Mantras are rather mysterious. They are said to be “sound symbols” – sounds that in some way correspond to and evoke the spiritual forces that can be represented in visual form as Tara, Avalokiteshvara, etc. We can easily see how an image of a particular figure can have symbolic value, but quite how a sound does this it is not possible to explain rationally.
Mantra: “instrument of thought”, speech, sacred text or speech, a prayer or song of praise; a sacred formula addressed to any individual deity; a mystical verse or magical formula (sometimes personified), incantation, charm, spell
Perhaps it’s best to think of mantras as being a cross between poetry and magical incantations. Many mantras don’t make any real, rational, sense, even in Sanskrit, and so often they can’t really be translated in the same way that a normal sentence can.
The mantra of Avalokitesvara, for example, is just his name, in an older form — Manipadme (“The Jewel Lotus”) sandwiched between the mystical syllables “Om” and “Hum.” It doesn’t really mean anything beyond being a salutation or evocation.
Do mantras have meaning?
Mantras often contain syllables like Om, Ah, and Hum (approximately pronounced hoong), which have no literal meaning whatsoever. There are various “understandings” or interpretations of what these might mean, and the three syllables have been correlated with (respectively) body, speech, and mind; or (again respectively) the Dharmakaya, Sambhogakaya, and Nirmanakaya.
Mantras are also correlated with the Buddhas of the mandala, with Om being the seed syllable of Vairochana, the central Buddha, Ah with Amoghasiddhi, the northern Buddha, and Hum with Akshobya, the Buddha of the east. These kinds of associations can become important as we become familiar with Buddhism.
Some words in mantras give rise to more definite associations. The “mani” in the Avalokiteshvara mantra (Om mani padme hum) means “jewel,” while “padme” means “lotus”. The mantra is sometimes taken to mean “Hail to the Jewel in the Lotus” although the grammar is rather obscure.
I see the mantra as being more poetic and symbolic. The jewel is symbolic of the clarity of wisdom, while the lotus is a symbol both of purity and compassion. So the Avalokitesvara mantra brings together wisdom and compassion. In reciting the mantra, one is calling those qualities to mind.
But trying to understand mantras intellectually is probably a bit like deconstructing a joke – you can do it, but by the time you have finished the task you’ve completely lost the point of the joke in the first place.
How mantra meditation brings benefits
Some people hold that mantras have an inherent “spiritual meaning” — that is that someone chanting the mantra of Avalokiteshvara will develop a connection with the compassion of Avalokiteshvara, even without knowing anything of the meaning (inasmuch as there is one) of the mantra, and without knowing anything about the bodhisattva himself.
I’d consider it within the bounds of possibility that such “supernatural” explanations of the benefits of mantras are correct. I recall reading about two experiments testing the British biologist Rupert Sheldrake’s theory of “morphic fields.” In one experiment Britons and Americans found it easier to learn a genuine Japanese nursery rhyme than a newly-composed Japanese poem with the same rhyming structure. In another, it became easier for a group of people to solve a visual puzzle once other people (who they were not in contact with) had already solved the problem. These experiments, and the theory they were testing, are of course scientifically controversial, but the possibility remains that a pattern or words may somehow have a direct effect on the mind. I’m more than a little skeptical of this, but not closed to the idea.
Others, including myself, hold that one develops associations with the mantra as one chants it and begins to learn more about the bodhisattva. It’s common for people to develop an attraction to a particular figure and they then naturally want to know more about that particular deity. The mantra becomes associated with the qualities of the figure, and thus becomes a mental reminder of those qualities. The Tara mantra then begins to evoke the qualities of active compassion that Tara embodies.
