28 April 2007

The Yellow Rite

Yellow is the colour of the sun, of gold, and of fields of grain in the autumn just prior to harvest. Hence it is associated with richness, abundance, and fecundity. The sun is probably the most important thing in India and features in the mythologies of all the various sub-cultures. It is also a potent symbol. For the last five years I've lived in Cambridge England. When you are 52 degrees north of the equator the sun is never directly overhead. But in India the sun is high in the sky even in winter. The sun is the key to everything. Just enough and the plants grow and ripen, but too much and plants, animals and people start to die. The sun has many names in India - Sūrya, Vairocana, Prabhakara, Āditya, Mitra, Savitri, etc. Gold is a precious substance where ever it is found. Gold does not tarnish. It is both ductile and malleable and can be made into any shape, or beaten so thin that light passes through it, picking up a greenish tinge on the way. The Aryan people were golden skinned, and Buddhists insisted that the Buddha was the colour of gold.

So it should come as no surprise that the Yellow, or Golden Rite is the Rite of Abundance and Increase. This rite can be used to gain wealth, to be materially rich, but spiritually speaking the greatest wealth is not material, it is knowledge and vision of how things really are. However there is often a middle ground in the use of this rite. In the Tara Tantra it says by this rite, one will be endowed with necessary goods, long life, beautiful appearance, and strength. In the form of the Tara mantra addressed to White Tara one requests that Tara grant you long life, merit and wisdom. But why these qualities? It is said that these things - long life, beauty, strength, merit, wisdom etc. - all help the Bodhisattva to spread the message of the Buddha and to sustain them in their repeated sojourns in saṃsara. One requests the material things that will best support one's spiritual progress in other words!

I'll talk about two applications of the Yellow Rite: gratitude and generosity. With my usual disclaimer about my rather idiosyncratic approach to this kind of magic.

Gratitude is a very positive mental state. By cultivating a sense of gratitude for what we already have we do begin to experience a sense of abundance. Often our dissatisfaction with what we have, whether it be a sexual partner, a car, or whatever, is because we have ceased to pay attention to the fact that we have it. Because the grass is always greener on the other side, we stop looking at the grass on this side. Gratitude brings us back into relationship with our immediate surroundings, our personal possessions and helps up to appreciate how lucky we are. In other words gratitude helps us reconnect with the fundamental interconnectedness of the cosmos. This is the essence of tantric magic according to Ariel Glucklich who studied modern day tantric magi in Varanasi.*

Even if things could always be better, anyone well-off enough to read these words on the internet probably has plenty to be grateful for. Gratitude is a way of creating awareness of abundance, the abundance that we already have, and which can help to counteract the feeling that we don't have enough, or even that we aren't good enough. From a state of abundance, we are always ready to give, which leads us onto generosity.

Generosity is giving from a sense of abundance, and it creates abundance for others. I've written quite a bit about generosity in my take on the six perfections for instance, or in the story of my generous friend Kapil. I see one of the primary aspects of generosity as making us aware of other people. But the Yellow Rite it is also a way to create a sense of abundance in everyone around us. If we all gave until we "swooned with joy" then what abundance there would be! Generosity is also about letting go of attachments, and this again creates a sense of abundance in us.

You can see that I am not advocating the Yellow Rite as a way of getting what you want, although this aspect of the rite is present in the texts. The Buddha was quite clear that amassing a fortune, acquiring lovers and families, storing up food, or gold, or favours, etc would not provide any lasting satisfaction. At the very least we are all going to die. A mountain of gold will not change this fact. A dozen beautiful lovers will not prevent us getting old. And most of us will get sick at some point despite having a hundred DVD's in our collection. Actually it is possible to be happy and have very few possessions. Remember back in the 1980's when Ronald Reagan was pursuing the arms race with Soviet Russia and it was announced that there were enough nuclear weapons on both sides to destroy all life on the planet 100 times over? I remember thinking how insane that situation was. I remember thinking what's the point? Sometimes having more of something is completely pointless.

In my blog post about the yellow Buddha Ratnasambhava I pointed out that he represents both our highest ideals - the jewel of Awakening - and our most fundamental value - generosity. The Yellow Rite is concerned with activating the latter in pursuit of the former.

* Ariel Glucklich (1997) The End of Magic. Oxford University Press Inc, USA.

14 April 2007

Lucifer... still up there!

One of the joys of being on my ordination retreat was that we were a long way from the light pollution of 'civilisation'. So for the first time I got to see the northern stars! Each night as we emerged from our evening puja at about 10pm I would pause to look up and marvel at the stars - viewing was good about 95% of the time.

