17 September 2007

The Heart Sūtra - Indian or Chinese?

Pic of Jan NattierIn this post I want to call attention to an important article, now over 15 years old, but with hardly any recognition outside academic circles. The article is:

Jan Nattier. 1992. The Heart Sūtra : a Chinese apocryphal text? Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies. Vol. 15 (2), p.153-223.

The editors of JIABS are in the process of digitising their back issues which will be available for free download. In the meantime they have graciously given me permission to offer the pdf to anyone who would like a copy. Click here.

Jan Nattier (left) is Associate Professor of Religious Studies, Indiana University, and a scholar of great merit and interest. The article is a fine example of contemporary scholarship, meticulously reasoned, well structured, and typically for Nattier, well written. This last is a strong feature of Nattier's published work - she can write very well. However the article also offers a startling conclusion with wide implications for Buddhists.

The main argument of the article is that the Heart Sūtra was composed in China, incorporating some verses from the Chinese version of the Large Prajñāpāramita text, and back translated into Sanskrit sometime in the 7th century. Nattier also offers an explanation for the two different versions, one longer and one shorter, of the Heart Sūtra. Page references are to Nattier's article.

Nattier focuses initially on the shorter version of the Heart Sūtra. This has several problematic features which distinguish it from sūtras generally and the other Prajñāpāramita sūtras in particular. Firstly it does not begin with 'thus have I heard'; second there is is no audience reaction at the end of the sūtra; third the Buddha makes no appearance; fourth Avalokiteśvara, the bodhisattva of compassion makes an unexpected appearance, while the usual characters of Prajñāpāramita sūtras (such as Subhuti) do not; and lastly the sūtra contains a mantra, which few other Prajñāpāramita sūtras do, and then only the later tantric sūtras. Any explanation of the origin of the Heart Sūtra should provide some insights into these oddities, and Nattier's article does just this.

It has been known for centuries that the lines beginning with "form is not other than emptiness" and ending with "no knowledge and no attainment" are quoted from the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramita Sūtra, or Perfection of Wisdom in 25,000 Lines (hereafter the Large Sūtra). The first reference to this borrowing is in a Chinese commentary from the 7th century. Nattier spends quite some space looking at the various versions of these verses. They occur in four places:
  • Sanskrit Large Sūtra (using the oldest extant manuscript from Gilgit)
  • Chinese Large Sūtra (trans. by Kumarajiva)
  • Sanskrit Heart Sūtra (Conze's critical edition)
  • Chinese Heart Sūtra (trans. Hsuan-tsung)
Nattier makes several comparisons. Firstly the Chinese Heart Sūtra and the Chinese Large Sūtra. These are laid out side by side and even without being able to understand the Chinese characters, it is obvious that they are virtually identical. Next the Sanskrit Heart Sūtra and the Chinese Heart Sūtra are compared and we find a "virtual word for word correspondence" (p.160). However comparing the Sanskrit Large Sūtra and the Sanskrit Heart Sūtra we find many differences of vocabulary and word order, although the meaning is synonymous. An example is:

Sanskrit Large Sūtra : (na)anyad rūpam anyā śunyata / nānya śunyatānyad rūpa
Sanskrit Heart Sūtra : rūpān na pṛthak śunyatā / śunyatāyā na pṛthag rūpam

In the list of the nature of dharmas the Sanskrit Large Sūtra uses singular verbal forms, is more repetitious and slightly longer; while the Sanskrit Heart Sūtra uses plural adjectival forms, and is shorter and more succinct. Almost every word, barring some very well known technical terms such as śunyata, are different. Conze explains the differences in repetition as a process of summarising, however Nattier contends that this runs counter to the general Indian tendency to elaboration. In any case the changes in vocabulary are unprecedented and "there is no straight forward way to derive the Sanskrit Heart Sūtra from the Sanskrit Large Sūtra, or vice versa." (p.167)

The best way to understand the progression is that the verses moved from the Sanskrit Large Sūtra to the Chinese Large Sūtra, and thence into the the Chinese Heart Sūtra, and finally into the Sanskrit Heart Sūtra. Which is to say that it is far more plausible on philological grounds that the Sanskrit Heart Sūtra is a translation of the Chinese rather than the other way around.

