Mantra in Theravadin Buddhism

Often mantra is thought of as a part of later Mahayana or Vajrayana Buddhism, as opposed to the Theravadin Buddhism of South and South East Asia. However chanting is a very important part of practice in the Theravada tradition.

In Living Buddhist Masters, Jack Kornfield wrote:

The use of mantra or the repetition of certain phrases in Pali is an extremely common form of meditation in the Theravada tradition. Simple mantras use repetition of the Buddha’s name , “Buddho,” [actually “Buddho” is a title rather than a name] or use the “Dhamma,” or the “Sangha,” the community, as mantra words. Other mantras that are used are directed toward developing loving kindness. Some mantras direct attention to the process of change by repeating the Pali phrase that means “everything changes,” while other mantras are used to develop equanimity with phrases that would be translated, “let go.”

Very often mantra practice is combined with breathing meditation, so that one recites a mantra simultaneously with in-breath and out-breath to help develop tranquility and concentration. Mantra meditation is especially popular among the lay people. Like other basic concentration exercises, it can be used simply to still the mind or it can be the basis for an insight practice where the mantra becomes the focus of observation of how life unfolds, or an aid in surrendering and letting go.

The Venerable Ajahn Sumedho recommended the “Buddho” mantra. He suggested that we inhale on the “Bud” and exhale on “-dho” so that the mind is occupied with the mantra for the full cycle of the breath.

He encouraged that the mantra be used to develop “clarity and brightness” rather than letting the mind sink into passivity. While the word “mantra” in contemporary English has come to mean something repeated mindlessly, or so often that it has lost all meaning, Sumedho said:

Make the mantra fully conscious instead of just a perfunctory passive thing that makes the mind dull; energize the mind so that the inhalation on “Bud” is a bright inhalations, not just a perfunctory “Bud” sound that fades out because it never gets brightened or refreshed by your mind.

He also recommended visualizing the spelling so that the visual capacity of the mind can be used in the meditation as well and “so that you’re fully with that syllable” for the inhalation or exhalation.

Ajahn Dhammadharo, another Theravadin teacher, outlined a seven-step meditation on “bud-dho.”

  1. Start out with three or seven long in-and-out breaths, thinking bud- with the in-breath, and dho with the out. Keep the meditation syllable as long as the breath.
  2. Be clearly aware of each in-and-out breath.
  3. Observe the breath as it goes in and out, noticing whether it’s comfortable or uncomfortable, broad or narrow, obstructed or free-flowing, fast or slow, short or long, warm or cool. If the breath doesn’t feel comfortable, change it until it does. For instance, if breathing in long and out long is uncomfortable, try breathing in short and out short. As soon as you find that your breathing feels comfortable, let this comfortable breath sensation spread to the different parts of the body.
  4. To begin with, inhale the breath sensation at the base of the skull and let it flow all the way down the spine. Then, if you are male, let it spread down your right leg to the sole of your foot, to the ends of your toes, and out into the air. Inhale the breath sensation at the base of the skull again and let it spread down your spine, down your left leg to the ends of your toes, and out into the air. (If you are female, begin with the left side first, because the male and female nervous systems are different.)
  5. Then let the breath from the base of the skull spread down over both shoulders, past your elbows and wrists, to the tips of your fingers, and out into the air.

    Let the breath at the base of the throat spread down the central nerve at the front of the body, past the lungs and liver, all the way down to the bladder and colon.

    Inhale the breath right at the middle of the chest and let it go all the way down to your intestines.

    Let all these breath sensations spread so that they connect and flow together, and you’ll feel a greatly improved sense of well-being.

  6. Learn four ways of adjusting the breath:
    1. in long and out long,
    2. in short and out short,
    3. in short and out long,
    4. in long and out short.Breathe whichever way is most comfortable for you. Or, better yet, learn to breathe comfortably all four ways, because your physical condition and your breath are always changing.
  7. Become acquainted with the bases or focal points for the mind — the resting spots of the breath — and center your awareness on whichever one seems most comfortable. A few of these bases are:
    1. the tip of the nose,
    2. the middle of the head,
    3. the palate,
    4. the base of the throat,
    5. the breastbone (the tip of the sternum),
    6. the navel (or a point just above it).If you suffer from frequent headaches or nervous problems, don’t focus on any spot above the base of the throat. And don’t try to force the breath or put yourself into a trance. Breathe freely and naturally. Let the mind be at ease with the breath — but not to the point where it slips away.
  8. Spread your awareness — your sense of conscious feeling — throughout the entire body.
  9. Unite the breath sensations throughout the body, letting them flow together comfortably, keeping your awareness as broad as possible. Once you are fully aware of the aspects of the breath you already know in your body, you’ll come to know all sorts of other aspects as well. The breath, by its nature, has many facets: breath sensations flowing in the nerves, those flowing around and about the nerves, those spreading from the nerves to every pore. Beneficial breath sensations and harmful ones are mixed together by their very nature.