Buddhism, Its Elemental my dear Watson….Part VII, Visualization

Buddhism, Its Elemental my dear Watson….Part VII, Visualization

I have noticed that some readers are reading one part of this series or another.  While of course you are free to do what you like I would suggest that you will get more out of this series if you read them from start to finish as references are made back to earlier posts.  Also this series is not meant to be a comprehensive explanation of Esoteric Buddhism in any way.  I am trying to point out that in my own experience even a rudimentary understanding of the Esoteric principles brought many of the conventional Buddhist teachings into focus.  I am also trying to summarize the relationship between the more common conventional Buddhist ideas and the less known Esoteric ones.  I hope this will be of some help especially for those that what ever reason are trying to learn and understand Buddhism on their own.


When I came across the writings of Kukai (Kobodaishi) and the teachings of Shingon (Esoteric Buddhism) it both opened my mind to a new understanding of Buddhism as well as clarifying other Buddhist teachings that I thought I already had a pretty good grasp on.  As I mentioned earlier in this series when you are finished reading it go back and study some of the concepts that you may have had trouble understanding before and I think you will start to see connections and meanings that you had not realized before.  This is also true when it comes to Meditation (Zazen, Dhyana).


You now see books and videos all over the place touting all sorts of benefits of meditating.  Anywhere from stress relief to psychic powers and everywhere in between.  I am not going to try to deny that these things can be products of meditation.  My point is that from a Buddhist prospective these things are not the purpose or the goal, but are actually side effects.  The Buddha and all the enlightened Buddhist teachers have warned that these things should not be valued in and of themselves and should essentially be ignored.  If this is true then what is the purpose of meditation?


The Patriarch Nargarjuna spoke thusly: Zazen (Meditation, Dhyana) is the dharma of all the Buddha’s. Non-Buddhist also practice zazen. However, they make the mistake of coloring it; their incorrect views are like thorns.  Therefore, it cannot be the same as the Zazen of the Buddhas and Bodisattvas. Sravakas and Pratyeka Buddhas also do Zazen, but they only wish to control their minds and seek to reach Nirvana.  This is not the same Zazen of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.

Dogen Zenji (Zen Master Dogen), Eihei Koroku, volume 7


Before we talk about that though I would like to elaborate a little more about the connections that became apparent to me after learning about the Esoteric teachings.  When you first come into contact with Buddhism the number of different sects and all the “Yana’s” are very hard to get a handle on.  What makes this even worse is since they are all trying to teach a teaching that is “beyond words” the way they attempt to do this and the words that they use are different.  The amazing thing to me is when I started to go back and look again at these different groups and what they taught (after discovering the Esoteric teachings) I could now see that they were all actually saying the same thing!  They were just approaching the “teachings beyond words” from different angles.


So meditation is not about mind control, stress reduction, or gaining supernatural powers. Meditation is a practice to help us see and understand the reality of our true “self”.  A very prolific Zen master, Kosho Uchiyama, would refer to the “self” and the “Self”.  The “self” is our incorrect, deluded view of who and what we are.  The “Self” was the universal self that we truly are, in other words the Buddha MahaVarocana (Buddha Nature, The Unborn) that we have discussed earlier.


All the ideas of our small “self” are clouds that make the light of the universal “Self” foggy and dull. Doing Zazen (Meditation, Dhyana), we let go of these ideas and open our eyes to the clarity of the vital life of the universal “Self”.  In other words, when we believe (understand) that the truth of this small “self” as an individual entity is universal “Self” and actually practice the reality of life – do Zazen—then we discover the attitude of Zazen as true Buddhism. This Zazen is referred to as the Zazen of shojo no shu, that is, the activity of the reality of life.  Sho, sometimes translated as “Enlightenment” actually means “reality”. And since we are living the reality of the life of universal “Self”, we practice or actualize the reality of this life.  That is why it is referred to as shojo no shu –the activity of the reality of life.

Kosho Uchiyama, Opening the hand of thought – Approach to Zen


So here is a Zen master both confirming the existence of the universal “Self” and the difference between it and the small “self”.  He is also confirming that the purpose of Zazen (meditation) is to understand the reality of the universal “Self”.  When he was about to retire from the position of Abbot of the temple Antaj-ji he wrote these two poems alluding to the same points:


Leaving Antai-ji

As an old man

I have my practice.

It is different from that of youth.

