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The Shingon Ajikan Payne

The Shingon Ajikan Payne

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Published by Stephen Comee
A thorough description of the Shingon meditation on the letter "A"
A thorough description of the Shingon meditation on the letter "A"

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Published by: Stephen Comee on Aug 10, 2013
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Religion (1999) 29, 215–229

Article No. reli.1998.0179, available online at http://www.idealibrary.com on
The Shingon Ajikan: Diagrammatic Analysis of Ritual
Ricn:ri K. P:.xr
Ajikan is a ritualised meditation in which the practitioner visualizes the syllable A.
Popular in the Japanese esoteric Buddhist tradition of Shingon since mediaeval times,
this practice is rooted in classic Indian religious culture. The symbolism of the syllable
(originary, universal and eternal) is based on its uses in Sanskrit. This essay examines the
ritual syntax of the Ajikan practice, comparing two ritual manuals, one premodern, the
other modern. This analysis seeks not only to understand the structure of this particular
ritual but to develop a diagrammatic technique that will allow meaningful comparisons
of rituals from differing religious traditions. 1999 Academic Press
Frits Staal has shown convincingly that it is heuristically fruitful to consider the ways in
which rituals are organised as analogous to the syntactic structures of language.
addition to the theoretical and methodological concerns regarding considering rituals to
have a syntactic structure analogous to that of sentences, Staal’s work on ritual has
initiated a technique of diagramming the structure of rituals.
Just as syntactic studies of
language have benefited from the development of the now widely used techniques of
diagramming sentences, so also ritual studies can benefit from a consistently used
diagramming technique.
Visualising the syllable A, known in Japanese as Ajikan, is one of the most common
practices of the Japanese sect of esoteric Buddhism, the Shingon sect (lit. ‘true word’,
referring to mantra).
In the following, two versions of the Shingon Ajikan practice will
be described.
One of these is from an early Tokugawa era (1603–1867) manual. The
other is from a modern manual. The syntax of each will then be diagrammed, and the
syntactic structures of the ritual discussed.
This essay intends first to present information on the Ajikan and the patterns of ritual
syntax which structure it. Second, it intends to further the development of a
diagrammatic technique for the syntactic analysis of rituals comparable with that used for
the syntactic analysis of sentences. Finally, some theoretical considerations of the
relations between cognitive science and ritual studies will be explored.
There are two related aspects of ritual syntax that diagramming can assist in analysing.
First, the rules by which rituals are organised are themselves ordered. Second, there are
meta-rules. Staal has summarised these two factors, saying ‘ ‘‘Meta-rules’’ ’ are simply
rules about rules. ‘‘Rule order’’ is easiest understood in the ritual context: the rules
about lighting the fire have to operate before those that describe how oblations are made
into it’.
Rule ordering and meta-rules were both discovered by Vedic ritualists and
form part of the analogy Staal makes between ritual and language. In addition, it seems
clear from my own work on Shingon rituals that ritual structuring employs elements
analogous to phrases.
The importance of ritual phrase structure is that it can contribute to an understanding
of cognitive structures in the same way that the analysis of linguistic phrase structures
does. According to Steven Pinker, it is the phrase structure with its ability to utilize the
same kind of phrase in a variety of locations, that allows for the incredible variety and
adaptability of human language: ‘Once a kind of phrase is defined by a rule and given
1999 Academic Press
0048–721X/99/030215+15 r30.00/0
its connector symbol, it never has to be defined again, the phrase can be plugged in
anywhere there is a corresponding socket’.
Pinker goes on to point out the cognitive
implications of linguistic phrase structures, maintaining that ‘restriction in the geometry
of phrase structure trees . . . is a hypothesis about how the rules of language are set up
in our brains, governing the way we talk’.
Analysis of ritual phrase structures should in
the same way contribute to an understanding of how the rules of structured activity are
‘set up in our brains’. Although structured activity includes more than ritual—for
example, games and dramatic performances—ritual may be one of the most extensively
rule bound of such behaviours.
For contemporary linguistics, the concept of rule has shifted from a generative
notion—that is, people form sentences according to the (either inherent or learned)
rules—to a descriptive one. A ‘child acquires a certain linguistic skill, which linguists can
describe in the form of a rule’.
Thus, when it is asserted that ritual is a rule-bound
behaviour, the assertion is not that the rituals were created in accordance with a set of
rules which are necessarily consciously known by their authors. Rather, the rule-bound
character of rituals is that there are certain consistent patterns which can be generalised
as rules. Based on his anthropological analysis of the strategies of honour in Algerian
society, Pierre Bourdieu notes that ‘The science of practice has to construct the
principle which makes it possible to account for all the cases observed, and only those,
without forgetting that this construction, and the generative operation of which it is the
basis, are only the theoretical equivalent of the practical scheme which enables every
correctly trained agent to produce all the practices and judgments of honour called for
by the challenges of existence’.
However, because the patterns are consistent, the rules
as generalisations must exist in some kind of isomorphic relation with cognitive
While analysis of rule ordering, meta-rules and ritual phrase structures can be done
narratively, making the structures visible in diagrammatic form can show the results of
such analyses much more clearly. The application of a diagramming technique is based
on an analogy between language and ritual as rule-bound behaviours. Other analogies
could be made, the exploration of which might prove fruitful. For example, the
approach of performance theory seems to be based on the analogy of ritual to theatre.
The analogy with language made here for analytic purposes is also to be distinguished
from the question of what activities provide the model for the ritual in its creation. As
discussed further infra, the metaphor of feasting an honoured guest provides the basic
model for organising many of the rituals which derive from Vedic origins.
alimentary model is important for understanding the logic, or metaphoric entailments,
of many Shingon rituals. While understanding the founding metaphor is important, it is
still a separate issue. The benefit of the heuristic analogy with language is the possibility
of appropriating the well developed analytic tools of linguistics.
This should not be taken, however, as a suggestion that language holds a position of
cognitive primacy. Although an extended discussion of the issues involved goes beyond
the scope of this essay, it is my own belief that rule-bound behaviours do form a general
category which includes language, games, theatre and ritual. Determining whether this
is the case will require the application of common analytic techniques.
Ajikan: Visualising the Syllable A
The Shingon tradition of tantric Buddhism in Japan maintains a large corpus of rituals.
The Ajikan is a ritualised meditative practice in which the practitioner visualises the
216 R. K. Payne
syllable A as written in one of the medieval Sanskrit scripts, Siddham. The history of this
practice goes back to the development of ‘seed syllables’ (Skt.bı ¯ja mantra) in medieval
Indian tantric traditions, and the practice was carried through China to Japan. The
practice continues to be propagated by Shingon masters in the present.
Symbolically, the syllable A represents three related concepts: originary, universal and
inexpressible. These symbolic associations follow from three functions of the syllable in
Sanskrit. It is the first syllable in the Sanskrit syllabary, hence the symbolism of origin.
It is the ‘vowel’ component of each of the Sanskrit syllables, hence the symbolism of
universality. And, it is used as a negative prefix, hence the symbolism of inexpressibility.
By contrast to many other Shingon rituals, the Ajikan is relatively simple. Ku¯kai, the
founder of the Shingon tradition in Japan, gives a brief verse summary of the practice in
his ‘Precious Key to the Secret Treasury’:
Visualize: a white lotus flower with eight petals,
[above which is a full moon disc] the size of a forearm in diameter,
[in which is] a radiant silvery letter A.
Unite your dhya¯na [meditation] with prajn˜a¯ [wisdom] in an adamantine binding;
Draw the quiescent Prajn˜a¯ of the Tatha¯gata [i.e., Enlightened One] in [-to your
Following Ku¯kai, several Shingon masters continued to transmit and propagate the
practice. For example, during the Kamakura era both Kakuban and Do¯han wrote several
works on the Ajikan. The process of transmission and propagation meant an ongoing
production of new manuals describing the practice.
During the early years of the Tokugawa era the Priest Zo¯ei
compiled a manual
entitled ‘Procedures for Visualising the Syllable A, of the Chu¯in Lineage’,
( Jpn. Ajikan
Saho¯ Chu¯in-ryu).
Zoei’s text provides a relatively full description of the ritual. This is
in contrast to many of the Shingon ritual manuals, which assume that the reader is an
initiate and express themselves in such abbreviated form and technical terminology as to
be incomprehensible to the unitiated. Zo¯ei’s manual is still in use, and it sets out the
Ajikan ritual in eleven steps:
1. Prostrations
2. Take One’s Seat
3. The Syllable HU

4. Practice [Sa¯dhana] for the Protection of the Body
5. Five Great Resolutions
6. Five Syllable Womb Realm [Garbhadha¯tu
] Mantra
7. Visualise the Chief Deity: The Syllable A
a) In one’s heart
b) In front of one’s eyes and in one’s heart
c) Expanding to fill the entire cosmos [dharmadha¯tu], contracting and
returning to one’s heart
8. Practice [Sa¯dhana] for the Protection of the Body
9. Return of the Buddha
10. Stand Up and Prostrations
11. Thought of Great Compassion
These steps in the visualisation can be briefly described as follows:
The Shingon Ajikan: Diagrammatic Analysis of Ritual Syntax 217
1. Prostrations. The practitioner performs three full prostrations, that is, touching the
five points—knees, elbows and forehead—to the floor. With each prostration the
practitioner recites the following ‘Universal Homage’ mantra:
Skt: om sarva-tatha¯gata-pa¯da-vandana¯m karomi
2. Take One’s Seat. The practitioner next sits down in half-lotus posture, and forms
the mudra¯ of contemplating the entire cosmos (Dharmadha¯tu Sama¯dhi Mudra¯). The
directions which follow this are virtually identical with those given for Zen-style
: ‘Line up your ears and your shoulders, and your nose with your navel, and
focus both your eyes on the tip of your nose. Your tongue should touch the top of your
mouth, and your breath will thus naturally become calm. Your hips should not be too
far back, nor too far forward. Rather, sit straight up and in this way aid your circulation.
When you have done this, then move the body two or three times to the front and
back, and to the left and right’.
The practitioner then takes a rosary
and rubs it two or three times, reciting the
‘Universal Homage’ mantra one more time.
3. Syllable HU

M* . The practitioner forms the thunderbolt (vajra an˜jali ) mudra¯ by
bringing the hands together, palm facing palm, cupped so that there is a slight gap
between them, with the tips of the fingers interlaced, fingers of the right hand on top.
The practitioner then recites the seed-syllable (bı ¯ja mantra) HU

M* (Jpn. UN) 10 times.
4. Practice (Sa¯dhana) for the Protection of the Body
—an action also known as
Donning the Armour of the Tatha¯gatas. The practitioner makes the inner fist three
pronged thunderbolt mudra¯
and recites the mantra
Skt. om vajra¯gni pradı ¯pta¯ya sva¯ha¯
five times, visualising the mantra going to the five places on the body: forehead, left and
right shoulders, chest and throat.
5. Five Great Resolutions, with the thunderbolt mudra¯
. The practitioner recites:
Sentient creatures are innumerable; I vow to save them all.
Meritorious knowledge is innumerable; I vow to accumulate it all
The Teachings of the Dharma are innumerable; I vow to master them all.
The Tatha¯gatas are countless; I vow to serve them all.
Bodhi is unsurpassed; I vow to attain it.
May I and others in the Dharmadha¯tu receive equally the ultimate benefit.
6. Five Syllable Womb Realm Mantra. The practitioner next recites the mantra of the
main Buddha of the Shingon sect, Dainichi Nyorai (lit. ‘Great Sun’, Skt. Maha¯vairocana
Skt.: om a vı ¯ ra hu¯m kham
one hundred times.
218 R. K. Payne
7. Visualise the Chief Deity. The Syllable A.
a) In one’s heart: ‘First visualise the syllable A, a lotus, and the disk of a full moon within
your heart. Imagine that within your heart there is a full moon, bright shining and white
in colour. In the middle of this full moon there is a white lotus flower. The syllable A
is resting on the surface of this open lotus flower’.
b) In front of one’s eyes and in one’s heart: the practitioner alternately visualises the
syllable A in front and in the heart. The size of the syllable is to be about 40 cm. This
is to be repeated several times.
c) Expanding to fill the entire cosmos (dharmadha¯tu), contracting and returning to one’s
heart: the syllable A is visualised as expanding to fill the cosmos. At this point the syllable
contracts to its former size and is then placed within the practitioner’s heart. The
practitioner is advised to ‘forget the differences between your body and your heart, and
abide for a while in the state of non difference’.
8. Practice for Protection of the Body. The practitioner repeats the actions described in
number 4, above.
9. Return of the Buddha. Bringing the hands together in front of the chest, the
practitioner is directed to ‘imagine that the Buddha that you invited to attend your
meditation is now returning to his Pure Lands, and that the Buddha of your own heart
is now returning to his palace in your heart’.
This is initially a rather confusing direction, as there was no specific invitation of any
Buddha enjoined in the first half of the visualisation. However, since the ‘Five Syllable
Womb Realm Mantra’ is the mantra for the Buddha Dainichi Nyorai, perhaps for Zo¯ei
recitation of it functioned as an evocation of Dainich Nyorai. Hence, at the end of the
ritual, the direction to return the Buddha to his Pure Land.
10. Stand Up and Three Prostrations. The three prostrations are accompanied by the
same mantra as in the opening of the practice, one recitation per prostration.
11. Great Compassion. Zo¯ei closes with advice concerning the practitioner’s state of
mind outside of the practice session per se:
abide in the thought of Great Compassion, and perfect this thought in respect to
yourself and in respect to all other persons and living beings. In all of your actions, be
they walking, standing still, sitting or lying down, try to remember that this syllable A
is within your own heart. If you are able to do this, then what knowledge you have
and what ignorance you have will altogether be one in their Dharma-nature [i.e., just
as they are in actuality], you will understand that your own heart and the syllable A are
identical and during this present lifetime of yours you will soon attain to the
unsurpassed state of Enlightenment, Bodhi.
