The Sanskrit word “mantra” is comprised of the root “man” from manas or mind and “tra” meaning instrument or tool. Literally, then, an “instrument of mind.” Lama Govinda, who wrote one of the most valuable books on the subject of mantra, The Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism, defines the word as “to protect the mind.” Another interpretation of mantra is “true word,” in Chinese zhenyan, which also corresponds to the name of a major Japanese school, Shingon.

But mantras are not really words at all, they are bija or seed syllables derived from the Vedic language. Primordial “words” or sounds. The use of mantras originated in the Vedic tradition in India and later incorporated into the practices of Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism, and Buddhism.

The image of the seed syllable Ham comes from Sacred Calligraphy of the East by John Stevens. Ham is associated with creativity and the throat-chakra.

Not all Buddhists are keen on mantras. From my personal experience, I can tell you that some in the Theravada tradition are extremely critical and dismissive of mantras and often they disparage those who engage in mantra practice. They claim that in the Pali suttas the Buddha disapproved of their use. However, this is not exactly the case. The Buddha was critical of the Vedas, a collection of mantras, hymns, and chants, because he considered the Vedic philosophy to be lacking and because he was pessimistic about the effectiveness of devotional chanting (bhajan) or any spiritual practice directed at an external deity. The Buddha taught that enlightenment came from within, not without. But I have yet to come across of any criticism of mantras per se, as alleged by Theravada.

I should mention the practice in Theravada of chanting parittas (literally “protection” or “safeguard”) which are short devotional prayers, and that I am not sure how that differs from what they criticize.

Most mantras have no literal meaning. They are symbolic sounds. Roger Corless, from The Vision of Buddhism explains:

Mantra is dharma manifested as, embodied or incarnated in sound. A mantra may contain words, or sounds that has a specific meaning; but meaning is not its essential feature. A mantra communicates dharma directly to the mind without the meditation of concepts.

Perhaps the most famous of all mantras, Om Mani Padme Hum, is said to mean “The Jewel in the Lotus.” However, only two of the “words” have literal meaning: mani is “jewel or gem” and padme is “lotus.” Om and hum are seed syllables. Om is said to be the seed syllable of the universe, while hum is given a number of different associations.

It is not necessary for mantras to have specific meaning, no matter how badly some Westerners want it. When we meditate, we focus on our breath, but not on the meaning of breath, simply the act of breathing in and out.  The same principles used in silent meditation apply to mantra chanting. The idea is to focus on the mantra and be in the present moment.

I feel that mantra practice is best approached as a form of meditation. I think the Buddha had good reason to be cautious about the use of prayer or devotional chanting. Prayer is usually viewed as a form of communication with a god or external force, and devotional chanting calls into question to what one is expressing devotion. When such practice crosses the line and becomes focused on anything outside of the practitioner’s own life, then as far as I’m concerned, it’s no longer Buddhism but something else.

Likewise I am not too sure about the effectiveness  of “chanting for things” as taught in the Nichiren schools. Again, Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo is not technically a mantra, rather merely the title of a sutra with a devotional prefix attached to it.

The Mantra of Light in a circle (from Sacred Calligraphy of the East)

Intonation or pronunciation is not something to be overly concerned about. Different people chant and pronounce mantras differently and that’s okay, since it is not the words of the mantra that have power, instead it is the state of mind of the practitioner that determines the effectiveness of mantra.

Lama Govinda:

If a mantra would act in such a mechanical way, then it should have the same effect when reproduced by a gramophone record. But its repetition even by a human medium would not have any effect, if done by an ignorant person; though the intonation may be identical with that of a master. The superstition that the efficacy of a mantra depends on its intonation is mainly due to the superficial ‘vibration-theory’  of pseudo-scientific dilettanti . . .

This means that the power and effect of a mantra depend on the spiritual attitude, the knowledge and responsiveness of the individual. The sabda or sound of the mantra is not a physical one (though it may be accompanied by such a one) but a spiritual one. It cannot be heard by the ears but only by the heart, and it cannot be uttered by the mouth but only by the mind.

When chanting, just focus on the mantra, surrender to its sound, become one with it. Don’t think of yesterday or tomorrow. Whether you chant fast or slow is up to you. Sometimes it helps for focus your eyes on an object like a mandala, or to hold an image in your mind. Mantras can be used to work with inner energy, such as the chakras and chi.

Mantra chanting does seem to unleash a certain amount of natural energy, sort of like a spiritual power bar. So while it is very different from silent meditation, I still think the same basic principles apply. And I think they work best when practiced in tandem with silent meditation.

That’s enough for now.

