Updated: Mar 14, 2021
When we are practicing Buddhism, we use all our senses. Chanting or reciting mantras has a great power of sound and involves the practice of listening.
The person consists of 'body, speech and mind' or Three Vajras. So a typical meditation practice includes mudras (symbolic hand gestures); the recitations of mantras; as well as the visualization of celestial beings and visualizing the letters of the mantra which is being recited. The mantra in Buddhist practice is associated with speech. The mantras can be pronounced out loud, or internally in the mind only.
The Importance of listening
The Buddha emphasized the importance of listening in his teachings. He himself did not write a single sutra during his lifetime (563 CA –483 BCE). All the teachings were transmitted orally. After the Buddha’s death, his relative Ananda gathered together five hundred monks in eastern India and recited all of the Buddha’s teachings from memory. The Sangha then approved them as the Dharma - the true teachings of the Buddha. Even after that event the Buddha’s teachings were still transmitted orally in memorized musical chants until some time later.
Within the Tibetan Buddhist, mantras are highly powerful: syllables or formulas chanted aloud or silently as instruments for transforming consciousness, removing negative karma, and attaining liberation. The importance of these practices is embedded in the religion’s name, Mantrayana Buddhism, another name of Vajrayana Buddhism.
Together with mandala (mind) and ritual mudras (body), mantras (speech) symbolize religious truth, which the practitioner may use to attain liberation in a single lifetime.
Om Mani Padme Hum
Om Mani Padme Hum - the mantra of the bodhisattva of compassion Avalokiteshvara is believed to contain all of the teachings of the Buddha in just six syllables. By chanting it repeatedly, practitioners connect their minds to that of the bodhisattva and focus on bodhicitta - compassion for all sentient beings.
See Powerful Buddhist Mantras to recite at the time of death - click here
What is the purpose of the mantra?
First, the mantra works as an object of focus. It is a tool to keep the mind more calm and concentrated. Instead of focusing on your breath, you focus on the mantra.
Second, the mantra is a tool for the transformation of consciousness. The teaching is that every sound, every vibration, has a certain quality to it, and is able to produce different states of mind and consciousness when repeated for a long period of time.
The Literal Meaning of the Mantra
There is a long history of scholarly disagreement on the meaning of mantras and whether they are instruments of mind, as implied by the etymological origin of the word mantra. One school suggests mantras are mostly meaningless sound constructs, while the other holds them to be the most meaningful linguistic instruments of the mind.
Mantras are compared to bird songs, that have the power to communicate, yet do not have a literal meaning.
Both schools agree that mantras have melody and a well-designed mathematical precision in their construction and that their influence on the reciter and listener is similar to that is observed in people around the world listening to their beloved music that is devoid of words.
Not all mantras have a literal meaning and most of them can’t be translated. Even when mantras do not have a literal meaning, they do set a tone and ambiance in the ritual as they are recited, and thus have a straightforward and uncontroversial ritualistic meaning.