My friend never told me where or from whom he learned the technique he shared with me, nor the name of it and I did not care to ask. He never asked me to adhere to any tenet or submit to any conditions. He succinctly told me what to do and I followed his instructions. I found the details by myself in the books he gave me. Only much later I found out that I was practicing a mixture of yoga, tantra and esoteric Buddhism (Mìjiao 密教 or Mìzōng 密宗 or Tángmì 唐密). And now my practice is not quite the same as my friend’s. Should he know about it, he would say, I guess, laughing out loud: “It must be so”.
The classic Yoga developed by Patanjali is called Ashtanga (“eight-limbed”) yoga, including:
Buddhsim retains three limbs called the threefold training (trisiksa): (1) śīla (“moral discipline”, equivalent to Yama), (2) samadhi (“meditation” equivalent to Dhyana), and (3) prajna (“wisdom” equivalent to Samadhi) leading to the intended goal, liberation (vimukti) . The other limbs are considered as skillful means (upayas) supporting trisiksa.
The third limb of yoga is the method of correct sitting while the fourth one concerns correct breathing. We start breathing right after getting out of our mother’s womb and can sit by ourselves after 4 to 9 months. Yet at the middle of my (long) life I had to learn to sit and to breathe again! Maybe that makes my life long!
Yoga is practiced with the “subtle body” in which there are three parallel channels called “nadis” along the vertebral column. The central channel is “sushumna”. The lelt is “ida” corresponding to the left side of the body and the right hemisphere of the brain. The right is “pingala” corresponding to the right side of the body and the left hemisphere of the brain.
Along these nadis are 7 energy centers called “chakras”, with different colors and numbers of petals and corresponding elements, from bottom upwards:
1. Muladhara, Root chakra – 4 petals, red, earth
2. Svadhisthana, Sacral chakra – 6 petals, orange, water
3. Manipura, Solar Plexus chakra – 10 petals, yellow, fire
4. Anahata, Heart chakra – 12 petals, green, air
5. Vishuddha, Throat chakra – 16 petals, indigo, space
6. Ajna, The Third Eye chakra – 2 or 96 petals, sapphire blue, light
The concepts of nadis and chakras are also observed in Buddhism and Taoism with variations.
They are of paramount importance in Kundalini Yoga as Ann Ree Colton mentions: “The projected unitive vehicles of the soul - Kundalini and the chakras – are the means through which the soul-powers function within the physical, the astral, the etheric, the mental and the spiritual worlds” (Kundalini West. p. 11).
Daniel Cozort emphasizes their importance especially in Tantra: “The winds move in a system of 72,000 subtle “channels” arrayed around the body. There are three major channels, running parallel to each other from mid-forehead up over the crown of the head down to the base of the spine and then under the trunk of the body to the tip of the sexual organ. The upper opening of the central channel is at the forehead between the eyes and the upper openings of the right channel and the left channel are at the top of the nose. The right channel and the left channel wrap around the central channel at certain places, constricting it such that the wind cannot pass through it. In the Guhyasamaja system, the central channel is said to have seven loci of constriction, They are called channel-wheels because many smaller channels branch out of them like the spokes of a wheel, and they are also called channel-knots because of being places of constriction. The channel-wheels are located at the forehead, the crown of the head, the throat, the heart, the navel, the “secret place”, and the opening or tip of the sexual organ...” (Highest Yoga Tantra. p,44).
In the full-lotus posture (Sanskrit: padmasana; padma = lotus) the legs are crossed. The right foot placed on the left thigh, the left foot on the right thigh. In the half-lotus posture, also called “bodhisattva posture”, only one foot lies on the upper thigh of the opposite leg. It is recommended to those who cannot maintain the full lotus posture for long periods of time without great pain. Half-lotus posture is not balanced and stable thus not conducive to deep concentration.
There are special cushions designed for lotus posture, (figure above), called bồ đoàn in Vietnamese, zafu in Japanese. I do not have one but a regular cushion can do the job. I sit on the floor, a cushion underneath the buttocks, both knees lean on the floor. I put my left foot on my right thigh and pull the heel as close to the groin as possible then put my right foot on my left leg and pull the heel as close to the groin as possible, soles facing up. Wow! What a shearing pain at the point where two tibias cross. It is so excruciating that I would prefer to chop off my legs. I try everything to alleviate the pain, inserting in a cloth, some cotton, oil… Nothing works and everything makes it worse. Nevertheless I persist, enduring the torture several times each day. The physical pain attracts all my attention thus deviates the mental suffering. Little by little my bones get used to being tortured and finally the pain subsides. The lotus posture is really the best. The two knees and buttocks form a stable triangular pedestal on which erects the trunk.
A couple of details make the posture perfect. Usually we have the tendency to tilt our head backward so that the nadis are broken at the neck level, thus disrupting the flow of energy (prana/chi/qi). In order to keep the nadis straight we have to pull the chin toward the throat as much as possible.
