As I’ve shown in previous posts, the bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokiteśvara (Tib. Chenrezig) was popular in Tibet before the second propagation of Buddhism which began in the late 10th century. However the way Avalokiteśvara was worshipped in this early period may have been somewhat different. We associate Tibetan devotion to Avalokiteśvara so closely with the six syllable mantra (Oṃ maṇi padme hūṃ) that it is difficult to think of one without the other. Nevertheless it does seem that before the 11th century, the six syllable mantra was only loosely associated with Avalokiteśvara in Tibet. Among the many Dunhuang texts devoted to the bodhisattva, only two contain the six syllable mantra, and in both cases it is still not quite the mantra as we know it. In particular, it has more than six syllables.
In one manuscript, a guide for the dying (Pelliot tibétain 420/421), the mantra is Oṃ maṇi padme hūṃ mitra svāhā. In another, a ritual collection (IOL Tib J 401), it is Oṃ vajra yakṣa maṇi padme hūṃ. And in all other cases, entirely different mantras are associated with Avalokiteśvara.
Despite this lack of pre-11th century textual sources for the mantra, it might well have been gaining popularity through oral transmission. There is a story in the Blue Annals about a certain Latö Marpo (La bstod dmar po), who went to India in the 11th century to find a teaching to purify the negative actions he committed as a child. Latö found a guru who agreed to teach him a very secret mantra that would remove the obstacles of this life and provide enlightenment in the next. The guru, speaking down a bamboo tube inserted into the ear of the student, so that no-one could overhear, said “Oṃ maṇi padme hūṃ.” Latö immediately thought: “This mantra is recited throughout Tibet by old men, women and even children!” He had to perform some unpleasant acts of penance for having such doubts, but the story ends well.
If true, the story suggests that the six syllable mantra was transmitted in India as a secret oral teaching, but had permeated deep into the popular oral culture in Tibet by the 11th century. This might have been accomplished by wandering religious preachers in Tibet, the forbears of those who later came to be known as maṇipas, because they spread a simple form of dharma which concentrated on recitation of the six syllable mantra.
What really changed in the textual tradition was the appearance of the early treasure cycles (especially the Maṇi Kambum) which took the narrative of Avalokiteśvara from the Kāraṇḍavyūha sūtra and merged it with Tibetan creation myths to make Avalokiteśvara Tibet’s patron deity. And the Avalokiteśvara’s mantra in that sutra is of course Oṃ maṇi padme hūṃ.
1. Imaeda, I. 1979. Note préliminaire sur la formule oṃ maṇi padme hūṃ dans les manuscrits tibétains de Touen-houang. In Michel Soymié (ed.) Contributions aux études sur Touen-Houang. Geneva/Paris: Librairie Droz.
2. Kapstein, Matthew. 1992. “Remarks on the Mani bka ‘bum and the Cult of Avalokitesvara in Tibet”. Goodman & Davidson (eds.), Tibetan Buddhism, Reason and Revelation. 79-93.
3. Roerich, G.N.  1976. The Blue Annals. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.
4. Stein, R.A. 1959. Recherches sur l’épopée et le barde au Tibet. Paris: Presses universaires de France.
5. Stein, R.A. 1970. Un document ancien relatif aux rites funéraires des Bon-po tibétains. Journal Asiatique CCLVII, 155–185.
6. van Schaik, S. 2006. “The Tibetan Avalokitesvara Cult in the Tenth Century: Evidence from the Dunhuang Manuscripts”. Tibetan Buddhist Literature and Praxis (Proceedings of the Tenth Seminar of the IATS, 2003, Volume 4), ed. Ronald M. Davidson and Christian Wedemeyer. Leiden: EJ Brill, 2006. 55–72.
Stones engraved with the six syllable mantra. Courtesy of Indologica.