Recitation of Mantras

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There are many ways of reciting mantras. One is vocally and one is mentally. So that is actually listed in the ways of how to recite mantras. And there’s ways of reciting mantras in which you actually visualize the letters and recite it mentally that way, or imagine that the letters themselves are giving off the sound. There is a whole long list of different ways in which one works with mantras. But if we look more deeply, we want to be able to train our body, speech, and mind. Not just our body and mind, or not just our mind. Speech has to do with communication, so that’s really quite important. If we want to help others, teach others, etc., we need to communicate; so we use speech, as human beings.

And so on one level, working out loud with mantras is at least turning speech to something positive, because we integrate: the body in a certain position, imagining that we are a certain deity; reciting a mantra; and keeping in mind either compassion, clarity of mind, or whatever is the representation there. So it’s a way of integrating the three together – body, speech, and mind.

On a deeper level, then, the mantra is involved with the breath and involved with the energy. The energy and the breath of the body are very closely related from a Buddhist analytical point of view. And so a mantra gives a regular rhythm to the breath and to the energy which, in terms of brain waves or whatever, has a certain benefit. So if we are just working on that level of establishing a more steady rhythm to the energy, whether you do it out loud or mentally, I think would have a similar effect. But then I am just speaking from my own impression, but it would certainly equally, I think, equally calm you down, for example, or make your mind a little bit more sharp.

But the deepest level of mantra has to do with shaping the energies of the breath. You shape the breath with the mantra, and that shapes the energy, which allows you a method for gaining control over the winds and the energies of the body so that you can bring them into the central channel. So what you want to do is, in a sense, shape the breath. And it’s done with a special type of mantra, a special type of practice – very, very advanced – for getting the winds in the central channel, so you get to the clear light mind more easily which is the most conducive for understanding voidness, etc.

So, on one level, what helps to shape the breath is at least vocalizing to a certain extent but, you know, it doesn’t have to be really loud. Of course there are many styles of recitation of mantras: and there’s loud, and there’s soft, and there’s singing, and there’s all these other things. But ultimately, on the deepest level, what is really only required is a shaping of the breath. So that, you can do even in a whisper. In a sense it’s just shaping the breath. Nobody else has to hear it.

So most of the time when you do mantras, what is recommended is that your mouth moves in the shape of the mantra and there is a little bit of vocalization, but really only you can hear it, so it is not disturbing everyone around. Now of course you go to the monasteries and you hear people screaming mantras on the top of their voice, but from a textual theoretical point of view that’s usually what’s recommended: just privately, shape the breath. So it doesn’t mean, in short, that just reciting it mentally is useless or less powerful, it is just different.

Mantra, I must say, is a very, very difficult topic to understand and to not have it degenerate to the realm of magic words. Especially since the Tibetans mispronounce the Sanskrit mantras; the Mongols get it even further away from Sanskrit; the Chinese and the Japanese, when they attempt the mantras you can’t even recognize what mantra they are saying. So then one starts to question what really is involved here, because obviously these people still gain attainments through mantras. So it’s not an easy topic. So His Holiness the Dalai Lama recommends that, despite the fact that the Tibetans have their own way of reciting and pronouncing – like they don’t say “Om Vajrasattva”, they say “Om Benzasato,” which is a deformation of the Sanskrit – nevertheless, he says if we can do it, as Westerners, as closely as possible to the original Sanskrit, that’s better. But of course many Tibetan lamas prefer that as Western disciples we pronounce it the same way as they do. So everything depends on the teacher.

When we have received an empowerment and we take the commitment to recite mantras. Is it OK to recite them in public transport or somewhere like that, not during our usual meditation session. Is it a good idea to recite mantras throughout the whole day?

First of all, in general our Dharma practice should not at all be limited to when we are in the controlled environment of our place of meditation. The whole point of Dharma practice is to be able to apply it in daily life and not lead a split type of life – that on our meditation cushion we’re one way, and then in our normal, everyday life we’re completely different. So mantras we can say all the time, any time.