It is not working facing outward,

But just facing inward,

Gazing at myself.

And like the clouds that

Disappear into the expansive sky

I, too, will



Kosho Uchiyama, Opening the hand of thought – Approach to Zen


Anyway this “I” is

The “Self” of the whole dharma world (The Dharmakaya, MahaVairocana)

Whether I think so or not.

This “Self” of the whole dharma world fulfills

The role of life when in the role of life,

And the role of death

When in the role of death.

Life is the manifestation of the whole function.

Death is the manifestation of the whole function.

Kosho Uchiyama, Opening the hand of thought – Approach to Zen


When you start understand that the Six Great Elements, Dharmakaya, MahaVairocana, Buddha Nature, The Unborn, and universal “Self” are all different terms for the same thing, then suddenly the Buddha’s teachings of Anatta (Not-Self) seem much clearer.  They are all just different expressions of the reality that is “beyond words”.


As I mentioned before Buddhism is full of symbolism and it’s purpose is again to convey a reality “beyond words”.  The importance of the teaching of “Not-self” cannot be overstated.  It is the common thread through so much of the Buddha Dharma.  It is being pointed to constantly in Buddhist teachings, practice, and ritual. The misunderstanding of this is what impedes our Buddhist vision.  It can be found in all Buddhist schools and in places or ways that wouldn’t necessarily be apparent.  We discussed earlier how the purpose of meditation (Zazen) was to realize the illusion of the small “self” and the reality of the universal “Self”.  You would not instantly make a connection between Zazen and Chanting the Nembutsu in the Pureland schools.  But let’s listen to Uchiyama Roshi once more:


When people of the Pure Land School chant Namu amida butsu, they are doing Zazen with their mouths, and when we do zazen, we are performing Namu amida butsu with our whole body.

Kosho Uchiyama, Opening the hand of thought – Approach to Zen


That sounds very esoteric doesn’t it?  It is very similar to Shingon where they perform Mantras with their mouth, and Mudras with their body. In Shingon, meditation, like in other Buddhist sects, is also a pivotal practice.  Although its purpose is the same as Zazen of the Zen schools (to point out the illusion of the small “self” and the reality of the universal “Self”) the method is different.  In Shingon meditation uses visualization to a very high level.  In the different visualization techniques they use different methods to point out Esoteric truths:


MahaVairocana is the Universe (not the scientific definition of the universe that contains within it all things, but in the Buddhist sense where the universe IS all things), the Dharmakaya, The Six Great Elements, Buddha Nature, the Unborn, universal “Self”, and “US”!  The universe is “us” and “we” are the universe.  Shingon employs a variety of different techniques to show this from many different angles.  Here are some of the meditation techniques used and a brief description.  This not meant to be instructional but rather to highlight the main teaching behind these different techniques.

 circulationImage from: Taiko Yamazaki – Shingon Japanese Esoteric Buddhism

Circulation technique – The practitioner recites a mantra related to the deity used for the meditation.  He visualizes the Mantra leaving his mouth and entering into the deity’s navel.  The Mantra then circles through the deity’s body and then out through it’s mouth.  It then reenters the practitioner at the crown of his head and circles the practitioners body.  Then the process is repeated.

Image from: Taiko Yamazaki – Shingon Japanese Esoteric Buddhism


 TransformationImage from: Taiko Yamazaki – Shingon Japanese Esoteric Buddhism


Image manifesting technique – The practitioner visualizes the deity (Buddha or Bodhisattva) entering his body. Then he visualizes himself entering the deity’s body. Then he visualizes himself and the deity as one.


Transformation technique – The practitioner visualizes himself as the Sanskrit Bija syllable Kham.  Then visualizes himself changing into the Samaya form the Sword of Wisdom. Lastly visualizes himself changing into the Bodhisattva Acala (Fudo Myoo).

 *note*  This process can be used with any deity (Buddha or Bodhisattva)


expansionImage from: Taiko Yamazaki – Shingon Japanese Esoteric Buddhism

Expansion and contraction technique – The practitioner visualizes his mind in the shape of a moon disk. Then the self becomes the moon disk. Then the moon expands to the size of the universe.




