Shingon — Esoteric Buddhism

Esoteric Buddhism is called Shingon (真言) in Japanese, which means true word.

I've a got a spell called True Words to Calm the Mind. -- Journey to the West (one of the four great Chinese classical novels)

It refers to the mantric words and syllables that convey the essence of the Buddha-teaching. Esoteric Buddhism came into it`s flowering in the 7th century in India and was brought to Japan from China by Kukai in the 9th century. All Esoteric Traditions speak about the Word of God, the Word of Presence, a Divine Word, a Syllable, or the True Word. This all refers to a word or a mantra that can bring one to the state of Divine Presence of the Higher Self.

In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. -- The Bible, John 1:1
Take him as your guru, who shows the path of truth; who tells you of the divine Word. -- Guru Nanak (1st Sikh guru, 16th c.)
If you ask what the Word of the Presence is, we will reply, the word "Be." -- Ibn Arabi (13th c. Andalusian Sufi mystic and philosopher)
If you want to have your aim (to reach God) wrapped in one thought, so that you can hold onto it better, take one short word of one syllable; this is better than one of two syllables. -- Anonymous English Monk


Mahavairocana is the central deity in Esoteric Buddhism. Mahavairocana is Sanskrit for Great Sun Buddha and symbolizes the state of prolonged presence, similar to the Egyptian Sun-God Ra or the Shinto God Amaterasu. Mahavairocana is the personification of the Dharmakaya, the Dharma-body. The Dharmakaya is also a symbol for the state of prolonged presence.

Mahavairocana with the mudra of the six elements, by Unkei, Enjo-ji temple, Nara

Buddha`s body with the five elements

The esoteric teaching explains that the elements are the Buddha`s secret all-pervading body. -- Kukai (founder of Japanese Esoteric Buddhism, 9th c.)

In Mahayana Buddhism, the concept of the three bodies of Buddha appeared. Different Buddhist schools have different ideas about what these three bodies mean. The Nirmānakāya, manifests in time and space, and represents the physical body of a Buddha. The Saṃbhogakāya is the body whereby a bodhisattva completes his vows and becomes a Buddha and the Dharmakāya or Truth body embodies the state of enlightenment. The five elements that Kukai speaks of, are part of all Eastern esoteric traditions. In China they are earth, water, fire, wood and metal. In Japan and India they are earth, water, fire, air and space. Although the names of the elements are different, their inner meaning is the same.

The exoteric five elements are as commonly explained. The esoteric five symbolic elements are the five syllables, the five Buddhas. -- Kukai, in 'The true meaning of the voiced syllables'

A diagram with the exoteric or conditioned elements and their classifcations
The five elements differ in being either primal or conditioned, the primal originate before birth, the conditioned emerge after birth. The primal produces sages, the conditioned produce ordinary people. -- Liu Yiming (18th c.Taoist Master)

A diagram of the five esoteric or primal elements, the five meditation Buddhas

the five meditation Buddhas, detail of
the diamond word mandala

The five esoteric or primal elements are symbolized by the body of Buddha and each element is also represented by one of the meditation Buddhas. They symbolize the first five syllables or five true words of a six-syllable mantra to reach the state of Divine presence.

Consciousness was combined with earth, water, fire,wind and space as an element pervading them all; these together comprised the universal body of the Six Great Elements. -- Yamanshi - Shingon, Japanese Esoteric Buddhism

Mahavairocana symbolizes the sixth element or syllable, the end of the mantra, when one reaches a prolonged state of presence, while Vairocana represents the first syllable, the beginning of the mantra.

All the manifestations of truth can be described by the six esoteric elements. -- Yamanshi, Shingon, Japanese Esoteric Buddhism
Grasp all the Five Elements and turn them upside down, and when you are successful you can become a Buddha, or an Immortal. -- Journey to the West

The Five Ringed Pagoda

One can also see the symbolism of the five elements in the Five Ringed Pagoda. A Five Ringed Pagoda serves as a grave marker or cenotaph, erected for the repose of the departed. The inner meaning of the death of the physical body is the death of the spiritual body of effort, the Saṃbhogakāya, five syllables to reach the state of prolonged presence. After one has reached a prolonged state of presence, the body of effort is no longer needed and dies, so to speak.

My teachings are a raft to be abandoned when you find true being. -- Buddha

A five ringed pagoda

A diagram of a five ringed pagoda

The symbolism of the body representing the five elements came from Hinduism.

