In Dharamsala, India, in an open square, a Tibetan
refugee sits exposed to the full force of the sun. His skin is baked brown and
wrinkled from many afternoons such as this one. He is thin as a rail, and his
legs fold beneath him in a way that looks painful to the westerners who pass him.
He wears tattered rags and looks unwashed, but sports a long white beard-a prized
rarity among Tibetans. His eyes, blind and white as his beard, stare placidly
into the distance, then flutter as he lifts his head and begins to chant. "Om
mani peme hung," he calls. "Om mani peme hung."
Two Americans, a couple from New Jersey, witness this spectacle and are entranced.
The man, after much prodding from his wife, shyly approaches the yogin and says
to him, "That is a magnificent sound you just made. Is it a song?"
"It is mantra," he answers in stilted English.
The man and woman go aaahhh and nod their heads at one another. "What does
it mean?" the husband asks.
"My mantra purifies the six realms of samsara," the refugee tells them.
"It speeds gods, demigods, humans, animals, hungry ghosts, and hell beings
alike on the path to enlightenment."
The Americans are suitably impressed, and return satisfied to their rooms in the
city. Later that night, though, the man realizes that he has not learned the meaning
of the mantra. The next day he returns to the square to find the yogin sitting
in the same spot, chanting as he did the day before. "Tell me, what does
your mantra mean?" he asks.
The blind man replies "Om, with its three letters A, U, and M, is like the
perfect body, mind, and speech of the Buddha. Mani is the precious jewel of compassion;
peme is the lotus which rises from the mud of ignorance, yet is not sullied by
it. Hung is the infinite in the finite. To recite this mantra is a great blessing,
and speeds me along the path to enlightenment."
The man goes aaahhh and nods his head to himself. He returns to his room and waits
for his wife to return from her day's adventures. But later that night he ponders
what he really learned: that om has three letters, that mani is a jewel and padme
(as the word the Tibetans pronounce "peme" is written) a lotus, and
that hum (the Tibetan's "hung") is an inherent contradiction. The next
morning, when he boards his plane to Newark, he has passed his final judgment
on the blind man: though he may be a great practitioner of Buddhism, he is a silly,
superstitious man, and has grown far too fond of pretty words.
What are we to make of the fable above? Is it the story of a Westerner hastily
passing judgment on a tradition he does not understand? Certainly it is. The study
of Tibetan Buddhism is the effort of a lifetime-perhaps several-and a non-practicing
Christian interloper from Hoboken is hardly qualified to pontificate on the matter.
(For the moment we will say nothing of an American college student who has merely
read a few books on the subject).
Yet is it not also possible that there is some truth to the ignorant man's claims?
That what lies behind the sacred institution of mantra is less profound esoterica
than it is the pure, childish delight taken in the sounds of language? This paper
will seek to explore this possibility, both in the abstract and through the particulars
of the mantra of Avalokitesvara, om mani padme hum. And with the author's special
insight, I can tell you ahead of time that it ultimately will arrive at the conclusion
that, although the matter may be overstated here, there is an aspect of mantra
that degenerates into infantile mysticism and superstition.
The Importance of Language
To gain some understanding of what this might mean, we turn first to the Buddhist
conception of the power of language. Imagine, for a moment, the world in which
these attitudes toward language originated-a world without mass media, or even
mass literacy. Today it is difficult to conceive of this. Suppose President Clinton
were to give a speech tomorrow, asking that economic sanctions be leveled against
India and Pakistan until they resolve their differences peacefully. Radio crews
would be sent to the press conference and would broadcast the speech around the
world, immediately sending it directly into the homes of millions of people. The
next morning every newspaper worth its salt would carry an article about the story,
with at least one quotation and loads of commentary. These articles would be mass
produced by impersonal machines and printed on the cheapest, flimsiest paper modern
man has yet to devise: newsprint. They would be translated in other languages,
oftentimes badly. And as if the sheer mindless number of times they were reproduced
and the callous indifference with which they were copied weren't enough to devalue
those words, most of us would tune in to our televisions to see the speech rebroadcast
on the evening news. We thereby ignore the words as much as humanly possible,
supplanting them in large part with visual images; Clinton surrounded by the opulence
of the Oval Office, giving the American public his best "firm yet compassionate"
Buddhism, on the other hand, developed 2500 years ago; there wasn't much available
by way of technological marvels. Even now, Tibet's literacy rate is estimated
to be only 27% (thanks in large part to the Chinese occupation) (tibet.com). This
is not to say that Tibetans are or were primitive believing in the independent
lives of words. They do, however, treat words with a greater deal of respect than
Westerners. In Tibet, every letter of the alphabet is considered a sacred symbol;
even when they are serving a secular purpose, it is remembered that these letters
come from hallowed origins. In the case of religious texts, this respect assumes
even greater dimensions. Religious texts may never be willfully destroyed; if
keeping them has proved an undue burden, they are placed in a cave and left to
their own natural decomposition (Govinda 19-20).
