Monday, June 18, 2012

Mantras: Sacred Words of Power, by John Blofeld

Blog posts will be rare for the next week and a half, as I am off learning matters related to a subject of great interest and importance to me.  Thank you to my readers for bearing with the lack of newer material while I'm away (and feel free of course to check out older material if you haven't seen it already -- the "search" function in the upper-left area of the blog is a handy way to find posts on subject matter topics that interest you).

While on my voyage of discovery I have been discovering the delightful contents of a little text written by John Blofeld and recommended to me by my friend String entitled Mantras: Sacred Words of Power.  If you're not familiar with John Blofeld, be sure to check out the blog post from earlier this year entitled "A heartfelt portrait of John Blofeld by Daniel P. Reid."

Not only is Professor Blofeld's writing wonderfully relaxed and engaging, but his subject matter is of great importance and interest.  The subject of this book is closely related to topics touched on in numerous previous posts, and expands on them and opens up new perspectives on them.  For a previous post on this very important subject matter, check out "How much time do you spend chanting praises?"

Interestingly enough, we do not have to go very far in the book before we find this remarkable passage:
On entering the shrine-room we would first stand facing a window and perform some purificatory mudras, each with its appropriate mantra which was as resonant to my ear as it was mystifying to my mind.  Then, facing the shrine, we would bow our heads to the floor thrice before seating ourselves cross-legged on the cushions.  Close to the low altar sat the chief celebrant (often it was Fifth Uncle), so that the censer and other ritual implements were comfortably within his reach.  To one side sat the musicians who would accompany the rite with clarinet, dulcimer (played by Elder Brother), tinkling instruments and a drum.  Starting with a melodious incense-chant and ending with a final mantra, the principal rite lasted rather more than an hour.  Some passages of the liturgy were sung; others, including the mantras, were chanted or intoned, but in a manner that bore little resemblance to the chanting that forms parts of Catholic or Orthodox rituals.  The mantras, which were generally recited 3, 7, 21 or 108 times depending partly on their length, were all couched in the strange language neither Chinese nor truly Indian of which I have given an example; they were accompanied by complicated gestures which others performed with charming grace, whereas my fingers, lacking Chinese suppleness, betrayed the awkwardness that I felt.  The liturgy was so beautiful that, although as yet I understood nothing of its meaning, I gladly put up with the torment of leg-cramp.  Miserably distracting as the pain would otherwise have been, I sat lost in fascination up to the moment when I had somehow to struggle to my feet and perform the final triple prostration.  6.
While there is certainly much to comment upon in the above passage, one of the most interesting aspects is the tidbit of information, given almost as an "aside," that the mantras were "generally recited 3, 7, 21 or 108 times."  This is fascinating, in that 108 is one of the principal precessional numbers relating to the celestial machinery of the rotating heavens.  Thus this passage indicates a linkage between the external harmonies of the "macroverse" and the internal harmonies sought by the devotees of the liturgy that Professor Blofeld describes.

The passage also brings to mind the subject matter discussed in the previous post entitled "A connection between ancient Egypt and Buddhist monasticism?"  

Later on in the same discussion, Professor Blofeld describes the personal impact of one particular part of the ceremony.  He writes:
[. . .] some vague inkling of the power of mantras was conveyed to me by the recitation 108 times of a single syllable -- BRONG.  At a certain point in the liturgy, the drum would be struck repeatedly and, at each stroke, we would utter a deep-voiced BRONG!  What the word means and how it would be pronounced in pure Sanskrit, I do not know, but the effect of participating in its rhythmic recitation was extraordinary.  BRONG!  BRONG!  BRONG!  While those 108 cries reverberated, a preternatural stillness fell.  My mind, now totally oblivious of the leg pains, soared upwards and entered a state of blissful serenity.  This transition, which my consciousness was destined to undergo in greater or in lesser measure in response to other mantras, is something to be understood only from experience; it can never be captured in words. 7.
His book appears to be out-of-print now, but you can still find a copy through various booksellers, and if you are interested in these matters I would highly recommend that you do.