In the present era the Shingon priest Miyata Taisen
has compiled an Ajikan manual,
describing the practice in 15 steps
1. Enter the shrine
2. Prostrations
3. Take one’s seat
The Shingon Ajikan: Diagrammatic Analysis of Ritual Syntax 219
4. Purify the three karmic actions
5. Generate the mind of enlightenment
6. Recite the vow mantra
7. Five great vows
8. Recite the five syllable mantra
9. Control the breath
10. Proper visualisation
11. End the meditation
12. Recite the Stanza of the Three Powers
13. Make personal aspirations
14. Don the armor
15. Exit the shrine
In summary:
(1) Enter the Shrine. The practitioner comes into the hall of practice
(2) Prostrations. The practitioner makes three prostrations facing the portrayal of the
syllable A, which is used as the object of meditation while reciting the mantra
Skt.: om sarva tatha¯gata pa¯da-vandana¯m karomi
(3) Take One’s Seat. The practitioner then sits down cross legged and takes a few deep
breaths to relax himself, and allows his attention to settle into the solar plexus.
(4) Purify the Three Karmic Actions. The practitioner then purifies the actions of body,
speech and mind by reciting the mantra
Skt.: om svabhava suddha sarva-dharma svabhava-suddha ham
five times, making the lotus bud mudra¯ and directing the recitations to what are
called the five places of the body, i.e., the forehead, right and left shoulders, chest and
(5) Generate the Mind of Enlightenment. With the thunderbolt mudra¯ the practitioner
generates the mind of enlightenment, i.e., bodhicitta, by reciting the mantra
Skt.: om bodhicittam utpadayami
seven times.
(6) Recite the vow (samaya) mantra. With the same mudra¯, the practitioner recites the
vow mantra
Skt.: om samayas tvam
seven times.
220 R. K. Payne
(7) Five Great Vows. Continuing to hold the same mudra¯, the practitioner recites the
five great vows:
‘Living beings are innumerable; I vow to save them all.
‘Merit and knowledge are innumerable; I vow to accumulate them all.
‘The teachings of the Dharma are innumerable; I vow to master them all.
‘The Tatha¯gatas are innumerable; I vow to serve them all.
‘Enlightenment is unsurpassed; I vow to attain it’.
(8) Recite the Five Syllable Mantra. Still retaining the thunderbolt mudra¯, the
practitioner recites the Five Syllable Mantra of Dainichi Nyorai:
Skt.: om a vi ra hum kham
seven times.
(9) Control the Breath. Folding his hands into the meditation mudra¯, the practitioner
closes his eyes, exhales through his mouth twice and then calmly breathes through this
nose for the duration of the meditation.
(10) Proper Visualisation. The practitioner then slightly opens his eyes, looks at the
representation of the syllable A, closes his eyes, creates a mental image of the syllable
resting on its lotus blossom against the ground of a clear, full moon in the space in front
of his body. Once he has a clear image of the syllable A visualised, he then visualises it
slowly entering into his body, holding the image in his solar plexus. The image is then
returned out of the body to the hanging representation of the syllable.
(11) End the Meditation. Keeping the eyes closed, the practitioner then takes two or
three deep breaths, lightly rubs the hands over the body, from head to foot. Opening the
eyes, the practitioner returns to normal breathing.
(12) Recite the Stanza of the Three Powers. Still holding the meditation mudra¯, the
practitioner recites the Stanza of the Three Powers:
Through the power of my merit, the power of the Tatha¯gata’s empowerment, and the
power of the Dharmadha¯tu, I abide in a universal offering.
(13) Make Personal Aspirations. With the thunderbolt mudra¯, the practitioner now
express any personal aspirations, imagining that they will be (effortlessly) accomplished
through the intent of Maha¯vairocana Buddha.
(14) Don the Armour. The practitioner then makes the inner fist of the three pronged
thunderbolt mudra¯, and consecrates the five places of the body (as above), reciting the
Skt.: om vajragni pradiptaya svaha
five times.
The Shingon Ajikan: Diagrammatic Analysis of Ritual Syntax 221
(15) Exit the Shrine. The practitioner then bows once while seated, giving rise to the
mind of compassion, rises, performs the triple prostration (as above) and leaves the
Ajikan as Ritual and Meditation: A Syntactic Analysis
Zoei’s Ajikan
The linear description of a ritual practice may be compared with the syntactic surface
structure of a sentence. Previous research into the syntactic structures of other Shingon
ritual practices leads to the expectation of symmetry around the visualisation of identity
of the practitioner with the deity evoked. Here it is not a deity who is evoked in the
course of the practice but rather identification with the syllable A forms the central act
of the practice. This centrality is the metaphoric centrality of ‘most important’, and also
syntactically central to the symmetry of the practice, despite its being number 7 of 10
The visualisation of identity, item 7, is bracketed by two clusters of actions. Numbers
3, 4, 5 and 6 form the preceding cluster (labelled in the following diagram). Numbers
8 and 9 form the subsequent cluster (labelled ’ in the diagram). Each of these clusters
is itself made up of two elements, and displays repetitive symmetry—that is, the
symmetrical repetition of the elements in the same order—in contrast to the mirror
image symmetry, in which the order is reversed. The five syllable mantra (item 6, also
labelled C in the diagram) and the return of the Buddha (item 9, also labelled C in the
diagram) are functional equivalents. As a result of terminal abbreviation, items appearing
in abbreviated form in the second part of the ritual, the syllable HU

M* , protection of the
body and the five great resolutions (items 3, 4 and 5, also labelled B in the diagram) are
symmetrically represented only by the repetition of protection of the body (item 8, also
labelled B in the diagram).
The opening actions of prostrations and taking one’s seat (items 1 and 2, also labelled
A in the diagram) are mirror images symmetrical with the two actions which end the
ritual practice: standing up and prostrations (items 10a and 10b, also labelled A in the
diagram). Figure 1 is a way of showing these relations visually.
Miyata’s Ajikan
Miyata’s text demonstrates the same symmetry around identification with the syllable A,
in this case ten of the fifteen items. Clearly items 9 and 11 are symmetrical to the
visualisation, being the entry to and exit from the visualisation. Turning to the outer
edge of the ritual, we find that although leaving the shrine is identified as a single item,
it in fact involves three actions, in mirror-image symmetry with the first three items:
entering the shrine, triple prostrations and taking one’s seat. This abbreviation is in the
writing of the manual and not an abbreviation of the ritual actions per se.
Items 4 and 14 symbolically match each other. Item 4, purifying the three karmic
actions, prepares the practitioner to enter into the practice freed from any negative
karma. Item 14, donning the armour, prepares the practitioner to leave the ritual
practice, protected by the mercy and compassion of the Tatha¯gatas.
Furthermore, in
more complex Shingon rituals, the votive fire ritual (Skt. homa, Jpn. goma), putting on
the armour, is performed both at the beginning and at the end of the ritual.
It would
appear that in the case of this particular version of the Ajikan, the first donning of the
armor could be deleted because of the symbolic similarity between donning the armour
and purifying the three karmic actions, as conditioned by the entry into and the exit
from the ritual itself.
222 R. K. Payne
Likewise, there is a similarity between items 5, 6 and 7, generating the mind of
enlightenment, vow mantra and the five great vows, and item 13, personal aspirations,
since both have to do with the expression of the practitioner’s intent. However, this
order is the same as that found in more complex rituals. Generating the mind of
enlightenment, vow mantra, and the five great vows are found in the first part of the
whereas any aspirations specific to the practitioner will be expressed after ritual
In much the same way, item 8, reciting the five syllable mantra, and
item 12, reciting the stanza of the three powers, are symbolically symmetrical as relating
the practitioner to higher powers. In the second diagram Maha¯vairocana Buddha in one
case, the practitioner’s own merit, the power of the Tatha¯gata and the Dharmadha¯tu in
the other.
Figure 1. Eleven Steps of Zoei’s Ajikan.
The Shingon Ajikan: Diagrammatic Analysis of Ritual Syntax 223
The grouping of these elements can be done in two different fashion, as shown in the
following two diagrams. In the first diagram, items 5, 6 and 7 are grouped together
(labelled C in the first diagram) while item 8 is separate (labelled

in the first diagram).
Items 12 and 13 (labelled C and

in the first diagram) stand in repetitive symmetry
with items 5, 6, 7 and 8. In the second diagram, items 5, 6, 7 and 8 are grouped together
(also labelled C in the second diagram), while items 5, 6 and 7 form a subgrouping of
C (labelled in the second diagram). Items 12 and 13 display the same grouping and
subgrouping (labelled C and in the second diagram). At this time in the development
of the syntactic analysis of rituals there is not enough comparative material on the basis
of which a decision between these analyses can be made.
Syntactically, then, we have Figure 2. In addition to these syntactic similarities, there
are content similarities between this practice and other Shingon ritual practices as well,
which might be referred to as semantic similarities. Most important is the central action
mentioned previously, that of the identification of the practitioner with the deity
invoked. With few exceptions, ritual identification characterises both Buddhist and
Hindu tantra.
The most important differences between this practice and other members of the
Shingon ritual corpus are two: the absence of the metaphor of feasting an honoured
guest, and the symbolism of identification through the body. The majority of Shingon
rituals employ the metaphor of feasting an honoured guest for the purpose of structuring
the ritual process. This metaphor derives directly from the Vedic ritual system, in which
the fundamental metaphor for the sacrifice is that of making food offerings to the deities
as honoured guests. Other kinds of metaphors have been used in different ritual
traditions. For example, the Taoist rituals usually employ the metaphor of petitioning a
bureaucratic official as the means by which the ritual process is structured.
The practice of visualising the syllable A, however, does not employ this metaphor.
