(A photograph of an itinerant Nyingmapa yogi with prominently displayed trengwa or Buddhist prayer beads, one of the central tools of mantra healing, taken in 1936 in Lhasa by British army officer Frederick Spencer Chapman, 1907-1971. Chapman visited the Tibetan capitol between 1936 and 1937, where he served as personal secretary to Basil Gould, the British Raj Political Officer to Sikkim, Bhutan and Tibet. Gould went to Tibet in the hopes of persuading the then 9th Panchen Lama to return to Tibet from China, to where he had fled after the 13th Dalai Lama had clamped down on his power and holding due to political differences)
In the post that follows I offer yet another translation of a chapter from Tibetan tantric yogi and traditional doctor Dr Nida Chenagtsang’s book on Tibetan Mantra Healing (I’ve already provided translations of a number of chapters from this book, called rten ‘brel sngags bcos rig pa in Tibetan, here on my blog – you can find these posts by searching under the tags ‘dr nyida chenaktsang’ and ‘mantra healing’). In this short chapter Dr Nida provides an overview of ‘things to avoid and things to take up’ (spang blang) when doing mantra healing, using a traditional Buddhist turn of phrase which I’ve rendered more colloquially and chattily here as ‘dos and don’ts’. In the sections that follow, Dr Nida outlines suggested everyday behaviour and dietary prohibitions for tantrikas and mantrins and describes common ritual taboos connected with mantra healing practice as well as the optimal times and locations to do different kinds of tantric or mantric rituals.
Central to Dr Nida’s explanations is the concept of ngaki nüpa (sngags kyi nus pa) or ‘mantric/tantric power’ or ‘efficacy’. Anyone can recite the syllables of a mantra, but according to Tibetan cultural understanding there are a number of factors which contribute to whether or not a mantra will actually produce tangible results (see here for a translation of another chapter from Dr Nida’s book in which he discusses the different but related concept of the mechanics of mantric efficacy, and argues for how the recitation of special syllables could even be said to influence reality in the first place). Many of these supportive and detracting factors and conditions are intimately connected with the relative purity and strength of the mantra healer’s body, speech, and mind as well as the purity of their immediate surroundings or environment. We see that both physical and spiritual hygiene and discipline is necessary both for developing and retaining mantric-tantric power. In addition to purity and dedication, the would-be mantra healer also needs to align their mantric ritual procedures as much as possible with favourable astrological and environmental influences, as well as with whatever other inner and outer energies or orientations may have a bearing on the operations underway. We also see evidence of the innate sacredness of both the Sanskrit and Tibetan alphabets. Dr Nida’s advice below for purifying or neutralizing polluting foods that would normally diminish mantric power point to how for certain Tibetan practitioners merely reciting the alphabet alone with proper focus, far from just being a trigger for childhood classroom nostalgia or boredom, can be something capable in and of itself of purifying faults and transforming impurity. For readers not raised in religious contexts that make use of holy or liturgical languages, the idea that reciting the alphabet or permutations of it is itself a magical act may be somewhat unfamiliar.
(Some readers will note that the list of proscribed foods Nida la provides overlaps considerably with so-called ‘rajasic’ and ‘tamasic’ foods as found in Indian medicine and which, for example, are contraindicated for yogis and ascetics in such sources as the Bhagavad Gita. According to traditional Indian medical theories, sharp, pungent foods like garlic, peppers, and onions are said to stimulate desire, which can make detaching from sensory phenomena and worldly distractions more difficult. In Ayurveda, rajasic foods are foods which promote agitation and desire, and tamasic ones are ones which promote ignorance and dullness. In her 2000 book ‘White Saris and Sweet Mangoes: Aging, Gender, and the Body in North India’ anthropologist Sarah Lamb describes how widows in West Bengal follow similar dietary restrictions to male ascetics and yogis and cut out garam or ‘hot’ foods like garlic, fish, eggs, onions, meat, pepper and so on, so as to curb sexual desire and ‘cool’ the body, thereby making it easier to unravel existing emotional ties (maya) to people and worldly phenomena and to avoid making new ones. Managing and dissolving such bonds is a crucial part of aging gracefully in a context where one ideally dis-invests more and more from impermanent, karma-laden worldly concerns as death draws closer. The foods mentioned by Dr Nida can be seen as having a similar status. Warming substances like alcohol, meat and mustard oil may be recommended in the context of certain tantric yogic practices like tummo, tsalung or karmamudra – see Dr Nida’s discussion here, for example – to either augment inner heat and stimulation necessary for the practice or to regulate unruly subtle winds. Practitioners who specialize in rituals of appeasement for spirits like klu or nagas also frequently eschew foods like egg, meat, garlic and onion and ordinary individuals who want to propitiate these beings are often advised to avoid such foods a few days before petitioning these creatures. This latter point dovetails nicely with comments made by scholar-and-practitioner of Western ceremonial magic Stephen Skinner in a recent interview, where he suggests that longstanding prohibitions against the consumption of particular foods like fish and garlic prior to performing Western ceremonial magical procedures for summoning spirits has to do with the malodorous quality of these substances and the sought-after spirits’ sensitivity to this).