The Chinese character for chi/qi and the correct padmasana
The male practitioner should not sit on his genitals. He must pull them up so they are not stuck underneath his body. Sitting correctly in the full-lotus posture our body becomes stable like a statue. If it is pushed down, it would tumble like a bloc. After having been accustomed to this asana, I pay no more attention to it and can comfortably sit in that posture for several hours. My stubbornness won the first victory over my long-time pampered body.
Next I have to learn to breath i.e. practicing pranayama in Sanskrit (prana = "life force", ayama = "extension”). Usually we don’t notice that we breathe through two nostrils unequally. One nostril is more congested than the other. That lack of balance is one of the causes of sickness. Furthermore, the nadis are contaminated by poisonous matters in the polluted environment and need to be cleansed. They can be cleansed by the Nadi shodhana pranayama, or Nadi cleansing, purification breathing technique, or alternate nostril breathing, practiced as follows:
Sit in the lotus posture. Feel comfortable and stable. Exhale all polluted air out. With the index and middle fingers resting on the forehead as a fulcrum, gently press the thumb on the right nostril to block it. Breathe in -- smooth and soft -- through the left nostril to one’s capacity. Then release the thumb and block the left nostril with the ring and pinky fingers, exhale gently through the right nostril. Thus the ida is cleansed. Inhale through the right nostril. Then block the right nostril, release the left nostril and exhale through it, Thus the pingala is cleansed… Repeat the cycle as many times as one feels comfortable. Afterward release both nostrils and breathe in through both of them, then direct the breath to the sushumna, and breathe out and then in through the sushumna several times to cleanse it.
Having learned how to sit and breathe correctly, I next learn the mantras.
A mantra is a word or a phrase composed of Sanskrit words and syllables which has a spiritual and psychological power and significance. It is often used in meditation as a tool to control and focus the mind and is a powerful tool to generate vibration and thus produce a higher level of consciousness.
Lama Anagarika Govinda’s exposition of the genesis of mantra helps to clarify this important conception: “As the true Buddhist does not expect the Buddha or his disciples or the Dharma to accept prayers, or to act on behelf of the appellant in a miraculous way, it was clear that the efficacy of such formulae depend on the harmonious co-operation of form (sound and rhythm), feeling (devotional impulse; faith, love, veneration) and idea (mental associations; knowledge, experience) which arouse, intensify and transformthe latent psycghic forces (determination and conscious willpower are only small fractions of them)… While the form crystallized out of the practice of past generations, the idea which inspiredit is the gift of the Buddha – and in this sense only it may be said that the Buddha’s spiritual power is present in the mantra – but the impulse which amalgamates the qualities of heart and mind, and the creative forces which respond to the idea and fill it with life, this is what the devotee has to contribute. If his faith is not pure, he will not achieve inner unity; if his mind is untrained, he will not able to assimilate the idea; if he is psychically dull, his energy will not respond to the call; and if he lacks in concentration, he will not be able to co-ordinate form, heart, and mind. Thus mantras are not an effortlessmethod of escaping the evil consequences of life, i.e., of our own actions, but a mediumwhich requires exertion, just as any other way of liberation. If it is sai that mantras act without fail when properly used… it only means that one who is perfect in his concentration,in his faith and in his knowledge, cannot fail to achieve liberation – because he is already master if his karma (lit. ‘action’, productive of consequences), i.e., of himself… The development of a Buddhist science of mantras was therefore not a ‘relapse’ into brahmanical usages or a sign of ‘degeneration’ but a natural consequence of spiritual growth, which in each phase of its development produces with necessity its own form of expression (Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism. pp. 33-4).
The first mantra I have to learn is the mantra of Great Compassion (Mahakaruna dharani; maha = great, karuna = compassion). Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva is karuna personified. In India it was a male deity. The Chinese think a woman is more apt to compassion and transgender him. Perhaps this is the first transgender operation in history. She is represented as having 1000 arms with an eye on each hand so that she can look around immeasurable distances for miserable people and uses her multiple hands to save several people at the same time. She also possesses the ability of hearing the lamentations from different worlds and rushes to their rescue (see figure below).
Mahakaruna dharani is composed of 84 lines in Sanskrit. Sanskrit is a language of Holy syllables, capable of producing sacred sounds. The sages of old arrange these syllables to produce the best effects. For this reason, the Great Dharani Mantra should be chanted in Sanskrit and without need to understand the meaning of the words.
I have to learn by heart a few words at a time, then some other words, and then assemble them into a line. I do that line by line, all day long, even when I ride my bicycle. Once my cousin on his bicycle comes next to me without my knowing. He listens to me constantly murmuring and wonders what I’m doing. I’m learning my mantra! It took me several months to be able to memorize and recite fluently the mantra by heart. While reciting the Mahakaruna dharani, I compose the Dhyani mudra (see figure below), placing the rosary between the thumbs to count the number of mantras recited. Mudra means “seal,” “gesture,” or “mark.” Mudras are symbolic gestures. They facilitate the flow of energy in the subtle body.
