Om Mani Padme Hum: meaning and origin

Posted by on Mar 19, 2013 in Buddhism | 1,400 Comments
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About a week ago I attended a lecture at SOAS by Dr Alexander Studholme on the meaning and origin of the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum. I thought I’d share my notes with you.

Unlike most of my posts, this one will require at least some prior knowledge of the subject area. It’s also a bit geeky, and won’t be of much interest to people who aren’t already a bit familiar with the subject matter. Sorry about that.

Om Mani Padme Hum, the mantra of Avelokitesvara (the bodhisattva of compassion), made its first appearance in the Karandavyuha Sutra. This appears to be the first mention of Avelokitesvara too.

Here are the things I found interesting about this lecture…

Om mani padme hum means ‘in the jewel lotus’

It’s commonly translated as ‘The jewel in the lotus’ but that’s definitely not what it means apparently. The ‘jewel lotus’ (as in ‘a lotus made of jewels’) is what you’re born from if you manage to get yourself reborn in Sukhavati – the pure land of Amitabha (one of the dhyani Buddhas). So with this mantra people were originally generating the intention and wish to be reborn in Amitabha’s pure land. This is because the pure land is the ideal situation from which to become a Buddha. From a Mahayana Buddhist’s point of view, it’s a cushy number.

Which Buddha’s came first?

I’d never really thought about the chronology of the arrival of different Mahayana figures. I sort of thought they just all came about at the same time. But actually, it looks like Amitabha and Samantabhadra were the early ones. Others came later.

But the really interesting thing is that the Karandavyuha Sutra made its way out of India and into Tibet several hundred years before the other Mahayana sutras (around 450 CE). So Tibet has a much longer history with the mythology of this sutra than it does with the Mahayana in general.

This is interesting because the Dalai Lama is considered to be an emanation of Avelokitesvara, and that bodhisattva is seen as basically the creator of Tibet. The Potala Palace where the Dalai Lama used to live before being forced into exile was so named because ‘Potala’ is the name of the mountain where Avelokitesvara lives.

The mantra, the Dalai Lama, Tibet and this sutra are all bound up together – and the early arrival of this sutra is no doubt the reason (or an important reason) for that.

Connections with Saivism

It seems that around the time of this mantra’s development there was a lot of interaction between the Buddhists and the Hindus. They probably hung out in the same holy places and did pretty much the same sorts of practices. The significance of those practices may have been different (union with the godhead compared with realisation of emptiness, and so forth) but from the outside it may have been difficult to tell them apart.

The Buddhist Mahayana definitely took on influences from the Shiva devotees at the time. There are lots of similarities. There are even some shared stories and figures in the different texts.

Not only that, but it seems that the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum is influenced by the mantra Om Nama Shivaya. The Shiva one is called the ‘five syllable great knowledge’ and the Avelokitesvara one is called the ‘six syllable great knowledge’. So there may have been a bit of politics wrapped up in this mantra.

Suttas and sutras

One thing the lecturer said was that the earlier suttas of the Pali canon represented a pragmatic framework for working with your mind. In the time between the development of those suttas and the emergence of the Mahayana, it seems that devotion and mysticism became ever more popular. Mahayana sutras attempt to drop you into the transcendental experience. They certainly are far out.

The function is more important than the meaning

A key point is that the meaning and origin of the mantra are of much less significance than its function. It is designed to bring about your rebirth in more supportive conditions, that is, Amitabha’s pure land.

I hope that was as interesting to you as it was to me. Om Mani Padme Hum is a massively important mantra. Unlike some Buddhists, I’m not anti-academia. Placing Buddhism in its historical context for me gives me a greater understanding of the Buddhism is and isn’t. If the Mahayana is intimately bound up with its relationship with Hindu practice, I think that’s a good thing to know. If politics and one-upmanship make their way into the ‘holy’ texts of Buddhism, I want to know that too.

I’m confident enough in the practice, based on my own experience of the benefits, that such things don’t shake me at all. In fact, if I found out conclusively that there’s no such thing as mind, karma, rebirth or enlightenment, that wouldn’t shake my practice either.

So, a humble bow to academic knowledge. A humble bow to mystic knowledge. And a full prostration to truth.

Theistic Buddhism?

Dr Studholme argues that this sutra marks the beginning of theism in Buddhism. Avelokitesvara is regarded as a ‘creator lord’ with worlds found in the pores of his skin.

Personally I find that a bit of a stretch. It’s more likely to me that the sutra (and Mahayana Buddhism in general) is a kind of ‘Buddhacisation’ of theism. The ‘creator lord’ Avelokitesvara in another important Mahayana sutra (the Heart Sutra) keeps banging on about emptiness.

My guess is that the Karandavyuha Sutra is filled with techniques for folding theistic concepts in on themselves too. Mahayana Buddhism plays with form as much as it does with emptiness, folding the one into the other in an effort to snap you out of reliance on words and concepts.

But I’ve only ever dipped into that sutra whereas Dr Studholme has written a whole Ph.D on it so I kept my mouth shut!

On another note: Hardcore Zen in the UK?

If you’ve read down this far, you may be interested to know that Brad Warner, Zen priest and author of ‘Hardcore Zen’ among other books, is coming to the UK later this year.

I’ve agreed to help him organise a speaking tour. If you’re part of a sangha (Buddhist group) in the UK and you’d like to hear Brad talk (about Dogen, Zen practice and his new book), contact me.

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