Buddhism, Its Elemental my dear Watson….Part VI, The Mantra

Buddhism, Its Elemental my dear Watson….Part VI, The Mantra

In the past few posts in this series we have looked at many symbols (signs). The diversity of these symbols is vast but the purpose of all these visual systems is to convey truths beyond language.   This is to help prevent misconceptions or false understandings like terms, “self”, “universe” “empty” and false notions of duality that do not exist.  As I have mentioned before words are pregnant with meanings based on your own personal life experience and interaction with them.  If you think this is not true try the following experiment.  Pick a word with a fairly complex meaning.  Ask five people individually what the definition of that word is, write them down. Look at what you have written down.  Are they all the same?  No of course not.  They may all point to the same general meaning but they will all be different.  They are what the meaning of that word is to that individual.  In Buddhism this is of paramount importance.  It is one of the reasons in the Zen tradition they down played the importance of words and even avoided emphasizing scripture study.


In most Buddhist writings there is always talk of gaining an understanding that is beyond words. Most people do not realize or think about the fact that language is a symbolic representation of reality and not reality itself.  So it is very easy to form an incorrect understanding of a teaching because of your interpretation of language.  As a side note you can see how translating a sutra from Sanskrit to Chinese, Chinese to Japanese, and then Japanese to English can be a real problem if the people that are doing the translating do not have an Enlightened mind.


False experience is formed in the mind by participating in events (both mental or physical) without full awareness of their origins in the chain of cause and effect.

Real experience is formed in the mind by participating in events (both mental or physical) with full awareness of their origins in the chain of cause and effect.

Nagaboshi Tomio, The Bodhisattva warriors


In early Buddhism mantra (true word or speech) was used to express the truth of the Dharma in a conventional sense. They had a literal meaning that usually honored the Buddha or the Dharma is some way.


”Namo tassa bhagavato arahato samma sambuddhassa”

Honour to the Blessed One, the Exalted One, the fully Enlightened One.

Early mantra


Later in the development of the Mahayana mantra started to take on a symbolic meaning in addition to the literal translation of the words.  So they took the idea that language is a symbolism representing reality to a higher level to where it could be used to be symbolic of the “absolute truth” of the Buddha Dharma that cannot be expressed by conventional language.  Realizing what the mantra are “symbolic of” meant that the practitioner could obtain a true understanding of the “unborn” or the “Buddha nature”.


Only in the mantra teachings does one become a Buddha in this very body, and therefore they explain the methods of Samadhi; in other teachings these are missing and have not been recorded.

If someone seeking the Buddha’s wisdom should penetrate the Bodhi mind,He will quickly realize the stage of great Enlightenment with the body born of his parents.

 Nargarjuna, Treatise on the Bodhi mind


As Esoteric Buddhism developed, Sutras such as the MahaVairocana Sutra and the Vajrasekhara Sutra took on the same nature as mantra itself.  In these sutras it is thought that there are a multitude of meanings that are conveyed beyond the conventional meanings of the words of the sutra themselves convey.


The word sutra means stringing or weaving.  The Dharmakayas secret voice, the woof, and mind, the warp, weave themselves into a brocade depicting the assembly as vast as the ocean of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.


Note: From weaving, in which the warp — the threads that run lengthwise — and the woof — the threads that run across — make up the fabric

Dharmakaya – Part of the three bodies or aspects that make up the Buddha. This is the “Truth body” synonymous with “Perfect Enlightenment” “The Buddha Nature” or the “Mind or Consciousness of the Buddha”. In Esoteric Buddhism the Dharmakaya is the Buddha MahaVairocana.


As for the text of this sutra (MahaVairocana Sutra), there are three kinds. The first is the vast, boundless text that exists spontaneously and permanently, namely, the mandala of the Dharma of all the Buddhas. The second is the broader text that circulated in the world, that is, the sutra of ten thousand verses transmitted by Nargarjuna. The third is the abbreviated text of over three thousand verses in seven fascicles. However abbreviated it may be, it embraces in its brevity comprehensive, broader texts.  That is because its each and every word contains countless meanings, and every single letter, even every single stroke or dot, encapsulates within itself innumerable truths.

 Ku Kai


According to Kukai, the original and complete text of the sutra (MahaVairocana Sutra) is the whole of the universe, which the Buddha’s of the past, present , and future held, are holding , and will hold as the ultimate scripture illuminating the principle of the emptiness of all things. This is Dharma mandala, the mandala consisting of all things of the world as its letters.

Ryuchi Abe, The weaving of Mantra


Soaring mountains are brushes, vast oceans, ink

Heaven and the earth are the box preserving the sutra; yet

Contained in every stroke of its letters are all in the universe

From cover to cover, all pages of the sutra are brimming

With the six sensory objects, in all their manifestations.



Early Theravada texts in Pali refer to mantra as “paritta” meaning protection.  Another term for this was “Vidya” which meant incantation.  The term Dharani, which was not employed until the appearance of the Mahayana, literally meaning “all holding”, derives from an ancient word used for the practice of controlling the senses and concentrating the mind.

Taiko Yamasaki, Shingon Japanese Esoteric Buddhism


If you look at Buddhist history there has always been some form of mantra.  The difference has been the purpose for using the mantra.  The early “parita” of the Thervada, the Nembutsu of the Pure Land, and lastly the Esoteric mantra which can be for any or all the purposes listed above.  In addition to this they are symbolic representations of the Buddha mind (or universe) just like the Mandala is.


