The Sanskrit word mantra combines the root man (“to think”) with the suffix tra (“instrument” or “tool”).Therefore, mantra means literally “tool for thinking.” Since earliest Buddhist times, the repetition of sacred phrases has been used as an aid for meditation—to purify and focus the mind, to offer devotion or thanks, and to protect and nurture the spiritual activity of a particular person or place. Some authors differentiate between bijas, or “seed syllables” (pure sounds, such as om); “mixed” mantras, which combine bijas with words having translatable meanings; and dharanis (phrases that are similar in function to mantras but can be translated word for word).
Though some traditions lay claim to the ultimate mantra—the one that includes or surpasses all others—in most cases such claims can be taken simply as an expression of profound appreciation by those who practice and take them to heart.
This “On Practice” section begins with a selection from the Heart Sutra in which the Buddha introduces the Prajnaparamita (Transcendent Perfection) mantra—recited in some form or other throughout the Mahayana Buddhist world—and goes on to present additional mantric practices from four different traditions.
Gate Gate Paragate
Parasamgate Bodhi Svaha
—from the Heart Sutra
Excerpted from Mother of the Buddhas by Lex Hixon, reprinted with permission from Quest Books.
O Shariputra, listen carefully to these syllabic sounds which contain the entire Perfection of Wisdom, as a vast tree is miraculously contained within a small seed. This is the mantra which awakens every conscious stream into pure presence. This is the mantra of all mantras, the mantra which transmits the principles of incomparability and inconceivability, the mantra which instantly dissipates the apparent darkness of egocentric misery, the mantra which invokes only truth and does not acknowledge the separate self-existence of any falsehood: gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha (gone, gone, gone beyond, gone beyond even the beyond into full enlightenment, so be it!).
Om Mani Padme Hum:
Excerpted from The Heart Treasure of the Enlightened Ones, by Patrul Rinpoche, with commentary by Dilgo Khyentse, reprinted with permission from Shambhala Publications.
Recitations, sadhanas, and powerful spells are just
The all-inclusive six-syllable mantra is the very
sound of the Dharma.
All sounds have never been other than the speech of
Sublime Chenrezi [the Bodhisattva of Compassion];
Recognizing them as mantra, resounding yet void,
recite the six-syllable mantra.
There is no mantra that can be considered superior to the mani, which includes not only all the functions but also all the power and blessings of all other mantras. The learned sages of the past, like the great Karma Chagme, for example, were unable to find anywhere in the scriptures a mantra more beneficial, quintessential, or easier to practice than themani; so it was this mantra that they took as their main practice. Even just hearing the mani can be enough to free beings from samsara. For example, the story goes that there were once five hundred worms struggling for existence in a foul and terrible pit. Chenrezi, feeling compassion for their suffering, took the form of a golden bee and flew over the pit, buzzing the mani. The worms, hearing the sound of the six syllables, were completely freed from their sufferings and took rebirth in a celestial realm.
The mani is not just a string of ordinary words. It contains all the blessings and compassion of Chenrezi; in fact, it is Chenrezi himself in the form of sound. As we are now, our karmic obscurations prevent us from being able to actually meet Chenrezi in his Buddha-field; but what we can do is listen to his mantra, recite it, read it, and write it beautifully in golden letters. Since there is no difference between the deity himself and the mantra which is his essence, these activities bring great benefit. The six syllables are the expression of the six paramitas (virtues) of Chenrezi, and as he himself said, whoever recites the six-syllable mantra will perfect the six paramitas and purify all karmic obscurations.
In order to practice the recitation of this mantra, first visualize Chenrezi as clearly and vividly as possible. In Chenrezi’s heart, visualize a six-petaled lotus, upon which is a full-moon disc. In the center of the moon disc stands the syllable HRIH, surrounded by the six syllables OM MA NI PAD ME HUM arranged clockwise in a circle like a string of pearls, radiating streams of light which carry offerings to the blissful paradise of Sukhavati, to the Paradise Beautiful to Behold, and to all the infinite other Buddha-fields. Each ray of light carries a multitude of offerings, such as the eight auspicious symbols, the eight precious substances, the seven emblems of royalty, wish-granting trees, and precious vessels, and makes huge clouds of offerings to the buddhas and bodhisattvas of each Buddha-field, filling the whole sky. By accepting your offerings, the buddhas help you to accumulate merit and wisdom.
