Dalai Lama Chanting Heart Sutra Mantra with Music

I’ve written about fifteen posts about the Heart Sutra, or some aspect of it.  You can find them here.  It’s been said that the Heart Sutra is Buddhism in a nutshell, containing only 632 characters in the traditional Chinese version, distilled from the voluminous Maha-Prajna-Paramita Sutra.

It is recited daily in Buddhist homes and temples and monasteries all over the world.

Thich Nhat Hanh calls the Heart Sutra, “A wonderful gift.”  And Zen Teacher Norman Fischer writes that “The insight of prajnaparamita, the perfection of wisdom as taught in the Heart Sutra, is the ultimate truth, transcending of all conventional truths.  It is the highest vision of the Buddha.”

Penetrate the true meaning of the Heart Sutra, and nothing will be the same again, says Karl Brunnhölzl at Lion’s Roar.

The mantra at the end encapsulates the teachings of the Heart Sutra.

tadyatha [om] gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha

I translate it as:  tadyatha gone gone gone beyond gone far beyond be set upon awakening.

If I do say so myself, I think this translation is perfect for chanting in English.  However, when I recite the sutra itself, I usually do it in Japanese.

In his book, The Essence of the Heart Sutra, the Dalai Lama notes,

“We can interpret this mantra metaphorically to read “Go to the other shore,” which is to say, abandon the shore of samsara [suffering], unenlightened existence, which has been our home since beginningless time, and cross to the other shore of final nirvana and complete liberation.”

Here, then, is the Dalai Lama reciting the Heart Sutra mantra accompanied by some ambient music I put together.  I hope it will meet with your approval.

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Soundless Sound

Gandhi’s guidance about mantra I posted the other day started me thinking I should really write more about mantra because it can be a very effective form of practice, and is an important part of my own practice.

Mantra is based on the science of sound, and I am using the word science rather loosely. The Sanskrit word for sound is nada, which refers to any sound, vibration, or tone. In the ancient Indian teachings on mantra, the sound of the Eternal was considered the Soundless Sound. Ultimately, the sound of the universe is silence, but it was rendered conventionally as OM (AUM).

00X4OM is a seed sound or syllable (bija). Mantra practice in Buddhism originally centered around bijas, particularly ‘A’ – the first letter of the Sanskrit Siddham alphabet, from which all letters are born, as well as the first sound made by the mouth. ‘A’ represents the alpha of all wisdom, and the ultimate reality of nirvana.

Also representative of siddhanta, the highest truth, as mantra practice evolved in Buddhism, the word ‘mantra’ began to take on the meaning of “true word,” as in the “true words of the Buddha,” a meaning also applied to dharani. The Chinese translation of mantra is zhenyan (Jp. shingon), a term that became associated with magical formulae, spells, and mystical chants.

But, in Sanskrit the word “mantra,” comprised of the root “man” from manas or mind and tra meaning instrument or tool, is literally “a tool of the mind.”

OM is a combination of three sounds, A (“ah”), U (“oh”), and M (“mm”). In Buddhism, it often the first word or sound of a mantra. Even the mantra of the Heart Sutra, Gate Gate Paragate Parasam Gate Bodhi Svaha, is supposed to be preceded by OM, according to an instruction attributed to Nagarjuna.

I find that using OM by itself is very good for calming both the mind and body. It is intoned more than it is chanted. I start by inhaling slowly, filling my lungs. I close my mouth and then open it and exhale slower than I inhaled. The “ah” is short, but you can hold the “oh” sound as long as you like, then with lips closed, hum the “mm,” letting it fade out. It’s said that the sound of silence following OM is the silence that transcends consciousness.

Is OM the primordial sound of the universe? Doubtful, but who knows? As I wrote above, it is very calming. When I intone OM before practicing silent meditation, it seems to aid in finding a deeper state of meditation. Like everything else in Buddhism, it’s a tool.

Here is a short 2 min. recording of me intoning OM, accompanied by some music I put together and images:

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Protecting the Mind

OM AH HUM in Siddham

There are various opinions regarding the effectiveness of mantras. Some discount their value altogether, while others practice mantras exclusively and even go to the extreme of completely dismissing traditional meditation practice.

From my own experience, I can say that the practice of mantras can be very powerful. I do not consider it a complete practice. I think the benefits derived from silent meditation are just too great and too many to do without it. Mantra practice is generally consigned to Vajrayana and even most teachers in that tradition consider silent meditation to be a higher practice.

Essentially “mantra” means “to protect the mind.” From what? Delusions, attachments, desire, etc.

Mantra words are not really words at all, they are bija or seed syllables. In most cases, they have no literal meaning, rather they are symbolic, representing a “diety” or a concept, or energy force. For instance, the most famous bija, OM, is the seed syllable of the universe, representing infinite power. AH is associated with karma and Amoghasiddhi, a celestial Buddha. Another bija, HUM, represents truth. OM AH HUM is a well-known mantra.

Technically, devotional incantations to Buddhas, like “Namo Omito-Fo” (Praise to Amitabha Buddha), or to sutras, such as “Namu-Myoho-Renge-Kyo” (Praise to the Lotus Sutra), are not mantras. They may be used in the same way as a mantra, but they are not considered to be as effective.

When we talk about the power of mantra, we mean the power of words, speech, sound. The theory of how mantras work is too complex to go into here. For now, this short explanation by Roger Corless, from The Vision of Buddhism will suffice:

Mantra is dharma manifested as, embodied or incarnated in sound. A mantra may contain words, or sounds that has a specific meaning; but meaning is not its essential feature. A mantra communicates dharma directly to the mind without the meditation of concepts.

Most people when they hear or learn a mantra want to know what it means, and they are disappointed and frustrated to discover that it may have no literally meaning, or that the meaning cannot be told. This is not because they are spells, incantations, or mumbo jumbo, or because they are “secret,” as Lama Govinda discusses in The Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism:

The [sound] of the mantra is not a physical sound (though it may be accompanied by such a one) but a spiritual one. It cannot be heard by the ears but only by the mind . . .

Mantras do not act on account of their own ‘magic’ nature, but only through the mind that experiences them. They do not posses any power of their own; they are only the means for concentrating already existing forces – just as a magnifying glass, though it does not contain any heat of its own, is able to concentrate the rays of the sun and to transform their mild warmth into incandescent heat . . .

Their ‘secret’ is not something that is hidden intentionally, but something that has to be acquired by self-disciple, concentration, inner experience, and insight.

Even though at times it may appear that mantras are outer directed, their function is really to connect us with our inner capacities for compassion, healing, goodness, and wisdom. Another way to put is that they help us tap into our Buddha Nature. Or they help us experience emptiness.

For mantra practice to be most effective, it’s important to maintain single-pointed concentration. Just as in silent meditation, if the mind is wavering, wandering, or otherwise not fully engaged in the present moment, the benefits derived from this sort of practice are greatly reduced.

om sunyata jnana vajra svabhavako’ham

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