A mantra is a sacred syllable, word or phrase used in meditation to help focus and calm the mind. The mantra can be spoken or chanted out loud, or repeated as a thought in the mind. The idea is to focus on the meaning of the mantra as you chant, and doing this can have a transformative effect on your life.
The word ‘mantra’ is Sanskrit and comes from the root man, which means ‘to think’, and tra, meaning tools or instruments. So a mantra is an instrument of thought or of the mind. They’re found in many religions and traditions, and some believe mantras to be older than language itself. The meaning of mantras varies. Some function as sounds designed to act as a focus in meditation or to build resonances in the body. Others have specific meanings, depending upon tradition.
The simplest mantra, and probably the most well-known, is Om. It comes from the Hindu tradition and is known as the source of all mantras. Om is the foundation of all existence, the seed from which the universe came into being. Chanting Om helps you to remember your true nature by focusing on the oneness of all.
Another mantra is a Tibetan Buddhist phrase: Om Mani Padme Hum. This is the mantra of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, who is an embodiment of compassion. The Dalai Lama is said to be the incarnation of Avalokiteshvara so this mantra is especially important to his devotees.
The meaning of this mantra is hard to pin down because there are many interpretations. According to the Dalai Lama, Om symbolises the pure body and mind of the Buddha. Mani means jewel and symbolises the intention to become enlightened and compassionate. Padme means lotus and symbolises wisdom. And Hum symbolises indivisibility or unity of purpose.
“Thus the six syllables, om mani padme hum, mean that in dependence on the practice of a path which is an indivisible union of method and wisdom, you can transform your impure body, speech, and mind into the pure, exalted body, speech and mind of a Buddha.” – Dalai Lama
- Relaxes your body
- Calms your mind
- Helps to develop compassion
While saying the mantra you can send compassion out towards all beings by visualising it pouring from your heart and spreading around the world. You can repeat the mantra 21 or 108 times, using a mala (Buddhist prayer beads or rosary) to keep count. Or just use your fingers. Remember to include yourself as an object of compassion.
Chanting Om Mani Padme Hum
A note on pronunciation: how you say the mantra doesn’t matter too much, but here’s a basic guide broken down into syllables. The vowel in Hum is pronounced like the double o in ‘book’, while the m at the end is pronounced like the ng in ‘song’. So Hum comes out as Hung:
Ohm Ma-nee Pahd-may Hung
However, many Tibetans pronounce Padme without the d, so it comes out as Peh-me or Peme:
Om Mani Peme Hung
Watch this short video from Lobsang Wangdu to hear the Tibetan version:
- Sit in meditation on a cushion or a chair, keeping your back straight. If you’re using beads to keep count, hold them loosely in your hands at your belly.
- Breathe slowly and deeply for a few minutes to calm your mind and body. Relax. You can count your breaths to get into the right frame of mind if you want to.
- Begin to chant softly, or repeat the mantra in your mind if you prefer.
- If thoughts intrude and you lose track of where you are in your count, return your attention to the mantra. Don’t beat yourself up about getting distracted, simply continue.
- After a few minutes, while continuing with the mantra, begin to visualise compassion spreading through the world and to all beings, including yourself. See it as light pouring from your heart, if that helps.
- When you have finished chanting, sit quietly and breathe, focusing on your breath for a few minutes before ending the session.
You can chant mantras under your breath, or in your mind, any time you feel you need a little extra support from the Buddhas, the universe, the angels, or however you prefer to think of it. This is also a good way of stopping yourself from being swamped by negative thoughts or compulsions you’re trying to overcome. When you catch yourself reaching for another biscuit or chocolate bar or cigarette, chanting softly can release you from the grip of your addiction.
For more on the meaning of Om Mani Padme Hum visit Dharma Haven