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Recitation of Mantras

Alexander Berzin
Riga, Latvia, July 2008

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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.