The Ye Dharma Mantra


By Dr. Todd Gibson, PhD


Om yedharma hetu prabhava hetu tesham tathagato hyavadat teshem ca yonirodha evam vadi mahasramana svaha.

“Of those things which arise from causes, their causes have been shown by the awakened one, along with their cessation. Thus the great shramana has spoken.”

This brief statement is one of the kernels of the teachings of the Awakened Ones, expressing a truth that distinguished the approach of Gautama Siddhartha from others of his time, and which continues to be a touchstone for those who follow his way. Written on scrolls, it is built into stupas – monuments which are at once remembrances of the Buddhas and concrete representations of their qualities – as a succinct encapsulation of the whole of his spoken legacy. In the rituals of the mantra-schools of Buddhism, it is used to seal the completion of a meditation process. It is a simple statement, but one which, like so many primary Buddhist principles, grows more profound the more it is integrated into our human lives.

To those of us who were raised in a materialistic, post-sacred environment, the statement that everything has a cause may seem self-evident. Even before Gautama’s time, the principal of causation was widely recognized, if perhaps not on a conscious level; when wheat was planted, the fields would yield wheat, and not rice. For that matter, even animals observably learn that certain behaviors produce certain results. But Gautama’s time, the so-called Axial Age, was an era when, for the first time, the workings of the mind were turned in on themselves, and the individual self and its place in the world came to be an object of not only abstract philosophical consideration but real existential anxiety. Gautama’s insight, seemingly unique among the wisdom holders of his day, was not that things in the “outside world” arose in terms of cause and effect, nor even that the observable flux of our feelings, emotions, and thoughts followed the same principle – both of these conceptions can be found in the words of other sages of his day – but that even the “I” that apparently stood outside the flux observing it was not an autonomous entity, but instead was itself a vibrant movement, ceaselessly appearing and disappearing, never in the same way twice.

This was an earth-shaking revelation, potentially shattering to both those who were sustained in their newly developed sense of self by the belief that eternal beings or eternal truths existed to protect and help them, and those who, like modern materialists, found, if not comfort, at least some grim temporary satisfaction in their own imagined individual autonomy. Gautama’s understanding was, in fact, so profound that (as the legend says) he was at first was reluctant to try to put it into words, realizing that any attempt to do so was necessarily a partial expression of it, and apt to be misunderstood.

It was more than fortunate that he did, for there were some who had only a little worldly dust in their eyes, and have been able to transmit at least enough of his awakened understanding to light the path for those who would walk it. When the last reciters of the “ye dharma” have fallen silent, when the last stupa crumbles, revealing its hidden scrolls to uncomprehending eyes, the world will again have grown truly dark.