Introduction to and History of Mantra Meditation
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. They 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 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.
The word “enchant” is another word that suggests a connection between words — chanting — and influencing others.
This belief is the power of language was particularly strong when it came to 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.
Most of us still, it seems, have a lingering belief in the special nature of names. 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.
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.
I’m not aware of any CDs with that chant on them, although Sunada and I have been talking about doing a mantra CD. She’s a trained singer so at least some of it (i.e. the bits she does) should be worth listening to!
is the pali chant “sabbe saata sohki hunto”
available on any cd’s
In chanting names of bodhisatta, using rosary for mediation, do we have to recite the transferrance of merits at the end of the session.
I understand any humble/noble buddhist act be transferred for better catalyst results. Kindly advice.
There aren’t many “have to’s” in Buddhism — it’s really up to us what which practices we want to undertake. But I’d wholeheartedly encourage anyone to consider transferring the merit not just of mantra practice but of any formal practice whatsoever.
For those not in the know, transferring or dedicating merit means that at the end of the practice you reflect that you’re not doing this as a selfish act purely to benefit yourself, but you’re hoping that whatever benefits you’ve gained as a result of the practice (any wisdom, compassion, or peace that you’ve found) will help others as well.
I sometimes end a period of meditation by reciting the following verses from Shantideva:
May the merit gained
In my acting thus
Go to the alleviation
of the suffering of all beings.
My personality throughout my existences,
And my merit in all three ways, [body, speech, and mind]
I give up without regard to myself
For the benefit of all beings.
Just as the earth and other elements
Are serviceable in many ways
To the infinite number of beings
Inhabiting limitless space;
So may I become
That which maintains all beings
Situated throughout space,
So long as all have not attained
Thats an excellent few verses from Shantideva i must say!
May i ask which particular script/book/etc it came from so i can look at the full text/extrapolation?
(as a little ps, ive found this site just today and it looks extremely helpful and sincerely so at that. )
The verses are from (wait for it) the Bodhisattvacaryavatara, also known as the Bodhicaryavatara, which translates as “The Guide to the Bodisattva’s Way of Life.” There are good translations by Stephen Batchelor, Kate Crosby & Andrew Skilton, and the Padmakara Translation Group. There’s also a version online.
The lines quoted above are verses 6, 10, 20, and 21 from a much more extended transference of merits in Chapter III. The whole of chapters II and III of the Bodhicaryavatara constitute a devotional ritual called the sevenfold puja.
Hi Bodhipaksa. Finally got around to reading your update of this page. It reads much better than before! I particularly like the grammar/glamour link! The two words are seldom used together in a sentence, if ever. Good work as always. Love Jayarava.
Thanks for your kind comments, Jayarava. Did you take a look at the page on How Mantra Meditation Works? I took account of some of the shortcomings you pointed out in an email and made substantial changes. I’d be interested in your thoughts.
TXS for the explanation on the mantra OM AMOGHA VAIROCANA MAHA-MUDRA MANI PADMA SUBHRA PRAVARTAYA HUM
I got this mantra in from my Korean teacher and maybe the pronunciation was in korean where k some times is g.
Now is more easy.
In the Dharma,
whats a good short mantra i can use for school and whats the meaning of it?
I’m afraid that’s too general a question for me to answer. Feel free to be more specific about what your needs are.
Have just come back from a Tara retreat and was interested to see that the ‘tune’ of the Tara mantra on the retreat was different to the one you chant here. Is it common that the mantras are chanted to different tunes? A friend has also told me that on a retreat she went to, the Tara mantra was sung in harmony.
Yes, there are lots of different tunes that one mantra can be chanted to. The way that the Avalokiteshvara mantra, for example, was chanted in the FWBO changed because with the “old” way it tended to lack energy and turn into a dirge. We now use a tune that (as far as I know) has a Tibetan origin — at least I heard it being used in the soundtrack of a Tibetan movie. I’ve heard a few different versions of tunes for the Tara mantra, and I wish I could hear the one you were doing. Can you hum it for me? Seriously, if you phone our Skype number you can leave a message with the mantra on it. The number’s +1-603-292-3960. I’d love to hear from you!
Ok! I’ll give it a go!
