FRANCKE A. H. « The Meaning of the “Om-mani-padme-hum” Formula ». Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland. 1915. p. 397‑401.
THE MEANING OF THE « OM-MANI-PADME-HUM » FORMULA
By the Rev. A. H. FRANCKE, Ph.D., Moravian Missionary
When spending several weeks at Leh, in 1914, I became interested in certain balcony – like structures containing three mchod-rten each. They were called Rig-’adzin-mgon-po (Lords, holders of wisdom) or Rig-gsum-mgon-po (Lords of the three [realms of] wisdom). Besides the three mchod-rten, the balconies contained also Lamaist pictures and inscriptions. Mr. H. Körber, of the Munich Museum, rendered me valuable help in the identification of several of the pictures. The following is a list of the Rig-’adzin-mgon-po (the abbreviation Rig. will be used instead of this long word) at Leh and neighbouring places.
1. Rig. near east gate of Leh.
It contains three mchod-rten of different colours. The one to the left of the spectator is of red colour, the one in the middle is white, and the one to the spectators right is of blue colour.
The wall behind the mchod-rten is furnished with three pictures. Behind the red mchod-rten we find a picture of Manjusri, with red skin, one face, and two arms, wielding the sword of wisdom, and exhibiting a book placed on a lotus. Behind the white mchod-rten we find a picture of Avalokitsvara (Padmapani) with white skin, one face, and four arms. In one of his hands he carries a lotus flower; the others are empty. Behind the blue mchod-rten we notice a picture of Vajrapani, with blue skin, one face, and two arms. He wields a thunderbolt in his right hand.
Besides the pictures, the walls contain repetitions of the following formulas : Om mani padme hum ; Vadzra gurupadma-siddhi hum; Om a hum; Om vakishvari mum; Om Vadzrapani hum.
2. Rig. near a house called Habibullah at Leh.
It contains three mchod-rten painted red, white, and blue, beginning at the spectator’s left side. The red mchod-rten is furnished with a Lantsa character reading om, the white one has a Lantsa a, and the blue one a Lantsa hum.
Like No. 1, the wall behind the mchod-rten is furnished with the pictures of Manjusri, Padmapani, and Vajrapani, all exhibiting the same symbols, and painted in the same colours. The inscriptions on the wall read as follows: Om mani padme hum; Om vadzrapani hum; Om vagish vari mum. Besides, we find the syllable om, inscribed in Lantsa characters on the right and left sides of the pictures.
3. Rig. at gSang-mkhar, near Leh.
Here we find three mchod-rten of white colour, the one to the spectator’s left side being furnished with an om, the middle with an a, and the one to the spectator’s right side with a hum, in Lantsa characters. Here we notice five pictures on the wall behind the mchod-rten. The group in the middle again represents Manjusri, Padmapani, and Vajrapani, in the same colours, and with the same attributes as in Nos. 1 and 2. To the right of Manjusri, Tsong-kha-pa is represented, furnished with a book and a sword, placed on a lotus flower; and to the left of Vajrapani, we notice Padmasambhava wielding a vajra in one hand, and holding a kapala in the other.
There are no inscriptions on the walls of this balcony.
4. Rig. at Byams-pa, near Leh.
This balcony contains three mchod-rten of red, white, and blue colour. They are furnished with the following inscriptions in Lantsa characters: a is written on the red, om on the white, and hum on the blue, mchod-rten. This is probably a mistake; the order ought to be the same as in Nos. 2, 3, 5, and 6.
Behind the three mchod-rten, the walls are furnished with the pictures of the following lamas and divinities, their order being from left to right: Kubera, Manjusri, Tsong-kha-pa, Padmapani, Padmasambhava, ‘aBrug-pa bla-ma(?), Vajrapani, and Simhavaktra. The three principal deities are painted exactly like their representations in Nos. 1, 2, 3, and 6. The pictures of the lamas Tson-kha-pa and Padmasambhava are not different from the representations in No. 3. In addition to these five pictures, we also find here representations of one more lama, and of two tutelary duties.