All these rays of light then return, carrying in the form of precious nectar the blessings of the body, speech, and mind of all the buddhas, along with their wisdom, power, and love, and dissolve into the mantra in Chenrezi’s heart. Chenrezi becomes even more radiant and resplendent, like gold bathed in saffron water.
Again, boundless rays of light emanate from the mantra circle, this time dispelling the suffering of all sentient beings in the six realms: the searing heat and biting cold of the hells; the insatiable hunger and thirst of tortured spirits; the cruel stupidity, slavery, and abuse of the animal realm; the human sufferings of birth, old age, sickness, and death; the jealousy and feuding of demigods; and the anguish experienced by the gods when finally, from their exquisite worlds of pleasure and absorption, they fall headlong to the depths of the lower realms. All this misery is dispelled by the radiant light streaming out from the mantra, just as the morning sun melts away frost on a winter meadow. All beings are transformed into Chenrezi; first your immediate environment, and then the whole universe, become the paradise of the Potala Mountain. When the welfare of all beings has been achieved in this way, gather and absorb the light rays back into yourself, Chenrezi. Each pore of your body contains an infinity of Buddha-fields, each of which resounds with the six-syllable mantra. Its vibration fills the whole of space, like the buzzing of a million bees swarming out from a hive that has been broken open. The sound of the mantra dispels ignorance and subdues all negative forces. It awakens theshravakas [arhats] from their meditative absorption and brings them to the Mahayana path; it makes offerings to the bodhisattvas, exhorting them to continue working for the benefit of beings; and it enjoins the Dharma-protectors to safeguard the teachings and increase the happiness and prosperity of all.
The sounds of wind and running rivers, the crackling of fire, the cries of animals, the songs of birds, human voices—all the sounds of the universe—are the vibration of the six-syllable mantra, the self-arisen sound of the dharma, sound yet void, the resonance of the unborn dharmakaya. Through recitation, practicing the yoga of vajra speech, you will effortlessly attain the ordinary and supreme accomplishments.
Nam Myoho Renge Kyo,
The One Essential Phrase
Excerpted from The Major Writings of Nichiren Daishonin: Volume One, with permission from Nichiren Shoshu International Center, Tokyo.
Nichiren (1222–1282) was the founder of the Nichiren School of Japanese Buddhism. Relentlessly criticizing the other Buddhist schools of his day, he felt that only the teaching of the Lotus Sutra, one of the most important texts of Mahayana Buddhism, could save mankind during the period of religious decline that he called the Latter Day of the Law. His view that the mere recitation of the Japanese name of that sutra —nam myoho renge kyo (“veneration to the Sutra of the Lotus of the Good Law”)—could lead to buddhahood led to his expulsion from the monastery, and, ultimately, he was condemned to death for his criticism of the Japanese rulers . Miraculously, he escaped execution and instead was exiled to the island of Sado where he wrote some of his greatest works.
The One Essential Phrase, Nichiren’s explanation of the mantra nam myoho renge kyo, was written in response to the question “Can one attain enlightenment only by chanting nam myoho renge kyo?” which was asked by a woman named Myoho-ama on behalf of her husband, who was very ill.
First, for you to ask a question about the Lotus Sutra is a rare source of good fortune. In this age of the Latter Day of the Law, those who ask about the meaning of even one phrase or verse of the Lotus Sutra are much fewer than those who can hurl great Mount Sumeru to another land like a stone, or those who can kick the entire galaxy away like a ball. They are even fewer than those who can embrace and teach countless other sutras, thereby enabling the priests and laymen who listen to them to them to obtain the six mystic powers. Equally rare is a priest who can explain the meaning of the Lotus Sutra and clearly answer questions concerning it. The Hoto chapter in the fourth volume of the Lotus Sutra sets forth the important principle of six difficult and nine easy acts. Your asking a question about the is among the six difficult acts. This is a sure indication that if you embrace the Lotus Sutra, you will certainly attain buddhahood. Since the Lotus Sutra defines our life as the Buddha’s life, our mind as the Buddha’s wisdom, and our actions as the Buddha’s behavior, all who embrace and believe in even a single phrase or verse of this sutra will be endowed with these three properties. Nam myoho renge kyo is only one phrase, but it contains the essence of the entire sutra. You asked whether one can attain Buddhahood only by chanting nam myoho renge kyo, and this is the most important question of all. It is the heart of the entire sutra and the substance of its eight volumes.