Nattier proceeds to marshal supporting evidence for this conclusion beginning by considering known examples of back-translation - these are plentiful in Mongolian scriptures apparently. An important sign of back-translation is the choice of "unmatched but synonymous terms" (p.170). Also there may be occurrences of incorrect word order, grammatical errors point to the under lying language. In this case the evidence points to the Chinese Heart Sūtra as being a likely intermediary between the Sanskrit Large Sūtra and the Sanskrit Heart Sūtra: where the former has nirodha (extinction), the latter has kṣayo (destruction) while the Chinese Heart Sūtra has chin which can be a translation of either. This turns out to be true for each synonym in the Sanskrit texts.

Historical evidence also supports the argument. Indian commentaries cannot be dated to before the 8th century, while there is no independent evidence such as quotes in other texts which might place it earlier. By contrast Chinese commentaries are definitely dated in the 7th century, and "..the existence of the Heart Sūtra is attested in China at least a century before its earliest known appearance in India" (p.174)

However there are still some problems. In particular the Chinese were usually very particular when composing apocryphal texts, taking a lot of effort to make them look like Indian sūtras, and yet the Heart Sūtra clearly lacks many important features. Nattier cites a Japanese study (by FUKUI Fumimasa) which she says make a strong case for reconsidering the Chinese title of the Heart Sūtra : hsin ching. Fukui says this should be understood not as saying that the text is the heart, or essence of the Prajñāpāramita tradition, but rather represents a "dhāraṇī scripture", ie simply a text to be chanted. It is clear that this has indeed been the function of the text since its earliest mentions. The missing attributes (such as the 'thus have I heard') are less of a problem if we accept that the text is not even attempting to be a sūtra.

Most of the remaining problems occur in the portion of the text which surrounds the quoted verses - what Nattier calls "the frame". She seeks to show that it is plausible for the frame to have been composed in China. For instance the presence of Avalokiteśvara: this is quite consistent with devotional Buddhism in South West, 7th century China, and his presence is less surprising if the text is a devotional text for chanting rather than the essence of the Prajñāpāramita tradition. The presence of the mantra also marks out the Heart Sūtra as different. Nattier points out that the mantra is present in at least three other Chinese texts, and the epithets of the mantra also exist independently. (p.177). The point being that the presence of a mantra need not rule out a Chinese origin.

I think this is the only place where Nattier misses a trick. Donald Lopez, for instance, has commented on the lack of coherence between the mantra and the text.
"The question still remains of the exact function of the mantra within the sutra, because the sutra provides no such explanation and the sadhanas make only perfunctory references to the mantra". - Lopez. The heart sutra explained. p.120.
The mantra is not of a piece with the sūtra, but appears to have been tacked on. Further Alex Wayman has noted that commentaries on the text lack coherence:
"The [commentators] seemed to be experiencing some difficulty in exposition, as though they were not writing through having inherited a tradition about the scripture going back to its original composition" - Secret of the Heart Sutra p.136
This observations only strengthen the impression of a text appearing suddenly without a history of exegesis to be referred to. But, back to Nattier's article...

Another feature which supports the idea that the frame was written in China relates to phrases such as "satyam amithyavāt" which Conze translates as: "[It is] true. For what could go wrong". This is clearly an awkward phrase both in Sanskrit and in English translation. The Chinese - chen shih pu hsü or "genuine, not vain" - however is "entirely natural in Chinese". As Nattier says:
"The Heart Sūtra thus diverges from anticipated Sanskrit usage, offering instead a precise replication of the word order of the Chinese" (p.178)
The final mystery is the existence of the two versions of the sūtra. The evidence is good that the short version was the one which was most prominent version in China. All of the extant Chinese commentaries are based on the Hsüan-tsang's (or Xuanzang) 'translation' of the short version. If we accept the idea that the sūtra was back-translated into Sanskrit after being composed in China, then the long version makes sense in the face of Indian criteria for authenticity - which include the appropriate opening, the presence of the Buddha, and the audience reaction to the discourse. The long version supplies all these features that are missing from the short version. From the Indian point of view the short version is not a sūtra at all - which fits with the idea that it was not intended to be one.

On purely philological grounds it seems that the Heart Sūtra was composed in China around the verses quoted from the Chinese version of the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramita Sūtra. Internal textual evidence supports this conclusion, as do historical considerations. In short everything points in the direction of the 'Heart Sūtra' being a Chinese liturgical text which only became a sūtra on being back translated into Sanskrit, probably in India in the late 7th century. What is more, the most problematic features of the sūtra become comprehensible if we accept this view.

