Mantras and Spells: Durkheim and Mauss, Religious Speech and Tantric Buddhism

Louise Child. Durkheimian Studies. Volume 9, Issue 1. Winter 2003.

This paper, located within the sociology of religion, aims to demonstrate ways in which the insights of Durkheim and Mauss can be applied to the study of tantric Buddhism. In order to do so it explores a specific theme, the significance of speech in religion. I will therefore begin with sections from the recent translation of Mauss’s thesis on prayer, highlighting two essential propositions (1909/t.2003). Firstly, Mauss argues that prayer is an extremely diverse phenomenon, which can take a variety of forms. A second, related point is his suggestion that speech is particularly important to our understanding of religion, because it is related to both belief and action. It is this second idea which I will explore extensively in the context of tantric Buddhism because it illuminates a number of features of this religious tradition. In addition, these reflections may contribute to a broader debate, concerning the role of collective representations in the thought of both Durkheim and Mauss.

In his introduction, Mauss describes the complex notion of prayer as:

infinitely supple, it has taken the most varied forms, by turns adoring and coercive, humble and threatening, dry and full of imagery, immutable and variable, mechanical and mental … here it is a brusque command, there an order, elsewhere a contract, an act of faith, a confession, a supplication, an act of praise (Mauss 1909 [2003]:1).

This diversity can be found within tantric Buddhism, which is characterised, in contrast to early Buddhism, by a plethora of ritual practices and images. Chanting is not unknown in the Therevada Buddhism of Burma, a tradition which identifies itself with early Buddhism in India. Rosaries, used to count the number of recitations, are also fairly common among both monks and the lay community (Spiro 1982:210, 258, 264). Nevertheless, with the appearance of Mahayana Buddhism in India, the significance and functions of religious speech developed and diversified, a process which reached a peak in tantric Buddhism, or Vajrayana, the form transmitted to Tibet in the ninth century. The mantra, which is a phrase consisting of sacred syllables repeated by practitioners as an aid to meditation, is used in Vajrayana to the extent that this tradition is also known as the Mantrayana, or the vehicle of mantras (Powers 1995:231). These developments, I suggest, were also related to a corresponding growth in deity worship.

Tantric Buddhism, in common with other Buddhist traditions, does not, strictly speaking, worship gods. The existence of gods is not denied, but they are not thought to be powerful enough to transform the human condition. This is illustrated by descriptions of the forms into which beings can be re-born, including animals, human beings, hungry ghosts, and gods (Rinbochay and Hopkins 1979:10). While the gods in this instance are thought to enjoy a pleasurable existence, this state is as limited as any other governed by the laws of karma, so that, after a period of time, the merit, or good deeds of the gods, becomes exhausted and they fall from their exalted state into another re-birth (Mullin 1998:52). Vajrayana deities, on the other hand, are considered to be enlightened beings, who, through their Buddhist practice, have transcended the laws of karma, and become, like the Buddha, awakened. This achievement, together with their compassionate nature, makes Buddhist deities powerful potential objects of supplication. Nevertheless, their state is not regarded as being completely beyond the reach of human capacity, a characteristic which distinguishes tantric deities from the term ‘gods’ (as it is normally employed) and which becomes highly significant in the context of mantra rituals.

These points can be illustrated by a description of the female deity Tara. In some myths, she arose from the tears of the bodhisattva of compassion, Chenresig. Others regard her meditation practice as a crucial step to her origination. For example, as a princess, Moon of Wisdom, she begins by paying homage to the Buddhas for a thousand billion years. Having attained some spiritual success, she is advised by monks to use her abilities to transform herself into a male form. Although conceding the illusory nature of gender, she nonetheless refuses to change, dedicating herself, instead, to the service of suffering beings, especially females.

Then the princess remained in meditation in the palace for a thousand billion years … she entered into the meditation called Saving All Beings, and by the power of that meditation she rescued from their worldly minds a thousand billion beings every morning and fixed them in their attainment of acceptance; and she did not eat until she had done so. Every evening she fixed therein the same number of beings, and she thus became famed as Tara, the Saviouress (Beyer, 1978:65).

