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A mantra is a sound, syllable, word, or group of words that is considered capable of "creating transformation" (cf. spiritual transformation). Its use and type varies according to the school and philosophy associated with the mantra.
Mantras (Devanāgarī मन्त्र) originated in the Vedic tradition of India, becoming an essential part of the Hindu tradition and a customary practice within Buddhism, Sikhism, and Jainism.
In the context of the Vedas, the term mantra refers to the entire portion which contains the texts called Rig, Yajur or Sama, that is, the metrical part as opposed to the prose Brahmana commentary. With the transition from ritualistic Vedic traditions to mystical and egalitarian Hindu schools of Yoga, Vedanta, Tantra and Bhakti, the orthodox attitude of the elite nature of mantra knowledge gave way to spiritual interpretations of mantras as a translation of the human will or desire into a form of action.
For the authors of the Hindu scriptures of the Upanishads, the syllable Om, itself constituting a mantra, represents Brahman, the godhead, as well as the whole of creation. Kūkai suggests that all sounds are the voice of the Dharmakaya Buddha — i.e. as in Hindu Upanishadic and Yogic thought, these sounds are manifestations of ultimate reality, in the sense of sound symbolism postulating that the vocal sounds of the mantra have inherent meaning independent of the understanding of the person uttering them.
Nevertheless, such understanding of what a mantra may symbolize or how it may function differs throughout the various traditions and also depends on the context in which it is written or sounded. In some instances there are multiple layers of symbolism associated with each sound, many of which are specific to particular schools of thought. For an example of such see the syllable: Om which is central to both Hindu and Buddhist traditions.
While Hindu tantra eventually came to see the letters as well as the sounds as representatives of the divine, the shift toward writing occurred when Buddhism traveled to China. Although China lacked a unifying, ecclesiastic Language like Sanskrit, China achieved its cultural unity through a written Language with characters that were flexible in pronunciation but more precise in meaning. The Chinese prized written Language much more highly than did the Indian Buddhist missionaries, and the writing of mantras became a spiritual practice in its own right. So that whereas Brahmins had been very strict on correct pronunciation, the Chinese, and indeed other Far-Eastern Buddhists were less concerned with this than correctly writing something down. The practice of writing mantras, and copying texts as a spiritual practice, became very refined in Japan, and the writing in the Siddham script in which the Sanskrit of many Buddhist Sutras were written is only really seen in Japan nowadays. However, written mantra-repetition in Hindu practices, with Sanskrit in any number of scripts, is well-known to many sects in India as well.
Khanna (2003: p. 21) links mantras and yantras to thoughtforms:
Mantras, the Sanskrit syllables inscribed on yantras, are essentially 'thought forms' representing divinities or cosmic powers, which exert their influence by means of sound-vibrations
The Sanskrit word mantra- (m.; also n. mantram) consists of the root man- "to think" (also in manas "mind") and the suffix -tra, designating tools or instruments, hence a literal translation would be "instrument of thought".
An Indo-Iranian *mantra is also preserved in Avestan manthra, effectively meaning "word" but with far-reaching implications: Manthras are inherently "true" (aša), and the proper recitation of them brings about (realizes) what is inherently true in them. It may then be said that manthras are both an expression of being and "right working" and the recitation of them is crucial to the maintenance of order and being. (See also: Avestan aša- and Vedic ṛtá-).
Indo-Iranian *sātyas mantras (Yasna 31.6: haiθīm mathrem) thus "does not simply mean 'true Word' but formulated thought which is in conformity with the reality' or 'poetic (religious) formula with inherent fulfillment (realization).'"
Latin word Mentor (also in its usage in English and other languages) is a cognate (cf. Mens sana in corpore sano = Healthy mind in a healthy Body), as is the root preserved in most Slavonic languages as Mądr-/Mudr-, for Wisdom and Sage, cf. Russian Mudrec.
The Chinese translation is zhenyan 眞言, 真言, literally "true words", the Japanese on'yomi reading of the Chinese being shingon (which is also used as the proper name for the prominent esoteric Shingon sect).
Mantra in non-Esoteric Buddhism
In Buddhism in China and Vietnam, ten small mantras were finalized by the Monk Yulin (玉琳國師), a teacher of the Shunzhi Emperor for monks, nuns, and laity to chant in the morning.
Along with the ten mantras, the Great Compassion Mantra, The Shurangama Mantra of the Shurangama, Heart Sutra and various forms of nianfo are also chanted.
The Shurangama Mantra may be the longest mantra.
There are Thai buddhist amulet katha.
Mantra in Shingon Buddhism
Kūkai (774-835), a noted Buddhist monk, advanced a general theory of Language based on his analysis of two forms of Buddhist ritual Language: dharani (dhāra.nī) and mantra. Mantra is restricted to esoteric Buddhist practice whereas dharani is found in both esoteric and exoteric ritual. Dharanis for instance are found in The Heart Sutra. The term "shingon" (lit. true word) is the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese term for mantra, chen yen.
