What is a mantra?


Buddhists often use prayer beads, or malas, to count the number of mantras recited. Natasha Lee / Alamy Stock Photo

A mantra is a sacred word, syllable, or phrase used as an invocation or as object of meditation; its use is far older than Buddhism and dates back thousands of years to India. In its Indian context, a mantra is considered to be a kind of magical spell that can even cause physical events to happen. But mantra is also a way to focus the mind and transform it from an ordinary state to an extraordinary one. Mantra is most closely associated with tantric Buddhism, but throughout the Buddhist traditions, there are also mantra-like practices involving chanting and repetition of phrases. Although these practices aren’t technically mantra, they function very much like them.

In the Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions, certain mantras or dharanis (long mantras) may invoke enlightened energies or call on the help of buddhas and bodhisattvas for protection. In Tibetan Buddhist schools, for example, mantras are central to the practice. “Om Mani Padme Hum” is one widely used mantra, which represents and invokes Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion. By chanting the mantra, Tibetan Buddhists endeavor to become embodiments of compassion themselves. And many Zen Buddhist groups at the beginning or end of meditation chant the Heart Sutra, which ends with the mantra “Gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha” (“Gone, gone, gone beyond, fully gone beyond, awake, so be it!”)

In Theravada Buddhism, mantra-like practices are used simply to develop concentration in meditation. In the Thai Forest tradition, for example, new meditators are often instructed to repeat the word buddho, Pali for “awake.” Ajaan Thate Desaransi, a Thai Forest master, once wrote that technically, you could meditate on the word table and get the same effect—meditative absorption—as long as you are able to concentrate your mind.


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