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What is a mantra?

A mantra is a powerful word or phrase that may or may not have meaning in the same way as a sentence.  Compare spells, incantations and prayer formulas in other spiritual traditions.  The term is a Sanskrit word mantram that combines the root manas (mind) with tram (protection) so the literal meaning is mind-protection. 

The Indian metaphysical tradition explains that the body  is composed of the combination of five elements (Skt. pancha mahabhuta).  They are: ether, air, fire, water and earth.  These contribute to the tanmatras or subtle properties: shabda (sound), sparsha (touch), rupa (form or seeing), rasa (taste), and gandha (smell).  Notice that the first one is sound.

  • The Hindu deity, an aspect of Shiva known as Kala Bhairava ("formidable sound") at a Hanuman temple in Kathmandu, Nepal, where "If you speak a lie here, you will die instantly."

Mantra is a characteristic element of the complex of Indian religions known today as Hinduism (Sanatana Dharma,) which uses Sanskrit as its holy language.  Buddhism as we know it emerged from the Indian context and mantra is a characteristic, even an essential, part of it, too. 

It is powerful, efficacious and deserving of respect.  "A mantra is like meeting the Buddha or Bodhisattva himself." ~ Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche 

Some may think that the practice of recitation of mantras was not an aspect of the dharma system that Buddha Shakyamuni taught, since it is rarely mentioned in the Sutras.  Others may consider that the Heart Sutra mantra -- OM, Gate, gate, paragate, parasumgate, bodhi, Swaha -- is sufficient proof, but that condensed essence of the Prajanaparamita teaching is judged to be quite a late adjunct by scholars of historical Buddhism.   

When the Young Panthaka (in Patisambhida) had difficulty memorizing even a short verse -- and there we see that the pronouncing of words was an essential teaching method -- the Buddha's personal instruction to him was to sweep or to launder while continuously reciting the phrase, "Dirt be gone!" 

It is also written that, for the protection of those who were forest hermits or who lived in isolated places, the Buddha taught the use of protective dharanis or charms.  Thus we find that in iconography, mantra is symbolized not only by the mala (beads) that a deity or bodhisattva may be holding, but also by small fence-like designs that appear as decorative elements.  (A mantra is "mind-protection"  -- like a fence protects a plot of land.)

In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, or any Vajrayana lineage -- indeed, in the Mahayana generally --  there is the conviction that the sutras and especially the Pali canon only provide part of the information that we have concerning the methods taught by the Buddha.  

The Paramadibuddha, the basic Kalachakra Tantra, says of Buddha Shakyamuni that "He showed the way of actualizing highest perfect enlightenment underneath the bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya in India, at early dawn on the full moon of April/May."  

Then, "For one year he taught the general Paramitayana. In particular, at Mount Vulture Heap he turned the Dharma Wheel of the Perfection of Wisdom, the chief, ultimate Dharma Wheel of the Paramita system of the Mahayana."  And, 

"On the full moon of March/April, the twelfth month counted from the time he obtained buddhahood, the Buddha was teaching the Paramitayana at Mount Vulture Heap."  

While there on Vulture Peak, as the Teacher demonstrated the dharma, teaching the Mahayana according to the Perfection of Wisdom system, "At the same time he manifested another form inside the great stupa near Shri Parvata called Shri Dhanyakataka, in South India where he taught the Mantrayana." 

There . . . "in the mandala of the sphere of phenomena. He dwelt in the house of universal vajra, in space, immaterial and very lucid, un-partitioned and radiant. He taught the tantra in the beautiful sphere of phenomena, for the merit and wisdom of human beings." 

Therefore we know that, although mantra may originate in ancient Indian cultural tradition, it forms a genuine part of the Buddhist tradition. 


On the Distinctive Qualities of Buddhist Mantra 

Jamgon Mipham (d. 1912) a great Tibetan scholar, wrote (Luminous Essence) :

One may wonder whether or not the mantras created by the buddhas and those created by Brahma and other such figures are equal in strength.  There is a difference between these two categories from the point of view of appearance, as the former are blessed by the buddhas to benefit those in need of guidance. Those mantras that are determined to be such by valid scriptures are unparalleled.

One may further object that since all sounds are symbolic gateways to complete liberation, the number of mantras taught with respect to those in need of guidance should also be limitless.  Moreover, since the root letters are blessed, all that is derived from such syllables would be said to be mantra. Yet again, since the Buddha's enlightened speech, in all its various forms, knows no partiality or bias, everything would be enlightened speech. If this is the case, the objection goes, why should mantra recitation have different effects [from] ordinary chatter and so forth?

