Mad Monks & Medieval Medicine

 20160623_193100This blog post covers another part of my thesis, the fifth post already in this series of “mental health in Japan”. For those who have missed the previous posts, it is not too late to catch up: an introduction to the topic focussing on mental health stigma can be found here, and posts dedicated to ancient records of “madness” in Japan here and here. Today, we go back to medieval times to discover how “madness” was perceived in a Buddhist context, as well as in relation to the newly developing study of medicine.

Buddhist Notions of “Madness”

During the Kamakura and Muromachi period, Buddhism played a prominent role, which is reflected in the literature of that time[1]. One representative example is An Account of My Hut (Hōjōki方丈記, 1212) by Kamo no Chōmei. The essence of this short story, “the world is a hard place to live”, corresponds with the Buddhist concept of impermanence. The following two fragments contain a reference to “madness”.

Yes, take it for all in all, this world is a hard place to live, and both we and our dwellings are fragile and impermanent, as these events reveal. And besides, there are the countless occasions when situation or circumstance cause us anguish. (…) Dependence on others puts you in their power, while care for others will snare you in the worldly attachments of affection. Follow the social rules, and they hem you in; fail to do so, and you are thought as good as crazy.[2]

“Chomei, (…) while trying to become a pure monk, your heart remains tainted by impurity. By living in a ten-foot hut in imitation of the Jomyo Buddhist layman Yuima, even if you are given the benefit of the doubt, you have not realized the practice of Shuri Handoku. When you perhaps do by chance, doesn’t your karma’s punishment worry you? Or again, by reckless judgment, not becoming more intelligent you grow worse by this, grow crazy. What do you think?”[3]


Kamo no Chomei

“To be(come) crazy” is a translation of the verb kyō suru 狂する. It should not surprise that the Chinese reading of 狂 is employed here, as Buddhism was imported from China via Korea. Although this “new” religion differentiated from the traditional folk belief and Shintoism primordially present in Japan, we can discern a pattern of hare and ke here (for a concise explanation of these concepts, see this post).

Living in this world brings many hardships. For example, if you did not follow the conventions, you were believed to be “mad”. In other words, behaving abnormally on days this was not allowed (ke days) was perceived as “madness”. On the other hand, eccentricity was also thought to be a suiting characteristic of a monk in seclusion: Chōmei strives towards reaching a state of nirvana by isolating himself in a tiny hut in the mountains, following in the footsteps of other Buddhist monks. To break all ties with society is an unconventional decision indeed, but this Buddhist practice (the hare element) was regarded as a way to reach spiritual awakening in medieval Japan. The result for Chōmei, however, turns out differently. He fails to attain enlightenment, and the only state achieved is one of mental derangement, or “madness”.

Comparable to talented artists, monks or other religiously engaged people had a special status connected with hare and were, therefore, permitted to express a certain degree of “madness”. This privilege allowed them to manipulate the actions of others. For example, the Buddhist scholar Zōga-hijiri 増賀聖 could not stand the secularism of his sect and escaped the monastery unpunished by pretending he was insane[4]. Another problem that urged for fabricated madness was the immense popularity famous monks enjoyed. It was strictly forbidden in Buddhism to express any form of arrogance or pride based on an elevated status, learning or wealth[5], which forced some distinguished monks to act like madmen in order to keep the many admirers away.



A famous example from the Nara period is Gyōki 行基, who, according to various sources, “appears as a wandering shamanic figure who used his superhuman powers to instruct peasants and unlicensed monks” but displayed “suspicious behavior”[6]. As feigning madness appears to have been an effective means to isolate oneself, a state of mental derangement was perhaps tolerated among monks, but others were certainly not exempt from certain forms of stigmatization.