Thus the language they use when discussing their language is understandably dramatic.
Allow me to share a few choice examples:
The birth of language was the birth of humanity. (Govinda 18)
The essential nature of words is therefore never exhausted by their present meaning,
nor is their importance confined to their usefulness as transmitters of thoughts
and ideas. (Govinda 17)
And my own personal favorite, which has bearing on the second part of this paper,
as it establishes the importance of the syllable Om:
The essence of all beings is earth
The essence of earth is water
The essence of water are the plants
The essence of the plants is man
The essence of man is speech
The essence of speech is the Rgveda (sacred knowledge-the Veda-in the form of
The essence of the Rgveda is the Samaveda (music)
The essence of the Samaveda is the Udgita (which is Om)
That Udgita is the best of all essences, the highest, deserving the highest place.
(the Chanogya Upanishad in Govinda 21)
Quotations such as the above help to provide some idea of just how seriously the
Buddhists take their language. Understanding this concept is necessary to any
meaningful study of mantra, for the Tibetans ascribe to these formulae-which at
their root are only language, and sometimes even just the sounds of language-truly
Origins of Mantric Power
How did this come to be? To the Tibetan Buddhist, for whom mantra is very much
an established tradition, language is in and of itself a tool for the manipulation
of the world. They see the name for something not as a word which corresponds
to the real thing, but rather as the real thing transformed into the vibrations
of the human voice. It devolved into the common, profane entity we know today
only because of its perpetual use by those who are unmindful of its true powers.
There are some words and sounds, however, that escaped this because they simply
could not serve such mundane uses as "cat" and "lift" do.
These are the seed syllables of mantra (the set of syllables that are found, in
various combinations, in a number of different mantras): those words and sounds
whose meaning is more profound and elusive than "cheese" or any other
comparable word. Anagarika Brahmacari Govinda summarizes the situation, more eloquently
than I could hope to, in the following passage: "The word in the hour of
its birth was a centre of force and reality, and only habit has stereotyped it
into a mere conventional medium of expression. The mantra escaped this fate to
a certain extent, because it had no concrete meaning and could therefore not be
made to subserve utilitarian ends." (Govinda 19)
Mantra, then, is power; not just power in the sense that knowledge is power, but
in that it is has the capacity to directly alter the world around us. The word
mantra comes from the etymological roots for "mind" and "tool,"
because it is supposedly a tool for helping the mind gain enlightenment. Yet,
since its very founding, Buddhism has acknowledged mantras which do not seek to
bring about the enlightenment of those who intone them, but are rather directed
at much more prosaic aims. There are mantras designed to ward off danger, snakes,
ghosts, evil influences, and various kinds of illness. There are also mantras
for generating good health, peace, happiness, and even wealth (Govinda 32).
This makes mantra begin to sound less what a Western mind would call religion
and more like shamanistic magic. Tibetan Buddhists, however, take personal offense
to this claim. They vehemently insist that siddhi (those proficient in mantras)
are not sorcerers. Accusations of this sort anger them because they pride themselves
on the fact that Buddhism deliberately scrubbed mantra of its resemblance to wizardly
Why? Because Buddhists have seen first hand the potential dangers of mantra. They
realize how easily the practice can slide from its status as a tool of the true
believer into the tawdry vessel of superstition.
The practice of mantra is not particular to Buddhism; at the time of Siddhartha
Guatama's birth, it had already been well established within Hinduism. The power
of language is so vast and yet so basic that it had of course been discovered
by the world's earliest religious practitioners. But the mantra in use at the
time of Guatama's birth was different from mantra as the Buddha would reformulate
it; and, the Buddhists contend, from mantra as it was practiced by those who first
discovered it. The argument goes as such: Mantra arose spontaneously among those
who sought a higher meaning in life. Yet when the priestly caste of Hinduism,
the Brahmins, learned of it, they claimed all knowledge of it for themselves.
These Brahmins, who had no understanding of mantra because they had no personal
experience of its power, nonetheless fell to speculating about it. They built
an elaborate theology around it, and forced their formalized dogma onto the people
In this context, mantra became a strange and perverted thing, more closely resembling
prayer than enlightened sound. It had once been a tool for cultivating personal
responsibility for one's own self-realization; now it taught people to take the
easy way out by appealing to higher powers to relieve their ignorance and suffering.
