Showing posts with label Rites. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Rites. Show all posts

17 September 2010

The Four Tantric Rites

FudoIn the early days of Jayarava's Raves I did a series of rather impressionistic essays on the tantric rites - though I used a set that had connections with the Five Buddha Maṇḍala. For our celebration of Padmasambhava (the great tantric yogi and magician) this weekend at the Cambridge Buddhist Centre there will be a series of talks on the set of four rites, and I will be speaking about the puṣṭīkarman or rite of prosperity. This post will provide some background about these four rites collectively, especially the associated language and some of the history of the rituals.

The word being translated as 'rite' is in fact karman, which is literally 'action, work'. However here it signifies a ritual action, hence we translate it as 'rite'. This is the first of several clear links with the Vedic sacrificial ritual.

The four rites in Sanskrit [1] are:

śāntikakarman rite of pacification
vaśyakarman rite of subjection
puṣṭikarman rite of prospering
raudrakarman fierce rite, rite of destruction

In early tantric texts such as Mahāvairocana Abhisaṃbodhi Tantra the various rites are actually forms of 'homa' (Chinese/Japanese goma) ritual. The word 'homa' means 'the act of making an oblation' and dervies from the root √hu 'sacrifice'. In Vedic ritual this function was carried out by the hotṛ priest [2]. The Buddhist homa ritual involves setting up a sacrificial alter with a fire, and making coloured offerings to the fire. In Vedic times the idea was that the similarity between the microcosm and macrocosm allowed one to be influenced by the other through the ritual (which occupied a kind of intermediate space). In particular fire (agni) transformed the offerings into smoke which then wafted to heaven and induced the deva to respond (this kind of connected thinking underpins tantric sādhana as well). In the homa ritual the correspondence is between the body, speech and mind of the devotee and the Three Mysteries (triguhya) of the Dharmakāya Buddha which also have body, speech and mind aspects: all forms are the body, all sounds the speech, and all mental activity the mind of the Dharmakāya. The ritual conceives of the fire altar as an analogue for both (the altar itself is the body, the hearth is speech, and the fire is the mind), and through the ritual the microcosm of the individual is brought into with the macrocosm of the Dharmakāya. This kind of imagery is also drawing on Vedic models, but Buddhists are always careful to insist that śūnyatā (lack of self-nature) and pratītya-samutpāda (dependent-arising) underpin all their practices - so one is not merging with God, or with a numinous universal principle, but directly realising śūnyatā.

For the early Vedic priests the desired response of the ritual was keeping the natural order by bringing the rains at the proper time and averting disasters, but it was also connected with the health and prosperity of the king. In the tantric rites it is the individual who benefits and if there is a spiritual purpose to them, then it appears to be grafted onto the mundane, rather than the other way around. That is to say that it appears to me that these rites were already being used for mundane purposes when Buddhists began to adapt them for spiritual purposes, and that the mundane, even vulgar, use has been retained. We find mention of some of the rites in Gṛhyasūtras which covered domestic rites in Brahmin households. [3]

Each of the rites is associated with a colour and here too the rites tell us of their Vedic origins because the colours are: white, red, yellow and black. These are the colours associated in the Vedic tradition with the four varṇa or classes. [4] In fact varṇa more literally means 'colour'. So the brahmaṇa was associated with white symbolising their purity and the śudra with black symbolising their impurity (as I mentioned in A Pāli Pun). The kṣatriya were symbolised by red, and vaiṣya by yellow. The functions of the rites relate to some extent to the classes as well. Brahmins were concerned with rites and rituals, and ritual purity; kṣatriyas with ruling and conquering; vaiṣyas with agriculture and commerce; and śudras were serfs forced to labour. So we get these correspondences:


Why śudra and destruction? It may be that the impurity of the śudras threatened the makers of the original system; or that the were perceived as barbarous. Rudra, from which raudra ("connected with Rudra", "destruction") derives, is the name of a Vedic god who by this time was associated with Śiva who is also known as 'the destroyer' because his role in the Hindu trinity of gods is to preside over the destruction phase at the end of each time cosmic epoch (Brahmā is the creator, and Viṣṇu the sustainer). Perhaps some of the śudras worshipped Śiva?

