What is Mantra?
By Chris Berlin
“Mantra” is a Sanskrit term meaning “mind protection” or “instrument for liberating the mind,” and refers to a practice central to Buddhist and Hindu traditions around the world. The syllables of a mantra are usually in Sanskrit, Pali, or a hybrid of Sanskrit and its pronunciation in other languages, such as Tibetan or Chinese. Mantra is thought to embody sacred sound imbued with spiritual power when chanted with a focused attention on its meaning. The power of a mantra is invoked by merging breath, sound vibration and intention into a mind that is single-pointed and sustained as one chants.
In some traditions, mantras are often devoted to particular deities, bodhisattvas, or forms of the Buddha for benefits such as protection, spiritual guidance, the dispelling of unwholesome states, karma or illness, as well as for abundance, wisdom, compassion and enlightenment. Often, chanting to a particular deity is a way to awaken one’s own inner qualities and potential represented by the deity’s form and purpose. Chanting can also emphasize the generative power of the mantra itself to foster wholesome qualities benefitting oneself, a loved one, as well as all living beings. Such qualities may include safety, well-being, longevity, lovingkindness, compassion, wisdom, and the freedom from suffering and its root causes. Regardless of the object of attention, it is the repetition of the mantra and one’s understanding of its meaning that deepens its benefits through the power of one’s intention.
Traditionally, chanting a mantra is most often included as part of a more in-depth practice, or “sadhana,” that may include visualization, meditation, and the use of prayer beads (“mala”), or as an important part of liturgical ceremonies involving offerings of food or incense, prostration, and devotional rituals.
Key terms found in many mantras:
“OM”— Signifies an invocation and connection with the primordial sound of the universe, the essence of all creation & a manifestation of such qualities as purity of intention, the awakening of non-dual awareness, as well as generosity, interconnectedness and ultimate wisdom.
“NAMO”—“I bow to,” or “honor prayerfully”
“TAYATHA”—“Thus we chant…”
“SVAHA” (“SOHA,” Tib.)—“May this be so,” or “I offer this up to the highest realms”
Click here to watch a talk by Chris on mantra:
(Note: This clip plays fast, so consider slowing the speed a bit)
Mantra of Manjushri
The bodhisattva of transcendent wisdom, Manjushri, is a representation of ultimate insight into the nature of reality through clear seeing and directly experiencing phenomena just as they are, without the filters of our own concepts, judgments and thought-forms conditioning how we perceive ourselves and the world. Manjushri is sometimes portrayed as holding a flaming sword which represents the sharp, pristine clarity of non-dual truth with which he cuts away the roots of ignorance and duality responsible for worldly suffering.
OM, A-RA-PA-CHA-NA DHI-HI
(Om, Wisdom is knowing the underlying nature of all things to be unproduced, pure, ultimate, empty in their arising and dissolution, namable but not subject to being lost or gained, and understood through spiritual means.)
Mantra of Green Tara
Green Tara is the female aspect of merciful compassion and refuge during difficult times. She is said to have been born from the tears of the bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokiteshwara, who is moved by our suffering and seeks to alleviate it through the unconditional love of boundless compassion. In the Vajrayana tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, one meditates on the qualities of Green Tara and visualizes her form and her attributes of protection, guidance, and profound, unconditional love radiating from her heart and entering one’s own, filling the practitioner with these qualities. One then visualizes her dissolving into white light and merging with the practitioner who then embodies the qualities represented by Green Tara. Ultimately, the aim is to awaken these qualities that are inherently already existent within us.
OM, TARE TUTTARE TURE, SOHA
(Om, Tara, we appeal to you for your protection, guidance and compassion on the spiritual path, Soha.)
Mantra of the Three Vajras
The Three Vajras (in Vajrayana Buddhism, a “vajra” is a thunderbolt with diamond-like qualities) represent three dimensions of transformation: body, speech and mind. Each is located in a particular place in the subtle physiology and is thought to purify karma and aid one in realizing profound wisdom and skillfulness in one’s actions, communication and thoughts. In Vajrayana, chanting the syllable associated with each vajra can be practiced simultaneously with a visualization, which is a powerful way to effect change and cultivate awakening.
The practice is as follows:
1) Bring attention to the location of each syllable in your body
2) Hold the intention of the syllable in your mind as you inhale a full breath
3) Chant the syllable in a long slow tone on the outbreath
4) As you chant, visualize yourself radiating light from each location with the syllable at its center
OM AH HUM
OM – Body: Located at the center of the forehead, representing embodied awareness, wholesome response and
skillful action. White light radiates with the syllable “OM” at the center.
AH – Speech: Located at the base of the throat, representing wisdom, expressing truth, wholesome “self-talk,”
thinking and communication, as well as cultivating silence. Red light radiates with the syllable “AH” at the center.
HUM – Mind: Located at the heart center, representing compassion, unity, loving intention, and the aspiration to
alleviate one’s own and others’ suffering. Blue light radiates with the syllable “HUM” at the center.
Medicine Buddha Mantra
Baishajye, or "Bekhandze" in the Tibetan pronunciation, is the name of the Medicine Buddha who represents the power of healing applied to the ills of the body, mind, and to worldly suffering. Much like the visualization practice one does with Green Tara (above), one pictures the Medicine Buddha seated in front of them and imagines clear, brilliant blue rays of light emanating from his heart into one's own and filling the practitioner with a radiance that purifies "body, speech and mind" (see the Three Vajras above). Here, one receives deep, unconditional love and the power of intention to be free of all the causes of illness and suffering for oneself and all living beings. One then dissolves the image of the Medicine Buddha into a bright, white light that fills the practitioner's body and radiates out from the heart center a sense of warmth, profound love and deep joy. As with other similar Vajrayana Buddhist practices, the deity is seen to represent one's own capacity to awaken those qualities inherent within us. This chant can be repeated for oneself, others, or all living beings to cultivate healing, well-being, and wisdom and compassion.