What is Mantra?
Whether they are attending Dharma assemblies or doing morning or evening services at home, Buddhist novices often experience a strange and mysterious feeling when they recite mantras. Why recite mantras? What is their origin? If mispronounced, could the power of mantras potentially fail?
Mantras originated in ancient times as a special kind of sound, through which humans communicate with the natural or spiritual realms. Since ordinary people can't understand these unusual "acoustic symbols" of sorts, they have to rely on mediums, such as psychics, priests, or wizards, to decipher their meanings. They, therefore, chant and pray in order to express people's wishes or deliver messages from spirits and deities.
Mantras in Buddhism
However, in Buddhism, the primary purpose of reciting mantras, particularly those consisting of the names and fundamental vows of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, is to cultivate the mind. Buddhist mantras are also known as dharanis. Practitioners evoke their recollections of the Buddhas and the Bodhisattvas through specific sounds and rhythms. When reciting with utmost sincerity, practitioners' body, speech and mind will naturally harmonize, thereby aligning with the power of Buddhas' and Bodhisattvas' compassionate vows.
Mantras Manifest the Power of Vows
The power of reciting mantras comes partly from the omnipresent power of vows of the Buddhas and the Bodhisattvas, with additional support from the Dharma-protecting deities. One's devotion also plays a key role. No matter how diligently one is devoted to reciting mantras, or how copiously one can master numerous incredible mantras, unless one's mind is aligned with the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, one may still deviate from the Buddha path. Thus, one may transform mantra practice into the art of manipulating magic spells. Since mantras can correspond with the Buddhas' and Bodhisattvas' compassionate vows, one should transform one's afflicted mind into Buddha mind by reciting purifying mantras. In this way, one would be in the same ocean of compassionate vows as the Buddhas themselves.
50 Questions about Buddhist Dharanis and Mantras (咒語50問), Dharma Drum Publishing Corporation