These rites were absorbed into the Buddhist tradition at the time of the great synthesis and renewal which we call 'Tantra'. [5] Since they appear in the Mahāvairocana Abhisaṃbodhi Tantra we know that they must have been incorporated near the beginning of the process since this text is the earliest systematic tantra, and is thought to have been composed sometime in the 640's CE. In this text each of the rites consists of a pūjā which involves a series of preparatory practices in which one visualises oneself as a Buddha, the creation of maṇḍala with a fire place in the middle, an invocation to the deva Agni, and then the offering of appropriated coloured offerings accompanied by mantras. Some time much later the various functions were incorporated into mantras of White Tārā and I have written about some of these on my other website: - White Tārā. See especially the section: Other forms of the mantra.

Such rituals are still regularly carried out by both Tibetan and Japanese Vajrayāna practitioners, as well as some Hindu devotees. The goals of such rituals vary. I think on the whole they are used for spiritual purposes in the present day. But Stephen Beyer notes some mundane uses of such rites: So for instance he records:

"...and within my experience [Kurukullā's rite of subjugation] has been called upon by at least one Tibetan refugee group to coerce the Indian government. Tibetan traders seeking profit and Tibetan lovers seeking satisfaction followed upon the the ritual tracks established by their Indian processors." [The Cult of Tara: Magic and Ritual in Tibet, p. 302]

It may be this kind of behaviour which lead David Snellgrove to comment:

"So far as the verbal expression is concerned the most suitable English word for all these Sanskrit [synonyms for mantra] is undoubtedly 'spell.' One attracts by a spell, one binds by a spell, one releases by a spell... whether one likes it or not, the greater part of the tantras were concerned precisely with vulgar magic..." [Indo-Tibetan Buddhism, p.143]

So these rites began as popular adaptations of the larger and more complex Vedic fire rituals, and from there were adapted by Buddhists, and to some extent they retained their 'vulgar' purposes. Martin Willson's introductory notes on the Tārā Tantra suggest caution with respect to the rites as found in the texts:
But someone has been playing a practical joke on Tibetan would-be magicians for the last eight centuries - the mantras have been shuffled. Anyone who thought he was summoning a woman with the rite of Chapter 16 was actually driving her away... At best the arrangement of the other mantras is uncertain. [In Praise of Tara: Songs to the Saviouress, p.48]
As I say there is a living tradition, dating back to the mid 7th century, of performing these rites in a bona fide spiritual context in both Tibetan and Japanese vajrayāna circles - and while the Tārā Tantra may be muddled the Mahāvairocana Abhisaṃbodhi Tantra does not appear to be. Magic they may be, but the vulgar tag doesn't apply generally, and Snellgrove appears to have overstated his case.

Later the rituals were adapted to better fit the Five Buddha Maṇḍala with colours matching them: white, blue, yellow, red, and green with a surrounding aura of a special colour known in Tibet as chenka (it is said to be indescribable, but something like amethyst). [6] The function of the rites are then modified to better fit the functions of the five Buddhas. Subjugation for instance, becomes more like 'fascination' to fit with Amitābha's pratyavekṣana-jñāna or wisdom of discrimination, and his compassion. The rite of destruction is no longer for killing people, but for overcoming hindrances to practice and so on. It was this more wholesome set that I wrote about in my original essays on the rites.

The tantric rites are a good example of the eclecticism of tantra and of Indian religion generally. I've commented on this before, but it is worth saying again that in the Indian context this is far from unusual: in fact it is the norm. It is only from the point of view of strict monotheism that such borrowings look odd. This is not quite the same thing as saying all religions are the same, or that one can put together any religious elements and have a viable spiritual path. However it does mean that practices from another faith might be employed in Buddhism, although there is usually a thorough re-contextualisation of any new material, and at the same time religion (including monotheism) can be and often is subverted for mundane and vulgar purposes.

