Mantra practice

Posted by on Mar 22, 2013 in Buddhism | 599 Comments

A couple of days ago I wrote up my notes from attending a lecture about the meaning and origin of Om Mani Padme Hum. Since then I’ve had quite a few messages.

People shared their experiences of using the mantra and asked a bunch of questions about this mantra, and about mantra practice in general.

I anticipated this really. One thing I’ve found about Buddhism is that the study and practice of it can be quite different. That goes double when we’re talking about academic study.

Buddhism from the outside and the inside

I’ve mentioned elsewhere that there’s no ‘revealed text’ in Buddhism – no ‘word of God’. The absolute truth is beyond language and requires a direct experience.

That’s what practice is all about.

Unfortunately, that approach doesn’t sit within an academic framework at all.

The rules of academia are more about studying texts, reading what other people have said about something, perhaps even talking to an actual practitioner or two (although that needs to be done in a certain way to be regarded as significant by your academic peers).

Actually doing the practice yourself is seen as largely irrelevant. Sometimes it’s even looked down upon slightly as it may colour your objective view.

Fortunately, nowadays there are lots of practitioners within the academic community, and some of the weird interpretations of the early days are falling by the wayside.

But you still get some key academics who aren’t even Buddhists, let alone practitioners.

That’s fine as far as it goes. Such academics can and do make a real and valuable contribution to our knowledge of some aspects of the field.

At the same time, we have to remember that Buddhism is fundamentally not about texts, not about history, not about society, or politics, or academic research.

It’s about direct experience, beyond language, from the inside.

Dr Studholme made an excellent title for his lecture. The origins and meaning of Om Mani Padme Hum is sure to draw a crowd.

He was also careful to point out that the origins and meaning of the mantra weren’t as important as its function. He then explained the function – which I shared with you in the post.

But lets come back to the bit about direct experience.

How can someone who doesn’t practice the mantra really tell you about its function? Or even for that matter, what it really means?

I’m not disrespecting Dr Studholme here. I value this kind of research greatly. I’m just saying that if you practice the mantra, you probably know important things about it that he doesn’t.

The real purpose of the mantra

You can feel this when you do it, if you do it for a period of time.

A mantra doesn’t have a specific function. It doesn’t make sense. The logical mind may try to put it in a category and give it a story, but the mantra is beyond that.

The mantra is the sound of reality. The mantra is a continuous thread joining you to the tradition. The mantra is a bodhisattva in the form of sound. The mantra is a technique for bringing the mind into balance, an anchor for the wandering mind, a crack through which you can see glimpses of absolute truth.

The mantra is a dedication to all beings. The mantra is a pointless jumble of syllables designed to make you question, and then throw the questions away.

The mantra is a protector, a power, form and emptiness all rolled into one.

The mantra is an experience you have for yourself.

Other mantras

Someone asked me if this is the only mantra or if there are others.

There are loads. I know a bunch of them, but I’m sure there are loads more. I would imagine every mythical being from the entire Mahayana and Vajrayana phases of Buddhism have at least one mantra. These beings come in different forms, and those forms often have their own mantras.

And that’s just from the Buddhist tradition. There are loads from other traditions too. It seems that sacred sound is fundamental to humanity. I like to think that the mantras have always been there, and people just started tuning into them in meditation, and finally gave them a human voice.

There’s one that isn’t really a mantra, but may be of interest to people who get turned off by all the woo-woo psychedelic bodhisattva stuff, but who still want to practice with sound.

Sabbe sattā sukhi hontu means “May all beings be well” or “May all beings be happy”. It can be a nice addition to the metta (cultivation of loving-kindness) practice. You can hear a version on Youtube.

It requires no ‘belief’ in glowing beings made of light (although neither do the others really – but that can take a bit of getting your head around if you’ve grown up in a Christian or atheist culture). And sometimes saying things in a foreign language can be nice. (This is Pali. It was always a ‘sacred’ language. People didn’t stand around talking about the weather in Pali, so it’s just as much yours as it is anyone’s).


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