Certainly, it is possible to benefit from a mantra while knowing nothing about it. Many people have found that very quickly after taking up a mantra (perhaps the first time they chant one) they notice a change in the quality of their experience. As an object of concentration — like any other — a mantra can help to still the mind. While you are reciting a mantra out loud or internally, there tends to be less mental chatter. There’s only so much “mental space” for thinking to take place in, and if you’re taking up some of that inner space with a mantra you’ll be doing less thinking. And since much of the thinking we do is concerned with things we crave, or with things we’re irritated by, depressed about, or worried about, we naturally start to crave, worry, be angry, and be despondent less when we’re reciting a mantra. Even if there is a parallel stream of internal discourse going on at the same time as the mantra (and it can happen that we’re chanting and thinking at the same time) the chanting creates a sense of continuity within our experience that can grow with practice.
Mantras can help us to develop mindfulness. The sound of the mantra is a mental object, and paying attention to the sound of the mantra can be a form of meditation, just as paying attention to the sensations of the breath is a meditation. By bringing the mind back over and over again to the mantra (getting away from the kind of multitasking where we’re “kind of” chanting the mantra while also thinking about work, relationships, and shopping) the mind can become more unified and less scattered. We become more attentive and present.
If we pay attention to the correct pronunciation of the mantra (and I encourage you to do that) then that becomes another way to be mindful — making sure that the lips, mouth, tongue, vocal cords, etc, are all working together in a very precise way. Being conscious of one’s posture and breathing can also feature here.
And if you’re chanting the mantra out loud then you can observe the physical vibrations in the body. Even if you’re chanting the mantra mentally, you can be aware of what effect the practice is having on your body, mind, and emotions. This is all part of the practice on mantras as an object of mindfulness.
Mantras as a devotional practice
The word Mantra is said to mean “that which protects the mind,” although a more literal meaning based on the etymology might be “an instrument of mind.”
Mantra meditation existed at the time of the Buddha but was not practiced by Buddhists and was closely tied to the ancient, Brahminical Vedic religion in which sacrifices and prayers to the gods were considered to be a major spiritual practice. It wasn’t until many centuries after the Buddha, and with the arising of the Mahayana, that mantras became incorporated into Buddhist practice.
However there were many “magical chants” in early Buddhism which although not mantras proper were considered central to Buddhist meditation practice. These included the famous “sabbe satta sukhi hontu” (may all beings be happy) and many similar phrases such as “sabbe satta avera hontu” (may all beings dwell in peace”), and arguably even the chanting of the Three Refuges and of the Precepts.
These chants can be regarded as paritta or “verses that protect.” There’s a collection of these in the Pali scriptures, including gems like the following:
“O Buddha, the Hero, thou art wholly free from all evil. My adoration to thee. I have fallen into distress. Be thou my refuge,”
“There rises the golden hued one, the one who has sight, the one who is sole monarch, the one who illuminates the earth. I adore thee, the golden hued one who illuminates the earth. I adore thee, the golden hued one who illuminates the earth. Protected by thee we live this day safe and secure.”
The latter of these would seem to be a prayer to the sun that has been repurposed as a hymn to the Buddha (who was said to be golden-hued, who had the vision of Prajna, who illuminates the earth with his wisdom, and whose dhamma (teachings and practices) offer protection from suffering.
There was therefore an early predisposition to using chanting as a protective practice, and perhaps this laid the ground for the later incorporation of mantras into Buddhism.
Particularly interesting in this regard is part of the Buddha’s teaching at Isigili, where he recites the names of previous spiritual teachers:
Arittha, Uparittha, Tagarasikhi, Yasassi, Sudassana, Piyadassi the enlightened. Gandhara, Pindola and Upasabha, Nitha, Tatha, Sutava, Bhavitatta. Sumbha, Subha, Methula, Atthama, and then Megha, Anigha, Sudatha are paccekabuddhas whose desire for becoming (re-living) is destroyed.
The list goes on, and the Buddha concludes: “Do salute these great sages of immeasurable virtue who have gone beyond all attachment and attained Parinibbana.”
To my mind there is something very mantra-like about the chanting of names in this way, particularly since they are arranged in a poetic fashion, and in the idea that we should salute the Awakened Ones by reciting their names. Chanting the name of a deity in a devotional way is the very essence of mantra. Mantra chanting therefore can be a devotional practice in which we cultivate and express feelings of admiration, love, and gratitude to those who are further on the path than we are.
