Bodhi mind enabled by the Homa flames In Japan, a very common Buddhist practice, uses fire. The flames of the Homa fire purify our delusions and ignorance, burning them away to enable the bright Bodhi mind to emerge. This was quite a new practice for me as a Buddhist when I first arrived here. Tibetan Buddhists often use smoke in rituals to prevent the evil spirits from seeing and interfering, but the fire practice has been directly transferred from ancient India into Japanese life it would seem. It perfectly suits the Japanese ‘shinto’ character, Shinto being the original religion of Japan focusing on kami or intrinsic spirit which everyone and everything possesses.
In ancient India Homa was known as Agni, because this is the name of the fire god, and it originally came from a folk belief. Gradually, the Buddha realized what a divine tool fire was and incorporated it into rituals. Back in the Dharma article cycle I wrote about the fire festival of Daimonji in Kyoto, the lighting of lines of small fires to illuminate kanji which appear to be carved into the hillsides and serve as signposts for spirits visiting the human world briefly at O Bon time. When ignited, the flames convey the prayers to the gods and Buddha realms quickly and efficiently.
So, fire is a magical and primordial element in our human lives today, as it has always been. It fills many roles as a cleanser or purifier, it transforms and rejuvenates, it reduces and amalgamates. The candle or oil lamp flame breaks through the darkness, dispelling fear and ignorance, the epitome of altruism – providing light for others from its diminishing body. The flames of Homa, presided over by a master, can cleanse away delusions and impediments to faith so powerfully! Once they are cleared away the Bodhi mind appears like a warm moon.
I wonder if you can accept that the flames of a fire, lit with a certain intent, can have a magical effect? In fact, do you believe in magic and the mystical at all, or are you able to accept only what you or others with credentials in proof-seeking see or witness? Perhaps you need proof before you can believe, and maybe that need makes the difference between a person who chooses the secular pathway and one who chooses the sacred. We can all access the pure higher mind if we want to via meditative/reflective states and sincere wishes for the well-being of others. I certainly have retained my belief in magic and the mystical from childhood, and I feel very blessed to have been able to do that. Flames! Smoke! Transformation! For me anything is possible!
Kukai, the true founder of Japanese Esoteric Buddhism, believed in the mystical with all his being. His mind was sharpened by contact with the mystical, ritual and practice. As a teenager he became aware that the secular life was mundane and limited, so he ventured into the sacred world by visiting monastery libraries and devouring Buddhist sutras. Many of these sacred texts had not been translated from Sanskrit, so he quickly learned Sanskrit and within a few months could read fluently. He is said to have read thousands of sutras.
Then in one of these dusty libraries, he encountered a monk who referred him to one sutra especially, telling him it was the greatest and that he should memorise it because he would need it later. Kukai expressed his doubt that he could accomplish such a thing in a foreign language, but the monk taught him a mantra, which would perfect his memorization skill. Neither the monk, the illustrious sutra nor the mantra need expounding here, but needless to say, Kukai accomplished this feat and then was told to go in search of the place where this mantra would invoke its deity Akasagarbha, a place where the will of the universe was most likely to descend.
Imagine Kukai’s excitement at this challenge. He was a skillful climber, so he rushed off to climb every mountain in Japan to find such a place. Throughout the history of Japanese Buddhism, mountain asceticism has prevailed as the training ground for Bodhisattvas, so Kukai was not alone in his quest. However, unlike the other aspirants, Kukai was not looking for Shyakyamuni Buddha’s liberation from earthly desires, but what later became known as Esoteric Buddhism, which takes an entirely positive view of life exactly as it is, combined with the strong Bodhi vow of bringing all sentient beings to enlightenment. Kukai did indeed find the right place to encounter the will of the universe when the Morning Star flew into his mouth during an extended meditation, which was the beginning of Japanese Buddhism.
He was able to put logic aside and so see or notice instructions from a divine origin. We can all do this if we choose the sacred path that many of our ancestors took and that we ourselves took in other lifetimes. Then we simply fill our minds with Bodhi, the compassionate desire for the lasting happiness of all sentient beings, and every moment of life becomes a beautiful treasure. The Bodhi mind is bright and mercurial, fearless and creative, and it is filled with nothing but positive light and love. Kukai was blessed with this mind without any teachers or models. He was unique in the history of Japan, some saying he was the only person with any imagination in the midst of Confucian ‘actualism.’
Let me take you for a moment to the Homa ceremony. The celebrant’s robes are vermillion red, the surplice a tapestry of rice fields in gold and silver, sage green and persimmon orange, and the stole at the neck pure white. She or he sits before the home hearth surrounded by Buddhist implements, vajras, various bells, offerings of leaves and spices, oils and rice all in shimmering gold. Sutra chanting begins and slowly as the many mantras flow, three recitations of each one, the massed wishes and sincere intentions of the attendees and other priests mount, and the moment to apply the holy light arrives.
The celebrant makes a large circle with the long wand carrying the flame at the end, round in a clockwise direction, round again in an anti-clockwise direction, following the flames with their intently focused eyes. Then the blessed wooden fuel arranged in the hearth is lit and the smoke rises. The flames grow and are fanned with a large sacred fan. Soon the written prayers and ritual books are brought to be blessed, and passed through the flames to be purified. The flames increase and the fuel crackles excited by the holy additives which the celebrant vigorously adds.
Buddhist drums and bells, shakujo (shaken cymbals) are played, the vajra (thunderbolt) is positioned, juzu (rosaries) are furiously counted, bringing the proceedings to a climax. The flames rise higher and the deities take all the prayers to the spiritual world. Purification and peace prevails, and the feeling that something great has been touched, that the vast invisible world has been broached, fills us with awe of the universe and our potentially enchanted lives.
Fire can be utilized in private meditation practice. It can be visualized to burn away delusions and anxieties which are replaced with pure intentions and wishes conveyed by heat and smoke into the invisible world. In addition, one of my teachers always told me to stay away from the hot flames of human emotions, to back away and not get burned by other people’s negative emotions. Both of these practices will help us to stay with the bright and wise Bodhi mind at all times.