Sangharakshita has presented tantric material to the Triratna movement in terms of it's symbolism, for instance in his book Creative Symbols of Tantric Buddhism (which discusses the four rites in the section on colour symbolism), without directly passing on tantric teachings he received from his Tibetan teachers. Although we make use of tantric symbolism - somewhat naïvely I would argue - we are not a tantric movement. A few members of our Order who take tantra more seriously - notably Vessantara and Prakaśa - have sought abhiṣekha with Tibetan teachers. On the other hand Sangharakshita has written polemically about the breakdown of the proper guru/disciple relationship in Tibetan Buddhism and is scathing about people who collect initiations, and teachers who give them to anyone who asks or is willing to pay the fee. (Whereas I would argue that the function of giving of initiations has naturally shifted in the displaced Tibetan community and that this hardly represents a degradation but is a cultural adaptation to very difficult circumstances, and is in any case less radical than Sangharakshita's own de-contextualisation of tantra.)

My earlier essays on the rites: white, blue, yellow, red, green.

Another good source of info relevant to the Triratna Order's approach to the Tantric rites is Subhuti's talks on Kalyana Mitrata, published by Padmaloka and still on sale for £4.50. Unfortunately when these talks were republished as Buddhism and Friendship, the Tantric Rites sections were omitted.

  1. The Tibetan equivalents are: śāntikarma: zhi-ba’i ‘phrin-las; puṣṭikarma: rgyas-pa’i phrin-las; vaiṣyakarma: dbang gi phrin-las; raudrakarma: drag-po’i phrin-las.
  2. The hotṛ was one of four types of priest: three each associated with the three vedas, and a fourth, the brāhmaṇa, who was an overseer and put right any errors. The word hotṛ is the root hu with the -tṛ suffix making it an agent noun, and so means 'the sacrificer'.
  3. The Gobhila-Gṛhyasūtra for instance mentions the puṣṭikarma. It is also found in the Kausikapaddhati which is an 11th century commentary on the Atharvaveda. The śāntikarma is mentioned in the Āśvalāyana-Gr̥hyasūtra. There are several mentions in the Mahābharata.
  4. I use class to translation varṇa even though many scholars use caste. This is because caste more properly relates to jāti (the word is the same in historic Sanskrit, and in present day North Indian languages). While there are only four varṇa, there are now thousands of jāti. The division of society in terms of jāti was well in place by the time tantra began to develop. Indeed later tantra specifically negates Brahmanical class purity boundaries by contact with and ingesting of ritual impure substances.
  5. In fact some of the rituals described in the Suvarṇabhāsottama (Golden Light) Sūtra resemble Hindu rituals to some extent as well, which indicates that some intermixing may have occurred earlier without necessarily implying that Tantric Buddhism predates the 7th century.
  6. I recall reading about this somewhere but now that I come to reference it, I cannot find a single source. So either I made it up, or my recollection of the spelling is hopelessly out.

Image: a Shingon monk performing the homa ritual.

22 November 2007

The Green Rite

Some time ago I was in the British Museum where they have a number of stone carvings from the stupa at Amaravati. The carvings are old and worn but you can still see the exquisite skill with which they were created and get a sense of the wonder that the stupa must have been. What an extraordinary focus for feelings of devotion that stupa must have been. The friend I was with, and I, could occasionally make out details from stories which the carving depicted. At one point as I walked along I saw a very worn carving but which stood out very clearly as being a story from the Pali Canon about the Buddha. It showed the Buddha, barely visible through the wear, standing in front of an elephant that was clearly kneeling before him in supplication.

In the story the Buddha’s cousin Devadatta, who wishes to succeed the Buddha as leader of the monks, arranges for a large bull elephant in rut to be let loose in the market place as the Buddha is walking through it. The elephant is enraged and charges about causing havoc and everyone runs for their lives. However the Buddha stands his ground. The elephant sees the Buddha, a slight figure, standing there and charges towards him. The Buddha simply stands his ground and as the elephants gets closer he lifts his hand and holds it palm outwards. Radiating loving kindness towards the elephants he is totally unafraid of death, or being hurt. As the elephant approaches it is overcome by the outpouring of love and fearlessness in his direction , he slows, and then comes to a standstill. And then he bends down and places his head on the ground at the feet of the Buddha.