Heart Sutra

Entire Heart Sutra in Chinese

Chanting practice is usually associated with the Vajrayana (Diamond Vehicle) branch of Mahayana Buddhism and the Pure Land and Nichiren traditions, however, almost all Buddhist traditions employ chanting to some degree. We can categorize chanting practice under three general headings:

a) Reciting the text of Sutras

b) Chanting the name of a Buddha or a sutra

c) Chanting mantras and dharinis

Strictly speaking, phrases constructed around a Buddha’s name, such as Namo Amito-fo (Praise to Amita Buddha) or the title of sutra, like Namu-Myoho-Renge-kyo (Praise to the Lotus Sutra) are not considered to be mantras. In my opinion they are the weakest form of chanting practice because they are faith-based practices. Faith in Buddhism has nothing to do with believing in the saving power of a particular Buddha or sutra. While the intent in some cases may be otherwise, the result is often that the practitioner ends up looking for enlightenment outside of their own life, which is the wrong direction. I am simplifying things a bit here, yet I think my criticism of this approach is nonetheless valid.

That sort of practice is very different from devata or “deity yoga” practices in Vajrayana or tantric Buddhism. While proponents of Pure Land and Nichiren schools may claim that their aim is the same, to realize the non-dual nature of the practitioner and the object of meditation, devata is a subtler practice and is best done under the guidance of a qualified teacher and with a proper empowerment or introduction to the teachings. Popular faith-based practices are transmitted widely with little or no instruction behind it.

Of course, that’s just my opinion, based on my own personal experience. I don’t disparage those who practice in that way. But since I feel as I do, I won’t dwell on that subject but instead would like to focus on chanting sutras and mantras, and I will deal with sutra recitation first.

Nearly all Buddhist traditions use sutra recitation either as part of daily practice or during the performance of rites and ceremonies. Probably the most commonly recited text is the Maha Prajna-paramita Hrdaya Sutra, popularly known as the Heart Sutra.

I don’t subscribe to the notion that sutras must be chanted in an Asian language. I often recite the Heart Sutra in English and find it just as powerful and beneficial as in Sanskrit, Chinese of Japanese. But there are a couple of caveats.

One being that when the sutras are translated into English the text is often chunky, the rhythm uneven. To illustrate what I mean, the Heart Sutra in Japanese is almost entirely made up of consonants and each “word” is one beat:

Kan ji zai bo satsu gyo jin han nya ha ra mi ta ji sho ken go on kai ku do is sai ku yaku

When translating this line for chanting purposes, one should try to keep the English words short. Here is the line in English by the Dharma Realm Buddhist Association:

When Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara was practicing the profound Prajna Paramita, he illuminated the Five Skandhas and saw that they are all empty, and he crossed beyond all suffering and difficulty.

That’s good, but this, for me, works better:

Kuan Yin Bodhisattva, while practicing deep Prajna-Paramita, clearly saw that all five Skandhas are empty and thus crossed over all suffering.

21 words versus 29. Less words, shorter words. Kuan Yin instead of Avalokiteshvara (which after all these years I still stumble over). “Clearly” for “illuminated” . . . You get the idea. The shorter words conform better to the rhythm set by the Japanese “consonants”.

Some sutras can’t be worked out quite as easy as the Heart Sutra, so perhaps for the rhythm’s sake, especially in group chantings, it might be better to stick with one of the other languages.  The shorter Heart Sutra was edited specifically for the purpose of chanting. One of the reasons why most sutras have a prose section followed by verses restating the same content was because the verses sections were meant to be chanted.

The second caveat is that when reciting in English, chanters may be tempted to “read” the sutra. That is not what we are trying to do when we chant sutras. In some cases, the Asian words are archaic and not part of modern usage. In this way, everyone is on a somewhat even-keel. We should  let the words flow through us, or from us, rather than trying to read them as we chant. The great Buddhist teacher, D.T. Suzuki once explained:

All the Mahayana sutras . . . are not meant to appeal to our reasoning faculties, that is, to our intellectual understanding, but to a different kind of understanding, which we may call intuition. When the Heart Sutra (or the Lotus) is recited in Sanskrit or Chinese or Tibetan, without trying to extract its logical meaning, but with a devotional turn of mind and with the determination to go through [the verses], the Prajna-eye (Wisdom-eye) grows gradually more and more penetrating. Finally it will see, through all the contradictions, obscurities, abstractions, and mystifications, something extra-ordinarily transparent, which reveals the ‘other side’ together with ‘this side.’ This is awakening the Prajna . . . Herein lies the secret of sutra recitation.

“Other side” and “this side” refers to the famous analogy of Prajna-paramita (Transcendent Wisdom) being the ship that ferries people away from “this” shore and across the sea of suffering to the “other” shore of Nirvana. By “devotional”, I believe Suzuki is referring to a more meditative state of mind, as opposed to a faith-oriented one discussed earlier in the post.

At the same time, sutra recitation is an external expression of our devotion to the Buddhist path. Chanting sutras can aid in getting us into the right frame of mind when it’s used as a preparatory practice, performed prior to prolonged meditative chanting of a mantra or silent meditation. And, sutra recitation can be a form of meditation in itself, if done with the proper frame of mind.

