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Tantric Ritual: The Oral Tradition

Kuden: Tantric ritual taught by an Ajari master –  1st of 3 parts:
Tantric Meditation (i.e., combined mudra-mantra-mandala 身口意 meditation, Jpn. mikkyo 密教), is traditionally taught orally (kuden 口傳), in Tibet, in Japan by Tendai and Shingon Buddhists, and in China by orthodox Daoists. In order to gain access to this highly esoteric tradition, it is necessary to receive initiation, and study for many years with an Ajari Buddhist, or licensed Daoist master 授籙道士. The Rev. Yamada Eitai, Ozasu Head of Tendai Buddhism in Kyoto, Japan, kindly gave Tokudo initiation, and an introduction to study with the Ajari Master Ikuta Koken, over an extended period of eight years, from 1980 until 1988. Some of his teachings are summarized here, showing the kuden (practice with oral teaching) system, used by Tantric Buddhists, and also by Daoists, throughout Asia.
Three tantric schools, deriving from early 9th century Tendai practice, remain active on Mt. Hiei today: the Homan, Sanmai, and Anoo. Each school maintains a group of Ajari masters on Mt. Hiei, who teach the kuden oral tradition of tantric ritual meditation to monks, nuns, and laity, who come to the mountaintop for spiritual training.
Sixty days of austerity on Mt Hiei, called shugyo 修行, which precede the Kancho 灌頂 ordination of Tendai monks and nuns, are, unfortunately, too brief a time to learn the fullness of “body-mouth-mind” 身口意 Tantric meditation. Abstinence, fasting, and harsh physical exercise, combined with brief, intensive ritual training, make it impossible to learn the depth of mikkyo prayer, during the sixty-day training period. Serious postulants spend years of private practice with an Ajari master, to learn the internal meditations.

The time spent practicing and translating the four Tantric rites with the Ajari master Rev. Ikuta Koken , in the beautiful environs of Bishamondo, at the southern foot of Mt. Hiei, remains a precious, indelible memory. This renowned monk, who taught in Mudo-ji temple on Mt. Hiei for forty-three years, and was head Ajari master of the Homan school for the past twenty years, welcomed me to join the young monks in training at the secluded Bishamondo temple, an experience for which I remain eternally grateful.
Ikuta Sensei required each student to perform the Juhachi-do (Eighteen Path meditation) daily, and the Goma Fire rite a total of thirty-six consecutive times, in his presence, until the two liturgies were perfectly mastered. The siddham Sanskrit mantra were chanted in their original pronunciation, as well as in classical Chinese, and Japanese kana transliteration. After mastering these first two Tantric rites, Ikuta Sensei gave a detailed explanation of the Lotus Mandala (Taizo Kai 胎臟界) and Vajra Mandala (Kongo Kai 金剛界) (explained in Part 2; the relevant texts shared or derived from Daoism, are shared in Part 3).

The 18 Path meditation, and the Goma Fire Rite. The first step to learning tantric prayer is the Juhachi- do, 十八道 a text found in Chinese, probably not of Indian origin. The Juhachi-do or Eighteen Path meditation is used as an entrance into, as well as the process to step out of all Tantric ritual. The Taizo-kai Womb World, the Kongo-kai Vajra World, and the Goma Fire rite, all require the 18 Path mandala for entry and exit. The meditative stages are briefly summarized here as follows (see Saso, 1991):

The rite begins by using water, light, and incense to purify the three sources of karmic deeds, while vesting, and “becoming” the Light King Kundali, (Gundari, of the Susiddhi Sutra).
The Go shimbo Purification initiates each tantric rite, inviting the spirits to be present (similar to Taoist ritual in China) after which the vows of the Bodhisattva are pronounced.
-A Samaya meditation interiorizes the entire Buddha, Lotus, and Vajra Worlds. The hands form a chariot mudra, bringing the triple vision inside the meditator.
-while visualizing the “AH” seed word, the meditator creates a sacred Mandala
(Daochang 道場), and summons the vision of Acala and Vairocana, with a vajra bell. –Six offerings (puja), of pure water, powder incense, flowers & leaves, granular incense, rice,
and flame, symbols of the six paramitas- (5 senses and intellect), are made. (In Madhyamika
philosophy, the six material objects and their spiritual aspects, shi and xiang, thus become
“sources of enlightenment,” for Tendai Tantric practice).
– Through the experience of Sam-adhi, the meditator sees the Buddha’s heart-mind, the
meditator, and all others, as united into one (i.e.,sam-a-dhi, means “same as non-dual”) .
After finishing the Lotus, Vajra, and Goma fire rite, the order of mudra and mantra is reversed, in order to step out of the sacred area and re-enter the secular world.
(The 18 Path meditation can be celebrated independently, by devout Tendai monks and
nuns; it is always used to purify the altar before the Goma Fire Rite begins).

The Goma fire rite consists of visualizing and burning away six sacred visions, as follows (Homan manual, 1931):
1. Envisioning and burning away Acala, Fudo Myo-o.
2. Envisioning and burning away Agni, identified with Buddha Locana,
and the seven sources of Northern Light (Ursa Major).
3. Envisioning and burning away the female image “Ichijikinrin”.
4. The triple envisioning and burning away of Acala and Vairocana – as
seed word, samaya symbol, and sacred image.
5. Envisioning and burning away the entire Dharma, Lotus, and Vajra worlds.
6. Envisioning and burning away the entire realm of Vedic, Shinto, Taoist,
and folk-religion deities.
7. After finishing the six stages, the meditator throws all the remaining offerings, good and bad deeds, and even the highest spiritual desires, into the fire. Everything must be burned away, leaving no attachment, not even ashes behind.