The people practiced mantra without experiencing it. As one authority said, "knowledge
became mere belief, and belief, without the corrective of experience, turned into
superstition" (Govinda 31)-simple reliance on "god- and demon-compelling
formulae." (Govinda 34).
When Buddhism split with Hinduism, the new religion completely refurbished the
attitude toward mantra. The Buddhists felt that by being formalized in the belief
structure of Hinduism, mantra had lost the force of its "spontaneous truth"
(Govinda 31). As was just discussed, this could prove dangerous to the new movement
because it encouraged people to appeal to outside powers rather than to perform
meditation and come to grips with the emptiness of reality through their own practice.
But more than this, the attitude toward mantra prevalent at the time of the Buddha
undermined the very source of mantra's power. As we saw earlier, the strength
of mantra draws from the fact that speech is actually reality transformed into
human voice, and that it retains its sacred character by virtue of standing free
from the conventions of mundane language. While summoning and compelling divine
creatures may not exactly come under the heading of "mundane", it does
violate the spirit of the Buddhist conception of mantra. The "spontaneous
truth" which the Buddhists mourned is the very intimate, very personal connection
that a person makes with a mantra, independently of the supposed "meaning"
it embodies, while the Hindu mantras had become dependent on an elaborate body
of theology for the efficacy. The Buddhist doctrine aimed to free mantra from
the trappings of base superstition and return it to it the grace of its natural
Problems with the "Spontaneous Truth" Hypothesis
Framing mantra in this context, however, poses a whole new set of obstacles to
taking the idea seriously. The invocation of demons and deities to do one's bidding
may seem rather primitive and superstitious, but it does carry a certain logic.
And even if it does little to address the higher, more spiritual aspects of mantras,
at least it explains some of the mores tangible phenomena associated with them
(the aforementioned charm against snakes, for instance).
The spontaneous truth hypothesis seems as though it might paint mantra in a more
flattering light; it speaks to images of one's inner being resonating to the sound
of some great truth. But in the final analysis, what, really, is "spontaneous
Essentially, the term is meant to indicate that the individual seed syllables
of a mantra, and the mantra itself as a whole, can stand apart from all other
language and still be meaningful. Though every mantra has some explanation associated
with it (oftentimes many explanations, all espousing different points of view,
and doing so at great length, as our study of Om Mani Padme Hum will show), these
explanations are not offered as the definitive authority on that mantra. Rather,
the mantras are considered the end authority on themselves, and the explanations
are simply approximations or interpretations of them-or, perhaps even better,
the explanations offered by the masters are the higher truths of mantra translated
(as best they can be) into the baser meanings of common speech.
This would mean that the truth of some phrases is absolutely intrinsic; that their
meaning is not at all dependent on context, or culture, or the relation they have
to other words. This is a very beautiful idea. It is also one the Western world
has played with, and rejected. The following is from an introductory handbook
on poetry, in the chapter on sound:
The "dingdong" theory, not considered seriously anymore, remains intriguing.
Here is Webster's definition:
A theory of Karl Wilhelm Heyse, supported (but later abandoned) by Max Muller.
It maintains that the primitive elements of language are reflex expressions induced
by sensory impressions; that is, the creative faculty gave to each general conception,
as it thrilled for the first time through the brain, a phonetic expression;-so
nicknamed from the analogy of the sound of a bell induced by the stroke of the
called also the bowwow theory, the poohpooh theory.
How disappointing that such a theory didn't survive! However, we still have onomatopoeia,
individual sounds-tied-to-sense, which will be discussed later. But onomatopoeia
does not extend across any great part of the language. (Oliver 20)
The author of this innocuous comment was thinking of anything but Tibetan Buddhism
when she penned it, I'm sure; and yet it holds within it the seeds of a crushing
blow to the practice of mantra.
Let us look briefly at exactly what this passage does. First, it admits a certain
fascination with, and affection for, the theory ("is still intriguing"
"How disappointing that such a theory didn't survive!") This gives us
an easy way to understand how and why Buddhists would come to believe that the
seed syllables of a mantra are the direct sound equivalents of the things they
represent (which, because mantra does not serve the mandates of everyday language,
cannot be pinned down precisely-yet nonetheless do exist). Second, it dismisses
the possibility out of hand. The idea was expressed as a formal theory of linguistics,
tested by the rigorous standards of Western science, and shown to face an overwhelming
amount of opposing evidence. Robbing words of their contextual meaning robs them
of any meaning by negating their usefulness. Stripped of this quality, words cease
to be words and become merely sounds. They are devoid of any real feature save
their tonal quality. Thus any connections made to them are purely aesthetic in
nature. Take any group of words whose entire value lies in their "spontaneous
truth," string them together, and what you wind up with is essentially a
Dr. Seuss poem; There's a Wocket in my Pocket comes to mind:
There's a nink in the sink.
