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The Jewel in the Lotus

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by Sangharakshita

Lecture 101: The Jewel in the Lotus

Those of you who were here last week will remember that on that occasion we dealt with something found all over the Buddhist world in the East, something which we find everywhere as part and parcel of the landscape, the scenery, of every single Buddhist country, that is, we dealt with the Stupa. Now this week we're dealing with something which is not found all over the Buddhist world, but which is found mainly in one part of the Buddhist world, a very important part, a very well-known part, found in Tibet . Now we've only to look at the map to see that Tibet is a truly enormous country. I wasn't myself even quite sure exactly how big Tibet is, so I had a look at the map, and by comparing I discovered rather to my astonishment that Tibet, even inner Tibet, is considerably bigger than France and Spain put together. So we are dealing with a very large area, a very big part of the Buddhist world indeed. But though so big, though so extensive, Tibet is very thinly populated indeed. Until very recently we were rather in the dark as to the exact number of Tibetan people, but it would seem now that there are between two and three million people in Tibet, scattered so thinly over that vast area. And in Tibet even now there are hardly any cities, only a few settlements that we would regard as being more of the nature of towns: Lhasa, Shigatze, Gyantze, hardly more than that. And there aren't even very many villages in Tibet. Lots of people, especially in the East and in the North, still lead a nomadic existence. They roam from place to place, with their horses, with their felt tents, with their flocks and with their herds, and I'm sorry to say that quite a lot of these nomads, though Buddhists, live by robbery.

And I remember in this connection a little story which was told me by one of my incarnate Lama friends in Kalimpong. And he was saying that he was once in a caravan travelling from Lhasa to the borders of China, and the caravan belonged to a very important incarnate Lama, and there were scores of people in this caravan, and a great deal of wealth of various kinds, in various forms: money, bricks of tea, rolls of silk, and so on. Now apparently in Tibet it is the custom that when the caravan belongs to an important incarnate Lama the leading horse in the caravan has a very special decoration, so that everyone can recognize that this is the caravan of an incarnate Lama and show it due respect. But on this particular occasion people in charge of the caravan thought that the times are very troubled. We're going through areas that are perhaps not very friendly to Buddhism, so let us not put that usual insignia on the leading horse. Let us go, as it were, incognito. So that's what they did. They covered hundreds, almost thousands, of miles and I was told that they were passing through a narrow mountain defile and they were ambushed. A few shots rang out and several people dropped dead and within a matter of minutes the robbers were swarming all over the caravan and pillaging it. Now they hadn't been pillaging very long when they discovered whose caravan it was - it was such-and-such an important incarnate Lama's. So when they discovered that, they were horrified and they said: 'But where's his insignia on the leading horse? Had we known that it belonged to an incarnate Lama we would not have touched the caravan.' So the robber chief called all his men together and he called all the people in the caravan together and he gave back everything that had been pillaged. And he said: I have one apology to make.

I'm only sorry I cannot restore to life the people who have been shot. And with those words he went away, because apparently though robbers, they were all pious Buddhists.

Now naturally when one travels under circumstances of that sort you can't help being a little apprehensive, when you go for hundreds of miles and you don't meet anybody, and you see enormous rocks behind which someone might be hiding with a gun to shoot you. So as you come near the village, or as you think you're coming near a village, you feel very relieved and very pleased. And before you reach the village, before you come even to the environs of the village, you usually see signs of one kind or another that you are approaching now human habitations. You may see, for instance, a chorten, that is to say a Tibetan-style Stupa, built up of great rough stones and perhaps whitewashed and painted.

But though stupas, though chortens, are quite common all over Tibet. When you approach, or begin to approach, a village, you're much more likely to see something else, something other than the Stupa, other than the chorten, at least at first. You're much more likely to see, as you go along the track, or what eventually becomes a track, you're much more likely to see on your righthand side a long and rather low stone wall composed for the most part of very large undressed stones just placed one on top of another, not held together with any cement or mortar. And along this wall, running now on your righthand side, on this wall there will be painted some letters, there will be some writing, and the letters will be very very big, as tall perhaps as you are if the wall is high enough. And these letters will be painted in or of a number of different colours. There'll be a yellow letter, or part of a letter, a red letter, a blue letter, a green letter. And if you know Tibetan, if you can read the Tibetan script, you'll notice that they spell out a word or a phrase, and they spell out invariably the phrase: OM MANI PADME HUM. OM the Jewel in the Lotus HUM. And you find this mani wall, as it is called, at the approach to every village, and almost to every human habitation, in Tibet, all over the country - at least that was the situation in the old days before the Chinese invasion. What the situation is like now, we don't know.

It may well be that in many cases they've obliterated the OM MANI PADME HUM and have written instead, in Tibetan: Long live Chairman Mao. That's probably likely in at least some cases.

But in the old days, before they'd heard even of Chairman Mao, not only did they paint and engrave and carve the OM MANI PADME HUM on these long stone walls, but they printed OM MANI PADME HUM from wooden blocks thousands of times on long strips of paper and they wound these strips of paper round and round, they put them into cylinders, into what we call in the West prayer wheels, but what they themselves have always called mani wheels. And this same mantra, the OM MANI PADME HUM, was printed also from wooden blocks onto innumerable prayer flags, along with other mantras, and these prayer flags fluttered outside not only every monastery but every single habitation, fluttered from long bamboo poles all over Tibet. And not only that. Not only was this mantra as it were wafted by the breeze in Tibet, but it was recited every day by hundreds and thousands of people. I remember when I was living in Kalimpong and when I used to go out in the evening for an evening stroll along the road, I'd often meet Tibetan people, mainly elderly people, also having a little stroll, and they'd usually have in one hand their rosary, in the other their prayer wheel, and they'd be murmuring to themselves as they went along: OM MANI PADME HUM, OM MANI PADME HUM, and they'd have half an hour or an hour's walk, and they'd spend their time in this way reciting or chanting this mantra: OM MANI PADME HUM - the Jewel in the Lotus.

Now what does it mean? This is the question which obviously arises. What does the Jewel in the Lotus mean? Not only that, but why does it occur as the title of this evening's lecture? What is the connection between this famous phrase, this famous formula, this famous mantra, the Jewel in the Lotus, and the parables and the myths and the symbols of the White Lotus Sutra, with which we are concerned in this series? Now the first of these questions: What does it mean? - this is obviously the most important, but we shall be dealing with it just a little later on.

The phrase occurs as the title of the lecture this evening for a definite reason. It occurs because tonight we're dealing with another parable of the White Lotus Sutra, and the meaning of that parable happens to be identical with the meaning of this particular formula, this particular mantra, the Jewel in the Lotus. And there's another reason also for using this mantra as our title. As I've already said, OM MANI PADME HUM, or OM the Jewel in the Lotus HUM, is what is technically called a mantra. Now what is a mantra? There's quite a lot of misunderstanding on this subject. Sometimes mantra is translated as 'mystic phrase', but that doesn't help us very much. If we look at the traditional etymology of the term man-tra, we find that the word is split up into two parts: 'man', which means 'mind' and 'tra', which is a verb meaning 'to protect'. So the traditional etymology, what Guenther calls the symbolical etymology, not the scientific one, makes the word mean 'that which protects the mind', because the recitation of the mantra as it were protects, not only protects but helps, develops, matures, the mind of the person reciting it, meditating upon its meaning. Scientifically speaking, in strict philological terms, the word 'mantra' comes from a verb meaning 'to call', to call out, even, or to call down, or in other words to invoke.

So a mantra is a word or words used to call up or call down, or simply to call, to invoke, dormant spiritual forces within our own minds. And in a sense the mantras, not only OM MANI PADME HUM but other mantras too, are the names of these forces, the names given to these forces, these spiritual forces, dormant spiritual forces, within our own minds. And these forces in the Buddhist tradition are personified, not sort of artificially, but they naturally spontaneously assume what ...

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