Mudra, Mantra, Mandala: The Three M’s of Esoteric Buddhism

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

The word “esoteric” is an adjective used to describe something that is intended for and, therefore, understood only by an inner group of individuals, in contrast to the word “exoteric” which is used to describe something that is intended for and understood by the general public. Applied to a principle, or a system of thought, the word “esoteric” thus carries the connotation of something that is mysterious and profound, even secretive. This is certainly the case with esoteric Buddhism in China and Japan, judging from the two Chinese characters applied to describe it, which literally mean “secret teachings.”

Esoteric Buddhism has come to carry such connotation as “secret teachings” because it is founded on the practice and teaching of tantric lineages, which rely on the heavy usage of rituals whose meanings are unintelligible except to an inner group of advanced students who have gone through the rigorous training with these rituals. However, the fact of the matter is that the Buddha never made a distinction between “esoteric” and “exoteric” as far as his teachings were concerned, as can be inferred from the following words of his: “But, Ananda, what does the order of monks expect of me? I have taught the Dhamma, Ananda, making no ‘inner’ and ‘outer’: the Tathagata has no teacher’s fist in respect of doctrines.” (Mahaparinibbana Sutta 2:25) One way to make esoteric Buddhism exoteric is, therefore, to interpret its practices and teachings in the context of what the Buddha intended his teachings to be.

Esoteric Buddhism can be characterized as a system of Buddhist practices and teachings based on the three M’s of mudras, mantras, and mandalas. Mudras are symbolic gestures employed in many religions, including Hinduism and Buddhism. The statue of the Buddha with the mudra called Abhaya Mudra, often translated as the “do-not-be-afraid” gesture, is among the most well-known gestures and can be observed all over the world, from the standing Buddha statue at Wat Chedi Luang in Chiang Mai, Thailand, to the large sitting Buddha statue at Horyu-ji in Nara, Japan. Another widely observed gesture is Dhyana Mudra, which shows the Buddha in Samadhi, or deep concentration.

Mantras are syllables, words or verses recited with regular patterns of sound to tune in to a holy being. A mantra could be a simple syllable like Om in Hinduism, which is the sound that created the universe as symbolized by damaru, the small drum, Shiva Nataraja holds in his upper right hand. In Pure Land Buddhism, the mantra, ‘Namo Amitabha Buddhayo’ (‘Namu Amida Butsu’ in Japanese), is used, which means ‘Hail to Amitabha Buddha.’ The practitioner repeats this mantra many times in order to open up a channel of communication with a holy being which, in this case, is Amitabha Buddha. Mantras are also employed as chanting at ceremonies, which could be as short as invoking the name of Amitabha Buddha or as long as reciting the entire Heart Sutra.

Mandalas are visual representations of the universe in Hinduism and Buddhism. In Buddhism, mandalas are often employed as guide maps for the practitioners in their path to seek enlightenment. In Tibetan Buddhism, monks construct mandalas with colored sands on the occasion of special festivals only to erase them later to remind them of the impermanence of all things in the universe. Most mandalas are, however, painted on hanging scrolls and used in the training of monks or in the teaching of the Dhamma to lay practitioners at temples. In this age of high technology, some temples display the projected images of mandalas on the wall, or even at the entrance gate.

Why are the three M’s of mudra, mantra and mandala are emphasized in esoteric Buddhism? It is because the coordinated practice of body, speech and mind is important as the Buddha reminds us with the following warning: “Bodily misconduct, verbal misconduct, and mental misconduct. These three qualities lead to one’s own affliction, the affliction of others, and the affliction of both.” (Anguttara Nikaya 3:17)

The esoteric Buddhist practitioner thus uses mudras to emulate the Buddha’s meditation postures, mantras to learn the Buddha’s enlightened words, and mandalas to see the true picture of the universe as seen by the fully enlightened Buddha. In other words, the practitioner, by unifying his/her activities of body, speech and mind, is trying to attain the buddhahood, namely, the one who sees his or her body as that of the Buddha, hear his or her own speech as that of the Buddha, and see his or her own mind as that of the Buddha. Indeed, there is nothing esoteric about esoteric Buddhism once we realize that its use of mudras, mantras and mandalas is a reminder for us practitioners of the importance of the coordinated practice of body, speech and mind.