Yantra are magical diagrams used in popular-folk Buddhist mystical and meditation practices throughout Theravada Buddhist countries. They are practiced in tantra. The yantra is created by a master of yantra, a gru, which may have a vaguely Shivaite or Visnivite memory. The gru is usually a former Buddhist monk, or a current monk, who claims to have learned his healing arts from Buddhist ascetics.
A yantra is a physical expression of a mantra – a mantra being a divine aspect in the form of sound vibration – yantra in the form of geometrical figure. When mantras or divine ideas are meditated upon, certain images are brought out and these images are used in meditation or worship to symbolize or express certain divine ideas and qualities.
The word “yantra” means “yam” with the suffix “tra” – where tra means “instruments or tools” and “Yam” means “to gain control over the energy inherent in some element or being.”
A yantra is “an instrument designed to curb the psychic forces by concentrating them on a pattern, and in which a way that this pattern becomes reproduced by the worshiper’s visualizing power.” [Myth and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization, Heinrich Zimmer]
The yantra may serve as:
· A representation of some personification or aspect of the divine
· A model for the worship of a divinity immediately within the heart, after the paraphernalia of outward devotion (idol, perfumes, offerings, audibly uttered mantra) have been discarded by the advanced initiate.
· A kind of chart or schedule for the gradual evolution of a vision, while identifying the self with its slowly varying contents, that is to say, with the divinity in all its phases of transformation.
The abhidhamma is the important source book of the practices of yantra. Ian Harris says, “A yantra designed to exorcise spirits contains the written text, ‘Please give the heartwood of the abhidhamma, the one that is the greatest, to come and take away the anger.’”
The Khmer Gru have medical manuals, with symbolic diagrams (yantra) and mantras. These books are used in an oral teaching tradition, under a master, and cannot be understood without them.
“The texts underpinning the tradition are often obscure, are clearly symbolic, and may be subjected to multiple interpretations. They have much to say about ritual and frequently contain mantras in Pali. The tradition is certainly old and certainly predates the reform movements of the nineteenth century.” [Harris, p.93]
Francois Bizot wrote in The Gate: “I was very familiar with the diagrams for protection which the war had made fashionable again. Every enlisted man – except the Khmer Rouge – wore one of these, in the form of a shirt, a scarf or a turban, given by his father or by a spiritual teacher. They were sacred items, and the principle of their protective properties was based upon the powers of Buddhism ascribed to letters: wrapped in the immortal worlds of the doctrine the warrior is invulnerable. Certain designs were very ancient and signed by a great master….”
Donald Swearer writes of the yantra traditions of northern Thailand. “Yantras play an extraordinarily important role in northern Thai culture even though they are most often associated with Hinduism, Tantra, or esoteric forms of Buddhism. Protection yantras are as pervasive in northern Thai Buddhism practice as is the chanting of protective suttas. Chanting the paritta (protection) in Thai Buddhist parlance is called “chanting the mantra”, and this act links the oral and visual dimensions of various protective and empowering rites. For example, when a new house or business is consecrated monks chant protection suttas and draw a yantra in a prominent place, usually over the front door. Thai ethnic groups in northern Thailand and the Shan states often wear protective yantras on their persons; as inscriptions on amulets worn around the neck, as bodily tattoos that may cover much of the upper torso, or as yantra inscribed on undershirts. Protective yantra banners are sold at all famous wats, especially pilgrimage sites with reliquary chetias.” [Becoming the Buddha, Swearer, p63.]
Yantras were also used during the construction and consecration of Buddha images, inscribed on gold foil and placed on, or within the Buddha image.
“Yantras are made in a variety of shapes, although the most common are either round or square with a specific number of ‘eyes’ or connected squares in which the syllables of a gata are written. While some yantra chessboard grids can be read sequentially from left to right, line by line, most are the ‘skip’ variety. Meaning cannot be derived from skip yantras simply by reading the letters sequentially in any direction. Skip yantras resemble a picture puzzle in which the individuals pieces must be correctly placed if the picture is to be revealed, or a game of anagrams with individual letters that must be placed in a specific sequence to spell a word. The form of the yantra suggests that it encapsulates meaning on both esoteric and exoteric levels – meaning that is both hidden and manifest – much like the [Buddha] images itself represents reality in both a particular form (rupakaya) and beyond form (arupa or dhammakaya). An elderly monk informed me that a yantra maker perceives the arrangement of the letters during meditation; however, the publication of yantra books demonstrates that yantras formats are routinized. Insome Shaiyachom phy observes that the yantra maker must both memorize the gatha to be inscribed and the maze-like grid on which he writes the syllables.” [Becoming the Buddha, Swearer.]
