Soundless Sound

Gandhi’s guidance about mantra I posted the other day started me thinking I should really write more about mantra because it can be a very effective form of practice, and is an important part of my own practice.

Mantra is based on the science of sound, and I am using the word science rather loosely. The Sanskrit word for sound is nada, which refers to any sound, vibration, or tone. In the ancient Indian teachings on mantra, the sound of the Eternal was considered the Soundless Sound. Ultimately, the sound of the universe is silence, but it was rendered conventionally as OM (AUM).

00X4OM is a seed sound or syllable (bija). Mantra practice in Buddhism originally centered around bijas, particularly ‘A’ – the first letter of the Sanskrit Siddham alphabet, from which all letters are born, as well as the first sound made by the mouth. ‘A’ represents the alpha of all wisdom, and the ultimate reality of nirvana.

Also representative of siddhanta, the highest truth, as mantra practice evolved in Buddhism, the word ‘mantra’ began to take on the meaning of “true word,” as in the “true words of the Buddha,” a meaning also applied to dharani. The Chinese translation of mantra is zhenyan (Jp. shingon), a term that became associated with magical formulae, spells, and mystical chants.

But, in Sanskrit the word “mantra,” comprised of the root “man” from manas or mind and tra meaning instrument or tool, is literally “a tool of the mind.”

OM is a combination of three sounds, A (“ah”), U (“oh”), and M (“mm”). In Buddhism, it often the first word or sound of a mantra. Even the mantra of the Heart Sutra, Gate Gate Paragate Parasam Gate Bodhi Svaha, is supposed to be preceded by OM, according to an instruction attributed to Nagarjuna.

I find that using OM by itself is very good for calming both the mind and body. It is intoned more than it is chanted. I start by inhaling slowly, filling my lungs. I close my mouth and then open it and exhale slower than I inhaled. The “ah” is short, but you can hold the “oh” sound as long as you like, then with lips closed, hum the “mm,” letting it fade out. It’s said that the sound of silence following OM is the silence that transcends consciousness.

Is OM the primordial sound of the universe? Doubtful, but who knows? As I wrote above, it is very calming. When I intone OM before practicing silent meditation, it seems to aid in finding a deeper state of meditation. Like everything else in Buddhism, it’s a tool.

Here is a short 2 min. recording of me intoning OM, accompanied by some music I put together and images:

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Remembering the Rendezvous with Rama

Today is the 65th anniversary of the assassination of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, known as the Mahatma or “Great Soul.” One of the most important and remarkable figures of the 20th Century, Gandhi is perhaps best remembered for the way he led India to independence through the use of non-violent civil disobedience, and in so doing, inspired civil rights and freedom movements around the world.

Gandhi was a deeply spiritual man. Prayer and meditation were as important to his strategy as were fasting and marching. In Buddhism, prayer is not a central part of the practice. The Buddha was a bit pessimistic about the so-called power of prayer. Yet, there is a correlation between the purest form of prayer and meditation. With that in mind, today I offer a short sketch of Gandhi’s evening prayer service and some brief thoughts of his on prayer, meditation, and mantra.

gandhi-3bI am unsure of the source of this description of Gandhi during evening prayer. I saved it off my old website on Buddhist Meditation. I believe it is by Eknath Easwaran.

The sun had set when we got back from his regular evening walk. Hurricane lanterns were lit; Gandhi settled down at the base of a neem tree as ashramites and the rest of us huddled in. I managed to get a seat close by, where I could fix my whole heart on him.

Some hymns were sung, a Japanese monk opened with a Buddhist chant, a British lady began one of Gandhi’s favorite hymns, John Henry Newman’s “Lead, Kindly Light,” and then Gandhi’s secretary began reciting the second chapter of the Gita. Then it happened . . . Not that I can describe it very easily. Gandhi’s eyes closed; his body went stock still, his eyes closed in deep concentration, as if absorbed in the words; it seemed as though centuries had rolled away and I was seeing the Buddha in a living person. I saw what we had almost forgotten was possible in the modern world: a man had conquered himself . . .

I believe I found these quotes at gandhi.org.

Gandhi on Prayer and Meditation*

I do not forbid the use of images in prayer. I only prefer the worship of the formless . . .

Prayer is no flight of eloquence; it is no lip-homage. It springs from the heart. If, therefore, we achieve that purity of the heart when it is ’emptied of all but love’, if we keep all the chords in proper tune, they ‘trembling pass in music out of sight’. Prayer needs no speech. It is itself independent of any sensuous effort. I have not the slightest doubt that prayer is an unfailing means of cleaning the heart of passions. But it must be combined with the utmost humility.

Even if your mind wanders in meditation, you should keep up the practice. You should retire to a secluded spot, sit in the correct posture and try to keep out all thoughts. Even if they continue to come, you should nevertheless complete the meditation. Gradually the mind will come under control.

On Mantra**

First, mantra should come from the heart. To install mantra in the heart requires infinite patience. It might take ages. But the effort is worthwhile. However, one’s mantra cannot be heartfelt unless one has cultivated the virtues of truth, honesty and purity within and without. This does not mean that one should give up reciting on the ground that one has not the requisite purity. For recitation of mantra is also a means for acquiring purity.

