30 October 2009

The Hundred Syllable Vajrasattva Mantra

100 syllable Vajrasattva Mantra in SiddhamIn this post I'll offer a brief commentary on the Vajrasattva mantra, drawing on an article which appeared in our WBO Order Journal in 1990. In his article Dharmacārin and Sanskritist Sthiramati (aka Dr Andrew Skilton - translator of the Bodhicaryāvatāra) addressed the issue of how to spell and interpret this mantra. Although his study was not exhaustive he was able to consult more than a dozen sources in English, Sanskrit and Tibetan and to produce an edited version of the mantra which now graces the FWBO Puja Book. [1] However Sthiramati's notes are not widely available (I know of only two extant copies of the issue) and so I have extracted them here along with my own glosses. Sthiramati's differs in some respects from traditional Tibetan interpretations but does so in ways that help to make sense of the Sanskrit - for instance in several cases he suggests breaking a sandhi [2] one syllable along in order to create a straightforward Sanskrit sentence that was otherwise obscured. There are a huge variety of transliterations, translations, and interpretations of this mantra. There's no one right way to understand a mantra, and I do not mean to down play the importance of traditional interpretations, but I do understand the mantra on my terms.

The Hundred Syllable Vajrasattva Mantra in Sanskrit
vajrasattva samayamanupālaya
dṛḍho me bhava
sutoṣyo me bhava
supoṣyo me bhava
anurakto me bhava
sarvasiddhiṃ me prayaccha
sarvakarmasu ca me cittaṃ śreyaḥ kuru
ha ha ha ha hoḥ
bhagavan sarvatathāgatavajra mā me muñca
vajrībhava mahāsamayasattva
The first thing to notice is that the mantra is in Sanskrit, and unlike most mantras contains mostly well formed grammatical sentences. This is very unusual in mantras! Each phrase has a verb in the second-person singular imperative mood (2.p.s imp). The imperative is used to express moderate to strong desires, injunctions and orders indicated in English by the exclamation mark - ! - 'let him!', 'you must!', 'you might!' I interpret the overall mood of the mantra as being fervent devotion.

The name Vajrasattva was likely modelled on the word bodhisattva. The vajra or thunderbolt was the weapon of the Vedic god Indra who, like the Greek Zeus, hurled them at his enemies. The word is not unknown in early Buddhist texts (in Pāli it is vajira) but in Tantra it is very prominent. By this time it also means 'diamond', and metaphorically it means 'reality'. Sattva is an abstract noun from sat 'true' or 'real' - literally 'truth' or 'reality'. In usage sattva is close in meaning to our word 'being' as in: 'a state of being', or 'a being'. Vajrasattva - the thunderbolt-being - is an embodiment of the true nature of experience.

In Buddhist mantras oṃ is there chiefly to signal that this is a mantra, or that the mantra starts here. Lama Govinda's eloquent speculations aside, the Buddhist oṃ does not seem to have the kind of esoteric significance it does in the Hindu traditions. [3] Note it is oṃ not auṃ, and in the original sources for Buddhist mantras we never find auṃ ॐ.

Taking the mantra one line at a time we find an ambiguity in the first line because of a sandhi phenomena. The line is conventionally written vajrasattvasamayamanupālaya leaving us to figure out the word breaks from our knowledge of Sanskrit grammar. 'Vajrasattva' is most likely to be a vocative singular, 'O Vajrasattva', so the mantra is addressed to Vajrasattva.

The phrase samayamanupālaya could be either samaya manupālaya or samayam anupālaya. Both are commonly seen and the former is a traditional Tibetan approach. Taking it to be samaya manupālaya creates some difficulties however. Manupālaya is interpreted as meaning 'a defender (pāla) of men (manu)' however pālaya is not proper word - at best it could be meant as a (commonly encountered in mantra) faux dative (pāla+ya), but even this is not much help. Manu might be man (singular) but when used this way seems to usually refer to the original progenitor - an equivalent to Adam. Manu more usually relates to the mind (cf. mati, manas). Whereas samayam anupālaya is a natural Sanskrit sentence with samayam (in the accusative case) being the object of the verb anupālaya (the subject being Vajrasattva). Anu+√pāl means 'preserve' and anupālaya is the 2.p.s imp. Samaya means 'coming together' or 'meeting', and is used in the sense of 'coming to an agreement'. In Tantric Buddhism it specifically refers to agreements the practitioner takes on when initiated. These agreements are sometimes referred to as a 'vow' or 'pledge', but a vow is something one takes on oneself whereas Vajrasattva is also bound by the agreement, so vow is not such a good translation. To preserve an agreement is to honour it, so vajrasattva samayam anupālaya means 'O Vajrasattva honour the agreement' .

Vajrasattvatvenopatiṣṭha is again two words: vajrasattvatvena upatiṣṭḥa (a followed by u coalesces to o). Vajrasattvatvena is the instrumental singular of the abstract noun formed from the name Vajrasattva. Vajrasattva-tva could be rendered as 'vajrasattva-ness', the quality of being a vajra-being. The instrumental case indicates how the action of a verb is carried out. The Verb here is upatiṣṭha from upa+√sthā 'to stand near, to be present, to approach, to support, to worship; to reveal one's self or appear'. Though it is acceptable Sanskrit, getting a passable English sentence from this is difficult: literally Vajrasattvatvenopatiṣṭha is something like 'remain/approach/manifest by means of your vajra-being-ness'. Sthiramati suggests "As Vajrasattva reveal thyself!"