“Yantras became a cult, subject to a strict set of rules, governing taboos regarding the parts of the body, especially below the waist and acts considered impure. The liquid used to inscribe yantras varies, as does the objects on which they are written and method of application. Some may be inscribed on a betel leaf and ingested, written on a small metal scroll and worn around the waist or places over a doorway, sewn as a yantra shirt, or written on a piece of cloth attached to a monks robe. Depending upon the circumstance, they are often used to procure a specific objective such as beauty, holiness, longevity, or invulnerability. Yantras are written in Pali inscribed in a variety of scripts, for example, mul in Cambodian, kham and yuan in Thailand, tham in Laos, and the Burmese and Shan scripts in Myanmar.”
“Bizot is especially interested in Buddha image yantras composed of Pali mantras taken from the Tripitaka, commentaries, and paracononical works. As evidenced in the Buddha Yantra text, the manual for making a Buddha image, and in Bizot’s research, these yantras may be inscribed on the body of the image (or the chedi) or on strips of metal or other materials and then applied to the image to empower and protect it. Bizot explores the historical development of this esoteric, apotropaic tradition from its probably vedic and Hindu roots to its general use throughout Buddhist Southeast Asia. Of particular importance to the buddhabhiseka [Buddha image consecration ceremony] are the 108 katha (gata) of the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha, the source for which appears to be a text entitled the Ratanamala (The Garland of Jewels), versions of which are found in Myanmar, Thailand, and Cambodia. The unique Southeast Asia Pali texts have no apparent connection to the five texts entitled Ratanamala in the Tanjure. The earliest reference appears to be a Pagan inscription dated 1442 C.E. the 108 katha are divided respectively into fifty-letters (Iti pi so), thirty-eight letters (svakitto) and fourteen letters (supatipanno) representing the powers (guna) of the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha. In this yantric acrostic form, ‘Praise to the Triple Gem.’ It is impossible to decipher without decoding the words to which the letters refer and knowing the correct word order. This katha is changed during the buddhabhiseka and in other ritual contexts with its power and meaning embedded in its dual esoteric-exoteric nature.”
“The Buddha image is a homologic structure: the eternal body of the Dhamma (dhammakaya) made visible in the bodily form of the Buddha (rupakaya). Bizot and Coedes…link the dhammakaya to the yogavacara tradition of Sri Lanka, a system that teaches the method by which a yogic adept can realize the state of the Buddha’s omniscience.” [Coedes, “Dhammakaya” Adyar Library Bulletin 20, 1956.
This tradition suggests “two aspects of meditation practice directly applicable to the dhammakaya, namely, that individual sounds, syllables, or words such as A-Ra-Han likewise have a hidden meaning or reality, in the instance cited, Dhamma (A), Buddha (RA), and Sangha (HAN).”
“Both Bizot and Coedes consider a Thai Pali text entitled the Dhammakayassa Atthavannana to be an example of the yogavacara tradition the text is a doctrinal abridgment in thirty paragraphs of Buddhist teachings homologically identified with twenty-six bodily parts and four elements of Buddha’s vestments. The order of the paragraphs is determined not by a logical or philosophical classification but by the arrangement of bodily parts beginning with the head and ending with the feet. This suggests a natural or a proiri correspondence between the Buddha’s teaching, namely, the dhamma, the parts of the Buddha’s body. Bizot, furthermore, notes that in the Khmer tradition the dhammakaya associates the thirty-two bodily parts with the mulakammatthana, or meditative foci.” [Bizot Le chemin de Lanka]
“Even though such a homologic tradition may have roots in early Vedism, the mythic, cosmological model represented by the Purusa Sukta underwent a significant transformation in subsequent yogic traditions, including Buddhism. The longstanding Indian tradition as the thirty-two major and eighty minor marks of the mahapurisa (Lakkhana Sutta), came to be linked to the dhammakaya, with possible origins in the cultic veneration of material signs of the Buddha. Although the identification of the dhamma with the body of the Buddha was the subject of wide ranging philosophical speculation, it may also reflect the practice of putting fragments of scriptures in stupas and Buddha images, a tradition popularized in the legends that King Ashoka’s 84,000 stupas enshrined both the bodily relics and dharmas.”
Bizot described the eye-opening ritual ceremony of consecrating a Buddha image, “he divides the ceremony in three parts; implanting the marks, opening the eyes, and the consecration. In comparing it with the yogavacara tradition, Bizot likens to practice of the eye opening ritual to the yogavacara transformation of the body through meditation. The parallel of the transformation of the body through Samadhi, and the transformation of a material representation into the Buddha provides a striking insight into the operative significance of the meaning of the Buddha image consecration ritual.” (Swearer, Becoming the Buddha.)
The Bayon temple in Cambodia is a physical yantra. “The Bayon was always intended to transform – a matter over which there can be little doubt when we remember that it is named to derive from ‘Pa yantra, the ‘father’ or ‘master’ of yantra. This is a Sanskrit world, meaning literally ‘instrument’ defined as a form of mandala: ‘a diagram used as a support for meditation….the component parts of the yantra take the believer along the different steps of Enlightenment….” – Grahm Hancock, Heavens Mirror.