For one who has experienced peace and is in quest of it, mantra will certainly prove to be a philosopher’s stone. The [divine nature] has been given a thousand names, which only means that it can be called by any name and that its qualities are infinite.

In 1933, Nichidatsu Fujii, a Nichiren priest and later founder of the Nipponzan-Myohoji order (well-known for their Peace Pagodas) visited the ashram in Wardha, where he lived for some time and taught Gandhi how to chant Namo-Myoho-Renge-Kyo while beating a drum. This is likely the “Buddhist chant” mentioned above. Although, Gandhi liked this chant, it is difficult for me to believe he would have had much regard for Nichiren’s extremist philosophy.

The mantra that Gandhi chanted throughout his life and which had the most meaning to him was Om Sri Rama Jaya Rama, Jaya, Jaya Rama (Om Victory to Rama, victory, victory to Rama.)

In a talk he gave some nine months before he was assassinated, Gandhi said, “Even if I am killed, I will not give up repeating the names of Rama and Rahim, which mean to me the same God. With these names on my lips, I will die cheerfully.”

Rama is an avatar of the god Vishnu, held by some to be a supreme being. Rahim is derived from al-Rahim, an Arabic word meaning “The Merciful.”

Indeed, when Gandhi was shot, the last words on his lips are reported to be either “Rama, Rama,” “He Ram” (“Oh God”), or “Rama Rahim,” according to different accounts.

———————

* K.L. Seshagiri Rao, Mahatma Gandhi And Comparative Religion, Motilal Banarsidass Publ., 1990

** mkgandhi.org

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The Mantra of Light

In Monday’s post on Priest Myoe, mention was made of the Mantra of Light, and I thought it would be interesting to delve into this a little. Since people with differing backgrounds in Buddhism read this blog, I’ll start with a few basics.

The Mantra of Light was transmitted to Japan by Kukai of the Shingon sect of Buddhism. Shingon is an esoteric tradition that combines a number of different doctrines and philosophies and is a tough one to sum up in a few words. However, I think Junjiro Takakusa, managed to do just that in his book, The Essentials of Buddhist Philosophy:

Shingon or ‘true word’ is a translation of the Sanskrit ‘mantra’ which means a ‘mystic doctrine’ that cannot be expressed in ordinary words. The doctrine which has been expressed in the Buddha’s words should be distinguished from the ideal which was conceived in the Buddha’s mind but not expressed in words.”

This is the basic idea behind all Shingon teachings. This school uses various mantras, mandalas, meditations, and rituals in their practice. It can safely be said that Shingon is related to Tantric Buddhism or the Vajrayana branch. Today, Shingon is a rather small school in Japan, but it had a tremendous influence on Japanese Buddhism at one time. Kukai (774-834), the founder of Japanese Shingon, is one of the most important figures in Japanese Buddhism.

Now, let’s take a look at mantra itself. The Sanskrit word “mantra” is comprised of the root “man” from manas or mind and “tra” meaning instrument or tool. Literally, then, an “instrument of mind.” Lama Govinda, who wrote an extremely valuable book on the subject of mantra, The Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism, defines the word as “to protect the mind.” He says further:

Mantras are not ‘spells’ . . . [They] do not act on account of their own ‘magic’ nature, but only through the mind that experiences them. They do not posses any power of their own; they are only the means for concentrating already existing forces – just as a magnifying glass, though it does not contain any heat of its own, is able to concentrate the rays of the sun and to transform their mild warmth into incandescent heat . . .

Their ‘secret’ is not something that is hidden intentionally, but something that has to be acquired by self-disciple, concentration, inner experience, and insight.

This may not be exactly what mantra has meant to Shingon Buddhists historically, but I think it is a good contemporary understanding.

So, the Mantra of Light: om amogha vairocana mahamudra manipadma jvala pravarttaya hum. (Japanese: On abokya beiroshano makabodara mani handoma jimbara harabaritaya un.)

Some readers may be able to pick out a few of the Sanskrit words: Om, the seed syllable of the universe; amogha, spotless, without a tinge of impurity; vairocana, the celestial buddha who represents the bliss body of the historical Buddha; mahamudra, the great seal or symbol of the Buddha; manipadma, jewel and lotus; and hum, a seed syllable with no literal meaning but quite a few associations that is frequently the last syllable of a mantra.

John Stevens (Sacred Calligraphy of the East) translated the mantra as “Infallible brilliance of the great mudra! Creating the radiance of the Jewel and the Lotus.” Professor Mark Unno (Shingon Refractions: Myoe and the Mantra of Light) has it as “Praise be to the flawless, all-pervasive illumination of the great mudra. Turn over to me the jewel, lotus, and radiant light.”

The mantra comes from the Amoghapasakalparaja-sutra or “Sutra of the Mantra of the Unfailing Rope Snare of the Buddha Vairocana’s Great Baptism.” Although, as I mentioned above, the mantra was brought to Japan by Kukai, apparently he did not practice it, and the mantra was not popular until it was championed by Myoe  in the 13th century.