The reverence for Tara as a compassionate saviour is interesting in this context, because it consists of two strands that are difficult to untangle. Although the importance of meditation is emphasized, this practice is also thought to give her almost magical powers, which can aid the progress of samsaric beings on both esoteric and mundane levels. For example, as the ‘One Who Rescues from the Eight Fears’, Tara can save people from lions, elephants, fire, snakes, robbers, imprisonment, water, and demons. However, these obstacles can be interpreted in more metaphorical terms, as mind-poisons which are treacherous because they lead to deluded thinking. Lions can symbolize pride; elephants, ignorance; fire, anger; and snakes, envy (Landlaw and Weber 1993:88). In either case she is given the god-like attributes of swiftness and mercy. According to some folk tales, no matter how dire the circumstances, one can be protected simply by calling out her name (Beyer 1978:233). Even more efficacious is the recitation of her mantra, a power which increases with each repetition and with the number of people chanting (ibid.:235).

Tara is worshipped in a variety of forms. While Green Tara and White Tara are renowned for their peaceful qualities, she is also the essence of more wrathful deities, such as Kurukulla. Reciting the mantra of Kurukulla is an important component to her rites of subjugation, whereby practitioners are thought to gain magical powers or even destroy suitable enemies (ibid.:305-306). Even when Tara’s form is peaceful similar rituals can serve different functions. The Tara long-life ritual, for example, can be requested by devotees who want to protect themselves from illness or danger. However, it also serves as a kind of ritual permission or initiation, for those who want to perform their own practices more extensively (ibid.:375).

Tantric Buddhist rituals, or sadhanas, despite their varied structure and purpose, do have some features in common. Essentially, each is orientated to a specific deity, who is, in turn, signified by a particular mantra, composed of seed syllables. For example, Tara has a core mantra consisting of OM TARE TUTTARE TURE SVAHA (Willson 1996:348). Some seed syllables can be ascribed specific meanings. TARE, for example, refers to Tara. Others, such as OM, defy this kind of explanation, partly because its significance can vary considerably, according to context, and partly because it is thought to appeal to a level of understanding inaccessible to cognitive language (Powers 1995:231-2). This perspective places great emphasis on the recitation process itself, and the ways in which sound reverberates within the body.

This is not the only way in which the mantra engages with the body. A mala, or rosary, can be used to to keep count of the number of recitations in one session. Instruments, such as the dorje and bell, drums, or the thigh-bone trumpet, may be used at specific points in the ritual, or the hands may convey added meaning using stylized gestures or mudras. In addition, the body can be used as an object of visualization techniques, so that the mantra appears and moves within the body, in the mind’s eye. To understand this idea it should be noted that seed syllables are not only sounds, but can be represented visually, as written symbols. It is also necessary to explore in more depth the relationship between the seed syllable and the deity.

Praise for a deity in tantric Buddhism does not simply consist of a recollection of abstract qualities, although this is part of the process. The summoning of a Buddha includes painting a picture of him or her in the imagination. Devoid of substance, this picture is filled, instead, with luminosity. In some cases, Tara faces the adept, who proceeds to worship her by reciting mantras which denote a series of offerings, including incense, flowers, jewels, perfume, food, and music (Willson 1996:53-4). The numerous qualities of that deity may also be remembered by chanting various epithets by which they are known, for example, the one hundred and eight names of Tara (ibid.:98-104). While occasionally a deity appears to the initiate fully formed, it is more often created, or generated, using a series of steps, beginning with visualizing the lotus and moon disc, on which the deity sits, before the body of the deity arises from a seed-syllable. In addition, deities are not always imagined to be facing the meditator, because, consisting of luminosity, they can also be located within his/her body.

One example of this kind of sadhana relates to the deity Manjushri, a bodhisattva of Wisdom, whose boons include clarity of thought and the improvement of memory (Mullin, 1985:67-8). Here, a white syllable BAM appears, transforming into a lake. From the navel of a lotus flower in the centre of the lake emanates the syllable AH, which, as it dissolves into light, transforms into Manjushri, who carries a sword of wisdom (ibid.:66). While repeating mantras, the practitioner imagines:

a white wisdom wheel having a hub, six spokes, and a rim. At the navel of the hub is a moon disc and upon this is one’s own mind in the form of a white letter AH. Each of the six spokes are marked by a syllable of the mantra OM WA KYE DAM PA MA. The letters of the mantra are white in colour and radiant with the white light of the rising autumn full moon (ibid.:67).

