About Mantras

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.   

Seed Syllable

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 other traditions. 

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.