This integration or ‘thread’ between inner and outer conditions returns us yet again to the master Buddhist concept of tendrel (rten ‘brel) or the inter-dependent arising of all phenomena, which is at the core of what we could call a Buddhist theory of magic. Inter-dependence presupposes that no phenomenon has any independent or intrinsic, and therefore enduring or fixed identity, since everything that arises is a convergence of multiple component parts and inter-related processes and conditions. This ‘ecological’ take on perception and existence is made clear in one particularly interesting example, where mantra-wielders are supposed to swear off having sex or saying ‘fierce’ or wrathful subjugating mantras near sacred lakes and wild open spaces which are home to a range of powerful spirits, for fear that such actions may agitate or harm these beings and thereby diminish mantra-users’ own power which itself depends on balanced and carefully cultivated relationships with and deployment of the natural elements. This emphasis on purity for the ritual operator and concern with ensuring favourable conditions for practice should ring a bell for readers familiar with the ceremonial magic of the grimoires, in which these sorts of considerations are crucial as well for the rather different work of summoning spirits to visible appearance and securing boons and working relationships from them.
(A lama called P.C. Kigar conducts a ritual to propitiate and make amends with upset klu or serpentine water spirits in a Tibetan Buddhist Mempa village in Mechuka, located in the Indo-Tibetan borderlands of Arunachal Pradesh, India. Photograph courtesy of Tibetan Studies scholar Amelia Hall. See here to read more about her ongoing research on this ritual and its ecological implications)
Having said all this, it’s worth noting that the scenarios Dr Nida describes below are ideal case ones. Mantras may well still prove efficacious even if some of the guidelines and restrictions described here are not followed, but for best results dedicated mantra users should take the cultivation and protection of their ‘mantric power’ very seriously. One other important point that comes out of Dr Nida’s discussion is the inherently diverse nature of samaya (or damtsik, dam tsig in Tibetan) or tantric vows in Tibetan Buddhist contexts. As scholars like Sam van Schaik have shown, typologies of tantric vows in Indo-Tibetan tantric Buddhism have historically been rather heterogeneous. Even after the relative standardization of the number, content and nature of tantric vows, and of theories about their relationship to monastic Buddhist and Mahayana Bodhisattva vows with the development of the Sarma or New Translation schools in Tibet, it remained (and remains) that there is ultimately no one-size-fits-all approach to tantric vows for Vajrayana practitioners. While individual tantric vow-holders may hold to now pervasive and standardized models such as the Fourteen Root Tantric Vows or Transgressions and Eight Supplementary Tantric Vows, the specific tantric commitments practitioners will keep will depend on the particular lineages, practices, texts, and spirits or deities they may be initiated into and actively relying on as well as on more individual or idiosyncratic inspiration and contingencies. Dr Nida’s list of ‘everyday behaviour’ samaya for mantrins demonstrates the range of additional taboos and commitments tantric specialists may maintain beyond the official or more well-known sets of vows (many of the proscriptions Dr Nida mentions below correlate to purity taboos connected with the ‘Lower’ or ‘Outer’ ‘Veda-like’ classes of tantras in Tibetan Buddhism as opposed to those of the Inner Yogas or Highest Yoga Tantras which emphasize gnostic transcendence of conventional categories of pure-and-impure). What is clear is that tantric vows, like mantra healing practices more generally, are flexible and multifarious, since they are necessarily linked to the demands and uncertainties of practitioners’ and patients’ everyday lives and experiences.
