Mantras & Gathas
In my next posts I am going to talk about mantras and gathas. A mantra is a syllable, word, or group of words that has psychological or spiritual power. Early mantras go back 3000 years where they were first used on the Indian continent. Here are a couple of definitions:
1.“Man” is an abbreviation of mind and “tra” means protection. Our original, still mind is always here but our worries and fears leak all over everything, so we do not notice it. So a mantra protects us from leaking;
2. “Man” is wisdom and “tra” is compassion. The two are joined together. We need wisdom to experience a compassion which is deeper than our social conditioning.
In both traditional Hinduism and Buddhism, the teacher selects a mantra for the student based on both its meaning and vibration. Use of a mantra induces the deep absorption known as samadhi along with the calmness and spaciousness that accompanies it.
The earliest mantra seems to have been “Aum.” According to Indian tradition, “Aum” contains every vibration that has ever existed or will exist and begins and ends many mantras.
More than 15 years ago, I visited Bhutan. As we drove and walked through the countryside, I saw Om mani padme hum etched into rock outcropping after rock outcropping. I spent about three days at a monastery only accessible by trail and joined with the monks as they worked their “malas” or prayer beads, reciting the phrase, which means “jewel in the lotus,” over and over. The lotus is honored in Buddhist teaching because it grows in muddy water. As I write this, we are surrounded by the muddy water of both the pandemic and the social turmoil and unrest in our country and in my neighborhood; an opportunity we have to each cultivate our own lotus flower.
Mantra use is not limited to Eastern culture. My Catholic grandmother used to work her prayer beads continually with the Hail Mary or Ave Maria prayer. We can liken mantra recitation to rubbing a flint against a stone: the friction of the syllables ignites fire which burns up our incessant remembering, regretting, and rehearsing. As we come back to our word or phrase again and again, its resonance cuts through the intensity or persistence of our chattering and sooner or later we crack open. As Tina Malia says, “mantras start to feel like your friends- even lovers.”
The most frequently recited mantra in the Zen and Tibetan traditions is the one which is toward the end of the Heart sutra. In the Zen version it goes, gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate and the Tibetan version adds Aum to the beginning. Its meaning is “gone, gone, gone beyond, gone completely beyond.”
We have gone beyond what is known as The Three Poisons. The first, greed, refers to grasping at anything or everything that will alleviate our suffering. The second, hatred, refers to pushing away everything that interferes with our grasping, and the third, ignorance, refers to our tendency to ignore everything else.
Once we have gone completely beyond, we enter the womb of our mother and the mother of all Buddhas, the goddess Prajna Paramita. When we do this, we experience her womb as our very own and exclaim at the end of the chant, bodhi svaha, or waking to joy.
The Heart Sutra mantra and the one monks immersed themselves in while I was visiting Bhutan are just two of scores that you can use for your own meditation practice.
Here are three more in simple English which you might useful:
1. May I meet this moment fully. May I meet it as a friend.
In the first sentence you are affirming that an alert and balanced mind is a possibility for you, and in the second sentence, you are drawing on your heart-mind’s natural kindness.
2. Real, But Not True
Notice that your thoughts and emotions and acknowledge that they are real, but not necessarily true. If you unintentionally stand up a friend, you may be mad at yourself and even sweat at yourself. This is all real, but if you can just be aware of your emotionally tinged thoughts, you will see that going on and on about your misstep is covering up your own still, joyful center, referred to in the literature as heart-mind.
3.Things As It Is
This is my first teacher’s expression which many have used as a mantra, e.g. all the specific “things” related to the coronavirus may be tinged with unpleasantness, and at the same time they are all a manifestation of one seamless reality.
I first got introduced to choosing mantras that resonated with me when I was at a retreat on the East Coast with Thich Nhat Hanh many years ago. He suggested “deep” on the in-breath and “peace” on the outbreath or “present moment” on the inbreath and “only moment” on the out breath. After my experience with him I realized that anything can be your mantra if it engages you and helps you cut through your chatter.
