I love the Om Yedharma mantra because, among other things, the first record of its being spoken in the Suttas enshrines an enlightening transmission from a senior student to a new one, from Assaji to Sariputta — during a brief encounter in the street. Assaji was an arhant, fully awakened. Encoded in the mantra itself is Assaji’s humility in offering only what his master teaches. But I like to believe that Assaji was not parroting the Buddha’s words, nor even precisely repeating them but rather essentializing on the spot, boiling down the Dharma he had heard, understood, and realized into the shortest and most powerful, appropriate teaching for the person in front of him — Sariputra, whose faculties were extremely sharp. Again, Assaji heard this teaching from Shakyamuni Buddha, but if he hadn’t deeply understood it for himself, the encounter wouldn’t have had the power to unlock such a deep understanding in Sariputra, who reached the first stage of liberation in seconds and ran off to tell his best friend, Mogallana, about this amazing new teaching. Sariputra would eventually become the Buddha’s chief disciple, and Mogallana the second.
The story of this mantra begins much earlier, shortly after the birth of Gotama who would later become Sakyamuni. As was normal in the day, and enshrined in oral history that has come to us, eight astrologers were called to give a sense of the child’s future. For seven of them the prediction was uncertain as to whether this child would become a great ruler, or a liberated sage. Only the youngest seer was sure of his eventual spiritual path.
It is a less-well-known part of this story that when Gotama’s spiritual inclinations eventually won out, and he left his family and his worldly role to begin experimenting with asceticism and deep concentration, his five close companions in the search were entirely comprised of two of those astrologers and the sons of three others, who may well have died. It would seem that these men’s mystical inclinations and capacities may have drawn them to an esoteric profession in the first place. Nevertheless when Gotama abandoned the ascetic path, and went off on his own, they split from him, no doubt regarding him as a wimp, a brat. They were horrified that Gotama ate rice pudding and worse, that a young woman gave it to him from her hand.
But after his experience of freedom under the Bodhi tree, the Buddha thought of his friends. They were the only living people to whom he felt close enough that they might understand the radical path he’d discovered. He walked back to where his friends were and began to share his new insights. The first one was the Middle Way, but it was a bit too weird so he figured out how to articulate the Four Noble Truth. As usual back then, it was ridiculously easy for most of them to be awakened, fully or partially.