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).
OM 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: