The state of enlightenment or Buddhahood is expressed or manifested in different forms. The physical person of the Buddha is one form of manifestations of Buddhahood. The state of enlightenment is also manifested in the form of words, sounds, syllable and letters. A mantra basically represents the state of enlightenment in the form of word or sound.
Just as Buddhahood manifests in different physical forms, it also manifests in wide range of sounds, syllables and words. The various mantras are concise formulaic verbal and speech representations of the state of enlightenment. Just as physical forms of the Buddha make the state of enlightenment accessible through the visual and tactile faculties, mantras make the enlightenment accessible through the auditory and visual faculties.
There are different kinds of mantras. The innate mantra of reality is the ineffable nature of sound, which is simultaneously empty and audible. This state is expressed in the form of symbolic mantras, which are the syllables, letters and words, which we can chant and also hear.
Among the symbolic mantras, we have seed syllables such as hriḥ for Avalokiteśvara and dhiḥ for Mañjuśrī, which represents the heart of their mantras. Each Buddha’s enlightenment can be represented in different syllables. The full mantras such as Om mani padme hum for Avalokiteśvara and Oṃ ara patsa nadhi for Mañjuśrī and Om ah huṃ vajra guru padma siddhi huṃ for Guru Rinpoche emerge from the seed syllable.
Subjects RitualTibetan ritual
Subjects RitualTibetan ritualMantras
Subjects Tibet and Himalayas
Just like seeing a statue or physical manifestation of the Buddha, one should hear and express the state of Buddhahood in the form of word and sound. Hearing a mantra is just like seeing the Buddha’s body. Chanting the mantra helps other people and the person himself for herself to internalise the mantra and to be mindful of the state of enlightenment and remember the corresponding Buddha.
Another reason why Buddhists chant mantras is because the mantras are powerful spells. The Buddhas have invested a great deal of power in their mantras through prayers and aspirations. Thus, when one chants the mantras one creates a connection to the Buddhas and also partake in their spiritual power and get blessed. The Buddhas have cultivated power in the mantras as special formulas and made them potent for speeding up the process of enlightenment and liberation from suffering.
Therefore, it is important that we chant the mantra in the original language, in the right order with the right sound and intonation in order to have the best effect.
A practitioner should chant the mantra by being fully aware of the deity, which the mantra represents. For instance, one should visualise Mañjuśrī and chant Oṃ ah ra pa tsa na dhi. He or she can also do more elaborate visualisation where one can do the practice of troh (སྤྲོ་) to cast and radiate and dhu (བསྡུ་) to gather. For example, one can visualise the seed syllable and mantra at the heart going in clockwise direction on a lotus and moon seat, then visualise rays emitting from the mantra towards the whole world, in all directions, then visualize the rays touching all sentient beings and getting rid of their impurities and suffering. When one draws the mantra back, one can visualize receiving the blessings of the Buddhas from all directions in the form of light and dissolve them in the mantra at one’s heart.
The person chanting a mantra can do a lot of meditation practice by chanting the mantra. While doing so, one must also think that everything including the mantras is illusory, empty and impermanent.
Karma Phuntsho is the Director of Shejun Agency for Bhutan’s Cultural Documentation and Research, founder of the Loden Foundation and the author of The History of Bhutan. The piece was initially published in Bhutan’s national newspaper Kuensel in a series called Why we do what we do.