Awesome! I’m looking forward to checking the voicemail instead of loathing the task, as I usually do.
Worked like a charm! Very nice mantra, thanks!
Hi, can you recommend a mantra for “language” study, I can recall what I see(through concentration exercises for a l 1/2 or so, it worked). However, what I hear is another problem. Any exercieses you heard of for that? I love languages and music. With music its the same issue, you have to know what you hear(chords, scales) and repeat it. Than\k you. chery
Traditionally, the Manjusri mantra (om arapacanadhih) is said to help with learning and memorization generally, but whether it actually does this is something I don’t know. Good luck!
I found that when doing a Chant or Mantra in a low vocal, so that there is a deep vibration of the bass tone of the vocal chords…..
I Say the Vowels of the Alphabet….AAAAAA, EEEEEE, IIIIIII, OOOOOO, UUUUUU, YYYYYYYYYY….. then for the ending I chant ZEEEEEEEE and ZEEEEEDDDD (for the left and right side of the brain… I think!!!!!)
anyways.. I came up with this because of the 7 Chakras and how to awaken them.
please try and see what you think.. I have found strange sensations as I Chant..
I just got to know about the Usnisa Vijaya Dharani Mantra. I somehow feel attracted to it and want to chant it. The information given about the mantra states that a proper method has to be followed in order to chant the mantra. I.e., one has to created a square mandala, place flowers and variety of grass on it, burn incense sticks and then recite the mantra. I would like to know is it important to do the above in order to learn and recite the mantra?
Can we not just chant it? Pls help.
I’m quite sure that chanting the mantra without the creation of a mandala and the making of offerings will have a beneficial effect. At the same time, physical and mental, as well as verbal, engagement will deepen the effect of the practice, assuming that the physical acts of mandala-creation and the making of offerings are done mindfully and with reverence, so any aspect of that that you can bring into your practice will be beneficial.
Where possible, I’d suggest doing the mantra in front of an image of Ushnisha Vijaya, bowing, making offerings and lighting incense. There needs to be as much as possible an attitude of gratitude and of openness to the deity.
All the best,
I would like to ask a question, if I may.
In my practice I often listen to suttas and teachings in the meditation mode.
I can tell you it takes a two hour sitting to listen to Dhammapada like this; three hours for Bodhicaryavatara
(Way of the Bodhisattva); less for individual suttas (16 minutes for Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta).
Do you think this “qualifies” as a form of mantra meditation?
I think what you’re doing is great, and very meditative. I wouldn’t describe it as a form of mantra meditation, however. With mantras, the meditator is generating the sound, either internally or out loud, whereas you’re just listening to the sound. Also, mantras tend to be generally more evocative, symbolic, and non-conceptual — more right-brain, if you will — while sutras tend to be more left-brained. Of course one can recite sutras, and you can involve your right brain in listening to or chanting sutras (and some mantras, like the Vajrasattva mantra, are more conceptual), so the distinction between the two isn’t absolute, but what you describe isn’t what I’d think of as mantra meditation.
That doesn’t mean it’s any better or worse than mantra meditation — just different. I’m curious why you asked, actually!
All the best,
As an autodidact of sorts, I was only looking for a more informed perspective on the question.
From that perspective, I very much appreciate the answer you have given. It was very helpful.
It also provides me with some sound ideas for varying the practice.
sir I do mantra meditation,and the meaning of my sanskrit mantra is “I surrender myself to shri Krishna”…my question is
that “can I visualise the meaning of my mantra or I should just concentrate on the words of mantra”…thanking you sir.
Why not try both and see what happens, Rishi? Different things work for different people.
sir I have been practising mantra meditation for last 3 months.in the begining I felt a relief whenever I used to do meditiation..but sir now from last 15-20 days I am not experiecing that peace which I felt earliar…instead of that now a days there is flow of many thoughts which makes irritated..what should I do to maitain my meditation….I loosing my concentration as well…thanking you sir.
Hello, Rishi. Sometimes the mind finds ways past our meditation practice in order to express restlessness. We become habituated to the meditation practice and start to do it on “autopilot.” Because we’re not fully engaged with the meditation practice, the opportunity arises for other activities to take place in the mind.