As far as I understand the word ‘o’ was first came out from the first man on this earth. He used to utter this as it comes out naturally. The next word ‘m’ was uttered as it also comes after that naturally. Even today when a child start speaking he or she utter very naturally ‘o’ and then ‘m’. The logic state that these two words had created so many magic at that time. Even today when a child takes birth he or she start crying and a hidden voice comes out of it is ‘o’ and then after few months the second first word comes out of each child is ‘m’. It means calling mother for some help or something. The ‘o’ second natural meaning is the father or holder of the whole universe and ‘m’ means mother. The first human creature must have uttered this word and the God had started obliging with its power. The God does not mean here any in any specific form it only means the whole nature. The whole nature is our mother. This symbolic word at that time must have given so many power to the new creature on this earth as the nature was pleased that it is listening some vioces from its creature. As today all the human activities are part and parcel of the nature. The natural elements if mixes up with purity then Good soul on this earth is born and that good soul try to show the path of good deeds and finally regarded as a recarnation of God.
That’s a nice story, although the first vowel sound that babies make is actually “aa”. And “m” is a more complex consonant that comes after “b” and “d”.
I’m no linguist, but my own sense of why “OM” is so important is that “o” seems to be the most physical of the vowels. When you make a sustained “o” sound the whole chest vibrates. When you add a nasalized “m” to that “o” you also get vibrations in the head as well as overtones (the production of more than one note at one time).
I can imagine that having the body vibrate might have seemed very significant in early Indian culture, and that overtones would also be very significant — when you’re making more than one sound simultaneously it’s almost as if you’ve created something “out of this world” (i.e. supernatural).
Where do those extra sounds come from, people might have wondered? Is it the gods making them? Are they joining in with our chanting?
The words in the Tara mantra do have meanings related to her qualities. Om begins many mantras, and represents the unspoken sound of creation’s origin. The name, Tara, means pure primordial wisdom or Buddha consciousness. Tuttare is the power to give liberation… from the ego-mind. Ture means quick… not waiting or holding back. Soha is a prayer closing, sort of a “so be it”.
re the oṃ mantra. If we were to follow the rules of Sanskrit pronunciation then sounding oṃ would not involve the lips at all – the tongue falls back and re-directs air up through the nasal passages. The ṃ used in romanisations of the anusvāra gives the wrong impression. (Bodhipakśa: it is a nasalised /o/ not a nasalised /m/). The word should rhyme with the French “bon” with the lips maintaining the rounded shape of /o/. That said it is pronounced with an /m/ sound at the end even in India.
However if you sound a rounded nasal vowel and sustain it, then you do indeed experience most of the physical vibrations in your head. The tongue blocks off air flow to the mouth and the sound resonates in the sinus cavity. It’s an interesting sensation. The thing about overtones may have contributed, but I have not seen it mentioned in literature on mantra.
The speculation on the significance of oṃ occurs at a time when priests were starting to experiment with doing their sacrificial rituals in imagination rather than on a real fire – thereby inventing meditation! The whole focus of awareness moves from the external world – the fire, food offerings, and the elements – and into the self and imagination. Out of this came the Śramana movement and their texts the Upaniśads which are where we first read about oṃ. BTW we know that the Buddha had some familiarity with those texts because he parodies them on a number of occasions. However several times in the Pāli Canon the Buddha makes it clear that he doesn’t put much store in Vedic mantra.
Oṃ at the beginning of Buddhist mantras is almost entirely abstract. It can mean simply “this is a mantra”; or, as Xan suggests, it can take on pretty much any symbolism that Buddhists require it to. Although Xan your suggested meaning of Tārā’s name is not at all related to the Sanskrit. Literally Tārā means “star”.