Despite the syntactic similarities, and the similarity of identification between the
practitioner and the chief deity ( Jpn. honzon), no offerings are made to the syllable.
Indeed, expressing it this way sounds absurd: it hardly makes sense to think of offering
music, incense, food, perfumes and lights to a syllable. There are two possible reasons
for the absence of the feasting of an honoured guest metaphor. First, the practice is a
very short one, requiring such extensive abbreviation that this symbolism has been
excised. Second, the use of a syllable as the chief deity imposes a semantic constraint
on the ritual. Unlike a Buddha, a syllable does not eat food, drink water, appreciate
music or enjoy incense. The semantic shift of the chief deity from an anthropomor-
phic entity to the syllable A has produced other kinds of semantic changes in the
ritual performance.
The often noteworthy difference between this visualisation of the syllable A and other
members of the Shingon ritual corpus is the character of the identification between the
practitioner and the chief deity. Many of the Shingon rituals employ visualisation of
the three mysteries ( Jpn. sanmitsu): the mysteries of body, speech and mind. The
practitioner identifies his own body with the body of the Buddha by making the
appropriate mudra¯, identifies his own speech with the speech of the Buddha by reciting
the appropriate mantra and identifies his own mind with the mind of the Buddha by
entering into the appropriate meditative state (Skt. sama¯dhi).
In the practice of
visualising the syllable A, however, identification is performed by visualising the syllable
A as entering into and residing within one’s own body. I suspect that again it is the
semantic character of the syllable A as the chief deity which produces this difference
between Ajikan and other ritual practices in the Shingon corpus. Syllables do not have
224 R. K. Payne
anthropomorphic bodies with which we can identify our own bodies, they do not
speak, and they do not have a mind. However, in chanting the syllable A, we can feel
the vibrations arising from the solar plexus.
Figure 2. Syntactic Structure of the Contemporary Ajikan Meditation.
The Shingon Ajikan: Diagrammatic Analysis of Ritual Syntax 225
In conclusion, I draw four theoretical aspects of this essay: first, the importance of
syntactic analysis of ritual as providing a baseline for common discourse about ritual;
second, the syntactic effects of semantic change; third, the continuity of syntactic and
symbolic aspects of ritualised meditative practice; and fourth, the implications for a
cognitive theory of ritual practice.
First, the study of ritual has been hampered by the lack of any agreed upon analytic
technique. A variety of perspectives have been developed, but little interaction is
possible between them in the absence of a common analysis as a basis for discussion. The
situation is much like that of linguistics prior to Saussure. Saussure insisted upon the
synchronic analysis of language as a means of providing a control to the otherwise
largely speculative theories concerning language which were being promoted in his day.
In the same way, a systematic synchronic analysis such as that provided by a syntactic
approach to ritual can provide a common basis for discussion of ritual.
Second, the syntactic examination of the Ajikan shows the effect of semantic change
on the syntax. Without returning to a referential understanding with its implicit
recognition of the mutual relation between semantics and syntax may
need to guide research on the structures of ritual.
The development of this approach
to the study of ritual will require much additional work, both specifically within the
Shingon ritual corpus and also more broadly in other Buddhist and Tantric rituals as
well. This work is needed in order to establish the kind of body of information necessary
for testing differing analyses.
Third, Zoei’s and Miyata’s versions of the Ajikan show how this visualisation kind of
meditation practice is organised according to ritual structures which are in fact common
to a wide variety of Shingon rituals: mirror image and repetitive symmetry, and terminal
abbreviation. These ritual structures are found in Shingon rituals dating from before the
Kamakura up to the present. At the same time this ritual text shows how the symbolic
values of the syllable A which originated in India—beginning, universal and
inexpressible—were put into practical application in Buddhist ritual practice.
Fourth, the use of ritual as a means of revealing cognitive structures implies a view of
cognition which asserts that there are neither isolated cognitive systems—one for
language, one for ritual, one for games, one for music, and so on, nor a single cognitive
system at the base of or governing all such capacities. Rather, it seems that there are a
variety of systems, overlapping and interconnected, which come into play in differing
combinations to produce different kinds of activities. Thus the same structures that
allow for the workings of generative grammar in the production of language can, in
combination with other cognitive structures, also be at play in the production of ritual.
This final question will also require much additional collaborative research.
1 Frits Staal, ‘The Meaninglessness of Ritual’, (1979), partially reprinted as ch. 13 of Rules Without
Meaning: Ritual, Mantras and the Human Sciences, Toronto Studies in Religion, vol. IV New
York, Peter Lang 1989. An argument may be made that the relation between the syntax of
language and ‘ritual syntax’ is more than simply heuristically useful. One form that this
argument may take is that both are products of the same organising principles of human
consciousness, or that they represent examples of the same tendency to create rule-bound
systems of behaviour. This essay is not, however, the place to develop these arguments.
