Here, I would like to share some of my thoughts and advice about mantra with all my dharma brothers and sisters. Mantras play such an important role in Buddhism in general, and particularly in the Vajrayana as it developed in Tibet. Mantra is a Sanskrit word. The word for mantra in Tibetan is Ngag. The Sanskrit word has the meaning of “that which liberates or protects the mind.” It is a method to control the mind, which makes the mind steady and aids one from falling into the clutches of the kleshas or mental afflictions. In this way, mantras can be considered a companion of calm abiding practice (shamatha), and insight (vipashyana), because they protect the mind from the influence of ordinary perceptions and conceptions, thereby supporting meditation.
In Vajrayana Buddhism especially, every meditational deity (yidam), whether it be peaceful or wrathful, male or female, single or in union with a consort, has a specific mantra. That mantra itself is understood to be the enlightened speech of the deity, or more accurately the essence of the deity itself in the form of sound. As such, when we utter the syllables of the mantra, we are not only invoking the presence, blessings, and activity of the deity associated with that mantra, but we are activating, we are awakening, the enlightened qualities of the deity in our own mindstream, which has been our fundamental nature from the very beginning. So you can see why mantras are so important!
Generally, though mantras are categorized as sang-ngag (secret mantras), zung-ngag (mantra of recitation), and rig-ngag (awareness mantras), among others, the mantras that we typically chant or recite are zung-ngag.
Now, there are two ways of approaching mantra recitation, based on what we consider to be the most important aspect of recitation. In one camp are those who assert that the correct pronunciation of the mantric syllables is of paramount importance. They believe that as mantras originate from the Sanskrit language, which is considered to be the sacred language in which all Buddhas teach the dharma, mantras must therefore be recited as accurately as possible, in Sanskrit. Otherwise their meaning and essence will be lost. If the meaning and essence is lost, then its power is also lost. Such individuals believe, in other words, that if the mantra is not recited with its correct sound, then there is no benefit. For those adherements, the study of dra-rigpa - the science of sound, or phonetics - is important before reciting the mantra. Those who give importance to the sounds of mantra consider it essential to study phonetics.
In the other camp, there are those who believe that mantra, especially sang-ngag (secret mantra) must be practiced above all with positive intention, strong confidence or conviction, and fervent devotion. They believe that möpa - firm conviction - and de pa - devotion - is of greatest importance while reciting mantras. There is a Tibetan saying that with firm conviction, the secret mantra is accomplished. With pure motivation, firm conviction and dag nang (pure view), one will undoubtedly accomplish the result of the mantra. Analogous to this is the teaching that as long as the conduct and teachings of one’s root guru are in accordance with authentic Dharma, one can receive the blessings of a fully enlightened Buddha through pure view, fervent faith and the practice of Guru Yoga, even if the teacher is in fact an ordinary human being. In the same way, in this school of thought, greater emphasis is placed on one's devotion, motivation and view, than is placed on correct pronunciation of the sounds of the mantric syllables. If one recites the mantra with faith and devotion, and with pure intention, there is bound to be a result.
As many of you know, Tibetan Buddhism has its origins in India. Most of the mantras originating from India have not been translated into Tibetan. As an example, the Vajrasattva mantra, “Om Benza Satto Samaya Mano Palaya....”, is recited in Sanskrit, or in a Tibetanized version of Sanskrit. It could have been translated and recited in Tibetan, but the original Sanskrit is retained. Although the long-life mantra of His Holiness the Dalai Lama has been translated into Tibetan and Chinese, it is still recited in Sanskrit. Additionally, the mantras in order to accomplish the Yidam, or meditational deities such as Namjom, Kunrig, Mithok, etc., are not translated into Tibetan. Rather, they are intentionally left in Sanskrit. The main purpose for doing so is not primarily that they sound correct, but to retain the blessings of reciting them in their original form as emanated and taught by the Buddha.
I consider myself to be in this latter camp with those who consider one’s mindset to be key when reciting mantras. To illustrate my position, I want to share an account of the great Sakya Pandita. As an emanation of the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, Manjushri, Maha Sakya Pandita was one of the greatest scholars of Tibet. He was especially versed in phonetics and the study of sound and linguistics. Not only was he well versed in the sound of human languages, but was also said to be able understand the languages of non-human beings like animals and devas. One day, while Sakya Pandita was walking across a hill, he approached a stream where there was a small waterfall and noticed the sound of a mantra emanating from the water. He noted its unusual tone and went closer to the waterfall. He put his ear very near to the water and heard the Vajkilaya Mantra, “Om Benza Kili Kilaya Sarva Big Gha Nen Bam Hum Phet.” However, Sakya Pandita noted that there was an error in the way the waterfall was “reciting” the mantra. The mantra was being produced as, “Om Benza Chili Chilaya Sarva Big Gha Nen Bam Hum Phet”.
Sakya Pandita then had the thought that the mantra was in fact coming from an elderly practitioner, perhaps someone with a speech impediment, living on the hill and practicing the Vajrakilaya deity. He decided to find out and walked along the waterway. Sure enough, as he had heard from the bottom of the waterfall, there was an old yogi in a cave slowly and erroneously reciting the Vajrakilaya mantra. Seeing him thus, Sakya Pandita approached the old meditator and asked what he was doing. The yogi replied that he was practicing the Vajrakilaya deity and reciting the mantra. Sakya Pandita then asked the yogi whether he could recite the mantra for him. The yogi then recited the mantra again, phonetically incorrect, with “Chili Chilaya” instead of “Kili Kilaya”. Sakya Pandita thought, “this poor old yogi does not understand the meaning and is just following his own blind faith, which will not work.” He resolved to set the old man on the correct path, so he told the yogi that he was reciting the mantra incorrectly, and explained the meaning of the mantra and how he was making a mistake by straying away from the true pronunciation of the mantra. By altering the words of the mantra, and thereby its meaning, Sakya Pandita asserted that it would likely bring inauspicious results. He then offered to teach yogi the correct way to recite the mantra so that it would benefit him.