A great deal of what is basically superstition has built up around mantra chanting which makes trying to understand what is going on quite difficult. I like Bodhipakśa’s approach. I’ve recently made an attempt to summarise what is a Buddhist mantra on visiblemantra.org.
Thanks for another thoughtful and informative post.
There does seem to be some variation in how ṃ is pronounced (as you point out in India there’s an “m” at the end).
One textbook we used in my Pali class, Gair and Karunatillake’s “A New Course In Reading Pali”, says the following (page xvi):
Whether they’re talking about a distinction that exists in Classical Sanskrit, or only in Pali, or only in the contemporary pronunciation is something I just don’t know.
Regarding overtones and vibrations, I find that chanting a “nasalized o” leads to pronounced vibrations in the chest cavity that I can feel with my hand on the ribcage. It’s not unlike stroking a purring cat. Sometimes I’m aware of the sensations only faintly, but as I sustain the note they become stronger — presumably I’m altering the flow of the air in order to strengthen the vibration.
Thanks for the link to your article, as well. It’s most interesting, and I’m really glad to hear that you’re pursuing your insight into mantras and sharing it with the rest of us. What a gift!
I am trying meditation since last 30 days after reading every page of this site. my process is:
I take a long breath and then chant OM MANE PADME HUM in one breath and then start
again with a long breath. one chanting takes about 12 seconds. I keep my eyes closed.
at present I am doing it for 10-12 minutes at a stretch.
please advice me what should be in the mind. should i visualise a mani & a lotus OR
should I focus on the centre of both eyes or should I open my eyes and focus on any photo.
something has to keep in mind otherwise it goes here and there.
I am very confused, please advice.
I do have a regular headache problem, so please tell me accordingly.
I already partly answered this question when you asked it earlier (see here) but I realize that I could have said more.
Some people are very visual and need to have an image to occupy the mind. It sounds like you may be one of those people.
If an image doesn’t arise spontaneously perhaps it would indeed be best if you engaged your visual imagination by calling an image to mind.
Visualizing Avalokiteshvara would be a natural thing to do in order to provide a visual accompaniment to the mantra. I’d suggest finding an image that attracts you and spending time looking at that outside of meditation. You can also have the image in front of you while you meditate, and look at it from time to time.
At first you may find yourself trying to reproduce that image exactly, and that’s a reasonable first step. Some of the time in meditation you could be looking at the image, and then you can close your eyes and see the image internally. This isn’t always an easy thing to do, especially if we try to “draw” the image consciously in the mind. We need to relax and let the image come naturally.
In the long term you’d be allowing your practice to breathe life into the imagined image so that it emerges more spontaneously from the unconscious mind (from your own Buddha-nature). This is something that just happens as you continue with the practice.
One aim of mantra practice is to bring the qualities of Avalokiteshvara (or whichever “deity” we’re dwelling upon) into being in our experience. Those qualities are already there within us waiting to be awoken, and reciting the mantra and visualizing the deity provide a channel for those qualities to emerge from potentiality into actuality. The image that you reproduce in your mind (the one you’ve seen on a postcard or statue) becomes a kind of doorway through with the light of compassion and wisdom can shine.
When the door opens and the light does begin to emerge, the image you’ve consciously been calling to mind will be replaced by something more vivid and alive — something that feels more like the visitation of something unknown. This isn’t the same as enlightenment — it’s a much lower stage — but it’s a significant step on the way.
I hope this is helpful.
I slightly and cordially disagree with Bodhipaksa on this. He may be right to suggest that an visual image would be helpful, it is certainly worth trying.
My approach would be to go more towards the body. The physical act of reciting involves quite a bit of activity in the chest, the throat and the mouth. The body physically resonates to mantras chanted aloud and this can be included in the awareness when chanting. In particular it can be fascinating and absorbing to pay attention to the tongue and lips when reciting a mantra – follow the movements as each syllable is formed and voiced. Paying attention to the physical sensations of the mantra, as well as the experience of hearing it will ground the experience, bring you into your body (as the saying goes). My thinking is that this is an integrating practice like the mindfulness of breathing. My gut reaction is that if there is confusion, then do samatha meditation, get into your body and your feelings. My understanding of what Bodhipaksa is suggesting is a move towards a more insight centred practice which certainly has its place, but working in imagination involves a move away from felt experience and into something more abstract – without a grounding in samatha it can be unsettling. Thus is just my opinion.
