Friday, March 16, 2012

Asotoma Mantra

Asotoma Sat Gamaya
Tamasoma Jyotir Gamaya
Mrityorma Amritam Gamaya
OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti

(Brhadaranyaka Upanishad — I.iii.28)

Lead me from the unreal to the real
Lead me from darkness into light
Lead me from the illusion of death, to immortality
May all beings everywhere be at peace.

In my classes at Island and EVI this past week, we opened with this beautiful mantra from the Upanishads. Below is an interpretation of the mantra, with some commentary that I found and edited from the website of Sri Mata Amritanandamayi Devi (aka Amma).

If you want to hear this mantra chanted, singer Deva Premal has several lovely versions, recorded on various CDs, available on iTunes. 

This Vedic prayer is actually three distinct mantras, each of them setting a powerful intention. The final line, OM shanti, shanti shanti, is an affirmation of peace that is often used as a benediction.

In the first mantra, Asotoma Sat Gamaya, the word Sat is often translated as "truth," "existence", or "reality." We often speak of religion or philosophy as a search for Truth. But in India’s philosophy of Advaita Vedanta,  the concept of "truth" has been meticulously and successfully dissected. According to Advaita, for something to be considered true in the ultimate sense, it must be true not just at one given moment, but always be true—true in all three periods of time: the past, present and future. In fact, Advaita goes one step further. It says if something does not exist in all three periods of time that it does not truly exist, it is not ultimately real. Thus, truth, existence and reality are one and the same. That reality, Vedanta says, is what we call God.  Sat is our True Self—the blissful consciousness that ever was, is and ever will be. 

The second mantra—Tamaso Ma Jyotir Gamaya—means "Lead me from darkness to light." When the Vedas refer to darkness and light, they mean ignorance and knowledge, respectfully. This is so because ignorance, like darkness, obscures true understanding. And in the same way that the only remedy for darkness is light, the only remedy for ignorance is knowledge. The knowledge spoken of here is again the knowledge of one’s true nature.

The final mantra—Mrityorma Amritam Gamaya—means: "Lead me from death to immortality." This should not be taken as a prayer to live endless years in heaven or on earth. It is a prayer for assistance in realizing the truth that "I was never born, nor can ever die, as I am not the body, mind and intellect, but the eternal, blissful consciousness that serves as the substratum of all creation."

Friday, March 9, 2012

Spaciousness, Emptiness, & Transcendence

Hello Dear Yogis,

Our classes this past week were inspired by one of my favorite poems by the 13th century Sufi Poet Jelaludin Rumi:

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I'll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase "each other" doesn't make any sense.

His beautiful words invite us to transcend dualistic thought, beyond our egoic sense of separate self, into the field of spacious awareness. Our lives play out within that expansive, boundaryless field. When we become aware of the field, then all the comings and goings, expansions and contractions, and joys and sorrows of our lives are held in perspective. All the vicissitudes of our lives are recognized, by a spacious mind and heart, as waves upon the vast Ocean of Being.

And, in keeping with that theme of transcendence, we chanted the Prajnaparamita Mantra, which invites us to "cross to the other shore" into Awakening. 

Although the prajnaparamita mantra is a Buddhist mantra and not specifically from the yoga tradition, I find that the teachings of Buddhism and Hinduism, as well as wisdom from the Taoists, Sufis, and more, can complement and enrich the practice of yoga. The great 14th century Christian Mystic Meister Eckhart spoke of God as "a great underground river that cannot be dammed up. " The world's spiritual traditions are wells which all tap into that Source.

May we each access that ever-flowing Divine River and drink deeply of it's power and peace.

The Prajnaparamita Mantra:


 Because Sanskrit is a vibrational language with many layers of meaning, the interpretations of this mantra are wonderfully varied. Here are just a few:

~Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone altogether beyond. Oh what an awakening! All hail!
~ Gone, gone, gone beyond altogether beyond, Awakening, fulfilled!
~ Gone, gone, gone to the Other Shore, attained the Other Shore having never left.
~ Gone, gone, totally gone, totally completely gone, enlightened, so be it.
~"Oh, you have done! You have done! You have completely crossed the margin. This is Enlightenment! 
~Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone completely beyond, enlightenment, wow!

The prajnaparamita mantra comes from the Heart Sutra, which is regarded as the essence of Buddhist teaching.  Prajnaparamita means "perfect understanding. "
In the Heart Sutra, the Bodhisattva Avalokita is speaking to a disciple, Shariputra. He proclaims:

"Listen, Shariputra, form is emptiness, emptiness is form, form does not differ from emptiness, emptiness does not differ from form. The same is true with feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness."

One of the clearest commentaries on this passage was written by the Buddhist Master Thich Nhat Hanh:

Because form is emptiness, form is possible. In form we find everything else--feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness. "Emptiness means empty of a separate self. it is full of everything, full of life...To be empty does not mean non-existent. ..The cup, in order to be empty, has to be there...Emptiness is the ground of everything. 

