In Buddhist and Hindu cultures, mantras are Sanskrit syllables or words, which form symbols, or compact version of wisdom teachings. They are used as a tool for meditation, being chanted or listened to repeatedly, their meaning becoming a basis from which the meditative experience may unfold.
However, to date the meeting of the meditative disciplines and Western psychology has been marked by significant misunderstandings and by an assimilative integration in which much of the richness and uniqueness of the art of meditation has been overlooked.
The West’s first contact with Eastern contemplative practices has been interpreted through the lens of skeptic academics who used intellect alone to judge practices which go far beyond intellect.
Mantras are not ‘spells’ or meaningless words, as even prominent Western scholars repeat again and again, nor are the ones who have attained proficiency in them ‘sorcerers’ of any kind.
The naivety with which these things have been interpreted by the Western authors has created an incredible confusion, the consequences of which we shall have to overcome step by step, before we can lay the foundation for a deeper understanding and an unprejudiced attitude.
The average Westerner’s perception of foreign traditions has most likely been affected by the misinterpretations mentioned above, enacting a negative or reticent bias towards meditative practices. But once we overcome this bias, we can realize the archetypal line which traverses all cultures regarding the power of speech, which has been mentioned in every human culture: At the start of the New Testament in the Gospel of John – “In the beginning was the Word.” – Word with the meaning of logos, of knowledge, and of its expression. Some even compare mantras with the Psalms in Christian and Hebrew traditions.
But to come back to a western approach to these practices, in the dissecting spirit of western science we will inquire into the reason behind the chanting of mantras and what benefits it can bring. Is it blind tradition based on superstition, or is it something behind it?
Ever since the modern world entered the Rational Age (which started with the scientific revolution ~3 centuries ago), people have started defining as “real” and thus valid only phenomena that are through the established scientific method objectively verifiable and repeatable.
But we now know that every study is limited by the vision and understanding of which the ones who design it are capable. Our predisposition to reconfirm our own beliefs is a real and well documented phenomenon, and so is the influence of the culture upon the way in which a problem is approached.
For example, a scientist who understands both the human biology and meditative practices is much more likely to be able to conceive and interpret an experiment through which we could find objective ways of studying meditation than a scientist who only knows the human biology. Another example is the different ways in which the East and the West try to explain existence – one focuses on understanding matter (the observed), the other on understanding the spirit (the observer).
We propose that it is time to unite these different approaches and introduce the subjective experiences into the realm of accepted and discussed phenomena and inquire deeper into the realms of consciousness and how we perceive reality. This implies the inclusion of the observer into our sciences which deal with the observed, and switching from a purely objective approach to an inter-subjective one, which can analyze and develop the subjective experience and elucidate the connection between the inner world of our experiences and the exterior world of appearances.
Since today we are living in an era where the West has met the East, we have increasing access to scientific studies and interpretations of eastern contemplative traditions., explained in a modern language.
Such a study has been led by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences in Bangalore, India, which has taken up the task of studying the effects of what is considered one of the most powerful mantras in Vedic traditions – “OM”. Twelve people have been trained in the basics of meditation and tested using and fMRI scan while chanting “OM” for 10 minutes. The results were compared with the result of them saying “sss” instead of “OM” for the same period during another scan.
fMRI signals did not detect any significant brain activation during ‘OM’ chanting. However, significant deactivation was seen in the amygdala, anterior cingulate gyrus, hippocampus, insula, orbitofrontal cortex, parahippocampal gyrus and thalamus. The “sss” task did not produce any significant activation/deactivation in any of these brain regions.
This deactivation has been compared to another study, which analyzed the brain’s functions during VNS (Vagus Nerve Stimulation). The Vagus Nerve is a long bundle of motor and sensory fibers that links the brain stem to the heart, lungs, and gut. It drives the involuntary nerve center (the parasympathetic nervous system), regulating tasks ranging from keeping the heart rate constant, to digestion, breathing, sweating, regulating blood pressure, promoting kidney functions, release of bile and testosterone, secretion of saliva, release of tears and plays a major role in fertility and orgasms. VNS has been linked to the improvement of conditions such as anxiety disorders, heart disease, tinnitus, obesity, alcohol addiction, migraines, mood disorders, and more.
The comparison of the results of VNS and OM chanting showed similar results in the fMRI scans and the related experiences of the people tested. The vibration of “OM” during chanting has been interpreted as to stimulate the Vagus nerve through its auricular branches, thus leading to similar results as electrical VNS and proposing a potential role for “OM” chanting in clinical practice.
These are, as seen, purely objective measurements. To accept their validity, as with any scientific study, one must either trust the scientists who did the study, or to do the experiment oneself.
