Benjamin Bogin, "Visionary Journeys to the Copper-Colored Mountain"

The Glorious Copper-Colored Mountain (Tib. zangs mdog dpal ri) is the pure land of Padmasambhava, the eighth-century master revered by Tibetans as “the Second Buddha.” In most of the hagiographic accounts of his life, after coming from India and transforming the barbaric land of Tibet into a Buddhist domain, Padmasambhava is said to have departed to continue his missionary activities in a new location, the southwestern island called Ngayab (rnga yab gling) where he resides to this day as the enlightened ruler of a tantric Buddhist pure land. While many Tibetans aspire to be reborn at the Copper-Colored Mountain in a future life, a special class of practitioners known as treasure-revealers, who are identified as rebirths of Padmasambhava’s eighth-century Tibetan disciples, have recorded accounts of visionary journeys taken to the mountain within their present lives. Beginning with the seminal depictions of the Copper-Colored Mountain found in the autobiographies of Guru Chöwang (gu ru chos dbang, 1212–1270) and culminating in the extraordinarily detailed journey recorded in the biography of Chokgyur Lingpa (mchog ‘gyur gling pa, 1829-1870), this presentation will sketch the six-hundred year cultural history of an imagined world through dozens of visionary journeys. Along the way, we will examine the relationship between imagination and reality, distinctions between dreams and visions, and Tibetan literary forms of visionary autobiography.


Excerpts from new book manuscript.

My current work draws on Mahayana cosmology and Buddhist rituals to construct a theory of cinematic experience as the self-conscious and knowing inhabitation of imaginal worlds as if they are real. Whereas Western film philosophy struggles with this “paradox of fiction” and its putative specter of irrationality, I believe that Buddhist visualization and image practices provide a fuller and more appreciative account of the human ability to occupy what recent ritual theorists have called the subjunctive “as if” world. Buddhist rituals cultivate this ability for the purpose of liberation and have used visual art and artifice as aids. Although not every movie has an overt religious or spiritual message, the phenomenology of cinema as a whole—in constructing subjunctive worlds—has religious significance of the Buddhist kind. A particularly important aspect of cinema that is relevant to Buddhist thought and practice is its overtness and even self-reflexivity about its fictional but compelling nature.


Excerpts from new book manuscript.

Jeffrey Durham, “To Image the Universe: How Himalayan Paintings Articulate Self-Contained Cosmoi”

For over a thousand years, Buddhist art traditions of the Himalayas have developed a variety of ways to depict the visionary worlds described in its texts and experienced by its practitioners. From geometric mandalas to lineage trees and dimensional protrusions, this section studies the wide array of visual strategies mastered by Himalayan painters in their ambitious quest accurately to translate transcendent perceptions – and textual formulae – into tangible form. During our time, we will explore actual examples of each visual strategy as represented in the collection of the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco. Using these artworks, we will certainly decode the iconography using all the contextual knowledge at our disposal. Beyond this art historical sine qua non, however, we will focus more specifically on how each artwork “works” visually to articulate and meditatively to realize a self-contained contemplative cosmos. Below are five paintings we will examine; they can be found on by accession number (B60D22+, B60D37, B60D13+, B63D1, B85D2 in order)


Huntington, Eric. “Seeing the Unseen: Vision, Space and Time in a Tantric Mandala.” In Awaken: A Tibetan Buddhist Journey toward Enlightenment, Rice and Durham 2019. 181-194.

Pakhoutova, Elena. “Teachings Envisioned.” In Awaken: A Tibetan Buddhist Journey toward Enlightenment, Rice and Durham 2019. 145-156.

Singer, Jane. “The Cultural Roots of Early Central Tibetan Painting.” In Sacred Visions: Early Paintings from Central Tibet, Kossak and Singer 1998. 3-24. 

Thurman, Robert. “Worlds of Transformation.” In Worlds of Transformation, Thurman and Rhie 1999. 12-44.