I see the problem as being a bandwidth one. Bear with me and I’ll explain. I’m sure you’ve had the experience that when you’re uploading or downloading a file on a computer, it’s very difficult to do anything else online, because there’s not enough bandwidth available. So you’ll be trying to connect to a web page and it’s happening very slowly, because the computer’s connection with the world is already in use.
I think meditation works in a similar way. The mind has a limited bandwidth, and if we’re paying full attention to a mantra (or any other object of concentration) there’s simply no bandwidth left for distractions. So the amount of distracting thought decreases. We’re fully attentive to the object of the meditation, and the mind becomes calmer.
But what happens when we pay less attention to the mantra, perhaps because we’ve become so used to doing the meditation that it’s an automatic action — one we can do without needing to be mindful of our actions? Bandwidth has been freed up, and so other activities can take place in the mind. In other words we experience distraction.
So what do we do to deal with this situation? We need to increase the “download rate” of the mantra so that there’s less bandwidth available for our distractions. Assuming you’re chanting out loud, you can do this by paying much more conscious attention to the body, and especially to the movements of the lips, tongue, and the breathing (including the diaphragm). If you’re repeating the mantra internally, then I’d suggest “hearing” more than one voice. You could imagine that the mantra is being chanted by a choir of devas, for example. Or you could introduce more visualization, so that you’re in effect downloading video rather than audio — and as we know, video requires more bandwidth.
In other forms of meditation, we can be more aware of the sensations from the outside world, or sensation in the body, for example. This has the same effect of using up the brain’s “bandwidth” so that there’s simply no opportunity for distracting thoughts to arise.
I hope this helps.
sir thanks for your reply,I have a doubt……its been said that a relaxed and effortless meditation produces more effective results.so if I apply visualisation[ I m already poor in visualisation] or any conscious effort in my meditation then how can I go to a deeper level of meditation because regarding mantra meditation I have read that only a natural and relaxed meditation is effective….so sir without any conscious effort how can I gain my concentration as I asked in my previous question…thanking you sir.
You’re correct that a relaxed and effortless meditation is the most effective. Visualizing need not be effortful at all, at least in the sense of conscious effort. The conscious mind does not generate imagery — it simply makes the request, and the unconscious mind supplies the visualization. If you consciously try to “make” an image in your mind, you’ll find that it either doesn’t work at all and you just see the inside of your eyelids, or you’ll produce a very fuzzy image. If you just relax and allow imagery to appear, however, it will be crisp, clear, and effortless.
thanks sir for taking out your precious time for me,…I wana ask just one more thing that during the time of meditation should I try to understand the meaning of the mantra or I should just repeat the mantra as it is…..sir for last 8-10 days I m having a strain at the back of my neck and some problem in my throat. is it due to the meditation detoxing process or its just the fanatsy of my mind…..thanks a lot sir…..now I’ll not take your much time..thanks.
I’m not quite sure what your question means. If you don’t already understand the words of the mantra, then I don’t think you should try to understand the meaning of the mantra as you’re chanting it. I’d suggest you reflect on the meaning outside of your practice, so that the chanting evokes the meaning naturally, without your having to split your attention by both chanting and thinking about the meaning of the chanting. But if you understand the words of the mantra, then of course by all means chant and be aware of the meaning of what you’re chanting.
I’m afraid I’d just be guessing about the tension and the problem in your throat. I tend to go for the simplest explanations first, such as emotional strain, problems with your posture, or, in the case of our throat, an allergy or infection.
What is the symbol on this page? I have a necklace with the same symbol, I think but couldn’t find the meaning……….THANKS!
It’s the symbol for OM, Laurie.
Thanks…it looks different
Bodhipaksa, is Pāli similar in pronunciation to Sanskrit? I was just wondering because of the dhi in siddhi, shouldn’t that be like a forced breath out during a di pronunciation because it is aspirated?
Thanks in advance. By the way, I miss being able to donate.
Yes, the pronunciation generally follows the same rules, and you’re correct: the dhi in sid-dhi should be aspirated. So should the dha in Bud-dha, but of course it sounds pretentious doing this in a normal conversation! Sometimes you have to save proper pronunciation for special occasions!
