On Mantric Traditions: the teachings of Kukai and Sri Aurobindo
by Rod Hemsell
In the 9th century a Japanese Buddhist monk named Kukai founded a school of Vajrayana Buddhism which is still alive today in Japan, known as Shingon (meaning mantra). Kukai taught the Mahavairocana Sutra and other sacred Buddhist texts and practices in Sanskrit that he brought to Japan from China. He also taught bija or root sound mantras and commented extensively on them. This is one such mantra: A Va Ra Ha Kha Hum. The syllables, according to Kukai, were interpreted as follows: A = the unborn, earth; Va = something language cannot communicate, water; Ra = free from all that is elemental, fire; Ha = what transcends causality, wind; Kha = the void, space; Hum = consciousness of that. His poetic interpretation of the mantra, or its meaning, translates as:
I have realized that which is unborn.
It is that which language cannot communicate.
It is free from all defilements.
It transcends causality.
I know this void that is like space.
It is important to note that the meaning given to the root sounds, and their elemental associations with earth, fire, wind, space, has the intention of creating in the mind a consciousness of emptiness. This is of course one of the fundamental goals of Vajrayana Buddhist practice. According to Kukai, the practitioner who repeats the mantra a million times will attain an understanding of all scripture. We might think of this goal as what is known in the Tibetan Vajrayana teaching of Dzogchen as one in which the "spontaneous arising of clear light mind" is realized, whose characteristic is emptiness and perfection. In it all things that arise in time and space are known as that.
This state of consciousness emphasized in Buddhism is one that strikes me as being what is also referred to in Hindu yoga texts as the akshara or sat purusha. A verse that relates this experience in the Upanishads says "That Self, there and there, He am I." In many of the cantos of Savitri this state is invoked as a necessary prerequisite to the descent of the mahashakti and realization of the param purusha or ishwara. It is brought about through the rejection of thoughts and emotions, and through achieving a profound state of stillness in which one can become conscious of the one Self of all, witness of all, yet unmoving and unmoved behind the play of differences. It is said to be "without scar of imperfection.
If we take the further realization of the param purusha to be the desirable goal beyond pure and absolute emptiness, then we can perhaps invest those same seed sounds with this intention. For example, we might assign to A Va Ra Ha Kha Hum the meaning: earth the foundation, water the pure birth, fire the creator will, wind the ascending spirit, space the soul of luminous truth, in which I behold the absolute bliss.
Performing this transposition of intention, we could come up with a kind of Vedic interpretation of the same mantra, as an invocation and affirmation of the supreme truth-consciousness:
O Earth the foundation, Water the pure birth, Fire the creator will,
Air the ascending spirit, Bliss the conscious truth of being,
O Divine Body, Life, Mind, Psychic sun, and Supermind,
Descend with the seeds of all creation,
That all may return to thee in time, and embody divine perfection.
Then Avarahakhahum becomes virtually identical with Omnamobhagavate. Since it has traditionally been used to signify emptiness, it may not be so easy to make it carry this heightened meaning. Perhaps we would need to add the syllables sachchidananda before the hum. But at the same time, since the absolute emptiness contains the divine bliss, and out of it comes all creation, there is no reason why it cannot have this meaning, if we choose for it to be so, and convey through it this truth. The principle of mantra depends on the meaning and intention that radiates through the consciousness of the yogi in the form of sounds and meanings that should invoke certain spiritual presences and truths. The yogi imbues the words with a specific meaning and transmits that realization to others through the sounds.
The advantage to chanting Savitri (1950) is that the meanings given to the sounds by Sri Aurobindo are already signified, more or less, by the words themselves, and there is no need to impose on them a mystical or spiritual interpretation. But the formulation and interpretation are still true only if we hear and feel the intention that he has put into them. They have to attune us to their meaning. Kukai undoubtedly spent a lifetime attuning his disciples to the meanings of the sutras and mantras that he used to embody the truths that he had realized, and that they represented.
In Savitri, Sri Aurobindo frequently presents these two ideas or states of consciousness - emptiness and fruition, let us say - in succession, as if they were somehow necessary to each other. For example, in the yoga of Savitri narrated in Book Seven, Canto Five:
In a simple purity of emptiness
Her mind knelt down before the Unknowable.
