Realising the Mystery of Mantra
Magazine Article: Theosophy in Australia, September 2001
This article had its beginning in two different events widely separated in time and location. The first took place in Kashmir, India in the 9th century AD and the second took place in Surfers Paradise in 1998. Once upon a time about 1200 years ago in Kashmir there was a great sage called Vasugupta. One night Vasugupta had a dream in which the Highest God, Shiva, came to him. Shiva told Vasugupta that ‘On yonder High Mountain, there is the esoteric doctrine under a big stone. Having obtained it, reveal it to those who are fit for grace.’ Vasugupta went up the mountain and found the work we now know as the Shiva Sutras. Two of the Sutras are of particular relevance to us today. Sutra 18 in the first section states, ‘The bliss of the world is the bliss of samadhi’ and Sutra 22 states, ‘By awareness of the Great Ocean, the potency of mantra is realised.’
The second event took place in November 1998. My wife and I had an extended 18-day holiday in Surfers Paradise. When one thinks of Surfers one tends to think of sleaze, glitz and drugs. And it is all of that. But the reason that all that is there is the sea, the sand, the sun, and breeze; in other words the surf beach. Each day we were conscious of the beach. At first we were busy getting into our apartment, wondering at the magnificent view; buying groceries, hiring a car, unpacking; but gradually all that fell away and we began to really experience the ‘feel’ of the beach, to see the beach and above all, listen to the waves. I was reminded of Psalm 29 (3) that states, ‘The voice of the Lord is over the waters; the God of Glory thunders, the Lord, over mighty waters.’
As we quieted down and became aware, the total environment began to whisper subtle messages, to suggest new ideas, to create new and deeper understandings. We began to understand that nature has a voice. What does Light on the Path say? It encourages us to ‘Listen to the song of life’ and maintains that ‘Life itself has speech and is never silent. And its utterance is not as you that are deaf may suppose, a cry; it is a song.’ As we listened to the voice of the surf we began to understand that a mantra is not just something which one says in one’s mind in meditation or chants with others over and over again. There is also a mantra chanted soundlessly by all creation. Just as all things arise from the ultimate no-thing-ness of The One, so the mantra of creation arises from the creative silence of The One. From one point of view the mantra of creation is The Voice of the Silence. It is there for all. Any may listen. All may hear.
The mantra of creation says different things to us depending on our willingness to listen and the depth of our commitment to it. You may remember that wonderful story of how a guru said one day to his disciples, ‘If you bathe just once in the holy Ganges River you will obtain immediate liberation.’ One of his disciples asked, ‘If that is the case, how come this rock, which has been in the river for hundreds of years is not yet liberated?’ The guru replied, ‘If liberation is not gained then it is the fault of the disciple, the river always does its part.’ The mantra of creation is always available, but unless we listen it will not be heard.
What a wonderful, alive, moving symbol for the ancient sages to choose for the One, the Absolute Be-ness, the Supreme Reality which underlies all created things and which gives life, is the life of all. There is a profound mystery about the ocean. We can explore its depths, map its mountains and valleys, chart its tides, catalogue its inhabitants, but still the mystery remains. No one would have been surprised to hear that the latest scientific theory says that the origin of life on earth was deep in the ocean close to volcanic vents. We can measure the distance of the horizon but we can never reach it. So with what Madame Blavatsky called the Omnipresent, Eternal, Boundless and Immutable, we may define, explore, conceptualise but we can never capture, limit or adequately express It. Always. The mystery remains.
The ancient commentaries on the great ocean Sutra maintain that the ocean is limpid and reflects the entire universe. Just as the sea takes on the colour of the clouds or the sky above it, so does the Great Ocean reveal itself by its reflection of creation. This is an inspiring thought but it can also be somewhat frightening. It means that what I am, is what is reflected in the Infinite to others. If the sea is a wonderful symbol of the One, the Infinite, then the waves seem to express our separate, finite natures. We feel different from each other. Each one of us feels that I am not you or it. We cannot know, or even imagine, how many individual things go into creation of this world of ours any more than we can count how many individual waves have come ashore at the beach in Surfers Paradise. Each of us, each thing, like each wave has a finite span of time allocated to us and death is inevitable. We can empathise with the wave. I suffer because I feel separate, different, powerless, mortal and alone just like each wave.
HPB maintained that ‘We all regard ourselves as Units, although essentially we are one indivisible Unit, drops in the ocean of Being, not to be distinguished from other drops. Having then produced this cause, the whole discord of life follows immediately as an effect; in reality it is the endeavour of nature to restore harmony and maintain equilibrium. It is this sense of separateness which is the root of all evil.’ Indeed, there is in the whole universe, in every dimension and time, in every atom and galaxy, in every microbe and person, but One Life, One Being, One Consciousness, One Bliss beyond compare, One God, One Supreme Reality, One Great Ocean of Life. There is only The One. There are no ‘many’ and we are no more separate from The One than a wave from the water. To realise this, even in a fleeting moment, is to realise for that blessed moment something of the mystery of the mantra.
One day as my wife and I walked on the beach, right at the waters edge, we were passed by a vigorous young lady, power walking with great determination along the sand. After her was a trail of clear, strong footprints. The footprints comprised an historical record of her achievements, a symbol of her significance. How many people over the long centuries have wanted to leave a mark of their significance? How many have eagerly sought, demanded that they have a special place in history? How often do we judge or value others, and ourselves, by race, or social standing, by wealth, position or education, or even by physical appearance or gender? A few minutes later we walked back along the beach and the waves had washed her strong footprints, and our lazy ones, away.