Anyway, I hope that this translation will shed some further light onto the fascinating and complex traditions of Tibetan mantric-tantric healing and will also potentially be of some benefit to trainee mantra-users and those they intend to help! May virtue and healing spread – enjoy!
Chapter Seven: On Dietary and Lifestyle Do’s and Don’ts for Mantra Healing
If you’re someone who does mantra healing and you want your mantras to work and be powerful then you really should learn the gist of the dos and don’ts regarding diet and behaviour (for mantra healers). If you purify deep (grib) or ritual pollution and impurities in the throat channels and chakra you will bring out the power of your speech – to make your mantras genuinely powerful and effective you need to rely on correct (habits of) eating and drinking and behaviour. It’s similar to the example of a patient who has a loong or vital winds disorder (rlung nad) – they have to purify their sickness by relying on proper dietary and lifestyle prescriptions.
ONE: CONCERNING FAULTS OF SPEECH TO BE ABANDONED
You should abandon lies intended to deceive others, harsh words intended to wound the heart, divisive talk or slander that disturbs your own or other’s (lives), and pointless speech or gossip. The reason for this is that the good subtle channels of the throat channels and chakra are closed and the bad channels are opened through faults of speech and mantric power is destroyed. When sinful karma from harming other beings ripens one’s speech is rendered powerless.
TWO: AN EXPLANATION ABOUT FOOD AND DRINK IN RELATION TO MANTRA RECITATION
One should avoid the polluting foods of garlic, onions, radishes, ginger and peppers, opium and foods adulterated with drugs or poisons, tobacco, meat and alcohol and so on. The reason for this is that the power of the taste, smell, and essential elemental constituents of all of these is sharp and intense and this destroys mantric power and disables mantras’ efficacy. If one eats or shares utensils with polluted/polluting persons one’s mantric power will deteriorate as well, so don’t share utensils.
In today’s society avoiding all of these is a little difficult though, so when you do have to eat these you can purify them with purifying mantras. Daily and purifying mantras for mantra power being diminished by food are as follows. If you eat salt it will reduce your mantric power for seven days. If you have to eat it, if you recite the five mantra syllables KA KHA GA GHA NGA 21 times then rinse your mouth with clean water and throw some salt to the east then you will be able to retain your mantra power. White garlic (sgog skya) gets rid of your mantra power for nine or eight days, red onions for five or seven, blue garlic (sgog sngon) for three or five, while mountain garlic (ri sgog) diminishes mantra power for one day. So, if you do have to eat these if you chant the five mantra syllable TSA TSHA DZA DZHA NYA 21 times and rinse your mouth with clean water and throw the garlic to the south you will be able to retain your mantra power. Radish diminishes your mantra power for nine days, so if you have to eat it, you’ll be able to retain your mantra power if you chant the five (retroflex) mantra syllables of TA THA DA DHA NA 21 times, wash your mouth out with clean water and throw the radish to the west. Nettle soup diminishes mantra power for half a month, so if you have to eat it, you can hold onto your mantra power by reciting the five PA PHA BA BHA MA syllables, rinsing your mouth with clean water and then throwing the nettles to the north. If you have to eat any other (mantra power diminishing) foods recite (the Sanskrit alphabet) KA KHA GA GHA NGA TSA TSHA DZA DZHA NYA TA THA DA DHA NA (five retroflex) TA THA DA DHA NA PA PHA BA BHA MA YA RA LA WA SHA CHA SA HA CHYA 21 times. This practice comes from a lineage-teaching of Padampa Sangye. Reciting the thirty Tibetan consonants and four Tibetan vowels for this also works, since the Sanskrit consonants and vowels and Tibetan consonants and vowels obviously have the same root.