Nattier spends several pages exploring the role of Hsüan-tsang in the popularisation of the text: it was certainly a favourite of the pilgrim/translator, and he did know it before he left on his trip to India. It seems likely, though it is not proven, that it was Hsüan-tsung himself who introduced the text to India and translated it into Sanskrit when he discovered that the Indians lacked it. We know that exactly this happened in the case of another Chinese apocryphal text, the Awakening of Faith in the Mahāyāna, which he translated into Sanskrit during his stay at Nālandā.

To those amused, or perhaps alarmed, by this apparent forgery, Nattier points out that "it is now becoming clear that the Chinese were avid producers as well as consumers of Buddhist sūtras... and indeed evidence is accumulating for an important backwash of Chinese Buddhist influence into Central Asia" (p.181). Though the Heart Sūtra may be an apocryphal text:
"...this in no way undermines the value that the text has held for Buddhist practitioners. "Whatever is conducive to liberation" - so the Buddha is said to have told his followers - "that is my teaching"." (p.199)
Nattier's article is a fantastic example of the kind of careful and exacting scholarship which marks her out. The conclusions are monumental, and yet eminently accessible. I highly recommend reading the article. Her work deserves a wider audience, and her conclusions should be informing our understanding of Buddhist history, both social and textual. One thing is clear from this, and her other publications, we Buddhists cannot afford to be fundamentalists when it comes to texts!

10 September 2007

Kukai Bibliography

If you are interested in Kukai (空 海) and only know English then your choice of reading material can seem quite limited, especially if you only look at what is in print right now. There are of course a number of websites but these largely parrot what is found in Hakeda and Yamasaki. I wrote the current Wikipedia article on Kukai a couple of years back using pretty much those same sources, with additional notes from Abe. (Note there are moves afoot to abridge my text, so it may already look different).

So where to go to get more depth on The Daishi when there are all too few Shingon teachers outside of Japan? This is my working bibliography of English language sources on Kukai, with some annotations. All of this stuff is available through interlibrary-loan in the UK, and probably Europe and the US; and some of it is available on the web. If you don't know about interlibrary-loan ask your local library to explain it.

Abé, Ryūichi.
  • 'Scholasticism, exegesis and ritual practice : on renovation in the history of Buddhist writing in the early Heian Period. in Adolphson, M, et a. (eds) Heian Japan : centers and peripheries. Honolulu : University of Hawai'i Press, 2007
  • The Weaving of Mantra: Kūkai and the Construction of Esoteric Buddhist Discourse. New York : Columbia University Press, 1999.[Something of a mixed blessing this book. Unrivalled for detail in places, and with very helpful part translations of some of the major works and many minor works. An excellent companion to Hakeda's Major Works but not a place to start. However it is frequently drowned in the jargon of semiotics and thereby made obscure. I also have a sneaking suspicion that Abe has misunderstood the Buddhist attitude to vijnana in making it a source of meaning rather than a source of delusion, or confusion. Not for the faint hearted.]
  • Saichō and Kūkai : a conflict of interpretation. Japanese journal of religious studies. 1995 22(1-2) p.103-137.[A revisionist look at the relationship between these two pivotal figures in Japanese history suggesting that personal feelings had less to do with their split than political aspirations]

Arai, Yūsei [Abbot]. Shingon Esoteric Buddhism : a handbook for followers. (Kōyasan, Japan : Kōyasan Shingon Mission, 1997).[A good glimpse into modern day lay Shingon. Note that Shingon nowadays incorporates a strong Pure Land theme, and the focus for lay people is not "Awakening in this very existence", Kukai's catch cry, but praying to Odaishisama for rebirth in Sukhavati. The process of this change is brought out in Statler and others.]

Benn, C. China’s golden age : everyday life in the Tang dynasty. Oxford University Press, 2002.[Benn offers us a detailed glimpse of the Changan that Kukai would have visited - fantastically wealthy, ethnically diverse and cosmopolitan, and more densely populated that Manhattan Island!]

Borgen, R. The Japanese Mission to China 801-806. Monumenta Nipponica, Vol 37(1), 1982, p.1-28.[The full story of Kukai's journey to China with many details not included in other accounts, part translations of the Ambassador's report to the Emperor, and Kukai's letter to the Governor of Fukien. Borgen's account of the journey is essential reading for this very important aspect of Kukai's biography.]

Deal, W. E. 'Hagiography and history : the image of Prince Shōtoku' in Tanabe, G.J. (ed.) Religions of Japan in practice. Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press : 1999. [In terms of background to Kukai it is important to understand Prince Shōtoku and his legacy.]

de Bary Theodore Wm. [Ed]. Sources of Japanese Tradition. [vol 1.]. New York : Columbia University Press, 1958, 1964.[Valuable history and part translations of some of Kukai's better known works.]