If we are not empty, we become a block of matter. We cannot breathe, we cannot think. To be empty means to be alive, to breathe in and to breathe out...Emptiness is impermanence, it is change...without impermanence, nothing is possible.

In the sutra, Avalokita goes on to speak about how when one understands that all forms are essentially empty and impermanent, and that all forms are interdependent and do not exist unto themselves, one reaches a state of liberation from suffering. The Sutra concludes with:

Therefore, one should know that Perfect Understanding is a great mantra, is the highest mantra, is the unequalled mantra, the destroyer of all suffering, the incorruptible truth. This is the mantra:


Avalokita saw the nature of reality and overcame all pain, attaining complete liberation. It was in that state of deep concentration, of joy, of freedom, that he uttered those words, and that is why this utterance has become such a powerful mantra. 

May this mantra be a compass that guides your way on your path toward  toward Perfect Understanding, freedom, and joy.

Thursday, March 1, 2012


In this past week’s classes we focused on the Sanskrit mantra OM Mani Padme Hum. Because our limited class time does not allow us to discuss the meaning of a mantra in depth, I am offering some more information here. It is my hope that it will enrich your practice.

The Mani mantra is a central prayer among Tibetan Buddhists, and is perhaps the most widely used of all Buddhist mantras.  It is open to anyone who feels inspired to practice it -- it does not require prior initiation by a lama (meditation master).

Since Sanskrit is a vibrational language and has many layers of meaning, it can’t be translated literally. The generally-accepted meaning is “Hail to the jewel in the lotus” or “Behold the jewel in the lotus.”

The lotus flower is a prevalent image that is found across Eastern traditions. It symbolizes purity, Divine wisdom, and represents our awakening into higher consciousness. Many Hindu gods and goddesses are depicted seated on a thousand-petaled lotus. In the yogic anatomy of the energy body, the crown chakra is imaged as a great lotus flower with a thousand petals, representing full spiritual realization.

A lotus flower grows out of the muck at the bottom of a pond. It rises up above the surface of the water and blooms into a magnificent flower.  Spiritual practice invites us to rise up out of the muck of our conditioning and habitual egoic mind states such as fear, judgment of self and others, self-doubt, greed, and resentment.  The blossoming lotus is our own natural compassion and love that wants to unfold in the light of awareness.  In the center dwells the shining jewel, the radiance that lives at the core of our being.  Eastern traditions teach that our true nature is compassionate and open-hearted. The practice of yoga opens the petals of our being and uncovers our radiant, divine essence.

The mani mantra is chanted for purification. Each syllable in the mantra is associated with a different positive quality, as well as a limiting mind-state to be purified.

The six syllables may be pronounced as:
The vowel in the sylable Hu is pronounced as in the English word 'book'.
(Note that many Tibetans use a slightly different pronunciation: Om Mani Peme Hung )

OM: cultivates generosity, purifies ego /pride
MA: cultivates ethics, purifies jealousy and lust for entertainment
NI: cultivates patience, purifies passion/desire
PAD: cultivates diligence, purifies ignorance/prejudice
ME: cultivates renunciation, purifies poverty/possessiveness
HUM: cultivates wisdom, purifies aggression/hatred

Many Tibetans recite the mantra thousands of times as part of their daily prayer practice. It is also printed on prayer flags that blow the prayer to the winds, carved on stones, and written on papers inserted into holy statues and prayer wheels.

The Mani mantra is associated with Chenrezig, the bodhisattva of compassion (known in other Buddhist cultures as Avalokiteshvara and Kwan Yin). Chenrezig is a highly-revered figure in Tibetan Buddhism who inspires us to awaken to our own natural compassion and goodness.

Whenever we are compassionate, or feel love for anyone, or for an animal or some part of the natural world, we experience a taste of our own natural connection with Chenrezig. Although we may not be as consistently compassionate as some of the great meditation masters, Tibetan Buddhists believe that we all share, in our basic nature, unconditional compassion and wisdom that is no different from what we see in Chenrezig and in these lamas. 

We might have trouble believing that we are no different than Chenrezig -- but learning about the nature of compassion, and learning about Chenrezig, repeating his mantra Om Mani Padme Hum and imagining that we would like to be like Chenrezig, pretending that we really are just like Chenrezig, we actually can become aware of increasing compassion in our lives, and ultimately, the lamas tell us, awaken as completely wise and compassionate buddhas.

~gratefully borrowed from


In class this week, each student received a small. clear “jewel” to keep as a reminder of the magnificence that dwells within.  May we be compassionate with ourselves, on and off the mat, and may our lives be a blossoming that reveals the radiance that we truly are.

Hindu Goddess Lakshmi

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