THREE: HOW TO BEHAVE WHEN YOU RECITE MANTRAS
(A portrait of Togden – ‘realized yogi’ – Amtrin of Tashi Jong in Himachal Pradesh, India, seated in the seven-point yogic posture of Vairocana, taken by explorer, author and photographer Thomas L. Kelly. Togden is a title commonly used to refer to typically celibate yogis in the Kagyu tradition who spend years in retreat devoting themselves to practice of the Six Yogas of Naropa and Mahamudra. The traditional uninterrupted retreat community or sgrub sde of Khampa Gar monastery in Eastern Tibet was revived by the eighth Khamtrul Rinpoche in exile at Tashi Jong in northern India in the late 1960s. See here for more)
When you recite mantras you need to be in a relaxed state of mind. Your posture should be the seven-fold posture of Vairocana [both legs crossed over each other in Vajra position –i.e. full lotus or half lotus asana; hands propped against the channel under the navel; the neck straight like an arrow; the shoulders extended up like the wings of an eagle or vulture; (the chin down) to bend the throat a little; the (tip of) the tongue joined to the (front) palate; and eyes gazing down at the tip of the nose], or failing that, it’s important that your legs be crossed in the Vajra position and the base of your spine or waist be extended straight, or that even if you are sitting on some kind of chair your spine should be straight. When the base of your spine is straight the channels are straight, when the channels are straight the vital winds or loong/prana is straightened out and the mind becomes relaxed and unwinds through their power. One should wear clean and white clothing of even thickness – one should avoid wearing dirty, old or tattered clothes or other garments.
Start by rinsing your mouth with clean water and purifying your stale winds [for e.g. through the nine-fold stale winds purifying breath etc.] and then face the right direction and hold your prayer-beads correctly. For pacifying work, face to the east and hold your prayer-beads at heart-level with your thumb and forefinger. For increasing rituals, face south and hold your mala at your navel between the thumb and index finger of your left hand. For magnetizing rituals, face west and hold your prayer-beads at your groin and with your thumb and ring finger. Face north for wrathful operations and hold the beads of your mala on top of your left knee between your thumb and pinkie. Recite mantras with an un-distracted body, unwavering speech and mind. Don’t throw your voice at other people and don’t look at them. If you discontinue chanting don’t get distracted with thoughts. Avoid listening to music, watching shows and reading books. If bad smells should escape from one’s nether regions (i.e. if you fart) however many recitations you’ve accumulated in your session prior to that point are not counted. If you should sneeze, hiccup or belch, you don’t count the recitations for wherever up to you’ve reached around your mala and you start telling your beads again from the central knot or guru bead.
However many mantras you recite, you should chant the gyur ngak or ‘transforming mantra’ [this is sometimes called the ‘amplifying mantra’ in English contexts]. The transforming mantra increases the efficacy and power of whatever mantra you wish to do. It is said that if you recite this mantra OM RUTSI RAMANI TRAWA TAYA HUNG seven times on your mala your mantra recitations will be transformed or amplified many millions of times. You should adjust the speed and volume of your mantra recitations accordingly. Count or recite mantras in line with whichever of the four tantric magical actions you are doing, avoid anything which is not evidently or mostly connected with whatever working you’re doing. What is wrathful is to be avoided during pacifying or peaceful operations and what is peaceful or pacifying should be abandoned when you’re doing wrathful rituals, (just as it should be) when you’re doing magnetizing ones.
The way in which you recite mantras is as follows. Generally, there are different ways of reciting for all the different pacifying, increasing, magnetizing and wrathful or subduing mantras, so you should recite each mantra in accordance with the context. Generally speaking though, the way to recite mantras properly is explained via ten mantra classifications: 1) ‘not loud sounds’: pacifying mantras are not loud, and so should be recited in a very quiet voice or whisper 2) ‘non-smaller sounds’: magnetizing and wrathful mantras are ‘non-smaller sounds’ so don’t recite them with these 3) ‘not fast’: whatever mantra it is don’t recite it too quickly 4) ‘not slow’: don’t recite them too slowly 5) ‘not forceful or wrathful’: don’t yell them or recite them with a big racket 6) ‘not feeble’: don’t recite the sounds of mantras feebly 7) ‘seed syllables not deteriorated’: you have to recite without breaking the syllables 8) ‘not with a distracted mind’: recite mantras with a focused mind 9) ‘not like speech’: don’t recite mantras as if you are speaking or talking 10) ‘not interrupted by yawning and the like’: when reciting mantras you must not interrupt your recitation by yawning and coughing and so on.
