By Jason Espada
Avalokiteshvara, help me to say this rightly, for all who could benefit from it.
I: A set of sacred syllables, repeated to attain a spiritual benefit
II. (from the Sanskrit): A "tool for thinking." 1) Prescribed syllables (in Sanskrit) to protect the mind (from defilements). They express the essence of specific energies. The recitation of mantras is sometimes done with specific visualizations. 2) Often, Mantra is used as a synonym for Vajra, or Tantra (as in ‘Mantrayana' -- the path of mantra).
In thinking about writing this introduction, I've tried to bring to mind the most commonly asked questions about mantra practices.
I know, first off, that most people have no interest in this subject, feeling completely sure (for some reason) that these practices don't work, and that it's a meaningless subject for them to learn anything about.
A second, much smaller group tend in the opposite direction -- without trying things, they believe what they hear. They "take it on faith," or because it sounds reasonable, or because it fits with their worldview of what's possible.
Both of these extremes, of tending toward credulity, or a pre-judged disbelief, would have to be set aside before anything new can be learned, especially when it comes to more recondite subjects -- where there is a lot that is hidden, or subtle -- outside the range of our usual perceptions.
Instead of believing or not believing from the outset, perhaps someone new to this subject could listen to these ideas more as an invitation, to try some of these practices, or to see things in a different way. I hope to be able to share some basic information, and to offer as much as I can in the way of warm encouragement to practice. The effects can really be great, profound, and life-altering. They can change what we think of as ourselves, and what we think of as "a human being." As Rumi said, "Human beings are mines..."
We have all these richnesses inside us. All these potentials. May they manifest effortlessly in whatever way, and as much as necessary for the benefit of living beings.
Imagine if someone told you that you had a pot of gold right around the corner from where you are standing, in your very own backyard. Whether or not you knew this person, it would at least be worth a look. If they even said that you had a single gold coin, most of us would at least look. The usefulness of money is something we can all relate to - "no harm in trying," we'd say. And yet, compared to the claims that are made about the power of mantra, the usefulness of money is limited, almost nothing.
There are other kinds of wealth near at hand that we can have access to and make use of.
Our Body Contains Medicine
When we're first introduced to the idea that there are healing properties within our body and mind that can be contacted and increased, we might be surprised. After all, it goes against everything we've been taught about who we are, and these beliefs can be quite solid.
If someone says to you that your body contains healing properties that can be awakened and increased, it's like being told that there's gold nearby, in your own yard. First, you'd want to know where, and second, how much! Well, the teachings on mantra provide the "where," the directions, if you will, to inner treasures.
As far as the "how much," I'll repeat what tradition teaches, and that is, that it depends on the person and the practice itself what will come about. As always, there is the invitation to practice, to experience and see for yourself, along with the encouragement that these practices could be of great benefit to yourself and others.
If you find you are interested, then please do give these practices a fair try, in terms of time and effort, as it's said, "to awaken the energy of the mantra."
Working from Two Directions
Let's say you want to cultivate compassion. You may choose to recite the compassion mantra, OM MANI PEME HUM. An experience like this may follow: you can feel peaceful, and have a warm feeling.You may see light like sunlight, rising from within. You may want to share that feeling or express that feeling in some way...
While reciting, you may pause, and say, "may all beings be happy," "may all beings be peaceful...," or make prayers of that nature. The feeling then can be somewhat different, as if you are using a different part of the mind to cultivate good-will, love, and compassion.