In endless Time her soul reached a wide end,
The spaceless Vast became her spirit's place.
This experience seems quite parallel, if not identical, to the one related by Kukai. And in Savitri, Sri Aurobindo similarly relates the experience of Aswapati (the Hero), achieved through a lifetime of yoga tapasya, in Book Three, Canto One:
A Vastness brooded free from sense of Space,
An Everlastingness cut off from Time;
A strange, sublime, inalterable Peace
Silent rejected from it world and soul.
There was no mind there with its need to know,
There was no heart there with its need to love.
All person perished in its namelessness.
The great stride taken by Sri Aurobindo in his yoga of transformation is of course revealed to Aswapati just beyond, or perhaps within, this state of absolute emptiness. But its justification, as well as that of its prerequisite emptiness, is also stated frequently and explicitly, as in these lines also from Book Three, Canto Two:
A high and blank negation is not all,
A huge extinction is not God's last word,
Life's ultimate sense, the close of being's course. …
In absolute silence sleeps an absolute Power.
It is the awakening of that Power, and its descent into the vacant heart and soul of the spiritual aspirant that is given equal importance, and receives the ultimate emphasis, by the mantra of transformation. In the yoga of Savitri, it has this formulation:
As in a flash from a supernal light,
A living image of the original Power,
A face, a form came down into her heart
And made of it its temple and pure abode.
All underwent a high celestial change:
Breaking the black Inconscient's blind mute wall,
Effacing the circles of the Ignorance,
Powers and divinities burst flaming forth;
Each part of the being trembling with delight
Lay overwhelmed with tides of happiness
And saw her hand in every circumstance
And felt her touch in every limb and cell. (VII.V)
The result of this yoga tapasya, however, is a transformation that goes far beyond the experience of the descent of a divine force into the yogi's vacant heart and mind. And this is the importance of the step taken in the history of spiritual evolution by Sri Aurobindo:
A divine Puissance then takes Nature's place
And pushes the movements of our body and mind;
Possessor of our passionate hopes and dreams,
The beloved despot of our thoughts and acts,
She streams into us with her unbound force,
Into mortal limbs the Immortal's power.
An inner law of beauty shapes our lives;
Our words become the natural speech of Truth,
Each thought is a ripple on a sea of Light. (VII.V)
Just as the Mahavairocana Sutra prepares the ground for Avarahakhahum, so Savitri prepares the ground for Omnamobhagavate. But Omnamobhagavatevasudevaya, like Omnamahshivaya, are ancient mantras of liberation that invoked and affirmed the Supreme Lord as the end and beginning of all creation yet free from both, - or as Sri Aurobindo chants in Savitri, "the pure existence ever the same/the sheer consciousness and absolute force/ the unimaginable and formless bliss/the triune being who is all and one/and yet no one but himself apart." A new ground of spiritual truth and aspiration has been prepared by Savitri, and a new intention - the spiritual transformation of matter, life, and mind - has been given, which transforms both the mantra and the purpose or end with which it has been invested by the master yogi. The emptiness comes to fruition not in liberation but in transformation.
Knowing this, we can understand better the Mother's statements regarding the revelation of the secrets of all yogas by Savitri, as well as the continuity in the traditions and in their use of mantra, between the yoga schools of Hinduism and Buddhism. Sri Aurobindo has applied this knowledge in his yoga of supramental transformation, and in its transmission to us through the mantric verses of Savitri.
The fullest and most perfect formulation in Savitri of the mantra of transformation, and the one that most perfectly combines and transforms the two mantric traditions, as well as defining the relation between nature and soul, Matter and Spirit, is this, from Book Seven, Canto Six:
Banish all thought from thee and be God's void.
Then shalt thou uncover the Unknowable
And the Superconscient conscious grow on thy tops;
Infinity's vision through thy gaze shall pierce;
Thou shalt look into the eyes of the Unknown,
Find the hid truth in things seen null and false,
Behind things known discover Mystery's rear.
Thou shalt be one with God's bare reality
And the miraculous world he has become
And the diviner miracle still to be
When Nature who is now unconscious god
Translucent grows to the Eternal's light,
Her seeing his sight, her walk his steps of power
And life is filled with a spiritual joy
And Matter is the Spirit's willing bride.