The 19th c. poet Tennyson discovered that he could calm his mind way down by merely sitting still and repeating his own name over and over. He was startled to discover that, “my individuality itself seemed to dissolve and fade away into boundless being. . .the loss of personality seeming no extinction but the one true life.”
Using this very loose sense of mantra, as I reflect on my own life, I think I have used four different ones at crucial times:
When I was 4 and 5 years old, I experienced some deep loneliness, as I lived at the end of a long, windy road with my family. There were absolutely no kids around except my little sister, who didn’t count! So I had imaginary friends, including Bobby Shafto, from my nursery rhyme book and whenever I felt down or lonely, I would repeat to myself the first lines of the rhyme as I looked out to the Pacific Ocean “Bobby Shafto’s gone to see, he’ll come back to marry me…pretty Bobby Shafto.” I felt much better after I had been doing this for a while and continued to use this to settle myself down throughout my childhood.
The second one is the “gate, gate” mantra from the heart sutra. When I was having an especially difficult time staying focused during a seven-day retreat, Suzuki Roshi suggested that I make it the focus of my meditation since I was experiencing difficulty. I found this very helpful. For years I repeated the mantra when I was experiencing difficulty in my meditation.
The third mantra that I have used arose after I began giving dharma talks at around the time I got ordained as a Zen priest in the late 1970s. After each of my first few talks, my inner critic/tyrant would go on and on about the inadequacy of my talks and the impossibility that I could ever actually teach the dharma. Once, when the inner critic was getting revved up, I said to myself “nice boy,” “nice boy, Tim” which seemed to calm the critic way down. I did this for a while until giving talks became quite natural for me.
The fourth mantra is one that I am currently using. When my son was about to get married more than 20 years ago, my wife and I went to India to meet his fiancé’s extended family. In temple after temple I heard people call out resonantly “Amma” as they prayed. “Amma” in both Sanskrit and Hindi means mother, as in the dark mother Kali, from whose womb the universe is born. Kali’s equivalent in Buddhism is Prajna Paramita, the mythological mother of all the Buddhas. Ever since that trip, anytime my mind clouds over, I repeat “Amma” over and my cloudy thoughts part. And it works! In my next piece, I will focus on gathas, which are slightly different from mantras, but can help also help us return to the original stillness of heart-mind.
In Not only Buddhists, but also Western mystics, point to the importance of death to open us up beyond the limitations of what we consider to be our self:
“No one gets so much of God as the man who is completely dead.” -St. Gregory
“The Kingdom of God is for none but the thoroughly dead.” -Meister Eckhart
“We are in a world of generation and death, and this world we must cast off.” -William Blake
Even though it’s instinctual for us to love life and hate death, this drive inhibits our ability to see clearly. What would it be like if we started perceiving the world in terms of life-death instead of viewing birth and death as separate phenomena? The paradox is that these two opposites are interdependent as all opposites are: there is no life without death and no death without life. We have created this dualism based on our instinctual drive to survive. Can it really be un-created or deconstructed?
Zen master Bankei suggests that it can:
“When you dwell in the Unborn itself, you’re dwelling at the very wellspring of Buddhas and patriarchs.”
And Dogen said “We discriminate between life and death in order to affirm one and deny the other…that’s the problem.”
But what’s the solution to this problem? There’s really only one- immediate experience-experience in which there is no mediator. Even Buddhist teachings, ritual, and meditation may serve as mediators which block this way of being. Each may also provide the environment which allows us to live with immediacy, but that’s the most they can do.
Can we let go of the entire structure of our beliefs and experience our moments with no mediator? The Heart Sutra, which is chanted most mornings at Zen temples throughout the world, says Yes. After deconstructing all Buddhist beliefs in the first three quarters of the piece since, as the sutra says, all forms are empty, we wake up (bodhi) to an unfettered and immediate joy (svaha). And this waking up is not to life or death but to life-death.
Most religion is preoccupied with what happens after death. That’s why there’s so much focus on heaven, hell, purgatory, bardo realms and reincarnation in the world’s major religions. But this focus is totally irrelevant, since there is nothing more or less than life/death, death/life, life/death.