Mantra are formed by starting with a seed syllable called a Bija (Sanskrit bījākṣara).  All the other syllables of the mantra are related to and emanate from the seed syllable.  The Bija for Maha Vairocana is the Sanskrit letter A.  MahaVairocana’s mantra is, “A VI RA HUM KHAM” The Sanskrit representation is:



Image from: http://www.visiblemantra.org/index.html


The name Shingon, as we have seen, means “true word”, referring to the mantric words and syllables that convey the essence of the Buddha teaching. Esoteric Buddhism is sometimes called Mantrayana, The Mantra Vehicle, because these ”true words” are its foundation. The Sanskrit word mantra (Shingon) originally meant a vessal heaped up with sacred thoughts.

Taiko Yamasaki, Shingon Japanese Esoteric Buddhism


The Sanskrit characters are “symbols or signs” in and of themselves.  They represent both the syllables (sounds) and the Buddha or Bodhisattva that they represent.  All of the syllables of the mantra spring forth from the seed syllable and all have more than one meaning.  The sound themselves are also “symbols or signs” of a higher meaning.  The five Sanskrit characters of this mantra represent each of the 5 elements with the Buddha MahaVairocana himself being the sixth element of Mind or Consciousness.


The voiced syllables themselves are the empowerment bodies of the Buddhas, and these empowerment bodies become all bodies in all places, so that there is no place they are not.

Commentary on the Dainichi-kyo (MahaVairocana Sutra)


The letter A (pronounced AH) is the mind that aspires to realize enlightenment.



“By reciting the voiced syllables with clear understanding, one manifests the truth, What is called “the truth of the voiced syllable” is the three secrets in which all things and the Buddha are equal. This is the original essence of all beings.  For this reason, Dainichi Nyorai’s (MahaVairocana) teaching of the true meaning of the voiced syllable will startle into awakening those long sleeping.”

Kukai, True meanings of the voiced syllable


Now in Esoteric Buddhism the literal translation of the Sanskrit mantra convey an Exoteric (Conventional) meaning whereas at the very same time they convey an Esoteric (Secret, Absolute Truth).  The term Secret is not used in the sense that “The secret should be kept between the chosen few”.  It means that the meaning is not readily apparent or that that the average person does not know.   In the Zen tradition the Buddha is thought to have conveyed a secret, symbolic, or unspoken truth to MahaKasyapa when he twirled a flower during one of his sermons.  Only MahaKasyapa understood the meaning out of the whole assembly of monks.  He became Enlightened and as this was the first direct transmission (According to Zen Tradition) it was the beginning of the Zen school.  This is why the Esoteric schools put such emphasis on having a Guru.  The Guru is your guide to teach you the practices that will enlighten you to these secret meanings.  Unfortunately in recent times there have been a number of cases where supposed Gurus have taken advantage of peoples trust.  This is a very sad turn of events and shows that you cannot trust  anyone unquestionably.


When practitioners thoroughly understand the secret of these letters, the hidden treasury of the glory of the Tathagata’s palace unfolds itself to them. The prisons of hell and the celestial palaces; the Buddha nature and the rotten seed of enlightenment; delusion and awakening; samsara and nirvana; dualism and non-dualism…. To those who have realized the secret letters of mantra, all these things of the universe are just different signs for the originally enlightened mind of all sentient beings.



The gate of the letter A teaches that all things are originally non-arising. All sorts of languages in the three fold world depend on names (signs), and names derive from letters.  The letter A, as written in Siddham (a Sanskrit script system popularized in East Asia), is the mother of all letters.  Therefore the truth of the gate of the letter A pervades all things.

What is the reason for this?  All things consist of an agglomeration of diverse causes and conditions. Every one of these causes and conditions consists in turn, of countless causes and conditions.  The chain of causes and conditions extends endlessly without arriving at the origin. In this manner, one recognizes the originally non-arising nature of all things. There is no origin of all things except for their own originally non-arising quality.

Whenever people hear a language spoken, they hear the sound A (underlying all syllables). In the same manner, whenever people see all sorts of things, they see the originally non-arising.  Those who see things as originally non-arising will realize their minds as they really are.  Knowing one’s mind as it really is—that is the realization of the all-embracing wisdom.  This is the reason MahaVairocana made this single letter his seed mantra.

Kukai, The meanings of the word Hum


Vibrating in each other’s echoes are the five great elements that give rise to languages unique to each of the ten realms.  All in the six sense fields are letters, the letters of the Dharmakaya, which is reality.

Kukai, The meaning of Sound, Sign, and Reality


No sooner do the inner and outer breath issue forth than there is invariably a vibration, and this is called “sound”. A vibration invariably due to sound, and so sound is the basis of the vibration. When a sound is uttered, it is not in vain: it invariably expresses the name of something, and this is termed “sign”.   A name invariably evokes the essence of an object, and this is called reality.

Kukai, The meaning of Sound, Sign, and Reality


The Mantras of the Perfectly Enlightened Ones

Are the generative process of signs

Like the teaching of Indra’s jeweled net

They consummate all sorts of meanings

Kukai, The meaning of Sound, Sign, and Reality


To be continued…..

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