And a zamp in the lamp.
And they're rather nice
I think. (Dr. Seuss in somtel.com)
The process yields results that are pretty, but ridiculous.
Om Mani Padme Hum: Spontaneous Truth at Work
Thus far, I have argued that mantra uses nonsense words and sounds to excite certain
"spontaneous truths" in the mind of the practitioner-"spontaneous
truths" which more closely resemble aesthetic experiences than esoteric spiritual
ones. I like to think the argument is rather sound. Yet so far it has remained
rather general. To really bring the point home, I would like to apply this thesis
specifically to one mantra, and see how well it holds up under a "field test,"
as it were.
And what better mantra to test it against than "Om Mani Padme Hum?"
This is the mantra of Avalokitesvara ("Chenrezig" in Tibetan), the Bodhisattva
of infinite compassion, and it is so ubiquitous in Tibet that it has been said
that infants sometimes learn to recite it before they learn to say "mommy"
and "daddy". We will look at these six syllables first individually,
and then together as a whole.
Om fits perfectly into the picture we have drawn of mantra as a system which draws
extensively from unrecognized roots in aesthetics. Om is not even a word, but
rather a seed syllable.
Anagarika Govinda has much to say on the matter of the meaning of Om. The reader
has probably already noticed that I respect the man greatly, and draw heavily
from his book. This is because he is one of the few practitioners who even goes
so far as to frame the issue of mantra in terms of "spontaneous truth."
I have been arguing that this notion falls victim to a certain degree of superstition.
Others within Tibetan Buddhism, however, still posture mantras as appeals to Buddhas
and Bodhisattvas outside themselves:
Mantras are invocations to buddhas. Tantric practitioners repeat them in order
to forge karmic connections between themselves and mediational deities and to
effect cognitive restructuring through internalizing the divine qualities that
the mantra represents. A person who wishes to develop greater compassion, for
instance, might recite the mantra of Avalokitesvara, the embodiment of compassion:
om mani padme hum. Avalokitesvara may be considered to be a sort of patron saint
of the Tibetan people, and his mantra is omnipresent in the Tibetan culture. (Powers
This attitude is not quite the same as compelling gods and demons to remove snakes
from one's path, but it still entails entreating a higher power to bring one benefits.
Even if these benefits are largely spiritual in nature, they still shift a large
portion of the responsibility for one's enlightenment to a third party. I have
tried to steer away from texts such as this, which treat mantra as prayer, and
rely instead on writings like that by Govinda.
But I digress. This is what Govinda has to say on the matter of Om: it is our
experience of the infinite. What exactly does that mean? Nothing. Observe:
Like a mirror reflecting all forms and colours, without changing it own nature,
so OM reflects the shades of all temperaments and takes the shapes of all higher
ideals, without confining itself exclusively to any of them. Had this sacred syllable
been identified with any conceptual meaning, had it entirely yielded to any particular
ideal, without retaining that irrational and intangible quality of its kernel,
it would never have been able to symbolize that upper-consciousness state of mind,
in which all individuals find their synthesis and their realization (Govinda 25).
This is exactly the point I have been making. The tradition attributes power to
the sound precisely because it has never been committed to any meaning (from which
it might conceivably draw relevance and thus power). By this rational, "Om"
is no more sacred than the earlier mentioned "zamp" in Dr. Suess's lamp.
Om is could be anything vast; a wocket could be anything that fits in a pocket.
Mani holds up under examination a little bit better, in that it is at least a
word. It means "jewel". It should be noted, however, that it means "jewel"
not in Tibetan, but in Sanskrit. In Tibetan it means nothing.
Even setting that aside, however, we can see that the "meaning" of mani
comes mainly from its sound, and not any universal, contextual, relational meaning.
Govinda scrambles all over the place trying to explain its significance without
pinning down its true meaning. He likens it to the philosopher's stone, and calls
it the "prima materia" of consciousness in the human mind and in all
life (Govinda 59). He also tries to build up a store of imagery with which it
can be associated by linking it to a number of stories: he tells of a rich king
who gained enlightenment by meditating on his diamonds, the precious jewels of
mani (Govinda 59); of a "cintamani", a wish-granting jewel found in
many Buddhist folk tales (Govinda 60); and of a tradition in early Buddhism by
which the jewel symbolized the 3 vessels of enlightenment (the Buddha, the dharma,
and the sangha) (Govinda 61).