This is the archetype of the Green Rite, the Rite of Fearlessness. The Green rite is associated with the Buddha Amoghasiddhi whose names means infallible success. His mudra is the mudra of fearlessness. Notice that the hand is not extended like a policeman stopping traffic. The hand is held palm outwards at the heart - it is not a command, or a demand. It is an offering.

The Green Rite is not one of the original Tantric Rites. For instance the Mahāvairocana Abhisambodhi Uttara Tantra has pacifying (white), enriching (yellow), subduing (red), and fierce (black) rites. The Four Rites correspond to an old Vedic classification the varṇas. They correspond to the four basic castes as outlined in the Puriṣa Sūkta of the Rig Veda for instance: Brahmin, Kṣatriya, Vaisya, and Śudra. However when Ratnasambhava and Amoghasiddhi joined Amitābha and Akṣobhya on the mandala two more rites were added - for instance the Tara Tantra has six.

In the Rogue Elephant story the Buddha pacifies the Elephant by radiating maitri or love - which could be seen as an example of the Red Rite. This demonstrates the way the Dharma transcends any particular teaching. However underlying the Love of the Buddha is his transcendental Insight - his knowledge and vision of how things are. It is from this direct knowledge that his fearlessness arises, and that makes all his actions successful. The Buddha knows that he has nothing to lose, that even death itself does not terrify him the way it does the rest of us. He sees everything as it is and therefore does not cling to any experience, nor push any away. Any action undertaken from this point of view is bound to succeed, because success is judged in terms of results, and acting from insight guarantees a positive result.

For ordinary mortals the Buddha left guidelines for acting until direct insight guides our actions. These are the various ethical or moral teachings. These vary from the "ordinary common sense" approach which is typified in the early verses of the Metta Sutta, to the the long lists of precepts in the Bhikṣu Pratimokṣa, and find a sublime expression in the Ten Skilful actions (dasa-kusala-karma) which form the Ten Precepts of the Shingon School and the Western Buddhist Order. Once again there are cross-overs with the other rites, but the special quality of the Green Rite is that it is active. Whereas in the White Rite for instance we may say that it focuses on purity and refraining from evil actions; in the Green Rite we must actively express love and kindness. If Gratitude and Generosity are the key aspects of the Yellow Rite, then we may say that acts of kindness and selfless love are the marks of the Green Rite.

Meeting fear is a key part of the spiritual life. As we practice we are very likely to find fear arising. The Green Rite tells us the way to deal with fear. It is to dwell in love, to radiate love, and to act out of love. Acting from love guarantees success, because in Buddhist terms success is acting with love.

03 September 2007

The Blue Rite

The Blue Rite is also called The rite of subduing or overcoming. Sometimes it is known as the Black Rite or the Rite of Destruction, but that is in another context from the one that I am considering. This is the magical rite performed by Akṣobhya the blue Buddha of the eastern quarter, and which is related to the story of the defeat of Mara. What is being subdued are the poisons, in this context the demons, of greed, hatred and doubt as they occur within us. When we experience very strong hatred or greed then that does have a demonic feel to it. Under their influence we lose the ability to choose our actions, we may well behave in ways that we are later ashamed of.

I want to be very clear here that I do not advocate applying this, or any other, rite to other people! Unless we have a very clear understanding of, and love for, the other person; a high level of trust; and a lot of skill and experience it is not advisable to start practising any of the rites on others. In any case our own inner demons, our own greed, hatred, and doubt, give us plenty of material to work with.

One can immediately say that there might be a general approach to subduing all demons, based on the response of the Buddha to Mara, which is simply not to respond to them. If we do not respond to greed it has no power over us; if we do not act on hatred it cannot hurt us; if we are confident in our practice then doubt has no purchase on our minds. So this is the first level of defence against demons - not reacting. The story of the defeat of Mara shows how powerful not reacting can be.