If we are in public, like on the metro or wherever, certainly you wouldn’t say it out loud. You don’t have to take out a rosary, a mala, in front of everybody and use it for saying mantras. But as I explained a little while ago, this type of practice should be kept private or hidden. If you absolutely have to use a mala in order to help you stay focused (because you’re moving your finger), then keep it in your pocket if you must use one when you’re in public. Right? We’re talking about a regular layperson; we’re not talking necessarily about a monk or a nun.

One doesn’t have to keep count of mantras all the time; otherwise you might as well just count rather than saying a mantra. The point of the mantra is to, on the one hand, help us to stay focused on a certain state of mind, like compassion with Chenrezig or clarity of mind with Manjushri. So certainly while doing the mantra, we try to have that state of mind that corresponds to it.

There are many, many different types of visualizations that we can learn in association with each of the mantra practices. So we can do those as well, even when we’re in public, especially when we’re just sitting in a metro or something like that. Obviously if we are doing something that’s dangerous – it's dangerous, you’re working with a power instrument, or something like that – obviously you want to stay focused and not go off into your visualization.

But you have to remember that before you are on a fairly advanced stage on the complete stage at which you are able to generate the energy winds associated with the eyes, for example, so that you have the form of the Buddha-figure with visual consciousness – before that, which would be the type of practice that all of us do, with any type of visualization that you do, with eye consciousness you see our ordinary forms of things and the visualization is with mental consciousness (so in a sense, they are superimposed on each other). You don’t lose sight of the road when you’re crossing the road.

Can you explain more the necessity to recite mantras besides following this commitment?

The word mantra. Man is short for manas, which means “mind,” and tra comes from the Sanskrit verb “to save” or “to protect.” This is the way it’s usually explained. So it is to protect our mind from various types of negative thoughts. That’s on one level. So instead of having negative thoughts of disliking others, when we say the mantra of Chenrezig it keeps us mindful of love and compassion toward them. So it protects the mind.

On a very ordinary level, if we have some song or music going through our head and we can’t get it out of our head, the best way to protect the mind from that is to use that verbal energy in the mind to recite a mantra instead. Or it doesn’t even have to be singing a song in our head. It could just be uncontrollable thoughts, like worrying at night, and stuff like that. Use that verbal energy of the mind to say a mantra.

But on a deeper level, as I've said, the mantra is a shaping of the breath; and by shaping the breath with the sound of the mantra, it shapes the subtle energies. And so there’s something called vajra recitation, in which one combines the breath with the sound of OM AH HUM. And with special, quite advanced practices, that is used to shape the breath, which means the subtle energy, and get it to dissolve into the central channel to then ultimately protect the mind by getting it to this subtlest, clear-light level.

Even the ordinary attainments, these special attainments, are often gained through gaining control and shaping the subtle energies, and that’s done through mantra. Special powers – you know, extrasensory powers, extraphysical powers – which are used for helping others, not just as a show of power or something like that.

So there are many usages and purposes of mantra.

Is there any use to reciting a mantra while another part of your mind is thinking something else?

Well, it’s better than not saying a mantra at all. At least there’s something going on, even if we’re thinking of football at the same time as we’re saying OM MANI PADME HUM. But the best, of course, is to try to be focused.

What is the best way of reciting mantras? Is it to recite them with visualizations or with some special thoughts?

There are different ways of reciting mantras – loud, soft, just in your mind, just visualizing the letters of the mantra rather than saying it in our mind or out loud. In kriya tantra, there’s imagining that the letters of the mantra themselves inside your heart are giving off the sounds of the mantra as opposed to imagining that you yourself are making the sound. And then there’s meditations on the voidness of that sound of the mantra. So there are many, many different types of mantra practices.

Usually what is recommended is that you at least sort of have your lips moving with the mantra, just saying it a little bit under your breath so only you could hear it. You don’t have to make a big show of saying them out loud so that everybody hears it around you, although in some situations, you do do them out loud. And the speed depends on yourself. The point is not to leave out any syllables. If you ever hear His Holiness the Dalai Lama recite mantras, it’s faster than practically anybody I’ve ever heard in my life – the same thing for reciting a text or reciting anything – yet everything is clear.