The second mantra to be learned was the Cundi mantra. Cundi means “Supreme Purity”. Cundi Bodhisattva is known as the mother of seven koti buddhas. Koti is the ancient Indian measure equivalent to 10 millions. Bodhisattva Cundi is venerated in East Asian esoteric Buddhism or Tangmi. She is all-powerful and her Tantric epithet is the Most Victorious Vajra. Vajra means diamond. Because this is an esoteric practice, the rite is more complex and performed in secret.
Prior to the chanting of the mantra, Maha Cundi Root Mudra is to be composed as follows: Interlace the little fingers and ring fingers of both hands inside the palms. Extend the middle fingers so their tips touch. Maneuver the index finger of each hand to press upon the back of each corresponding middle finger. Bring the thumbs together so they touch side by side.
Bodhisattva Cundi, the Cundi mudra and the seeds of buddhi tree
I asked my cousin to buy for me a Buddhist rosary of 108 beads used to count mantras. I re-threaded the beads my way with a nylon string by sections of 7 beads, the first one being the seed of a bodhi tree, a little larger than the rest so I can feel it. Each side has 7 sections representing 7 chakras, totalling 98 beads (7 x 7 = 49 beads x 2 = 98 beads). The middle section has 10 beads. I still have and use it. The number 108 had several meanings.
The final step is to set up an altar. When the communists invade the South, we rent and move into an apartment with three bedrooms, one for my wife and I, one for 2 sons and one for 2 daughters. When I started practicing, my wife moved in with the daughters. So I had the room to myself. I bought a wooden board about 2 yards long and 1foot wide. I put it against the wall on 2 concrete blocks about 12” high at 2 ends. When the communists occupied the North all pagodas there were used either as rice processing “factories” or livestock barns, the Buddha statues being stacked in a corner. When the South is “liberated”, people from the North took these statues down South for sale at very reasonable prices. I bought an antique statue of a sitting Sakyamuni made of gold plated wood, about 20” high. I placed the statue on the board with a large antique porcelain incense burner in front of it. I also placed the statues of Avaloketeshvara, and Cundi on each side of Sakyamuni. I also purchased a small gilded wood standing monk with joined hands on his chest. I did not know whom the figure represented but I “decided” it was Ananda, Sakyamuni’s cousin and attendant, because I loved Ananda and envied his role as Buddha's attendant. My wife had a small porcelain statue of Maitreya she liked very much although it was broken. My brother, the dentist, had to use dentistry material to fix it but Maitreya still had a hole on his big belly. My brother said he could stop the metastases but could not fill that cancer spot. Maitreya and Ananda joined my Pantheon.
I set up an altar not out of creed but out of love.
Maitreya statue and cast iron Instrument Chinese use to pulverize dry herbs
My wife bought sandalwood, asked the Chinese herb medicine store in the neighborhood to pulverize it and hired the nuns at a pagoda to make 2-feet long incense sticks. A stick that long burns for 2 ½ hours.
There were a couple of anecdotes about my altar. In December 1985, my mother was not well. Having a premonition that she was approaching the end of her life, I asked my sister to go and invite Venerable Thích Trí Tịnh, a high-ranked monk, to come and say prayers for my mother. This monk just came from the North. I met him officiating at the funeral of my friend Dr. Pham Cuu. At that time, he was dwelling at the pagoda An Lạc in the center of Saigon which abbott was Venerable Thích Quảng Thạc, his friend. Venerable Thích Trí Tịnh came to say prayers for my mother and at the end of the third day, he told us that the family must be attending to my mother who might pass away before midnight. He was right. My mother passed away at 11:55 PM on the 29th. He and the abbot, both from my home province, came to direct my mother’s funeral and accompany her to her grave. This was the best deed I have achieved during my whole life.
On that occasion, I invited them to have lunch at my house. When they saw my altar, both of them immediately prostrated down in front of it in adoration. Later a monk, riding a Vespa, came to visit my neighbor, a Chinese single woman (there was a rumor that they were lovers). Unfortunately for him, she was not at home and it was raining. Out of pity. I invited him to my apartment to wait for her. When he saw my altar he reprimanded me: “Why do you place Buddha so low. That is lack of reverence”. I told him: “If I place him too high how can I reach him?” I told the story to Venerable Thích Quảng Thạc who seemed to know this monk. He said: “Please tell him that I, Quảng Thạc, advise him not to eat too much, lest to die soon”. Later Venerable Thích Trí Tịnh moved to Vũng Tàu. Venerable Thích Quảng Thạc and I became good friends. He had diabetes and did not drink tea but every time I came to visit him, he prepared tea for me. He had pretty old tea sets and good tea which his disciples sent from abroad for him. He liked to talk with me. Before leaving for the U.S. I recommended my father to him. He promised: “Don’t worry. That is my duty”. But he passed away before my father, who died at the age of 93 in 1994.
Thus prepared and equipped, I started practicing.