Gardiner, D. L.
  • 'Japan's first Shingon ceremony' in Tanabe, G.J. (ed.) Religions of Japan in practice. (Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press : 1999)
  • Transmission problems : the reproduction of scripture and Kūkai’s “opening” of an esoteric tradition. Japanese Religions, 28(1) 2003, p.5-68.
  • Metaphor and Mandala in Shingon Buddhist Theology. Sophia: International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, Metaphysical Theology and Ethics, 47/1: 43-55, April 2008.
  • Transcendence and Immanence in Kûkai's Thought. Esoteric Buddhist Studies: Identity in Diversity, Proceedings of the International Conference on Esoteric Buddhist Studies. Koyasan University, Japan, Septermber, 2006), March 2008, Koyasan University
see also Gardiner's publications page at Colorado College website.

Gibson, M and Murakami, H. Tantric poetry of Kukai (Kobodaishi) : Japan's Buddhist saint. New York, White Pine Press : 1987.[Not as interesting or useful as I had hoped. The work of two enthusiastic scholars of literature with a relatively shallow understanding of Kukai and Shingon. However there is so little of Kukai's poetry available in English that it is worth having. See also Green. Hakeda translates a fair amount of poetry in Major Works as well.]

Giebel, R. W. (trans.) Shingon texts. [BDK English Tripitaka 98 I-VII]. Berkeley, Ca. Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research, 2004.[Giebel's translations appear to stick close to the text, but this does not make for good readable English. It leads him for instance to employ neologisms such as 'inexponibility', 'differentiatingly', and 'intercorrespondent' in order to find a single English word for each one in Chinese. Some seem gratuitous such as esoteric sutras being 'veridical' rather than truthful. Key technical terms are sometimes translated with no footnotes, so that the translations are unreadable unless you either know already what the text says, or are deeply versed in Buddhist jargon and can guess the underlying term. What, for instance, are the discourses of the Dharma-Buddha? Another example is the terms used in the more sophisticated esoteric version of the 'Trikaya doctrine'. Frustratingly text names are translated into idiosyncratic English with only a reference to the Taisho edition of the Chinese Canon. Thus the well known Dasabhumika Sutra, becomes the Treatise on the [Ten] Stages (T26.133c-134a). It is not at all clear who the intended audience is. This makes Giebel valuable only as a check on other more felicitous translations. Read Hakeda instead, and then Abe. The one good point is that he translates all of the quotes in the Benkenmitsu nikyō ron : The difference Between Exoteric and Esoteric Buddhism, which Hakeda does not]

Grapard, Allan G. 'Precepts for an emperor' in White, David Gordon. Tantra in practice. University of Princeton Press, 2000, p.147-164.A translation of the text Kukai wrote for the abhisheka ceremony of Heizei, the sometime rebellious former emperor turned bhikshu. Useful as comparison with Abe's commentary on this text as it relates to the Benkenmitsu nikyō ron.]

Green, Ronny. The Mysterious Mirror of Writing: Kūkai’s Poetry and Literary Theory. Unpublished manuscript. Available: http://www.ronnygreen.us/kukaipoetry.htm[Probably the only critical work on Kukai's poetry in English. See also on Ronny's website excerpts from unpublished book length biographies of Kūkai and Gyoki ]

Hakeda, Y.S.
  • Kūkai : major works : translated and with an account of his life and a study of his thought. (New York : Columbia University Press, 1972).[The one book that no one interested in Kukai can do without. Continues to stay in print fortunately. Probably the best biography to date, and of course Hakeda's excellent translations of Kukai's writing. This is the bible as far as I'm concerned. That said you may need to do some background reading (Such as Snodgrass for instance, and Yamasaki) and interpretation to understand Kukai. In his translation Hakeda does not get in the way as is the case for Giebel and Abe. ]
  • The religious novel of Kūkai. Monumenta Nipponica, Vol 20(3/4), 1965, p.283-297.[Discusses the Sango Shiiki as a literary text, ie a novel. Many of the insights in this paper are incorporated into Major Works]
  • (trans.) Awakening of Faith. (New York : Columbia University Press, 199?).[This is a text which was very influential on Kukai's thinking - for instance you can see the influence in the structure of the Sokushin jōbutsu gi : Attaining Enlightenment in this Very Existence]

Hare, Thomas Blenman. Reading writing and cooking : Kūkai’s interpretive strategies. The Journal of Asian Studies. 49(2) May 1990, p.253-273.[Problems of language and meaning; includes the best description of the Kokūzō gumonji no hō practice which Kūkai undertook when he left university.]

