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Buddhadharma : Summer 2018
78 BUDDHADHARMA: THE PRACTITIONER’S QUARTERLY on Mount Koya, Japan, as part of my dissertation research on the goma, the ritual votive fire offering that distinguishes that tradition. Before aspirants are ready to begin the formal hundred-day train- ing program, they must first perform thousands of prostrations, plac- ing the “five points”—knees, elbows, and forehead—on the floor, then standing up again. This is followed by two relatively simple visualization practices: “full moon visualization,” which involves looking at an image of a white circle resting on an open lotus blos- som, and “‘A’ syllable visualization,” which uses an image of the syllable “A” written in Siddham, an old Sanskrit script, resting on an open lotus blossom inside a white circle. Once the aspirants are able to form a mental image of each that is strong enough to be held in mind without looking at the physical image, they are ready for the “eighteen stages” practice, named for its original form comprising eighteen paired mudras and mantras. This lays the groundwork for three core Shingon rituals: the womb mandala, the vajra mandala, and goma. Initially, performing a three-hour-long fire offering in a temple on Mount Koya might seem far removed from the silent sitting during morning practice in the Tassajara meditation hall. In the West, ritual is frequently dismissed as “mere ritual” or described as simply doing things “by rote.” But the frame of meditation as progressive practice, continuous from silent seated practice through ritual to all activity, gave me an understanding that the complex ritual performances of tantric Buddhism are also a form of meditation. Far from being the kind of unthinking repetitious activity such characterizations imply, Shingon rituals require close attention to detail, both in preparation and performance. Performing a ritual requires that the practitio- ner be very present to the process. In the case of tantric ritual, that includes such actions as forming hand gestures (mudra) and reciting mantra. Like counting the breath, reciting mantra a specific number of times seems like an easy task. But also like counting the breath, In the West, ritual is frequently dismissed as “mere ritual” or described as simply doing things “by rote.” But performing a ritual requires that the practitioner be very present to the process.