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Mantras (Skt.; Tib. སྔགས་, sngags) are sacred syllables or phrases that are used in Buddhist meditation practices. Mantras are believed to help pacifiy the mind and protect it from negative influences. Mantras are often recited as a form of meditation, or in conjunction with various meditation practices.
Means of pacifying and protecting the mind
According to Lama Zopa Rinpoche:
Mantras are effective because they help keep your mind quiet and peaceful, automatically integrating it into one-pointedness. They make your mind receptive to very subtle vibrations and thereby heighten your perception. Their recitation eradicates gross negativities and the true nature of things can then be reflected in your mind’s resulting clarity. By practising a transcendental mantra, you can in fact purify all the defiled energy of your body, speech, and mind.
In Tibetan Buddhism, mantras is seen as a way to guard the mind against negativity.
Relation to faith
Thus according to the Tibetan philosopher Jamgon Ju Mipham:
If a mantra is thought to be something ordinary and not seen for what it is, it will not be able to perform its intended function. Mantras are like non-conceptual wish-fulfilling jewels. Infusing one's being with the blessings of mantra, like the form of a moon reflected on a body of water, necessitates the presence of faith and other conditions that set the stage for the spiritual attainments of mantra. Just as the moon's reflection cannot appear without water, mantras cannot function without the presence of faith and other such factors in one's being.
Form of energy
Namkhai Norbu said:
The relationship between voice, breathing, and mantra can best be demonstrated through the way mantra functions. A mantra is a series of syllables whose power resides in the sound, through the repeated pronouncing of which one can contain control of a given form of energy. The energy of the individual is closely linked to the exernal energy, and each can influence the other.— Namkhai Norbu, Dzogchen: The Self-Perfected State, p. 31
In Vajrayana, mantra are sacred syllables used "to protect the minds of practitioners from negativity and ordinary impure perceptions (the root Sanskrit terms are manas meaning 'mind', and trai meaning 'protect'). They also serve to invoke the yidam deities and their retinues."
Invoking a Tantric deity is closely connected with the idea of mantra. Mantras are formulae, usually in Sanskrit and often fairly short, which are used to summon the deity’s presence. They represent the commitment of the Tantric deity to take part in the ritual. Thus om mani padme hum represents the essence of Avalokitesvara, om tare tuttare ture svdha that of the Goddess Tara, om arapacana dhlh that of Manjusri, omah hum vajra guru padma siddhi hum that of Guru Padmasambhava. In fact all of these deities have multiple mantras corresponding to different forms and functions; the ones quoted are the most familiar, and are very widely known in Tibet, as well as being inscribed on rocks, stones and walls all around Tibetan regions.
According to Jack Kornfield,
"The use of mantra or the repetition of certain phrases in Pali is a highly common form of meditation in the Theravada tradition. Simple mantras use repetition of the Buddha’s name, “Buddho,” [as “Buddho” is actually a title rather than a name] or use the “Dhamma,” or the “Sangha,” the community, as mantra words. Other used mantras 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 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."
- Powers, John; Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism, page 266-67
- Robert E. Buswell Jr., Donald S. Lopez Jr. The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism
- Tsoṅ-kha-pa Blo-bzaṅ-grags-pa. Tantra in Tibet: The Great Exposition of Secret Mantra, Motilal Banarsidass Publ., 1987, page 47.
- Jamgon Mipham, Luminous Essence: A Guide to the Guhyagarbha Tantra, page 147.
- Geoffrey Samuel, Introduction Tibetan Buddhism (Routledge:New York), 73-74
- Kornfield, j. Modern Buddhist masters, pg 311.