There is also the historical and traditional aspect. For many centuries, Buddhism was an oral tradition, so reciting the sutras was the only way to preserve and transmit them. Chanting the sutras is a way of connecting with the Buddha and great masters from the past. When I recite the Heart Sutra in Japanese I know that I am saying the same words in the same language as  Saicho and Kukai and Dogen and other Japanese masters. I feel kenzoku (a deep spiritual bond) with them. It helps to lift me out of my own mundane self-centered thoughts and it encourages and stimulates my commitment to fare on the Buddha way.

This is a somewhat long post, and yet, it barely scratches the surface. I’ll leave the final words to Thich Nhat Hanh who summarizes a bit of what I have wanted to relate:

We do not recite the Heart Sutra like singing a song, or with the intellect alone. If you practice the meditation on emptiness, if you penetrate the nature of interbeing with all your heart, your body, and your mind, you will realize a state that is quite concentrated. If you say the mantra then, with all your being, the mantra will have real power and you will be able to have real communication, real communion with Avalokitsevara, and you will be able to transform yourself in the direction of enlightenment. The text is not just for chanting, or to be put on an altar for worship. It is given to us as a tool to work for our liberation, for the liberation of all beings.

More to come. Pt. 2 will deal with mantras.

OM AH HUM in Siddham

There are various opinions regarding the effectiveness of mantras. Some discount their value altogether, while others practice mantras exclusively and even go to the extreme of completely dismissing traditional meditation practice.

From my own experience, I can say that the practice of mantras can be very powerful. I do not consider it a complete practice. I think the benefits derived from silent meditation are just too great and too many to do without it. Mantra practice is generally consigned to Vajrayana and even most teachers in that tradition consider silent meditation to be a higher practice.

Essentially “mantra” means “to protect the mind.” From what? Delusions, attachments, desire, etc.

Mantra words are not really words at all, they are bija or seed syllables. In most cases, they have no literal meaning, rather they are symbolic, representing a “diety” or a concept, or energy force. For instance, the most famous bija, OM, is the seed syllable of the universe, representing infinite power. AH is associated with karma and Amoghasiddhi, a celestial Buddha. Another bija, HUM, represents truth. OM AH HUM is a well-known mantra.

Technically, devotional incantations to Buddhas, like “Namo Omito-Fo” (Praise to Amitabha Buddha), or to sutras, such as “Namu-Myoho-Renge-Kyo” (Praise to the Lotus Sutra), are not mantras. They may be used in the same way as a mantra, but they are not considered to be as effective.

When we talk about the power of mantra, we mean the power of words, speech, sound. The theory of how mantras work is too complex to go into here. For now, this short explanation by Roger Corless, from The Vision of Buddhism will suffice:

Mantra is dharma manifested as, embodied or incarnated in sound. A mantra may contain words, or sounds that has a specific meaning; but meaning is not its essential feature. A mantra communicates dharma directly to the mind without the meditation of concepts.

Most people when they hear or learn a mantra want to know what it means, and they are disappointed and frustrated to discover that it may have no literally meaning, or that the meaning cannot be told. This is not because they are spells, incantations, or mumbo jumbo, or because they are “secret,” as Lama Govinda discusses in The Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism:

The [sound] of the mantra is not a physical sound (though it may be accompanied by such a one) but a spiritual one. It cannot be heard by the ears but only by the mind . . .

Mantras do not act on account of their own ‘magic’ nature, but only through the mind that experiences them. They do not posses any power of their own; they are only the means for concentrating already existing forces – just as a magnifying glass, though it does not contain any heat of its own, is able to concentrate the rays of the sun and to transform their mild warmth into incandescent heat . . .

Their ‘secret’ is not something that is hidden intentionally, but something that has to be acquired by self-disciple, concentration, inner experience, and insight.

Even though at times it may appear that mantras are outer directed, their function is really to connect us with our inner capacities for compassion, healing, goodness, and wisdom. Another way to put is that they help us tap into our Buddha Nature. Or they help us experience emptiness.

For mantra practice to be most effective, it’s important to maintain single-pointed concentration. Just as in silent meditation, if the mind is wavering, wandering, or otherwise not fully engaged in the present moment, the benefits derived from this sort of practice are greatly reduced.

om sunyata jnana vajra svabhavako’ham

The most famous of all Buddhist mantras, Om Mani Padme Hum, set to some original ambient music with a beat:

Just as the lotus grows up from the darkness of the mud to the surface of the water, opening its blossom only after it has raised itself beyond the surface, and remaining unsullied from both earth and water, which nourished it-in the same way the mind, born in the human body, unfolds its true qualities (“petals”) after it has raised itself beyond the turbid floods of passions and ignorance, and transforms the dark powers of the depths into the radiantly pure nectar of Enlightenment-consciousness (bodhicitta), the incomparable jewel (mani) in the lotus blossom (padma).

Lama Govinda