Mantras, however, are believed to be divine and are recited with faith for this reason, whereas this is not the case with other forms of speech.  Moreover, 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.

Nevertheless, this is not to say that simply hearing the sound of the Thus-gone One's awareness mantras through the power of the inconceivable emanations of the Buddha is completely pointless. The Fundamental Intent of Manjusri explains:

Reciting the mantras of the thus-gone ones
Is, in this way, beneficial.
Even those who throw a glance,
Will become followers

Therefore, from the perspective of the way things appear conventionally, blessings occur once the mantras of the Buddha's teachings come together with one's own devoted interest.  Because the right causes and conditions have been assembled, blessings do indeed arise, just as a sprout will shoot up once a seed, water, and the other necessary conditions are in place, and like the blessings that occur when an individual with a pure being meets with a disciple who sees him or her as realized.

~ Jamgon Mipham. Luminous Essence.

Seed Syllable

A mantra is made up of one or more syllables, and almost any syllable can be used as a mantra.  However, the most usual mantras are associated with a particular deity and appear as part of the ritual of worship of that deity -- a formula of praise/ invocation.

Certain individual sounds known as bijas, referred to as "seed-syllables," are thought to contain the essence of a mantra and, by association, the essence of the deity.   For example, the Sanskrit (or the Tibetan) letter A  (see red image below) is considered to stand for the essence of the Prajnaparamita (Heart Sutra) formula.


In Buddhism, the recitation of mantras is considered a complete way to enlightenment in itself.

In the higher yoga tantras, the seed syllable plays an important role in the profound meditative process known as "taking the three kayas as a path," which is a technique to transform death, bardo and rebirth.  Out of Space, we visualize the deity's seed syllable, the Samboghakaya (Enjoyment Body) understood as the mind of a Buddha, and this purifies the bardo state.  The seed grows into the Nirmanakaya form of the deity, the actual manifestation which is understood to purify rebirth. 

This ancient technique that uses the emergent growing bija is a brilliant invention -- a multi-layered process where the visual sign of a sound creates a kind of sensory synthesis.  As it grows and transforms, we have an actual example of creation as in "The Word made Flesh" (New Testament, 'Gospel of John.')   For Buddhists, this ability is not thought of as exclusively an activity of omnipotent beings. 

As we participate in this process of symbolizing where we draw out of Emptiness a name or label which is made to grow into an object, in this case the actual form of a buddha, we are immediately in touch not only with the deity but with our own nature.  We experience in an objective fashion, the basis and process by which all phenomena, including buddhas, arise. 

Related to mantra is dharani [Skt. hold as one, or concentrate,] a mantra acting as a charm. 

  • See the Kalachakra emblem consisting mainly of the interlinked 10 letters comprising the dharani.


\The most famous mantra, a bhija that also functions as a dharani is Om or more accurately, Aum The Hindu explanation sometimes relates its 3 letters to Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. The three letters and their sounds are also believed to operate on the chakras or energy centers of the body.  

The Hindu scripture, the Mandukya Upanishad, calls OM " ... this imperishable Word.  OM is the universe, and this is the manifestation OM. The past, present and the future, all that was, all that is, all that will be is OM. Likewise all else that may exist beyond the bounds of time, that, too, is OM."   

Also, the letters can be considered to stand for states of consciousness, such as A= alert, U = dreaming, M= asleep.  The throat's stop just before the "a," and the silence after the humming is gone, stand for Emptiness, or in a different system, the Absolute.

The 18 volumes of Indian myth in verse called the Puranas say that Aum or as we more usually write it, Om  was the sound of the act of Creation, itself -- the grunt of The Mother giving birth. 

This meaning is borne out by the view that Aum is a contracted form of the command Evam:  Be !

And in fact, for Tibetan Buddhists, it is the sound that embodies the source of all manifestations of enlightening activity; that is, the Dharmakaya.

Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche (KTD) explains that the sound, Om, is not as unconditioned as is the sound of Ah.  

AH is often marked on the backs of tangkas and bronze images.




In many tantric Buddhist practices, but most notably during Guru Yoga, wherein we link with the continuity of a lineage, we meditate on OM , AH and HUNG as the Three Lights. Imagining that we are receiving the blessings of the Body, Speech and Mind of the Guru, we envision those three syllables at the head, throat, and heart centers, where they respectively stand for aspects of the Buddhas.

Om is white and placed at the brow.  It represents the Form Body or Nirmanakaya.  It is associated with Buddha Vairochana.

Ah is red, placed at the throat centre, and represents the enlightened speech of the Buddha. It is associated with the Sambhogakaya or Enjoyment Body.  It relates to Buddha Amitabha and the lotus family of deities.

