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Jayarava : what does it mean?

(aka the Jayarava Sutra)

The name Jayarava was given to me during my ‘private ordination’ – a simple ceremony in which a senior member of the Western Buddhist Order witnesses the fact that my practice of the Buddhadharma has reached the point where it is the organising principle of my life. A few days later I was formally inducted into the Western Buddhist Order, and my new name/identity was publicly announced. A member of the Western Buddhist Order is known as a Dharmacarin – which means someone who ‘courses in the Dharma’. The Dharma can be seen as the Truth, Reality; or as the teachings of the Buddha. In the WBO is still standard to the use the masculine and feminine case endings when using the title, so in common parlance I am now known as Dharmacari Jayarava.

The straight forward meaning of the Jayarava is “cry, shout or song of victory”. It is a compound of two Sanskrit words jaya (victory) and rava (cry, shout, song). Each word carries with it associations with it, both exoteric and esoteric. As well as that each syllable has meanings which add several layers of depth.

Sanskrit pronunciation is regular, unlike English, and whenever you see a letter it is pronounced the same. Sanskrit is syllabic so that only in rare cases do consonants appear without an associated vowel sound. So rather than a,b,c,d etc the Sanskrit letters go ka, kha, ga, gha… Sanskrit vowels can be either long or short and these are indicated in roman script using diacritics. The short ‘a’ is actually pronounced like the u in cut – a clipped a. The long aa is like the a in father. In Jayarava all the ‘a’s are short. So the syllables are ja ya ra va. So it should not start to sound like Jai-a-rava. Although the accent, if there is one, is on ra, this should not result in it becoming a long a. Often in Sanskrit the changing of a short vowel to a long can result is a dramatic change of meaning. For instance bala (power) can become bāla (foolish) and this is for instance quite important to my friend Maitribala (whose name means the “power of loving kindness”). Although in the case of rava it doesn’t make too much difference as raava is similar in meaning, although it seems to have harsher connotations, it is a bad habit to get into and one that I would personally like to discourage.


Jaya is victory. When my name was announced my preceptor Nāgabodhi said that it has two main associations. For me personally it indicates that I have triumphed over much adversity. It can truthfully be said that it is a victory that I am still alive. It is a victory that I am able to maintain a relatively positive mental state these days. It is a victory that I have stayed in contact with the Order, and that I have now joined it.

However in Buddhism the main association of jaya is with the Buddha’s victory over old age, sickness and death. This is the great victory, the goal of every Buddhist whether they are a Lama engaged in esoteric ritual, a Zen monk staring at a wall, a lay person with a family. Whatever their lifestyle or mode of practice, the Buddhist aims at victory over death – the Deathless. The Buddha’s are sometimes known as the Jina’s – the victorious ones. Specifically in esoteric Buddhism there is a set of five Buddhas arranged in a mandala with one Buddha at each of the cardinal points and one in the centre. They are referred to as the five Jinas.

The Buddha’s victory is also dramatised in his life story as the ‘victory over Mara’. Mara, whose name means Killer, is the personification of unskilful mental states. The mundane world, which revolves around greed hatred and delusion, is Mara’s demesne. The mundane world is impermanent, insubstantial, and unsatisfactory, whereas having attained the Deathless we find what is permanent, substantial, and ultimately satisfying. In the myth of the Buddha’s Awakening he sits meditating under a tree and on the threshold of Awakening Mara attacks him – sending his forces of greed, hatred and delusion, of fear and doubt to assail him. But the Buddha repels all of these attacks with his steady meditation, and with the force of his empathy. He is victorious!


Rava is sound; a cry, shout or song. It can refer to the humming of bees, the singing of birds, to the roar of a lion, or to the clash of thunder, the tinkle of a bell, or the whizz of a bow. Personally it refers to my overwhelming desire to communicate through any and every medium. One of my friends, Shantaka, wrote in a card to me “ People often talk about your creativity and energy, but what I always see in you is that love. Love that wants to go out to people, love that wants to be expressed.” Nagabodhi echoed these comments when giving my name. I, of course, write music – popular style songs as well as chamber music; I paint and sculpt images; I write; and I communicate by talking– as Nagabodhi said… “my goodness talking!” And I do all this because I feel delight in things, because despite a lot of pain I find life fascinating. And my enthusiasm spills over and I just want to share the wonderful treasure I have found.

When the Buddha taught the Dharma for the first time it is said, in the Ariyapariyesanā Sutta of the Majjhima Nikāya, that the gods sent a shout from the lowest of the 33 god-realms, right up to the highest; that the earth itself shook in ten directions. And this is the rava associated with the highest Truth.

