The Tendai Goma Fire Rite
An experience to remember
Both Tendai and Shingong Shu's Goma Fire Rites are among the oldest found anywhere in the world and has its origins in ancient India where it was, and still is, known as 'Homa'- or more accurately Agni(Fire) Hotri(Rite/Ritual), and was originally performed by Brahmin Priests. The Homa can still be seen today practiced the length and breadth of India in both simple and quite elaborate forms by river sides, quiet places and Temples.
It's Japanese Counter-part, Goma, also continues today as both a personal practice for Priests and monks, and performed for temple supporters in the traditions as previously shown. However, There are those who consider such practices as the Goma as very much out dated, over ritualized and unnecessary. But comments such as these largely stem from Western perspectives caught up in the 'glitz and glitter' of societies that have, for the most part, burn't their bridges spanning back to their spiritual heritage. The Goma Fire Ritual has been handed down from a past when there clearly was a greater, in-depth understanding of the origins of, workings of, Truth of the universe and mans' place and inter-action within it. and such is the depth and Power of this rite, that it remains today, as in the past, in the Mikkyo or Tantric Tradition, with transmission only coming via a Master to a Disciple as and when the Disciple is of some sound Spiritual maturity.
To the uninitiated or unaware observer, The Goma Rite may well appear to be a mixture of unintelligible utterances, hand waving and gestures from a semi trance like state of the celebrant. But unknown to the observer, these are an important, imbedded ingredient of the ceremony known as the 'San Mitsu' or 'Three Secrets' of: Body (represented by Mudra hand positions). Voice intonation or utterances (represented by Mantra). And lastly Visualization (Hence the trance-like appearance). The San mitsu are used in a continual, unbroken dequence of combinations as a 'kind of weaving'. Each Mudra is woven within a Mantra and Visualization in an inter-woven whole, with each, and each combination being used for a specific purpose. This may be to approach or welcome a particular Buddha. Perhaps create containment perameters. Prayer offerings through Shingon (Mantra). And of course, the very essential 'body protection' of the celebrant among others. Without the correct and accurate usage of these, an un-prepared, or under-prepared celebrant would indeed, be quite literally 'playing with fire'. For this reason, among others, a lengthy period of grounding and supervised instruction from a very experienced Master is paramount.
The Goma Fire Altar is central to the Hondo or Prayer Hall. However, the hondo is more than just a room or hall, but more like a Mandala with the Goma Altar at its heart, and its fire well as its 'heart of heart'. Thus the Goma Altar is a 'sealed' area, and is sacred, with the fire itself taking the central position. The back and sides of the Altar are sealed by sacred rope. Objects or offerings being placed onto the Altar or into the fire well from the sides (there is quite often an assistant, especially during a public service) being made always under the rope. The celebrant conducts the ceremony by offering prayers and offerings from a seated, lotus position from outside the sealed Altar, by way of a front Torii or 'gateway'. The Altar is cleaned and the fire box is made ready and a variety of offerings are ready to hand (Water, a variety of grains, and fire utensils) all of which are offered into the building fire at different stages of the ceremony. At first the fire becomes stronger, and then the drum-beat becomes stronger, and the intoned mantra becomes empowered, and the area more purified, so the veil separating Earthly and Heavenly Buddha Realms is slowly drawn aside. And for a very short time, all is one. At this point Goma maki (prayer sticks) are offered in to the fire and consumed, thus increasing its power.
The fire is set as any normal open fire with kndling sticks that are laid over the fire well in a particular pattern. the fire is lit by small, prepared brush bundles or paper ignited from a candle on the altar and the fire builds as more kindling is added. However, what is not seen is the reflection between the growing Goma Fire and the celebrant who also sees the fire growing within him, or her, self, as an 'inner Goma'. As the Goma fire begins to slowly burn, this also represents the 'inner spark of wisdom' that initiated the path of practice. The inner and outer fires become reflective, non-separate, as both ignite, burn in strength, gradually fade and finally die out having consumed everything which not only includes the offerings but also desires, passions, emotions, all opposites, the self, the Hondo, the World, the cosmos, and the Goma itself. All is burnt away- nothing is left, only silence. The Goma Rite begins in silence, builds to a crescendo, fades, and ends in silence. It is almost impossible for those attending, to not be deeply touched by the Goma.
As Previously mentioned, the Goma Rite is transmitted from Master to Disciple. And although there exist authoritative works on the Goma, these provide but an important framework. the Kuden (real oral and true transmission with all its subtleties) can only come through practice and from one to one experience gained from guidance and instruction from a Master. In the Tendai tradition, the study of the Goma Rite forms the culminating of key element in what is known as 'Shido Kegyo' (Four Mikkyo Practices) These are: The 'Juhachi-Do' (18 Path Meditation), The Taizo-kai Mandala (Womb Realm), The Kongo-Kai Mandala ( The Diamond Realm) and concludes with the Goma which is imbedded within the Juhachi Do. Thus, the Juhachi Do must be learnt thoroughly first, before moving on to the Goma as it provides the preparatory stages, Mudra and Mantra.
Despite Enthusiasm to learn practices such as the Goma, time has taught me that there is no quick way to learn and truly absorb such rites. And that learning is not simply gaining knowledge or copying form. One needs to approach such practices in honesty, sincerity and purity. An old Zen lesson teaches us that a cup cannot be filled if it is already full. Thus honesty, sincerity and purity can only come to the surface after the Priest has emptied him/her self, of all that would hold them back on their spiritual journey and thus prepares him or her for elevated practices such as the Goma .
On Hieizan (Mt Hiei), The Goma Fire Rite is performed daily and publicly at the beautiful Konpon Chu Do. However, for a more intimate experience of the Goma, I would always suggest visiting the Myo O Do which is a very much smaller and simpler temple although none-the-less atmospheric. Myo O Do is dedicated to the fierce but compassionate Immovable light King Fudo Myo O. Myo O Do in addition to being the home of the Ajari and Gyoja, it is also the practice hall of the Do Iri which is a very demanding nine days of continual, unbroken prayer, meditation, and of course; Goma. Myo O Do is situated some distance from the main temple complex, but it is well worth the trek, and is located looking over Lake Biwa, and at the end of a very narrow and winding foot path.
No amount of enthusiastic description can prepare anyone for the experience of being a part of the Goma. One simply has to be there and get caught up in the mystery of the ceremony and the atmosphere it creates. Should you find yourself in Japan, or in or near Kyoto, do make the effort, at least once, to attend a Goma ceremony to get to feel its magic and power yourself.
Reverend Jiryo Moxon.
Note: For a more in-depth summary of the Goma Rite please read "Tantric Art and Meditation: The Tendai Tradition" by Professor Michael Saso which can be found at: www.michaelsaso.org
-You are also invited to visit Youtube where Professor Saso has a five-part video overview of the Goma Fire Rite with commentary.