When the retreat started in early April, Leo was almost directly overhead at that time of night. Orion was still above the western horizon, and many other constellations which I had never seen before were also visible - notably Ursa Minor and the Pole Star, a real novelty for this southern hemisphere dweller. As the weeks went by Orion strayed closer to the horizon each night until he was no longer visible at 10pm, and Leo was chasing after him, leaving Virgo and then Libra to the top spot.

But what really captivated me was Venus, Lucifer, the Evening Star. The name Lucifer means simply "Light Bringer" and probably refers to his being the brightest star in the heavens. By lining up a couple of pointer stars I was able to observe Lucifer moving against the backdrop of the stars, and even, after a few weeks for him to go retrograde and retrace his steps. This is one of those things that I have seemingly always known about, taken for granted even, but can now confirm, having seen it with my own eyes.

The linking of Lucifer, the Morning Star, with Satan or the Devil in the Christian tradition is usually put down to a misreading of Isaiah (14:12) "How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning!". Isaiah it seems was referring symbollically to a king of Babylon, probably Nebuchadnezzar (though this is disputed). Origen (The 3rd Century Christian Father) seems to have been the first to make the misidentification, although it was Augustine who cemented it (in The City of God, XI,15), and Dante who popularised it. The whole story of the Christian Devil seems to be a comedy of errors - recounted in many places although my favourite is an art book by Luther Link - The Devil : the Archfiend in art from the 6th to the 16th century.

However as my observations have made clear, and this is my point, far from having fallen, Lucifer is still the brightest star and still traverses the heavens! Although the misidentification is patent, and deflates the idea of the morning star being related to evil incarnate, this observation still seems significant to me. For one thing it shows how a simple misunderstanding can propagate through a civilisation and become significant - a meme with a life of it's own. For another it reminds me that the understanding of Heaven and Hell in the west owes more to Dante and Milton than to the Bible. I recently rewatched the film Dogma which despite it's ironically didactic, even evengelical, tone (seeking to convert us not to Christianity, but to a very liberal humanism), relies on Dante and Milton for it's imagery and story without seemingly being at all aware that it is doing so.

Perhaps the unfallen Lucifer reminds us that unacknowledged aspects of our psyche - what Jung called the Shadow - can still be manifest, even if we ignore, or demonise them. He also reminds us that what is unacknowledged need not in fact be 'bad' or 'evil', but can be, like Lucifer, a bringer of light. Interestingly when reading Milton the modern reader generally seems to find Lucifer the more symapthetic character. Jehovah comes across as domineering and bombastic, whereas Lucifer clearly has good cause - it seems from the story - to be unhappy with the abitrary and summary way in which he is displaced in the eyes of the creator by the rather wet figure of Jesus. 'Self-awareness - an important aspect of Buddhist practice - means taking in every aspect of our psyche including the bits we would rather not. Indeed spiritual progress is hardly thinkable without acknowledging that currently we are sunk in a mire of greed and hatred and delusion. For Shinran this was so much the case that he could not conceive of us ever escaping without the grace of the Buddha to extract us.

However Lucifer is also a bright star and this reminds us that there is hope, there is light in the world. Light is a frequent symbol in Buddhist texts - the Buddha is a lamp who lights the way in the darkness of our ignorance. We Western Buddhists have responded strongly to the image which is seen in our adoption of "Enlightenment" as a translation for Bodhi despite the two concepts being etymologically unrelated. Ignorance is darkness, and Awareness is light. In the Mahayana texts Buddhas are often seen illuminating the universe with rays of light, and Bodhisattvas themselves are said to be made of light. For Buddhists the Buddha is the light at the end of the tunnel, and the central image of the Bardo Thodol is of the light of the Dharmadhatu.

The goal of Buddhists is not simply to bask in the light of a saviour, even in Pure Land Buddhism! It is to become Buddhas, to becomes a lamp ourselves. If we make the effort towards awareness then we become light bringers too!

- Image: Lucifer (before the fall), William Blake.

05 April 2007

The Mystical ARAPACANA Alphabet

Manjughosa and his twin Manjusri are well known Mayahana figures. Both are youths of 16, the colour of a tiger's eye, brandishing a flaming sword, and holding a book - the Pefection of Wisdom in 8000 lines. Their mantra is pretty common in the FWBO as it's one of the nine chanted at the end of seven-fold pujas: oṃ a ra pa ca na dhiḥ. Om is a sacred Indian sound symbol which is at once very simple, but very difficult to write about without becoming trite. Dhih is a seed syllable which is associated with perfect wisdom. Again I find it difficult to write much about dhih. It seems to me that the om and dhih simply indicate that arapacana found a home in the generalised Mahayana cult of the dharani (about which more another time). However I recently turned up something interesting about arapacana that I would like to share.

arapacana is made up of the first five syllables of an alphabet which occurs in the Perfection of Wisdom in 25,000 lines - translated by Edward Conze as The Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom. I need to clarify 'alphabet' a bit. Actually Sanskrit is a syllabic language, which means that a consonant is almost always associated with a vowel. The most basic, unmarked, form assumes the short 'a' vowel sound which you hear in the English word but. That's why the 'alphabet' is not written in roman characters as arpcn! So this alphabet is spelt out in the Sutra, and each syllable is associated with some aspect of perfect wisdom. A, for instance, stands for anutpada - unarisen - and refers to the idea that no actual 'things' ultimately exist, that there are just conglomerations of conditions which are constantly changing. One of the most important conditions being our perception and the associated mental processes.

