Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Experiences in Japa and Mantra-Meditation

I cannot even begin to count the time I've committed to meditation over the years. Timewise, the bulk of my experiences span from my twelve active years as a Gaudiya Vaishnava, employing the tradition's methodology, the focus of which was the unveiling of a connection with god Krishna, his companions and his spiritual domain. In the last two years, I have also experimented with a number of other similar methods of meditation, which along with the Gaudiya approach form the bulk of this article.

A holy man seated for meditation with his rosary.

In the Gaudiya tradition, mantras are twofold: One category is the public maha-mantra (Hare Krishna Hare Krishna etc.), the other the many secret initiation mantras one receives from a guru. While the latter are almost invariably vocalized in the mind only, the former is also murmured, chanted audibly, and also sung to the accompaniment of instruments as a hymn of prayer and praise.

A japa-mala in its covering bag, underneath the maha-mantra written in Bengali script.

Symbolism of the Rosary

The japa-mala, a sacred rosary made of Tulasi-wood with 108 beads, is employed for the counting of mantras. The rosary is taken by many Gaudiya Vaishnavas to symbolize the rasa-mandala, the circular midnight dance arena of Krishna and the 108 main gopis. The rosary frequently has a string tied in after the eight largest beads, signifying the eight principal gopis.

I cannot recall anyone ever featuring the symbolism in any practical capacity, and so it remains a mystery whether you're supposed to meditate on the eight gopis every time you touch the eight beads, and whether you're supposed to mentally contemplate on the Rasa-dance pastime over and over again, or whether it's just a fancy poetic depiction without much further meaning. The only practical gopi-mandala related practice is a prayer some chant before taking up the rosary:

tri-bhaGga-bhaGgima-rUpaM veNu-randhra-karAJcitam |
gopI-maNDala-madhyasthaM zobhitaM nanda-nandanam || MBD 4.223

“In a three-fold bending form, his fingers curled on the holes of the flute, amidst a circle of gopis is the beautiful son of Nanda.”

While such symbolism can serve as useful initial inspiration, in this case I found no overall practicability to this, whether as an emotional or a visual aid. As for the string, I did find it useful in keeping mental track of even and odd rounds. As I sit for meditation, I'm disinclined from fiddling with the counter beads and breaking my solid posture and energy build-up every few minutes. Crossing the string with your fingers helps you bundle rounds into segments of two, and thence into segments of four and eight, up to where you can chant dozens of rounds and keep accurate mental track of the number without its causing a disturbance.

Author chanting japa in 2007 at Radhakund.

Experiences with Gaudiya Vaishnava Mantras

Rarely do I engage in japa these days, as I've come to find both the accessories and the verbal mantra-formulations distracting in general. Even with the maha-mantra, when I took up chanting en masse during my later days at Radhakund, it became constantly less and less a matter of the individual names in the mantra. Is one seriously supposed to do a focused back-and-forth bouncing contemplation on Radha and Krishna? If the point is to focus on them, it helps solidify your meditation if a single object remains in extended focus.

I personally found the diksha-mantras much more suited to this purpose, the Radha-mantra in particular. It consists of two bijas, the name of Radha in dative, and a closing exhortation. Dhyanachandra lists a common variant of the mantra as zrIM rAM rAdhikAyai svAhA in his manual. Combined with asanas and pranayama, the prolonged vibration of this formula led me to a substantial kundalini-experience — even if the presence and action of kundalini is largely ignored in Gaudiya circles.

The eighteen-syllable Krishna-mantra (astadasaksara-mantra or Gopala-mantra: klIM kRSNAya govindAya gopIjana-vallabhAya svAhA), on the other hand, was a bit lengthy to my liking and less useful for focused contemplation. Again, is one supposed to focus on Krishna, Govinda or Gopijanavallabha? If they are the one and the same, where is there a need for a plurality of names? And if they are different (as any pundit would explain to you), we again have the problem of having to constantly shift our focus.

I remember also growing uneasy over some of the other mantras, the tripartite gayatris in particular, that did not follow the standard meter and rhythm; a symmetric rhythm helps with maintaining focus. In particular, the accessory gayatris for the remaining members of the Panca-tattva and the accessory gayatris for the gopis were rather cumbersome formulations. (I was initiated into a total of 12 mantras and 12 gayatris at Radhakund.)

During my active chanting years, especially with the numeric strength of japa growing to two daily lakhs (128 rounds) and beyond, it was necessary to learn to relate to the ping-pong of names in the maha-mantra. Less a conscious decision and more a natural evolution, the explicit components of the mantra began to withdraw in favor of exposing a spiritual fabric rising from the vibration itself, a vibration underlying the names. It was this presence, of which it seemed a great deal could arise, that I associated with suddha-sattva, the existential fabric of the spiritual world itself. I doubt the idea would pass any orthodoxies, but such was my experience nevertheless.

Replica of Tryambakeshvar Mahadeva, one of the twelve Jyotirlingas located around India.

Experiences with Traditional Hindu Mantras

I have also done a fair amount of japa during my post-Gaudiya time, starting in the summer of 2007 with a brief and final Gaudiya revisit during the Kartika month of the same year. In exploring a future direction, I hopped on a rollercoaster of Advaitic and Buddhist studies, for those were the two traditions I found to be best matching my general spiritual orientation, matching inclinations present from before my contact with Vaishnavism, and latent throughout the years of Vaishnava practice.

