964).

Cowell, E. B., ed. Buddhist Mahayana Texts. New York: Dover, 1969.

Ellwood, Robert. Theosophy: A Modern Expression of the Wisdom of the Ages. Wheaton: Quest, 1986.

–––. "The Ethics and Sociology of Fohat," Quest 97.1 (2009), 21-25.

Freidel, David, and Schele, Linda. Maya Cosmos: Three Thousand Years on the Shaman's Path. New York: Morrow, 1993.

Geertz, Clifford. The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic, 1973.

Gillette, Douglas. The Shaman's Secret: The Lost Resurrection Teachings of the Ancient Maya. New York: Bantam, 1997.

Hume, Robert. The Thirteen Principal Upanishads. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1921.

Looper, Matt. Lightning Warrior: Maya Art and Kingship at Quirgua. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003.

Mitchell, W. J. T. Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.

Naydler, Jeremy. The Shamanic Wisdom of the Pyramid Texts. Rochester, Vt.: Inner Traditions, 2005.

Stadelmann, Rainer. "Royal Tombs from the Age of the Pyramids," in R. Schulz and M. Seidel, eds., Egypt: The World of the Pharaohs. Cologne: Konemann, 1998.

Thurman, Robert. Wisdom and Compassion: The Sacred Art of Tibet. New York: Abrams, 1996.

Wang, Eugene. Shaping the Lotus Sutra: Buddhist Visual Culture in Medieval China. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2005.

Jeff Durham is former professor of comparative religion at the University of North Carolina and New York's St. Thomas Aquinas College. He currently directs the Comparative Religion Center and Yoga Sciences Center in San Francisco, lecturing and delivering workshops throughout California. His mission is to unite the wisdom traditions of East and West through the approaches and methods of comparative religion. His new book, Immortality Project: A History of Magical Art and Text, is currently under editorial review.