There are no inscriptions on the walls of this balcony.
5. Rig. at Gadpa, near Leh.
It contains three mchod-rten of red, white, and blue colour, furnished with the following inscriptions in Lantsa characters: the syllable om is found on the red mchod-rten, a on the white, and hum on the blue.
There are no pictures nor any inscriptions on the wall behind these mchod-rten.
6. Rig. at Chu-Chi, near Leh.
It contains three mchod-rten of white colour. The one to the spectator’s left is furnished with a Lantsa om, the one in the middle with an a, and the one to the spectators right with a hum in Lantsa characters.
On the wall behind the mchod-rten we find pictures of Manjusri, Padmapani, and Vajrapani, looking exactly like the representations of these deities in Nos. 1, 2, 3,
and 4. In addition to these, a picture of Tsong-kha-pa was added to the right of Manjusri.
There are no inscriptions to be found on the wall behind the mchod-rten.
7. Rig. at lHa-khang, in Leh.
It contains three mchod-rten of white colour without any inscriptions.
There were three pictures painted on the walls behind the mchod-rten which have suffered much. The one to the spectator’s left apparently represented Tsong-kha-pa, the one in the middle can no longer be recognized, and the one to the spectators right represented Padmasambhava.
On both sides of the pictures the syllable om is found inscribed on the wall.
8. Rig. at the Chaon fort of Leh.
It contains three mchod-rten of red, white, and blue colour.
On the walls we find pictures of the following deities and lamas, their order being from left to right: Padmasambhava, Manjusri (with yellow skin), Avalokitesvara (with eleven heads and a thousand arms, of white colour), Vajrapani (with blue skin), a ‘aBrug-pa-blama (?) (with two lotus flowers in his hands), Tsong-kha-pa, and the green Tara. In a separate place on the wall we find a picture of a scene representing a hermit surrounded by various animals.
The walls also contain many repetitions of the om mani padme ham formula, inscribed in four different kinds of character (viz. Tibetan, Lantsa, Wartu, and another Indian script), and the following formula addressed to an unknown deity1
9. Rig. on the road to dPe-thub.
It contains three mchod-rten, which are all of white colour.
The walls contain many repetitions of the following three inscriptions: Om mani padme hum; Om vagish vari mum; Om Vadzrapani hum.
In addition to the above let me say that similar groups ‘of three mchod-rten are also found at other places in Indian Tibet. At Sa-spo-la, for instance, I noticed a good number of groups of three mchod-rten painted red, white, and blue, in different sites. There I also succeeded in seeing two balconies containing pictures and inscriptions on the walls behind the mchod-rten. In one case the pictures represented the eight emblems of happiness, and in the other they represented the three principal deities, viz. Manjusri, Padmapani, and Vajrapani, besides the eight emblems of happiness. In the inscriptions, the om mani padme hum formula was predominant.
The three principal formulas (compare No. 9) I have also noticed, among other places, at Yur-nad in Lahul, and on the rocks of Lake Padma-can in Mandi.
If we compare the various Rig-’adzin-mgon-po of Leh with one another, the following facts became apparent : –
The three mchod-rten always found in them symbolize the three great Bodhisatvas whose pictures are in so many cases found painted on the walls behind them, viz. Manjusri, Avalokitesvara, and Vajrapani. This is in particular indicated by the colours of the mchod-rten. (See Nos. 1, 2, 4, 5, 8.)
Whenever we find more than three pictures painted on the walls, the pictures of two famous lamas come first. They are the pictures of Padmasambhava, the incarnation of Vajrapani, and Tsong-kha-pa, the incarnation of Manjusri. The third lama cannot yet be identified.
As regards inscriptions, the most frequent are a group of three times one syllable and a group of three times six syllables.
The first group is formed by the syllables om, a, hum. From their position on one or other of the three mchod-rten it seems to follow that om in particular is addressed to Manjusri, a to Avalokitesvara, and hum to Vajrapani. The second group is formed by the following formulas (in proper orthography): Om vagisvari mum; Om manipadme hum; and Om vajrapani hum.
