Mantras & Gathas
In my next posts I am going to talk about mantras and gathas. A mantra is a syllable, word, or group of words that has psychological or spiritual power. Early mantras go back 3000 years where they were first used on the Indian continent. Here are a couple of definitions:
1.“Man” is an abbreviation of mind and “tra” means protection. Our original, still mind is always here but our worries and fears leak all over everything, so we do not notice it. So a mantra protects us from leaking;
2. “Man” is wisdom and “tra” is compassion. The two are joined together. We need wisdom to experience a compassion which is deeper than our social conditioning.
In both traditional Hinduism and Buddhism, the teacher selects a mantra for the student based on both its meaning and vibration. Use of a mantra induces the deep absorption known as samadhi along with the calmness and spaciousness that accompanies it.
The earliest mantra seems to have been “Aum.” According to Indian tradition, “Aum” contains every vibration that has ever existed or will exist and begins and ends many mantras.
More than 15 years ago, I visited Bhutan. As we drove and walked through the countryside, I saw Om mani padme hum etched into rock outcropping after rock outcropping. I spent about three days at a monastery only accessible by trail and joined with the monks as they worked their “malas” or prayer beads, reciting the phrase, which means “jewel in the lotus,” over and over. The lotus is honored in Buddhist teaching because it grows in muddy water. As I write this, we are surrounded by the muddy water of both the pandemic and the social turmoil and unrest in our country and in my neighborhood; an opportunity we have to each cultivate our own lotus flower.
Mantra use is not limited to Eastern culture. My Catholic grandmother used to work her prayer beads continually with the Hail Mary or Ave Maria prayer. We can liken mantra recitation to rubbing a flint against a stone: the friction of the syllables ignites fire which burns up our incessant remembering, regretting, and rehearsing. As we come back to our word or phrase again and again, its resonance cuts through the intensity or persistence of our chattering and sooner or later we crack open. As Tina Malia says, “mantras start to feel like your friends- even lovers.”
The most frequently recited mantra in the Zen and Tibetan traditions is the one which is toward the end of the Heart sutra. In the Zen version it goes, gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate and the Tibetan version adds Aum to the beginning. Its meaning is “gone, gone, gone beyond, gone completely beyond.”
We have gone beyond what is known as The Three Poisons. The first, greed, refers to grasping at anything or everything that will alleviate our suffering. The second, hatred, refers to pushing away everything that interferes with our grasping, and the third, ignorance, refers to our tendency to ignore everything else.
Once we have gone completely beyond, we enter the womb of our mother and the mother of all Buddhas, the goddess Prajna Paramita. When we do this, we experience her womb as our very own and exclaim at the end of the chant, bodhi svaha, or waking to joy.
The Heart Sutra mantra and the one monks immersed themselves in while I was visiting Bhutan are just two of scores that you can use for your own meditation practice.
Here are three more in simple English which you might useful:
1. May I meet this moment fully. May I meet it as a friend.
In the first sentence you are affirming that an alert and balanced mind is a possibility for you, and in the second sentence, you are drawing on your heart-mind’s natural kindness.
2. Real, But Not True
Notice that your thoughts and emotions and acknowledge that they are real, but not necessarily true. If you unintentionally stand up a friend, you may be mad at yourself and even sweat at yourself. This is all real, but if you can just be aware of your emotionally tinged thoughts, you will see that going on and on about your misstep is covering up your own still, joyful center, referred to in the literature as heart-mind.
3.Things As It Is
This is my first teacher’s expression which many have used as a mantra, e.g. all the specific “things” related to the coronavirus may be tinged with unpleasantness, and at the same time they are all a manifestation of one seamless reality.
I first got introduced to choosing mantras that resonated with me when I was at a retreat on the East Coast with Thich Nhat Hanh many years ago. He suggested “deep” on the in-breath and “peace” on the outbreath or “present moment” on the inbreath and “only moment” on the out breath. After my experience with him I realized that anything can be your mantra if it engages you and helps you cut through your chatter.
The 19th c. poet Tennyson discovered that he could calm his mind way down by merely sitting still and repeating his own name over and over. He was startled to discover that, “my individuality itself seemed to dissolve and fade away into boundless being. . .the loss of personality seeming no extinction but the one true life.”
Using this very loose sense of mantra, as I reflect on my own life, I think I have used four different ones at crucial times:
When I was 4 and 5 years old, I experienced some deep loneliness, as I lived at the end of a long, windy road with my family. There were absolutely no kids around except my little sister, who didn’t count! So I had imaginary friends, including Bobby Shafto, from my nursery rhyme book and whenever I felt down or lonely, I would repeat to myself the first lines of the rhyme as I looked out to the Pacific Ocean “Bobby Shafto’s gone to see, he’ll come back to marry me…pretty Bobby Shafto.” I felt much better after I had been doing this for a while and continued to use this to settle myself down throughout my childhood.
The second one is the “gate, gate” mantra from the heart sutra. When I was having an especially difficult time staying focused during a seven-day retreat, Suzuki Roshi suggested that I make it the focus of my meditation since I was experiencing difficulty. I found this very helpful. For years I repeated the mantra when I was experiencing difficulty in my meditation.
The third mantra that I have used arose after I began giving dharma talks at around the time I got ordained as a Zen priest in the late 1970s. After each of my first few talks, my inner critic/tyrant would go on and on about the inadequacy of my talks and the impossibility that I could ever actually teach the dharma. Once, when the inner critic was getting revved up, I said to myself “nice boy,” “nice boy, Tim” which seemed to calm the critic way down. I did this for a while until giving talks became quite natural for me.
The fourth mantra is one that I am currently using. When my son was about to get married more than 20 years ago, my wife and I went to India to meet his fiancé’s extended family. In temple after temple I heard people call out resonantly “Amma” as they prayed. “Amma” in both Sanskrit and Hindi means mother, as in the dark mother Kali, from whose womb the universe is born. Kali’s equivalent in Buddhism is Prajna Paramita, the mythological mother of all the Buddhas. Ever since that trip, anytime my mind clouds over, I repeat “Amma” over and my cloudy thoughts part. And it works! In my next piece, I will focus on gathas, which are slightly different from mantras, but can help also help us return to the original stillness of heart-mind.
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Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher