Mantra meditation

Introduction to and History of Mantra Meditation

Brass Incense Burner Tibetan with Om Mani Padme Hum.
Our online store carries a variety of objects, including jewelry, malas, mani stones, and other decorative items, connected with mantras.

Mantras are words or phrases that are chanted out loud or internally as objects of meditation. Often these mantras are associated with particular Buddhist figures, whose qualities can be cultivated by the repetition of the relevant mantra.

Mantra meditation predates Buddhism, probably by hundreds of years. The origins of mantras go back at least to the Vedic tradition that preceded the Buddha, where mantras were used as incantations to influence, or even to control, the gods.

In this section of our site, you can explore how we define mantra meditation, learn how mantra meditation works, and read about the various figures that mantras are associated with and what their mantras mean.

Throughout history, cultures have believed in the sacred power of words, and have believed that uttering certain words or names could control the external world, or control the unseen forces, like gods or spirits, that they believed acted upon the world. We can see that in the English word “spell”, which can mean simply to put letters together to make words, or to use words in order to control the world through magic.

  Throughout history, cultures have believed in the sacred power of words…   

The words grammar and glamour have the same original meanings. Gramma-techne was the Greek term for the science or art of letters. This came into English as the word grammar, but also came in Scots (as “glammer”) to mean “to cast a spell upon” — to employ the science and art of letter magically in order to enchant. (The word “enchant” is another word that suggests a connection between words — chanting — and influencing others.) The word glammer was anglicized as glamour, and came to have its more contemporary romantic and aesthetic associations, where someone is able to influence us, not by the power of their words, but by the beauty of their appearance. So the English language contains fossilized notions that words can have magical powers.

Tibetan singing bowl in an Om Mani Padme Hum box.

This was particularly so for the words that we call names. In ancient India it was believed that if you knew the true names of the gods, then you could call upon them and compel them to do your bidding. If this sounds primitive, then imagine how you would feel if you discovered that someone had written your name of a piece of paper, put it in the toilet bowl before using the bathroom, and then flushed your name away. Or think about how hurtful it can be if someone makes fun of your name. Most of us still, it seems, have a lingering belief in the special nature of names.

Although early Buddhism used chanting as a means of practice, and used the recitation of verses as a way of cultivating an awareness of the qualities of the Buddha (Buddhanusati), the use of mantras doesn’t seem to have come into Buddhism until the rise of the Mahayana traditions, which incorporated elements of the non-Buddhist approach to spirituality known as “Tantra.”

Tantra made extensive use of mantras as ways of communing with and influencing the gods, and Buddhism co-opted this methodology as a way of getting in touch with the qualities of enlightenment. The Mahayana had already developed a “pantheon” of symbolical figures in human form to represent the diversity of the enlightened state. Given the close contact with the Tantric traditions, it was natural that these archetypal Buddhas and Bodhisattvas came to be associated with particular syllables and mantras.

  It was believed that if you knew the true names of the gods, then you could call upon them and compel them to do your bidding.   

Mantras are found in the Japanese Buddhist Nichiren tradition, where the recitation of Nam Myōhō Renge Kyō (Hommage to the White Lotus Sutra) is the main practice, and in the Japanese Shingon tradition. In the Japanese Pure Land tradition, the mantra Namu Amida Butsu (Homage to Amitabha Buddha) is a key practice. Variations of this mantra are found in Vietnam, Korea, and China.

Strictly speaking, there are no mantras in the Buddhist Theravadin tradition, although there is much chanting. Chants of lovingkindness, such as Sabbe Satta Sukhi Hontu (may all beings be happy), and chants of protection and blessing are very common, and these function as mindfulness practices in exactly the same way as actual mantras.

90 Comments. Leave new

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How to Get Your Meditate On! – Make It Simple Sister
July 16, 2012 12:02 pm

[…] Mantra – Think “Om” or choose a word or phrase of your own to repeat. […]

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Rajah Indran
July 18, 2012 12:19 am

Very informative and helpful for spiritual development

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A little off base but was wondering. Is buddhism as you understand it devoid of God? Is there no central God figure or supreme being that guides and manages and overrules? I’d be troubled if that were so. Thank you again for your wonderful site.

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Hi, Ted.

God and gods do not play a role in Buddhism. The Buddha is recorded as having talked about gods, but those gods are simply beings like us, who are born and die but on a different timescale. They’re not awakened, and thus are spiritually inferior to the Buddha and anyone else who has attained bodhi. They didn’t create the universe. Our destinies are seen as being controlled through our own actions, or karma, leading in a natural way to painful or non-painful consequences, without the involvement of any kind of external entity.

I don’t think the Buddha believed in the literal existence of these gods, by the way. In the discourses where he’s recorded as talking about them he’s frequently in satirical mode. For example he talks about one of these gods being so deluded and egotistical that he believes he created the world.

I understand that for some people the non-existence of a God is a threat, because God has been invested with ideas such as being the source of morality, but in Buddhism our source of morality comes from an awareness that living mindfully and compassionately is the only way we can feel complete and fulfilled, and that this completeness and fulfillment can only grow to completion through radical selflessness.

