Sunday, July 26, 2009

100 Syllable Mantra of Vajrasattva: Of Prayer and Language

Om vajra sattva samaya manupalaya vajrasattva tvenopatishtha dridho me
bhava sutosyo me bhava suposyo me bhava anurakto me bhava sarva siddhim
me prayaccha sarva karma suca me cittam shriye kuru hum ha ha ha ha ho
bhagavan sarva tathagatha vajra ma me munca vajri bhava
mahasamayasattva ah


One of our readers sent me an email last night that I found amusing. He was commenting on the horrors of "Tibetskrit," and wrote:
Just think - if Tibetans attained using horrendously bad Sanskrit, what
marvels can English speaking practitioners achieve pronouncing it correctly?

He does have a valid point, and it goes way beyond the old "benzra" versus "vajra" thing to the very heart of a most interesting matter: if you are sawing away in somebody else's language, is it doing you any good whatsoever?

When the various liturgies and prayers were initially published, both Tibetan language and cultural identity were in danger of extinction -- well, they still are in a sense, but it seemed rather moreso in those days.

Most of the lamas considered it a useful preservation method to perform the liturgies as originally written, but of course, nobody could speak Tibetan. Consequently, what we had were not transliterations, but idiosyncratic pronunciation guides for performance purposes.

I can tell you, we really struggled with these things. We struggled to put meaning to unfamiliar words. Now, times have changed. Over the past forty years, a worldwide effort to preserve Tibetan language and culture has achieved notable success. Of course, much more need be done, but it does raise a question. If the ostensible reason for performing the liturgies in Tibetan no long applies, is it permissible to employ English or other languages instead?

Tradition has something to say about this. In the 104th Canto of the Padma bKa'i Thang, Guru Padmasambhava engages in a dialogue with Pekar, the guardian king of Samye Monastery's treasures. Pekar warns:
"When I break the chanting of the Charms and the propitiatory Formulas, at the time of reciting the Formulas, they will come only in fragments. Not knowing the language has changed, the reciters will no longer understand, and when they recite the Formulas, they will not know how to reflect on the ideas."
This is a clear indication, that in order for the recitation to be effective, one must be able to experientially contact the meaning of that which one recites. Indeed, one is reminded of Jigme Lingpa's admonition, "if tears do not flow from the eyes, the puja should not count." Emotional fervor is difficult to muster if one is mindlessly chanting sounds one does not understand.

For many of us, in the beginning, prayer is an intensely personal activity. Later, we recognize that prayer is constant, universal, spontaneous, enduring, and timeless -- we are joining something already in progress. In fact, prayer is an activity without boundary, specificity, or individuation. Yet, in the beginning, we consider prayer to be something intimate, and unique. We seem to be arousing deep feelings of faith and altruism, and communicating these to divinity. Indeed, Guru Vajrasattva is in front of us, and we are in direct communication with him.

Certainly, we need to express mantras in proper Sanskrit-- mantras are not words -- and proper names remain proper names.

However, one's native tongue seems best for prayers and invocations. Were it not so, Tibetans would not have invested so much blood and treasure to translate the vast rituals of Buddhism from Sanskrit into their own language.

Just an idea.


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