To the body of the five elements, there is the fivefold Dharana (concentration of the mind). -- The Yoga-Tattva Upanishad (Hindu text)

Tibetan Buddhism has the same origin as Japanese Esoteric Buddhism, and therefore the five Buddhas and the five elements are also part of it`s teaching. The Tibetan stupa is a representation of the five elements and is said to represents Buddha's body, the spiritual body of effort to reach Divine presence.

A diagram of a Tibetan Stupa

A Tibetan Stupa

The Saṃbhogakāya is the body whereby a bodhisattva becomes a Buddha. It is made up of the esoteric five elements, the first five syllables or five true words of a six-syllable mantra to reach the state of Divine presence. Becoming a Buddha means reaching a prolonged state of presence.

What is the Buddha-Nature? It is simply your flawless, present awareness, empty, naked and awake. -- Tibetan Lama
Buddha and devil just refer to two states, one stained, one pure. -- Lin Chi (9th c. Chinese Zen monk)

The Dharmakāya represents a prolonged state of presence which one reaches by using a six-syllable mantra.

Kukai、 holding a ten pronged Vajra, Kongobuji temple, Wakayama prefecture

The six elements produce the four kinds of Dharmakaya. -- Kukai
The Four Kinds of Life and Six Paths are all explained. -- Journey to the West

Using a mantra to reach the state of Divine Presence, is something that has to be learned. It is not just a matter of saying the mantra, because a mantra doesn`t have any power by itself. One needs to understand what one is doing and above all, one`s heart must be behind it.

Words are just words and without heart they have no meaning. -- Chinese Texts
The power and effect of a mantra depends upon the spiritual attitude, the knowledge and the responsiveness of the individual. -- Lama Anakarika Govinda, (20th c. German Tibetan Lama) Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism

Apart from learning how to use a mantra to reach presence, one also needs to become aware of the lower self, which is constantly trying to interrupt one`s awareness of the present.

Step aside Hafiz, you are blocking the way Hafiz (14th c. Persian poet)
The secret of a mantra is not something that is hidden intentionally, but something that has to be acquired by self-discipline, concentration, inner experience, insight, and constant practice, under the guidance of a competent Guru. -- Lama Anakarika Govinda, Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism

Fudō Myō-ō

Fudō Myō-ō is an important deity in Shingon Buddhism, and is a personification of Dainichi Nyorai. Fudo means unmovable and Myo-o means King of Light. Fudō Myō-ō was originally a Hindu god and was incorporated into the Buddhist pantheon. All gods and angels in all religions, symbolize either a power, force or action, inside a man that enables him to experience Divine Presence, or represents the state of Divine Presence itself, e.g Mahavairocana or Amida Buddha

If I accept the fact that a god is absolute and beyond all human experiences, he leaves me cold. I do not affect him, nor does he affect me. But if I know that a god is a powerful impulse in my soul, at once I must concern myself with him, for then he can become important… like everything belonging to the sphere of reality. -- Carl Gustav Jung (20th c. psychotherapist)
Angels are the powers hidden in the faculties and organs of man. -- Ibn Arabi

Fudō Myo-o (by Unkei,
1195 AD. Jōraku-ji Temple, Kanagawa)

The immovable part of the name Immovable King of Light relates to the idea that in order to experience divine presence the mind must be still.

If you can just keep the mind still so that errant thought does not arise, the reality of Nirvana will naturally appear. -- Hongren (5th Partriarch of Zen Buddhism, 7th c.)

The opposite of the still mind is the monkey mind.

Since ancients time immortal real people have likened the mind to a monkey, because they truly saw that when the mind is wild and foolish, this a tremendous obstacle on the way. If learners can control their mind and return to rectitude, then more than half of the Tao of essence and life can be comprehended. -- Liu Yiming

The monkey mind refers to the lower mind jumping from one thought or emotion to the other without any awareness. The immovable mind refers to the state of presence being aware of, and separate from the lower mind. To arrive at this state one needs to still the mind so that there is space for presence to come into being.

When the mind is silent, then it can enter into a world which is far beyond the mind. -- Upanishads (Hindu text)
Stillness means the shedding of all thoughts, even those which are divine; otherwise through giving them our attention because they are good we will lose what is better. -- Gregory of Sinai, Philokalia (Greek Orthodox Christian text)

Once the state of presence is strong enough it can then co-exist with the lower mind. Now, one`s sense of 'I' is in that which observes, the state of presence, and no longer in the thoughts and emotions going around in one`s mind.

Freedom from thought means having no thought in the midst of thought. -- Huineng (6th Partriarch of Zen Buddhism, 7th c.)

