These six characters together make up the Six Character Great Bright Mantra; each one individually is able to emit brilliant light.
Mantras and their meanings are studied in the Secret School, one of the five schools into which the principles of the Buddha's teachings are divided:
1) the Dhyana School;
2) the Teaching School;
3) the Vinaya School;
4) the Secret School;
5) the Pure Land School.
The Dhyana School teaches constant investigation of dhyana meditation; the Teaching School, lecturing sutras and speaking dharma; the Vinaya School, exclusive maintenance of moral prohibitions: "awesome, majestic, and pure in vinaya, great models for the three realms". Then there is the Secret School. Secret means "no mutual knowing". The Pure Land School teaches the exclusive mindfulness and recitation of "Na Mo A Mi T'o Fo", the "Vast Six Character Name".
Some people say the Dhyana School is highest of the five. Others claim that the Teaching School, or the Vinaya School, is highest. Cultivators of the Secret School say, "The Secret School is supreme". Practicers of the Pure Land Dharma-door say, "The Pure Land Dharma-door is first, it is superior". Actually, Dharma is equal; there is no high or low. "Highest" is everyone's own personal opinion; whatever school you like you claim it to be the highest.
Now I will explain the Secret School. What most people understand to be the Secret School is actually Lamaism. In fact, the Secret School is not secret. Within the "explicit" teaching, the manifest and secret perfectly penetrate. The "explicit" teaching also includes the Secret School; for example, the Great Compassion Mantra, and the Six-Character Great Bright Mantra both belong to the Secret School. The Shurangama Mantra is even more secret. "Secret" is just "no mutual knowing".
Ignorant people say that secret things are the best. Why? Because they are secret, and not publicly transmitted. So people who don't understand the Buddhadharma speak of the supernatural and mysterious saying, "Oh! I can't tell this to you! It's from the Secret School, and it can't be spoken for you to hear!" If they can't speak of it to others, why mention it? Why do they say they can't talk about it? If it's really the Secret School, and it's best not to speak of it, why do they say, "I can't tell you"? Their "not talking" is just talking about it. Is this "refusal to speak of it" speaking of it or not? Yes, it's speaking of it. Why do they talk this way? Because they don't understand the Buddhadharma, and are completely unaware of what the Secret School is.
Now I will tell you about the Secret School. Mantras are not secret. The Secret School is the magical response which comes from your recitation of mantras; I can't know your response. I recite mantras and have my magical response, and you do not know of it. This is "no mutual knowing". The ability and power are unknown, and therefore are called the Secret School. It's not mantras, but the power of mantras that is the Secret School. This is the meaning of the Secret School.
If mantras are really secret, they should not be transmitted to other people; for if you transmit a mantra to someone else, it is no longer secret. It is the same as the Sixth Patriarch's answer to Hui Ming's question:
"He (Hui Ming) further asked, 'Apart from the above secret speech and secret meaning, is there yet another secret meaning?'
Hui Neng said, 'What has been spoken to you is not secret. If you reverse the illumination, the secret is on your side.'
Speak it and it is not secret. Take a look; he said it very clearly. Once spoken, it is no longer secret. The "secret" is that which is not transmitted. If it can be transmitted, it is not "secret". The "secret" can not be transmitted; it is on your side; it is where you are.
I don't believe that Secret School Dharma Masters understand how validly explain "secret" dharma. They simply think that mantras are secret, but all mantras can orally transmitted to people; there are no mantras, which cannot be spoken. If they couldn't be spoken, there would be no way to transmit them. Isn't that right? We are now speaking true principle. If it is transmittable, it is not secret--it is not the Secret School.
Because the "secret" is un- transmittable, I say that the "secret" is the mantra's power, and there is no way anyone can tell you about it. No one can say, "This mantra has this power, and when you recite it such and such will happen." There is no way to tell you. It is like a man drinking water; he himself knows whether it is hot or cold. The "secret" is that which you know and others don't. The strength is secret, the response is secret, the function is secret; it is not the mantra that is secret. Now does everyone understand?