Hum (or in Tibetan, hung) is blue.  Placed at the heart center, it represents the Dharmakaya or Truth Body. It stands for Enlightened Mind, associated with Akshobya and the vajra family of buddhas.

The Lama on Mantras

Khyabje Kalu Rinpoche from Secret Buddhism: Vajrayana Practices:

In Tibet, the Buddhist tradition is ancient, the result being that everyone acknowledges reciting mantras has beneficial effects.  As for Westerners, they often see the mantras only as words, just an activity of speech, and do not understand their effect.  They do not clearly see how these words can act on the mind.  ... .

The importance words play in our studies is known; they are an indispensable vehicle.  A Tibetan saying well emphasizes the power of speech: "Words are neither sharp nor cutting, but they can cut the heart of a human being." 

Some Westerners, as previously stated, think that mantras are nothing but sounds without meaning, that reciting them is only wasting time, and that it is much better to meditate. 

In a way, meditation should arouse even more doubts than mantras.  One does nothing while meditating!  Reticence concerning the recitation of mantras comes from two factors. 
1.  ignorance of the function and benefit of the mantras described by the Buddha 
2.  lack of reflection on the precious human existence, death and impermanence, law of karma and on the unsatisfactory nature of samsara [cyclic existence.]

Even if one has some knowledge of the Dharma [Buddhist teachings], but is lazy, reciting a mantra seems a difficult exercise. 

~  Khyabje Kalu Rinpoche [d. 1989] at Samye Ling, March 1983 

Bardor Tulku, on Mantra

Accomplishing the Practice

For an individual to "accomplish the practice" of any deity means to have said 100 000 repetitions of each syllable of the deity's mantra.  Therefore, in the case of Chenresig, 600 000 is the requirement (Ven. Bardor Tulku.  A Teaching on the Tashi Prayer.)

The mounting total of mantras that are chanted, muttered and murmured is usually reckoned by means of the mala [Tibetan tenwa,] or string of prayer beads.

As you will see below, the mantra is viewed as "functioning" whether there is comprehension on the part of the practitioner, or not.  It may be said aloud, murmured or repeated soundlessly -- relying on the memory of the sound or a visualization of the letters -- in the mind.

Ubiquitous Tibetan Mantra

The bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokiteshvara who is called in Tibetan, Chenresi [often spelled Chenresig or Chenresik] is said to have given a special mantra to Nagarjuna who left it to Lion-face Dakini to transmit to Padmasambhava, whose activity confirmed Buddhism as the predominant religion in Tibet.  

This is the 'Six Syllable - ' or the 'Mani Mantra'  Om Mani Padme Hum.

In Tibetan: pron. Om Mahni Peh-meh HoonG

It can be found painted, carved and inscribed on every type of surface.  In fact, in that mountainous part of the world one of the only uses found for the marvelous machine that is the wheel is to spin out the mantra by means of a hand-held device -- the prayer wheel.  Thus we can see that to many people mantras do not even have to be sounded to be effective; their power may reside in their written form, even if the writing is not displayed. 

Thin cotton small flags and also large banners that are activated by the wind, also are believed capable of sending out mantras and prayers.

Each one of the 6 syllables is directed at one of the six realms of existence.  Saying the mantra is like praying for and helping individuals in all possible situations. When you say this mantra, you are behaving as a bodhisattva, with the mindful intention of working towards the enlightenment of all sentient beings, without exception. 

Each syllable is considered to purify a specific human failing or "obscuration" 

"It was not long after Godan [heir to Genghis Khan] was initiated into Mantrayana that a change was noted in Mongolian policy. For example, Tibetan histories report that Godan ceased the practice of throwing Chinese into rivers en masse (for purposes of ‘population control’) in response to [the] Sakya Pandita’s teachings on Buddhist ethics." 

         ~ Albion Butters in Mongolian-Tibetan Relations

Origin of the 6-syllable Mantra

Once, when Buddha Shakyamuni was staying with his entourage at Anatapindika, in Jeta's Grove near Shravasti, he introduced the Six-Syllable Mantra to the assembly.  Sarva.nivarana.vishkambhin, the high bodhisattva, made a request to the Exalted One.  He paid homage and cried, "For the benefits of the beings in the six realms, please advise me how I may obtain this Great Mantra that is the wisdom of all the Buddhas, which will cut the roots of the samsara. May Buddha please bestow me this teaching. I offer the whole universe as Mandala. To whoever who wishes to write this Six-syllable Mantra, I offer my blood as ink, my bones as pen and my skin as paper. Please, Lord Buddha, grant me this teaching of the Six-syllable Mantra." 