Fortunately things get simpler for a bit as we meet a series of phrases with the verb bhava which is the 2nd person singular imperative of √bhū 'to be'. They also contain the particle me which in this case is the abbreviated form of the 1st person pronoun in the dative 'for me'. The form then is 'be X for me'. First we have be dṛḍhaḥ 'firm, steady, strong'. The sandhi rule is that an ending with aḥ changes to o when followed by bha: so dṛḍhaḥ > dṛḍho. Dṛḍho me bhava means "be steadfast for me".

Sutoṣyaḥ is a compound of the prefix su- meaning 'well, good, complete' and toṣya is a secondary nominal derivative (taddhita) from √tuṣ meaning 'satisfaction, contentment, pleasure, joy'. Sutoṣya me bhava is therefore 'be my complete contentment'.

Supoṣyaḥ is again su- but combined with poṣya, also a taddhita from √puṣ 'to thrive, to prosper, nourish, foster'. Sutoṣyo me bhava is then 'be my complete nourishment'. Sthiramati suggests "Deeply nourish me".

Anuraktaḥ is anu + rakta. Rakta is a past-participle from √rañj and the dictionary gives "fond of, attached, pleased" (note it is not from √rakṣ 'to protect'). In his seminar on the mantra Sangharakshita suggests 'passionate' and this seems to fit better with √rañj which literally means 'to glow red, or to redden' (from which we also get the Sanskrit word rāga). We can translate anurakto me bhava as 'be passionate for me', or as Sthiramati suggests 'love me passionately'.

Now comes sarvasiddhiṃ me prayaccha. Prayaccha is a verb from the base √yam 'to reach' and means 'to grant'. (√yam forms a stem yaccha; and pra + yaccha > prayaccha - which is also the 2nd person singular imperative.). Sarva is a pronoun meaning 'all, every, universal' and siddhi is a complex term which can mean 'magical powers, perfection, success, attainment'. So sarvasiddhiṃ me prayaccha must mean 'grant me all success' or ' give me success in all things'. (Note that sarvasiddhiṃ is an accusative singular so it can't mean 'all the siddhis' in the plural).

The next line is somewhat longer and more complex: sarvakarmasu ca me cittaṃ śreyaḥ kuru. Sarvakarmasu is a locative plural. Sarva we saw previously and karma means action - so this word means 'in all actions'. Ca is the connector 'and' meaning we take it with the previous line. [so far we have 'and in all actions'] Me here is a genitive 'my'. Cittaṃ 'mind' is in the accusative case so is the object of the verb kuru which is the 2nd person singular imperative of √kṛ 'to do, to make'. Śreyah is from śrī which has a hug range of connotations: 'light, lustre, radiance; prosperity, welfare, good fortune, success, auspiciousness; high rank, royalty'. I think 'lucid' would do nicely here. Śreyaḥ is the comparative so it means 'more lucid'. Putting all this together find that sarvakarmasu ca me cittaṃ śreyaḥ kuru hūṃ means 'and in all actions make my mind more lucid'.

Sthiramati notes that most Tibetan traditions seem to take this as sarva karma suca me 'purify all my karma'. Their interpretation is important since it explains the connection with the idea of the mantra's purifying effects. However they appear to be relating suca with the Sanskrit verb śocati (from √śuc) 'shine, clean' and this cannot be correct.

In Sthiramati’s version (and most others) hūṃ is tagged on to this line, however I'm inclined to separate it out and leave it as a standalone statement (note that the three syllables oṃ āḥ hūṃ are used in the mantra, though not in that order). In any case hūṃ is untranslatable. Kūkai sees it as representing all teaching, all practices and all attainments, so perhaps we could see this as Vajrasattva’s contribution to the conversation?

ha ha ha ha hoḥ won't detain us long since it is untranslatable and generally understood to be laughter. Sometimes said to be one syllable for each of the Five Jinas. Is this Vajrasattva's laughter; or is it our response to his hūṃ?

Then we come to: bhagavan sarvatathāgatavajra mā me muñca. Sometimes considered as two separate lines we put them together because there is one verb muñca (again in the 2.p.s imp). Bhagavan is a vocative singular, the phrase is addressed to the Blessed One. Sarvatathāgata on its own would also be a voc. sing, but this presents some difficulties since sarva is 'all' but Tathāgata is singular. Sthiramati suggests that these are resolved by taking sarvatathāgatavajra as a single compound meaning "O vajra of all the Tathāgatas" - being a member of a compound allows us to take tathāgata as plural. [4] Mā is the negative particle 'don't', and the verb is muñca from √muc 'to abandon'. So bhagavan sarvatathāgatavajra mā me muñca means 'O Blessed One, vajra of all the Tathāgatas, don't abandon me!'