If you decide you do need visual image then you might also try visualising the letters of the mantra as you recite them – I find I have to slow down to do this, but it gets easier. This is also a useful skill if you take up sadhana visualisations later.
Headaches are notoriously difficult to diagnose, but perhaps you are tense? Paying attention to the physical experience of chanting may shed light on this – what is happening in your body when you chant?
That’s a good point about body awareness, actually. We could go a bit further and suggest doing some body-scanning as preparation for mantra chanting.
I don’t quite agree that “working in imagination involves a move away from felt experience.” Visualization is a very right-brain activity and can be very visceral — you just have to notice how powerfully a dream, day-dream, or a visual fantasy can affect you in order to appreciate how strongly connected are our emotions and our imaginations. My imagination often moves me more than real life does!
But visualization can certainly involve a move away from the experience of the body, and maybe that’s what you meant. And so your reminder of the physical aspects of mantra chanting are very welcome.
As one fool to another stumbling forward in the dark, holdiing the light out in front of me, I don’t worry about how the light works…just greatful that it leads my heart/mind forward on my path. And so it is with my mantra. Zenshin
stumbling forward to the dark ,
As I think in every religion , the importance is given to ‘a ‘ or “o” ,in muslim there is allah then for christian it is amen
and in hindu it is om. Even child speaks the letter aa before other vowels .
But if u think that for meditation Om is necessary ,i do not understand the necessity. I would suggest anyone who is interested
in meditation to get rid of mental tension,i can advise that keep your eyes closed and try to make your mind blank with releasing
the control over all parts of body as one by one .I am sure that you will start getting sudden relief . THE WAY EVERYTHING SHOULD BE LIKE YOUARE
LEAVING YOUR BODY. just try once and be happy
I find this to be the best web site for info on Mantra meditation.It has answered all of questions about how to meditate.Thank you soo much.
Greetings, there is some very useful information on this website. Thanks, Aloka Bhikkhu.
As far as I know the “”om” is the sound when the first breath is taken by newly born. And the “hum”, the last word in the mantra of Avalokiteshvara, is the last voice when soul leaves the body, i.e. the death. The whole mantra is the whole life cycle. And, you should keep that in mind to not to forget that you’ve once born and, you will die someday. This is what I learned when I was a child from Mongolian lamas.
Also, there’s a mediation type only practicing om, hum, i.e. the breath mediation. You should concern your mind on a sound when you take breath and when you release the breath.
So, I think that the “om” is the beginning of everything.
I doubt very much that if you took a hundred impartial observers, even one of them would interpret the first sound of a newborn to be anything like “om,” or the last sound of a dying person to be “hum.” I find this kind of “teaching” rather distressing. Aren’t we, as Buddhists, attempting to practice truthful speech? And these monks’ communication doesn’t strike me as being in accord with reality. I stress I’m talking about the monks and not about you — you’ve made it clear you’re just reporting what you’ve heard…
You say “Mantra meditation existed at the time of the Buddha but was not practiced by Buddhists and was closely tied to the ancient, Brahminical Vedic religion in which sacrifices and prayers to the gods were considered to be a major spiritual practice.” – Just wanted to point out that sacrifice/prayer, while espoused was NOT and far from the main theme in the Vedic religion. It is widely and very wrongly attributed thus. You will find that meditation on the self is espoused constantly in the Vedas/Upanishads – mantra meditation arises from here. Each sound has a meaning corresponding to a body part/chakra. So meditating thus can unlock a specific chakra. Ultimately helping you in your final end quest to understand your self.