Lights, emanating from this mantra, then course throughout the body, a process generated by the imagined turning of the wheel to the right, while the letters move to the left. This is thought to bestow purification. The meditation can also be modified for use as a source of power which can overcome enemies (ibid.:68).

This kind of visualization of the mantra, subtly interpenetrates the body with powers of concentration, illustrating a central point which Mauss makes about prayer more broadly. He argues that prayer is:

the point of convergence of a great number of religious phenomena. More than any other organized body of material, it partakes at the same time of the nature of ritual and the nature of belief. It is a rite because it is an assumed attitude—an action with regard to sacred things. It addresses itself to the divinity and influences it; it consists of physical actions from which results are expected. But at the same time, every prayer is a Credo. Even where constant use has emptied it of meaning, it still gives expression to a minimum of religious ideas and feelings. In prayer the faithful both act and think. And action and thought are closely combined, welling up in the same religious occasion, at one and the same time. Moreover, this convergence is quite natural. Prayer is speech. Now language is an activity that has an aim and effect; it is always, basically, an instrument of action. But it acts by expressing ideas and feelings that are externalized and given substance by words. To speak is both to act and to think:that is why prayer brings out belief and ritual at the same time (Mauss 1909 [2003]:2-3).

Tantric Buddhism’s employment of the mantra recognizes this idea in a literal sense. However, ‘speech’ also has a more abstract significance within the tradition, as one of three aspects or dimensions to being, namely; the Body, Speech, and Mind of the Buddha. Here, as I will demonstrate, speech not only contains thought and action, it is regarded as the vital intermediary between them. There is, for example, a comparison made between Body, Mind, and Speech, and the states of waking, deep sleep, and dreaming. Similarly birth, death, and the bardo, or intermediate state, are also the Body, Mind, and Speech of the Buddha, and the bardo is explored in some detail because within it, adepts can radically transform their karma. These three aspects, or bodies of the Buddha are also distinguished by the methods they utilize in order to communicate teachings. While the mind or Truth body operates on a relatively abstract level, the Body is a more concrete form, and is frequently the designation associated with human teachers, such as lamas. Speech, however, refers to the deity in apparitional form, which an adept may encounter in dreams, visions, or in the bardo.

Significantly, these dimensions of being are related to the subtle, luminous body that is the subject of visualizations, such as the one I earlier described. This is because the imagined radiant body is not simply a focus for cognitive concentration. It is, more accurately, a representation, in the full sense of the word, because it refers to subtle energies, which are thought to actually exist, on some level, within the body. In other words, the deity is not regarded as simply a product of the creative imagination, it is, essentially, an aspect of being which is realised, remembered, and experienced, through a series of practices which focus both action and the mind. I will use the ‘Yoga of Tasting Nectar’, which is thought to ‘purify speech’ to illustrate this idea.

The term nectar can refer to number of physical or abstract substances, but in this instance it is quite specific. It is some black tea into which a ‘holy nectar pill’ has been dissolved. Such pills have been consecrated by the ‘inner offerings’ and blessings of various lamas (Tharchin 1997:25). Before the pill is ‘tasted’, the practitioner visualizes a triangular ‘dharma source’, placing a seed syllable on each corner. The seed syllables used, OM, AH, and HUNG, are also used to designate the mind, speech, and body respectively. In some meditations this is represented by placing them within the forehead, throat, and heart cakras. The throat or speech centre therefore acts as an intermediary, or conduit between the other two, as it is located between them, along the axis of the body. In addition, the process of imbibing the nectar is described in terms of a series of subtle sensations:

the nectar’s essence is pure bliss-voidness wisdom. Put it on your tongue, enjoy it, mediate on it. Visualize that the holy nectar travels throughout all the nerves in your body reaching all the substances and airs within them, burning away all impurities (ibid.:24-5).

