(An image of a tantric practitioner providing a life-enhancing empowerment to a patient, from the medical paintings commissioned by Desi Sangye Gyatso, 1653-1705, to accompany his commentaries of the root-tantras of the Tibetan medical tradition)
One of the first things that someone visiting Tibetan communities tends to encounter -whether they’re a foreign visitor or a transmigrating Tibetan baby – is mantras. These set-apart forms of speech, made up of specific patterns of sacred and largely untranslatable phrases and syllables, are performed with special kinds of cadence and affect which distinguish them from other sorts of utterance.
As their Sanskrit etymology suggests, mantras are ‘instruments of the mind’; holding awareness firm they help to generate various effects and qualities in the one who recites them. While many mantras are the specific sound-embodiment of deities and Buddha-beings, others are more action-based and ‘worldly’, and exist as powerful spells that in the hands of trained experts who have properly ‘activated’ them are supposed to be able to produce all kinds of results.
Many people today are familiar with Indo-Tibetan mantras but are perhaps less familiar with where exactly mantras come from. Below I have attached my very rough and inadequate translation of the first part of a three-part Tibetan blog-post which appeared on a website about Tibetan culture in 2013 (cf here). This essay which was written by Dr Nida Chenagtsang some years ago in Lhasa (and which someone called Rinchen shared independently on the website above) essay discusses the history of the use of mantras for healing (སྔགས་བཅོས་ཐབས་ ngakchö tuhp) in Tibet. Dr Nida stresses that notwithstanding Sowa Rigpa or Tibetan medicine’s investment in strongly ’empirical’ and ‘secular’ therapeutic methods, mantra healing is nonetheless an indispensable element of Tibetan medical history and practice. His piece also acknowledges that healing mantras are not unique to Buddhism, and thus shows how magic and ritual healing are areas of Tibetan cultural life which are uniquely hybrid and non-sectarian and which perhaps span beyond Buddhist hegemonies. In general, mantra healing points to a rich and complex field of history and practice, one that comprises both elite and everyday ‘folk’ actors and knowledge systems, which intertwine in fascinating ways.
Anyway, here’s the translation:
“Mantra Healing is an Indispensable Branch of Tibetan Traditional Medicine
I prostrate, give offerings and go for refuge to Yuthok, King of Medicine!
1) The Origins and wonderful distinctive qualities of various forms of mantra healing
Mantra healing methods were gradually disseminated by sages from Dharma-countries like Shang Shung, Oddiyana, and India, and gained ground from the time of the incredibly ancient first kings. At a time when there wasn’t a vibrant culture of medicine or of (political) self-sufficiency, certain people who were afraid of the dangers of the laws of kings and worldly suffering (samsara), the so-called ‘upright ones’ (drang srong) or ancient sages, went by themselves without companions to stay in the mountains and dense forests. By isolating both their minds and bodies, they obtained states of profound meditative absorption (samadhi), and through the power of their clairvoyance and meditative concentration, received the mantras, or ‘words of truth’.
These sages, having relied on the special force of reciting words of power and counting mantras, then provided extremely convenient strategies for curing disease and preventing infection for beings tormented by illness and negative spiritual forces. So this is something like the cornerstone of the history of medical treatment and its efficacy. It all started in the beginning with mantras or ‘words of truth’ – these were either used alone to treat illnesses, or at other times. as a result of effort and experience as well as clairvoyance, whatever herbal medicines, non-herbal medicines and animal parts (flesh, blood, bone etc) were (discovered to be) appropriate were combined with mantras for healing.
Later, what might have happened is that, little by little, people who solely treated with medicines, people who only did mantric rituals and ceremonies, and people who performed medical and mantra cures together became distinct (categories of practitioner). Sages of the past such as Atreya and Dhanvantari who held medical lineages together with religious ones, thought to start treating problems with mantras in various ways: piercing or bursting various kinds of swellings and protruberances after saying mantras, stauncing bleeding caused by weapons through mantras, extracting stones and pieces of wood from sores by blowing mantras, taking out cataracts with mantra water, healing by sucking out illnesses and so on. So, saying that the traditional practices of Sowa Rigpa, Tibetan traditional medicine, derive from ancient religious traditions isn’t just an arbitrary statement.