Fudō Myō-ō is usually surrounded by flames symbolizing the transformation of friction into the state of presence.

Fudo Myo-o, Unmovable King of Light, 9th C. AD, Japan.

If a man gives way to all his desires, or panders to them, there will be no inner struggle in him, no 'friction,' no fire. But if, for the sake of attaining a definite aim, he struggles with desires that hinder him, he will then create a fire which will gradually transform his inner world into a single whole. -- Ouspensky (20th c. Fourth Way spiritual teacher)
Very few can sit down in the middle of the fire itself. -- Rumi (13th c. Sufi mystic and poet)

Struggling against one`s own internal weaknesses, or trying to accept the unpleasant manifestation of others creates friction. If one doesn`t listen to the host of thoughts and emotions screaming inside, but instead keeps focusing on the present moment, one can experience a transformation in which these thoughts and emotions are burnt away, and instead, one feels a peace inside, accompanied by a miraculous sense of self-awareness.

I know myself now, and I feel within me a peace above all earthly dignities. -- Shakespeare, Henry VIII

It is not easy to untangle oneself of the net of thoughts and emotion that keep one attached to the lower self. One needs special kind of knowledge and tools and then one needs practice in using them. Fudō Myō-ō always has a sword in one hand and a cord in the other, symbolizing the knowledge and tools to reach state of presence.

Let the wise man fight illusion with the sword of wisdom. -- Buddha

The sword of wisdom is the wisdom that can cut through the attachment of the thoughts and emotions that keeps one`s identity in the lower self.

Fudō Myo-o - the immovable King of Light holding a six-pointed Vajra sword (by Ukei, Ganjojuin temple, Shizuoka, Japan)
Ever since sages handed on
the secret of the sword,
The true imperative has been upheld
Completely, truly adamant.

If someone asks me about it
Looking for its origin,
I say it is not ordinary iron.
This lump of iron
Comes from receptive stillness;
When you obtain it, it rises up.

The subtle function of spiritual work
Is truly hard to measure;
I now give an explanation for you.
In telling you about it,
I divulge the celestial mechanism.

On the left, the hexagram 'Return" with one yang and five yins, on the right the hexagram "Heaven" with 6 yangs

Setting to work when one yang comes back,
First have the six yangs pump the furnace bellows;
Then the six yins work the tongs and hammer.
When the work of firing is complete,
it produces the sword;
When it is first done,
It flashes like lightening.

A sword with six branches called the seven-branched sword, Isonokami Shrine, Nara Prefecture, Japan

This precious sword fundamentally has no form;
The name is set up because it has spiritual effect.
Learning the Tao and practicing reality
Depend on this sword;
Without this sword,
the Tao cannot be achieved.
-- Li Dao Chun(13th c. Taoist master) The Sword of Wisdom
from The Book of Balance and Harmony

The six yangs and six yins represent the inhalation and exhalation of the True Breath or the Breath of Life, when yin and yang are unified and in harmony; they are called the bellows. When self-awareness accompanies the physical breath it becomes the Breath of Life and yin and yang become unified and in harmony.

Nowadays when Taoists speak of pumping the bellows, they do not mean pumping a bellows; they mean tuning true breathing. If you know the furnace and cauldron but not the bellows, then yin and yang are separated.
-- The seventh generation master of the Northern Branch of the Complete Reality School of Taoism, Practical Taoism

Japanese characters for shimenawa
Those who cling to Allah, cling to an unbroken rope.
-- Al-Busayri (7th c. Muslim)

The rope symbolizes an uninterrupted effort to cling to presence, similar to the Shinto Shimenawa. The left character for Shimenawa means attention or concentrate on. The middle character means to connect while the right character means rope. One can translate Shimenawa as a rope to connect one`s attention.

Fudo Myo-o, (by Unkei, 12th C.
1195 AD. Jyōraku-ji Temple, Kanagawa)

Fudō Myō-ō has a wrathful facial expression, symbolizing a firm determination not to allow thoughts and emotions to disturb the state of presence.

When we notice a wicked thought draw near, let us wrathfully hurl a heartfelt curse at it. -- Hesychius of Jerusalem, Philokalia (Greek Orthodox Christian text)
The Wrathful Deities are merely the dynamic aspect of enlightenment, the process of becoming a Buddha, of attaining illumination. The ecstatic figures, heroic and terrifying, express the act of breaking through towards the unthinkable, the intellectually unattainable. -- Lama Anagarika Govinda

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