It is this kind of experience which, one can say, is the focus of tantric ‘intentional’ or twilight language. In tantric Buddhism this language is closely bound up with the liminal figure of the dakini, a term which can refer to human women, but it also designates a dynamic principle which can be found within natural phenomena. In addition the dakini is a visionary or dream figure who can assume a variety of forms, including an old woman, a maiden, or a wrathful goddess. What connects these varied meanings, according to Allione, is the idea that the dakini is essentially an energy form. This energy displays itself in a number of guises, and transforms everything it contacts, including human beings (Allione 1986:40-1). She also suggests that twilight language in tantric Buddhism has qualities in common with other mystical languages, because it ‘consists of letters and symbols which have no set translation … it is a highly symbolic cipher which is so condensed that six or seven volumes of teachings could come out of a few letters’ (ibid:42). This process, of encoding and decoding symbolic language, plays an important role in the mythology which surrounds the production of Tibetan religious writings. A writer may defer his or her own role to one of ‘discovery’, suggesting that the true author is a dakini.

Yeshe Tsogyel, a figure in Tibetan tantric hagiographical literature, is regarded as a human woman, a goddess, and a dakini. As a dakini she is thought to have ‘hidden’ a number of ‘treasure texts’, by condensing them into symbols. Some were objects, placed into the earth, a rock, a tree, or water (ibid.:42). Others are ‘found’ by adepts in trance or dream-like states, together with the means to decipher them. This is one example of the way in which mythological material interacts with ritual elements, an idea which Mauss suggests when he argues that ‘prayer—ritual is a whole, comprising the mythical and ritual elements necessary to its understanding’ (Mauss, 1909 [2003]:4). In addition, the idea that these texts are encoded in a symbolic language suggests that they can be explored as examples of Durkheim’s collective representations.

Throughout this paper, I have suggested ways in which the symbolic world of tantric Buddhism is connected to both consciousness and energy. It also, I believe, sheds some light on the relationship between them. The relationship, with particular reference to the concept of collective representations, appears in the Elementary Forms of Religious Life (Durkheim 1912 [1995]).

In this book Durkheim juxtaposes religion to society, drawing from a detailed analysis of ethnographic material which focuses on the tribes of Aboriginal Australia. Collective representations therefore appear in two contexts, which Durkheim suggests are related. The first is an exploration of the relationship between tribal rituals and the totemic emblem. The second looks at both society and the genre of collective representations more broadly. He suggests, for example, that words have a significance beyond the individual’s experience of them, because they are formed socially. Language changes relatively slowly, and it is not completely re-invented with each generation (Durkheim 1912 [1995]:435-6). Moreover, concept is also, in a sense, a collective representation.

Concepts are not abstract things that have reality only in particular circumstances. They are representations just as concrete as any the individual can make of his own environment, for they correspond to the way in which the special being that is society thinks about the things of its own experience (ibid.:436).

He goes on to emphasize the impersonal and stable nature of logical thought, which he contrasts with the fleeting and individual experiences of sense impressions. From this point of view, notions of the whole, the universal, or totality, are fundamental categories, inextricably linked with humanity’s perception of itself as a social being (ibid.:437-43). Nonetheless, while concepts provide a framework for thought, there is a creative element to conceptual thinking which suggests that it is also imbued with another quality, namely; energy. While he describes this energy in terms of moral forces which constrain the individual, it is also the quality which animates collective consciousness. Mellor, for example, suggests that ‘when Durkheim says “there is something eternal in religion” he is referring to the recurrent circulation of effervescent energy which enables a society to survive’ (Mellor 1998:94). Collective consciousness, is therefore powerful, imposing restrictions on individual thought and behaviour. It is also, however, powerful in a more dynamic sense, because collective consciousness is shaped, on a subliminal level, by human interaction. Durkheim therefore states that:

collective consciousness is something other than a mere epiphenomenon of its morphological base, just as individual consciousness is something other than a mere product of the nervous system. If collective consciousness is to appear, a sui generis synthesis of individual consciousnesses must occur. The product of this synthesis is a whole world of feelings, ideas, and images that follow their own laws once they are born. They mutually attract one another, repel one another, fuse together, subdivide, and proliferate; and none of these combinations is directly commanded and necessitated by the state of the underlying reality. Indeed, the life thus unleashed enjoys such great independence that it sometimes plays about in forms that have no aim or utility of any kind, but only for the pleasure of affirming itself. I have shown that this is often true of ritual activity and mythological thought (ibid.:426).

