Miracles and Mysteries
Mantra for Westerners
All Buddhist lineages have teachings about love and compassion, but in Mahayana this aspect is placed right in the center. In this way of thought, the needs of all others, inclusively, and compassion for all is emphasized, and then every other practice, such as calm meditation, contemplation on mortality, karma, or realizing selflessness is seen in relation to the suffering and confusion of living beings.
All these teachings then take on vast importance. When practiced, they can help us first to help ourselves, freeing, awakening, and increasing our ability to help, and they can directly help others. When held and maintained, all these teachings and practices can be seen as being not just for ourselves. And then their potential, to bring happiness and to remove suffering, can be perceived to be as it is -- as something enormous, limitless. Seen this way, our appreciation of the value of these teachings can increase enormously in our mind.
These teachings and practices have the potential to benefit self and others. They can open the way to peace, health, and every enjoyment, so their value is naturally very great.
What then to say about mantra? In this context, a Mahayanist (whether they think of themselves as Buddhist or not), someone who has bodhicitta heart, the intention to remove as much suffering as possible and to benefit others as much as possible, naturally will look in an unprejudiced way for whatever can help. Naturally, there will be no obstacle to that kind of determination to help.
What joy, then, when someone with these pure, good intentions, finds the study and practice of mantra. Even if this is not for everyone, due to karma and people's affinities, still, who would not be intrigued? And in the true Buddhist spirit of free inquiry, the way is open, and the warmest invitation is given, to try the practice for oneself, to see if they work as described in many places (or possibly too in ways that are even better). Of course, they may not work at all, but for those with an affinity with any of these practices, the results for oneself and for others can be very great.
On Mantra and Initiation
Often before beginning the practice of a mantra, a person will attend a ceremony called an initiation. This is helpful to introduce a practice, and to further realization, but it is not essential to begin or to receive the benefits of a practice. If you begin some practice and get some positive result, then you may like to consider attending an initiation. This can strengthen your practice, and facilitate realization. An experienced Lama can share his or her energy, and connect us to a living lineage of practice, and this can be something really profound.
Some people gladly travel great distances to attend initiations, because of how important they feel these events to be. If you have any interest, and the chance to attend an initiation, by all means do take the opportunity. You can check with your local Tibetan Buddhist centers for a schedule of events and initiations (also called "empowerments"). Usually there will be some teachings or commentary along with the ceremony that will explain what will take place and how to practice in detail. Until that time, however, mantras and practices are available.
It's traditionally taught that what's called "self-generation" -- where one visualizes oneself as the deity -- should only be done by those who have received the initiation of a particular deity, but that "front generation" -- where one visualizes the deity in space above and in front of oneself -- can be done by anyone. In front generation, we visualize (see with the mind's eye) above us, the Buddha or bodhisattva whose practice we are doing, and whose mantra we are reciting. It's helpful when doing this recitation and visualization, to see pure light and nectar streaming from the image we hold (that is also made entirely of pure light). These represent, or carry the blessings of the Buddha. We should also see ourselves, our own body, not in an ordinary way, not as flesh and bone, but as also being made entirely of light.