The spirit within one’s body may appear in just his face, and the spirit within his face may appear in just his eyes. Included within the word Japan is all that is within the country’s sixty-six provinces: all of the people and animals, the rice paddies and other fields, those of high and low status, the nobles and the commoners, the seven kinds of gems, and all other treasures. Similarly, included within the title nam myoho renge kyo is the entire sutra consisting of all eight volumes, twenty-eight chapters, and 69,384 characters without exception. Concerning this, Po-Chu-i stated that the title is to the sutra as eyes are to the Buddha. In the eighth volume of his Hokke Mongu Ki, Miao-lo stated that T’ien-tai’sHokke Gengi explains only the title, but that the entire sutra is thereby included. By this he meant that, although the text was omitted, the entire sutra was contained in the title alone. Everything has its essential point, and the heart of the Lotus Sutra is its title, nam myoho renge kyo. Truly, if you chant this in the morning and evening, you are correctly reading the entire Lotus Sutra. Chanting daimoku [great title] twice is the same as reading the entire sutra twice, one hundreddaimoku equal one hundred readings of the sutra, and a thousand daimoku, a thousand readings of the sutra. Thus, if you ceaselessly chant daimoku, you will be continually reading the Lotus Sutra.
The sixty volumes of the T’ien-t’ai doctrine present exactly the same interpretation. A law this easy to embrace and this easy to practice was taught for the sake of all mankind in this evil age of the Latter Day of the Law. A passage from theLotus Sutra reads, “During the Latter Day of the Law, if one wishes to teach this sutra, he should employ the mild way of propagation.” Another reads, “In the Latter Day when the Law is about to perish, a person who embraces, reads, and recites this sutra must abandon feelings of envy and deceit.” A third states, “In the Latter Day of the Law, one who embraces this sutra will be carrying out all forms of service to the Buddha.” A fourth reads, “In the fifth five hundred years after my death, accomplish worldwide kosen-rufu and never allow its flow to cease.” The intent of all these teachings is the admonition to embrace and believe in the Lotus Sutra in this Latter Day of the Law.
The heretical priests in Japan, China, and India have all failed to comprehend this obvious meaning. The Nembutsu, Shingon, Zen, and Ritsu sects follow either the Hinayana or the provisional Mahayana teachings but have discarded theLotus Sutra. They misunderstand Buddhism, but they do not realize their mistakes. Because they appear to be true priests, the people trust them without the slightest doubt. Therefore, without realizing it, both these priests and the people who follow them have become enemies of the Lotus Sutra and foes of Shakyamuni Buddha. From the viewpoint of the sutra, it is certain that not only will all their wishes remain unfulfilled, but their lives will be short and, after this life, they will be doomed to the hell of incessant suffering.
Even though one neither reads nor studies the sutra, chanting the title alone is a source of tremendous good fortune. The sutra teaches that women, evil men, and those in the realms of Animality and Hell—in fact, all the people of the Ten Worlds—can attain buddhahood. We can comprehend this when we remember that fire can be produced by a stone taken from the bottom of a river, and a candle can light up a place that has been dark for billions of years. If even the most ordinary things of this world are such wonders, then how much more wondrous is the power of the Mystic Law. The lives of human beings are fettered by evil karma, earthly desires, and the inborn sufferings of life and death. But due to the three inherent potentials of Buddha-nature—innate buddhahood, the wisdom to become aware of it, and the action to manifest it—our lives can without doubt come to reveal the Buddha’s three properties. The great teacher Dengyo declared that the power of the Lotus Sutra enables anyone to manifest Buddhahood. He stated this because even the Dragon King’s daughter was able to attain Buddhahood through the power of the Lotus Sutra. Do not doubt this in the least. Let your husband know that I will explain this in detail when I see him.
The third day of the seventh month in the first year of Koan (1278)
Adapted from “Existence and Unity,” a talk given in October, 1994 by Abbot Yoshinori Hiuga Sensei at his monastery, Kyoto Shudo-in, in Ohara, Japan. Translated by Sarah Fremerman.