The word dharani derives from a Sanskrit root dh.r which means to hold or maintain. Ryuichi Abe suggests that it is generally understood as a mnemonic device which encapsulates the meaning of a section or chapter of a Sutra. Dharanis are also considered to protect the one who chants them from malign influences and calamities.
The term mantra is traditionally said to be derived from two roots: man, to think; and the action-oriented suffix -tra. Thus a mantra can be considered to be a linguistic device for deepening ones thought, or in the Buddhist context for developing the enlightened mind. However, it is also true that mantras have been used as magic spells for very mundane purposes such as attaining wealth and long Life, and eliminating enemies. In daily living, many thought the pronunciation of the mantra was not important to take its effect and the expected effect may not happen because of fixed Karma (定業), or because there appears a better way to solve the situation.
The distinction between dharani and mantra is difficult to make. We can say that all mantras are dharanis but that not all dharanis are mantras. Mantras do tend to be shorter. Both tend to contain a number of unintelligible phonic fragments such as Om, or Hu.m, which is perhaps why some people consider them to be essentially meaningless. Kūkai made mantra a special class of dharani which showed that every syllable of a dharani was a manifestation of the true nature of reality – in Buddhist terms that all sound is a manifestation of Shunyata or Emptiness of self-nature. Thus rather than being devoid of meaning, Kūkai suggests that dharanis are in fact saturated with meaning – every syllable is symbolic on multiple levels.
One of Kūkai's distinctive contributions was to take this symbolic association even further by saying that there is no essential difference between the syllables of mantras and sacred texts, and those of ordinary Language. If one understood the workings of mantra, then any sounds could be a representative of ultimate reality. This emphasis on sounds was one of the drivers for Kūkai's championing of the phonetic writing system, the kana, which was adopted in Japan around the time of Kūkai. He is generally credited with the invention of the kana, but there is apparently some Doubt about this story amongst scholars.
This mantra-based theory of Language had a powerful effect on Japanese thought and society which up until Kūkai's time had been dominated by imported Chinese culture of thought, particularly in the form of the Classical Chinese Language which was used in the court and amongst the literati, and Confucianism which was the dominant political ideology. In particular Kūkai was able to use this new theory of Language to create links between indigenous Japanese culture and Buddhism. For instance, he made a link between The Buddha Mahavairocana and the Shinto sun Goddess Amaterasu. Since the emperors were thought to be descended form Amaterasu, Kūkai had found a powerful connection here that linked the emperors with The Buddha, and also in finding a way to integrate Shinto with Buddhism, something that had not happened with Confucianism. Buddhism then became essentially an indigenous religion in a way that Confucianism had not. And it was through Language, and mantra that this connection was made. Kūkai helped to elucidate what mantra is in a way that had not been done before: he addresses the fundamental questions of what a text is, how signs function, and above all, what Language is. In this he covers some of the same ground as modern day Structuralists and others scholars of Language, although he comes to very different conclusions.
In this system of thought all sounds are said to originate from "a" – which is the short a sound in father. For Esoteric Buddhism "a" has a special function because it is associated with Shunyata or the idea that no thing exists in its own right, but is contingent upon causes and conditions. (See Dependent origination) In Sanskrit "a" is a prefix which changes the meaning of a word into its opposite, so "vidya" is understanding, and "Avidya" is Ignorance (the same arrangement is also found in many Greek words, like e.g. "atheism" vs. "theism" and "apathy" vs. "pathos"). The letter a is both visualised in the Siddham script, and pronounced in rituals and meditation practices. In the Mahavairocana Sutra which is central to Shingon Buddhism it says: Thanks to the original vows of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, a miraculous force resides in the mantras, so that by pronouncing them one acquires merit without limits". [in Conze, p. 183]
Mantra in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism
Mantrayana (Sanskrit), that may be rendered as "way of mantra", was the original self-identifying name of those that have come to be determined 'Nyingmapa'. The Nyingmapa which may be rendered as "those of the ancient way", a name constructed due to the genesis of the Sarma "fresh", "new" traditions. Mantrayana has developed into a synonym of Vajrayana.
Noted translator of Buddhist texts Edward Conze (1904–1979) distinguishes three periods in the Buddhist use of mantra.
Initially, according to Conze, like their fellow Indians, Buddhists used mantra as protective spells to ward off malign influences. Despite a Vinaya rule which forbids monks engaging in the Brahminical practice of Chanting mantras for material gain, there are a number of protective for a group of ascetic monks. However, even at this early stage, there is perhaps something more than animistic magic at work. Particularly in the case of the Ratana Sutta the efficacy of the verses seems to be related to the concept of "truth". Each verse of the Sutta ends with "by the virtue of this truth may there be Happiness".
