Om shanti shanti shanti
If you have a unicode font installed in your browser you’ll be able to see the mantra with diacritics here: Oṃ śānti śānti śānti.
Like many mantras, this one begins with “Om”. Om has no meaning, and its origins are lost in the mists of time. Om is considered to be the primeval sound, the sound of the universe, the sound from which all other sounds are formed.
In the Brahminical tradition, from where Buddhism undoubtedly obtained mantra practice, Om is not just the universal sound, but the sound of the universe itself. For example in the (non-Buddhist) Mandukya Upanishad, it is said:
Om! — This syllable is this whole world.
Its further explanation is: —
The past, the present, the future — everything is just the word Om.
And whatever else that transcends threefold time — that, too, is just the word Om.
Om is therefore a sound symbolizing reality. It represents everything in the universe, past, present, and future. It even represents everything that is outside of those three times. It therefore represents both the mundane world of time in which the mind normally functions, and the world as perceived by the mind that is awakened and that experiences the world timelessly. It represents both enlightenment and non-enlightenment.
You could regard Om as being the equivalent of white light, in which all of the colors of the rainbow can be found.
One Sanskrit-English dictionary says the following:
“A word of solemn affirmation and respectful assent , sometimes translated by ‘yes, verily, so be it’ (and in this sense compared with Amen); it is placed at the commencement of most Hindu works, and as a sacred exclamation may be uttered at the beginning and end of a reading of the Vedas or previously to any prayer; it is also regarded as a particle of auspicious salutation [Hail!];
Om appears first in the Upanishads as a mystic monosyllable, and is there set forth as the object of profound religious meditation, the highest spiritual efficacy being attributed not only to the whole word but also to the three sounds A, U, M, of which it consists.”
It’s worth bearing in mind that Sanskrit was the language not only of later Buddhism, but of the Hindu and pre-Hindu Vedic traditions as well. In Buddhist texts, as far as I’m aware, Oṃ is never seen as being comprised of A-U-M. Jayarava has an excellent, if (for the casual reader) rather detailed, article on this on his blog.
Shanti (Pali: Santi) simply means “peace”. It’s a beautiful meaning and also a very beautiful sound. The shanti is repeated three times, as are many chants in Buddhism. In Buddhism as well as in Hinduism the threefold Shanti is generally interpreted as meaning the Threefold Peace in body, speech, and mind (i.e. peace in the entirety of one’s being).
Hindu teachings typically end with the words Om shanti shanti shanti as an invocation of peace, and the mantra is also used to conclude some Buddhist devotional ceremonies.
Wildmind has created a YouTube video of the mantra. If you like the mantra, please give the video a rating after listening.
Or click below to listen to an MP3 version:
- o is pronounced like o in ore
- The ṃ in Oṃ serves to nasalize the preceding “o”, so that it sounds like the vowel in the French word bon
- ā is pronounced as a in father
- i in speech is pronounced like i in mill, but in chanting is pronounced like ee in bee
Peace in Buddhist practice
Simply knowing that the word “shanti” means “peace” doesn’t get us very far. We need to learn how to cultivate peace in our lives. Meditation — especially mindfulness meditation and lovingkindness meditation — is a simple tool for helping us find peace.
In Buddhist practice śānti, or peace, primarily means inner rather than outer peace. Through practice it’s possible to cultivate a still mind even in surroundings that are anything but tranquil.
It’s definitely helpful to have peaceful surroundings for the development of meditative states of mind, but if one cultivates a mind that is completely nonreactive then it’s possible to peacefully accept the presence of noise and bustle around us.
In the long-term, however, some external quiet is well-nigh indispensable for the arising of deep mental tranquility, and so meditators frequently seek out quiet places for their practice.
To say that inner peace is what’s important doesn’t mean of course that we can be internally peaceful and yet caught up in all kinds of arguments and fights. It simply means that it’s not possible for us to be in harmony with others unless we’ve learned to develop harmony within our own minds.
Śānti, or inner peace, arises when the mind has let go of both grasping and aversion. For this reason the Buddhist path of practice is known in Pali as “santimagga” (Sanskrit: śāntimarga) or The Path of Peace, as expressed in the famous Dhammapada verse, “Santimaggam eva brūhaya” — Cultivate this very Path of Peace.
Peace as the goal of practice
“Santi” is commonly used in the Pali texts as a synonym for Nirvana, the goal of Buddhist practice. Meditation and other Buddhist practices can therefore be thought of as the “Path to Peace.” Nirvana is the ultimate in inner peace, and literally means the complete extinction of inner turmoil.
Peace and lovingkindness
Shanti and metta (lovingkindness), or lovingkindness, are closely associated. In another verse from the Dhammapada, the Buddha says:
Mettāvihārā yo bhikkhu
Adhigacche padaṃ santaṃ
The bhikkhu who dwells in loving-kindness,
who trusts in the Buddha’s Teaching,
attains to that state of peace,
the blissful fading away of conditioned things.
Lovingkindness helps us to still the mind by letting go of conflict. As I’m sure we’re all aware, our hostile or defensive reactions to others are a major source of inner turmoil, and the cultivation of lovingkindness helps us to be more compassionate and less reactive. The “blissful fading away of conditioned things” refers to the mind becoming purified of the delusion, aversion, and grasping tendencies that distort our view of the world and prevent us from experiencing true happiness.
Peace is the essence of the spiritual life
In yet another Dhammapada verse, the Buddha says that it’s by practicing peace, rather than by adopting the clothing, trappings, or lifestyle associated with “being religious” that one lives a truly spiritual life:
Alaṅkato ce’pi samaṃ careyya
santo danto niyato brahmacārī
Sabbesu bhūtesu nidhāya daṇḍaṃ
so brāhmaṇo so samaṇo sa bhikkhu.
Though well-dressed [i.e. not wearing the rags of a religious practitioner],
If he should live in peace, with restraint and self-control, living with pure ethics,
Laying aside violence towards all living beings,
He indeed is a holy one, a renunciate, a member of the spiritual community.
Taking peace into the world.
Living ethically is also both an expression of a peaceful state of being and a path to peace. In Buddhist ethical practice, this means abstaining from actions that cause harm to oneself or others. In other words, in Buddhist practice we cultivate inner peace but also take peace into the world by practicing lovingkindness and compassion, and by living ethically.
The bare minimum is trying to avoid causing physical harm through direct physical actions or through encouraging others to cause harm (the reason that I, and many other Buddhists, are vegetarians). This is the basis of the First Precept of Buddhism, which can also be expressed as practicing lovingkindness.
All the other Buddhist ethical precepts — not taking that which is not freely given; avoiding sexual misconduct; avoiding misleading speech; and avoiding intoxication — are ways of living out the first precept.
These Buddhist precepts are a key component of the Śāntimarga, or “Path of Peace.”