Consent to be nothing and none, dissolve Time's work,
Cast off thy mind, step back from form and name.
Annul thyself that only God may be.
Annul thyself that only God may be. Isn't that the meaning of Om Namo Bhagavate?
On Mantric Traditions (2)
Among the many commentaries on the yoga of supramental transformation in the works of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Mother's Agenda is above all a record of her experience of transformation. In it we find this, in 1965 (Vol. 6):
Of all the formulas or mantras, the one that has the most direct effect on this body is the Sanskrit mantra: Om Namo Bhagavate. The first word, OM, represents the supreme invocation, the invocation of the Supreme. The second word, NAMO, represents total self-giving, perfect surrender. The third word, BHAGAVATE, represents the aspiration, what the manifestation must become - Divine. …
When I sit in meditation or I have a minute of quiet concentration, this mantra arises from the solar plexus, and there is a response in the cells of the body: they all start vibrating. Everything gets filled with Light! …
I am absolutely convinced that the life of this body - what makes it move and progress - can be replaced by a force. That is, a sort of immortality can develop and the body's wear and tear can disappear. These two things are possible: the power of life can develop and the wear and tear can disappear. This can evolve psychologically, through total obedience to the divine Impulsion, so that at every moment the necessary force is there and the necessary action is performed.
The idea that is reinforced throughout the Agenda is that the mantra "Omnamobhagavate" is a mantra of self-abnegation, of surrender to the supreme divine force. Then we come back to the descriptions of mind and life being replaced by the divine force in Savitri,
The immortal's thoughts displaced our bounded view,
The immortal's thoughts earth's drab idea and sense;
All things now bore a deeper heavenlier sense.
A glad clear harmony marked their truth's outline,
Reset the balance and measures of the world.
Each shape showed its occult design, unveiled
God's meaning for which it was made
And the vivid splendour of his artist thought.
A channel of the mighty Mother's choice,
The immortal's will took into its calm control
Our blind or erring government of life;
A loose republic once of wants and needs,
Then bowed to the uncertain sovereign mind,
Life now obeyed to a diviner rule
And every act became an act of God. (VII.V)
To understand how this change comes about, we must necessarily recall the imperative declaration in Savitri which gives the key to this change and provides the closest sense and meaning of the mantra Omnamobhagavate: "Annul thyself, that only God may be." And then the crucial transition, and the mysterious combination, the dis- or re-placement:
This void held more than all the teeming worlds,
This blank felt more than all that time has borne,
This dark knew dumbly, immensely the Unknown.
But all was formless, voiceless, infinite. …
At last a change approached, the emptiness broke; …
Heaven leaned low to kiss the sacred hill,
The air trembled with passion and delight. (VII.V)
Her vacant heart was like a stringless harp;
Impassive the body claimed not its own voice,
But let the luminous greatness through it pass.
A dual Power at being's occult poles
Still acted, nameless and invisible:
Her divine emptiness was their instrument. (VII.VII)
Through a comparison of certain Shingon texts of Kukai (a.k.a. Kobo Daishi) and passages from Sri Aurobindo's Savitri, we may begin to discover how the mantra is used in certain Hindu (Adwaita Vedanta) and Buddhist (Vajrayana) traditions by master yogis to impart specific states of consciousness. Mantras are understood by the practitioners of these esoteric traditions to be "words of power." They are intended to convey directly to the perception of the hearer the understanding, knowledge, or state of consciousness that they express. It is because of this that the Mother is able to say of a specific mantra, that it "has the most effect" on her body. And the nature of the effect that she refers to is described extensively both by her in the Agenda and by Sri Aurobindo in Savitri. It is a concrete, definable, spiritual perception and consciousness.
Similarly, in the teachings of Kukai we find elaborate descriptions of the desired states of consciousness to be realized, and the words of power that somehow represent and facilitate those states. In a treatise titled Principles for Attaining Buddhahood in This Body by Kukai, these instructions, definitions, and objectives are stated:
(1) The Diamond Peak Sutra says,
"Those who practice this Samadhi
Will realize Buddha's Bodhi with the present (body)."
"This Samadhi" refers to the Samadhi of One Letter (i.e. BHRUM) representing the Bhagavat Mahavairocana incarnated as a Golden Cakravartin.
