Mantras in the context of Tantric Buddhism

by Aik Theng Chong, The Buddhist Channel, April 22, 2011

Singapore -- Mantras are instrument of the mind. Hence, for a mantra to be effective, both mind and thinking are required. If one is just to repeat the syllables and words, which are also likely to be unintelligible and waiting for something to happen, we will surely and certainly going to be disappointed. Mantras are not magical formula.

It has an inherent meaning and significance, which cannot always be expressed in words. It reveals connections which go far beyond possible explanation with words. It can be compared with the melody of music. Just as music has an inner significance and meaning which cannot be express in words, so also mantra has a deep inner significance and meaning which we have to take into account to understand.

There are differences between seed, pure, mixed and dharanis mantras, with each forms referring to different things. For example, each of the seed mantra is an expression of a certain direction of movement. When we chant the mantra OM and sense something all-embracing, universal, round, like our arms moving in a circle, we get the sense of the direction of movement this sound has.

In Buddhism the sound OM can only be used at the beginning and HUM at the end of a combined mantra. OM always precedes a combined mantra, and HUM closes it. OM stands for the all-inclusive universal level, whereas HUM leads into the depth of our heart. The sound moved from the universal level down to the individual level. It is an experience of the universal in an individual.  In Buddhism each seed mantra is also associated with a certain color and form.

Mantras which contain other mantric words beside these seed mantras and are located between OM and HUM or SVAHA such as OM MANI PADME HUM is called a ëcombinedí mantra. MANI and PADME have various meaning at different levels. In a literally sense it is translated as ëjewels in the lotus flowerí, with the word ëjewelí representing the three jewel of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. It transcends the meaning associated with a precious stone. It can also represent the Buddha as embodiment of realized enlightenment, a potentiality in all of us. PADME stand for our spiritual centre, in this case our ëheartí. It is a locative meaning ëwithin the lotus flowerí, i.e. our innermost spiritual center. 

The lotus is a symbol of spiritual unfoldment of the holy and the pure. This symbolism may be seen in the following simile: Just as a lotus grows from the darkness of the mud to the surface of the water, only opening its blossom after it has raised itself beyond the surface, and remaining unsullied from earth and water which nourished it; in the same way our mind, born in the human body, unfolds its true qualities, represented by its petals, after it has raised itself beyond the turbid floods of passions and ignorance, and transforming the dark powers of the depths into the radiant pure nectar of enlightenment consciousness (bobdhicitta), the incomparable jewel (mani) in the lotus blossoms (padme).

The mantra OM MANI PADME HUM is also associated with such other Buddhist teaching as the six paramitas, the six Samsaric realms, colors of the five Dhyani Buddhas and the wisdoms they represent.

Mixed mantra refers to certain aspects of Buddhahood or to specific functions such as compassion, or discriminative wisdom. Dharanis are formulas which attempt to allow for a concentration or fixation of the mind. It is used in order to direct the mind to something and to increasingly concentrate it in this way. It is different from pure mantra as it can be translated word by word.

We need to know the meaning of a certain mantric sound, which direction it is pointing, what it stand for, before we can have confidence in a specific mantra. In chanting a certain mantra, we are suppose to use our inner eye to visualize the figure, color, movement and gesture which all together form a total unity. Without this knowledge, the mantra is without meaning. If we are to start chanting a mantra without first understanding the meaning behind it, it is a meaningless action as it is without life. One need to know the significance of the mantra; the background against which it stands and with which it is closely connected such as colors, visualizations, mundra, etc.

This basis has to be established first, and for that, a personal spiritual teacher is required to impart the knowledge so that one can understand the mantra, and to fill it full of life when chanting it and also using it in our daily meditation.