Regardless of the specific religious or philosophical traditions from which they emerged, all meditative practices have the over-arching goal of stilling the chatter of the ego-mind so that one can clearly see, and choose to disconnect from, the illusions that cause suffering. In detaching from these illusions, we create the conditions necessary to experience our connection to our Higher Self, and thus to God/Goddess. Broadly speaking, meditative practices seek to quiet the ego-mind in one of two ways: 1) completely emptying the mind by not focusing on, or attaching to, any sense object, or 2) by cultivating one-pointed concentration by focusing one's mind on one thing, in other words, giving the ego-mind something to do, thus freeing the True Self to connect to Source. An example of the first approach, the path of emptying the mind, would be Vipassana (or Mindfulness) meditation. In this practice, one merely observes one's thoughts with compassionate detachment, in the same way one observes all the other "sense objects" (sights, sounds, smells or physical sensations) of which one is aware in that same moment. As each thought arises and passes through one's awareness, one simply lets it go, rather than attaching to it and following it; eventually, fewer and fewer thoughts arise until the mind is still, calm and empty. This is what is called "the path of bare attention." One example of the second approach, the path of one-pointed concentration, is the Yoga practice of tratak, in which one focuses one's attention on a candle flame. Another example is mantra meditation, the repetition of sacred words or chants. The term mantra is derived from the Sanskrit words "manas," which means "totality of thought" or "mind," and "trai," which means "to protect" or "to set free from." Thus, mantra literally means "to set free from the mind." An important advantage of practicing mantra meditation is that it not only distracts our terrorist ego-minds by giving them something to do, but also brings the added benefit of the special vibrational properties of the sacred mantra one chooses. Each mantra carries its own special energetic frequency. When one chants a mantra, its higher vibrational frequency raises one's own vibratory frequency, bringing one into harmony with the spiritual qualities that the mantra embodies.
The Heart-Centered Path of Compassion Lord Buddha taught many methods for releasing attachments to illusion that form the basis of suffering, different methods for different types of people, conditions of living, and so forth. For those with the capacity to understand and practice it, he taught the Mahayana or "Great Vehicle," a practice based upon cultivating unconditional and universal compassion for all living beings, including oneself. According to Lord Buddha, this is the fastest and most direct path to enlightenment, and by practicing it, one carries all living beings with one into the state of liberation, that is why this practice is called "the Great Vehicle."
The mantra "Om mani padme hum" embodies this spiritual quality of boundless, unconditional love and compassion. In the Buddhist tradition, it is regarded as an invocation of the Buddha (or Bodhisattva) of Compassion. In India and Tibet, the Buddha of Compassion is pictured as male, because in their traditions compassion (as a form of energy) is regarded as masculine, while wisdom is regarded as feminine. In India, the Buddha of Compassion's name is Avolakiteshvara, and in Tibet he is called Chenrezig. In the Chinese Buddhist tradition, compassion is identified with the universal and unconditional love of the Divine Mother, and therefore is seen as feminine; she is embodied as the goddess Quan Yin.
The "Om mani padme hum" mantra originated in India, in the early Buddhist age, and then was carried by Buddhist monks into Tibet, China and Southeast Asia. It is now the most widely used of all Buddhist mantras. It is important to stress, however, that one does not need to be a Buddhist to use this mantra, nor does one need to be initiated into the use of this mantra by any teacher. It is open to all those whose hearts are drawn to it. Tibetan Buddhists believe that one can derive the benefits of this mantra from chanting it aloud or silently, by looking at it in written form (commonly on "mani stones" or written on paper) and by spinning the written form of the mantra in a prayer wheel (or "mani wheel").