Eric Huntington, “Putting the World to Work: Applied Cosmology in Buddhist Thought and Practice”

Buddhist visions of the cosmos serve diverse functions in remarkably varied circumstances, from  quotidian life to esoteric meditations. Having an imagined view of the world helps structure  thought, give purpose to activity, and provide opportunities for re-imagining the world in specific,  productive ways. This presentation will examine descriptions and depictions of the physical world  in several contexts to illustrate how re-creating the world can change its meaning, provide  intellectual and moral lessons, and promote opportunities for fundamental transformation. Subjects will include Vasubandhu’s scholastic cosmology and philosophy, Tantric meditations that imagine dissolving and re-creating the world to effect transformation, offering rituals that build models of the cosmos, and the ways in which Mahayana Buddhists envision a transformed world as an ultimate sign of accomplishment.


Vasubandhu and Louis de La Vallée Poussin. Abhidharmakośabhāṣyam, Vol. II. Translated by Leo M. Pruden. Berkeley, CA: Asian Humanities Press, 1988, 451–463. (13 pages) 

Gyatrul Rinpoche. “Generating the Support and Supporting Mandalas.” In Generating the Deity. Translated by Sangye Khandro. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 1996. 51–58. (8 pages) 

Tharchin, Serme Geshe Lobsang. A Commentary on Guru Yoga & Offering of the Mandala. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 1980-1981, 63–76. (14 pages) 

Gómez, Luis O., trans. Land of Bliss: The Paradise of the Buddha of Measureless Light, Sanskrit and Chinese versions of the Sukhāvatīvyūha Sutras. University of Hawaii Press, 1996, 83–88. (6 pages) 

Gómez, Luis and Paul Harrison, et al., The Vimalakītinirdeśa: The Teaching of Vimalakīrti, An English Translation of the Sanskrit Text Found at the Potala Palace. Berkeley, CA: Mangalam Press, 2022, 121-127 (6 pages)

Reference Images

This module engages the Pure Land lineages of East Asian Buddhism, with a focus on how this “imagined” paradise impacts “actual” political and economic conditions. The majority of our readings explore the use of Pure Land imagery in Meiji and post-Meiji Japanese political thought as a means toward the radical transformation of the existing socio-political order. We contextualize these studies both in terms of the history of the buddha-field concept as a cosmological theory of world-creation in Mahāyāna thought, as well as in terms of Ruist (Confucian) political influences on Buddhist practice in East Asia overall. In particular, certain Ruist conceptions of the relationship between mental cultivation, moral excellence, and political health prove instructive for discussing how Buddhists hailing from a Ruist culture might understand the activity of imagination. Our goal is to critically assess the assumed distinction between the imagined and the real, not only to better appreciate the radical vision of various Japanese political thinkers but also to deepen our engagement with the transformative power of the imagination as a topic of philosophical inquiry today.


Curley, Melisa Anne-Marie, Pure Land, Real World: Modern Buddhism, Japanese Leftists, and the Utopian Imagination, Introduction, 1-13.

Curley, Melisa Anne-Marie, Pure Land, Real World: Modern Buddhism, Japanese Leftists, and the Utopian Imagination, Chapter One, 17-44.

Angle, Stephen C., “The Possibility of Sagehood: Reverence and Ethical Perfection in Zhu Xi’s Thought,” 281-293.

Further Readings

Nattier, Jan, “The Realm of Akṣobhya: A Missing Piece in the History of Pure Land Buddhism.”

Shields, James Mark, “Zen and the Art of Treason: Radical Buddhism in Meiji Era (1868-1912) Japan.”

Kalmanson, Leah, “Pure Land Ecology: Taking the Supernatural Seriously in Environmental Philosophy.”

Matthew Kapstein, "Imagination, Imaginaire, and Imaginal in the Study of Religions"

The purpose of my short presentation is to initiate some reflections on certain key terms for our discussion: “imagination” (together with “mental image,” “imagining,” and “imaginary”), “imaginaire,” and “imaginal.” I do not wish to stipulate usage, but just to clarify some of the main ways in which these terms and associated concepts have already been used in scholarship pertinent to the study of religion. Three levels of analysis are prominent in my choice of terms:

  • “Imagination” is primarily treated as a mental faculty, pertaining to the mental capacities of the individual, and thus a topic investigated in psychology, cognitive science, or philosophical psychology;
  • imaginaire,” though it literally means “imaginary,” began to be used in a peculiar sense by historians of the Annales school in France—such as medievalists Jacques Le Goff, Philippe Ariès, and Jean-Claude Schmitt—to refer to what we may paraphrase as “collective imagination,” and therefore a phenomenon for social-historical analysis;
  • “imaginal,” as I am using it, stems from the work of Islamicist Henry Corbin, and involves the posit of a supernal realm, disclosed to the imagination of some individuals, but not taken as a product of their imagination and thus not reducible to the phenomena of individual psychology. This is a topic for metaphysical or theological inquiry.

