Today, I had cataract surgery. Lots of fun. Actually, the surgery was not bad. It was getting up at such an ungodly hour of the morning to go to the hospital and then waiting around while they prepped me that sucked. Fortunately, I have a lot of confidence in my doctor, even though he looks like he just graduated from high school. It may sound stupid but I find it unnerving when doctors are younger than me, and almost all of them are these days. When we were growing up doctors were always older than us and that automatically made them seem wiser. Just an illusion.

Anyway, it’s hard to see with just one eye (the patch comes off tomorrow) and I am tired as hell. So, for today, while I spend my time resting, just a little about the subject of the Medicine Buddha.

Below is a photo of my altar. The statue in front is Kwan Yin. Behind that, the Medicine Buddha and a mandala with the Medicine Buddha’s Siddham seed syllable.

As part of my daily practice I often recite the Medicine Buddha mantra:

Tadyatha Om Bhaishajye Bhaishajye Maha Bhaishajye Raja Samudgate Svaha

I’ll right more about this mantra in a future post, when I can see better. In the meantime, here is some information on the Medicine Buddha from the Dalai Lama, found at Men-Tsee-Khang, the Official Website of Tibetan Medical and Astrology Institute of H.H. the Dalai Lama:

The full name of the Medicine Buddha is Bhaishajyaguru Vaiduryaprabha, the Healing Master of Lapis Lazuli Radiance. Like Shakyamuni he wears the robes of a monk and is seated in the full cross-legged posture. His left hand is in the meditation mudra, resting in his lap and holding a begging bowl filled with medicinal nectar and fruit. His right hand rests upon his knee with palm facing outward in the mudra granting blessings and holds the stem of a myrobalan plant (Terminalia chebula), renowned as the king among medicines because of its effectiveness in treating both mental and physical diseases.

In traditional Tibetan tangkas, the Lapis Healing Master is often shown in the company of seven other Medicine Buddhas, one of whom is Shakyamuni himself. And in depictions of his eastern buddha realm known as Pure Lapis Lazuli, the Healing Master is generally flanked by the two leading bodhisattvas of that pure land, Suryaprabha and Chandraprabha, respectively All-pervading Solar and Lunar Radiance.

The most distinctive feature of this Medicine Buddha is his color, the deep blue of lapis lazuli. This precious stone has been greatly prized by Asian and European cultures for more than six thousand years and, until relatively recently, its ornamental value was on a par with, or even exceeded, that of the diamond. An aura of mystery surrounds this gemstone, perhaps because of its principal mines are located in the remote Badakshan region of northeast Afghanistan, an all-but-inaccessible area located behind the Hindu Kush. One commentator has written, “the finest specimens of lapis, intensely blue with speckled waves and swirls of shining gold-colored pyrite, resemble the night aglow with myriads of stars.” Traditionally this beautiful stone was used to symbolize that which is pure or rare. It is said to have a curative or strengthening effect on those who wear it, and its natural smoothness allows it to be polished to a high degree of reflectivity. For all these reasons ­ plus the fact that deep blue light has a demonstrable healing effect on those who use it in visualization practices ­ lapis is the color of the principal Medicine Buddha.

The Lapis Healing Master is one of the most honored figures in the Buddhist pantheon. The sutras in which he appears compare his eastern pure land with the western paradise of Amitabha, and rebirth there is said to be as conducive to enlightenment as is rebirth in Sukhavati. Recitation of his mantra, or even the mere repetition of his holy name, is said to be sufficient to grant release from the lower realms, protection from worldly dangers and freedom from untimely death. In one of the main sutras concerning the Medicine Buddha, Shakyamuni tells his close disciple and attendant Ananda:

If these sentient beings [those plunged into the depths of samsara’s sufferings hear the name of the Lord Master of Healing, the Lapis Lazuli Radiance Tathagatha, and with utmost sincerity accept it and hold onto it, and no doubts arise, then they will not fall into a woesome path.

The exact dates of Han Shan are unknown. Somewhere between 630 and 830 CE. He was a poet and a Chinese sage who mixed Ch’an (Zen) and Taoism, as many did at the time. His name means Cold Mountain.

In addition to poetry, Han Shan apparently wrote some commentaries on Buddhist sutras. This is from A Straight Talk on the Heart Sutra. While it is a bit mystical and preachy, Han Shan nonetheless captures the essence of Prajna.

This passage discuss the mantra of the Heart Sutra. Prajna means wisdom, although as he is using it here, I think Han Shan is referring to Prajna-paramita or Transcendent Wisdom, which is wisdom that “goes beyond.”