The impact of Buddhism on the treatment of individuals with a mental disorder was not limited to written suggestions alone. Omata Waichirō points out that during the medieval period, a handful of religious institutions, Buddhist temples as well Shintoist shrines, offered provisions for the mentally disordered, such as Chinese herbal medicines treatment and moxibustion in the former, and incantations and exorcism sessions in the latter[7]. As a result, people with a mental disorder undertook pilgrimages to “places of healing” such as Iwakura (see pictures below) that provided specialized treatment. Nevertheless, Hashimoto argues that such provisions were still exceptional in medieval Japan, and that most temples and shrines started to develop facilities for the mentally ill only late in the Edo period or at the beginning of the Meiji period[8]. Important here is that people with a mental disorder were, just like those afflicted with physical illness, gradually being regarded as subjects of treatment. Moreover, it appears that religion and the first attempts towards psychiatric care are significantly entangled, as will be explained in the part below.

Footnotes and references

[1] Sekiguchi, Tadao 関口忠男. “The Tale of the Heike and Buddhist Thought”平家物語と仏教思想 (Heike Monogatari to bukkyō shisō), Records of Lectures on Buddhist Culture 仏教文化講演会記 (Bukkyō bunka kōenkai ki), Ryūkoku University, Kyoto (2007):287-301, p. 287 [2] McKinney, Meredith, Kenkō Yoshida, and Chōmei Kamo. Essays in Idleness and Hōjōki, 2013.  [3] Washburn University.  [4] Hori, Ichirō, Joseph M. Kitagawa, and Alan L. Miller. Folk Religion in Japan: Continuity and Change. Paperback ed., 4. Haskell Lectures on History of Religions, N.S., 1. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 19, p. 103. [5] Arrogance, or Sanskr.: Māna慢, is mentioned as one of the “ten modes of contemplation” in Mahayana Practice of Cessation and Contemplation (Makashikan摩訶止観), a Buddhist work on meditation compiled in China around 594 that influenced Buddhism in Japan immensely. [6] Augustine, Jonathan Morris. Buddhist Hagiography in Early Japan: Images of Compassion in the Gyoki Tradition. Routledge Studies in Asian Religion. London: Routledge, 2012, p. 3 and 11. [7] In 1278, a corner of the Gokurakuji temple 極楽寺 in Kamakura was reserved for lepers, next to a general sanatorium. In 1394, treatment focusing on those suffering from mental disorders was started at the main temple of the Jōdoshin sect, the Kōmeisanjuninji 光明山順因寺 in Okazaki. The oldest therapy recorded is the waterfall treatment at Daiunji temple 大雲寺 in Iwakura, Kyoto during the Heian period. From the Kamakura period on, treatment as practiced in Iwakura lost its magical and supernatural character and was mainly concerned with natural therapy. Omata, Waichirō 小俣和一郎. The History of Psychiatry 精神医学の歴史 (Seishin igaku no rekishi). Tokyo: Daisan Bunmeisha, 2005, p. 82-83. [8] Hashimoto, Akira橋本明. “The History of Psychiatric Care in Places of Treatment – From ‘Places of Healing’ towards ‘Generalized Places’”治療の場をめぐる精神医療史―「癒しの場」から「普遍化された場」へ」(Chiryō no ba wo meguru seishin iryōshi – ‘iyashi no ba’ kara ‘fuhenka sareta ba’ he) in “Madness” the Time Produces時代がつくる「狂気」(Jidai ga tsukuru “kyōki”), edited by Serizawa, Kazuya芹沢一也. Psychiatric Care and Society series no. 825, 49-84. Tokyo: Asahi Shimbun Publishing Co., 2007,  p. 55.

A Change in “Madness” Perception Due to Secularization

Although a religious interpretation remained the major driving force behind daily life, the secularization of the Japanese medieval society was imminent. This secularization was further enhanced by the appearance of medicine studies[9]. It is too early to speak of a medical science, since medical treatment for mental disorders as was first developed in Japan was either based on Chinese herbal medicine or yin yang theories.