Conze notes that later mantras were used more to guard the spiritual Life of the chanter, and sections on mantras began to be included in some Mahayana sutras such as the White Lotus Sutra, and The Lankavatara Sutra. The scope of protection also changed in this time. In the Sutra of Golden Light the Four Great Kings promise to exercise sovereignty over the different classes of demigods, to protect the whole of Jambudvipa (the India sub continent), to protect monks who proclaim the Sutra, and to protect kings who patronise the monks who proclaim the Sutra. The apotheosis of this type of approach is the Nichiren school of Buddhism that was founded in 13th century Japan, and which distilled many previously complex Buddhist practices down to the veneration of the Lotus Sutra through recitation of the Daimoku: "Nam myoho renge kyo" which translates as "Homage to the Lotus Sutra".
The third period began, according to Conze, in about the 7th century, to take centre stage and become a vehicle for salvation in their own right. Tantra started to gain momentum in the 6th and 7th century, with specifically Buddhist forms appearing as early as 300CE. Mantrayana was an early name for the what is now more commonly known as Vajrayana, which gives us a hint as to the place of mantra in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism. The aim of Vajrayana practice is to give the practitioner a direct experience of reality, of things as they really are. Mantras function as symbols of that reality, and different mantras are different aspects of that reality – for example Wisdom or Compassion. Mantras are often associated with a particular deity, one famous exception being the Prajnaparamita mantra associated with The Heart Sutra. One of the key Vajrayana strategies for bringing about a direct experience of reality is to engage the entire psycho-physical organism in the practices. In one Buddhist analysis the person consists of 'Body, speech and mind' (refer: Three Vajra). So a typical sadhana or meditation practice might include mudras, or symbolic hand gestures; the recitations of mantras; as well as the visualisation of celestial beings and visualising the letters of the mantra which is being recited. Clearly here mantra is associated with speech. The meditator may visualise the letters in front of themselves, or within their Body. They may be pronounced out loud, or internally in the mind only.
Om mani padme hum
Main article: Om mani padme hum
Om mani padme hum on the Gangpori (photo 1938–1939 German expedition to Tibet.
Probably the most famous mantra of Buddhism is Om mani padme hum, the six syllable mantra of the Bodhisattva of Compassion Avalokiteśvara (Tibetan: Chenrezig, Chinese: Guanyin). This mantra is particularly associated with the four-armed Shadakshari form of Avalokiteśvara. The Dalai Lama is said to be an incarnation of Avalokiteshvara, and so the mantra is especially revered by his devotees.
The book Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism by Lama Anagarika Govinda, gives a classic example of how such a mantra can contain many levels of symbolic meaning.
Donald Lopez gives a good discussion of this mantra and its various interpretations in his book Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West. Lopez is an authoritative writer and challenges the stereotypical analysis of the mantra as meaning "The Jewel in the Lotus", an interpretation that is not supported by either a linguistic analysis, nor by Tibetan tradition, and is symptomatic of the Western Orientalist approach to the 'exotic' East. He suggests that Manipadma is actually the name of a Bodhisattva, a form of Avalokiteshvara who has many other names in any case including Padmapani or Lotus flower in hand. The Brahminical insistence on absolutely correct pronunciation of Sanskrit broke down as Buddhism was exported to other countries where the inhabitants found it impossible to reproduce the sounds. So in Tibet, for instance, where this mantra is on the lips of many Tibetans all their waking hours, the mantra is pronounced Om mani peme hum.
Some other mantras in Tibetan Buddhism
The following list of mantras is from Kailash - Journal of Himalayan Studies, Volume 1, Number 2, 1973. (pp. 168–169) (augmented by other contributors). It also includes renderings of Om mani padme hum.
Please note that the word swaha is sometimes shown as svaha, and is usually pronounced as 'so-ha' by Tibetans. Spellings tend to vary in the transliterations to English, for example, hum and hung are generally the same word. The mantras used in Tibetan Buddhist practice are in Sanskrit, to preserve the original mantras. Visualizations and other practices are usually done in the Tibetan Language.
Om vagishvara hum This is the mantra of the Mahabodhisattva Manjusri, Tibetan: Jampelyang (Wylie "'jam dpal dbyangs")... The Buddha in his Wisdom aspect.
Om mani padme hum The mantra of Avalokitesvara, Mahabodhisattva, The Buddha in his Compassion aspect.
Om Vajrapani hum The mantra of The Buddha as Protector of the Secret Teachings. i.e.: as the Mahabodhisattva Channa Dorje (Vajrapani).
Om Vajrasattva hum The short mantra for White Vajrasattva, there is also a full 100-syllable mantra for Vajrasattva.
