Community Ecology Growing Practice Spirituality Wilderness

Chenrezig and the Mani Mantra

Mount Shasta

In June 2018, which it marvels me to reflect is now six years ago, researching my book “Retreat” I travelled to a retreat in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest in Northern California. The region itself is completely mind-blowing as it is.

I was interviewing the legendary hippie guru Bhagavan Das, who is most famous for coining the expression “Be Here Now” which was popularised by Ram Dass.

I stayed on after our interview and took part in the retreat’s closing ceremony, at which the beloved “Baba” gave me the Mani mantra. He whispered it into my ear and gave us some instructions in how to use it with a mala.

Each time you mutter the six sylabbles, “OM-MA-NI-PE-MAY- HUNG”, you move a single crystal bead around the mala, a kind of rosary. The mala has 108 beads, and you are encouraged to circle it in this manner ten times each day.

Evidence of a early receptivity to these ideas. A drawing I made in Durbar Square in Katmandhu in August 1990.

As documented in “Retreat”, I subsequently kept coming across the mantra in my research, from the writings of Jack Kerouac to those of Carl Jung.

I had the definite sense that I had been drawn towards it and its surrounding teachings. It was as though the fascination I had for certain music and that era was leading me, through inexorable logic, towards the ideas enshrined in the mantra. Certainly, that’s the substance of my book, “The “S” Word.”

The mantra in a screenprint by Jung Associate the Dutch Olga Fröbe-Kapteyn in 1930

You don’t need any religious qualification to give someone the Mani mantra. Parents give it to their children, which is no surprise, as using it is tremendously reassuring. There’s nothing exclusive about it. In Tibet, which is its adopted country, men use the Mani mantra (Om Mani Padme Hung) and identify with the bodhisattva Chenrezig. Women use the Tara mantra (Om Tare Tuttare Ture Svaha) and identify with Green Tara.

My little Chenrezig statue. The four-armed version holding his crystal mala and white lotus flower.

The bodhisattva Chenrezig (the Tibetan nomenclature) is known by many names, but primarily they are Avalokiteśvara (in Sanskrit), Kannon (in Japan from which we get the brand name Canon), and Guānyīn (when they take the form of a woman in China).

The original Canon Camera Logo from 1933.

Possibly the most important mention of the bodhisattva comes in roll eight of the Lotus Sutra, which has the reputation of being the most important sutra (scripture) in all Buddhism.

In it the Buddha explains, “Good man, if incalculable hundreds of thousands of myriads of millions of living beings, suffering pain and torment, hear of this bodhisattva He Who Observes the Sounds of the World and single-mindedly call upon his name, the bodhisattva He Who Observes the Sounds of the World shall straightway heed their voices, and all shall gain deliverance.”

One celebrated translation of the Lotus Sutra.

This act of listening and being heard relates to the legend of Chenrezig, once a young man, who vowed “May I not attain enlightenment until every last being has been liberated.” This renunciation is the essence of the Mahayana Buddhist proposition of the bodhisattva – it’s very different from the arhat of Theravada Buddhism, wherein the focus is upon the individual’s own liberation.

In the course of his endeavour to achieve this liberation of all beings, owing to the effort, Chenrezig shattered into a thousand pieces. The Buddhas pieced him together after this attempt, whereupon he had a thousand arms – the better to achieve his aims. This is why he sometimes depicted as having a thousand arms.

The thousand-armed Chenrezig. This painting from the Dalai Lama’s residence at McLeod Ganj.

Even by Buddhist standards, the complexity of ideas around the Mani mantra are involved. Literally every single aspect of the process of its recitation, and the individual syllables themselves, have intensely ornate symbolism.

You couldn’t pack more meaning into a single phrase if you tried. A great example of this is Leary, Metzner, and Alpert’s idol, the German Lama Anagarika Govinda‘s classic book “Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism”. This goes into dizzying detail about the meaning of mantra.

Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism has the six syllables in clockwork on its cover with, as is common, the magic word HRIH in the centre.

Another great book on the Mani mantra is Alexander Studholme’s “The Origins of Om Manipadme Hum: A Study of the Kārandavyūha Sūtra” (2002). Studholme recounts the mantra’s supposed inception at the holy Indian city of Varanasi, and makes a cogent case for its use as being a twin of the Pure Land strain of Buddhism. Pure Land Buddhism revolves entirely around chanting the words “Namo Amituofo” (in essence, the Amitabha Buddha’s name) or just “Amituofo”. It is itself a very elegant reduction of a myriad of ideas.

The mantra on the cover here as it appears in Karandavyuha Sutra written in the Lantra script not the more common Sanskrit.

The more one researches the mantra, it seems, the more one finds out about its meaning. This is how it has been engineered as a vehicle of boundaryless absorption. The yogic mechanism of bhakti, a spiritual union in the way of all yogas, inculcates its “high” through this loving devotion, to which the mantra brings only intensification.