The Meaning of the Mantra "Om" is the vibration of universal, creative life force energy, called "prana" in Sanskrit, and "chi" in Chinese, and many mantras begin with "Om." In the Tibetan tradition, "Om" is pronounced "ahh-ohh-ooo-mmm," and is seen as being made up of three sounds: A-U-M. (You often see it written that way.) These three sounds symbolize body, speech and mind: both the meditator's impure body, speech and mind and the purified and exalted body, speech and mind of an enlightened one, a Buddha. The word "mani" means "jewel," and symbolizes skillful means, in this case, love and compassion, employed to achieve enlightenment. In Tibet, Chenrezig is often portrayed with four arms and hands. Two of his hands are joined in prayer position over his heart, with a beautiful blue, wish-fulfilling jewel held between them. In his outer right hand, he holds a set of crystal prayer beads (malas), which he continuously moves through his fingers, symbolizing his constant attention to benefiting all sentient beings and liberating them from the suffering of samsara, the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. "Padme" means "lotus," which signifies wisdom and the feminine element. The lotus is also the symbol of the spiritual aspirant, because it rises, unstained, from the mud of our gross material existence, through the water of thoughts and feelings, until it finally transcends both earthly materiality and thoughts and feelings, and opens its heart to the divine light of the sun. Chenrezig is depicted sitting on a lotus and holding another spotless lotus in his outer left hand. "Hum" means "perfect wisdom" or "enlightened mind" and also symbolizes the Bodhisattva Akshobhya, who represents the immovable, the unfluctuating, that which cannot be disturbed by anything. Chenrezig symbolizes the perfect, unshakable combination of method and wisdom: the skillful means or method of unconditional love and compassion with the perfect wisdom of enlightenment. Although the mantra is often translated as some variant of "Behold (or "Praise to") the jewel in the lotus," it is easy to see why Buddhist master teachers say that "Om mani padme hum" really can't be accurately translated into English or any other language. In fact, Buddhists believe that this mantra contains everything that Lord Buddha taught. "There is not a single aspect of the eighty-four thousand sections of the Buddha's teachings which is not contained in Avolakiteshvara's six syllable mantra `Om Mani Padme Hum,' and as such the qualities of the `mani' are praised again and again in the Sutras and Tantras....," writes the Tibetan master teacher Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche in his book "Heart Treasure of the Enlightened Ones." "Whether happy or sad, if we take the `mani' as our refuge, Chenrezig will never forsake us, spontaneous devotion will arise in our minds and the Great Vehicle will effortlessly be realized," Khyentse Rinpoche says. The Dalai Lama says of this mantra, "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 transform your impure body, speech, and mind into the pure exalted body, speech, and mind of a Buddha. It is said that you should not seek for Buddhahood outside of yourself; the substances for the achievement of Buddhahood are within. "As Maitreya says in his 'Sublime Continuum of the Great Vehicle (Uttaratantra)', all beings naturally have the Buddha nature in their own continuum. We have within us the seed of purity, the essence of a One Gone Thus (Tathagatagarbha), that is to be transformed and fully developed into Buddhahood," the Dalai Lama assures us.
Using Malas Using prayer beads, called malas (pronounced MAH-luhz) or japamalas in India, to keep track of each repetition of a mantra is an effective way to practice mantra meditation. Malas are a string of 108 beads plus an additional "guru bead" or "meru." The sensation of holding the beads and moving them between thumb and middle finger focuses the sense of touch on the mantra, along with the mind, which reinforces one-pointed concentration. One's malas also become a physical reminder of one's commitment to the spiritual path. This practice of chanting a mantra using malas is called japa (pronounced JAH-puh). (See the sidebar on chanting japa for a detailed explanation of how to practice japa.)
Pronouncing the Mantra There is no single correct pronunciation of the mantra.
In the Sanskrit tradition, it is pronounced "Om MAH-nee PAHD-may (or, in
some regions, "PAHD-muh") Hoom" (with the final vowel sound being
the same as in the English words "book" or "hook", not as
in "boom" or "room"). In Tibet, the mantra is pronounced
"Om MAH-nee PEH-meh Hung" (with the final vowel as in "book,"
but with the final consonant being "ng" as in the English word "sung.")
The point is: don't obsess about pronouncing it correctly. Let go of the need
to "get it right." Choose the pronunciation that intuitively feels
correct, and focus on your intention to open your heart to Avolakitshvara/Chenrezig/Quan
Yin, that is, to boundless love and compassion, directed inward to yourself
and outward to all living things. In this way, your heart, like the lotus, can
rise up, transcending all earthly attachments, and open to the shining sun of
that boundless love.
"May all beings be happy. May they be joyous and live in safety. All living beings, whether weak or strong, in high or middle or low realms of existence, small or great, visible or invisible, near or far, born or to be born, Let no one deceive another, nor despise any being in any state; Let none by anger or hatred wish harm to another. Even as a mother at the risk of her life watches over and protects her only child, so with a boundless mind should one cherish all living things, suffusing love over the entire world, above, below, and all around, without limit; so let one cultivate an infinite good will toward the whole world."
-Lord Buddha, The Metta Sutta