Sunday, August 10, 2014

Warding off "evil" spirits (sutra)

Pat Macpherson, Dhr. Seven, Pfc. Sandoval, Wisdom Quarterly; G.P. Malalasekera (DN 32)
Covered in oil and ash with horns in San Martin Tilcajete, March 2011. The paint is used to ward off evil spirits before Lent instead of protective chants (Jorge Luis Plata/Reuters).

VULTURE'S PEAK, ancient India - The Four Great Space Kings having set a guard over the four quarters of the Earth's sky, visited the Buddha, saluted him, and sat down respectfully to one side with hosts of ogres (yakkhas).

King Vessavana told the Buddha that the ogres did not, for the most part, believe in the Buddha for the reason that they did not find it pleasant or agreeable to abstain from the things which he declared to be "evil" -- such as the taking of life, stealing, sexual misconduct, false speech, intoxication, and so on.
And in order that the Buddha's disciples, retreating to lonesome and remote parts of the forest where the ogres dwell, might find protection from them, King Vessavana suggested that the Buddha might learn the ātānātiya word-rune (rakkha).

The "Four Great Kings" guard the skies of Earth as Sakka's regents in the deva world.
The Buddha consenting by his silence, Vessavana proceeded to recite it. It opens with a salutation to the seven buddhas, beginning with Vipassī Buddha. The remainder contains a list of the devas and other superhuman beings, the Four Great Kings heading the list, who are described at length. Forty-one other devas are mentioned as a kind of appendix or afterthought, all mentioned one after another with no attempt at group division and without any details, in what are, apparently, mnemonic doggerels.
A part of the Mahāsamaya Sutra (Sections 10-20) appears to be an improved and enlarged edition of this list of bare names.

The Buddha learned the word-rune (spell, mantra) and taught it to the monastics (wandering ascetics, recluses, hermits, Buddhist monks and nuns).
The Atānātiya Sutra is now regarded as a protective chant, and its influence is said to pervade a hundred million world systems (VibhA.430). And DA.iii.969 gives a long description of the ritual followed when reciting it.
In Buddhist Sri Lanka, for instance, it is recited with great fervor at the conclusion of ceremonies, particularly in times of illness, in order to ward off evil spirits.
It is included in the list of protections found in the Questions of King Milinda (p.151). On the importance of this sutra in the history of India, see Rhys Davids, Buddhist India (pp.219-37).

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