So Jayarava is the cry or song of victory. Looking back it is the song of my personal victory. Mythically it is the Buddha’s victory over Mara, the forces of darkness and confusion. And looking to the future it refers to the future victory that I can look forward to if I continue to practice. Because this is the promise of the Buddha’s teaching: that we can attain what he attained, as he says in the text I mentioned above – the doors to the Deathless are open! And I have experienced enough of the Buddha’s Truth, to have complete faith that what he says is quite simply true. Practice gets results, the results are the ones that he says will come. And it is this truth leading to the Truth, that I build my life on now.

Esoteric Word Meanings

Jaya also has more esoteric associations. Victory, especially the Buddha’s victory suggests an association with the so called Tantric Rites. These are a four sets of magical practices which are utilised in Tibetan Buddhist practices. Their origins are in vulgar or worldly magic, where they may or may not be effective. But in Buddhist they are applied, via the realm of the imagination, to the mind itself in order to transform it. The four rites are: purification or pacification, subjugation, fascination, and increase. Jaya then represents the rite of subjugation; the subjugation of anything that hinders Awakening; the subjugation of greed, hatred, and ignorance; the subjugation of the hindrances to meditation: craving, aversion, sloth and torpor, restless and anxiety, doubt and indecision.

I experience a lot of aversion, and so I think of this aspect of my name indicating that I have to overcome that aversion and the perverse habits of thinking which cause it. It the Dhammapada it says: “hatred is never overcome by hatred; hatred is overcome by Love; and this is how it’s always been”. This links back to the esoteric aspect of rava which I will come to shortly.

The Buddha’s victory over Mara became iconographically represented by the Buddha reaching down to touch the earth with his right hand. This image in turn took on a life of it’s own and became one of the five Jinas – Akṣobhya. Akṣobhya transform the mental habits associated with hatred and aversion into the mirror-like wisdom. This is the wisdom which just sees things exactly as they are without adding or subtracting anything. It represents the mind of the Buddha who does not grasp at anything, nor does he push things away. Experience is simply experience, it’s all the same, and we need do nothing to try to control it. Hatred is the mental habit of pushing away experiences which are unpleasant – we try to cushion ourselves from unpleasant experience, but this is silly because we simply cannot avoid it. Embodied life is subject to unpleasant experience, it is unavoidable. Trying to push it away causes anxiety, it causes us to become alienated.

the hum seed syllable Akṣobhya is blue in colour. He lives in a paradise in the eastern direction. His seed syllable is hūṃ (right). Among the six elements (earth, water, fire, wind, space, and consciousness) he is associated with water – that is with the quality of flowing. Of the six realms of embodied existence (gods, titans, humans, animals, ghosts, and hells) he is particularly associated with the hells. This is because in the tradition anger and hatred are said to result in rebirth in a hell realm. Psychologically we could be said to be instantly be reborn in hell the moment we give way to anger. The state of hating is hell. Of the chakras, or centres of psychic energy, Akṣobhya is associated with the heart. In esoteric rituals one some times visualises the three seed syllables om, āḥ, and hūṃ on the forehead, throat and heart centre, representing the body, speech and mind of the practitioner. Note that the mind in Buddhism includes mental activity such as thinking and remembering, as well as emotional and feeling activity. The symbol of Akṣobhya is the vajra. The Vajra is a complex icon which would need a discourse all of it’s own. It represents Reality, Truth. The word vajra can mean either a thunderbolt, or a diamond – the strongest force, and the hardest substance.

Akṣobhya heads a ‘family’ of Awakened beings of whom the most well known is Vajrapani – He who holds the Vajra. One form of this figure is so full of energy and vigour that his form is puffed up and he has burst into flames, his face is wrathful and his stance aggressive which immediately seems at odds with the Dharma. But Vajrapani is angry with ignorance, he aggressively seeks to destroy the ignorance that holds beings in bondage and suffering. His energy is directed to purely skilful and beautiful results – he simply wishes to smash through whatever holds us back. Vajrapani is a striking figure, and other than the Buddha he is the first one with which I formed a connection. His image is the first one that I purchased, and is one that I find very attractive – perhaps because I too am energetic. I was very pleased to discover that this connection is implicit in my new name.

Rava also has esoteric associations. Rava can mean a range of sounds from the humming of bees, to the roar of a lion, to the clash of thunder. What can possibly link these? It is the act of recognition. These are sounds which we recognise and name. And this function of the mind is called vijñāna by Buddhists. Vijñāna means literally discriminated knowing. It includes all the little pigeon holes into which we put the aspects of our experience. When we Awaken this aspect of our minds is transformed into the discriminating wisdom – the wisdom that sees the uniqueness of every phenomena.

