Mandala of sound
A few months ago, I attended a day of lectures by Thomas Moore, a best-selling writer of books on archetypal psychology and a psychologist who was formerly a Christian monk for many years. At one point during his lecture, Dr. Moore began speaking about the sacredness of words. He said that if one searched back far enough into the etymology of any word, one would find that that word was rooted in the sacred. He spoke of Christian illuminated manuscripts (so like golden copies of the Perfection of Wisdom found in Tibet) and of a Christian practice of writing sacred words on paper, dipping them in holy water, and swallowing them.
We spoke a bit during a break about how modern American society fails to see words as sacred. I reflected on how in California one continually has to drive over words painted on the roads: Stop, Ahead, School, Crossing, Yield, Slow. I mentioned how sometimes, when driving, I would reflect on how each of these words could be seen as sacred, as a Dharma teaching (slow the samsaric mind, stop committing non-virturous actions, put others ahead of oneself while crossing from foolishness to Buddhahood.) Thinking in this way, it was uncomfortable driving over them!
After Dr. Moore’s lectures, I began thinking about Prayer Wheels and how they serve as a foundation.” I decided to make one to share with my classmates in a Ph.D. program in Clinical Psychology and to present it to them, saying something about Buddhism and Prayer Wheels.
I went to a hardware store to buy some wood, nails, tacks and tools to work with. I saw others buying parts to fix bathrooms, build decks and the like. Someone walked by as I was carrying a couple of pieces of redwood and joked with me about having to do work around the house on weekends. I smiled.
As I was drilling holes, sanding, filing, hammering, and winding mantras, I wondered at what point these ingredients I’d assembled would become sacred, holy, powerful. I wondered to myself if a Prayer Wheel was like a spiritual radio I was assembling to tune into Avalokiteshvara’s holy frequency or like a cosmic lightning rod, attracting his electric blessings (prayer wheels had sometimes made my hair stand on end.)
As I was drilling into a piece of redwood, I may have been praying, and as I breathed in, I inhaled some redwood sawdust. Imagine a mantra that smells and tastes like redwood. That smell (or taste, or sound) suddenly reminded me of the smell and feel of the land at Vajrapani, that sacred land where Lama Yeshe passed away. And, I thought to myself, it’s already sacred. The words are already sacred, already empty, already part of Avalokiteshvara’s mandala. The trees, the metal, the plastic, they already were part of His mandala. I hadn’t recognized it.
Later, when I shared the completed Prayer wheel with a class of people studying Jungian psychology, I explained to them that it was a three-dimensional mandala made of sound. (I hope that I was correct.) I told them that the mantras inside contained the essence of all the Buddha’s teachings and the best of Jung’s psychology as well! Many of them liked it very much. Some asked if they could help to make one. When I brought one in to work, people asked if they could borrow it “for luck.”
It seems to me now that the Prayer Wheel does not invoke Avalokitshvara, but rather that it is Avalokiteshvara: His Holy voice, silent, vibrating everywhere; His Holy body, here, near enough to touch. “Simply touching a prayer wheel brings purification…” I remembered Jane Seidlitz telling us that when we sent a prayer wheel to Rinpoche in Nepal, he did prostrations to it. On some level, I’d still been seeing the metal, film, wood, paper when I looked at Prayer Wheels; who did Rinpoche see there? In Jungian psychology, it is sometimes said that people’s problems come from taking things literally instead of seeing them (or seeing through them) metaphorically. Reading that “turning the Prayer Wheel once is the same as having done many years of retreat,” while seeing the Prayer Wheel as a wheel of prayers and wood, it seems difficult to believe. But, imagine for a moment that a Prayer Wheel is the body of the Avalokiteshvara, imagine that it is the heart of the Buddha of Compassion; imagine that touching a Prayer Wheel is touching Avalokiteshvara’s heart, that turning one is moving his heart on the behalf of all beings. And from this place of imagining, again read, “Turning the prayer wheel once is the same as having done many years of retreat…is better than listening, reflecting and meditating for aeons.” And if you think of the Ah in Ahead as the one syllable expression of the Perfection of Wisdom, will you feel comfortable driving over it?
In his lam-rim commentary, Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand, Pabongka Rinpoche says, “We also abandon Dharma when we step over writing, throw any writing away, and so forth. Some people even do things like sitting on writing.” How often do we put paper with writing on it into a back pocket? In a culture that produces so much junk mail, daily newspapers, and soda cans and candy wrappers with words on them, who remembers that words are sacred? Who does not crumple, crush, or throw away written words? The insides of our shoes and the bottom of our sneakers are printed with words. Are we abandoning the Dharma with each step? Can we, living in the West, really dare to imagine that Lama Zopa Rinpoche is correct about the power of Prayer Wheels, that Pabongka Rinpoche is correct about the sacredness of each word?
Perhaps one way of beginning is by imaging backwards, historically or mythologically. Dr Moore gained a sense of the sacredness of everyday language by looking at etymology, the Catholic monks pray in Latin, and Buddhist mantras are generally Sanskrit. In the commentary on Prayer Wheels that Lama Zopa Rinpoche translated, there is a significant section on the lineage of the Prayer Wheel. It seems important that we know that the Prayer Wheel as given to a bodhisattva Dragon King by the Buddha Mar Mezed, and that it was the Great Nagarjuna who received the Prayer Wheel and instructions for its use, bringing them to India. What happens if we imagine a scene: Great Nagarjuna passing the Prayer wheel he brought to India on to the Lion-Faced Dakini who holds it like a treasure, and keeps it with her until she passes it on to Tilopa? Does our feeling about having a Prayer wheel in our home change when we reflect that Marpa had one in his home when he was teaching Milarepa? Perhaps seeing that things were sacred helps us to realize that they are sacred.