Mantra healing rituals with various and distinct characteristics exist in many Buddhist and non-Buddhist philosophical systems, and accordingly (many mantras) came from the yogis of the ancient Bon religion of Shang Shung in early Tibet. In particular, the designation ‘Bon’ has the meaning of ‘recite’ and ‘to recite mantras’, and seeing as ‘bon-pos’ are then those who do rituals involving the recitation of mantras, we can understand that mantra healing must have largely spread in Shang Shung from the time of the flourishing of the ancient Bon.When one thinks of the time of the spreading and flourishing of Bon, when (visiting masters from the West of Tibet performed such feats as) cutting iron with the feather of a bird, and of the knowledge they had of how the gods and demons help and harm, sincethe power of mantras at that time was (clearly) very great and keen, they really must have been of genuine benefit to many people who were sick. In particular, by producing auspiciousness to keep people from becoming sick who weren’t, and by serving as a system of curative knowledge for people that were, Bon healing rites provided a firm root from this time for (the development) of rituals that paired mantra and medicine.
Educated people are well aware too that in the time of Chebu Thrishing (one of the eight sons of the mythic founder of Bon), who’s said to have been master of a medical system of 21 000 glorious cures, (healing practices) were even more abundant and complete than before. The period of the practice of the traditions of Bon mantra healing lasted for a long time, after which in accordance with the advancement and proliferation of Buddhism in Tibet, mantra healing’s prospects suffered both gains and losses. In the time of Songtsen Gampo and Trisong Detsen, due to the fact that religious texts that had been spread from India and which dealt with methods for curing diseases by means of mantra rituals became unique objects of practice, study and faith for older generations of doctors – in this regard mantras for illness expanded like the ocean in summer.
Bon mantra healing gradually became latent and hidden in only a few places. Because from the eight century on mantra healing had become an important part of Tibetan medicine there are several examples of instructions on mantra healing in the sections of the Gyushi (the four medical root tantras, the foundational textbook of Tibetan traditional medicine) that deal with children’s diseases, with diseases caused by astrological influences and klu (i.e. water spirits), and so on. In the context of curing poisoning, a mantra-based cure for diseases caused by poison (is given as follows – *the actual mantra/procedure is not given in the article) –
“Etc. etc. said twenty (one) times to protect oneself, one hundred or one thousand times will resolve diseases caused by poisoning by others. It will conquer poisoning by arsenic, from meat, from mixed poisons/poisons mixed in food, without exception. One can write it in gold ink in tsekmay script (i.e. a flowing style of Tibetan writing that leaves out the usual marks between syllables) and then tie it (to one’s body)”
So it is explained – by virtue of reciting the mantra laid out in the scripture twenty one times one can cure and protect oneself from being afflicted by poison, and prevent (its effects). If one recites the mantra one hundred or one thousand times then not only does it have the power to cure sickness from the poison that is to be cured and from mixed poisons without exception, but it’s also explained that if while one is reciting one writes the letters of the mantra in tsekmay script in gold ink and then fastens them to one’s body, one will be able to cure and prevent (every) kind of poison. One can see that the level of research into and practice of mantra healing in the Tibetan medical system of that time remained quite high. The number of recitations of the mantra, the advantages they bring, and the manner in which one should fasten the charm and so on are all clearly described and laid out with great confidence.
Many translated scriptures from India and that are from the Kanjur and Tenjur and so on contain teachings about mantra healing, and experts in Tibetan traditional medicine, and in particular, awareness-holders, great treasure-revealers, and masters accomplished in deity and mantra practice who were from the Nyingma (or ‘Ancient Translation’ school of Tibetan Buddhism), collected together old healing mantras and developed new ones by relying on the inconceivable power of the magical display of clairvoyance and the words of truth of prayer. Given that (mantras) were revealed from treasure-texts and preserved and spread without corruption from earlier times, the practice of mantra healing became of unparalleled (significance). For this reason, many old and well-known texts of the Tibetan medical tradition – like the later ‘Eighteen Limbs’, ‘The King of Curing’s Treasure-chest’, ‘Ewam’, ‘The Ten Million Pearl-Relics of Direct Instruction’, ‘The Direct Instruction Supplement’, ‘The Eight Ordinances of the Physician’s Direct Instructions’, and the ‘Greater and Lesser Vase of Nectar’ – provide a number of invaluable instructions on mantra healing.