Having been done in the western spirit, this study accounts only for objective, physiological effects. It doesn’t enter into the training the 12 subjects have received about the basics of meditation, the meaning of OM or the subjective experiences that they felt.
To compensate the pure objectivity of the aforementioned study, let us inquire into the meaning of OM.
After a quick search on Wikipedia, one can find “OM” described as a sacred sound and spiritual symbol, signifying the essence of the ultimate reality and consciousness – the relationship between Atman (the soul, the inner self) and Brahman (ultimate reality, entirety of the universe, truth, divine, supreme spirit, cosmic principles, knowledge). Although these descriptions are so readily available, the nature of eastern philosophy is meant to be understood through active pursuit and inquiry through personal practice.
A beautiful description which goes into the depths of the symbolism behind this mantra was given by Anagarika Govinda, a German painter, philosopher and poet formerly known as Ernst Lothar Hoffmann, in his book “Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism”.
The essence of all beings is earth, the essence of man is speech,
the essence of earth is water, the essence of speech is Rgveda (poetry),
the essence of water are the plants, the essence of Rgveda is Samaveda (music),
the essence of plant is man, the essence of Samaveda is Udgita (OM).
Inspired from the Chandogya Upanisad, one of the oldest Upanishads in Hinduism, he presents life from an evolutionary, yet mystical perspective. The latent forces and qualities of earth and water have been concentrated and transformed into the higher organism of the plant. Next, the forces of the plant have been transformed into the higher organisms of the animal, and the forces of the animals into the higher organism of man. The forces of man are concentrated in the faculties of mental reflection and expression by way of sound equivalents, which through combination produce the inner (conceptual) and outer (audible) form of speech, by which man distinguishes himself from all lower forms of life.
The most valuable form of expression of this spiritual achievement (speech) is the sacred knowledge (Veda) in form of poetry (Rgveda) and music (Samaveda). Poetry is subtler than prose, because rhythm produces a higher unity and loosens the routine of our mind. But music is subtler than poetry, because it carries us beyond the meaning of words into a state of intuitive receptivity. Finally, both rhythm and melody find their synthesis and solution in the one profound and all-embracing vibration of the sacred sound OM. Here, the apex of the pyramid has been reached, ascending from the plane of greatest differentiation and materialization to the point of ultimate unification and spiritualization. In this sense, OM is the quintessence, the seed-syllable of the universe, the universal force of the all-embracing consciousness.
The Mantra acts like a meditation platform, and by having defined and understood its symbolism, one can go further into the depths of one’s being and practice a deeper understanding of oneself and the world.
Adding the philosophy behind the symbol to the physiological effects of the vibration of the OM chanting discussed in the aforementioned study, we can understand that the mantra becomes an intermediary through which one can transpose the symbol (concept, meaning) into reality (physiological effect). It becomes a tool for transforming mere intellectual understanding into pure, direct experience of the concepts it comprises.
The intention with which a mantra is chanted is that of liberation – liberating oneself and all beings who hear the mantra from ignorance and self-deceit. Like food that tastes much better when it is cooked with love and passion, the effect of the mantra is more powerful when it is chanted with the intention to spread awareness and liberation.
The OM syllable is found at the beginning of most mantras.
OM MANI PADME HUM
Being one of the most widespread, the six-syllabled Sanskrit mantra has a very vast symbolism, which Anagarika Govinda gracefully expands into words, building upon the meaning of OM.
MANI – precious jewel, the Mind, the Philosopher’s Stone which converts all the elements of consciousness into means of Enlightenment. The Philosopher’s Stone is one of the invisible symbols of humanity, which reoccurred throughout time in different forms in different cultures. It has given rise to many visible symbols, great thoughts and discoveries in the realm of philosophy and science. The eternal vision behind it is that of prima materia – the original substance, the ultimate principle of the world.
According to this idea, all existing elements or phenomena are only variations of the same force or substance, which can be restored to its primordial purity by reducing and dissolving the manifold qualities which have imposed themselves upon it throughout differentiation and subsequent specialization.
Therefore, he who succeeds in penetrating the purity of its undifferentiated primordial form has gained the key to the secret of all creative power, which is based on the mutability of all elements and phenomena.
From the beginning of human thought, the investigation into the nature of the world started from two opposite ends – one was the exploration of matter, the other the exploration of human soul. He who finds the Philosopher’s Stone understands that the two ends meet and finds the power of transmutability in his own perception. Thus, it becomes of secondary importance whether one pursues in understanding the forces of the soul or the forces of nature, since the result would be the same and would affect both sides. Having reduced soul and matter to their origin, one could then produce whatever he desired through the modification or addition of certain criteria, for he who knows the origin of things knows also their dissolution.