Padmasambhava was a great subduer of demons. He would fight them with magic, often neutralising their magic with his own, but then he would always give them an initiation, a secret name, and a treasure to guard. In other words these demonic, or perhaps more accurately chthonic forces within us, which can threaten to overwhelm us and defeat us, are energies that can be harnessed and put to good use in other ways. The same demon that causes us to hate, can function as a protector. In a psychological sense our demons are often just adaptations to extreme situations. For instance if we grow up with a lot of violence, then we will adapt to protect ourselves from that violence, and may even become violent ourselves. The energy that protects me from violence, may have violence at it’s root. This is not a justification for violent behaviour however. It is important not to lose sight of the transformation which demons undergo at the hands of Padmasambhava - when subdued and named they become Dharma protectors, and guarders of our treasures.

Padmasambhava had a very potent weapon in his battles against the demons. He had what in Tibetan is known as a purbha – a demon dagger. The demon dagger is used to pin down demons. It has a blade or point which emerges from the mouth of a mythical beast which is a mix of a crocodile and a fish: called a makara. Above the makara is usually the head of a Buddha which has multiple faces. And finally either the head of a horse, or a the end of a vajra. The Buddha head reminds us of the purpose of the purbha – it is not a weapon designed to hurt people, but to help release us from the grip of a demonic energy. With the purbha you pin down the demon so that you can have a conversation with it. Padmasambhava took this opportunity to give the demons a secret name and a treasure to guard. This is a useful procedure with demons, and contrasts sharply with the image of the Archangel Michael, or later St George, killing the dragon - I'll come back to this in the next paragraph. So one thing we might do when we wish to work with the Blue Rite is to make ourselves a demon dagger. We can build in symbols of power and strength which resonate for us. This may help us to get into communication with our demons, to see that they really want to protect us, and to help us find better ways of going about it.

Another way of thinking about this came to me the other day. I was reminded of the scene early in the story of Peter Pan. His shadow had come loose and is causing trouble. He meets Wendy who helps him to catch his shadow and she sews it back on for him. Jung talked about those aspects of our psyche which we do not accept as being our 'shadow'. The qualities which are not accepted need not be bad. For many years I was unwilling to take on the artistic side of my self and would not give it attention. If we take this kind of view of things then we treat the expressions of greed, hatred and doubt as coming from the psychic shadow. In the Jungian view they are unacknowledged bits of ourselves which have taken on a kind of autonomy. A demon dagger helps us to pin them down, so that we can reclaim them, sew them back on. If the demon is really just an unassimilated part of our own psyche, then we don’t want to kill it, we want, like Padmasambhava, to convert this rebellious energy into some more useful form.

The main idea, then, is that the Blue Rite, is the rite of overcoming and subduing hindrances to spiritual progress; the conversion of demonic forces into Dharma protectors. It is a way of working with inner demons which block our Awakening.

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.

17 February 2007

The White Rite

White Lotus, White RiteThe colour white has a very interesting range of associations. In Herman Melville's book Moby Dick the white whale became the focus for all the rage and hatred of Captain Ahab. Melville devoted a chapter of Moby Dick to exploring the negative symbolism of white: the white of pus and maggots and putrefaction for example. However we more often associate white with purity and cleanness in a ritual sense. Virgin brides are married in white. Fresh snow is also sometimes referred to as virginal. The Pope wears white. Being the opposite of black, it symbolises good, light, positivity, and space. From India we have the wonderful image of the while lotus rising unstained up from the mud. White light may be split into the colours of the rainbow by a prism, or a rain drop; but the same process in reverse combines the colours of the rainbow back into pure white light: an important observation for our understanding of the White Rite. The White Rite is the rite of purification - or more traditionally the rite of pacification. This rite is used to pacify impulses arising from greed, hatred and delusion, hence the association with purity. In the more mundane sense the white rite is also to pacify demonic forces in the world around us.

