Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche: "A mantra is like meeting the Buddha or Bodhisattva himself."
A mantra is a powerful word or phrase that may or may not have a meaning in the same way that a sentence has. Compare spells, incantations and prayer formulas in other spiritual traditions.
The word comes from the Sanskrit mantram because it is originally a characteristic element of the religious system or complex of religions, known today as Hinduism (Sanatana Dharma) which uses Sanskrit as its holy language. Since Buddhism emerged from the Hindu context, mantra is a characteristic, even essential, part of it, too.
A mantra is made up of one or more syllables, and almost any syllable can be used as a mantra. However, the most usual mantras are associated with a particular deity and appear as part of the ritual of worship of that deity -- a formula of praise/ invocation.
The word "deity" is used here to include buddhas and bodhisattvas that play an important role in the forms of Buddhism using tantric techniques such as visualizations and rituals of worship.
Certain individual sounds known as bijas, referred to as
'seed-syllables,' are thought to contain the essence of a mantra and, by
association, the essence of the deity. Compare charm in
In the higher yoga tantras, the seed syllable plays an important role in the profound meditative process known as "taking the three kayas as a path" which is a technique to transform death, bardo and rebirth. Out of Space, we visualize the deity's seed
syllable, the Samboghakaya (Enjoyment Body) understood as the mind of a
Buddha, and this purifies the bardo state. The seed grows into the Nirmanakaya form of the deity, the actual manifestation which is understood to purify rebirth.
This ancient technique that uses the emergent and growing bija is a brilliant invention -- a multi-layered process in which the visual sign of a sound creates a kind of sensory synthesis. As it grows and transforms, we have an actual example of creation as in a "Word made Flesh" (New Testament, 'Gospel of John.') However, this ability is not to be thought of as the exclusive activity of omnipotent beings.
As we participate in this process of symbolizing symbols in which we draw out of Emptiness a name or label which then is made to grow into a form or object, in this case the actual form of a buddha, we are in immediate touch not only with the deity but with our own nature. We experience in an objective fashion, the basis and process by which all phenomena, including buddhas, arise.
Related to mantra is dharani [Skt. hold as one, or concentrate,] so a dharani is an incantation. [the link is to the Great Dharani, a late Mahayana Buddhist scripture describing the virtues of devotion to Avalokiteshvara.}
The most famous mantra, a bhija that also functions as a dharani is Om or more accurately, Aum. \ One Hindu explanation relates its 3 letters to Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, but there are others. The three letters and their sounds are also said to operate on the chakras or energy centers of the body.
The Hindu scripture, the Mandukya Upanishad calls OM: "
... this imperishable Word. OM is the universe, and this is the
manifestation OM. The past, present and the future, all that was, all that
is, all that will be is OM. Likewise all else that may exist beyond the
bounds of time, that, too, is OM."
The Hindu metaphysical tradition explains that the body is composed of the combination of five elements (Skt. pancha mahabhuta). They are: ether, air, fire, water and earth. These contribute to the tanmatras or subtle properties: shabda (sound), sparsha (touch), rupa (form or seeing), rasa (taste), and gandha (smell). Notice that the first one is sound.
The 18 volumes of Indian myth in verse called the Puranas say that Aum or more usually, Om was the sound of the act of Creation, itself.
And in fact, for Tibetan Buddhists, it is the sound that embodies the source of all manifestations of enlightening activity.
In Buddhism, the saying of mantras is considered in itself a complete way to enlightenment. For an individual to "accomplish the practice" of any deity means to have said 100 000 repetitions of each syllable of the deity's mantra. Therefore, in the case of Chenresik, 600 000 is the requirement (Ven. Bardor Tulku. A Teaching on the Tashi Prayer.)
The mounting total of mantras that are chanted, muttered and murmured is reckoned by means of the mala [Tibetan tenwa,] or string of prayer beads.
The bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokiteshvara who is called in Tibetan, Chenresi [often spelled Chenresig or Chenresik] is said to have given a special mantra to Nagarjuna who left it to Lion-face Dakini to transmit to Padmasambhava whose activity confirmed Buddhism as the predominant religion in Tibet.
This is the 'Six Syllable - ' or the 'Mani Mantra' Om Mani Padme Hum.
In Tibetan: pron. Om Mahni Peh-meh HoonG
It can be found painted, carved and inscribed on every type of surface. In fact, in that mountainous part of the world one of the only uses found for the marvelous machine that is the wheel is to spin out the mantra by means of a hand-held device -- the prayer wheel. Thus we can see that to many people mantras do not even have to be sounded to be effective; their power may reside in their written form, even if the writing is not displayed.
Thin cotton small flags and also large banners that are activated by the wind, also are believed capable of sending out mantras and prayers.
Each one of the 6 syllables is directed at one of the six realms of existence. Saying the mantra is like praying for and helping individuals in all possible situations. When you say this mantra, you are behaving as a bodhisattva, with the mindful intention of working towards the enlightenment of all sentient beings, without exception.
Each syllable is considered to purify a specific human failing or "obscuration"
"It was not long after Godan [heir to Genghis Khan] was initiated into Mantrayana that a change was noted in Mongolian policy. For example, Tibetan histories report that Godan ceased the practice of throwing Chinese into rivers en masse (for purposes of ‘population control’) in response to [the] Sakya Pandita’s teachings on Buddhist ethics."
