An ancient Buddhist mantra, originating early in Buddhist history in India states "Praise be to the flawless,all-pervasive illumination of the great mudra [seal of the Buddha]. Turn over to me the jewel, lotus, and radiant light." As the use of this mantra developed, its recitation was frequently combined with a ritual involving the sprinkling of a pure grade of sand.
In "Shingon Refractions", Mark Unno, an assistant professor of East Asian Religions at the University of Oregon, has written an account of what was to me this little-known practice as it developed in Japanese Buddhism. As the title of the book suggests, the mantra was used in the Japanes school of Shingon Buddhism. Shingon is a Tantric, esoteric form of Buddhism akin to the Buddhism most Westerners associate with Tibet. Subsequent developments of Buddhism in Japan, including Zen, Pure Land, and Nichren, are generally more familiar to Westerners interested in Buddhism than is Shingon. But Shingon, Professor Unno teaches the reader, is a growing movement and the mantra of light has been adopted by Buddhists in many other traditions.
The principal character in Professor Unno's account is a monk of thirteenth-century Japan, Myoe Koben (1173-1232) who also had been unfamiliar to me. Myoe was a scholar-monk ordained in two different traditions of Japanese Buddhism. In the final years of his life, he became greatly interested in the mantra of light and wrote about it extensively. Translations of six of Myoe's writings are included in this book.
Professor Unno gives a brief account of the history of the mantra of light and an all-too-brief account of the various schools of Japanese Buddhism. He follows this introduction with a detailed account of how Myoe developed the mantra, and the use of the sand, and of the significance he attached to it. It is Professor Unno's account of the significance of the mantra that makes this book come alive for the modern reader. Professor Unno gives a distinctly modern cast to this ancient mantra. Unno describes how Myoe, ordained in two traditions, did not view any form of Buddhism dogmatically but rather saw each apparently competing tradition from the perspective of the Buddhist doctrine of emptyness. Myoe was an eclectic who drew from scriptures and practices of the different forms of Buddhism then arising in Japan, including both Zen and Pure Land, as well as the tantric practices of Shingon. Myoe did not tie his teachings to a specific human lineage, but instead went back to the Buddha and ultimately to the teaching of emptiness. He taught a form of Buddhism accessible to the learned and the ignorant, to the saint and to the sinner. His Buddhism stressed equality among persons and, in particular, expanded the role of women. Perhaps most importantly, Myoe taught a faith-based Buddhism emphasizing the importance, in a degenerate age, of faith in the Dharma. The mantra and the sand ritual were not magical acts but rather owned their force to the expressions of faith they conveyed. That is why Myoe was open to the use of other teachings, mantras, and practices which originated in faith.
Unno gives a good account of a difficult topic which was new to me and, I suspect, will be new to many Western students of Buddhism. He illuminates his discussion with quotations from Myoe and by comparisons between Myoe and other Buddhist and Taoist writers. He draws some modern analogies that had particular meaning for me -- such as in his story (pp. 82-83)of a young girl who hears a performance of a Beethoven piano sonata and is inspired to persevere with diligence and faith over the years to master the instrument. This faith and perseverence to learn the piano after becoming aware of a distant goal -- playing Beethoven -- is analogized beautifully to faith in the Dharma.
Some of the translations of Myoe's works helped me with this book, particularly the essay "Recommending Faith in the Sand of the Mantra of Light" and the "Chronicle of Things Not to be Forgotten", the latter prepared by a student of Myoe. Some of the other Myoe texts were too detailed and difficult for one coming to the subject for the first time.
Professor Unno has written an insightful if difficult study of an area of Buddhism that seemed to me highly remote. More develpment of background of Japanese Buddhism and of the mantra itself would have been welcome. I couldn't avoid thinking, as I read this book, that Professor Unno was gearing his presentation to appeal to the needs and predelictions of modern Westerners who try to follow the Dharma in the United States. This is certainly an appropriate way to frame a historical account, but I found at times that Professor Unno was more interested in contemporary Buddhist practice than in a historical exposition of the mantra of light.
This book is not suitable for the casual reader or for those coming to Buddhism for the first time. It will appeal to readers with some familiarity with and feeling for Buddhism and the Dharma.