Goma is a phonetic translation of a Sanskrit word 'homa' into Japanese.
It is a Brahmanic ritual, described in the holy writings of Vedas, which began around 2000 BC in India and it is considered to have been adopted into Buddhism during the process of Mahayana Buddhism's coming into existence approximately 500 years after the death of Shakyamuni.
Goma, therefore, is a practice peculiar to esoteric Buddhism (a school of Mahayana Buddhism) and does not exist in Theravada Buddhism which is supposed to approximate the actual teachings of Shakyamuni in his own words.
Goma is primarily practiced by the Shingon and Tendai sects.
This ceremony evolved from a simple ritual to win god's grace by burning firewood cut into sticks in a Goma fire pit while throwing various offerings into the fire for the fire god to carry the offerings, transformed into smoke, to heaven.
Fire is believed to purify all that is seen and unseen, and one focuses one's attention to make a profound observation of Buddha in a place of purity within the burning fire. There is an external goma fire ritual where one prays by building a fire in the gomadan (an altar for the fire ceremony) in which offerings and subsequently the gomaki (wood for ritual burning) are thrown, and an internal goma fire ritual where one regards oneself as the gomadan itself which is lit by the fire of the Buddha's prajna (wisdom) in order to burn away bonno (earthly desires) and karma (sins).
Additionally, depending on the individual objective the goma fire ritual is generally broken down into the following 5 categories:
Categories of the goma
1. The prayer for safety and good health: to pray to circumvent various calamities including drought, wind storms, floods, earthquakes, and fires; personal sufferings and the overcoming of earthly desires are also included in the prayer.
2.The prayer for happiness: to pray not only to circumvent calamities but also to increase happiness in a proactive manner. This is a prayer for happiness, wealth and prosperity. Longevity and matchmaking are also included in this prayer.
3. The Chobuku-ho prayer: to pray to eliminate bitter enemies and matters interfering with the teachings of Buddha. With its objective being to suppress evil-deeds, it is performed by an Ajari (a master in esoteric Buddhism; a high priest) who is superior to priests performing the other categories of prayer.
4. The Keiai-ho prayer: in contrast to Chobuku, this is a prayer to respect and love others and to wish for a peaceful world.
5. The Kocho-ho prayer: a prayer to attract Shoson (a generic term for entities to be respected in Buddhism such as Nyorai (Tathagata), Bosatsu (Bodhisattva), Myoo and heaven), Zenjin (good deities) and those one loves.
The Outdoor goma service
The goma service performed outdoors is referred to as the Saito goma, with the Shingon sect line Tozan school using the kanji meaning 'firewood light' for 'Saito' as it was impossible to decorate the esoteric tools such as Buddha statues and temples in a formal manner in the mountains where they built the gomadan with firewood or logs, whereas the Tendai sect line Honzan school uses the kanji meaning 'receiving the light' as that school acquires light from the saito of the Shingon sect line Tozan school to perform the goma. Additionally, the Shinnyo-en Buddhist Order, one of the new religions adopting the teaching of the Shingon sect line Tozan school uses the kanji meaning 'equally bring together to improve' because the goma burns away every suffering from the effects of karma and fate.
Etymology of 'gomakasu' (to disguise or to cover up)
Gomakasu' means to cover up to avoid something disadvantageous, but one theory suggests the word originates from 'goma.'
This word began to be used in the Edo Period and it has been suggested that there were numerous incidents where ordinary ashes were sold as ashes from the goma fire ritual performed by Kukai (Kobo Daishi) whereby the term 'magirakasu' (to disguise) evolved to 'gomakasu' (to disguise) consisting of 'goma' and the same conjunction 'kasu' used in 'magirakasu.'
However, there are additional explanations concerning the origin of the word 'gomakasu' where 'gomakasu' derived from the fact that there was no way of knowing what was written on the gomaki wood which was to be burned anyway, that it originated from 'gomakashi' (goma pastry) having a hollow middle with no filling inside and that one could always sprinkle some sesame seeds (goma) on pastries to disguise its unsavory taste.