Having distinguished these three levels, I would like to turn to their interrelationships and introduce, as well, some aspects of their applicability to the study of the religious tradition I know best, Buddhism. I will avoid Jungian reflections, which may well be of interest in this context (particularly on the relations between “imaginal” and “imaginaire,” but in different terms), though some may wish to introduce Jung into subsequent discussions.


Liao, Shen-yi and Tamar Gendler. “Imagination.” In Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Collins, Steven. Nirvana and other Buddhist Felicities: Utopias of the Pali Imaginaire. Cambridge University Press, 72-89.

Corbin, Henry. “Mundus Imaginalis or the Imaginary and the Imaginal,” trans. Ruth Horine. Ipswich: Golgonooza Press, 197.

This presentation will reflect back on a three-decade career in the history of religions in order to speculate about the metaphysical substructure of universal magical phenomena and, deeper still, of comparative mystical literature. It articulates and develops a set of basic working or tentative conclusions around the unity of the world, the duality of human knowing, the paradoxical role of belief, and the empirical-symbolic natures of the empowered imagination. It lands on a basic dual aspect monistic structure with some acknowledged tendencies to migrate in an idealist direction.


Kripal, Jeffrey J. “The World is One, and the Human is Two: Tentative Conclusions of a Working Historian of Religions.” Mind and Matter 20:1 (2022): 121-142.

Kripal, Jeffrey J., Ata Anzali, Andrea R Jain, and Erin L Prophet.Comparing Religions: Coming to Terms. Hoboken: Wiley Blackwell, 2014, 244-253.

This session examines classical Buddhist meditation texts in order to explore the tension in Buddhist thought between coming to understand “things as they are” (yathābhūtam) through, on the one hand, clearing away of imaginal constructions and, on the other, through imagining oneself and the world in a particular way. It examines the rhetorical gap between the discussions of unmediated truth and the imaginal efforts required to achieve that truth. Meditation is often presented as expunging imaginal constructions to reveal an objective interior truth. Yet imagination plays a crucial role in activating, recognizing, and constituting relevant categories, intentions, and analyses of interior states. Meditation always uses available repertoires of attitudes, concepts, ethical orientations, and sensibilities, and introduces possibilities for using imagination for constituting new repertoires and inaugurating novel lifeworlds. These considerations point toward a revaluation and reinterpretation of the role of the imagination in Buddhism and suggest the need to go beyond an “objectivist” understanding of Buddhist epistemology.


McMahan, David. “How Meditation Works: Theorizing the Role of Cultural Context in Buddhist Meditative Practices.” In David McMahan and Erik Braun, eds. Meditation, Buddhism, and Science. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.

Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta, trans. Nyanasatta Thera (

Anapanasati Sutta, trans. Bhikkhu Bodhi (

The Mahāyāna Sūtras inaugurate a revolutionary shift in Buddhist literature. They include the stark dialectics of emptiness, which rigorously deconstruct all conceptual structures, whether they are philosophical edifices or taken-for-granted ways of seeing things. At the same time, they introduce a new genre of visionary literature that represents an explosion of the visual imagination, with a proliferation of fantastical scenes and scenarios. This session explores some of the varieties and functions of such imagery, arguing that the underlying logic of emptiness and the abundance of visionary imagery in certain sūtras is the same—that all things are ananta: boundless, infinite, without end. Visionary literature expresses another way of freeing up things from the illusion of fixed, inherent existence, playfully deploying fantastical imagery to suggest the shimmering possibilities just outside of ordinary awareness. It can also be seen as a genre of fantasy novel dramatizing Buddhist themes—emptiness, compassion, skillful means—and the idea that the ordinary world is overflowing with hidden beauty, wonder, and meaning if seen through the eyes of heightened awareness. This literature also leads directly to a systematization of such imagery in complex visualization meditations in Pure Land and Tantric traditions.


McMahan, David. “Realms of the Senses: Buddha Fields and Fields of Vision in the Gaṇḍavyūha Sūtra.” In Empty Vision: Metaphor and Visual Imagery in Mahāyāna Buddhism. Routledge, 2002..