The Dalai Lama, however, disagrees with him, striking out in yet another direction.
Mani, meaning jewel, symbolizes the factors of method-the altruistic intention
to become enlightened, compassion, love
Just as a jewel is capable of removing
poverty, so the altruistic mind of enlightenment is capable of removing the poverty,
or difficulties, of cyclic existence and of solitary peace. Similarly, just as
a jewel fulfills the wish of sentient beings, so the altruistic intention to become
enlightened fulfills the wishes of sentient beings (Dalai Lama 116-117)
From this sordid confusion of images and associations, one certainty arises. Mani,
even though it has a linguistic meaning, is not well defined within the mantra
Om Mani Padme Hum. Whatever literal meaning it has is not part of its spontaneous
truth in this context
Padme also has a literal meaning. It means "lotus"-but once again, only
Here the theory breaks down slightly. There seems to be a general consensus on
how to interpret the presence of "lotus" in the mantra of Avalokitesvara.
Just as the lotus grows out of mud to bloom without being sullied by that mud,
so the mind may rise from the realms of samsara without being sullied by them.
Still, it is unclear whether a word's literal meaning, the one it has in relation
to other words, can be conceived of as part of its "spontaneous truth."
Supposedly the spontaneous truth of a word lies even deeper than the relational
meaning that is assigned to it; the spontaneous truth of the sound its inherent
meaning, and cannot be pinned down by the confines of ordinary, everyday language.
In any event, it is not literal meaning of padme which gives direct intellectual
content to the mantra; it is only a visualization (albeit a fairly natural one)
which involves the thing denoted by that literal meaning.
At the end of the mantra we come to hum, which is like om in that it has no linguistic
meaning. Govinda, for the purposes of his explanation, assigns hum the character
of "the infinite in the finite" (Govinda 131):
In the experience of OM, man opens himself, goes beyond himself, by breaking through
the narrow confines of egohood or self-imposed limitation, and thus he becomes
one with the All, with the Infinite. If he would remain in this state, there would
be an end of his existence as an individual, as a living, thinking and experiencing
being. He would have attained perfect self annihilation, perfect quietude, but
also perfect immobility, passivity, emotionlessness, and insensibility with regard
to all differentiation and individuality not only within but also outside himself,
i.e. with regard to all living and suffering beings (Govinda 129).
Hum is the way to avoid this fate; to achieve enlightenment without losing one's
compassion for others.
The Dalai Lama takes a somewhat similar stance. For him, hum represents simply
"an indivisibility of method and wisdom" (Dalai Lama 117). Either way,
hum retains a large degree of elusiveness. It cannot be pinned down in terms of
definite meaning. Thus to a Tibetan Buddhist it is sacred and powerful, and to
a Westerner rather silly.
Om Mani Padme Hum
The mantra as a whole possesses the same characteristics as its individual parts.
The masters may comment upon it and attempt to translate it into common language;
but the very power of the mantra derives from the fact that they are destined
to fail. For continuity's sake, and for the benefit of the reader who wishes to
get as firm a grip as possible on this particular mantra, I will provide the interpretations
offered by the two masters whose thoughts made the greatest contribution to this
Govinda states his summary as such: "OM represents the way of Universality,
MANI the way of Unity and Equality of all beings, PADMA the way of Unfolding Vision,
and HUM the Way of Integration."
The Dalai Lama prefers this statement of it: "Thus the six syllables, om
mani padme hum, mean that in dependence on the practice of a path which is an
indivisible union of method and wisdom, you can turn your impure body, speech,
and mind into the pure exalted body, speech, and mind of a Buddha."
And so, what we have seen is that mantra falls into one trap of irrationality
and superstition by scrabbling too frantically to escape another. The Buddhist
movement, when first splitting from Hinduism, took actions which effectively freed
it from accusations that it resorted to the primitive incantations to invoke deities
and demons. In the place of gods, though, they erected the even flimsier edifice
of audio aesthetics. They deliberately left considerations of meaning out of the
process of formulating mantras (believing that meaning works counter to the power
of the mantra, rather than for it), and instead the relied on the "spontaneous
truth" they experienced through it-that is, their initial aesthetic reaction
The 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso. Kindness, Clarity, and Insight. Snow Lion,
Ithaca, NY, 1988.
Govinda, Anagarika Brahmacari. Foundations of Tibetan mysticism, according to
the esoteric teachings of the Great Mantra, Om Mani Padme H um. New York, Dutton,
Oliver, Mary. A Poetry Handbook: A Prose Guide to Understanding and Writing Poetry.
Harcourt Brace & Company, New York, 1994.