~ Albion Butters in Mongolian-Tibetan Relations
Once, when Buddha Shakyamuni was staying with his entourage at
Anatapindika, in Jeta's Grove near Shravasti, he introduced the
Six-Syllable Mantra to the assembly. Sarva.nivarana.vishkambhin, the
high bodhisattva, made a request to the Exalted One. He paid homage
and cried, "For the benefits of
the beings in the six realms, please advise me how I may obtain this Great Mantra that is the wisdom of all the Buddhas, which will cut the roots of the samsara. May Buddha please bestow me this teaching. I offer the whole universe as Mandala. To whoever who wishes to write this Six-syllable Mantra, I offer my blood as ink, my bones as pen and my skin as paper. Please, Lord Buddha, grant me this teaching of the Six-syllable Mantra."
Buddha Shakyamuni then gave the teaching, "This is the most beneficial mantra. Even I made this aspiration to all the million Buddhas and subsequently received this teaching from Buddha Amitabha."
It is said that the merits of Om mani peme hum, the Six-Syllable
mantra, are innumerable and cannot be fully described even by the Buddhas
of the three times. Some of them are:
The body of those who keep this mantra will transform into a vajra body, the bones will transform into relics of the Buddha and ordinary mind will transform into the wisdom of the Buddhas.
Whoever recites the mantra even once will obtain immeasurable wisdom. He or she will eventually develop compassion and be able to perfect the Six Paramitas (virtues.) He or she will be born as a universal monarch. She or he will achieve the irreversible stage of a bodhisattva and finally attain Enlightenment.
If this mantra is carved onto rocks and mountains, and a human or non-human being comes into contact and sees it, he or she will develop the conditions to be a bodhisattva in the next life, and thereby relieve suffering.
It is said that the sands of the Ganges and drops of water in the ocean can be counted but not the merits resulting from the recitation of this mantra.
The Mantra is the speech manifestation and the wisdom energy of all buddhas. It purifies our impure perception of sound. It is a means of protecting our mind from delusions. It eliminates ignorance and opens the way to wisdom. It amplifies blessings and by it, tranquility can be obtained. It can save and alleviate beings from hundreds and thousands of miseries.
The aspiration of the deity, Avalokiteshvara, whose mantra this is, is likened to a hook with which he can liberate beings. When we have confidence in him, the mantra is said to be a "solid and unbroken ring." so that the hook can catch, and we can be fished from the ocean of suffering that is samsara.
Venerable Kalu Rinpoche from Secret Buddhism: Vajrayana Practices
In Tibet, the Buddhist tradition is ancient, the result being that everyone acknowledges reciting mantras has beneficial effects. As for Westerners, they often see the mantras only as words, just an activity of speech, and do not understand their effect. They do not clearly see how these words can act on the mind. ... .
The importance words play in our studies is known; they are an indispensable vehicle. A Tibetan saying well emphasizes the power of speech: "Words are neither sharp nor cutting, but they can cut the heart of a human being."
Some Westerners, as previously stated, think that mantras are nothing but sounds without meaning, that reciting them is only wasting time, and that it is much better to meditate.
In a way, meditation should arouse even more doubts than mantras. One does nothing while meditating! Reticence concerning the recitation of mantras comes from two factors.
1. ignorance of the function and benefit of the mantras described by the Buddha
2. lack of reflection on the precious human existence, death and impermanence, law of karma and on the unsatisfactory nature of samsara [cyclic existence.]
Even if one has some knowledge of the Dharma [Buddhist teachings], but is lazy, reciting a mantra seems a difficult exercise.
~ Khyabje Kalu Rinpoche [d. 1989] at Samye Ling, March 1983
There is a teaching story about an educated practitioner who was worried about his mother who was not too bright, was illiterate and knew nothing of the Buddha's teaching. He was worried that when she died, she would go to hell and suffer many lifetimes there, since she did not know how to pray.
He taught her that whenever she heard any kind of bell, she should immediately respond:
Om Ma-Ni Peh-Meh Hoong! [Tibetan pronunciation].
They would make a kind of game of it; he would ring the bell at the door; she would say the mantra; they would laugh.
He jingled a few coins; at that metallic sound, she said the mantra. They both got a kick out of it.
It got so that even when he was not there, like when she heard the collar bells of yaks and dris, she automatically responded: Om Mani Pemeh Hoong! .
Now it came to pass, that the good mother died. Due to her karma, she was
whisked away to one of
the hot hells where she found herself in a huge iron cauldron being
stirred by a terrible demon with a great metal
Inevitably, the spoon struck the rim with a resounding CLANGGGG!!!
The woman responded without even thinking, just as she had been taught:
and zzzziiip -
There she was - in the Pure Land of Dewachen, the heaven of Buddha Amitabha where eventually, like everyone there, she became one of the Enlightened Ones.
Foxglove writing to the kagyu email list said that:
[You] "can never say enough Om Mani Pedme Hungs. They all count towards practice even if [you were] not given a particular goal. My friend was given a million to do and has been living alone in a house by the stupa in order to do so, but he's not talking of moving on after to a 'next' level. He says he will probably just do it all again. "
Other syllables such as AH are also considered to have special functions, and are marked on the backs of tangkas and images made of bronze.
Mantras are not to be taken lightly. Nagarjuna in his Root (text on) Wisdom, Mulamadhyamaka, compares their use to snake-handling:
If one misconceives Emptiness,
Persons with little wisdom will be ruined.
Just as a person who mishandles a snake
Or is unskillful with mantras will suffer.
During a teaching on Chenrezi, with reference to a possibility that the Buddhist doctrine of Emptiness could be misunderstood if improperly explained, Geshe Palden Dakpo also described what could happen when:
" ... one practices the so-called Sword Mantra, the practitioner places a sword in front of himself and starts reciting mantras. Now, when the sword starts moving through the power of the mantras, if the practitioner is able to hold it properly by the handle when the movement is moderate, he can travel wherever he wishes, but if instead he fails to hold it, there is a great danger of the sword swinging towards him and cutting off his head."
~ Quiet Mountain web site