When you do mantra healing for sick people it’s very important that you attach different sorts of precious ritual adornments and protective charms consecrated with mantras as prevention against impurity and pollution. The everyday tantric vows of a mantrin are to avoid reciting mantras without faith and devotion, to avoid saying mantras apathetically or while falling asleep, to avoid reciting mantras with an unclear or angry mind, to not recite mantras while eating and drinking at the same time or while talking, to avoid reciting wrathful mantras, writing wrathful characters or having sex in wide open airy natural spaces, in bodies of water or on the shores of (sacred) lakes, to not throw off/spit out any sort of mucous, to not deteriorate one’s thigle or innate generative essence or nuclei, to avoid blowing into fires, to not put metals or the points of weapons into one’s mouth, to not sleep during the day. Furthermore, if you wish (to get) mantra power immediately, you should repeat the recitations of your mantras while remaining in silence. Abandon the hustle and bustle and louder (spaces) of the home and village and establish shamata or stable abiding. As it’s taught, it’s better to recite mantras (with concentration) for one day silently than to recite them indifferently for one month, it’s better to practice for one day in an isolated, quiet place (of retreat, dben sa) than for one month in the village, so practice accordingly.
FOUR: TIMES AND LOCATIONS FOR MANTRA HEALING
(A diagram showing the flow of bla life-force around the female and male body in accordance with the lunar cycle. La or bla, a pre-Buddhist Tibetan cosmological concept, plays an important role in Tibetan astrology, ritual healing and traditional medicine)
The (best) time for mantra healing is generally on the eighth day of the lunar calendar which is the day of the Medicine Buddha, on the tenth day, or daka or ‘tantric hero’ day, on both the fourteenth and fifteenth days which are Teacher Shakyamuni day, and on the twenty fifth or dakini day. If you recite whatever mantras you need to do or the specific mantras of your particular yidams or meditational tantric deities they will have greater efficacy. The reason is that these times are times which transmit and increase the blessing-power of the guru, Buddhas, dakas and dakinis. Provided the elemental constituents of time and the body are combined however you may put mantra healing into practice will be okay. Since there are many different times, bodily constituents, and (cycles of) increasing and abiding for these, one needs to carefully understand the real situation involved with this. Specifically, we have the ways in which the la (bla) or vital-force flows, the 360 letters which are the bla flowing in the form of the vowels, and so on, which are taught in places like the Kalachakra Tantra. The chief point (among these systems) is how the la correlates with the waxing and waning of the moon, so it is very important to pay attention to astrological timing in relation to mantra healing. The manner in which the la force flows or fluctuates according to the time of day, day of the week, or month is explained below:
The Flow of La throughout the Day
|Time||Location of the La|
|Sunrise (sun fully shining over horizon)||Neck|
|Morning (when the sun is warm, 8-10 am)||lips and the back of the neck behind temples|
|Dusk||waist and back (loins)|
|First part of evening until daybreak||throughout the whole body|
The Flow of La throughout the Week
|Day of the Week/Planet||Location of the La|
|Monday (Moon)||breasts and liver|
|Tuesday (Mars)||lungs and liver|
|Wednesday (Mercury)||waist/loins towards the coccyx|
|Thursday (Jupiter)||loins around the kidneys around the end of the shortest rib|
|Friday (Venus)||upper part of spine|
|Saturday (Saturn)||the bladder channel which runs atop the forearms|
The Flow of La throughout the Month
|Day of the Month||Location of the La||Letter|
|3||Muscles/tendons of calf||ཨི|
|5||Cavity behind knee||ཨུ|
|8||Atop the kidneys||རྀ|
|9||Sides of the torso (alongside ribs)||རཱྀ|
|12||Palms of the hands||ཨོ|
|14||Ears/temples and cheek-bones||ཨཾ|
|15||Crown of the head||ཨཿ|
|16||Temples and cheeks|
|17||Front and back of neck|
|18||Palms of the hands|
|21||Sides of the torso|
|22||Depression of the kidneys|
|27||Muscles/tendons of the calves|
|30||Soles of the feet|
The way in which you concentrate on the mantra syllables at the la locations is you visualize a white thigle or energetic drop for hot complaints and red drop for cold complaints in the middle of a five-coloured (larger) drop (at the location) and say the mantra syllable in question while you imagine this. You then meditate that five-coloured luminous light is emitted and brought forth and dissolves into the la location.