Both the Jain and Buddhist scriptures are full of condemnations of the Brahminic practice of animal sacrifice. I’m afraid it seems to have been a prominent form of religious ritual at that time.
Both Jainism and Buddhism have been regarded as being instrumental in curbing these practices.
As this helpful article from The Hindu tells us, “In a way while Brahminism ‘succeeded’ in banishing Buddhism from India, it had also to transform itself from the ‘animal sacrifice, state to the one which could be in tune with the times.”
I recently took up mantra meditation after giving up on it for years. I’ve discovered that how I am breathing is incredibly important to how it affects me. I breathe deeply in through my nose and say the mantra until I am out of breath. I repeat this for about forty-eight breaths. I find it very relaxing and addicting. I saw a video that helped explain it. It said something about how breathing deeply for about ten to twenty breaths stimulates the vagus nerve and activates the parasympathetic nervous system. Here is the video if anyone wants to see it. It’s only a minute and fifteen seconds long: https://abcnews.go.com/Health/video/relaxation-response-9362175
I have been meditating for last 2-3 months, I sit and recite only OM, I concentrate on the vibrations and the sound which I make, is it ok to concentrate on both the things, I don’t do it purposely but it happens, second and the most important thing is, I am dead scared of public speaking, I am an excellent speaker when it comes to one on one discussion or with the people I know, but when It comes to address larger audience, I start shivering and loose my breath, someone told me that meditation can help you overcome this fear, so I started OM meditation, is it the right type of meditation for my weaknesses, if yes, do I need to think something while meditating, if not, what would be the best type of meditation which I can follow, I would really request you to answer this one, any sort of help will really be appreciated. thanks
Focusing on the sound and vibrations of Om is a fine practice. I don’t see any one practice as being complete in itself, however, and I always recommend that people practice both mindfulness of breathing and lovingkindness meditation regularly. Both of those practices would be helpful with your fear of speaking in public. You might also want to try other things, though. For example, Amy Cuddy, in her well-known TED talk, explains how your posture can either give you confidence or create fear. A few minutes of standing in the kind of dominant stance that she discusses can make you feel much more confident.
At one time I was very anxious about teaching, and a friend asked me to explain what was my worst fear. If a talk went very badly, what would that look like? I realized that my biggest fear was that the audience would be bored. My nightmare scenario would be if people got up and started talking to each other and wandering around. My friend then suggested that I do something to make sure that the audience was engaged. For example, I could start a talk by asking the audience a question, and getting their responses. I could pause during the talk and do the same thing again. Very quickly I lost my fear of public speaking. It may be that if you can articulate what is your “nightmare scenario” for public speaking, you could find a way to give yourself reassurance in the same way I did.
thanks dear I read what you have explained about mantras. I am really impressed.
thanks dear and I hope that your explanation will help me in knowing mantras.
that prayer to the golden hued one is so like Akhenaten’s prayer to the aten/sun
Good tidbits of facts in this article. But lost in a sea of words. When will the teachers of any spirituality learn the clarity comes succinct explanations. Pondered overtime. We are living in 21st century. We live in a time of texts/soundbites & tweets.
If mindfulness is about clear seeing; equanimity is about appropriately responding to the context(world at this moment). Aren’t we missing the point buddhist practice by following the ‘long winded sermons’ of the old school clergy.
I confess that a number of years ago I started finding it hard to concentrate on reading books. Fortunately I managed to overcome that.
The reason we live in a time of soundbites is that people have fried their brains on social media. If someone is unable to sustain attention long enough to read a 1500 word article they probably, as happened to me, find that they have difficulty sustaining attention long enough to read books and long-form articles.
I’d suggest that people interested in spiritual practice should aim to get off of social media, spend more time stabilizing the mind in meditation, and re-learn the joys of immersive reading.
It’s very rewarding.
Incidentally, this article was written in 2006, when social media hadn’t yet wrecked people’s attention spans. I don’t think it’s reasonable to ask teachers to go back and dumb down everything they’ve ever written.