Recitation of Mantras

How Mantras Shape the Energies of the Breath

There are many ways of reciting mantras, some are vocal, and some are mental. With some, we visualize the letters while reciting them. and with others we imagine that the letters themselves are giving off their sound. There is a whole long list of different ways in which we work with mantras, but if we look more deeply, reciting them fits into the context of training 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 or teach others, we need to communicate with our speech. 

On one level, working out loud with mantras uses our faculty for speech in a constructive way. We do this while imagining that our bodies are those of a certain Buddha-figure and our minds are focused on either compassion, clarity of mind, or on whatever the Buddha-figure represents. In this way, we integrate the three together: body, speech and mind. 

On a deeper level, mantra recitation involves our breath and our subtle energies. The subtle energies and the breath are very closely related. Reciting 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. If we are working just on that level of establishing a steadier rhythm to our energy, I don’t think it makes much of a difference whether we recite the mantras out loud or mentally. I think, both would have a similar effect. I am just speaking from my own impression, but it would certainly, I think, equally calm us down or make our minds a little bit sharper. 

However, the deepest level of mantra practice has to do with shaping the energies of the breath. We shape the breath with the mantra, and that shapes the energy, which gives us a method for gaining control over the winds and the subtle energies of the body so that we can bring them into the central channel. What we want to do is, in a sense, shape the breath. It’s done with a special type of mantra and a special type of advanced practice for getting the winds in the central channel, so we can access our clear light level of mind more easily, This is the level of mind most conducive for cognition voidness. 

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

Most of the time when we practice with mantras, what is recommended is that our mouth moves in the shape of the mantra, and there is a little bit of vocalization, but really only we can hear it so that it doesn’t disturb everyone around. Of course, we go to the monasteries and hear people screaming mantras at the top of their voice, but from a textual, theoretical point of view, what’s usually recommended is just to recite them privately, shaping the breath. But that doesn’t mean that just reciting them mentally is useless or less powerful; it is just different. 

Mantra, I must say, is a very difficult topic to understand and not have degenerate to the realm of it being magic words. If we think about it, the Tibetans mispronounce the Sanskrit mantras; the Mongols get it even further away from Sanskrit; and, when the Chinese and the Japanese recite the same mantras, we can’t even recognize what mantra they’re saying. Then, we start to question what is really involved here because, obviously, these practitioners still gain attainments through mantras. 

It’s not an easy topic. 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. 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.

Mantras as Part of Everyday Life

When we have received an empowerment and take the commitment to recite certain 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, we can recite mantras all the time, any time.

If we are in public, like on the metro or wherever, we certainly wouldn’t say them out loud. We don’t have to take out a rosary, a mala, in front of everybody and use it for saying mantras. As I explained a little while ago, this type of practice should be kept private or hidden. If we absolutely have to use a mala in order to help us stay focused because we’re moving the beads of the mala with our finger, then keep it in our pocket if we must use one when we’re in public. 

We don’t have to keep count of mantras all the time; otherwise, we might as well just count “one, two, three” rather than say a mantra. The point of the mantra is to help us stay focused on a certain state of mind, like compassion with Chenrezig or clarity of mind with Manjushri. Certainly, while doing the mantra, we try to have that state of mind that corresponds to it.

There are many different types of visualizations that we can learn in association with each of the mantra practices. 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. If we are doing something that’s dangerous – for instance, we’re working with a power tool or something like that – obviously, we want to stay focused on what we’re doing and not go off into our visualization.

We have to remember that before we reach a very advanced stage where we can transform the subtle energies of our eyes so that we can actually see the Buddha-figures and not just visualize them, we would still see the ordinary forms of things with our eyes while we visualize pure forms with our minds. In a sense, the two are superimposed on each other. We don’t lose sight of the road when we’re crossing the street!

Protecting the Mind with Mantras

Can you explain more the necessity to recite mantras besides following a commitment to do so?

In the analysis of the Sanskrit 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. The recitation of mantras protects our minds from having negative thoughts. That’s on one level. Instead of having negative thoughts of disliking others, when we recite 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 heads, and we can’t get it out of our heads, 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. We can use that verbal energy of the mind to say a mantra.

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. There’s something called vajra recitation, in which we combine the breath with the sounds of OM AH HUM. With special, quite advanced practices that are used to shape the breath, which means the subtle energy, we get it to dissolve into the central channel with OM AH HUM and, by doing so, we ultimately protect the mind by getting it to this subtlest, clear-light level.

Even the mundane actual attainments are often gained through gaining control and shaping the subtle energies, and that’s done through mantras. These attainments refer to extrasensory powers and extraphysical powers, which are used for helping others, not just as a show of power or something like that.

Like that, there are many usages and purposes of mantras.

How Best to Recite a Mantra

Is there any use to reciting a mantra while another part of our 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. 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?

As I’ve explained, there are many different ways of reciting mantras, loud, soft, just in our mind, visualizing the letters of the mantra rather than saying the mantra in our mind or out loud. In kriya tantra, there’s imagining that the letters of the mantra themselves are inside our hearts are giving off the sounds of the mantra as opposed to imagining that we are making the sound. Then, there are meditations on the voidness of that sound of the mantra. There are many, many different types of mantra practices. But whether or not we are accompanying our recitation with a visualization, it is important to generate a special state of mind while reciting – either compassion, the understanding of voidness, and so on. 

The speed with which we recite the mantras depends on us. 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 every syllable is distinct and clear.

Original Audio from the Seminar