(2) Again, it is said,
"If there are beings who encounter this teaching
And practice it diligently, day and night, throughout the four periods of day,
They will attain the stage of Joy in this life
And realize Enlightenment after sixteen lives."
(3) Again, it is said,
"If one practices in accordance with this supreme principle,
One will attain the highest Enlightenment in this life."
(4) Again, it is said,
"You should know that your body
Becomes the Vajradhatu.
When your body has become Vajra,
It is firm, solid and indestructible.
I have attained the Vajra-body."
(5) The Mahavairocana Sutra says,
"Without abandoning this body,
One attains supernatural power over the objective world,
Wanders freely in the state of great void,
And, moreover, accomplishes the Bodily Mystery."
(6) Again, it says,
"If you want to enter Perfection (Siddhi) in this life,
Comply with (your Buddha's) empowerment and contemplate on it.
After receiving the Mantra (of your Buddha) personally from your reverend teacher.
Meditate on it until you become united with it. Then you will attain Perfection."
"Perfection" mentioned in the sutra refers to the Perfection (of five supernatural powers, etc.) by holding the Mantra and the Perfection of the Buddhahood of Dharmakaya. "The state of great void" means that Dharmakaya is unhindered like the great space, contains all the phenomenal forms and is everlasting; hence, "great void". It is the basis on which all existing things rest; hence, "state".
(7) Also it is said in the Bodhisattva Nagarjuna's Treatise on Bodhi-Mind, "In the Mantra teaching alone is found (the theory of) attaining Buddhahood with the present body. Hence, it expounds the method of Samadhi. It is not found or mentioned in the various other teachings." ( Kobu Daishi, Sokushin-jobutsu-gi, trans. Hisao Inagahi, E-sangha, Nov. 30, 2003)
For those unfamiliar with Buddhist and Sanskrit terminology, bodhi is a term for enlightenment or realization, vajra is used variously to mean thunderbolt, lightning, and diamond, vairocana means the sun of enlightenment, and Mahavairocana is the name for the primordial Buddha or eternal source of truth, who sits at the center of the Buddhist mandalas and is the source of all buddhas and paths, cakravartin (chakravartin) is the term for the perfect or ideal earthly ruler, and a siddhi is a spiritual power and attainment. We can easily discover many parallels between these traditional concepts and terms and the images used by Sri Aurobindo in Savitri. For example, upon hearing the sacred Voice or "word" that calls her to yoga, as if from her own higher Self, Savitri seems to become that solid and indestructible body and diamond peak vision:
Above her brows where will and knowledge meet
A mighty Voice invaded mortal space.
It seemed to come from inaccessible heights
And yet was intimate with all the world
And knew the meaning of the steps of Time
And saw eternal destiny's changeless scene
Filling the far prospect of the cosmic gaze.
As the voice touched, her body became a stark
And rigid golden statue of motionless trance,
A stone of God lit by an amethyst soul.
Around her body's stillness all grew still. (VII.II)
And after her sojourn through the void (Dharmakaya), Savitri finally meets her secret soul, and it is as though she meets that same sun of truth symbolized by the Bhagavan Mahavairocana, along with all the divinities of the descending planes of existence:
A sealed identity within her woke;
She knew herself the Beloved of the Supreme:
These Gods and Goddesses were he and she:
The Mother was she of Beauty and Delight,
The Word in Brahma's vast creating clasp,
The World-Puissance on almighty Shiva's lap, -
The Master and the Mother of all lives
Watching the worlds their twin regard had made,
And Krishna and Radha for ever entwined in bliss,
The Adorer and Adored self-lost and one.
In the last chamber on a golden seat
One sat whose shape no vision could define;
Only one felt the world's unattainable fount,
A Power of which she was a straying Force,
An invisible Beauty, goal of the world's desire,
A Sun of which all knowledge is a beam,
A Greatness without whom no life could be. (VII.V)
Perhaps we are prepared at this point, by the references to mantra that have been gathered and the spiritual states that such words of power can apparently invoke, to ask how this happens? What is the relationship between the word and the experience that enables this process to take place? What is its principle? And what does this tell us about the nature of language, reality, and ourselves?