Those who don't understand the Buddhadharma must have thought that I have spoken incorrectly about this dharma. Incorrect or not, I will still speak this way. Say I am right...there is no way for you to say that. Since you fundamentally do not understand this dharma, how can you say that I understand. I don't understand; I'm even more muddled. Previously, however, I had a teacher who taught me with great clarity so that I understood, and this confused person changed into one who could speak and explain the Six-Character Great Bright Mantra according to the Secret School.
The Secret School is separated into five divisions, East, West, North, South, and Center. In the East is the Vajra Division, which protects and maintains the proper Dharma. In the South is the Jeweled Birth Division; the West, the Lotus Flower Division; the North, the Karma Division; and in the Center the Buddha Division. If there were more time...the Shurangama Mantra explains these five divisions in great detail.
If there is one person who can recite the Shurangama Mantra, the demon kings cannot manifest in the world. If no one is able to recite it, demons can enter all of the three thousand great thousand world systems. Why? Because no one watches over them; no one works in the five divisions, so the demons are able to enter the world. If one person, however, can recite the Shurangama Mantra, demons do not dare enter. It is just because of this that we hope more people will learn to recite the Shurangama Mantra. During the first summer session, the first test was to recite the Shurangama Mantra from memory, and in fact two people were able to do so. Later, many more were able to recite the mantra. It was just for this reason. Now I will talk about the Six Character Great Bright Mantra.
The first character is "nan (Sanskrit: om)". When you recite "nan" once, all ghosts and spirits must place their palms together. Why do they put their palms together? To maintain the rules and regulations. Conforming to the regulations, they follow the correct way. Recite this one character and all ghosts and spirits do not dare rebel and create confusion; they do not dare disobey orders. This has the meaning of leading, i.e. lead to the mantra to be mentioned below. This is the first sound in the mantra.
"Ma ni (Sanskrit: mani)" means "wisdom silence". Using wisdom one is able to understand all principles, and thus is able to be silently extinguished, without production. It is also defined as "separating from filth" which means leaving all dust and filth. It can be compared to the "precious as-you-will pearl" which is extremely pure, with no defilement. Whatever excellence you wish to bring forth, if you have the "precious as-you-will pearl" it can be done. It can also fulfill your wishes in accord with your thoughts. Every vow you make will be fulfilled. These are its benefits.
"Pa mi (Sanskrit: padme) actually should read "pa t'e mi". It means "light perfectly illuminating", and is also defined as "the opening of the lotus". It is analogous to the wonderful lotus flower, which can complete, perfect, and fulfill, without obstruction. It is the wonderful mind of Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva. This is "pa mi".
Next comes "hung ( Sanskrit: hum) which means "put forth". Anything at all can be born from this character "hung". It also means "to protect and support". Recite this character and all Dharma protectors and good spirits come to support and protect you. It also means "eradicating disasters". Recite this character and whatever difficulties there are will be eradicated. It also means "success"; whatever you cultivate can be accomplished.
Recite the Six-Character Great Bright Mantra once, and the immeasurable Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and Vajra Dharma protectors constantly support and protect you. Therefore, when Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva finished saying this Six-Character Great Bright Mantra, there were seven million Buddhas who came to support, protect, and surround him. The strength and function of the Six-Character Great Bright Mantra are inconceivable, the intertwining of the response and way unimaginable; therefore it is called the Secret School. If one were to explain in detail, the meanings would be immeasurable and unlimited; they cannot be completely spoken. So tonight I will just make a simple explanation for everyone.
Now I will tell you a little of that which cannot be told of the Secret School's strength. Why do I say "of that which cannot be told"? Because my talking does not even contain one ten—thousandth part of it. What is it? If you are able to constantly recite and maintain the Six-Character Great Bright Mantra, there will be six paths of light changing the darkness of the six paths into brightness. It is necessary that you turn your mind to one when reciting this mantra to obtain this type of samadhi. Then, not only will the six paths put forth light, but all of the ten dharma realms will become the "great light bright treasury". So now we know that the Six-Character Great Bright Mantra has great strength. I hope that everyone will set aside time from his or her activities to recite the Six-Character Great Bright Mantra.