In terms of the mandala the white figure sits at the centre. There are a number of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas who appear in white forms, the most important being Vairocana, Avalokiteshvara and White Tara. The white figure at the centre of the mandala possesses and integrates all of the qualities of the other figures - Love, Fearlessness, Wisdom, Abundance; and yet adds some new subtle quality that is difficult to quantify. Vairocana - the Illuminator - is an ancient Indian figure who predates Buddhism by many centuries. He is the sun, of course, in its most benign aspect. Spiritually he illuminates the darkness of ignorance. Holds the dharmacakra, which identifies him with the Dharma - it is not that he possesses or teaches the Dharma: no, he is the Dharma.

The wisdom of Vairocana is known as the Wisdom of the Dharmadhatu (dharmadhātujñāna). Dharmadhatu is synonymous with śūnyatā, tathatā, and the dharmakāya: i.e. it stands for the Reality Principle. These Buddhist technical terms are rather abstract and abstruse, and do not really convey much. Indeed it is sometimes said that one cannot say anything definite about the dharmakāya. Which leaves us with a puzzle: if this wisdom is so abstract as to be inconceivable, then of what practical value is it to us. In terms of the Tantric Rites, how might we bring this quality into our practice? I have explored a number of ways to do this. As I mentioned in my essay on the Red Rite, I do not follow the tradition closely because it is not easy to see how the old magical rites would work in a modern context.

Purity in Buddhism is equated with purity of intention, since it is intention which underlies actions (karma), and it is the results of actions that prevents us being truly free. So one aspect of the Wisdom of the Dharmadhatu is moral purity - in Buddhist terms keeping the precepts. In terms of the ten precepts followed by members of the Western Buddhist Order (and in Shingon) this means: kindness, generosity, contentment, truthful kindly harmonious helpful speech, and tranquillity (non-greed), love, and wisdom. Each time we exercise our moral judgement, each time we decline the act that we know will lead to suffering, we are exercising the White Rite. Of course if we do find ourselves acting unskilfully we can confess it to some appropriate person. This too is an example of the White Rite - the experience, and acknowledgement of remorse can be a powerfully transformative practice. This of course has nothing to do with guilt or atonement. Remorse is simply turning the moral spotlight on our own actions. Neither has it to do with sitting in judgement on others.

Something that Kūkai writes about in connection with the dharmakāya gives us another clue to the White Rite. He says that all forms are the body of the Dharmakāya Buddha, all sounds are his voice preaching the Dharma, and all mental activity is his Awakened mind. This sounds a little theistic at first, but Kūkai was not suggesting that Vairocana is a creator god, but pointing towards something more subtle. All things are marked by impermanence, insubstantiality and unsatisfactoriness. So everything can be said to be of the same nature. If we anthropomorphise the metaphor then we may say that everything is a manifestation of Vairocana, who is reality itself, who is the very impermanence of all things. Putting this into practice we can try to see the Buddha everywhere, hear the Dharma everywhere, and cultivate a sense of identification with every living being. To give a more concrete and contemporary example: we know that human impact in the environment is causing problems. So each time we consciously, for example, minimise our own impact by recycling, or reusing, or using low energy light bulbs - then we are acknowledging the truth of interconnectedness and exercising the White Right. This is interesting because it suggests that the colour of the Buddhist environmental movement might be white rather than green which has quite different traditional associations.

We know that Tantra adopted the old Vedic magical principle of bandhus or associations between levels of reality. So in each quarter of the mandala there is a Buddha who has a colour, and various other associations. At the other end of the scale there is a kleśa - a defilement - associated with each Buddha. In the case of Vairocana the defilement is ignorance. This kind of ignorance is sometimes known as viparyasa or topsy-turvy views. We see the impermanent as permanent for instance or the painful as pleasant. The White Rite is concerned with dispelling this kind of ignorance. We can only doing this by paying attention. After my first brush with the Dharma I wrote this in my journal, although I no longer recall the source, that an aspect of suffering is "a desperate will to live unrelated to serious or systematic attempt to understand what life actually involves". Practising Buddhism is precisely the opposite - it is an attempt to live on the basis of a serious and systematic attempt to understand what life involves. And this again is the function of the White Rite.