To begin to answer these questions, let us turn first to the traditional teachings of Vedanta and Yoga on the subject. SwamiVishnu Devananda, in his classical and comprehensive compendium on Hindu yoga systems, says this:
"Mantras are Sanskrit invocations of the supreme Being. Reinforced and propelled by japa meditation (repetition of the words, either audibly, whispered, or in a concentrated mental silence), they pass from the verbal level through the mental and telepathic states, and on to pure thought energy. … As a specialized sound-body of consciousness, the Mantra is the deity itself. The form of the deity manifests as the visible portion of the sound. The Mantra, therefore, must be repeated in the proper way, with attention to the syllables and rhythm. … Every true Mantra fulfills six conditions. 1)
It was originally revealed to a sage, who achieved self-realization through it and passed it down to others. 2) It has a presiding deity and 3) a specific meter. 4) It possesses a bija, or seed, investing it with a special power that is the essence of the Mantra. 5) It has dynamic divine power, or Shakti. 6) There is a plug that conceals the pure consciousness hidden in the Mantra. As soon as the plug is removed by constant prolonged repetition, pure consciousness is revealed, and the devotee receives the vision of his deity." (Meditation and Mantras, Japa Meditation Practice, 1978)
The aspects of mantra given the greatest emphasis and value by Sri Aurobindo are the quality of the inspiration, the quality of the sound, and the quality of the consequent "seeing" or realization. Let us note here also that mantra and japa have been defined by Devananda in terms of the traditional knowledge of yoga systems and Sanskrit usage. Another term that may concern us is sutra, which is an aphoristic form of verse used to communicate the philosophy, psychology, cosmology - and generally the wisdom - of the Sanskritic spiritual traditions. It should be clear that the principles of mantra can be present in both japa and sutra. It should also be obvious that Savitri could be considered in each of these categories. Various comments made by the Mother about the importance, for the aspirant, of reading Savitri frequently, about the knowledge of yoga and nature and the cosmos contained in it, and about its ability to serve one as the guide to the highest realizations of the yoga of transformation, indicate that it should in fact be considered in all three categories of spiritual speech/writing. Because it is such a creation, it is able to transmit and build up in the consciousness of one who hears its formulations of sound and syntax, of rhythm, image, idea and meaning, the spiritual states of which it speaks. Its presiding deity is of course Savitri, the creative word and force of the Supreme.
Conclusion: Postmodernism and Spirituality
Let us now attempt to put the questions that we have asked into a philosophical perspective, and perhaps make some progress toward achieving a better understanding of this mysterious power of speech. To do this, it may help us to utilize some of the tools of Western philosophy, especially those of phenomenology and fundamental ontology developed by Husserl, Heidegger, and Derrida, as well as the tools of Vedanta as formulated and developed by Sri Aurobindo.
What we usually mean by human consciousness is a perception of the world of forms and patterns in and around us, and our ability to have feelings and thoughts about that world of perception. How we happen to be able to have such perceptions and thoughts in the first place, or how the world we experience produces them in us, is still a mystery. It is this mystery of being and knowing, of perception and meaning, consciousness of self and world, that provides the primary subject matter of philosophy. And to heighten the mystery, there is the amazing phenomenon of language that mediates this world of experience, perception and thought that we call human consciousness. With it we are able to relate meaningfully to our world, and to question its meaning.
The paradigm of understanding that is emerging through this process of essential questioning holds that our conscious perceptions mirror the patterns and processes that actually exist in substantial material, vital, and mental forms, and that these objects of consciousness are somehow both a part of our reflecting self and yet other than it. We are also able to remember or store traces of the forms that we perceive, including our own thoughts and feelings, and draw upon that unconscious store of invisible impressions, spontaneously or at will. Because the world of recurring forms and patterns that we experience is to a considerable extent logical, predictable, and consistent, our thoughts and impressions tend to be like the world they mirror. But our thought is also capable of theorizing, imagining, and creating systems of poetry and philosophy, fiction and drama, religion and art and science that are more real and powerful to us than the empirical world of experience that is their foundation. These systems of thought, which we think of as the higher mental or spiritual dimension of our consciousness, have an enormous influence on the "other" world of "material" forms and forces. They color it with their values and shape it with their spiritual force.