Buddha Shakyamuni then gave the teaching, "This is the most beneficial mantra. Even I made this aspiration to all the million Buddhas and subsequently received this teaching from Buddha Amitabha."

Benefits of the Six-Syllable Mantra

It is said that the merits of Om mani padme hum, the Six-Syllable mantra, are innumerable and cannot be fully described even by the Buddhas of the three times.  Some of them are:

The body of those who keep this mantra will transform into a vajra body, the bones will transform into relics of the Buddha and ordinary mind will transform into the wisdom of the Buddhas.

Whoever recites the mantra even once will obtain immeasurable wisdom. He or she will eventually develop compassion and be able to perfect the Six Paramitas (virtues.)  He or she will be born as a universal monarch.  She or he will achieve the irreversible stage of a bodhisattva and finally attain Enlightenment.

If this mantra is carved onto rocks and mountains, and a human or non-human being comes into contact and sees it, he or she will develop the conditions to be a bodhisattva in the next life, and thereby relieve suffering.

It is said that the sands of the Ganges and drops of water in the ocean can be counted but not the merits resulting from the recitation of this mantra. 

The Mantra is the speech manifestation and the wisdom energy of all buddhas. It purifies our impure perception of sound.  It is a means of protecting our mind from delusions.  It eliminates ignorance and opens the way to wisdom.  It amplifies blessings and by it, tranquility can be obtained.  It can save and alleviate beings from hundreds and thousands of miseries.

The aspiration of the deity, Avalokiteshvara, whose mantra this is, is likened to a  hook with which he can liberate beings.  When we have confidence in him, the mantra is said to be a  "solid and unbroken ring." so that the hook can catch, and we can be fished from the ocean of suffering that is samsara.

Alex Studholme (U. of Cambridge) on the Origins of Om Mani Padme Hum in the Karandavyuha Sutra and the relation of Buddhist mantra and Hindu (Shivaite) practice.

Forgive her; she doesn't know what she's saying!

There is a teaching story about an educated practitioner who was worried about his mother who was not too bright, was illiterate and knew nothing of the Buddha's teaching.  He was worried that when she died, she would go to hell and suffer many lifetimes there, since she did not know how to pray.

He taught her that whenever she heard any kind of bell, she should immediately respond: 

Om Ma-Ni Peh-Meh Hoong!   [Tibetan pronunciation].

They would make a kind of game of it; he would ring the bell at the door; she would say the mantra; they would laugh.

He jingled a few coins; at that metallic sound, she said the mantra. They both got a kick out of it.

It got so that even when he was not there, like when she heard the collar bells of yaks and dris, she  automatically responded: Om Mani Pemeh Hoong! .

Now it came to pass, that the good mother died.  Due to her karma, she was whisked away to one of the hot hells where she found herself in a huge iron cauldron being stirred by a terrible demon with a great metal spoon.

 Inevitably, the spoon struck the rim with a resounding CLANGGGG!!!

The woman responded without even thinking, just as she had been taught: 

Om Mani Pemeh Hooong

and zzzziiip -

There she was - in the Pure Land of Dewachen, the heaven of Buddha Amitabha where eventually, like everyone there, she became one of the Enlightened Ones.

Foxglove writing to the kagyu email list said that:

 [You] "can never say enough Om Mani Pedme Hungs.  They all count towards practice even if [you were] not given a particular goal. My friend was given a million to do and has been living alone in a house by the stupa in order to do so, but he's not talking of moving on after to a 'next' level.  He says he will probably just do it all again. "


Mantras are not to be taken lightly.  Nagarjuna in his Root (text on) Wisdom, Mulamadhyamaka, compares their use to snake-handling: 

If one misconceives Emptiness,
Persons with little wisdom will be ruined.
Just as a person who mishandles a snake
Or is unskillful with mantras will suffer.

During a teaching on Chenrezi, with reference to a possibility that the Buddhist doctrine of Emptiness could be misunderstood if improperly explained, Geshe Palden Dakpo also described what could happen when:

" ... one practices the so-called Sword Mantra, the practitioner places a sword in front of himself and starts reciting mantras.  Now, when the sword starts moving through the power of the mantras, if the practitioner is able to hold it properly by the handle when the movement is moderate, he can travel wherever he wishes, but if instead he fails to hold it, there is a great danger of the sword swinging towards him and cutting off his head."  

      ~ Quiet Mountain web site


(There are 3 pages about Mantra.  This was the 1st. The other 2 are linked below.)


deity:  The word "deity" is used here to include buddhas and bodhisattvas that play an important role in the forms of Buddhism using tantric techniques such as visualization and rituals of worship.   

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