It was abundantly clear, from the beginning of the eight year long study, until finishing of the Lotus and Vajra World meditations in the spring of 1988, that the Masters oral teaching was essential at every stage of the meditation path. Three examples are given here to show the deeper understanding given by the Ajari during oral teaching.
The first example is taken from the 4th stage of the Goma Fire rite.
In the center of the fire envision two lotus blossoms. In the center of the first blossom is the seed word AH, which transforms into Vairocana. In the center of the second lotus is the seed word KAM, which changes into the image of Acala.
(Oral commentary):
“the meditator burns away all karmic deeds by an interior fire, more powerful than the external flames of the Goma. The Goma fire burn away the wood and the seed offerings, leaving only ashes. But the interior flames of the Bodhi-enlightened heart-mind are like a devouring fire that leaves behind no ashes. The seed word KAM becomes first a samaya-symbol, a sword, and then a flame, and lastly turns into Acala. The seed word purifies the mind; the sword purifies the heart; the image of Acala fills the entire body, cleansing the “mind-mouth-body” three sources of karmic action. Separated by flames from the world of words and images, the meditator enters the realm of no-birth:”
“Meditating at the gateway of AH, all the seeds of desires are prevented. Entering into this cutting wisdom, a great light diffuses in all directions. Suddenly becoming a great burning flame the image of Acala arises, holding a sword in the right hand, and a rope in the left. The swirling flames devour karmic deeds, mental images, and the altar vessels, laden with avidya ignorance, so that nothing remains, not even ashes.”

(2nd commentary, the items used in the Goma fire offerings)
“As the flames are fed with offerings, a pure, compassionate water is seen to wash the body, flowing through every pore like sweet, white dew. A lotus flower of enlightenment opens in front of the meditator, and from the center issues five seed words, namely AH, BAM, RAM, KAM, and KEN. The words change into a samaya-symbol, seen as a stupa. The stupa changes into Vairocana. The meditator offers the four items to the right of the Goma altar, i.e., oil, red beans, white beans, and coarse rice, to Vairocana, by throwing these items into the flames. These coarse offerings represent all of the ego’s evil karmic deeds. Next the six pure offerings, representing my good deeds, equally useless for enlightenment, are thrown into the flames: Soma oil, powder incense, granular incense, poppy seed, sesame seeds, and the flame from a candle (symbolizing the five senses and intellect, i.e., the six paramitas. Finally the items to the left of the Goma altar, leaves (desires of perfection), and twelve-inch long sticks of wood representing the twelve causes (nidhanas) are burned away in the flames.”

3rd commentary: (for the 7th stage) “The ultimate goal of the Goma is apophatic emptiness, of mind and senses. Only when the flames go out, and no self-glory or merit remain, can samadhi (non-duality) be truly experienced. The meditations of Tendai tantric Buddhism are therefore a threefold process wherein the vision of a seed word to purify the mind (Nirmana-kaya), changes into a symbol to purify the heart, (Sambhoda-kaya) and finally into an eidetic or moving image, unifying the meditator with the Dharma-kaya body of the Buddha.”
Whether the image is of Acala, Amida, Vairocana, or some other form of the enlightened Buddha, is not important. The meditator must not become attached to the vision, in fact must burn all images away in the interior fires of thunder and lightning, as well as the real fire of the Goma. This process is preeminently a part of the Tendai oral hermeneutic. (The Goma Fire rite as performed by Ozasu Yamada Eitai, can be seen on YouTube).

Next, the Lotus and Vara Mandala will next be explained briefly, after which a comparison will be made of Daoist Master’s oral teachings.

3 thoughts on “Tantric Ritual: The Oral Tradition

  1. Su Lao Shr,

    Great lesson’s here and insight to a highly guarded oral tradition.I like this section alot ~3rd commentary: (for the 7th stage) “The ultimate goal of the Goma is apophatic emptiness, of mind and senses.

    If you ever have time I would like to here how Emptiness could be explained in very easy words if possible. I believe readers would appreciate this…even if in Chinese would be great. Thanks for sharing your wisdom…


  2. There is much more to post on this topic, hope to have it completed, in a shorter, brief form, before long. As in Daoism, so in Tantric Buddhism, there are grades of perfection in practicing and receiving the oral tradition. The closing words of the Goma say explicitly that “nothing is left, not even ashes.” But many monks simply recite the ritual in their temples, charge a stipend for each piece of Goma wood burned, with the petitions of the individual faithful written on each stick, ie, the Goma in this case is seen as offering up prayers to the transcended Buddhas in the Western heavens, thus assuring a “yes” answer. There is little difference between western “ministers” or “priests”, and Asian. I will soon post 2 more essays on Daoist Jiao and, and Tantric mandala. Thank you for your comments!

  3. Hi Dr. Saso,

    Looking forward to the next lesson!

    Thanks and many blessings!

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