And here we glimpse the origin of the fundamental dichotomy in human consciousness, between the physical and the spiritual, the sensible and the intelligible, matter and mind. But phenomenology, in the most recent decades of philosophical thought, - which we term the postmodern period, - has reached the relatively enlightened conclusion that the forms of thought and the forms of matter and life are variations of the same; they have a relationship of identity and yet of difference; they reflect each other; matter, life, mind, and spirit are planes of the same reality, differentiated only by levels of energy and principles of organization.
Everything is the same, and yet nothing is the same. The identity of each form or pattern is determined by its duration and its difference from other forms and patterns in time and space. Its duration and difference are its being, and that being is also what we call consciousness; it is what is absent in the presence of things. The level of reality at which forms, patterns and principles exist, in a world of ceaseless transformations of energy and constant change, is the plane of the idea, the concept, the symbol - the objects of mental consciousness. But what we call duration and difference, pattern and permanence, as a whole, is Consciousness. And the world that it mirrors and understands is its world of Force. They are variations of the same reality, a perpetual differentiation in time and space, obverse and reverse of the Same. With this thought, phenomenology approaches the Vedantic understanding of the Self or Purusha, one in all, and Prakriti, its dynamic force-nature.
Language and symbol, at the ordinary mental level of humanity, reflect the reality of experience and perception at that level. If I say, "You have the tea and I'll have the coffee," we understand exactly the complex conditions, causes, preferences, actual physical circumstances that make the statement meaningful, and we act accordingly. In every aspect of the situation we perceive difference and yet we know the sameness in the patterns. This basic nature of reality is called differance by Derrida, basing his thought on the idea of identity and difference in the relationship of Being to beings, and of concepts to things, developed first by Heidegger and Husserl. But if everything is Force and Difference, what is The Same, what is Being?
In Sri Aurobindo's terms, it is the Self, and it is the Infinite, - the one that becomes the many and is yet none. Now, if That is present - as the Presence - in everything, from the most material to the most ethereal, from the highest universal principles to the minutest particles of energy, and if That finds a mortal Voice - if a human being's consciousness raises its vibrational level and expands into the plane of pure principle (sometimes referred to as the plane of the "gods"), while still being grounded in a physical body, - its permanence and stability combined with its circumstances of complex differentiation produce formulations of thought and speech that convey a higher than the ordinary perception. Its vibrations and quanta of consciousness-force can convey Beauty and Truth, Life and Bliss, Suffering and Death, Love and Compassion, in sounds and images, feelings and meanings, as concretely as tea and coffee. It can convey perfectly its awareness of the beauty in the principle of Fibonacci numbers, for example, as they repeat themselves in all the forms of life. It can convey the power of the principle of Nature, or Prakriti, to infinitely diversify its immortal patterns in time and space. It can convey the permanence and imperturbability of its principle of causal being, in the changing forms of beings, and in perceptions of their underlying truth. That Permanence is its Stillness. Its Identity is their Difference; its Consciousness their Force.
At one point in time this "spiritual" consciousness might set in motion a path of liberation and compassion for an emergent humanity; at another it might call down a force to abolish suffering and evolve a superhumanity and life divine. These are the perceptions and words that mark an epoch and constitute hope for the future, the seed sounds and thoughts that affirm the promise of the eternal return and abundance of the Same in Time.
From time immemorial there have been mystics and seers who have grasped the incomprehensible and brought its force to bear on humanity. Those are the minds that have seen the Self in all, and in that perception they have declared the unity of truth, as in Sri Aurobindo's mantric verse: Truth made the world, not a blind nature-force. But this is not "truth" as we normally think of it; not an adequate or brilliant adjustment of perception to reality, of thought to experience. This truth is the world of perception and the infinite diversity of form and force. It is the Self that is the same, and differance is its way of being. Thus it is Time and Space, and yet its experience is an Effulgence, timeless and spaceless, an effulgence of self-giving, an infinite of compassion, a perfect Emptiness, Mother and Master of all the worlds, Mahavairocana.
Philosophy has begun to approach a thought and speech that comprehends the Infinite. Mantra is the power to reveal it. It is the Infinite in mortal form, the sign of Immortal Energy, and its condition is a spiritual perception that is able to, as Sri Aurobindo says in Savitri: In living symbols study reality/And learn the logic of the Infinite.
Om Namo Bhagavate.