A verse from the poem Rose Garden by the great Sufi poet, Sadi, states:
Full many a chief of glorious name
Beneath the ground now buried lies,
Yet not one token of his fame
On earth´s wide surface meets our eyes.
That aged form of life bereft,
Which to earth´s keeping they commit,
The soil devours; no bone is left,
No trace remains to tell of it.
Why identify with the footprints in the sand, seeking significance? We are not the footprints. We are the Great Ocean. We are one with The One. There is our true identity. Kabir wrote about this also. One day he was walking along a beach watching the waves ceaselessly come and go, observing the pattern each wave made and how the next wave made a new pattern and he asked the ocean, ‘What is it that you are doing here?’ The ocean replied, ‘I am trying to perfectly write the name of my beloved but I am never satisfied with my effort so I wipe it out and write again.’ In each life of each one of us, and in every moment of each life, the Great Ocean of Consciousness is trying to perfectly express itself but, from one point of view, we fall short again and again. But the Ocean will not be denied. Perfected humanity, full self-realisation, enlightenment is the evolutionary goal and it will be attained.
Everyone who has walked along an Australian beach has probably witnessed a seagull that just seems to glide on the breeze, wings outstretched, above the waves. Clean, white, effortless, reminiscent of the great swan or garuda called Hamsa by the Hindus. Like the swan the seagull is equally at home on the water or the land. It has no fixed abode. It wanders, free and untrammeled. In The Voice of the Silence, Madame Blavatsky refers to this great, mythic bird when she states, ‘Bestride the Bird of Life if thou would´st live . . . then thou canst repose between the wings of the GREAT BIRD.’ This is a very important idea. To give up trying to be this or that; to stop all the useless and stressful struggle of me and mine; to abandon all the frantic search for happiness and rest selfless is to discover one´s true identity. Usually we run around seeking to hide from ourselves but in the spiritual life this hide and seek must cease. Resting in the centre, between the wings, we can find peace and in that peace begin to findourselves.
One night, as the sun set in the west, a full moon was rising in the east. It was a wonderful sight for those who had time to see it. It too had a mantra of its own. Not that of an ocean ceaselessly crashing on a beach, but a soft, almost yielding mantra. When one looks at a surf beach it is easy to overlook the absolute interrelatedness of all parts, even the gentle and non-obvious ones. Without the moon there would be no tides and without tides no waves and a beach without waves is not a surf beach. Just so, life is not made up of just the good and happy bits. We need to accept the shadow as well as the Light in ourselves. Often we will learn more from the hard lessons of life than from our little achievements. Life is seamless. It is one. Everything is connected to everything else. Usually we try to find and hold onto those things that give us happiness, and to avoid the painful and threatening ones. But the sages and saints of all traditions are united in their testimony that this dependence on things and others for our happiness is a profound mistake, based on the illusion that I am separate and alone.
St. John of the Cross wrote about the need to abandon this dependence on anything external in an extended section of his work, The Ascent of Mount Carmel. He wrote:
To reach satisfaction in all
Desire its possession in nothing.
To come to possess all
Desire the possession of nothing.
To arrive at being all
Desire to be nothing.
To come to the knowledge of all
Desire the knowledge of nothing.
After going on in this vein for a time, St. John concludes that:
In this nakedness the spirit finds
Its quietude and rest.
For in coveting nothing,
Nothing raises it up
And nothing weighs it down,
Because it is in the centre of its humility.
When it covets something
In this very desire it is wearied.
These then, are some of the insights that we can discover in the mantra of the surf beach. But there is a deeper insight, a more fundamental truth that the mantra chants. Sometimes, perhaps often, we can find the world a threatening, even dangerous place. There are viruses waiting to attack; bacteria lurk to pounce; landslides, earthquakes, floods, bush fires, a whole litany of potential disasters threatens our fragile hold on life. And our fellow human beings aren´t altogether harmless. Quite apart from biological, nuclear and germ warfare and tribal conflicts we have to deal with muggers, burglars, murderers, drug dealers and bankers. Yet, as we walk along the beach, increasingly in tune with its rhythms and moods, increasingly in contact with its interdependent constituent elements, and its wholeness, listening more and more intently to its mantra, a new, deeper reality makes us aware of its subtle presence. We begin to sense a profound mystery. The universe, which can seem so threatening, is in fact, an enlightening universe. We find ourselves in a universe designed for growth and achievement. It is as though every aspect, every element, every facet of our lives are deliberately designed with the end purpose of enlightening each one of us.
In the middle 1600s Thomas Traherne wrote a wonderful poem called ‘The Vision’. In this poem he urges us to look carefully at our particular world, to listen to its mantra and in the last verse he speaks of this deep mystery whispered by creation.
From one, to one, in one to see all things,
To see the King of Kings
Made all mine own, myself the end
Of all his labours! ´Tis the life of pleasures!
To see myself His friend!
Who all things find conjoined in Him alone,
Sees and enjoys the Holy One.
In that moment of realisation, for a moment, we discover that we are not aliens living precariously on the surface of a hostile planet. This is our home. This is the place, this is the situation, this is the life especially designed and created so that we might grow and discover our true natures. Each of us can realise, for a moment, that all this is for me, custom designed, ready, willing and waiting. This is the deep message of the mantra sung by every detail of our lives.
Can we hear it?
Can we realise it?
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Brian Parry is a member of Melbourne Lodge and a long-standing member of the Theosophical Society.