Selection from the Avataṃsaka Sūtra

Is what is imagined necessarily imaginary? What if what is imagined is already real, becomes real through the imaging, or is more than real? This presentation will highlight work by the anthropologist, Tanya Luhrmann and Indologist, David Shulman that explains how Christian evangelicals and South Indian tantric devotees, respectively, make the divine real through the cultivation of the imagination and inner senses. It will also draw on the transpersonal theorist, Jorge Ferrer’s participatory theory to suggest a philosophical framework for entertaining the ontological reality (and often, hyper-reality) of the imaginal with some brief comparisons to Jeffrey Kripal’s theory of dual-aspect monism and the paranormal.

Readings (videos)

Luhrmann, Tanya. “When God Talks Back”

Shulman, David. More Than Real: A History of the Imagination in South India. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012, 117-134. (17 pages)

Ferrer, Jorge.“Spiritual Knowing as Participatory Enaction.” In The Participatory Turn: Spirituality, Mysticism, Religious Studies, edited by Jorge N Ferrer and Jacob H. Sherman. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2008, 135-158. (23 pages)

Further reading (or viewing)

Luhrmann, Tanya. “How God Becomes Real”

Shulman, David. “How to Put Together a Goddess out of Musical Scales”

Ferrer, Jorge, “A Participatory Vision of the Mystical Unity of Religions”

Meyers, Karin. “Memory, Imagination and the Culture of Religious Experience.” In Reasons and Lives in Buddhist Traditions: Studies in Honor of Matthew Kapstein. Edited by Dan Arnold, Cecile Ducher, and Pierre-Julien Harter. Boston: Wisdom, 2019

This presentation will provide a brief overview of the place of dreams in Indian and Tibetan Buddhism, and will focus in particular on the practice of dream yoga. Dream yoga works with the imagination in several different ways, including using the imagination to induce certain kinds of dream, to transform dream experiences, to blend waking and dreaming experience, and ultimately, to awaken from the false imagination of dualistic appearances entirely. While there is a fair amount of popular interest in the topic of Tibetan dream yoga, especially in connection with lucid dreaming, it has received less attention in the American academy compared to other forms of Buddhist meditation and practice, especially given that we all dream and spend close to a third of our lives asleep. This is likely owing to a broader cultural prejudice valuing waking, external sensory experiences and rational thought processes over “altered” states of consciousness for making meaning and acquiring knowledge. The talk will conclude with some cross-cultural reflections on dreaming.


Young, Serenity. “Dream Practices in Medieval Tibet.” Dreaming 9:1 (1999), 23-42. (14 pages)

Norbu, Namkai. Dream Yoga and the Practice of Clear Light. Edited and introduced by Michael Katz. Ithaca: Snow Lion Publications, chapters 1-2. (pdf is from1992 edition with intro included; 2002 edition has additional chapters.)

Holecek, Andrew. “What is Dream Yoga and How do you Do It.” Lion’s Roar (July 19, 2017)

Further Reading

Kyabgon, Traleg Rinpoche. Vajrayana: An Essential Guide to Practice. Victoria, Australia: Shogun Publications, 2020. (especially part three)

Laughlin, Charles. “Communing with the Gods: The Dreaming Brain in Cross-Cultural Perspective.” Time and Mind: The Journal of Archeology, Consciousness, and Culture 4:2 (July 2011), 155-188.

This talk will address the power of mantra and a theory of imagination, particularly associational imagination in the Vedic world. While Vedic texts do not express any clear aesthetic theory, such as we find in later classical Sanskrit thought, we can infer an understanding of the Vedic theory of imagination through viniyoga, or the choice of which mantras to use in which rituals. Through examining the uses of the same poetic image in different ritual contexts, or “ritual metonymy,” we can also show how those associational worlds changed over time. We will dive more deeply into Vedic metonymy through a case study of mantras for achieving other worlds, or lokas, through recitation in the late Vedic period.


Patton, Laurie. Bringing the Gods to Mind: Mantra and Ritual in Early Indian Sacrifice, selections from chapters 2, 3, and 8.