Gate Gate paragate parasamgate Bodhi Svaha!

This is Sanskrit. Before the Mantra was taught, Prajna had been taught exoterically, and now it was expounded esoterically. Here there is no room for thinking and interpreting, but the silent repetition of the Mantra which ensures speedy efficacy made possible by the inconceivable power through the discarding of all feeling and elimination of interpretation. This Prajna which makes possible this speedy achievement is the light of the heart which every man possesses, and is realized by all Buddhas for their supernatural powers and wonderful deeds. Living beings, who are deluded about it, use it for creating trouble (klesa) by their wrong thinking.

Although the use it daily, they are not aware of it. Thus ignorant of their own fundamental reality, they go on enduring uselessly all kinds of suffering. Is it not a pity? If they can be instantaneously awakened to their own selves, they will immediately turn the light inwards on themselves. In a moment’s thought, by means of their accordant self-cultivation, all barriers of feeling in the world (samsara) will be broken as the light of a lamp illumines a room where darkness has existed for a thousand years. Therefore, there is no need to have recourse to any other method.

If in our determination to get out of Samsara we do not use Prajna, there will be no other means. For this reason, it is said that in the middle of the oceans of sufferings, Prajna is the ferry and in the darkness of ignorance, Prajna is the light.

Worldly men are treading a dangerous path and are drifting about in bitter ocean but they are still not willing to look for Prajna. Really, their intentions cannot be guessed. Prajna is like a sharp sword that cuts all things which touch it so sharply that they do not know they are cut. Who but sages and saints can make use of it? Certainly not the ignorant.

OM AH HUM in Siddham

There are various opinions regarding the effectiveness of mantras. Some discount their value altogether, while others practice mantras exclusively and even go to the extreme of completely dismissing traditional meditation practice.

From my own experience, I can say that the practice of mantras can be very powerful. I do not consider it a complete practice. I think the benefits derived from silent meditation are just too great and too many to do without it. Mantra practice is generally consigned to Vajrayana and even most teachers in that tradition consider silent meditation to be a higher practice.

Essentially “mantra” means “to protect the mind.” From what? Delusions, attachments, desire, etc.

Mantra words are not really words at all, they are bija or seed syllables. In most cases, they have no literal meaning, rather they are symbolic, representing a “diety” or a concept, or energy force. For instance, the most famous bija, OM, is the seed syllable of the universe, representing infinite power. AH is associated with karma and Amoghasiddhi, a celestial Buddha. Another bija, HUM, represents truth. OM AH HUM is a well-known mantra.

Technically, devotional incantations to Buddhas, like “Namo Omito-Fo” (Praise to Amitabha Buddha), or to sutras, such as “Namu-Myoho-Renge-Kyo” (Praise to the Lotus Sutra), are not mantras. They may be used in the same way as a mantra, but they are not considered to be as effective.

When we talk about the power of mantra, we mean the power of words, speech, sound. The theory of how mantras work is too complex to go into here. For now, this short explanation by Roger Corless, from The Vision of Buddhism will suffice:

Mantra is dharma manifested as, embodied or incarnated in sound. A mantra may contain words, or sounds that has a specific meaning; but meaning is not its essential feature. A mantra communicates dharma directly to the mind without the meditation of concepts.

Most people when they hear or learn a mantra want to know what it means, and they are disappointed and frustrated to discover that it may have no literally meaning, or that the meaning cannot be told. This is not because they are spells, incantations, or mumbo jumbo, or because they are “secret,” as Lama Govinda discusses in The Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism:

The [sound] of the mantra is not a physical sound (though it may be accompanied by such a one) but a spiritual one. It cannot be heard by the ears but only by the mind . . .

Mantras do not act on account of their own ‘magic’ nature, but only through the mind that experiences them. They do not posses any power of their own; they are only the means for concentrating already existing forces – just as a magnifying glass, though it does not contain any heat of its own, is able to concentrate the rays of the sun and to transform their mild warmth into incandescent heat . . .

Their ‘secret’ is not something that is hidden intentionally, but something that has to be acquired by self-disciple, concentration, inner experience, and insight.

Even though at times it may appear that mantras are outer directed, their function is really to connect us with our inner capacities for compassion, healing, goodness, and wisdom. Another way to put is that they help us tap into our Buddha Nature. Or they help us experience emptiness.

For mantra practice to be most effective, it’s important to maintain single-pointed concentration. Just as in silent meditation, if the mind is wavering, wandering, or otherwise not fully engaged in the present moment, the benefits derived from this sort of practice are greatly reduced.

om sunyata jnana vajra svabhavako’ham