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.


6 thoughts on “The Mantra of Light

  1. Although I appreciate the history, I am not a huge fan of this sort of thing that seems to put a hint of mystical into Zen. I’m more of a Zen is ordinary mind type of person. I think people can be easily led to looking for magic with this sort of mantra.

    Dan @

    1. Thanks for your comment, Dan. I doubt that too many readers of this blog are going to rush out to find some magical practices to engage in or that they’ll be all that eager to start chanting this mantra. I might also point out that the mantra is not Zen, nor is the post, or this blog. Like Myoe, I’m an eclectic Buddhist and also non-sectarian. But like you, I’m more of an ordinary mind sort of person. Still, I find all the different facets of Buddhism interesting, and I hope readers do too.

  2. Interesting… I wouldn’t be surprised if practices similar to dosha-kaji predated Kukai, perhaps based on Shinto animism, or invocation of kami etc.?

  3. Well, “means for concentrating already existing forces” implies the possibility of magic. Any magic spell consists of the container: words, tools, the practitioner, etc can all be seen as vessels of the existing cosmic forces. In the case of the Buddhist mantra, especially vajrayana, I see this concentration of existing forces as applied to inner alchemy, aka awakening the mind, rather than the common interpretation of magic as manipulation of external forces.

    I understand the idea of zen ordinary mind, but what is one being ordinary about? Someone or some forces are concentrating to create that which you are being ordinary zen about. LOL

    I figure we may as well have some engagement with that. Or, we are just attempting to neutralize our connection with the magic spells of others. I find this attitude or interpretation common among western males who study buddhism. It’s another version of rational mind, mistaken for spiritual maturity and freedom from delusion. It denegrades the mystical or seeking magic as superstitious or primitive. Of course, it’s true that many search outside themselves and are caught up in fantastical streams that distract.

    But it is also true that some rationalize away phenomena; it is easy to be fooled either way.
    All of life is creation, and therefore magic or a concentration of existing forces. Understanding this more fully through one’s attention and intention is what I interpret tboth the magnifying glass analogy and the sand which conveys the intention or energy (as blessings) to mean. They are not different, nor are they magic or non-magic.

    Words are empty by nature unless engaged with via intention or attention. Everything, even emptiness, is a process of alchemy, ongoing.

    1. Hi Laurie,
      Thanks for leaving your comment. I’m most of the way with you on this. Everything has a sense of magic about it. We can talk about the mysticism of love, the magic of music. We could even say ordinary mind is magical. To me, though, the magic lies in everything’s mundane-ness. There is nothing to be ordinary about. Ordinary mind is just us without so many things layered on, and Buddhism is more about casting things off than taking things on.

      This tantric stuff is just another layer, too, and sometimes I think we can do better without it, keeping it simple. Otherwise, the process gets confused. What people really mean when they talk about magic spells and mysticism is not always clear to me, and I do feel that in the extreme the mystical or seeking magic is superstitious and primitive.

      And I hate to say it, but in general, I find generalizations about white males and Buddhism unreliable and tiresome.

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