Ajikan meditation- First if you desire to visualize this syllable, find a place where the ceiling and the four walls do not seem cramped and is neither too dark nor to light, and sit there. If it is to dark, deluded thoughts will arise, and if it is too light the mind will be distracted.  At night sit with a dim lamp hung behind you. Place a cushion and sit in full or half lotus. Form the Dharma Realm Samadi Mudra and have your eyes neither fully open nor closed. If they are open, they will move and distract you, while if they are closed , you will sink into sleep. Narrow your eyelids without blinking and fix both eyeson the bridge of the nose.  If the tongue is put to the palate (Just behind the teeth), the breath will quiet itself. Do not shift or bend the lower back, but sit straight to aid the circulation.  If the blood circulation is impaired, illness may arise, or the mind may become disturbed.


Being careful in these things, first form the Vajra gassho and recite the Five Great Vows.  Next recite the five-syllable mantra of the Tai-zo one hundred times. Then perform the visualization. First visualize the syllable in its ultimate, essential aspect, then contemplate the truth of its limited phenomenal aspect…

Kukai, record of Oral instructions on the A-Syllable Visualization


The practitioner then brings the image of the “deity” within his breast using the image –manifesting technique.  He may also employ the transformation technique, internally visualizing the deity’s seed syllable (A) and samaya forms (Lotus and moon disk) transforming into the deity’s anthropomorphic form—which in this case is the practitioner himself.

Taiko Yamazaki, Shingon Japanese Esoteric Buddhism


So these meditation techniques are a continuation of the themes we saw earlier with the Buddhist symbols, Mantra, Mudra, and the Mandala.   They are:


The Six Great Elements make up the universe (all things).


MahaVairocana, The Dharmakaya, The Buddha Nature, and the Unborn are all representations of the universe.


The Sanskrit A-syllable (Pronounced AH) is both a visual and audible representation of MahaVairocana (Universe).  Whether it is voiced as in Mantra or visual it represents where all things spring from.


The small “self” is what “we” identify incorrectly as “us”.  The universal “Self” is our true self.  Our true “Self” is the Buddha MahaVairocana and the Buddha is “us”.


All of these visualization techniques have us go through a process of seeing ourselves as the Buddha and seeing the Buddha as ourselves.  This is because we are the Buddha, there is no seperation.


We need to understand that Anatta (Not-self), Anicca (Impermanence), Dhukkha (Unsatisfactoryness, Suffering),  Shunyata (Emptiness) and Karma (action) are all different teachings that point to the same ultimate truth.  That truth is that “we” are not separate from the universe, “we” are the universe, the universe is “us”.   “Our” actions affect the universe and all the other actions in the universe affect “us”.  “We” are MahaVairocana and MahaVairocana is “us”.   ‘We” are the Buddhas and the Buddhas are “us”.  There is no separation, there is nothing to obtain.  We only have to realize.


The A-syllable is the beginning source of Sanskrit.  In opening the mouth and calling out, there is sound of A. In other words, this is voice. The voice of the A-syllable can call out any name, and expresses the name-syllable of the Dharma body (Dharmakaya, MahaVairocanna).  In other words, this is the voiced syllable. What is the meaning of the Dharma body? The Dharma body means that all things are originally unborn. In other words, it is truth.

Kukai, True meaning of the Voiced Syllable


The A-syllable is the source of all Dharma teachings. In the sound made when the mouth first opens, there is always the sound of A. To be apart from the sound of A is to have no words.  Therefore it is the mother of all human speech.

The language of the three realms all depend on names.  Names depend on syllables. Therefore, the Siddham A-syllable is the mother of all syllables. This you should know. The true meaning of the syllable A is also like this, it’s meaning penetrating all things.

 What is this in the relative (Sho, limited, phenomenal) aspect?  There is nothing that is not born from a combination of causes, and all things born from cause have a beginning and a source. Examining how things that are born out of ultimate (No, essential) cause, again these are born from a multitude of causes and develop and transform I accordance with their cause.

 What is their root? Examining it in this way, we know the reality of the originally unborn.  This is the source of the myriad things.  In hearing all speech, one is hearing the voice of the A-syllable.  In the same way in looking at the birth of all things, one sees the reality of the originally unborn.

One who sees the originally unborn knows his own mind as it truly is, and knowing one’s own mind as it truly is, is the wisdom of ALL-Wisdom. Therefore the mantra of Dainichi Nyorai (MahaVairocana) is just this one syllable.

The commentary on the Dainichi-kyo (MahaVairocana Sutra)


To be continued….

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