This idea may make sense of the relationship between consciousness, energy, and the deity, in tantric Buddhism. If the deity bears some resemblance to the totemic emblem, then the mantra or seed-syllable could correspond to the energy which animates it. This would explain the seed syllable’s role as the deity’s essence in tantric rituals. It would also reflect a number of ways in which collective representations are a mediating force in Durkheim’s theory. This can be explored further in the context of Durkheim’s discussion of totemic religion.

In this discussion, Durkheim suggests that clan members, the totemic animals which correspond to clan names, and representations of these animals, are linked by their sacred nature. The principle that they have in common is therefore more significant than their individual attributes (ibid.: 190). Futhermore, he identifies this principle as,

the religion of a kind of anonymous and impersonal force that is identifiable in each of these beings but identical to none of them … but the Australian does not conceive of this impersonal force abstractly. Influences … led him to conceive of it in the form of an animal or plant, that is, in the form of a material thing. Here, in reality, is what the totem amounts to:it is the tangible form in which that intangible substance is represented in the imagination; diffused through all sorts of disparate beings, that energy alone is the real object of the cult (ibid.:191).

In the light of this proposition, the problematic and elusive nature of the tantric deity can be more easily grasped. The deity is simultaneously the adept, a divinity worthy of supplication, and an ’empty’ creation within the imagination, which can thereby be dissolved at any time. Like the varied phenomena in which the totemic principle resides, the deity is also, I suggest, a repository for social energy. When condensed into a mantra, the sacred essence of the deity is expressed through reverberation, in the form of sound. Similarly, energy is suggested by deity’s suffusion with radiance. Moreover, this energy mediates between properties linked to the body, and more abstract forces, within consciousness. Durkheim refers to both kinds of energy when he describes the totemic principle as ‘a physical force and a moral power’, asserting that, in either case, he is not speaking purely metaphorically, because ‘they behave like real forces’ (ibid.:192).

This dual nature of energy is rooted, in the aboriginal context, in the relationship between collective representations and ritual. It is generated, as collective effervescence, through the body. This is partly due to the physical proximity of assembled persons, which Durkheim argues results in a kind of excitation, a process both fuelled and displayed in movement, for example, ritual dance (ibid.:217-218). It is the feelings aroused by such gatherings, a ‘sense’ of the social, which is represented in consciousness through the totem, because the totem is a relatively structured and material object, while the emotions associated with the sacred are more subtle and difficult for the individual to define (ibid.:220-1). In addition, the totem ‘holds’ these feelings. Once the ritual is complete, and participants have dispersed, collective representations are a reminder of the united and exalted state which members had experienced during the ceremony (ibid.:223).

I therefore suggest that the study of Durkheim’s collective representations could contribute to our understanding of the relationship between the body, energy, and consciousness. Moreover, this relationship is expressed in tantric Buddhism. I have explored ritualized meditation sessions, which combine the use of the mantra with complex visualization techniques. While in their most sophisticated form these practices are utilized by individual practitioners and religious specialists, they are also the foundation for the collective devotional acts of the laity, acts which Ekvall suggests permeate Tibetan culture and daily life. One example is the rite of circumambulation, wherein people walk in a circular path around a sacred site, often a monastery or a place which houses images of deities. Not only is this often performed in large groups, but it is accompanied by the utterance of mantras (Ekvall, 1964:233). The prayer-wheel is another example which combines circular movement with mantras. Seed syllables are written on the cylinder, so that each time it is spun, the mantra is activated (ibid.:122). Perhaps most compelling is the way that religious speech, according to Ekvall, is combined with every-day conversation.

In the course of conversation, if one of the participants does not happen to have his own rosary with him, whenever he has ceased talking and it is the other person’s turn, he will borrow—with the casual social grace with which one borrows a light for a cigarette—the rosary from the other … many Tibetans are extremely expert at talking and praying simultaneously, and the beads slip steadily through their fingers no matter what the subject matter or pace of the conversation (ibid.:119).