You can still donate! Here’s the link to the donations page in our store: https://shop.wildmind.org/home.php?cat=4
All the best,
When I started my meditation, I heard a mantra very clearly being recited 3 times just outside my window.It was a voice of a female.The mantra is ‘Om Te Li Mang, Om Chai Lay.’
Was this mantra meant for me?
Should I use it or just pay no attention to it?
Does such a mantra exist?
I’m not aware of that as a mantra.
Sometimes certain people do hear things during meditation. This has happened to me several times, and none of the things I’ve heard have been at all significant. I regard these things as being tricks of the mind, and so I wouldn’t suggest paying much attention to it. I’d guess that your mind, in an almost dream-like way, has thrown up something that sounds like a mantra, and I doubt if it has much significance. These kinds of auditory hallucinations, in my experience, tend to arise when we’re beginning to develop a greater degree of concentration, and so I’d take it as generally a good sign that your practice is moving in the right direction.
I’m sorry, a failure on my part.I’ll rephrase.
It was when I started meditation 18 years ago that I heard this mantra while making a drink for myself in the kitchen. I somehow still remember it to this day, word for word of it.
May the Buddhas be with you.
Thanks for the clarification. I don’t think the fact that you weren’t meditating at the time you heard this mantra makes any significant difference. Meditative states where the mind is more open to dream-like communication from the unconscious take place outside of formal meditation as well. I’d suspect that the fact that you’d recently taken up meditation was significant, however.
Thank you again.The dream like communication from the unconscious can take place outside of formal meditation.That is interesting.Last month, a green light appeared on the ceiling of my room in the wee hours of the morning.My wife saw it first and woke me up.Then the green light turned into the white lion face of Senge Dongma.Only the face and the white mane, which was being gently blown around in the gentle breeze,were visible.The face enlarged to the size of my bed and started moving down towards us until it was only about a foot above us.My wife, a Christian was stiff scared while I was chanting in my heart.The face then moved back upwards towards the ceiling and slowly disappeared.
I have never chanted her mantra before.What is the reason for such appearances or should I say holy appearances? What is the best thing to do in such situations?
I have no explanation for what you saw, I’m afraid. I’m not much of a believer in miracles, but if what you saw is meaningful to you, I’d suggest dwelling on images of Senge Dongma, and learning more about her. We can develop a fascinating with these archetypal figures that is akin to falling in love, and that helps us to appreciate the qualities of the figure in ourselves. It’s important to recognize that ultimately the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are not separate from ourselves, and that when we’re paying attention to them as “external” object we’re also paying attention to the qualities they represent within ourselves.
Thank you sir.Your comments are full of wisdom.Even with no explanation for what I have seen, your advice gives me all the more reasons to keep me going on the path.Very very few people can give such advice.Many others have just brushed me aside.
I am new to meditation and to Buddhaism. I would very much appreciate it if you could guide me to some mantras that would bring me openmindness and peace.
I’d suggest clicking on the link to the left that says Buddhist Mantras and then checking out some of the mantras we cover. There are audio version for you to listen to and some text about each mantra. Find which ones work for you.
I have tried several mantras and found them to be very powerful. The problem is I stopped and went downhill fast. I feel a distinct lack of balance overall. What meditation or practice would you suggest to help regain a sense of balance.
Peace and Light
I don’t advise people to use mantras as a sole method of meditation. Obviously people have different temperaments, but I find mantras best for adding to an existing practice, which I think is ideally based on mindfulness of breathing and lovingkindness meditation. Those are the two meditations I’d encourage you to take up as a regular practice.
Thank you very much for the advice. I will give it a go.
I have looked through the two practices you recommended which has helped me realize what was missing. I can now see for the first time,with clarity, what is needed to find the balance I so desperately need.
Do you happen to know the chant that Tina Turner said when she first started to study Buddism. I had heard it before and then in her life story movie.
That would be Nam MyÃ…ÂhÃ…Â Renge KyÃ…Â (“Homage to the Lotus Sutra”). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nam_Myoho_Renge_Kyo
Thank you! That is it.