Having found the Philosopher’s Stone, our vision will be turned back from the world of sense-objects to the source, the Store Consciousness (Alaya-Vijnana), on which the primordial forms, the archetypes, the seeds of all things are stored. Then the waves of this ocean-like universal consciousness, which contain the treasures of all that has been and can be experienced, will be smoothed and converted into a shining mirror, in which the images of all forms are reflected undistorted, in pristine purity.
The sensuous, appearing as material form, thus becomes the exponent of the transcendental, of that which goes beyond the senses. It becomes the starting point of the experience of Sunyata (Emptiness) – the formless which is the basis of all form. Here, Emptiness refers to the fact that nothing exists independently of something else and of our perception and impression of it.
Form (Rupa) is Emptiness (Sunyata).
Emptiness is not different from Form, nor is Form different from Emptiness.
Indeed, Emptiness is Form.
PADME – lotus flower, symbolizing the spiritual unfoldment and different consciousness centres in the human body.
Just as the lotus grows up from the darkness of the mud to the surface of the water, opening its blossom only after it has raised itself beyond the surface, and remaining unsullied both from earth and water, which nourished it – in the same way the Mind, born in the human body, unfolds its true qualities (petals) after it has raised itself beyond the turbid flows of passion and ignorance, and transforms the dark powers of the depths into radiantly pure nectar of Enlightenment-consciousness (bodhicitta), the incomparable jewel (Mani) in the lotus-blossom (Padma). Thus, a saint or a Buddha grows beyond the world and surpasses it. Though his roots are in the dark depths of this world, his head is raised into the fullness of light. He is the living synthesis of the deepest and the highest, of darkness and light, material and immaterial, the limitations of individuality and boundlessness of universality, of formed and the formless, samsara and nirvana. Padme is also a reminder that even saints and Buddhas have started their journey as human, walking through the darkness in order to understand the light.
A Buddha is not like a distant, intangible deity to whom one looks up with awe and fear, but like a wise friend and a loving guide, for whom one feels a spontaneous inner relationship, since he himself went the way through human errors and pitfalls, through all the heights and depths of Samsara. A Buddha is more like a state which each one of us can achieve by finding out who we are and facing all parts of ourselves.
It is the human element in the character of the Buddha, which softens the brightness of his perfection and relieves it of the apparent distance and aloofness from ordinary human life – for his compassion is as real as his wisdom, his humanity and warmth as all-embracing as his mind.
He has returned from the experience of universality – from the sacred all-consuming and purifying flame of OM – to the human plane, without losing the consciousness of completeness, the knowledge of unity of man and cosmos. And thus, in the depth of his heart the primordial sound of Reality is transferred into the sound of the cosmic human mystery (purified through suffering and compassion) which reverberates through all the scriptures of the Mahayana and Vajrayana, and in the sacred syllable HUM.
OM is the ascent towards universality, HUM is the descent of universality into the depth of the human heart. HUM cannot be without OM, but HUM is more than OM – it is the Middle Way which neither gets lost in the finite nor in the infinite, which is not attached to either extreme. OM is the infinite, but HUM is the infinite in the finite, the eternal in the temporal, the timeless in the moment, the unconditioned in the conditioned, the formless as the basis of all form, the transcendental in the ephemeral.
It is the wisdom of the Great Mirror, which reflects the Void (Emptiness, Sunyata) as much as the objects (Rupa, Form), and reveals the ’emptiness’ in the things as much as the things in the ’emptiness’. A divine vision is possible through the realization of the universality of our higher consciousness. We therefore must have passed through the experience of OM in order to reach and to understand the still deeper experience of HUM. Therefore, OM stands at the beginning and HUM at the end of the mantra.
In OM we open ourselves, in HUM we give ourselves. OM is the door of knowledge, HUM is the door of realization of this knowledge in life. HUM is a sacrificial sound (syllable ‘hu’ means ‘to sacrifice’). ‘M’ is the integration of knowledge and the means towards its realization – hinted at through the symbolism behind the nature of M, being between a vowel and a consonant.
Concepts this vast are comprised in just 6 syllables – this is what was meant when mantras were described as compact versions of teachings. Thus, through Om Mani Padme Hum we have become acquainted with the experience of universality in the sacred syllable OM, with the luminosity of the immortal mind in the MANI, its enfoldment and development in PADME, and its integration and realization in the seed syllable HUM.
By repeating the mantra during meditation (either listening to it, reciting it loud or reciting it in one’s mind), one starts the practice from a basis which comprises the meaning of the mantra. If one’s mind start wondering too much, one can easily return to the symbols of this mantra. The purpose is to try and assimilate the symbolism of the mantra and transform it into the direct experience of the teachings.