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.


Priest Myoe: The Deer, the Island, and the Moon

The history of Buddhism features a fascinating cast of characters, some of whom were quite eccentric. One in particular is Myoe, a priest who lived during the very interesting Kamakura period of Japanese Buddhism.

Myoe (1173–1232) was not only eccentric, he was also eclectic. He was ordained in both the Shingon (“True Word”) and Kegon (“Flower Garland”) traditions, and he studied Zen. While he was known as a restorer of Kegon school, he was famous as well for popularizing the Mantra of Light, one of the primary mantras of Shingon Buddhism. Most of all, Myoe was respected for being a very “pure” priest, owing to his strict observance of the precepts.

There are many stories about Myoe. Here is one told by Seikan Hasegawa in The Cave of Poison Grass, Essays on the Hannya Sutra:

One day in the snowy morning a deer wandered into his temple garden. As soon as Priest Myoe saw the deer he picked up a stick to chase it out, shouting, “Go out, go, go!”

The deer ran away beyond the garden house. The disciples of Priest Myoe, however, were watching this sight and they complained.

“Our teacher, why should you chase the deer out? He was sorrowfully cold and hungry on the mountain so he came to the village to find food.”

Priest Myoe replied, “I know about it as well as you. But in this village there are many hunters with bow and arrow. I hope he can escape from these hunters and patiently await the coming of spring.”

Outside Japan, Myoe is probably best known for his “letter to the island.” Most people would consider it a bit odd to write to an island. This didn’t bother Myoe, however. He wrote to the island anyway. In fact, he had a messenger deliver it for him, instructing the messenger to “Simply stand in the middle of Karma Island; shout in a loud voice, ‘This is a letter from Myoe of Tonganoo!’ Leave the letter, and return.”

Myoe lived on this island, which is located in Yusa Bay in Wakayama prefecture, during 1190’s. Here is an excerpt from his letter: [1. Myoe’s entire letter can be found in Buddhism in Practice, edited by Donald S. Lopez, Jr., Princeton University Press, 1995 and Dharma Rain Sources of Buddhist Environmentalism by Stephanie Kaza, Kenneth Kraft, Shambhala Publications, 2000]

Portrait of Myoe seated in meditation on a tree housed in the Kaisan-do Hall, Kozan-ji, Kyoto.

Dear Mr. Island:

How have you been since the last time I saw you? After I returned from visiting you, I have neither received any message from you, nor have I sent any greetings to you.

I think about your physical form as something tied to the world of desire, a kind of concrete manifestation, an object visible to the eye, a condition perceivable by the faculty of sight, and a substance composed of earth, air, fire, and water that can be experienced as color, smell, taste, and touch. Since the nature of physical form is identical to wisdom, there is nothing that is not enlightened. Since the nature of wisdom is identical to the underlying principle of the universe, there is no place it does not reach. The underlying principle of the universe is identical to the ultimate body of the Buddha. According to the rule by which no distinctions can be made between things, the underlying principle of the universe is identical to the world of ordinary beings and thus cannot be distinguished from it. Therefore, even though we speak of inanimate objects, we must not think of them as separate from living beings . . .

Why do we need to seek anything other than your physical form as an island since it is the body of the radiant Buddha?

Even as I speak to you this way, tears fill my eyes. Though much time has passed since I saw you so long ago, I can never forget the memory of how much fun I had playing on your island shores . . .

And then there is the large cherry tree that I remember so fondly. There are times when I so want to sent a letter to the tree to ask how it is doing, but I am afraid that people will say that I am crazy to send a letter to a tree that cannot speak . . .

Myoe was 26 when he wrote his letter, and he was no more crazy than Dogen, who lived during the same Kamakura period and who equated rivers and mountains with the body of the Buddha. One of the prime characteristics of Kamakura Buddhism was its fierce sectarianism, but when we scratch below the surface a bit, we find that most of the leading figures of that time were pretty much on the same page. Myoe’s grasp of non-duality is similar to not only Dogen’s Zen thought but also that of Tendai and Shingon.

George J. Tanabe, Jr., who translated the letter, says “Far from being eccentric in writing a letter to an island, Myoe was acting out the central fantasy of Mahayana Buddhism: all things are one.”

Well, there are many incidents in Myoe’s life that point to him being eccentric, or perhaps we could say that he had “crazy wisdom,” not in the sense that term is used today to justify misbehavior, but it does take non-linear, intuitive thinking to truly grasp dharma. I don’t believe I would term non-dualism a fantasy, as Tanabe does (assuming he means it literally), but he is correct in that Mahayana indeed teaches that all things are one. Actually it’s so much a case of oneness, after all, we are not teaching monism, rather, it is that all things are non-differentiated. In the ultimate sense, as Myoe states, no distinctions can be made between things.

Myoe was also a poet. Here are three poems on the winter moon quoted by novelist Yasunari Kawabata in his Nobel Lecture [2. Yasunari Kawabata’s Nobel Lecture can be read in its entirety here.] delivered on December 12, 1968 :

I shall go behind the mountain. Go there too, O moon.
Night after night we shall keep each other company.

My heart shines, a pure expanse of light;
And no doubt the moon will think the light its own.

Bright, bright, and bright, bright, bright, and bright, bright.
Bright and bright, bright, and bright, bright moon.

Kawabata commented on these poems by saying, “Seeing the moon, he becomes the moon, the moon seen by him becomes him. He sinks into nature, becomes one with nature.”