As Lao Tsu reminds us, “Ordinary people do not see that life and death are one process, both present in each single occurrence. Humans appear and disappear, but the life force burns forever.”
We can only do this through letting go completely of Tim, Tom, Patricia, or Pamela, as mediators of our experience.
But this does not mean that we no longer experience normal emotions, since as the Heart Sutra says, not only are forms empty, emptiness is form. This emptiness takes certain forms, for example, Tim, Tom, Patricia, and Pamela.
After his baby died, the Buddhist teacher Issa wrote the following haiku:
the dewdrop world
is the dewdrop world
and yet, and yet
Grief, joy, sadness, happiness are quite wonderful when they are experienced without dissecting them through thought. William Blake said, “Eternity is in love with a piece of sand.”
If this is true so much more is eternity in love with our happiness and grief.
We may think we embrace the core teaching of Buddhism that everything changes, but do we really? So many of us are distressed and despairing about the interminability of the Covid epidemic, even if no one we know has gotten sick and died.
My next posts are going to be about death. Death of beings we care about leaves a hole in our hearts, whether it’s the loss of people, animals, or a committed relationship.
And fear of death is built into humans’ DNA. As soon as we are conscious enough to become aware of ourselves, we become aware that we will die. It’s instinctual: we want to stay alive at all costs and will do almost anything to accomplish this. This is not surprising because to be self-conscious is to cling to ourselves as living beings.
Over the last few years I watched as my own younger grandson began to develop his sense of self as well as the fear of loss and death that always accompanies this. Other animals do not seem to dread death, because they are not aware of themselves as alive. However, some still grieve deeply when they lose loved ones.
And if death itself weren’t difficult enough for us to deal with, our culture promotes its horror in books, movies, and the internet. In 2019, four of our best reviewed films were The Irishman, 1917, Joker, and Parasite, in which fear of death and the horror surrounding it was the most prominent theme.
We fear death of ourselves and those we love because we feel that there is nothing in our innermost being which is safe. But is it possible to open up to that “nothing” and realize that it does offer us the only real protection we have? Supposedly, Hui Neng became enlightened when he heard the phrase from the Diamond Sutra, “develop a mind that clings to nothing.” Could it be that if we pour our whole being into this “nothing” we will experience a great wonder and deep joy suggested by the poet Anthony Machado?
Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!--
that a spring was breaking
out in my heart.
I said: Along which secret aqueduct,
Oh water, are you coming to me,
water of a new life
that I have never drunk?
Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!--
that I had a beehive
here inside my heart.
And the golden bees
were making white combs
and sweet honey
from my old failures.
Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!--
that a fiery sun was giving
light inside my heart.
It was fiery because I felt
warmth as from a hearth,
and sun because it gave light
and brought tears to my eyes.
Last night as I slept,
I dreamt—marvelous error!--
that it was God I had
here inside my heart.
This has been the core teaching of the mystics east and west since time immemorial. They teach that ego can die without physical death and without consciousness coming to an end and that this experience can be like “sweet honey” or “a fiery sun within my heart.”
I am quite happy that so many more people are developing meditation practices than in the past. A deep and committed meditation practice gives us readiness to die to all our thoughts about who we have been, who we are, and who we might become.
Serious practitioners in Indian and Asia practiced meditation within cemeteries for hundreds of years as a both reminder of transiency and an encouragement to plunge into ego death, themselves. Ikkyu was a Japanese Zen master who paraded around his village with drawings of emaciated skeletons to encourage people to meditate with vigor and seriousness.
I am encouraged not only by the rising interest in meditation as potential death practice, but also by the serious resurgence of the psychedelic movement in our country, since Michael Pollan published his best-selling book about the contemporary use of psychedelics. In 2018, he wrote about using psychedelics to help seekers die to their small selves. Since then psychedelic use has been gaining traction, so much so that our own Food and Drug Administration will begin to sanction their controlled use soon.
