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What are mantras, and how do they work? A Tibetan Buddhist view.

What are mantras, and how do they work?  A Tibetan Buddhist view.

Dear Blog Readers,

Among the most widespread images of Tibetan Buddhism are those showing multi-coloured prayer flags catching the wind, or Tibetans whirling prayer wheels, or monks chanting in temples.

Mantras are the focus of these and other activities in our practice.  But what is a mantra, exactly?  And why the emphasis on repeating mantras?  Like most other subjects in Tibetan Buddhism, these questions can be answered on many different levels.  But I hope that the following extract from my book, Buddhism for Pet Lovers, will provide a helpful introduction.  The passage talks about the benefits of reciting mantras aloud in the presence of our pets.  But I hope it is self evident that we benefit from this same practice ourselves, whether we repeat a mantra out loud, or whispered under breath so that only we can hear it.

To bring you up to speed, the first paragraph of this extract refers to the story of Vasabandhu.  In brief, that story tells of how an Indian master, Vasabandhu, used to recite a precious text called the Abhidharmakosha on a daily basis.  Every day, he was overhead by a resident pigeon.  So powerful were the imprints on the pigeon’s mind caused by hearing this text, that when it died, the pigeon achieved human rebirth.  Vasabandhu decided to check up on what had become of the pigeon and, being clairvoyant, found he had been born as a child in a family nearby.  Later, this child came under his care as a novice monk and in time became an expert on the Abhidharmakosha – surpassing the understanding of even the great Vasabandhu on this particular text.

Cause and effect, dear reader!

Now, with that under your belt, here’s the extract on mantras!

Repeating mantras

Mantra recitation is another powerful way we can help imprint the consciousness of our pet with the inner causes for transformation. As the story of Vasabandhu illustrates (see Chapter 3), simply hearing the recitation of sacred words was enough to propel a pigeon not only into a human lifetime, but one as a pre-eminent scholar.

The word ‘mantra’ comes from a Sanskrit term meaning ‘mind protection’. Mantras consist of a number of syllables—usually in Sanskrit, Tibetan or even a combination of languages—which embody a particular truth, meaning or insight. The benefits of repeating them can be understood on different levels.

At the first level, reciting a mantra gives our mind a virtuous object on which to focus. Recollecting the Buddhist definition of meditation—thoroughly familiarising the mind with virtue—when we repeat a mantra, we are doing exactly that. At the very least, we are protecting our own mind from non-virtue for the duration that we recite the mantra. And when we recite mantras aloud to our pets, we are helping familiarise their minds with an object of virtue too. The more we recite a mantra to them, the greater their familiarity.

At a second level, mantras offer a unique way to achieve spiritual insights. The literal meaning of mantras can seem fairly pedestrian. Take one of the most-recited mantras in Tibet, the mantra of Chenrezig, who is the Buddha of Compassion: Om mani padme hum (pronounced Om man-ee pad-me hung). In English this translates as ‘Hail to the jewel of the lotus’. This literal translation is decidedly secondary to the symbolic representation, with each of the six syllables pointing to different levels of meaning, and separate pathways for contemplation. When we combine reciting a mantra with contemplating its meaning, we create the possibility of an ‘aha’ experience, through which our understanding of a particular subject deepens.

Perhaps we can articulate this shift in our perception or understanding, perhaps not. The change may be non-conceptual but no less real—it may be that we have experienced our first taste of chocolate, metaphorically speaking. We use the same words as before to describe the flavours. But we are no longer just being




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