As regards the first formula, it is plainly addressed to Manjusri as « lord of the word » (vagisvara, Tib. gsung-dbang). But there is a difficulty with regard to the termination i. If the stem of the word (viz. vagisvara) ends in a, the termination i cannot occur in any of the cases. In my opinion the termination i can only be explained as the vocative case of a feminine noun, ending in i. The form vagisvari is the vocative case of vagisvarii, « queen of the word » and the formula seems to be addressed to the feminine form of this famous Bodhisatva, i.e. to his sakti.
As regards the third formula, viz. Om vajrapani hum (vadzra is the north-western dialectical form of vajra), it is plainly addressed to Vajrapani, the « wielder of the thunderbolt ». But here again the termination i of the vocative case compels us to assume a stem ending in ii, i.e. Vajrapani. And thus this formula also seems to be addressed, not to the well-known male deity of the thunderbolt, but to his female form, his sakti.
The second formula, viz. the Om mani padme hum, can therefore only be addressed to Avalokitesvara or Padmapani. It has mostly been explained as meaning « Oh, thou jewel in the lotus! »; and, to arrive at this explanation, it was considered necessary to look at the word padme as the locative case of a noun padma, « lotus. » Dr. F. W. Thomas, of the India Office, was the first to recognize that the termination e is not that of the locative case of the masculine declension of nouns ending in a, but the vocative case of a feminine noun
ending in aa. The connexion of this formula with the two other ones shows us that manipadme is the vocative case of the name of a female deity Manipadma, the « deity of the jewel-lotus », apparently the sakti of Manipadma,1 who must be identical with Padmapani or Avalokitesvara.
The formula Vadzragurupadma siddhi hum, which is found once, is addressed to Padmasambhava or to his female energy. Another name found in a formula given in No. 8 cannot yet be identified.
The fact that all these formulas are furnished with syllables like om, mum, or hum, also speaks in favour of my view that the nouns connected with them are to be taken as put in the vocative case. At first sight it is certainly surprising to find that all these divinities are addressed in their female forms. But it was the female energies of these divinities that were supposed to be most effective. And the Kesar saga shows us plainly that Kesar, when in difficulties, hardly ever addressed ‘aBum-khri-rgyal-po, his heavenly father, but ‘aBum-khri-rgyal-mo, his heavenly mother. From the above formulas it becomes also quite plain why the Chinese changed tho sex of Avalokitesvara. Their Kwan-yin is a female deity.
It is tempting to draw parallels between the triad of Manjusri, Padmapani, and Vajrapani, and the Tibetan pre-Buddhist divinities of heaven, earth, and the naga-world. But I shall leave that for another occasion.
According to Tibetan records, the Om manipadme hum formula goes back to the times of Srong-btsan-sgam-po. We ask whether this assertion can be proved. From the excavations carried on by Sir Aurel Stein in the Taklamakhan desert we learn that the formulas om a hum and Om vadzrapani hum were certainly used in at least the eighth century. For they have been traced on some
of the fragments belonging to his collection. I now venture to say that, if this much has been preserved, we may suspect that also the two remaining formulas, viz. the Om vagisvari mum, and the Om maniipadme hum, were known during that early period; for I believe that the three cannot be separated from ono another, and originally formed one single formula of three lines. If the full formula of three lines has not yet been found in the Stein Collection, this may be due to the fragmentary character of many of the relics.
Of the three divinities honoured by the erection of Rig-’adzin-mgon-po balconies, Padmapani, or Avalokitesvara, became the greatest favourite with Tibetans, in particular, as he became permanently incarnated in the Dalai-lamas. For this reason, the formula addressed to him became the most treasured one, and has now gained such popularity that the two others have almost passed to oblivion.
p. 400 : 1Could it be the green Tara?
p. 403 : 1 As indicated by me, JRAS. 1906, p. 464. – F. W. T.