In particular, in both the mantra-collection of Ju Mipham Rinpoche, which is known as ‘The Rain of Nectar of the Mantras which Pacify a myriad Illnesses’, and the mantra-collection of the realized master Jamyang Khyentse, called ‘The Direct Instructions which are a choice-seclection of diverse materials condensed into one, the String of Jewels, the Powerful King who fulfils all Desires’, mantra healing methods from earlier centuries have been collected together almost entirely without errors or adulterations. It goes without saying, and one can see with one’s own eyes, that the reading transmissions and oral instructions for these collections are wholly unbroken, that the potency of the current of blessing-power (of these mantras) has not at all diminished, and that these texts are like a glowing, radiant jewel within the ocean of the Tibetan healing system.
In this way, because mantra healing has a long history and was mostly spread in earlier times, there are many mantras that are in the Tibetan traditional medical system that derive from various non-Buddhist (religious) philosophies of unclear background – from the Buddha/Buddhism and from the ancient Bon tradition and so on, which can be clearly understood from (looking at) specific mantras and the history of their origins…”
In the rest of his essay, Dr Nyida goes on to argue that the methods of mantra healing accord with more general medical procedures. As he explains, “when the three compounded constituents of the ordinary human body succumb by whatever causes and conditions to the three natural processes of increase, depletion, and agitation, the elemental constituents become imbalanced.” When this happens, physicians will apply the remedy of the four approaches of diet, lifestyle, medicine, and medical procedures. As Dr Nyida lays out, the various expressions and applications of mantra healing can be synchronized with these – the making (and consuming) of consecrated mantra water and butter, and edible charms (za yig) correspond to general diet-based therapies; reciting and wearing mantra-syllables and mantra-containing protective circle charms around one’s neck during the three everyday activities of life (i.e. going about, sitting and sleeping) accord with lifestyle and behavioral therapies; and reciting mantras during moxibustion, cupping, and blood-letting and so on, increases the power of these treatments, or can be used to prevent procedures from going awry and to stop bleeding, which are all ways of integrating mantras into therapeutic medical procedures.
Dr Nyida underscores the scope of mantra healing methods, and notes that mantra healing traditions even extend beyond humans to include ritual therapies for animals. He then provides a list of ten special-features of mantra-healing “which allow one to appraise oneself of the fact of mantra healing’s many and pre-eminent qualities”. These ten are (in quick summary):
1) Mantra healing is convenient and only minimally difficult
2) Mantras work quickly and pointedly
3) Mantras are emergency cures
4) They’re inexpensive
5) A single mantra possesses special capacities for a hundred illnesses
6) One can treat the basis of those illnesses which are difficult to treat using medical procedures
7) Mantras can protect against contagious diseases and being wounded by weapons
8) Mantras possess inconceivably good or ‘spiritual’ qualities (the kind that can’t be explained by current science)
9) Mantras cure illnesses solely through mantras
10) Illnesses are cured through the combination of blessed substances and medicine
Dr Nyida then goes on to criticize materialists who claim that “since mantra healing is a myth in the minds of superstitious religious people, it has no benefit.” He takes issue with the fact that “when mantra healing is even remotely efficacious” these people will insist that the effects were “nothing but a psychological or placebo cure”. The doctor makes a case for mantra healing as an efficacious, spiritual practice, which goes beyond mere psychology, and cites numerous examples of healing through mantras effected by great male and female saints in the past.
His conclusion represents an interesting compromise between recognizing mantra practice as the height of religious and ‘unimaginable’ magical accomplishment, a domain which “transcends any object of (conceptual) investigation” and approaching the subject as something more immediate and amenable to empirical investigation. He thus strikes and interesting, if still slightly uneasy balance between mantra practice as difficult-to-quantify conventional reality-transforming/transcending magic and as a more everyday domain of psycho-somatic therapy that warrants further research and scientific investigation.