The yogi replied in turn by asking Sakya Pandita how he would have recited it. The learned scholar proceeded to chant the mantra with great precision and accuracy. The old yogi then retorted that it was actually Sakya Pandita who was improperly reciting the mantra, because he did so with a mind clouded with doubt about the power of the mantra. Because he had no faith, only concepts, chanting the mantra that way would bear no fruit.
Frustrated by this challenge, Sakya Pandita argued again that the yogi was definitely incorrect from a phonetic point of view, which prompted the old yogi to jump up and explain forcefully, “For me, it was, it is now, and it always will be ‘Chil’ Chilaya!’” So saying, he drew his phurba kila, the three-sided ritual dagger associated with Vajrakilaya practice, from his waist sash and thrust it into the rock nearby. The phurba pierced all the way into the rock down to its handle. Now Sakya Pandita, a Vajrakilaya practitioner himself, pulled out his own phurba and replied, “It was, is, and always will be ‘Kili Kilaya!’” Sparks flew as he struck the rock with the dagger, but instead of piercing the rock, it just fell to the ground.
Sakya Pandita was humbled then, and filled with shame. The yogi approached Sakya Pandita and said that he was not only wrong but seriously wrong. “In the secret mantra recitation,” the yogi explained, “you must have great devotion and true motivation, and you lack these. You have great doubt as to what is correct and incorrect. My mistake is just in the sound and that does not really matter. Your mistake is in lacking devotion and pure view.” Sakya Pandita is said to have then received transmission and instructions from this elderly yogi. The yogi’s confidence came from devotion and experience, whereas Sakya Pandita’s came only from scholarly knowledge and intellect.
I will share another account that took place in Lhasa, Tibet, around the 12th century. There was a highly learned lama who was part of the aristocracy and he was in charge of the Tibetan administration. He was from Drepung Monastery and was an accomplished scholar and extremely well-versed in phonetics. One day, this lama was seriously ill and he developed a goiter. He and his attendants did everything to cure it but he showed no signs of improvement. His attendants invited lamas and monks from around the city to perform purification practices and did everything they could, but the lama’s condition did not improve.
As all his efforts to cure his goiter were in vain, the lama then visited his root teacher and consulted with him. He was told to perform a purification practice of the deity, Dorjee Namjom. He was specifically instructed to find some monks from Barkhor. Barkhor is the well-known circumambulation path around the Jokhang temple in Lhasa. It is always filled with monks, practitioners, and beggars from far off places in Tibet. Following the instruction of the lama, his attendants went to the Barkhor and found 2 monks from Kham who were then practicing Chod. They were invited to the lama’s residence and asked to do a purification practice of Namjom. At first, being overwhelmed by the wealth and stature of the lama, both the monks were reluctant to start and said they did not know much and that it may be better to invite some other lamas. The Lama then reassured them and told them to do the practice as they would usually do it and in their usual Khampa dialect. They then made all the preparations and sat down to begin the Namjom practice. The Dorjee Namjom mantra is recited: “Om Tuteya Tuteya, Tetaya Tetaya Sarva Potaya Sarva Potaya Gunna Gunna Gunapaya Gunapaya Sarva Satone Buddhaya Buddhaya Sambuddhaya Sambuddhaya Dama Dama Sam Damaya Sam Damaya Sarva Param Name”. As they began to recite the mantra, the Lama felt a bit odd at the recitation. The lama who was well versed and an expert in phonetics immediately noticed that the monks were reciting the mantra incorrectly. It seemed that the monks mispronounced two words in the mantra - “Tuteya Tuteya” - and instead recited “Teteya Teteya”. “Tuteya Tuteya” means “Go away...Go away....Cleanse Away...Cleanse Away”. Instead of reciting “Tuteya Tuteya”, the two monks recited “Teteya Teteya” meaning “cut into pieces..cut into pieces”. The lama obviously began to wonder; first his neck was completely swollen and now are these monks praying for his throat to be cut? It seemed extremely inauspicious. Then, as the lama smirked at the bizarre chain of events, his goiter suddenly popped and he was ultimately cured.
The two monks obviously did not know the meaning of the mantra, but they recited it wholeheartedly, with firm devotion to the deity and pure motivation for the lama’s recovery. Such stories show that it is not how one recites the mantra that is of prime significance, but the attitude of the individual reciting it.
When reciting the Amitabha Puja during our usual practices at our center, some may not correctly recite the mantras or other Tibetan words in the text, and they may wonder about it, but that is not really important. While reciting the Vajrasattva mantra in Sanskrit, we may not understand every word completely but your intention while reciting is far more important than how it sounds. I encourage all my students and dharma friends to chant mantra with faith, devotion and a pure altruistic motivation, without concepts regarding “correct” or “incorrect,” or “am I doing this right?” Let your heart and mind settle into and merge with the sacred blessings of the mantra, merge your faith and devotion with the deity with the recitation, and let firm conviction in the power of the mantra arise. In this way, there will definitely be benefit for you and for others.
I, Khenpo Karten Rinpoche, wrote this wrote this short blog on February 15, 2021, for all my students and Dharma friends, especially those who do not understand Tibetan but who often practice with Tibetan texts. This blog was transcribed by Dharma sister, Dechen Paltso, through a series of audio recorded messages and conversations.