Haresaku, Masahide. Encounter with an empathic, personal god : a seminar on Shingon Mikkyō. [Trans. Paul L. Swanson]. Bulletin (Nanzan Institute for Religion & Culture). No.5, 1987, p.2635.

Henshall, K.G. A history of Japan : from stone age to superpower. (2nd ed.) (New York : Palgrave Macmillan, 2004)

Hinonishi Shinjō. "The Hōgō (Treasure Name) of Kōbō Daishi and the development of beliefs of associated with it," Japanese Religions. 2002, v. 27 (1), pg 5-18. (Translated by William Londo)[Fascinating little article which traces the history of the Kūkai Mantra: namu daishi henjō kongō.]

Hisao Inagaki. Kūkai's "Principle of Attaining Buddhahood with the Present Body," in Payne, R.k. (ed) Tantric Buddhism in East Asia. Boston, Wisdom : 2006. p.99-118. [Another translation of the classic Sokushin jōbutsu gi]

Hodge, S. (trans.) The mahā-vairocana-abhisambodhi tantra : with Buddhaguhya’s commentary. (London : Routledge Curzon, 2003).
[By far the best English translation of this most important Shingon text. Hodge works from the Tibetan translation which has minor differences, mostly structural, to the Chinese, but includes the seminal commentary and summary by Buddhaguhya. The introduction contains much useful information and I found myself wishing that Hodge had allowed more space for it. It lacks an index which would have been useful. ]

Hori, Ichiro. On the concept of hiriji (holy-man). Numen. 5 (2) 1958, p.128-160.
[Kukai is of course famous as a mountain ascetic (yamabushi) and this paper delves into the Japanese tradition of seeking out lonely peaks for meditation, and discusses Kukai's predecessors as well as both Saicho and Kukai as yamabushi.]

Kasulis, T.P. Reference and Symbol in Plato's Cratylus and Kukai's Shojijissogi. Philosophy East and West, 32 (4), Oct., 1982, p.393-405. Available online: http://ccbs.ntu.edu.tw/FULLTEXT/JR-PHIL/kasulis3.htm[The problem of how words function as symbols/signs is at the forefront of contemporary philosophy, and this paper compares theories from ancient Greece and medieval Japan.]

Keenan, L. K. En the Ascetic in Tanabe, G.J. (ed.) Religions of Japan in practice. (Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press : 1999).[More on of Kukai's main yamabushi predecessors - see also Hori]

Kimbrough, R. Keller. Reading the miraculous power of Japanese poetry : spells, truth acts, and a medieval Buddhist poetics of the supernatural. Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 32 (1) 2005, p.1-33.

Kitagawa, J. M. Kūkai as master and saviour in Reynolds, F.E. and Capps, D. (eds) The biographical process : studies in the history and psychology of religion. (Mouton : The Hague, 1976).

Kiyota, Minoru. Shingon Buddhism : theory and practice. (Los Angeles : Buddhist Books international, 1978)

Matsuda, Willaim J. 2003. The founder reinterpreted: Kūkai and Vraisemblant narrative. 
MA Thesis. University of Hawaii. http://scholarspace.manoa.hawaii.edu/handle/10125/7110

Orzech, Charles. The legend of the iron stupa in Lopez, Donald S. [ed.] Buddhism in practice. Princeton University Press. 1995.

Rambelli, F.
[Rambelli writes from a hard-core semiotics point of view, which is to say he is concerned with the relationship of 'signs' to the 'things'. Ironically semiotics jargon is frequently and bizarrely obscure and difficult for the lay person. Rambelli is also fond of neologisms: Kukai is 'polyhedrical'; and two words are "synonymical variants" of each other rather than simply synonyms. Not for the faint hearted, and I recommend boning up on semiotics for a few months in advance.]
  • - The semiotic articulation of Hosshin Seppō : an interpretive study of the concepts of mon and monji in Kūkai’s mikkyō in Astley, I. (ed) Esoteric Buddhism in Japan. (Copenhagen : The Seminar for Buddhist Studies, 1994). p.17-36.
  • - True words, silence, and the adamantine dance : on Japanese mikkyō and the formation of the Shingon Discourse. Japanese journal of religious studies. 1994 21(4) p.373-405.[I'm not convinced that Rambelli's approach in this paper - to the extent that I understand it of course - is workable. Is the contemporary semiotic model capable of comprehending the way Kukai understood "meaning"? I think of Foucault's ideas in the Order of Things on how epistemology changed amongst the intellectuals of renaissance Europe away from resemblance as a source of knowledge, toward difference. Both Rambelli, and I think Abe, seem to place too much emphasis on difference in interpreting Kukai: his world view was one in which resemblance was the key to knowledge. Rambelli seems to overlook to implications of all dharmas being marked by shunyata for instance!]

Reader, I. Legends, miracles, and faith in Kōbō Daishi and the Shikoku Pilgramage in Tanabe, G.J. (ed.) Religions of Japan in practice. Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press : 1999[Summary of some of the legendary material which constellates around Kukai]

Rouzer, Paul. “Early Buddhist Kanshi : court, country, and Kūkai”. Monumenta Nipponica. 2004, 59(4) : 431-61.

Shiba, Ryotaro.
Kūkai the universal : scenes from his life. New York, ICG Muse Inc. 2003.[Appalling novel based very loosely on the life of Kukai in which Kukai becomes a carousing and boozing wideboy freely indulges in pleasures of the flesh! The translation doesn't help with several infelicitous coinings such as baptism for abhisheka. Although Shiba is a celebrated author of historical novels in Japan, this is more novel than historical. Don't bother.]

Snodgrass, A. The Matrix and Diamond World Mandalas in Shingon Buddhism. India, Aditya Prakashan : 1997.[Important book. A very good introduction to Shingon doctrine, and a very detailed survey of the two mandalas. One idiosyncrasy is that uses dhāraṇī as the general term rather than mantra. This is in line with some of Kukai's thinking, but not a general practice. In print in India]

Statler, O. Japanese pilgrimage. London : Picador, 1984.[One of the best sources of legendary material about Kukai - an aspect of him that is badly neglected by English speaking academics. Out of print, but 2nd hand copies do pop up from time to time.]

Takasaki Jikidō. “Kōbō Daishi (Kūkai) and Tathāgatagarbha Thought”. Acta Asiatica. 1985. 47 : 109-129

Tanabe, G.J.
  • 'The founding of Mount Kōya and Kūkai's eternal meditation' in Tanabe, G.J. (ed.) Religions of Japan in practice. Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press : 1999
  • Kōbō Daishi and the art of esoteric Buddhism. Monumenta Nipponica. 1983, 38 (4), p.409-12.

Toby, Ronald, P. “Why Leave Nara? Kammu and the transfer of the Capital. Monumenta Nipponica. 1985. 40(3) : 331-347.

Tōno, Haruyuki.
Japanese Embassies to T'ang Cina and their ships. Acta Asiatica. 1995 69: p39-62

Totman, C.
A history of Japan. (Blackwell, 2005).

Wayman, A and Tajima, R. The enlightenment of Vairocana. Delhi : Motilal Banarsidass, 1998.[I don't get Wayman, don't follow his arguments, don't see why he highlights the things he does. I haven't found his contribution very helpful. Tajima is more accessible but wildly and uncritically sectarian. Overall you could probably give this a miss. Hodge's introduction and translation is far more comprehensible]

Yamasaki, T. Shingon : Japanese esoteric Buddhism. Fresno, C.A. : Shingon Buddhist International Institute, 1988.[A very good introduction to Kukai and Shingon. Slightly frustrating in that Japanese terminology is used throughout with no links to Sanskrit, which makes it difficult to link it with the wider Buddhist tradition. Expensive on Amazon etc, but still in print and available at a reasonable price from the publisher - they may be slow to respond however.]

Yamamoto, Chikyo. Mahāvairocana-Sūtra : translated into english from Ta-p’I-lu-che-na ch’eng-fo shen-pien chia-ch’ih ching, the Chinese version of Subhākarasimha and I-hsing AD 725. New Delhi : International Academy of Indian Culture, 1990.[A disappointing translation from the Chinese version. The English text is often impenetrable at times when Hodge is perfectly clear. A potential high point is the inclusion of the Siddham script calligraphy of all mantras, by a respected calligrapher. However the calligraphy appears to be quite poor, is not well reproduced, and is frequently not in accordance with the roman transliteration (I didn't have enough patience to work out which was incorrect). If you are not sentimental about the Chinese vs Tibet version issue, and want a single translation of this important text, then go for Hodge.]
(Updated 17-7-2009)

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.
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