* Dr Nyida has since published a much larger, and more comprehensive work on the history and practice of Tibetan Mantra Healing. This new and pioneering Tibetan language study on the ‘Science of Mantra Healing’ or Tibetan ritual medicine (སྔགས་བཅོས་རིག་པ་ ngak chö rigpa) is several hundred pages long and has just been published by the Beijing National Publishing House. As Dr Nyida’s brother Hungchen stated on Facebook, “This is the first introduction to and research on mantra healing and I am certain it will absolutely become the premier entry-point into the authentic practice of mantra healing.” In case anyone out there is interested in this important piece of scholarship, I’ve roughly translated the Table of Contents into English:
Chapter 1: The Origins and Stages of Development of Mantra Healing….9
Chapter 2: The Links between Tibetan Medicine and Mantra Healing and their distinctive features …22
Chapter 3: The connections between the Five Elements, Three Humours and Mantra-syllables….27
Chapter 4: A general discussion about the view of the efficacy of Mantra Healing….36
Chapter 5: an analysis of the origin of letters and mantra-syllables….53
Chapter 6: The most necessary implements and ingredients in Mantra Healing…. 69
Chapter 7: About the dietary and lifestyle dos and don’ts of Mantra Healing…80
Chapter 8: About tantrika or mantrin (ngakpa or ngak-khen) education and practice….91
Chapter 9: Various small details concerning the practice of Mantra Healing…121
Chapter 10: On the diagnosis and treatment of ‘knots’ or blockages in the channels…130
Chapter 11: Discussion on sickness-mantras
Chapter 12: Discussion on preventative Mantra Healing…177
Chapter 13: Discussion about secret treatments (dpe mkhyud esoteric/’closed fist’/’medical bag’ instructions )…186
Chapter 14: On prophylactic and disease-curing charms (tsakra yantras)….191
Chapter 15: A few words on ‘edible’ mantras….219
Chapter 16: A few minor actions that can be done with the power of mantras….223
Chapter 17: Comments on the dharanis and mantras of the karmically-connected mind-oath-bound meditational deities (yidam) of the generation stage of the Vajrayana….231
Appendix I: The Greater Yuthok Nyingthik cycle and its 12 unique and distinct features…254
Appendix II: The Stainless Moon-Crystal Jewel, or an Introduction to the medical Protector Shanglön Dorje Düdul….269
Appendix III: A compilation of esoteric oral instructions on the ‘method of curing by rod/stick’….305
ལེའུ་བཅུ་གཅིག་པ། ནད་སྔགས་ཀྱི་སྐོར་བརྗོད་པ། ་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་(159)
ལེའུ་བཅུ་གཉིས་པ། སྔགས་བཅོས་ཀྱི་སྔོན་འགོག་སྐོར་བརྗོད་པ། ་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་(177)
ལེའུ་བཅུ་གསུམ་པ། དཔེ་མཁྱུད་ཀྱི་བཅོས་ཐབས་སྐོར་བརྗོད་པ། ་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་(186)
ལེའུ་བཅུ་བཞི་པ། ཙཀྲའི་སྲུང་འཁོར་གྱི་སྔོན་འགོག་དང་ནད་བཅོས་སྐོར། ་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་(191)
ལེའུ་བཅོ་ལྔ་པ། ཟ་ཡིག་གི་སྐོར་ཅུང་ཟད་བཤད་པ། ་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་(219)
ལེའུ་བཅུ་དྲུག་པ། སྔགས་ནུས་ཀྱིས་ལས་ཕྲན་ཚེགས་བྱ་ཐབས་ཀྱི་སྐོར། ་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་(223)
ལེའུ་བཅུ་བདུན་པ། རྡོ་རྗེ་ཐེག་པའི་བསྐྱེད་རིམ་ལས་འཕྲོས་པའི་ཡི་དམ་གཟུངས་སྔགས་སྐོར་བཤད་པ། ་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་(231)
ཟུར་བཀོད། གཡུ་ཐོག་སྙིང་ཐིག་གི་ཆེ་བའམ་ཐུན་མིན་ཁྱད་ཆོས་བཅུ་གཉིས། ་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་(254)
ཟུར་བཀོད། སྨན་གྱི་སྲུང་མ་ཞང་བློན་རྡོ་རྗེ་བདུད་འདུལ་གྱི་ངོ་སྤྲོད་དྲི་མེད་ཆུ་ཤེལ་ནོར་བུ། ་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་(269)
ཟུར་བཀོད། དབྱུག་བཅོས་མན་ངག་ཐོར་བཏུས། ་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་་(305)c