In the initial period of exploration I grew quite fond of OM, the classic ultimate chant exhorted in the Upanishads. I found it much more suited for touching the tranquil existential fabric I had conjured with my earlier chantings of maha-mantra. In fact I even experimented for a week on hybrid mental japa of maha-mantra and OM — it's amazing what your mind can pull together once you put it to work. It was rather interesting, but required an excess of mental energy to contain over long term. I settled for the good old OM and was quite happy with it.

The pancaksara-mantra for Shiva (oM namaH zivAya) was a natural expansion of OM, very compact in its formula, carrying the gist of the structural power of the shorter Vaishnava-mantras I had once found useful. Moreover it carried strong Advaitic content, regardless of whether you associated it with the Upanishadic world or the approach of Kashmiri Shaivism, conveying a strong sense of non-dual divinity embodied as the Shiva-archetype. Along with the mantra of Tara, the pancaksara must be the most chanted among my post-Gaudiya mantras.

A statue of Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, in Kathmandu.

Experiences with Buddhist Mantras

During my travels with the Buddhist monks and beyond, I committed a fair deal of time to some common Buddhist mantras. From the Thai monks I walked with, I learned the practice of chanting the ten ephitets of the Buddha on a rosary (iti 'pi so bhagavo arahaM samma-sambuddho...), which was more of a broad contemplation than a narrow-band mantra even if quite catchy with its irregular rhythm, and also briefly experimented with the shorter Theravadan chant (namo tassa bhagavato arahato samma-sambuddhassa).

A similar wisdom-contemplation was the great Mahayana mantra (oM gate gate para-gate para-saMgate bodhi svAhA) summarizing the heart of Madhyamika-philosophy on the nature of existence, covering the evolving perceptions of form and emptiness, and culminating into bodhi or enlightenment. While not as suited for extended repetition, I found chanting a few rounds to effect a rather refreshing flashback of the fundamentals of existence. Of course, with all mantras and particularly in this case, one must be well acquainted with the meaning of the mantra, and for fuller effect share personal experience of and insight into the said base aspects of reality.

Another genre of mantras employed in the Buddhist tradition are those associated with tantric or Tibetan Buddhism with its approach of contemplating on enlightened archetypal deities. My favorite by far was the mantra of goddess Tara (oM tAre tuttAre ture svAhA), which I practiced along with a refined visualization practice I learned from Atisha's medieval sadhana-manual in the library of the Kopan Monastery in Kathmandu. I also experimented on the mantra of Padmasambhava (oM aH hUM padma-guru vajra-siddhi hUM), a powerful chant in its own right, and the classic mantra of Avalokitesvara (oM maNi padme hUM), the bodhisattva of compassion, a mantra full of soothing lucidity and peace.

The mantra oM maNi padme hUM engraved on a stone wall in Tibetan script at Bodh Gaya.

Other Methods of Meditation

It was the non-verbal methods of meditation that I was most at home with. I suppose this largely owes to my preference of conceptual thinking over verbalization, or the pazyanti (direct perceptual) level over madhyama (mental verbalization) and vaikhari (external verbalization) stages in Upanishadic terms. Mental and verbal japa still maintain a sense of distance to the object, while conceptual contemplation puts one in an immediate relationship with the object. (This is incidentally also the goal of the Gaudiya way of meditation with its specific object.)

Two old Buddhist practices aiming for samadhi (concentration) and prajna (wisdom) are the heart of all Buddhist meditation. The former, while not directly conducive to the awakening of ultimate wisdom on its own, is a powerful and systematic method for attaining increasing levels of samadhi or jhana (Sanskrit: dhyana) along with their subsequent benefits. The sophisticated jhana-theory of Theravada Buddhism serves as a highly useful reference point for other traditions of object-meditation. Perhaps the most sriking discovery for me in this was in understanding the underlying principles and the inherent similarity between supposedly unique meditative traditions.

Vipassana or insight-meditation, the second of the two divisions of Buddhist meditation, is a direct tool for attaining ultimate wisdom and enlightenment. While vipassana may employ a number of techniques in attaining deep introspective perception and clarity, essentially it's about learning to observe the inherent natures of reality, witnessing the fundamental principles of reality (anicca: temporarity; dukkha: anxiety; anatta: non-selfhood) in all phenomena. While there are methods for enhancing the experience, the core observant principle does not require technical support.

All in all, it's all but clouds at the back of the hall...

Craving, Peace and Spiritual Objectives

I have come to marginalize goal-oriented spiritual practice in my life, having observed that it often leads to results quite antithetical to the desired goal, and instead of contributing to, consumes the sense of perennial tranquility and insight from the inside out. A very elementary Buddhist teaching is that craving leads to misery. Whether one is craving for openly mundane aims, supernatural powers, imaginary liberation or the favors of a supreme god, the very fact that there is craving leads to grief. As such, while I do not systematically seek to practice the said methods (or any other methods), their gist in revealing the natural potentials of the mind seem to have been amicably absorbed.

It is my personal conclusion that the less one attempts to actively manipulate one's spiritual evolution, the more one gains in the way of peace and existential insight. By stopping you progress. By seeking progress you stop. What a beautiful paradox. Now, I could cite any number of Hindu and Buddhist teachers whose teachings ultimately reflect the same, but I don't as I'm more concerned with direct personal experience than I am with the spiritual systematizations of another, no matter how wise he may have been.

Not that one isn't to learn of the experiences of others — but neither is one to assume he can successfully lead the life and grasp the insights of another without eventually developing his own. Whatever we learn is to be personally experimented on, experienced, and incorporated into our own unique frame of reference. We are what we are, and exactly at the place we are — independent of anyone's projections of what and where we ought to be according to his system. Walk your own way, I say. Or rather, stop and be happy.

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