As with the Red Rite I'm suggesting here that the magical tantric rites can operate in an everyday way. In this case every time we acknowledge and act in accordance with the way things are - when we choose to act skilfully, when we see ourselves as interconnected, or when we try to see more directly how things really are - that is the White Rite in action. This is Buddhism as the path of purification.

29 July 2006

The Red Rite

VajrayoginiRED demands our attention. The associations we have with it are powerful: blood, menstruation, sex, arousal, danger, life. The attention grabbing aspect of red means that it is employed in all kinds of warning signs and symbols. So powerful is this effect that it is difficult to see different shades of red together without feeling that they clash with each other.

In the mandala of the Five Buddhas the Buddha Amitābha is red and sits in the western quarter. He is associated with the element fire, and his wisdom is the discriminating wisdom - it sees things in their individuality, sees the detail of the world, and regards individual beings. And he is also associated with the tantric rite of fascination, the Red Rite. The 'tantric rites' are a set of magical practices of which there are several different sets. The one I know includes - purification, abundance, fascination, subduing, accomplishing; which are in turn associated with white, yellow, red, blue/black, and green; and with Vairocana, Ratnasambhava, Amitābha, Akṣobhya, and Amoghasiddhi - the Buddhas of the mandala.

These magic rites are not incidental to tantric Buddhism. Many people will try to say that they are added on, or secondary, but they feature frequently and prominently in tantric texts, and they are used in practice (according to Stephen Beyer who wrote the Cult of Tara). So how are we to understand the presence of what Snellgrove calls "vulgar magic" in Buddhism. In the Pali canon it is quite clear that the early Buddhists were very much against this kind of magic. There are several passages where the Buddha decries the practice of magic - especially that associated with the Atharvaveda. There is a clear distinction from the siddhis, the super-normal or psychic powers such as clear-audience, which are the results of profound meditation. These are relegated into second place compare to the great siddhi of Awakening, but the practice of magical spells is considered to be wicked. We must hold this along side the fact that in the Pali Canon there are magical texts, parittas, which when chanted are said to protect, for instance, from snake bite, or from attack by yakkhas and other demons. Angulimala performs a magical spell known as a "truth-act" or saccakiriya and relieves the suffering of a woman in labour in his eponymous sutta. Similarly the Mahayana sutras frequently assert that merely chanting the sutra is enough to protect the devotee from all kinds of harm. So we can't really pretend that magic is foreign to Buddhism, we just don't quite know where or how it fits.

Another feature of tantric magic which may be difficult to understand is the presence of what can only be called Hindu elements. For instance in the Tara Tantra, which is the ultimate source of the many Tara practices in Tibet, there is a lot of use of cow shit. This practice can only have come relatively late as the cow was not sacred in the Buddha's time, nor was it in the Vedas. So whence comes this foreign matter in our 'pure' Buddhism? As I've mentioned before the Indian practice was not so much to destroy heretics and competing faiths, but to assimilate them - this happened multiple times across all of the religions, and helps to account for a constant preoccupation in Buddhist scripture with distinguishing Buddhism from other faiths.

The Buddhist magical system has it's roots in the ancient Vedic religion. It is what anthropologists call "sympathetic magic", and works on the principle that the universe is divided into planes of being. The idea is that there are connections or correspondences (bandhu) between the various planes (loka or bhūmi), and it is possible to influence or control what is happening on the other planes by making changes in one of the other planes. In the Vedic practices one made ritual actions which were intended to control the gods, or to make changes in the physical world. This has many similarities to European style magic. Even in early Buddhism there is a clear association between the jhanas (Sanskrit dhyāna) and the devalokas, or god realms.

