24 September 2007

Iconograhy: Mudra and Dharani

Mudra and dharani are presentations fundamental to esoteric Buddhism—Shingon in Japan, and the Vajrayana of Tibet and Mongolia. Both are present in exoteric paths of Buddhism as well, though they usually function in supportive roles. A mudra is a "seal," authenticating and personalizing an aspect of realization and its dharma. E. Dale Saunders, in his seminal study Mudra, traces its beginnings back to the dramatic gestures of earliest dance. Hindu and then Buddhist iconography reflect its adoption in the hand positions and postures found in archetypal sculpture. In Shingon Buddhism, and in its antecedents in Vajrayana, the mudra itself is the practice, with directories listing as many as 295 positions, in two main categories, those presenting aspects of the kongokai(Ch. chin-kang-chiai, Skt. Vajradhatu), the diamond realm of enlightenment, and taizokai (Ch. t'ai-ts-ang-chai, Skt. garbhadhatu), the womb or matrix realm of fundamental wisdom, from which the kongokai arises. 48

The Gassho-in (Ch. ho-chang-yin, Skt. anjali mudra), hands held up palm to palm, is a universal Buddhist gesture of accord, veneration, and respect, and is found across the spectrum of world religions. In Christianity, the sign of the cross could be considered a mudra, as well as the ritualized gestures of the priest during mass.


The hand position in zazen, the join (Ch. ting-yin, Skt. dhyana mudra), with the right hand over the left (sometimes reversed) and the thumbs touching, forms the "mystic triangle" that is found in earliest Indian Buddhist sculpture. Postures, or asana(J. za, Ch. tso), are bodily mudra, so to speak. The figure of the Buddha in meditation might first come to mind. With hands in join, the Zen student presents the Buddha himself or herself beneath the Bodhi tree. There are a large number of other postures in Zen and other Buddhist traditions, with leg and hand positions defining the variations. 49

Saunders does not include bows among mudra, but surely the standing bow and the prostration fit the category. Raihai (Ch. li-pai, Skt. namas-kara), the bow to the floor, is found throughout Buddhism, in Christian ordination, and in other world religions, with variations in leg positions and hand placement. Christian genuflection is a kind of abbreviated prostration.


The Zen student is taught that in raihai one throws everything away. Pivoting the forearms on the elbows and raising the hands while prostrated is the act of raising the Buddha's feet above one's head. The dharani is the verbal seal of a rite, again found as a central practice in Shingon and Vajrayana, but also a seal of a sutra or a series of sutras in Zen and other Mahayana traditions. The briefer mantra, not distinguished from the dharaniin Far Eastern etymology, can also be a seal, or it may stand alone as a sacred formula. The Nembutsu, the Daimoku,the supplication to Kanzeon, and the call of monks on takuhatsucan be considered mantra. Like other dharani and some mantra, the closing words of the Heart Sutra are mostly bastard Sanskrit that nobody translates satisfactorily, in this case a kind of "Ode to Joy." Here is the Sino-Japanese, spaced to the beat of the sutra:
Gya te gya te, pa ra gya te, para so gya te bo ji sowa ka, han nya shin gyo. 50
It is interesting that the Heart Sutra refers to itself as a dharani or mantra, recalling the identity of wisdom and words emphasized by Dogen Kigen and Meister Eckhart alike. 51 The Zen sutra service in the West has inherited dharani from Japan, including the "Shosai Myo Kichijo Darani," a short ode to Kichijo-ten (Skt. Lakshmi), incarnation of good fortune and merit. This is traditionally recited three times following the Heart Sutra "to remove disasters." Another, the "Daihi Shin Darani," dedicated to Kanzeon, the incarnation of mercy, is longer and is recited seven times. Like the "ode to joy" at the end of the Heart Sutra, these dharani are rationally almost meaningless incantations, and D. T. Suzuki's efforts to translate them, he admits, are problematic. 52 Nonetheless, they are meaningful to those who gather to recite them, simply, it seems, by the chanting itself.

I feel that Gregorian chants, though straightforward in meaning, have something of dharani quality, and perhaps this was sensed by my teacher Nakagawa Soen Roshi, who spent many hours listening to them on recordings, though he had no understanding of the language.


The short Enmei Jikku Kannon Gyo, (Ten-Verse Kannon Sutra of Timeless Life), though readily translatable, also has a dharani-like quality. 53 In early Diamond Sangha days I offered a translation for recitation in lieu of the Sino-Japanese original, and it was shouted down after a trial of only a few days. There was just too much enchantment (sorry!) in the old rhythms.

Notes:
48. E. Dale Saunders, Mudra: A Study of Symbolic Gestures in Japanese Buddhist Sculpture(Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1985), pp. 3, 11-12.
49. Ibid., pp. 121-131.
50. Aitken, Encouraging Words, p. 175.
51. Donald Lopez Jr., The Heart Sutra Explained: Indian and Tibetan Commentaries (Albany: State University of New York, 1988), p. 125; Dogen Kigen, Shobogenzo: Mitsugo, cited by Hee-Jin Kim, Dogen Kigen: Mystical Realist(Tucson: University of Arizona, 1987), p. 78; Eckhart, "A Flowing Out but Returning Within." Fox, Breakthrough, pp. 65-69.
52. Suzuki, Manual of Zen Buddhism, p. 12.
53. Aitken, Encouraging Words, p. 178.
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