Among the most widespread images of Tibetan Buddhism are those showing multi-coloured prayer flags catching the wind, or Tibetans whirling prayer wheels, or monks chanting in temples.
Mantras are the focus of these and other activities in our practice. But what is a mantra, exactly? And why the emphasis on repeating mantras? Like most other subjects in Tibetan Buddhism, these questions can be answered on many different levels. But I hope that the following extract from my book, Buddhism for Pet Lovers, will provide a helpful introduction. The passage talks about the benefits of reciting mantras aloud in the presence of our pets. But I hope it is self evident that we benefit from this same practice ourselves, whether we repeat a mantra out loud, or whispered under breath so that only we can hear it.
To bring you up to speed, the first paragraph of this extract refers to the story of Vasabandhu. In brief, that story tells of how an Indian master, Vasabandhu, used to recite a precious text called the Abhidharmakosha on a daily basis. Every day, he was overhead by a resident pigeon. So powerful were the imprints on the pigeon’s mind caused by hearing this text, that when it died, the pigeon achieved human rebirth. Vasabandhu decided to check up on what had become of the pigeon and, being clairvoyant, found he had been born as a child in a family nearby. Later, this child came under his care as a novice monk and in time became an expert on the Abhidharmakosha – surpassing the understanding of even the great Vasabandhu on this particular text.
Cause and effect, dear reader!
Now, with that under your belt, here’s the extract on mantras!
Mantra recitation is another powerful way we can help imprint the consciousness of our pet with the inner causes for transformation. As the story of Vasabandhu illustrates (see Chapter 3), simply hearing the recitation of sacred words was enough to propel a pigeon not only into a human lifetime, but one as a pre-eminent scholar.
The word ‘mantra’ comes from a Sanskrit term meaning ‘mind protection’. Mantras consist of a number of syllables—usually in Sanskrit, Tibetan or even a combination of languages—which embody a particular truth, meaning or insight. The benefits of repeating them can be understood on different levels.
At the first level, reciting a mantra gives our mind a virtuous object on which to focus. Recollecting the Buddhist definition of meditation—thoroughly familiarising the mind with virtue—when we repeat a mantra, we are doing exactly that. At the very least, we are protecting our own mind from non-virtue for the duration that we recite the mantra. And when we recite mantras aloud to our pets, we are helping familiarise their minds with an object of virtue too. The more we recite a mantra to them, the greater their familiarity.
At a second level, mantras offer a unique way to achieve spiritual insights. The literal meaning of mantras can seem fairly pedestrian. Take one of the most-recited mantras in Tibet, the mantra of Chenrezig, who is the Buddha of Compassion: Om mani padme hum (pronounced Om man-ee pad-me hung). In English this translates as ‘Hail to the jewel of the lotus’. This literal translation is decidedly secondary to the symbolic representation, with each of the six syllables pointing to different levels of meaning, and separate pathways for contemplation. When we combine reciting a mantra with contemplating its meaning, we create the possibility of an ‘aha’ experience, through which our understanding of a particular subject deepens.
Perhaps we can articulate this shift in our perception or understanding, perhaps not. The change may be non-conceptual but no less real—it may be that we have experienced our first taste of chocolate, metaphorically speaking. We use the same words as before to describe the flavours. But we are no longer just being theoretical. We know the truth of the meaning of the words and now we speak from personal experience.
At a third, more refined level, our most subtle mind is said to comprise two qualities—a knowingness and an energy. Mantra recitation not only impacts on the part of the mind that knows, as already described. The specific vibrational qualities of a mantra also influence the subtle energy of our mind, causing it to resonate in a particular and powerfully beneficial way.
As this aspect of the Dharma is esoteric, or hidden, a person is required to have received initiations for the full explanation and practices to be outlined. But it is useful to be aware that through mantra recitation we harness the prana, chi, or life force referred to in other Eastern traditions.
It is my personal belief that it is this shift in our own energetic field which attracts pets to us when we meditate. Many animals are highly aware of the quality of our presence, and when this quality shifts to one of greater peace, benevolence and coherence, it draws them to us, as they seek to be close to us.
At a fourth level, when we recite a mantra, we connect to the qualities of the deity with whom the mantra is associated. Even if we have little understanding of the process in which we’re engaged, when we do so with confidence in the outcome, we invest power in what we are doing. In the words of my kind teacher Zasep Tulku Rinpoche, ‘It is not the words themselves that give mantras their power; it is the faith with which the words are recited.’
Resonance may also shed light on the power of mantra recitation. By repeating a very specific ritual, we not only connect directly with those who have done the same thing in the past, but we benefit from their having done it.
What a gift to be able to offer our beloved pet—not only the warm, contentment of the moment as we recite mantras to them. But every mantra, recited with conviction, enabling us to draw on a collective reservoir of energy created by our forebears, including the greatest masters, and offering the karmic potential to germinate in the future, propelling both ourselves and our companion on the path to enlightenment.
Here are three mantras you may find useful:
1. The Buddha of Compassion/Chenrezin (Tibetan)/Avalokiteshvara (Sanskrit)
His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, is believed by many Buddhists to be the manifestation of this Buddha:
Om Mani Padme Hum
Pronounced: Om man-ee pad-me hung
2. Tara/Female Buddha of Compassionate Action:
Om Tare Tuttare Ture Soha
Pronounced: Om tar-eh too-tar-eh too-ray so ha
3. Medicine Buddha—for healing:
Tayatha Om Bekadeze Bekadeze Maha Bekadze Bekadze Radza Samungate Soha
Pronounced: Tie-ya-tar, Om beck-and-zay beck-and-zay ma-ha beck-and-zay beck-and-zay run-zuh sum-oon-gut-eh so-ha (The oon syllable to rhyme with the double ‘o’ in ‘look’).
There are many resources associated with each of these deities online, including the pronunciation of their mantras. Spelling, pronunciations and even the mantras themselves, may vary slightly depending on lineage, but toe-may-toe versus toe-mah-toe is of no great consequence. What’s important is the attitude with which we recite a mantra, and the process of connection which deepens with each repetition. As with all Dharma practice, Lama Google only gets you so far – there is no substitute for a flesh-and-blood teacher.
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(Photo credit: Prayer flags flying at Boudnath Stupa, photo by Lomash Shiwakoti of unsplash.com)