Mono no ke of Lady Aoi in The Tale of Genji

Remarkable is the fact that traditional phenomena such as mono no ke and spirit possessions continued to exist under the form of monotsuki 物憑きand were integrated in practical medicine. Among the various categories of monotsuki, possession by a fox spirit (kitsunetsuki 狐憑き)[10] became by far the prevailing explanation for deviant behavior of commoners from the Edo period on. Hyōdō illustrates the co-existence of medicine and traditional notions of “madness” by giving examples of doctors and yin yang masters who were arrested on grounds of their alleged manipulation of fox spirits to possess others[11]. She argues that all those who studied medicine were believed to hold the power to exorcise evil spirits as well, and were, therefore, also thought capable of having people possessed. Consequently, medical disorders, regarded as “diseases” caused by spiritual forces, were now treated with herbal medicines.



An early work illustrating that “madness” in its new form of fox possession was no longer evidently regarded as a sacred and ritual phenomenon, is Jottings of a Fool (Gukanshō愚管抄, 1220). The writer, Buddhist priest Jien, argues that the wife of servant Nakakuni is not possessed by the spirit of the deceased Go-Shirakawa but by an evil fox[12]:

Certainly there have been many such cases [of shrines being built to pacify a vengeful soul]. But has Go-Shirakawa’s soul become vengeful because of something done by Retired Emperor Go-Toba? And should the deceased Go-Shirakawa’s soul be considered a manifestation of the Great Hachiman Bodhisattva and honored as an ancestral Kami of the Imperial House? Have there been signs of miraculous power? Have not such things occurred because people have believed what persons-possessed only by foxes (yakan) and demons (tengu)-have said? (…) If Nakakuni and his wife have said what was in their own hearts without being at all possessed by foxes and badgers, they should of course be punished, even with exile. But we should not conclude that they have done this simply because they are strange. [13]

Jien further advocates that “the wife of Nakakuni has attuned herself to the words of mad people such as miko, mediums, dancers, sarugaku players, even coppersmiths and the fellow,” and that, since she was simply ill, the couple should “not be listened to and should be put in isolation to drive out the fox spirit”[14]. Jien attributes the wife’s “madness” to fox or badger possession (tanukitsuki 狸憑き) but denies its connection with hare, as opposed to the eccentricity of those called “the mad”, people involved with spirituality and arts[15]. Nakakuni and his wife are not explicitly punished due to the acknowledged mental condition, but a rejection of their “madness” as an expression of hare contributes to a stigmatizing attitude of isolation, as is visible in Jien’s suggestions.

As the field of medicine in Japan was substantially based on an already established tradition of Chinese medicine, new terminology and perceptions of “madness” emerging in Japan were heavily influenced by theoretical literature on medicine imported from the Chinese mainland. The Chinese vision on mental disorders is reflected in Japan’s first medical book, Ishinpō 医心方 (984) by Tamba Yasuyori 丹波康頼. In chapter three, Tamba theorizes about mental disorders, referring to them as chūfūtenbyō 中風癲病. A mental disorder is defined as an illness transmitted by a cold (chūfū 中風) causing a corruption of either yin or yang in the body[16]. The same theory is presented in Dongui Bogam 東医宝鑑 (1613), an influential Korean work[17] by Heo Jun, which proves that chūfūtenbyō remained the dominant theory until well into the 17th century. Significant for research on stigmatization is the fact that the early medical explanation for mental disorders bears striking similarities with the traditional notion of possession, in the sense that both interpretations consider the cause of the disorder to be external.



Chūfū or Fubyō 風病 is somewhere else exemplified by “the Man with a Cold” (Fubyō no otoko 風病の男) on the Scroll of Illnesses (Yamai no Sōshi 病草紙, 12th century). The scroll contains drawings of various diseases and anomalies, accompanied by a description or entertaining anecdote. This particular painting depicts a man who is playing go with two ladies, but suddenly catches a “cold” (fubyō), upon which his eyeballs and limbs start to shake. His face is contorted, he is not able to sit properly and appears not capable to articulate properly, which is an amusing sight for the two ladies[18]. A suggestion is that the man suffers from cerebral apoplexy.

Left: Anonymous, “The Man with a Cold” in The Scroll of Illnesses, 26.0 x 30.9 cm, 12th century, Kyoto National Museum. Right: detail of the same work. – source: “Yamai No Soshi (Diseases and Deformities)” – eKokuhou.

The fact that the two women start to laugh reveals their discriminating attitude, although it must be said that throughout the Scroll of Illnesses more ailments and deformities are depicted  – as ridiculed by other people. Another point worth mentioning is that mental disorders[19] are actually incorporated in this work, which proves that they were also regarded as illnesses, albeit somewhat peculiar. Furthermore, the word fubyō, “cold” is used, referring to the theory explained above. The idea that afflictions of the brain were caused by external forces would last till the Edo period, when mental disorders were contrarily viewed as internal problems[20].

Additionally, throughout the scroll, not one supernatural explanation is given. There is an obvious breach with the traditional linkage of “insanity” to religion or spirituality. Instead, the drawings show scenes of daily life, of common people suffering from diseases and anomalies, and of other people’s reaction on the afflictions depicted. In other words, the absence of a hare connection and the strong presence of ke elements suggest “impurity” or kegare. This enhances stigma, as can be seen in the reaction of the two ladies on the seizure of the go player. That’s it for today! In a next blog post, we will look at how “madness” was portrayed in the performing arts of medieval Japan and how this is again linked to the concepts of hare and ke.

Footnotes and references

[9] Omata, History of Psychiatry, p. 35, 56-57. [10] The first description of kitsunetsuki in Tales of Times Now Past (Konjaku Monogatari今昔物語), dates back to the late Heian period. [11] Hyōdō, Akiko 兵頭晶子. Mental Disease and Japanese Modernity: From the Possessed Mind/Body to the Diseased Mind/Body精神病の日本近代―憑く心身から病む心身へ (Seishinbyō no nihon kindai – tsuku shinshin kara yamu shinshin he), Trans-boundary Modern Times 越境する近代 (Ekkyō suru kindai) nr. 6. Tokyo: Seikyūsha, 2008, p. 71. Hyōdō refers to Nishiyama, Masaru西山克. “The Middle Ages of Mediators – Emperial Authority during the Muromachi Period and Fox Handlers”媒介者たちの中世―室町時代の王権と狐使い (Baikaitachi no chūsei – muromachi jidai no ōken to kitsunedukai) in Cities and Professionals都市と職能民 (Toshi to shokunōmin), edited by the Study Group on Medieval cities中世都市研究会 (Chūsei toshi kenkyūkai), Vol. 8. Tokyo: Shinjinbutsu ōraisha, 2001. [12] Bathgate, Michael. The Fox’s Craft in Japanese Religion and Folklore: Shapeshifters, Transformations, and Duplicities. Religion in History, Society & Culture 7. New York, NY: Routledge, 2004, p. 98. [13] Jien, Delmer Myers Brown, and Ichirō Ishida. The Future and the Past: A Translation and Study of the Gukanshō, an Interpretative History of Japan Written in 1219. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979, p. 169-70. [14] Own translation. [15] Hosokawa, Ryōichi細川涼一. The Japanese Middle Ages of Deviance – Madness, Perversity and the Demon World 逸脱の日本中世―狂気・倒錯・魔の世界 (Itsudatsu no nihon chūsei – kyōki・tōsaku・ma no sekai) Tokyo: JICC Press, 1993, p. 18. [16] Two types of mental disorders are distinguished: a corruption of yin leads to ten illness (tenbyō 癲病), an attack on yang causes kyō illness (狂病). Nishimaru, Shikata 西丸四方. Reading Classics on Psychiatry 精神医学の古典を読む (Seishin igaku no koten wo yomu). Tokyo: Misuzu Shobo Co., 1989, p. 59. [17] This work was written in Chinese characters and thus understandable in China as well in Japan, where it was published and read in its original form. [18] The inserted orginal passage reads: ちかごろ、男ありけり。風病によりて、ひとみつねにゆるぎけり。厳寒にはだかにてゐたる人の、ふるひわななくやうになむありける. [19] Other examples are “The Insomnious Woman” (Fumin no onna 不眠の女) and “The Woman with Eyes for the Birds” (torime no onna鳥眼の女), depicting a schizophrenic or neurotic woman who lets crows peck her eyes. [20] Tatsukawa, Shōji 立川昭二. “Fūbyō, chūbyō and apoplexy – “The Man with a Cold” in Scroll of Ilnesses” 風病・中風・脳卒中―「風病の男」『病草紙』(Fūbyō・chūbyō・nōsotsuchū – “fūbyō no otoko” Yamai no sōshi) Emergency Life-saving救急救命 (kyūkyū kyūmei), Life and Cultural History 18, May 2007, p. 18-19.

How to Meditate Like a Pro

wp-image-692359758jpg.jpgBuddhism is cool. That is not only my personal opinion, it can also be observed in Western popular culture, where Buddhist ideas are being commercialized and transformed into products such as mandala coloring books, Buddha bowls, Zen soap and so on. Mindfulness, yoga and numerous forms of meditation, allegedly based on Buddhist practice, have become immensely popular as antidotes to our stressful lives. Yet, we must wonder, in what sense is this ‘mutant’ practice still Buddhist, regardless of the benefits it may have?

While I have critically written about the Western interpretation of Buddhism on this blog (on ‘Zen’, for example), meditation is something I was not familiar with until recently. During my summer school at UC Berkeley where I studied Tibetan Buddhism, I read ancient texts describing a series of very complex tantric meditation exercises you (or rather: a trained Buddhist) should do in order to reach enlightenment. And, let me warn you, it’s not easy.

When I decided to start meditating myself on a daily basis a month ago, it was impossible not to notice the enormous difference between what I had read and what those YouTube videos told me to do. Meditation nowadays is advertised as something everyone can do everywhere, for 5 minutes or for an hour, and of which the underlying idea is emptying your mind. Apart from the fact that I still struggle with not thinking (I also fell asleep once during a 30-minutes guided session), I was slightly disappointed that it did not involve the visualization of buddhas, bodhisattvas and deities, of royal palaces and Buddha’s life, as I had seen in class. So, when I noticed that there was an exhibition on the topic at the Museum aan de Stroom (MAS), I took the train to Antwerp and visited “Buddha & Mind” on a grey Wednesday afternoon. A heads up for my loyal readers: this post and the exhibition are not about Japan, although Tantric Buddhism plays an important role in Japanese religion, and the buddha the meditation is dedicated to, Vairocana, is of crucial importance in Shingon Buddhism.

The museum framed its choice for this topic as following: “In our hectic lives we seek peace and tranquillity more intensely than ever. Growing numbers of us are taking up yoga and meditation to prevent stress. In the East, people have been using these methods for centuries, and above all to attain a greater sense of reality. You too will be immersed in meditation with this unique series of Buddhist miniature paintings”. Overall, I thought the main pieces of the collection, 54 Chinese paintings from the 18th century, illustrating the Buddhist meditation process, were impressive and neatly explained in the provided catalogue (online available here). They were a gift to a Mongolian prince, who used them as a meditation guide: this exercise is a ritual performed after someone’s death. The paintings are not only of rare quality, the fact that they exist is exceptional in itself: Tantric meditation techniques are secret (esoteric) and usually not depicted. They are also unique as multicultural artworks: the inspiration and content is Tibetan, yet the painting style is Chinese and the cultural background is Mongolian. The paintings were brought here by a Belgian missionary.

In Buddhism, there are three vehicles, or ways to reach enlightenment: the great vehicle (Mahayana), the smaller vehicle (Hinayana or Theravada) and the diamond or thunderbolt vehicle (Vajrayana), the main Buddhist current in Tibet. The paintings depicted below belong to the latter. The whole visualization revolves around Vairocana, the dharmakaya or “truth body”, a manifestation of the historical Buddha Siddhartha Gautama. In Vajrayana, Vairocana is the most important Buddha. Similar to Mahayana Buddhism, Vajrayana Buddhists’ goal is to become a bodhisattva, an enlightened being that benevolently helps other people in the world (and eventually, to become a buddha).  Vajrayana is more or less the ‘hardcore’ way to attain buddhahood: since we already have a potential Buddha-nature from birth, it is possible to get there in one lifetime, this life. Why wait longer? Mahayana, on the other hand, takes it easy and helps you getting there over several rebirths. In short, the Diamond way is, literally, for the diehards. The exercise explained below, is proof of that. If you’re interested in some more ‘extreme’ tantric practices, check out my blog post on the Japanese tachikawa-ryu! Now, I will guide you through every phase of the meditation exercise by means of some snapshots I took at the exhibition.

1. Preparing your meditation

20170222_194001.jpgThe first step for success – not only in attaining nirvana – is a good preparation. First, you pay your respect to the three jewels (the Buddha, his teachings and the Buddhist community) and ask your teacher to be initiated. Then, as is illustrated on the painting on the left, you use the ritual objects that lie in front of you to purify yourself, while making gestures with your hands (mudras) and reciting mantras. The three clouds depicted here, symbolize whose guidance you are calling upon: the bodhisattva Vajrasattva (the “diamond being”), Buddha and your teacher.

20170222_194052.jpgNow it’s time for a first visualization: one of a huge moon disk that symbolizes ‘truth’, or dharma (visible behind the mountain and streams depicted). Imagine that the light of this moon is absorbed in a large lotus, which produces a vajra (“thunderbolt weapon”) and another, smaller lotus in its turn. Inside the vajra, the seed syllable Hum हूं is written. The “thunderbolt weapon” also emits colorful rays of light. Starting from these elements, you start your meditation. The moon disk now represents emptiness (sunyata), a very important concept in Buddhism. The rainbow light, now imagined as circling in a mandala shape, symbolizes Vairocana. Not depicted here are a mantra and white palace steps, the former indicating bodhisattva Vajrasattva and the latter referring to a later visualization of Vairocana’s palace, or the cosmos.

Further visualized against the backdrop of the moon disk are the five Meditation or Wisdom Buddha’s, each of them with their attributed color and female counterpart: of course we have Vairocana as the dharma (in white), Aksobhya for reflection (blue), Ratnasambhava for equanimity (yellow), Amitabha for perception (red) and Amoghasiddhi for perfect practice (green). After this, Vairocana becomes again the main object of your meditation, but now as a four-headed Buddha. Last but not least, you should bring several offerings. Are you still following? Yes? Good, because we haven’t even started yet.

2. Building the palace

Step two involves the mental construction of a mandala, symbolizing Vairocana’s palace (this was announced earlier by the white palace steps). First, you think again of a large, blue lotus with the seed syllable hum written on it. Feel the lotus entering your body and transforming you in the blue and angry Trailokyavijaya, the “King of Knowledge”. Trailokyavijaya is born from hum and has eight arms and four faces. With these extra limbs, he is able to carry around many weapons, adornments and other objects. By identifying yourself with the wrathful king, you grow as mentally and physically strong as him.


Next up is a series of mantras and mudras. Pronounce the sixteen syllables here depicted in two circles around two seed syllables: hum and ah आः. By doing so, you will start visualizing the palace of Vairocana. The mudras will result in manifestations of the five  Meditation Buddhas in their respective colors. Their consorts are missing (you should replace them with eight goddesses), but they have their own symbols (jewel, vajra,  wheel, lotus etc.) with them. At the same time, you visualize  room by room the construction of the palace in which they live. Now you have laid the fundamentals for the main visualization.

3. Becoming Vairocana

20170222_194304.jpgFor this visualization, you imagine yourself sitting on a lotus in the middle of the ocean, a standard metaphor for the cycle of suffering, or samsara. Vairocana appears again in a cloud above your head, and you start honoring him by reciting the mantra “oṃ vairocana hūṃ”. The instruments here displayed are of Chinese and Tibetan origin and emphasize the musicality of your mantra. As the sound of your mental voice grows stronger and stronger, the whole world is filled with “oṃ vairocana hūṃ” and resonates in your mind, producing a partial visualization of the white palace. Again, you imagine yourself as Vairocana and take on his outer appearance, richly decorated with jewelry. Now, you reflect on Buddha’s teachings and the nature of your existence. In Buddhist doctrine, our existence is marked by impermanence, suffering and non-self.

20170222_194401.jpgConsequently, you contemplate on the three ‘poisons’ that hinder you in achieving nirvana and result in continuous reincarnation. These are ignorance, aversion and greed. Another obstacle to enlightenment is bad karma: you can improve your karma by meditating on the image of the angry god Trailokyavijaya we encountered earlier. In the circle depicted here on the left, you can read his mantra. At te same time, you finish the first construction phase Vairocana’s palace, the outer circle of the mandala. The cotton candy-colored clouds with pictures of vajra and the palace are proof of that. But your palace is not yet safe: demons and other foul creatures try to distract you in your meditation. Get rid of them by imagining the protective god Vajrapani.

20170222_194453.jpgNow we go back to our five Wisdom Buddhas and their female consorts. While forming mudras, imagine them in yab-yum position, or sexual union. This symbolizes the unity of wisdom and compassion. You start radiating the strength of unity as rainbow-colored rays of light all around you, thus creating a protective barrier, enclosed with vajra, around the mind palace. First, you build a pavilion like the one here depicted on the palace terrain. From your hands emerge two rays of light, symbolizing the two epistemological truths: the conventional  or relative way, and the ultimate truth.

A20170222_194532.jpgt last, the palace is finished. It is an enormous building with many rooms and pavilions. You, imagined as the four-headed Buddha Vairocana, are situated in the middle, or the core of the mandala. You are sitting on a lotus, just like Vajrasattva at his right side and his female partner at his left side. Over the palace hangs the moon, symbol of the ultimate truth of emptiness. You continue emitting light and reciting mantras, reaching beyond this world to the hell realm. By doing so, you save those that are doomed to continue living.

4. Contemplating Buddha’s life

olivelle buddhacarita bookThe next step is visualizing the life of the historical Buddha, Gautama Siddhartha. Buddha’s life is relayed in terms of ‘twelve acts’: 1. descending from the heaven Tushita 2. entering the womb 3. being born 4. training in the arts and sciences 5. enjoying life at the palace 6. becoming a monk 7. practicing asceticism 8. sitting under the bodhi tree 9. defeating Mara 10. attaining full enlightenment 11. turning the Dharma wheel 12. dying. Unfortunately, not all stages were depicted; I put the acts shown in the paintings, in bold.

So this is how the story goes: Siddhartha’s mother, queen Maya, dreams of a white elephant entering her womb. Depending on the Buddhist current to which you belong, the future Buddha is seated on this elephant (e.g. in the Chinese tradition), or the elephant enters Maya’s body (in the Tibetan tradition or like written down in biographies such as the Buddhacarita). This predicts the extraordinary birth of Siddhartha some 10 months later. He is born from the right side of his mother, and immediately starts walking and talking. Growing up, he quickly masters all there is to learn. Unfortunately, his pampered life at the palace leads to luxurious excesses and sensual adventures with many consorts.

One day, he takes a tour around the city and is confronted with ‘the four sights’: he sees an old man, a sick man, a corpse and a monk. Being shielded from such sights at the palace, he suddenly realizes that life is full of suffering. Inspired by the monk, he renounces his worldly life, flees the palace and takes up monkshood. For six years, he lives in extreme asceticism under guidance of Brahmic teachers and later together with five companions. Nevertheless, Siddhartha feels like he has not yet found exactly what he was looking for. He starts doing things differently: for example, he now sufficiently nourishes himself to gain full strength, which was frowned upon by his companions.


Eventually, he sits under a tree and starts to meditate alone, vowing that he will not stop until he has reached enlightenment. He goes through four stages of meditating, gains the three ‘knowledges’ and realizes the four ‘noble truths’ – that all is suffering, the cause of this suffering, the fact that it can be ceased and the way that leads to its cessation. An evil being, Mara, ‘the bringer of death’, is not happy with Siddhartha’s succesful attempt and tries to boycott his meditation. He sends an army, his daughters and a storm, but all in vain. Siddhartha is immovable and defeats Mara in a heartbeat. At the same time, he attains full enlightenment.

20170222_194710.jpgAs a Buddha (including the external features such as long ear lobes and a lump on the head), he now returns to his old friends and teaches them and many others the Dharma, and they became enlightened as well (this is called ‘the turning of the wheel of Dharma‘). He performs a couple of miracles and converts many people to this new religion. On the left, you see Buddha seated in the middle on a lotus, surrounded by his disciples, bodhisattvas and gods. He teaches them the dharma, symbolized by the books in the rays of light here depicted. The moon represents again the ultimate truth of emptiness, and the teacher is important for the guidance of meditation. Once a disciple attains nirvana, he becomes an arhat (buddhahood is very rare and there can only be one buddha at the same time). Being enlightened entails that you will no longer reincarnate. Dying, then, is  a different experience. The Buddha falls sick at the age of 81 and reaches parinirvana: he dies ‘beyond nirvana’, the end of all suffering.

5. Becoming Vajrasattva

20170222_194819.jpgAfter this spectacular life story of the historical Buddha, we are ready to move onto another deity visualization. This time, you identify as Vajrasattva (remember him?). This bodhisattva will help you realize enlightenment. First, you carry out purification rituals and have Vajrasattva appear by reciting his mantra. While identifying yourself with him, again call upon the Five Wisdom Buddhas. Their symbolic objects are depicted here as a wheel, a vajra, a jewel, a lotus and a double vajra. This time, Vairocana is visualized not as yourself, but as seated in front of you. You can invite him and the other Buddhas residing in the mandala palace by means of a rainbow light containing the seed syllables, a golden vajra and special mudras and mantras. Continue meditating on the Buddhas, their syllables, objects and counterparts (this time, visualize male counterparts). Then, focus on Vairocana, being illuminated beyond the realms, hence freeing all beings from reincarnation.

6. Performing a death ritual

This last part is specifically meant for purifying the bad karma of the deceased. You visualize being seated at the southern entrance of the mandala palace. Again, Vajrasattva emerges from the syllable hum, embedded in a blue lotus on a golden vajra. If you do it right, the other deities will help you with the purification by sending their blessings in a ray of light. Now, you start the ritual by reciting mantras while holding a vajra and a bell, and offering valuable objects such as jewels and vases. The five Wisdom Buddhas will reemerge. Don’t forget to call upon wrathful, armed deities: they will smooth the path of the deceased towards a good reincarnation. It is also a good idea to express your appreciation towards the Buddhas, deities and other helpful creatures. Continue the ritual by reciting Vairocana and Vajrasattva’s mantra for a long time. If you succeed in all of this, the deceased will be purified from the bad karma that has been building up throughout his or her life.

20170222_194909.jpgIt’s highly unlikely that you will perform this meditation perfectly if you’re not a true pro. No problem! There’s a way to be pardoned for your rookie mistakes. Simply keep reciting Vajrasattva’s mantra, written here in full. Once you have provided the deceased with a good future existence, you can broaden your scope to all living beings. Visualize them as being freed from hell by the benevolent Vairocana, or even from reincarnation in general. At last, it is time to party (in your mind): the death ritual is concluded by a grand Thanksgiving feast, complete with music and offerings.

Our meditation exercise is finished, you can open your eyes now. Do you feel enlightened yet? As expected, ‘traditional’ meditation exercises, especially the vajrayana ones, are extremely complicated and not at all comparable to the popular meditation sessions of today. Of course, the goal is different too: if you’re just looking to relax a little, then there’s no need to go for full enlightenment. As a final note: aren’t these temple altar and the sand mandala stunning?