Om ah hum vajra Guru padma Siddhi hum The mantra of the Vajraguru Guru Padma Sambhava who established Mahayana Buddhism and Tantra in Tibet.
Om tare tuttare ture mama ayurjnana punye pushting svaha The mantra of Dölkar or White Tara, the emanation of Arya Tara [Chittamani Tara]. Variants: Om tare tuttare ture mama ayurjnana punye pushting kuru swaha (Drikung Kagyu), Om tare tuttare ture mama ayu punye jnana puktrim kuru soha (Karma Kagyu).
Om Tare Tutare Ture Soha.
Om tare tuttare ture svaha, mantra of Green Arya Tara - Jetsun Dolma or Tara, the Mother of the Buddhas: om represents Tara's sacred Body, speech, and mind. Tare means liberating from all discontent. Tutare means liberating from the eight fears, the external dangers, but mainly from the internal dangers, the delusions. Ture means liberating from duality; it shows the "true" cessation of confusion. Soha means "may the meaning of the mantra take root in my mind."
According to Tibetan Buddhism, this mantra (Om tare tutare ture soha) can not only eliminate disease, troubles, disasters, and Karma, but will also bring believers blessings, longer Life, and even the Wisdom to transcend one's circle of Reincarnation. Tara representing long Life and health.
oṃ amaraṇi jīvantaye svāhā (Tibetan version: oṃ ā ma ra ṇi dzi wan te ye svā hā) The mantra of The Buddha of limitless Life: The Buddha Amitayus (Tibetan Tsépagmed) in celestial form.
Om dhrung svaha The purification mantra of the mother Namgyalma.
Om ami dhewa Hri The mantra of The Buddha Amitabha (Hopagmed) of the Western Pureland, his skin the colour of the setting sun.
Om ami dewa Hri The mantra of Amitabha (Ompagme in Tibetan).
Om ah ra pa ca na dhih The mantra of the "sweet-voiced one", Jampelyang (Wylie "'jam dpal dbyangs") or Manjusri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom.
Om muni muni maha muniye sakyamuni swaha The mantra of Buddha Sakyamuni, the historical Buddha
Om gate gate paragate parasamgate Bodhi svaha The mantra of the Heart of the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra (Heart Sutra)
Namo bhagavate Bhaishajya-Guru vaidurya-praba-rajaya tathagataya arhate samyak-sambuddhaya tadyata *Tadyata OM bhaishajye bhaishajye maha bhaishajya raja-samudgate svaha The mantra of the 'Medicine Buddha', from Chinese translations of the Master of Healing Sutra.
There are mantras in Bön and some Chinese sects.
Mantras in other sects and religions
Nam Myōhō Renge Kyō The mantra of the Nichiren Buddhism.
Ná Mó Běn Shī Dà Zì Zai Wáng Fó (南無本師大自在王佛) The mantra of the Buddhayana sect (佛乘宗).
Námó Tiānyuán Tàibǎo Āmítuófó (南無天元太保阿彌陀佛) The mantra of the Way of Former Heaven and the T'ung-shan She.
Guān Shì Yīn Pú Sà (觀世音菩薩) The mantra of the Li-ism
Zhēnkōngjiāxiàng, wúshēngfùmǔ (真空家鄉，無生父母) The mantra of the Luo Sect (羅教)
Gomtrazan．Gwaarla．Rarunka．Sohuan．Satnum The mantra of Ching Hai.
Zhōngshùliánmíngdé, zhèngyìxìnrěngōng, bóxiàoréncíjiào, jiéjiǎnzhēnlǐhé (忠恕廉明德、正義信忍公、博孝仁慈覺、節儉真禮和) The mantra of the Tiender and the Lord of Universe Church
Qīngjìng guāngmíng dàlì zhìhuì wúshàng zhìzhēn móní guāngfó (清淨光明大力智慧無上至真摩尼光佛) The mantra of the Manichaeism in China
The mantra in Chinese Buddhist canon are collected by Qianlong Emperor into a book. Kuang-Ming Lin (林光明) amended it.
Mantra in Sikhism
In the Sikh religion, a mantar or mantra is a Shabad (Word or hymn) from the Adi Granth to concentrate the mind on God and the message of the ten Sikh Gurus.
Mantras in Sikhism are fundamentally different from the secret mantras used in other religions. Unlike in other religions, Sikh mantras are open for anyone to use. They are used openly and are not taught in secret sessions but are used in front of assemblies of Sikhs.
The Mool Mantar, the first composition of Guru Nanak, is the most widely known Sikh mantra.
Mantra in Taoism
There are mantras in Taoism such as the words in Dafan yinyu wuliang yin (大梵隱語無量音) and the Tibetan Buddhism mantra om (唵).
There are mantras in Cheondoism, Daesun Jinrihoe, Jeung San Do and Onmyōdō.