The alert amongst you will already have clocked that the Sanskrit alphabet does not begin a ra pa ca na - it begins with the vowels a, i, u, e, o, etc, in their short and long forms. Even the consonants start with ka, kha, ga, gha, nga, etc. So this is not the Sanskrit alphabet. Some scholars have postulated a Gandhari origin, or that it relates to the Karoshthi alphabet.* The earlier Lalitavistara Sutra also has an alphabet of Wisdom - this one is Sanskrit.

But why? What is special about the alphabet? The answer lies, I suggest, not in Buddhism at all but in one branch of Vedic exegesis known as Mimamsa (miimaa.msaa) which has origins almost as old as the Vedas themselves, although the first systematic account was Jaimini's Mimamsa Sutra probably written about 200 BCE - about a century before the Lalitavistara Sutra.

The central concern of the Mimamsa School was the status of the Vedas as divine revelation - and as such they parallel the Christian philosophers who sought to "prove" the divine status of the Christian Bible. The Indian problem was that the words used in the Vedas were (more or less ) the same words that ordinary people use in their banal conversations. What is so holy about them? A contemporary school, the Sphotavada, worked along the lines that the words were special because of the order that they were in - that it was the sentences of the Vedas that made them holy. The Mimamsa went in the other direction. The meaning of a sentence depends on the sum of the parts that make it up. The smallest units are what are true or real (both translations of satya) and in the case of Sanskrit this is the syllable. To quote Shabara, a mid-1st century BCE Mimamsa scholar:
"The word gauh (cow) is nothing more that the three phonemes which are found in it, namely g, au, and h... It is also these very phonemes which cause the understanding of the meaning of the word".
Contemporary scholar Guy Beck adds:
"The human process of comprehension is therein said to result from the mysterious accumulation of individual letter potencies (shakti), each of which leaves an impression or trace (samskara), which carries over onto the next letter or syllable".**
The early Upanishads contain several little treatises on the associations of syllables with esoteric meaning - Chandogya 1.3.6 for instance. But Shabara has taken this to it's logical conclusion and given significance to all of the syllables. This doesn't entirely solve the problem of logically establishing the revealed nature of the Vedas, but that need not distract us at present since that is not our project.

Shabara wrote in the time immediately preceding, or even slightly over-lapping, the rise of the Mahayana. We know that Buddhists, in accordance with the general Indian approach, were apt to incorporate any practice or idea which could be adapted to their use. It seems to me that in this case the Vedic linguistic speculations were adopted, and developed. The apotheosis of this occurs in the Mahavairocana Abhisambodhi Tantra where visualisation of the Sanskrit alphabet is recommended as a meditation practice.

It is interesting to note that this ancient India interest in the significance of words or syllables prefigures much of modern linguistics. Ferdinand de Saussure himself had held a professorship in Sanskrit before giving his lectures on general linguistics in 1910-11 that have set the agenda of linguistics ever since. Another interest contemporary parallel is in the research of Margaret Magnus. Magnus's doctoral thesis explored the way that phonemes (the smallest unit of articulate vocal sounds) bear meaning. Standard linguistic theory tells us that phonemes have an arbitrary relationship to meaning - that the sounds we use to indicate things or concepts are arbitrary and conventional. I don't have space in this post to go into the details of Magnus's findings, but I have repeated many of her experiments and I believe that phonemes are not entirely arbitrary.

The arapacana mantra, then, stands as an embodiment of a principle, put forward by the Mimamsa school on the basis of Upanishadic speculation, but taken up by Buddhists around the time of the rise of the Mahayana: that each and every articulate vocal sound has significance.

* see for instance: Richard Salomon. New Evidence for a Gandhari Origin of the Arapacana Syllabary. Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 110, No. 2 (Apr - Jun, 1990), pp. 255-273
** Guy L. Beck. Sonic Theology. (Delhi : Motilal Banarsidass, 1995, 1993), pp.61.

Sound files from my evening on the Arapacana Alphabet at the Cambridge Buddhist Centre, 1 Nov 2007.

15/3/08. I've just added a page to visblemantra.org which pulls out the bits of the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Sūtra related to the Wisdom Alphabet meditation, with a few added comments.
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