This Discriminating Wisdom is the wisdom possessed by Amitabha – the Buddha in the western quarter of the mandala of the five Jinas. He is red in colour, associated with the fire element, and the throat chakra – i.e. the centre which controls communication! Discriminating wisdom comes through the transformation of the perverse mental habit of greed. As such it is associated with the tantric rite of fascination. In this rite we become fascinated by individual people, appreciating the uniqueness of each one, and loving them as individuals. We try to cultivate attraction to people. In vulgar magic this is associated with the love potion or charm, but in Buddhist practice, it is purely for experiencing the interconnectedness with all beings. Metta (Sanskrit Maitri) translated as loving kindness, or sometimes as empathy, is the fundamental Buddhist attitude towards beings: it involves a non-sexual love and attraction. Scripture defines it as being like the love of a mother for her only child. Amitabha is therefore sometimes called the Buddha of Love. He sits is deep meditation, sometimes hold up a red lotus flower in his right hand. The part of our mind which is transformed into the Discriminating Wisdom is the mano-vijñana – the mind consciousness. This is the seat of the idea of I, Me, Mine. These ideas are what give us the illusion of being separate from other beings – the basic delusion which Buddhism seeks to destroy is this false belief in a separate self. We are unique, but not separate – this is what the Discriminating Wisdom sees.

the hrih seed syllableHis seed syllable is hrīḥ (right)

Amitabha also heads up a family of Awakened beings, although his family has many well known members. Chiefly there is Avalokiteshvara, who is the patron deity of Tibet. The Dalai Lama is said to be an emanation of Avalokiteshvara. Then there is Padmasambhava the tantric yogin and magician who first established Buddhism in Tibet in the 8th century. Also very popular in Tibet is Tara. Tara is a particularly important figure for me. Some years ago I had a vision of Tara in her white form. A few days later another visitation came to me and gave me a teaching. She said… LOVE! And in that one word was encompassed all my faults, my desires, but what’s more it contained the highest aspiration, and the highest perfection. It showed me where I was, where I’d come from, and where I needed to go. Although all this took some time to unfold, it has guided my footsteps ever since. During my private ordination I formally took on White Tara as my guiding deity, my protector. My main meditation practice now involves visualising Tara and reciting her mantra. She in turn bestows blessings upon me, which involve the tantric rites – some many connections!

Esoteric Syllable Meanings

The idea that vocal sounds act as symbols in a more fundamental way is one common to many traditions. One finds it, of course, in esoteric Buddhism, but also in the Upanishads, in Plato, in Celtic mythology, and in contemporary linguistics. This leads me to a more detailed level of commentary using: the research of Margaret Magnus, The Lalitavistara Sutra, the Sutra of the Perfection of Wisdom in 25000 lines, and the Mahavairocana Sutra (also known as the Mahavairocana-abhisambodhi-tantra).

Sound Symbolism

In Gods of the Word, the popular book based on her PhD research, Margaret Magnus describes the character of the letters. This type of approach has incidentally been reproduced by the poet John Mitchell in his book Euphonics. Units of vocal sounds which are articulate are called phonemes and are indicated by letters inside slashes thus: /j/. For English this corresponds to our letter J, but also to the soft G in “gem”.

Jaya then can be seen to be the positive decision – jumping towards the good. It is lively, but yielding. The length of /y/ softens the edge of /j/. These two have similar pronunciation: the tongue is in the middle of the mouth. /j/ is a voiced palatal stop, whereas /y/ is a palatal glide. The /y/ stops the abrupt drop off of /j/ jolting. Relative to rava it is more receptive - more yielding, but not without the focus provided by the edge.

Rava is active, energetic and even possible a bit dangerous. Like /j/ there is no middle ground in /r/, and /v/ can either even things out, or cause more of veering.

Interestingly I can see these qualities in myself. I think this level of symbolism corresponds to what is, to now, and to a description of tendencies.

Lalitavistara Sutra

In the Lalitavistara Sutra, a very early Mahayana Sutra there is an alphabet of the Dharma. The Buddha to be goes to school to make a show of learning, although he already knows everything. The children recite the alphabet but instead of just the sounds of the letters they produce a summary of some point of doctrine each time. For instance:

“Through the Bodhisattva’s blessing, when the children pronounced the syllable A, the sound came out: anitayaḥ sarvasaṃskāraḥ, all aggregates are impermanent”.