The Vedic religion gets a bad press from Buddhists, but there are aspects of it which are quite beautiful, and also shed light on Buddhist practice. The deva Agni was god of fire, the sun, the heat of digestion, of ritual, and of inspiration. As such he is a kind of counter-part to Amitābha. His name is cognate with the English word "ignite" and it was his role to transform the offerings made during rituals, and to transport them to the gods. But he was also bound to convey the blessing of the god back to the one who made the sacrifice - it was always a two way deal. Agni, then, operated in the liminal space between realms. He was, like the Greek Hermes and the angels of Abrahamic religions, a messenger between worlds or planes of existence. This explains his role in inspiration where we draw on our own depths, or perhaps make contact with the divine. As fire he transformed the physical offering into the ætheric substance which could be presented to the gods. The rite of fascination also operates in a liminal space - the space between individuals. It seeks to reduce that space, or to remove it all together, to draw beings together, so in a sense this is not just Amitābha magic, it is Agni magic!

The vulgar application of the Red Rite is as love magic. One uses the rite to obtain the love of the one desired. But coercing love does seem unethical - to say the least. So we come back to the issue of what is vulgar magic doing in Buddhism? My take on this, which is not necessarily traditional, is that the love magic is actually exoteric. The esoteric magic works within. I can't say whether magic works in the exoteric sense, I can say without any hesitation that the inner magic does work! I want to show how esoteric tantric magic might work by using two examples which are not particularly tantric:

In the seven factors of enlightenment the second factor is dhamma-vicaya - investigation of phenomena. In this scheme one becomes mindful, and then with mindfulness one investigates phenomena, and on the basis of that arises first energy, then rapture, tranquillity, samādhi and equanimity - and with the equanimity born of samādhi one is close to Awakening. What is required here, then, is interest. In order to spend time investigating the nature of phenomena, one must be interested, one must become fascinated with the minutiae of things. This is an application of the discriminating wisdom, and the act of doing it is a performance of the rite of fascination. In the kind of meditation where there is an object, we try to become so fascinated by the object that we cease to experience any distinction between our experience of ourselves and the object - and this closing of the gap is also the red rite.

My second example refers to a particular meditation practice: mettā bhavanā, the development of loving kindness. In the mettā bhavanā we seek to experience a sense of loving kindness for, and a solidarity with all beings. It is often taught as a beginners practice, but is actually profound in it's implications and has this esoteric significance that one is trying to at least attenuate, if not remove altogether, the sense of separate selfhood and self interest. What is happening in this meditation is that we are trying to will the well-being of others, without preference. And to do this we begin with ourselves, then focus on a friend, a neutral person, an enemy and then all of these together, and then all beings. Because we start with the particular and move towards the universal this is once again an application of the discriminating wisdom. We must experience this loving kindness in response to individual beings before we can attempt to universalise it, because love, kindness, well wishing are not abstract, but occur in relation to actual people. And the effect is to close the gap between ourselves and others - the red rite again!

By practising the Red Rite in meditation, we make changes in ourselves, and this in turn does actually result in changes in the objective phenomenal world. When we combine the practice of absorption with the investigation of phenomena, we do begin to see the impermanence and insubstantiality of the world - we do, in quite a straight forward way, begin to see things as they really are. And through the mettā bhavanā we can experience a narrowing of the gap - a person who we have found repulsive may seem neutral, or a dispute may be resolved because we are no longer actively hostile. This is the magic of Buddhist practice. It's not mumbo jumbo, it's not an illusion - things change when you take up practising Buddhism, and anyone can see for themselves.

Something I have left out is the space between the practitioner and their goal - this is another space in which the Red Rite can operate, eliminating the differences, for instance, between the yogin and their yiddam through constant repetition of the mantra. Perhaps I'll go into this in another essay.

I want to finish by restating something I've mentioned before about technology. The internet and the whole cellphone thing... they are about creating a sense of connection between human beings. Marshall Mcluhan said "the medium is the message". His idea was that the form of media tell us more about ourselves and our age than the contents of the media. When I look at the enormous energy (both figuratively and literally) going into our creation of communications networks what I see is a huge desire to commune. So, practice the red rite, the rite of fascination with life, with people, with things, and transform your experience of the world by narrowing the gap between 'you' and 'them'!