The Sanskrit word “mantra” is comprised of the root “man” from manas or mind and “tra” meaning instrument or tool. Literally, then, an “instrument of mind.” Lama Govinda, who wrote one of the most valuable books on the subject of mantra, The Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism, defines the word as “to protect the mind.” Another interpretation of mantra is “true word,” in Chinese zhenyan, which also corresponds to the name of a major Japanese school, Shingon.
But mantras are not really words at all, they are bija or seed syllables derived from the Vedic language. Primordial “words” or sounds. The use of mantras originated in the Vedic tradition in India and later incorporated into the practices of Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism, and Buddhism.
The image of the seed syllable Ham comes from Sacred Calligraphy of the East by John Stevens. Ham is associated with creativity and the throat-chakra.
Not all Buddhists are keen on mantras. From my personal experience, I can tell you that some in the Theravada tradition are extremely critical and dismissive of mantras and often they disparage those who engage in mantra practice. They claim that in the Pali suttas the Buddha disapproved of their use. However, this is not exactly the case. The Buddha was critical of the Vedas, a collection of mantras, hymns, and chants, because he considered the Vedic philosophy to be lacking and because he was pessimistic about the effectiveness of devotional chanting (bhajan) or any spiritual practice directed at an external deity. The Buddha taught that enlightenment came from within, not without. But I have yet to come across of any criticism of mantras per se, as alleged by Theravada.
I should mention the practice in Theravada of chanting parittas (literally “protection” or “safeguard”) which are short devotional prayers, and that I am not sure how that differs from what they criticize.
Most mantras have no literal meaning. They are symbolic sounds. Roger Corless, from The Vision of Buddhism explains:
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.
Perhaps the most famous of all mantras, Om Mani Padme Hum, is said to mean “The Jewel in the Lotus.” However, only two of the “words” have literal meaning: mani is “jewel or gem” and padme is “lotus.” Om and hum are seed syllables. Om is said to be the seed syllable of the universe, while hum is given a number of different associations.
It is not necessary for mantras to have specific meaning, no matter how badly some Westerners want it. When we meditate, we focus on our breath, but not on the meaning of breath, simply the act of breathing in and out. The same principles used in silent meditation apply to mantra chanting. The idea is to focus on the mantra and be in the present moment.
I feel that mantra practice is best approached as a form of meditation. I think the Buddha had good reason to be cautious about the use of prayer or devotional chanting. Prayer is usually viewed as a form of communication with a god or external force, and devotional chanting calls into question to what one is expressing devotion. When such practice crosses the line and becomes focused on anything outside of the practitioner’s own life, then as far as I’m concerned, it’s no longer Buddhism but something else.
Likewise I am not too sure about the effectiveness of “chanting for things” as taught in the Nichiren schools. Again, Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo is not technically a mantra, rather merely the title of a sutra with a devotional prefix attached to it.
Intonation or pronunciation is not something to be overly concerned about. Different people chant and pronounce mantras differently and that’s okay, since it is not the words of the mantra that have power, instead it is the state of mind of the practitioner that determines the effectiveness of mantra.
If a mantra would act in such a mechanical way, then it should have the same effect when reproduced by a gramophone record. But its repetition even by a human medium would not have any effect, if done by an ignorant person; though the intonation may be identical with that of a master. The superstition that the efficacy of a mantra depends on its intonation is mainly due to the superficial ‘vibration-theory’ of pseudo-scientific dilettanti . . .
This means that the power and effect of a mantra depend on the spiritual attitude, the knowledge and responsiveness of the individual. The sabda or sound of the mantra is not a physical one (though it may be accompanied by such a one) but a spiritual one. It cannot be heard by the ears but only by the heart, and it cannot be uttered by the mouth but only by the mind.
When chanting, just focus on the mantra, surrender to its sound, become one with it. Don’t think of yesterday or tomorrow. Whether you chant fast or slow is up to you. Sometimes it helps for focus your eyes on an object like a mandala, or to hold an image in your mind. Mantras can be used to work with inner energy, such as the chakras and chi.
Mantra chanting does seem to unleash a certain amount of natural energy, sort of like a spiritual power bar. So while it is very different from silent meditation, I still think the same basic principles apply. And I think they work best when practiced in tandem with silent meditation.
That’s enough for now.