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I have met a women who has MS who was bedridden then she started meditation, now she is walking with walking stick! I have MS and is wheelchair bound – what chant must I do?

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How do you suggest breathing during meditation, I’ve found that steady disciplined attention to rhythmic diaphragmatic breathing and following the rise and fall of the abdomen to be as useful as following my breath in and out through the nostrils. Any thoughts?
Ive heard even that regular breathing exercises thus is by itself healing.

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Hi, Ted.

These days I find that the more I pay attention to, the better. Noticing the rhythm of the diaphragm is good, as is noticing all of the movements of the ribcage at the same time — front, sides, and back. In fact combining this with an awareness of air flowing through the passageways can be very powerful. At least that’s how I start. By the end of the meditation I may be focusing just on the nostrils.

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Hi, Johanna.

I’d suggest starting with mindfulness meditation. What happens to help people get over physical difficulties is not something magical. It’s simply that they learn to relate more healthily to their pain and disability.

All the best,
Bodhipaksa

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Hi Bodhipaksa i was curious if you could point me to the right direction for a stress relieving mantra, i have a lot of stress and anxiety unfortunately that is really bothering me.

thank you

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Mantras can definitely help with stress. The chanting (or mental repetition) of the mantra can be soothing, and it also reduces the mind’s capacity for keeping up a train of stress-inducing thoughts. Probably any gentle mantra would be helpful. If you have any anger along with your stress then Sabbe satta sukhi hontu would be good. But the Avalokiteshvara mantra, Om mani padme hum is also calming.

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16 Desk Meditations That Will Change Your Life - OnlineDegrees.org
November 4, 2012 10:43 pm

[…] Mantras: […]

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Mantra Redux | Standing in an Open Field
January 20, 2013 2:27 pm
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mi dispiace ti prego pedonami grazie ti amo è un mantra grazie per l informazione

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Meaningful Mantras & Adjusting the Sail | Tara Mackey
February 3, 2013 3:21 pm

[…] been doing many Mantra mediations lately.  In sanskrit, “man” means “mind” and “tra” means […]

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How to Get Your Meditate On! | Make It Simple Sister
February 22, 2013 11:25 am

[…] Mantra – Think “Om” or choose a word or phrase of your own to repeat. […]

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10 Ways To De-stress And Be Happy!
August 17, 2013 3:34 pm

[…] Mantra meditation […]

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Meditation Will Make This Semester Your Best Yet - Online College.org
August 23, 2013 1:56 pm

[…] Meditation Mantra meditation is practiced by silently repeating a word, thought or phrase to calm the mind. Mantra meditation is […]

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Hi Bodhipaksa!

I just discovered your page… What a great resource of info!

I have just started taking crystal healing classes, and we are practicing Mantras, Tuning, and several other ways to meditate. I am feeling a sense of peace and love that I have never felt before…and I love it!

I have been dedicated to doing my 40 day mantra, and am on day 17, but am currently on a mini vacation, and I forgot to do my chants yesterday. I doubled up on them today…will that affect the outcome of my intentions? Or will today start my 40 days back to Day 1? Or does it not matter since the intentions are still there?

Thank you.

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I think it’s best to think of these things as being like building muscle. If you miss a day in the gym, you don’t lose all the progress you made previously. You did lose an opportunity, but at least you got straight back to your practice again.

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I just came across this website and videos on Youtube last nite while i was searching for some help with sleeping.. I have long been interested in meditation but despite taking different workshops, and readingthngs, still really didnt understand how!.. your website, and videos and courses are amazing and so well explained (love the accent too :) ).. thank you so much

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do you believe in the power of nam myoho renge kyo? I chanted for 3 yrs but I struggled with the fact that the mantra did anything. I also felt like the nichiren buddhists all spoke like robots when you challenged them. They all had a standard answer for my questions. SO I stopped, but am still wondering….

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I’d consider nam myoho renge kyo to be no different from any other mantra, and not as having the special powers that the Nichirens ascribe to it. I’m very wary of that particular tradition, since it says it’s the only true form of Buddhism.

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Hi Bodhipaksa!

I just wanted to thank you for this article, and your response to another user back on 4/17/11 about fascination with deities akin to falling in love which hit very close to my heart. I’m coming to Buddhism from neo paganism, and I’ve struggled greatly with feeling like I’m abandoning different deities as I’ve grown as a person. Your advice in thinking of my desire for a closeness with them as representational of the qualities within myself or ones I’d like to cultivate has been extremely liberating for me, and has allowed me to let go of not only guilt, but attachment and dependence.

Your site is wonderful. Thanks again for sharing your wisdom.

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I’m always happy to help a panda in distress :)

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Can Meditation Make You a More Successful Entrepreneur? | LivePlan
December 10, 2015 8:01 am

[…] several types of meditation, from zen meditation, to mindfulness (or Vipassana) meditation, to mantra meditation, lovingkindness meditation, and so […]

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