The three humoral components of disease are associated with the seasons as follows. The seasons for the three humours of Loong, Tripa, and Bedken are linked with periods of accumulation, arising and subsiding:
|Three Humours or ‘Defects’||Accumulating||Arising||Subsiding||Period of the Day for Arising|
|Loong||Sos ka, month between Spring and Summer, 16th day of 4th lunar month to 15th day of 5th)||Summer||Autumn||Evening and dawn|
|Tripa||Summer||Autumn||The earlier part of Winter||Mid-afternoon and Midnight|
|Bedken||Later part of Winter||Spring||*Sos ka||After dusk until midnight|
These categories should be combined together or used singularly and healing should be performed in accordance with whichever specific classification predominates.
Generally, in Tibetan medicine when treatments are performed they are best done on either the patient’s la vital-force and sog (srog) life-force days, and one has to avoid doing treatments on the patient’s shay(d) or inauspicious days [gshad are sometimes described as a kind of demonic, enemy spirit which can seize or harm the bla]. In the same way, it’s good if one follows suit for mantra healing as well. Follow the chart below:
Regarding the nayyul or ‘locations’ (gnas yul) – all phenomena in existence are generated from the five elements and so there is an essential unchanging linking thread between the earth and humans that draws them together, and this linking principle is fully integrated with the fundamental vitality of our basic constituents (khams kyi dwangs ma). Those links which derive from the gross elements are (the fact of our) living on the earth, drinking water, warming ourselves with fire, being blown about by the wind, and us merely being accommodated within space. On the subtle level, every pleasure and pain of mind and body depends upon (aspects of) the external environment so when you perform mantric or tantric rituals it is important to choose a correct environment in which to achieve results. You should do your practices in isolated places and in locations free from problem or obstacle causing people and animals. Because dogs, rats and similar sorts of animals can weaken mantric power and can disturb people’s elements you should avoid these sorts of creatures. On account of this, it is taught in many Secret Mantra tantric scriptures that one practices mantric or tantric rituals in an isolated or remote place of retreat. Furthermore (it’s said that) if one makes offerings with different kinds of flowers, incense, water, green plants (sngo ldum) and minerals or ‘treasure substances’ and has drawings, paintings, engravings or statues of the Medicine Buddha and Bodhisattvas (i.e. that represent the Body of the Buddhas), books of teachings endowed with mantras (which symbolize the Speech of the Buddhas), and stupas which represent the Mind and so on, the blessings of one’s mantra power will increase exponentially.
(The gross and the subtle, inner and outer. This thorn-tree filled ancient Christian cemetery called ‘Friar’s Bush’ in Northern Ireland represents a paradigmatic example of a location for ‘wrathful’ or ‘subjugating’ mantric-tantric rites (drag las). A thorn tree in the cemetery once served as a site for the performance of Catholic masses when the open profession of Catholicism was strictly curtailed via the Penal Laws of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The cemetery is also home to a host of plague victims, which would make it even more suitable as a location for such rites. You can read more about the folklore, history and cultural politics surrounding Friar’s Bush here)
Since the (mantras) correlate with external locations and objects, if you recite non-wrathful mantra syllables in a slow and gentle voice your outer and inner environment as well as other animals will be benefited through the air. You should avoid saying wrathful kinds of mantras outside because if you recite these loudly they will diminish the life-force of other living beings. It is also taught that to have completely favourable conditions for different kinds of mantric power it’s important to have different kinds of places to practice. For example, for pacifying activities you need positive, pleasant places, for increasing rites you need flourishing places with different kinds of forests and vegetation, for magnetizing activities you need locations that are warm and red in colour, and for wrathful or subduing rites you need cemeteries or charnel grounds, areas that are triangular in shape, and locations like cross-roads or which have thorn-bearing trees growing in them, and so on.