Delog reports of their journeys to the realms of the dead center on the karmic consequences of virtuous and non-virtuous actions. The journeys themselves, however, are remarkably diverse. The paths by which contemporary Tibetan Buddhist women visit the postmortem worlds reveal creative fusions of Buddhist and non-Buddhist cosmologies with various cultural and individual imaginaries. When juxtaposed with each other, accounts of delog journeys open a fruitful space for understanding and theorizing the interplay between “inner vision” and “outer reality.”


Prude, Alyson, “Kunzang Drolkar: A Delog in Eastern Tibet.” In Eminent Buddhist Women, edited by Karma Lekshe Tsomo, 169-184. Albany: SUNY Press, 2014.

Baron, Richard, trans., Delog: Journey to Realms Beyond Death, Delog Dawa Dolma, 1-14. Junction City, CA: Padma Publishing, 1995. (“Copper-Colored Mountain of Glory”).

Prude, Alyson, “A Reexamination of Marginal Religious Specialists: Himalayan Messengers from the Dead” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 88, no. 3 (2020): 779-804. (excerpt)

William S. Waldron, “Buddhism Overview for Non-Specialists”

This presentation, given at the beginning of the institute, will provide an historical and philosophical overview of Buddhist traditions with special attention to concepts and vocabulary relevant to the Institute. Although institute faculty will not assume specialist knowledge, this session should provide a helpful map and fill in conceptual gaps for folks who don’t specialize in Buddhist studies.


Keown, Damien. Buddhism: A very short introduction. Oxford University Press, 2013. (entire)

Kapstein, Matthew. Tibetan Buddhism: A very short introduction, 2014. (selections).

From its earliest time, Buddhism has understood the arising of ‘self’ and ‘world’ to be interdependent constructs which “co-arise.” That is, our experience of the world (loka) is correlative with the structure of our faculties, which include our cultural categories. This became more systematically analyzed in the Yogācāra tradition (ca. 3-5th c.CE), especially in relation to the concept of the unconscious “storehouse consciousness” (ālaya-vijñāna). The storehouse consciousness was said to arise dependent on our “tendencies toward everyday associations about characteristics, names, and preconceptions,” on the one hand, and a subtle, undiscerned  “world,” on the other. In effect, this describes the unconscious construction of our collective worlds (bhājana-loka)—in short, culture. As a form of transformative practice, recognizing how much our worlds are collectively but unconsciously constructed gives us more ability to make conscious, intentional choices about the kinds of world we live in.


Waldron, William S. “The Co-arising of Self and Object, World, and Society: Buddhist and Scientific Approaches.” In Buddhist Thought and Applied Psychological Research: Transcending the Boundaries, edited by D. K. Nauriyal, M. Drummond, and Y. B. Lal. RoutledgeCurzon, 2006: 175-208.

Both Freud and Jung were keenly attuned to the nexus between dreams, madness, and hallucinations. For his part, Freud considered the dream on a par with psychosis insofar within the parameters of the dream we concoct an unreal world that we regard as real and the line between truth and untruth is blurred—indeed, the dream image is true to the extent that it is untrue and untrue to the extent that it is true. Jung, too, was mindful of the fact that the sensuous distinctness associated with the oneiric rises to the level of hallucinating clearness. That clarity is linked to hallucination bespeaks the fact that a mindset judged by societal mores as anomalous may actually divulge a greater degree of perceptual acuity and hence what is conventionally considered to be lucidity is, in truth, obfuscation—the opposite, I might add, of what we typically find in political discourse. In my contribution to the seminar, I will explore the far reaching cultural and psychological implications of the psychoanalytic juxtaposition of dreams and delirium, especially as they might contribute to a phenomenology of religious experience. In particular, I will illumine Jung’s assertion that the dream is a form of normal insanity from mystical sources. Dreams, I will argue, provide us with a mechanism to restore the possibility of reason’s dialogue with unreason. Finally, I will use the dream phenomenon to illustrate the nonphenomenolizable horizon of the appearance of the inapparent and the consequent depersonalization of personhood, that is, the idea of self without a self, the self that appears by not appearing, since the identity of the dreamer both constitutes and is constituted by the dream.In that respect, paraphrasing Laruelle, we can speak of the dream without dreaming or what I call the configuring nothing and the disfiguration at the limits of imaginality.


Nancy, Jean-Luc. The Fall of Sleep. New York: Fordham University Press, 2009.

Additional Reading

Sigmund Freud, Interpretations of Dreams.

Carl Jung, The Red Book.