Nembutsu means to “meditate on the Buddha,” though it usually refers to the Pure Land Buddhist practice of invoking the name of the Buddha through repetition of the mantra namu amida butsu. Namu is an expression of devotion meaning praise or faith, and amida is a Japanese epithet for the Buddha, combining the Sanskrit terms amitayus (“infinite life”) and amitabha (“infinite light”). Butsu means “Buddha” in Japanese.
In nembutsu samadhi [meditative absorption], logic and concepts do not exist. Nembutsu is the abandonment of self through chanting namu amida butsu—single-mindedly, devotedly, without becoming distracted by worldly thoughts or delusions. From within nembutsu, awakening arises. It comes to us from “the other shore.”
Nembutsu means to meditate on the Amida Buddha who dwells in all things, and who also dwells in us. But that inner Buddha remains hidden in darkness until we become conscious of its presence.
When we become conscious of the inner tathagata, it begins to govern our entire being, both mind and body, and to work through us. At first, illusion dominates us; ego rules upon the throne of our heart throughout the long journey of transmigration. But gradually we realize that all along, eternally, the Buddha has existed within us. With this realization, the Buddha ascends to the inner throne and begins to rule.
How can we bring about this transformation of consciousness?
Nembutsu samadhi is an intimate encounter with the Buddha. You don’t have to see the Buddha with your physical eyes. You can perceive the Buddha within your heart. You experience a sense of closeness and familiarity. A vibration of love envelopes you, a warm and glowing light.
Buddhism teaches that we must abandon the illusory consciousness of ego. But that is very difficult. What if we try thinking about it a different way? Let’s say that in winter a traveler is wandering out in the wilderness. Even if you tell him to take off his overcoat, because he’s so cold, he probably won’t feel inclined to part with it. But when a soft breeze begins to blow and the spring sunlight shines down upon him, the traveler feels warmer and warmer, until, finally, without anyone asking him to, he naturally slips off his coat.
The overcoat is illusion, the ego. In nembutsu samadhi, enveloped by the Buddha’s light of love and wisdom, we feel its warm glow radiating from within us. Then we don’t have to be told to “abandon the ego, abandon illusion”—we slip off the ego without even thinking about it.
The human intellect can never penetrate the realm of immeasurable life. But the heart can. This is realization. When we cast off the mind of ego, we realize it directly, through our own experience.
Namu Dai Bosa
From a talk by Nakagawa Soen Roshi, excerpted from Namu Dai Bosa, by Nyogen Senzaki, Soen Nakagawa, and Eido Shimano with permission from The Zen Studies Society.
There are many kinds of sutras, but all of them are condensed into thisnamu dai bosa. And this is condensed into mu; and this into just zazen. Not only the many sutras are condensed into namu dai bosa—also the many shastras. Everything is condensed into this namu dai bosa. Not only the four-dimension world in which we human beings live—but also the five-, six-, and endless-dimension worlds are all condensed into this namu dai bosa. This untouchable, unthinkable, universal world is each one of us; not only each one of us, but each of our cells. Do you know how many cells there are in your body? How many? I have never counted them myself, but a scholar has said there are seventeen billion cells in the human body. And, of course, in addition to these cells there are the electrons and other smaller elements—small, small, endlessly small. . . . Each such thing—no matter how small—is a sentient being. This is the meaning of dai. As a character, dai [great] is usually considered the opposite of smallness. But since the true meaning of dai is absolute, in even the smallest thing there is this dai. Bosa you know; it means “enlightened one.” Each of your cells is an enlightened one. Believe this! You are all such wonderful persons. This is Buddha. No need to say “Buddha.” This is true—a true fact. This is not Zen; not Buddhism; not religious talk. It is just a plain fact. Right here, now—this is namu dai bosa. There is no need to think about endless-dimension universal worlds. Just namu dai bosa. Just mu. Just breathing. Just counting. Nothing else. Just . . . !
Some of you think zazen is difficult. It is. But on the other hand, it is very easy. The practice of zazen and chanting namu dai bosa is most easy. When you chant namu dai bosa, you at once become a bodhisattva! Please stand up [spoken to someone in the audience]. When I take your precious watch, I immediately become a thief; and if I were to kill you, I would at once become a murderer. All right? So when I chant namu dai bosa, I at once become a Bodhisattva. It istoo easy.
Start your day with a fresh perspective
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.