If you think about it, most focal points of our obsessions have definite boundaries. Take record collecting as an example, in my own opinion, there are delineated boundaries beyond which point it ceases to be productive behaviour. There are limits to the amount of music to which one is naturally receptive, there are limits too to the amount of time one can devote to listening, and certainly in own experience there came a moment when I just “got it” – as though, still a tasty dish, it were a kind of food I had gorged on to the point at which I found the returns were diminishing. Something like the mantra, or other spiritual “technologies” like the worship of deities, work around this problem and offer boundless vistas for our meditation and preoccupation.

Although by now I have, to some extent, popped out the other side of this intense fascination, for a while I was very wrapped up in it. And loving it, frankly! Here for instance are two high-resolution renditions I made of the magic syllables and one of its corresponding colours.

From the Sanskrit
In the Lantra text
The Mantra’s coresponding colours.

A very central part of the Chenrezig mythology is the idea that the Dalai Lama, the “Ocean Lama”, is the emanation of the bodhisattva on this plane of reality.

Therefore, as part of my research trip to India in December 2019, moments before the COVID shutdown, I went to Bodh Gaya in Bihar to witness the Dalai Lama giving Chenrezig Initiation at the Kalachakra Teaching Ground. Participants in this ceremony are able to claim themselves to be emanations of the compassionate bodhisattva!

Where’s Woebot? I am visible in this wonderful photo of his holiness holding my mala aloft.

I took a lot of pleasure in discovering that this picture of the 14th Dalai Lama, the first internationally propagated image of him, was commissioned by, and printed in our family’s newspaper, The Illustrated London News.

As nebulous as the meaning of the mantra is, we can, I believe, simplify it somewhat. In Sanskrit, sandwiched between the two divine sounds “Om” and “Hum”, we have “mani” meaning jewel, and “padme” the locative of lotus.

Academics have many takes, they refer to the bodhisattva as a “Jewel-lotus”, or “She of the Jewel-lotus”, or describe “a lotus that is a jewel”, or a “jewel in the lotus”, or celebrate “O, she with the jewel in her lotus” (sounds like vajazalling…), or (according to the aforementioned Studholme) think that it is best rendered as following, “in the jewel lotus” or “in the lotus made of jewels”.

However-which-way one interprets these words, even if they are a description of the bodhisattva, they remain a conjunction of two ideas. The idea of the jewel and, crucial to my own interpretation, the idea of the Lotus flower.

A lotus in the swamp

Within the context of Hindu thought, the Lotus flower is meaningful because its pristine architecture rises from the swamp. There’s even a punchy slogan in contemporary Buddhism which picks this up: “No Mud, No Lotus.”

In comparing or equating the Lotus to a jewel, there is a further intensification of this conceptual underpinning of immaculate beauty arising from a base material, for just as the lotus arises from the mud, the jewel arises from the lotus. But it’s especially interesting, I believe, to put ourselves in the mindset of the agricultural society of the 4th and 5th century when the mantra was coined. This society would have been preoccupied with the miracle and importance of plant growth and vitality, and an understanding of the worth, not so much of “mud” but soil, and seen the mantra in that context.

Buddhism, with its emphasis on total interconnectivity, is the original ecological philosophy. Of course, the other famous plant in the Buddhist cosmology is the Bodhi tree. It was seated under the Bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya that the Buddha had his satori.

The author at the Bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya in 2019.

Back from India, and parsing all these ideas about compassion and ecology, I started working more and more on growing. Here for instance is my experiment of growing Lotus flowers on Old Street in 2021.

For a long time, sensing in a way the threat of this boundaryless activity, I was quite keen to place it within some framework. We did discuss these ideas subsequently, but ultimately it was unfortunate that Bhagavan Das lived way across the Atlantic, where it wasn’t possible to be in his physical presence.

Consequently, I decided it was an idea to take refuge, the Buddhist equivalent of confirmation, and so through the Kagyu Samye Dzong organisation in London I made the pilgrimage up to Samye Ling. This experience crucially took me, not to the subcontinent, but Dumfriesshire in Scotland. Fascinating for me was the order’s decision to put the statue of Chenrezig in the middle of their Organic Herb and Vegetable Garden overseeing the kale, spinach, and potatoes.

Indeed, Buddhas are often a feature of gardens. Placed there usually without great consideration.

I don’t know if it’s a common phenomenon, but more and more with Buddhism (and this is in no way a criticism of the philosophy), I found it was meaningless to describe myself as one.

Buddhism itself doesn’t mean anything. By which I’m suggesting that, at its purest, it is practically invisible; is no more than common-sense. Its principles of dependent origination, impermanence, and compassion are nothing more than the evidently correct order of the universe. To become fixated on its glittering imagery and exquisite ritual, as I tremendously enjoyed for a period, is somehow to miss the point – even if it’s something I would never wish to entirely leave behind. On my own journey, I started growing plants as a form of “practice” before eventually, by no means superficially, I found myself just growing them.