Is reciting mantras as a practice useful?Yes, the usefulness of reciting mantras should be affirmed. A mantra is composed of special syllables, words, or phrases, which signify the power of certain buddhas, bodhisattvas, or deities [to help sentient beings]; they also serve as means for devotees to pay homage. As such, mantras have been used since the time of primitive religions.
At the level of folk beliefs, mantras usually came from deities through a so-called psychic medium which was thereafter adopted by the culture. Whether in the East or the West, there have been mantras handed down, used, and believed in. Among the Chinese, mantras are often used together with written talismans. Written talismans are symbols that represent the power of a specific deity. When people encounter minor misfortunes, by resorting to what we in modern society call “folk healing,” therapeutic effects may be derived through the power of talismans and mantras of folk belief, achieving the aim of eradicating evil, averting bad fortune, and finding blessings.
During the time of Shakyamuni Buddha, a few disciples also adopted mantras of similar nature, but the Buddha disapproved their use. After Buddha entered parinirvana, the Buddhist population became more diverse. Some who originally were practitioners of spells and magic later converted to Buddhism, and became bhikshus and bhikshunis. In Volume 27 of the Four Part Vinaya (Caturvargiyavinaya of the Dharmaguptaka School) and Volume 46 of the Ten Recitations Vinaya (Dasadhyayavinaya of the Sarvastivada School), there are records of using mantras for healing. Yet, according to fundamental Dharma, one should visit a physician when sick, repent when in misfortune, always keep good intention, and perform good deeds. These are supposed to be the best ways of turning bad luck into good, reconcile past resentments, and clear up old grudges to dispel karmic obstructions. Therefore, in principle, Buddhism does not attach importance to the use of such mantras. (For further discussions on this topic, please refer to my book, The History of Indian Buddhism, Chapter Twelve, Section One).
However, simply chanting some specific words repeatedly can generate the effect of a mantra. Although this may be attributed to be the power of a certain deity, most importantly, it is due to the power of the concentrated mind of the chanter. So, the longer one persists in the practice, the stronger the effect. If one can recite the same mantra repeatedly with complete concentration, it is possible to unite body and mind, and transform the state of mind from thoughts to no-thought, a state of meditative concentration.
Therefore, latter-day Buddhism was not against the practice of mantras. Furthermore, another Sanskrit word for mantra practice, “dharani” has the root meaning of “upholding or encapsulating.” In other words, a single mantra or dharani may encapsulate all other teachings. Any mantra, as long as it is practiced persistently following correct instructions, will generate significant effects. The reason is because one-minded practice of mantra has with it the functions of upholding the precepts and cultivating samadhi, and can therefore generate compassion and wisdom. As a result, one can remove attachment and thus eradicate karmic obstructions; ultimately, one can resonate with the power of the original vows made by buddhas and bodhisattvas.
So, is there such a thing as the “king of mantras or dharanis”? From the perspective of encompassing [all of the Dharma], any mantra that is efficacious in one’s practice can be taken as the “king of mantras.” Therefore, any mantra can be beneficially recited, except for evil teachings and evil mantras which are used to hurt others for one’s own gain, or for the purpose of revenge, retaliation, and venting of anger.
In the early days of Chinese Buddhism, the practice of mantras was not stressed. Reciting mantras was considered sundry practice. During the Wei and Jin dynasties (220–420), the Peacock King Mantra was rendered into Chinese. During the Tang Dynasty under the reign of Emperor Gaozong, the Great Compassion Dharani was rendered into Chinese. These were the initial introductions of esoteric Buddhism into China. Not until the Song Dynasty, when mantra recitation was promoted by Master Siming Zhili (960–1028) of the Tiantai School, did it become popular. Though the Shurangama Mantra was already practiced in China in the late Tang Dynasty, it was not until after the Song Dynasty, as the Shurangama Sutra became more popular, that the mantra received more attention and was recited in all temples. Later in the late Ming Dynasty, the text in the “Daily Recitation of Chan” began to contain many mantras.
The Buddhism that was introduced to Japan during the Tang and Song dynasties did not commonly practice mantras; hence, besides the esoteric sects in Japan, mantras were not emphasized there either. Their Pure Land sect focused on reciting the name of Buddha; the Zen sect stressed Zen meditation; the Tendai sect specialized in shikan (Skt. shamatha-vipashyana; Chn. zhiguan). Japanese Buddhists found it curious that modern Chinese Buddhists engaged in mantras practice together with other Dharma practices. However, there were many examples of positive effects among Chinese people through the practice of the Great Compassion Dharani. Therefore, we should not oppose practicing mantras.
Nowadays, among the mantras used in Buddhism, most of them are invocations of the names of heavenly deities and gods, and the honorifics representing their power. This is owing to the Mahayana belief that any strength and benefit derived from virtuous and merit-generated deeds can be viewed as the manifestation of the Buddha’s and bodhisattvas’ presence and power. Therefore, all kinds of deities and mighty beings in the realm of spirits are also viewed as representatives of Buddhas and bodhisattvas.
Mantras used in Buddhism naturally contain the names of buddhas and bodhisattvas, as well as the phrases expressing our commitment to the Three Jewels. For instance, “Namo fotuo, namo damo, namo sengqie” is the Chinese transliteration of the Sanskrit mantra paying homage to the Three Jewels of the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. As to dharanis such as “Namo Guan Shi Yin Pusa,” which is the Chinese name for Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva, the meaning is clear to Chinese Buddhists.
Seasoned practitioners of mantras do emphasize the sound of mantras, and it would be best to pronounce mantras in their original Sanskrit, since each syllable has its distinct meaning and function in Sanskrit. That’s why some people say that it is better to pronounce the first syllable in “Amitabha” as “ah” instead of “oh” as conventionally done by many Chinese. While that exhortation is not unreasonable, we should keep in mind that all Dharma and mantra practices are based mainly on the power of the mind; sound is secondary. For many hundreds of years, Chinese have pronounced “Amitabha” as “Omituofo” and it has never led to ill consequences, malfunctions, or loss of merit. Today, Tibetan, Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, and Chinese Buddhists all recite the Great Compassion Dharani; although they pronounce it differently, similar benefit can still be gained.
As to the claim that mantras can only be transmitted secretly or esoterically, that is true for tantric practices that are considered higher order practices in Tibetan Buddhism, such as Yoga Tantra and Anuttarayoga Tantra. They have specific rituals and procedures and emphasize mental guidance; therefore, it would need to be transmitted directly from guru to disciples, on and on. On the other hand, ordinary mantras do not require such a process.
Today, many pseudo-Buddhist sects and self-proclaimed gurus who worship deities and spirits, make claims of secret transmissions of esoteric practices. This phenomenon also exists in many non-Buddhist sects in India. For example, the Transcendental Meditation has its own esoteric mantras. In Taiwan, the Yiguandao Sect also practices with a five-word mantra. However, in ordinary society the popularization of these kinds of esoteric practices is not considered healthy