The earth and sand of the Mantra of Light constitute the great secret dharma of all Buddhas. The Mantra of Light spreads through the world and protects all people, lay and ordained.

– Myoe

The Mantra of Light in Siddham script.

Profession Unno, who translated the quote from Myoe, writes:

The first existing references to this practice, which originated in India in the early history of Mahayana Buddhism, can be found in a Chinese translation made by Bodhiruci, a monk of northern Indian birth of the sixth century . . .

The same scriptural translation contains a curious reference to sand: One can transfer the power of [celestial] buddhas . . .  to the sand by chanting the mantra and infusing grains of sand with its power. Furthermore, this sand has the power to cure illnesses, if, for example, its grains are simply placed near the head of the bedridden. Even after people have died, one can sprinkle sand on their corpses or graves, and the power of the mantra will then reach the deceased, purify their karma, and lead them to birth in the Pure Land . . .

The practice of sprinkling the sand of the bodies of deceased persons is called dosha-kaji or “blessing of sacred sand.”

Obviously, this seems to belie Lama Govinda’s assertion that mantras are not magic spells. Nonetheless, as is the case with all mantras, emptiness is the mantra’s foundation. All beings and things are equally empty of any “own-being” or “thingness,” and that being the case, all beings and things are thereby equal. This ties in with Myoe’s concept, discussed in Monday’s post, that beings and inanimate objects are identical or non-differentiated from each other. This applies to mantras as well, which can be viewed as being identical to the person employing the mantra, and/or the person, celestial being, or mandala receiving the mantra.

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Healing Buddha

When faced with a life-threatening disease, many people turn to faith. I am no different, except I don’t consider it a turn to “faith,” rather I have turned to the “tools” of Buddhism.

Japanese image of the Healing Buddha (Yakushi Nyorai) from the 12th Century

One tool is practice centered on the Healing or Medicine Buddha. My interest in the Healing Buddha is not new. I began studying Healing Buddha teachings over a decade ago, and participated in several “Medicine Buddha Empowerments,” including one given by Taklung Tsetrul Rinpoche in 2002. In Tibetan Buddhism, an empowerment initiates or gives permission for a student to engage in a specific tantric practice, usually some form of deity worship.

I’m not sure that empowerments are all that helpful (or necessary) since most people don’t understand what’s going on during these rituals and therefore, they are not any better prepared to undertake a particular practice than they were before. This, I think, is especially true of the kind of large gathering empowerments like those given by the Dalai Lama. I feel more personalized instruction with a competent teacher is much better.

Moreover, I don’t worship deities. But neither do tantric practitioners, not if they are approaching this sort of practice, also known as “deity-yoga” in the right way. These “deities” are not supernatural beings to be “worshipped.” They are archetypes to use as objects of meditation. They symbolize inner forces or potentials:

However, even if we admit that all the powers and faculties of the universe are within us, unless we have activated them through practice or made them accessible through training they will never become realities that influence our life . . . Just because the depth-consciousness (which I think is a better term than the “unconscious”) contains an unlimited wealth of forces, qualities, and experiences, it requires a well-ordered, purposeful and trained mind to make use of this wealth in a meaningful way, i.e. to call up only those forces, contents of consciousness or their respective archetypal symbols which are beneficial to the particular situation and spiritual level of the individual and give meaning to his life.”

Lama Govinda, Creative Meditation and Multi-Dimensional Consciousness

Bhaisajyaguru, the Medicine or Healing Buddha, has been one of the most popular of these archetypal figures, revered in India, Tibet, China, Korea and Japan. Meditating on the Healing Buddha is a tool for harnessing our natural healing energies, and because compassion is a prime motivation for engaging in any Buddhist activity, it’s also a tool for helping others to heal.

This is not a substitute for conventional or alternative medical practices and procedures.  It’s not faith healing, based upon a belief in divine intervention. Nor does it fall under the category of spiritual healing, the belief in mystic energy. As I see it, there is nothing divine or supernatural about this. It’s an aid to natural healing, tapping into the energies of thought and emotion, a tool for strengthening the power of the body to heal itself, which the body is designed to do. Healing the mind, as well.

Meditation on the Healing Buddha often involves visualization: you visualize yourself becoming the Healing Buddha. Chanting the Healing Buddha mantra is a meditation practice that may or may not involve visualization. The mantra is derived from the Bhaisajyaguru-vaiduryaprabharaja Sutra (“Healing Buddha Sutra”) and although you will see various spellings, it basically goes “TAD-YA-THA OM BHE-KAN-ZAY BHE-KAN-ZAY MAHA BHE-KAN-ZAY RAZA SA-MUN-GA-TAY SOHA.”

There are various interpretations of the meaning, too. I think a reasonable one is something like “Thus: Om Healer, Healer, Great Healer, gone to awakening, awaken in me.”

I’ll have more to say about the mantra and the Healing Buddha in upcoming posts. In the meantime, here is a short video I put together of the Healing Buddha Mantra set to music.

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