It occurred to me that people who practice outside of the Tibetan tradition and who are used to following the breathe, may wonder, why do these Tibetan Buddhists recite so much mantra? I’m sure even within the Tibetan tradition, people eventually have to wonder this too.
I saw a documentary on a Buddhist practitioner, and this woman was showing the program host how to do a Green Tara meditation. She was showing her how to do all these complicated mudras, and was telling her, say “Tu tare, ture, soha.” The program host asked her what the meaning was behind the mantra. She replied by saying, “I don’t know.”
From my understanding, mantras actually serve at least 4 purposes. Likely more, but take into consideration my limited understanding.
Relaxing The Mind When It’s Tired
Tantric practice often involves visualizing oneself as a deity and stabilizing this appearance. Before any of this happens, someone has to meditate on emptiness and then come to an understanding that the body they’re visualizing as is empty. During this time, someone tries to stabilize their appearance as the deity, and at other times, focuses on the divine pride as being the deity.
Basically, meditating on emptiness, visualizing the appearances of the deity, and taking on divine pride is tiring. Mantra recitation is something to do when the mind has become exhausted from these activities. After someone is refreshed, they go back to meditating on the appearances of the deity, its emptiness and divine pride. These are actually the most important parts of the meditation.
From what I’ve heard, advanced practitioners spend more time focusing on these parts, then actually doing the mantra. This shift in balance happens over time.
Vibrations Affect the Subtle Mind and Body
Thubten Chodron once said that Lama Yeshe told his students that even if they don’t intend to develop compassion, just saying “Om mani padme hum” will cause compassion to grow in the mind. I think there’s some truth to this, that the mantra’s vibrations affect the subtle mind and body.
In the south of Sweden, there is a Vietnamese Zen monastery that has also integrated tantric practice. The abbot has told people to really chant Chenrezig’s mantra and to let it vibrate down to the gut area. He once joked that the nuns may look old, but they look youthful because they chant the mantra so much and have developed compassion.
I think you would have to check this with your own experience, to see if it’s true.
I’ve heard that sometimes in the Chan tradition (Chinese Zen), sometimes new mediators are asked to chant Namo Amituofo (Namo Amitabha) many times. This is the praise that many pure land Buddhists say (Namo Amida Butsu in Japan) in order to get born in Amitabha’s pure land. After their minds have been stabilized by this, they proceed to meditating chan.
I feel mantras do the same thing, which is create focus and calm. I think this is obvious in Transcedental Meditation (TM) practices.
Many mantras have very deep meanings, even the shortest ones. Om mani padme hum (mantra of Chenrezig) relates to the body, speed, and mind of a Buddha, and the unification of wisdom and compassion. I think anything related to these things leaves powerful imprints on the mind.
I remember recently, a group of students took a high lama to an animal park. They were riding in one of the park’s cars, and the animals were walking right up to them. The high lama was literally shouting mantras at them.