Gumonji is a Shingon Buddhist practice that is easy to explain, difficult to imagine, and nearly impossible to carry out. You still want to try it? Well, OK.
In simple terms, gumonji requires one to recite the Mantra of the Buddhist deity Kokuzo Bosatsu 1 million times. Kokuzo is the “Great Space Bearer,” because he holds the wisdom of the Buddha throughout the entire universe. He is pictured holding a gem in which he bestows his worldly blessings.
The Kokuzo mantra goes like this: “Nobo akyasha-kyarabaya om arikya mari bori sowaka.” The translation is: “In the name of Kokuzo Om Flower-Garland Lotus-Crown may it be accomplished.” It’s not that long, but how long would it take to recite it one million times?
Consider this. There are very few things, other than breathing, that you will do one million times in your life. Even if you live to be 100 years old, you will only live about 36,000 days. If you have three meals a day, you will have eaten 108,000 times. If you live an average of 80 years and visit the bathroom five times a day, you will only have relieved yourself 146,000 times. That’s still only one about one seventh of one million times!
The reciting of this mantra, also called the Morning Star Meditation, has been performed for over 1,000 years. In the old days it took 100 days to complete. Perhaps the most famous practitioner of Gumonji is Kobo Daishi, who performed it several different times at two temples now designated as part of the Shikoku 88-temple pilgrimage. Even today, there are only a few places in Japan where the Morning Star Meditation can be performed.
These days, it has been shortened to 50 days, the last day of which must end on either a solar or lunar eclipse. The mantra is recited 20,000 times daily, and the practitioner keeps count with a string of juzu beads.
Why the meditation time has been shortened, I don’t know. Perhaps 100 days was too long. But then again, Bodhidharma, the father of Zen Buddhism, meditated for seven years. His arms and legs atrophied and fell off, but we now have bright red Daruma dolls to remind us of his tenacity.
The only way I can see to shorten the Morning Star Meditation to 50 days, while still repeating the mantra one million times, is by reciting the mantra twice as fast. You’d need to repeat it 2,000 times per hour, or 33 times a minute, leaving just under two seconds for each repetition. Makes me wonder if the 100 days wouldn’t be a little more relaxing.
The Morning Star referred to is Venus, so the meditation starts at nighttime when this star can be seen (Venus is the star Siddartha saw when he reached enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree). The practice hall is wooden, 4.5 tatami mats wide with three sides open, facing a natural landscape. The practitioner, while wearing a yellow robe, looks through a small Venus-viewing window that sits high in the east wall. Under the window is a scroll of Kokuzo and a wooden mandala. The Kokuzo deity is summoned from the mandala.
Taiko Yamasaki talks about his experience with the Morning Star Meditation in the book “Shingon Esoteric Buddhism,” when he performed it on Mount Misen in Miyajiama, Hiroshima Prefecture in 1955, at a lunar eclipse.
He started at 2 a.m. each morning and sat through two meditation periods of five hours each. He describes it thus: “. . . My body came to feel almost transparent, while my mind and what I saw around me were clear, like crystal. Far from being a hallucination, this came from increased clarity of consciousness — as though I had come to a place where heaven and earth join.”
The experience heightens your senses so much, it is said that you can hear incense burning. Yamasaki said the feeling stayed with him even after meditation and that this feeling was made of the same substance as the trees, thus confirming the notion that nothing in nature is unrelated to the self.
Hallucinations are common but one must not succumb to them. As a result, the Morning Star Meditation is only to be undertaken by the experienced Shingon practitioners who have the strength and experience to distinguish between reality and hallucination. Warning: Do not try this at home.
The effects of the Morning Star Meditation are numerous but one of the benefits is that you gain such powers of memory that it is said you are able to memorize all the thousands of Shingon Buddhist texts. It’s no wonder children in Japan sometimes pray to Kokuzo for academic success and to improve their memories. I have a feeling that with Japan’s aging population, Kokuzo will become more popular as we all seek to regain our short-term and long-term memories. Who knows, maybe gumonji is the best cure for memory loss.
You try it and let me know.