2 ‘Ritual Syntax’, in M. Nagatomi et al. (eds.), Sanskrit and Indian Studies: Essays in Honour of
H. H. Ingalls, Studies of Classical India, vol. II Dordrecht, Reidel 1980; revised version
reprinted as ch. 12 of Rules Without Meaning.
226 R. K. Payne
3 For a fuller discussion of the history and symbolism of the Ajikan, see my ‘Ajikan: Ritual and
Meditation in the Shingon Tradition’, in Richard K. Payne (ed.), Re-Visioning ‘Kamakura’
Buddhism, Kuroda Institute Studies in East Asian Buddhism Honolulu, University of Hawaii
Press 1998, pp. 219–48. For detailed information on the establishment of the Shingon sect in
Japan, see David Lion Gardiner, ‘Ku¯kai and the Beginnings of Shingon Buddhism in Japan’
dissertation, Stanford University 1995.
4 As per the recommendation of Frits Staal to ‘never study one ritual in isolation’ (personal
communication, 16 October 1992).
5 Frits Staal, ‘Concepts of Science in Europe and Asia’, Leiden, International Institute for Asian
Studies 1993, p. 23.
6 Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language, New York, Harper
Perennial 1995, pp. 99–100.
7 Ibid., p. 108.
8 Keith Devlin, Goodbye, Descartes: The End of Logic and the Search for a New Cosmology of the Mind,
New York, J Wiley 1997, p. 131.
9 Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice, trans. Richard Nice, Cambridge Studies in Social
Anthropology, No. 16, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press 1977, p. 11. Bourdieu adds the
qualification ‘and only those’ to his description of the principle constructed by the science of
practice. In linguistics, one of the tests for the descriptive adequacy of the proposed rules is
whether the application of them creates a sentence which a native speaker judges to be
‘ungrammatical’. To the best of my knowledge there have been no tests for the limits of
acceptable ritual, though an interesting test case is provided by a ritual created by C. M. Chen,
a Taiwanese tantric Buddhist master. This ritual is a votive fire offering (Skt. homa, Jpn. goma)
devoted to Jesus and other Christian figures. (Lin, Yutang (ed.), A Systematised Collection of
Chenian Booklets, Nos. 101–49, vol. III, nos. 115–25, El Cerrito, CA: Yutang Lin 1993, includes
‘A Ritual of Fire Sacrifice to the Five Saints of Christianity’ No. 122, pp. 421–44.) While the
rituals appear to be ‘well-formed’ in the sense that the structures employed are those of other
tantric Buddhist homas, the choice of chief deities (Jpn. honzon) makes them marginal. It is like
a sentence in which the subject, adverb and direct object are all from another language. Or, as
with Jabberwocky, one can determine from the context which part is which and there is a
familiar, recognisable order, but one is not sure whether it is something one would oneself want
to say.
10 See, for example, Richard Schechner and Willa Appel (eds), By Means of Performance: Intercultural
Studies of Theatre and Ritual, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press 1990.
11 For a discussion of the alimentary metaphor in the Indic context, see Charles Malamoud,
‘Cooking the World’, in his Cooking the World: Ritual and Thought in Ancient India, trans. David
White, Delhi, Oxford University Press 1996, pp. 23–53.
12 See George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (Chicago, University of Chicago
Press 1980), and George Lakoff, Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal about
the Mind, Chicago, University of Chicago Press 1987.
13 Yoshito S. Hakeda, trans. Ku¯kai: Major Works, New York, Columbia University Press 1972, p.
220. Hakeda, whose translation I have quoted, notes that the direction to unite meditation (Skt.
dhya¯na) and wisdom (Skt. prajn˜a¯) can be understood in two ways. First, it can be understood as
directing one to ‘enter into the state of unshakable concentration in the oneness of body
(dhys ˜na) and mind (prajn˜a¯)’. Second, it can be understood as directing one to make the vajran˜jali
mudra¯: ‘one should unite the right thumb (dhya¯na) with the left thumb (prajn˜a¯) and form the
[thunderbolt, Skt. vajran˜jali] mudra¯’. (p. 220, n. 230).
14 Also known as Kukan and as Rikan, 1635–93.
15 The Chu¯in lineage is one of the main lineages within the Shingon sect.
16 Zo¯ei: Ajikan Sahoo Chu¯in-ryu. Reprinted, together with commentary by Suda Do¯ei, by Matsuda
Doei, Kyoto, Rokudai Shinpo Press 1934. Miyata Taisen (ed.), Ajikan: A Manual for the Esoteric
Meditation, Sacramento, Northern California Koyasan Church 1979).
17 The ‘Womb Realm’ refers to the quiescent wisdom of the enlightened state. It is matched in the
Shingon tradition by the ‘Thunderbolt Realm’ (Skt. Vajradha¯tu), which refers to the active
compassion of the enlightened state. While the pairing of wisdom and compassion is found
throughout the Maha¯ya¯na tradition of Buddhism, in the Shingon sect it takes the perhaps
unique form of a pair of mandalas representing the entire cosmos as seen by an enlightened
The Shingon Ajikan: Diagrammatic Analysis of Ritual Syntax 227
18 For example, Do¯gen directs the practitioner to ‘Sit upright, with the back of your head straight
above your spine, not leaning to the left or right, or to the front or back. Your ears should be
in line with your shoulders and your nose in a line with your navel. Place your tongue against
the roof of your mouth with teeth and lips closed. Keep your eyes open, not too wide or too
narrow, without eyelids covering the pupils. Your neck should not bend forward from your
back. Just breathe naturally through your nose, not loudly panting, neither [trying to breathe]
long nor short, slow nor sharp. Arrange both body and mind, taking several deep breaths with
your whole body so that you are relaxed inside and out, and sway left and right seven or eight
times’ (Taigen Daniel Leighton and Shohaku Okumura (trans.), Do¯gen’s Pure Standards for the
Zen Community: A Translation of Eihei Shingi, Albany, State University of New York Press
1996, p. 72.
19 Miyata, Ajikan, p. 3.
20 Jpn. nenju, ‘thought beads’ (Hisao Inagaki, A Dictionary of Japanese Buddhist Terms, Union City,
CA, Heian International 1989, s.v., ‘nenju’), that is, beads used for recollection of the Buddha
(Skt. anusmr *ti).
21 Although usually Zoei gives full explanations, in this instance he gives only the name of the
ritual action to be taken, apparently assuming that the practitioner already knows what is
intended from prior training; the expansion given here is based the action as it is known in other
Shingon rituals, such as the four training rituals. See Richard K. Payne, Tantric Ritual of Japan,
S uata-Pit *aka Serviea, number 365, New Delhi, International Academy of Indian Culture 1991,
p. 146.
22 This is done by folding the hands together with the tips of the fingers inside, right hand
uppermost. The middle fingers are then extended and touch at the tips, while the forefingers
extend out around the middle fingers.
23 Again, the manual only gives the names of this action and the accompanying mudra¯. For the
mudra¯, see Payne, Tantric Ritual of Japan, p. 144.
24 Miyata, Ajikan, p. 3.
25 Ibid., p. 4.
26 Ibid.
27 Ibid.
28 Currently Bishop of the Koyasan Buddhist Temple in Los Angeles.
29 The divisions of the practice as enumerated are those of the ritual manual itself.
30 Ibid., pp. 2–3.
31 Ibid., p. 4.
32 See Payne, The Tantric Ritual of Japan, p. 146.
33 Ibid., pp. 285, 321.
34 Ibid., p. 287.
35 Ibid., p. 181.
36 The exception seems to be linked with a strongly dualist ontology, for example, that of the S uaiva
Siddhanta tradition.
37 We expect that this will be discussed in some of the forthcoming posthumous publications of
Michel Strickmann.
38 Minoru, Kiyota. Shingon Buddhism: Theory and Practice, Los Angeles and Tokyo, Buddhist Books
International 1978, pp. 69–71. See also his ‘Glossary of Technical Terms’, s.v. ‘tri-guhya’.
39 See Staal’s ‘The Meaninglessness of Ritual’ for the failure of the referential theory of meaning
as applied to ritual practice.
40 While it is not being claimed that ritual is language, the application of linguistic models to the
study of ritual has begun to provide a means of performing significant comparative studies of
ritual. The efficacy of applying linguistic analyses to ritual may be grounded in the fact that both
language and ritual are the cultural products of human beings with a fundamentally similar
mental capacity for structuring experience and action. Future applications of linguistic analyses
to ritual may borrow from such recent developments in linguistics as ‘cognitive grammar’,
which ‘claims the inseparability of syntax and semantics’. Ronald W. Langacker, Foundations of
Cognitive Grammar, Stanford, Stanford University Press 1987, I, p. 1.
41 For a corollary, see David M. Perlmutter and Scott Soames, Syntactic Argumentation and the
Structure of English, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1979).
228 R. K. Payne
42 The durability of the interpretation as transmitted through China to Japan is noteworthy, given
that the meanings attributed to the syllable A are so deeply connected with Sanskrit. See my
‘Ajikan: Ritual and Meditation in the Shingon Tradition’.
RICHARD K. PAYNE’S research focuses on the ritual practices of the Shingon sect of
Japanese Buddhism. He is the Dean of the Institute of Buddhist Studies and a member
of the doctoral faculty of the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley.
Institute of Buddhist Studies, 650 Castro Street, Suite 120–202, Mountain View, CA 94041,
The Shingon Ajikan: Diagrammatic Analysis of Ritual Syntax 229

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