In the final phrase Vajrībhava mahāsamayasattva, vajrībhava is an example of a factitive or 'cvi' verbal compound. The noun vajra is compounded with the verb bhū, the final a changes to ī and the sense of the word is causative, implying transformation: 'become a vajra'. Again the conjugation is 2.p.s.imp - so its saying 'you should become a vajra'. In his seminar Sangharakshita coins the word 'vajric' which Sthiramati does not like, but I see what Sangharakshita might have meant - someone who becomes the vajra in the sense of embodying it, might be described as vajric. Mahāsamayasattva is once again a vocative, and a compound of three words. I think here that Mahā 'great' qualifies samayasattva a technical term in Tantric Buddhism - 'agreement-being' - meaning the image of the deity generated in meditation which becomes the meeting place (samaya) for the practitioner and the Buddha. In a sense this is our contact with 'reality' or 'śūnyatā' and we want it to go from being imagined to being genuine, so that we are transformed into a Buddha ourselves. Vajrībhava Mahāsamayasattva then means 'O great agreement-being become real!'

The Hundredth syllable is āḥ. In Classical Sanskrit āḥ is an exclamation of either joy or indignation – similar to the way we might use the same sound in English. Hūṃ and phaṭ are traditionally added under specific circumstances - hūṃ when the mantra is recited for the benefit of someone dead, and the phaṭ when the mantra is recited to subdue demons. In the WBO/FWBO they are routinely included.

So my full translation goes:
O Vajrasattva honour the agreement!
Reveal yourself as the vajra-being!
Be steadfast for me!
Be my complete contentment!
Be my complete nourishment!
Be passionate for me!
Grant me all success and attainment!
And in all actions make my mind more lucid!
ha ha ha ha hoḥ
O Blessed One, vajra of all those in that state, don't abandon me!
O great agreement-being become real!
For written versions of the Vajrasattva mantra in various scripts see: visiblemantra.org. I could say quite a lot more about the variations that Sthiramati encountered, so please feel free to raise issues in the comments.

I'll be work-shopping this material and leading chanting at the Cambridge Buddhist Centre on 12th Dec 2009. Book online at the CBC Website.

  1. Note that Sthiramati found a great deal of variation even within Tibetan and Sanskrit sources for the spelling of the mantra.
  2. Sandhi literally means 'junction', but here it is a technical term for how spelling of words changes because of their proximity to each other. English instances of this are the change from 'a bear', to 'an apple' (a > an before a vowel sound); and the creations of plurals with -s compare the final sound and spelling in the words: weeks, bears, fishes (In Sanskrit all of these changes are notated and 'bears' would be spelt bearz, and fishes as fishez).
  3. Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism is a popular book but in his explanations of mantra generally and of oṃ in particular Lama Govinda cites only Hindu texts (see for instance pg. 21ff) - which I have always found puzzling. He is viewed with some suspicion by some: see for instance Donald Lopez's many comments in Prisoners of Shangri-La.
  4. See my discussion of the term tathāgata and the way -gata functions in compounds of this sort in Philological Odds and Ends I.

  • Govinda. Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism. Rider, 1959.
  • Lopez, Donald S. Prisoners of Shangri-La : Tibetan Buddhism and the West. University of Chicago Press, 1998.
  • Puja: The FWBO Book of Buddhist Devotional Texts. (7th ed.) Windhorse Publications, 2008.
  • Sangharakshita. Vajrasattva Mantra. Free Buddhist Audio. (Note that Sangharakshita is commenting on the Tibetan version of the mantra as he received it from his Tibetan guru, and differ on a number of points).
  • Sthiramati (aka Andrew skilton). 'The Vajrasattva Mantra : notes on a corrected Sanskrit text'. Order Journal. vol.3 Nov. 1990.
  • Vajrasattva Mantra. Visible Mantra. 2009.
  • Vajrasattva Mantra of 100 Syllables. Wildmind Online Meditation.

Note 14/12/2009
I recently discovered a version of the hundred syllable Vajrasattva mantra in the Sarvatathāgatatattvasaṅgraha Tantra (chp 1). The order of the phrases is slightly different, and the application of sandhi varies from Sthiramati's version slightly, but it forms a confirmation of his reconstruction of the text. The Romanised version of the mantra is:
oṃ vajra sattvasamayamanupālaya
dṛḍho me bhava sutoṣyo me bhavānurakto me
bhava supoṣyo me bhava sarvasiddhiṇca me prayaccha
sarvakarmasu ca me cittaśreyaḥ kuru hūṃ
ha ha ha ha hoḥ bhagavan sarvatathāgatavajra mā me muṃca
vajrībhava mahāsamayasatva āḥ
The STTS is a relatively early text (ca. late 7th - early 8th century) and is considered by the Tibetans to be a Yoga Tantra. The version I found it in is a facsimile edition of a Nepalese manuscript produced by Lokesh Chandra and David Snellgrove. This makes the case for an 'original' Sanskrit version of the mantra much stronger.

Online at the Digital Sanskrit Buddhist Canon.

Updated 26 Jan 2014 on the basis of comments below.
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