When I was practicing meditation in the 1960s, I took large doses of LSD twice and both times died completely to “Tim” as I opened up to a timeless spaciousness. The second time at the height of my feeling of blissful freedom from self, I heard or imagined I heard Suzuki saying to me that what I was experiencing was wonderful and that I could learn to do this myself by intensifying my meditation practice. I did and it worked!
In this piece I will talk a little about “serpent power.” Each of us has patterns of thoughts and behaviors which hold our sense of self together. However, we also have the potential to shed those old, dried out skins that no longer help us move gracefully and fluidly through life. If we never shed these old skins, we are forever confined and constrained with their extra weight.
How can we tap into our serpent power, our “naga” power which infuses Buddhist imagery and teaching going back hundreds of years? We can only do this by releasing the layers of limiting beliefs and habitual behaviors that burden us.
Buddha supposedly experienced his great awakening with the help of the Nagarjuna, the serpent king, Mucalinda, when he was being accosted by all kinds of negative thoughts and images as he sat under the tree of awakening, the Bodhi tree. And it was the serpents who protected the foundational Mahayana Buddhist texts, the Perfection of Wisdom sutras, from being stolen from the cave where they were protected for 400 years after Buddha’s death, before meditators were mature enough to be ready for them.
And it is the Buddhist sage, Nagarjuna, who is considered the supreme teacher of the earliest Mahayana Buddhist wisdom. He did this through a series of dialogues with seekers during which he demolished every belief that they presented to him. Nagarjuna was a master of skin shedding. He is best known for the tetralemma or fourfold understanding. You might be suffering a lot from the social isolation of this pandemic which seems to be going on forever. The first side of the tetralemma is then, “I am suffering.” But if you really are engaged in reading this blog, at this moment, you are probably have forgotten you suffering. If you broaden your awareness you may notice that you are both suffering and not suffering. But “I am suffering, and I am not suffering” are simply two thoughts and thoughts are only a component of your reality. So, you are neither suffering nor not suffering.
When Buddhism comes to China, the dragon replaces the serpent as the shape shifting archetypal being. His undulations enable him to traverse the sky, the earth, and the water, and he brings good fortune to all who honor him.
If we do Naga (or dragon) practice, we gradually find ourselves shedding one skin after another. With each skin we shed, we experience more lightness and freedom because each skin is more porous, more sensitive, and more permeable than the previous one.
Mark Nepo refers to “taking the exquisite risk.” Every time we shed a skin, even though we are taking a risk, we touch aliveness more fully. Of course, when we shed the memory of an experience or belief that gave us comfort, we expose ourselves to danger and loss. But spiritual practice is all about living more fully by letting go of the comforting and the familiar.
This path of exquisite risk arises in each moment that we are willing to be fully present. Meister Eckhart realized this when he said “A human being has so many skins inside, covering the depths of the heart… thirty or forty skins or hides, as thick and hard as an ox’s or bear’s, cover the soul. Go into your own ground and learn to know yourself there.”
And Nietzsche also realized this when he said, “The snake which cannot cast its skin has to die.”
Many Indigenous people believe that humans originally had the power to rejuvenate and live fully only by shedding their skins. The Navajo people value “skinwalking,” the ability to transform into the bodies of bears, wolves, and eagles for the purpose of healing and protecting their communities.
When I lived at the Tassajara Zen monastery, our teacher, Suzuki, gave talks each night. But back then we had no electricity in the meditation hall, so only lanterns showed his face. My friends and I observed that sometimes it seemed like he was a man teaching us and sometimes it seemed like she was a woman. The original gender switcher in Buddhist mythology is the bodhisattva, Avalolikitesvara, who is bi-gendered as s/he moves to being female as Kuan Yin and Kannon.
Our ego-self is organized around controlling; trying to hold on to security and comfort and push away fear or pain. And, in one sense we need skins to survive. But it’s also part of our potential as meditators to let go of all of our habitual projections and protections, in spite of our instinctual dependence on them.
We feel more of a sense of belonging and kinship with others when we take allow these thick layers of armor to fall away. And when all of our skins drop away, we realize that our own heart-mind is the heart-mind of the universe, the heart-mind of all life.
Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher