Buddhism 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
The 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.
Now 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
For 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.
Consequently, 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.
Now 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.
At 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
The 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.
As 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
After 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.
It’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?