Sir, I would like to take up the study of Buddhism, but as a complete “beginner”, I don’t know where to start. I have had some sad things happen in my life. I have brought myself back from a dark place, but although I have strived to improve my life and myself (and I have, ostensibly), I still have a spiritual need I wish to fulfill, to find peace and let go of my troubles of the past. I feel I need the discipline to focus myself, and once again be motivated. I wish to feel that I no longer lost or just drifting. Please advise.
You might want to start by finding a practice group that suits you. It really is ideal to practice with others, although it has to be a group and practice that you find works for you. If that’s not possible, I’d suggest taking up first mindfulness of breathing meditation, and then lovingkindness meditation. These are both important, and even indispensable, practices.
Thank you so much!
Hi…I would like to ask a couple of questions please…firstly I would like to know if the buddhist mantra namyo renge kyo can be chanted for getting a job if one is going through financial difficulties..can one chant it for material gains?
Secondly, can reciting/listening of Usnisa Vijaya Dharani Mantra help one to reduce his pain, suffering and bad Karma if one is going through a tough time.
Thirdly…if u can kindly suggest a mantra which can help one be emotionally strong and happy…
Thankyou very much
I know that the Soka Gakkai people tend to chant Nam Myoho Renge Kyo for material benefit, but this isn’t, to the best of my knowledge, a practice that would be looked upon very favorably. I’m not a fan of this approach to practice. If you want material gains, do what’s needed to create material gains — in your case applying for jobs, networking, etc. Do make sure that you meditate, since this will help you to be in a more positive and relaxed frame of mind, which will boost your creativity and make you the kind of person people want to employ. By contrast, I think chanting a mantra, hoping that it will bring material benefits, could give you that “desperate” feel that turns people off.
For your second point, chanting any mantra will tend to reduce your suffering. The mantra replaces any negative thinking you might otherwise have been doing, and so helps your emotions to settle down, and your mind to clear. But lovingkindness and mindfulness practice would be very useful as well. I believe those practices to be more deeply transformative than mantra practice alone.
Thirdly, there are different kinds of emotional strength. A mantra like that of Padmasambhava or Vajrapani invokes a vigorous form of emotional courage, while any of the more “gentle” mantras, like Tara or Avalokiteshvara, calls forth the courage of compassionate patience.
[…] Select a phrase, or a favourite prayer you will use for your mantra. Ideally it should really only be a few words long, so you can repeat it easily. Try to choose […]
Hi, i just found your page; very informative.
i am a Caribbean living in New York, and i have fallen in love with mantras i have found on YouTube. This is all new to me, but i feel i have found my spiritual path.
Could you recommend some mantras; i understand that specific needs or situations have specific words/mantras….how do i start?
I mean, i like most of what i have listened to, but not always the meaning is translated to English, or Spanish.
I will greatly appreciate if you email me some info.
Thanks so much.
Thanks for your interest in mantras. We have plenty of information on mantras on this site, and that’s where I’d suggest you get started. We’re not really in a position to email detailed guidance on mantra practice to individuals on request.
All the best,
ive been chanting for years while i work
i dont have a clue what the word mean but i love it!
it helps me to focus on what im doing and when whats infront of you works well all other things go in a similar way
[…] help the focus of the meditation. Experiment with chanting alone or in groups. There are many traditional chants and mantras, and most find these helpful as a way to direct focus during meditation. IE: Concentrate on the […]
Do you think Deval Premal’s mantra’s could be used to meditate by saying the mantra as she does?
Does mantra meditation work ‘better’ than just attending to one’s breathing?
Thank you in advance.
I think anything you say or chant can be used as a mindfulness tool. When my kids were younger and I had to sing a nursery rhyme to them over and over I’d become aware of the movements of my lips and tongue, and of the breathing. Of course the content wasn’t very spiritual (“See-saw, Marjorie Daw…”).
In terms of effectiveness, I think mantra meditation is more limited. Because there’s activity in the mind, it’s not possible to gain the same depth of calmness that we can achieve in mindfulness of breathing. But mantras do calm the mind by reducing inner chatter, and that’s helpful. They’re esthetically pleasing, and they involve contemplation of spiritual ideals. That’s all good stuff, and not a significant factor in mindfulness of breathing. In other words they’re very different practices, and do different things.
But it’s not an either/or choice, is it? :)