Using this link between the letters and the Dharma we get:

In this scheme "Jayarava" becomes a Dharma teaching which reminds us that to see things as they really are is to go beyond suffering, especially to go beyond old age, sickness and death. The vehicle for doing this is not to delight in the objects of the senses. In the Pali canon this is known as guarding the gates of the senses, and is strongly associated with the word appamada (Sanskrit Apramada) – which means literally “not being blind drunk on the objects of the senses”. This was the last message of the Buddha to his followers:

vayādhammā sankhārā appamādena sampādetha.

Everything, by it’s very nature, is prone to decay and death; not being blind drunk on the objects of the senses, attain the goal (i.e. the Deathless).

The is a definite correspondence here between the name "Jayarava" and the last message of the Buddha.

One could say that through the repetition of the syllables ja ya ra va one is hearing a concentrated version of this teaching – the letters become a mnemonic. In this case the technical term is dharani. Dharani is a word peculiar to Buddhism (unlike mantra which comes from the Brahminical religion) and means a support. It is used in several different ways in Mahayana texts, but the most important is in this sense of being a mnemonic device, designed to be chanted independently, but being able to be unpacked into a teaching on the Dharma.

The perfection of Wisdom in 25,000 lines

This sutra, the Pañcaviṃśatisaahasrikā, also contains a mystical alphabet. It is one of the main sources of the manjughoṣa mantra: a ra pa ca na dhiḥ. The alphabet in this case is not the Sanskrit alphabet which has quite a different order. Also it includes a syllable YSA, which never occurs in Sanskrit. Each letter of this alphabet is said to be a dhaara.nii door, that is a way to realise the true nature of reality.

Mahāvairocana Tantra

In the Mahavairocana Abhisaṃbodhi Tantra the letters of the Sanskrit alphabet form an integral part of the rituals described. The entire alphabet is treated as a mantra, spoken by the Dharmakāya Buddha Mahāvairocana (in Chapter 12), and is called the all encompassing gate: “When ka, ca, ṭa, ta, pa and so forth are conjoined with initials, medials, and finals, they cause the attainment of Enlightenment... Matrins should apply themselves with certainty to each one of the mantra syllables as they wish. If understood by the intelligent ones, they bestow the supreme excellent state”.

The initials are the short and long ‘a’, the medials the other vowels such as i,e,u,o, and the finals are the anushvara (nasalised) and the visharga (aspirated). Since in this system of practice each letter is associated with a personfication of Awakening in the form of a Buddha or Bodhisattva, then applying oneself to, that is meditating on, any one of them is an effective practice.

Chapter 24 of the Sutra spells out the esoteric associations with the letters thus

What this type of association does is to highlight particular aspects of reality, especially as it relates to the idea of śunyata – the emptiness of all phenomena. All phenomena are empty, that is, of a permanent, unchanging essence. The essence of all things is their essencelessness. This is the deepest philosophical implication of the observation made by Heraclitus that we “never step in the same river twice”. All phenomena are transient. This is so because all phenomena rely on other phenomena as causes and conditions for being. If there is any change, then everything changes since everything is interconnected. If there was no change, then nothing would ever change. It is clear with even a cursory investigation that our experience is characterised by change – from moment to moment. In fact this turns out to be the nature of experience itself.

Phenomena lack birth, because all things are interconnected – we cannot say when a thing arises definitively because of the constant play of causes and conditions. Some complex phenomena appear to be stable in time, but even then our experience of them constants changes. Yana refers to teachings. They have no objective base for the same reason. Yana’s, practices are said to be like rafts to take us across a river. Having crossed the river, we abandon the raft. Philosophically we may say that Buddhist doctrines are never strictly ontological – they are at best metaphors for Reality. Even positive ontological statements such as “all things are impermanent” are intended not as dogmatic statements of the nature of reality, but as meditation subjects. Hence things are beyond the grasp of words. Words can indicate a direction, they can provide a metaphor, but they are not the Reality which can only be experienced.

All phenomena being free of pollution refers to the original purity of things. The idea here is that there is no essential difference between the Awakened and the Ignorant. It is a matter of perception. The ignorant, taking in their sense and mental experience, conceive of things as consisting of self and other, and as a result fall away from the true reality. They cling to the notion of self, grasp at some things to reinforce that notion, and push other things away. The Awakened do not make the self/other distinction – there is simply experience. Phenomena are therefore seen in their true state of lacking permanence or substance. Reality is just the play of phenomena, with which ‘we’ are infinitely intimately connected.

Further Reading on some of these Subjects

Jayarava Rave

Visible Mantra