If I had a penny for every time I’ve repeated a mantra during the thirty-six years I’ve been meditating, I’d have something to show for all the words I’ve spoken in my head. But I don’t.
So, what’s in a word? What’s the point of saying a mantra over and over, whether it be during a designated meditation period or at other times during the day?
Christians use mantras. “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me” was endlessly repeated by the Russian whose tale is told in “The Way of a Pilgrim.” Buddhists use mantras. “Namu amida butsu” (I take refuge in Amida Buddha) is chanted by the Pure Land school of Buddhism. “Om,” “Ah,” “Hu,” these one-syllable mantras are but a few of the countless other words that are repeated by millions of devotees in every corner of the world.
So what? All of us speak words all of the time, sometimes aloud, sometimes silently. Why is a mantra any better than the stream of verbal consciousness that normally courses through the mind?
Such as, for me right now: “Got to get going finish post later need to exercise hungry take banana remember put dog out maybe no chew stick diarrhea this morning yuck hope this ends up making sense think while driving wait supposed to be about mantra should practice what preach.”
D.T. Suzuki, a noted Zen adept, says that there are two ways of conceiving the purpose of a mantra.
In the first case the name itself is regarded as having a wonderful power, especially over human affairs; it is a magic formula…In the second case, the name is pronounced not necessarily as indicative of things that are therein suggested, but in order to work out a certain psychological process thus set up.He is speaking here of “namu amida butsu,” but the principle applies to every variety of mantra. When we repeat certain words over and over, is it with an outward or an inward intention? Are we trying to influence someone or something out there that is separate from us, or is it we ourselves in here who is affected by the repetition of the mantra?
In every religion there are outward-directed and inward-directed followers. For example, in Buddhism the Pure Land believers consider that repeating “namu amida butsu” brings all kinds of benefits from various deities:
When we say "Namu-amida-butsu," the countless Buddhas throughout the ten quarters, surrounding us a hundredfold, a thousandfold, rejoice in and protect us.
OK. Maybe. I doubt it, but everyone is entitled to their own beliefs.
I find that the Zen approach to mantra meditation makes a lot more sense, for it is psychological rather than theological. D.T. Suzuki says that when “namu amida butsu” is repeated without regard to the meaning of the words, or envisioning that countless Buddhas are hearing the invocation, a profound alteration in consciousness may occur.
Psychologically considered, the aim of the vocal Nembutsu is to do away with the fundamental dualism which is a condition of our empirical consciousness. By achieving this the devotee rides over the theoretical difficulties and contradictions that have troubled him before. With all intensity of thought and will he has thrown himself into the deeps of his own being.
And what is found in those depths, ultimately, is Buddha nature. So the Pure Land devotee and the Zen practitioner seemingly arrive at the same destination via different avenues. Zen, however, takes a more direct path, since the journey doesn’t involve any appeal to beings or entities separate from the devotee’s own consciousness.
I find it exceedingly difficult to believe that Jesus, Buddha, God/Allah, Angels, Soul Guides, Gurus, or whoever, are listening to people doing mantra meditation and doling out grace when the right words are heard. That just seems like rank superstition to me.
When mantra meditation is viewed in that light—as a petition to some higher being—it is no different from traditional religious prayer. Masquerading as a mystical practice, meditation then simply is endlessly repeated prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” “I take refuge in Amida Buddha.”
Words directed outwardly, whether spoken aloud or silently within the mind, have meaning only if someone else is listening. Otherwise we’re just talking to our own self. And since I already know what I’ve said to myself, or I wouldn’t be able to say it, such is an empty circular exercise.
I understand why people like to feel that the Buddha, Jesus, a guru, or some other being is aware of their mantra meditation or prayer. It’s nice to have a companion on the spiritual journey. But I want a real companion, not an imaginary friend. Suzuki directs our attention to what really lies at the root of the words that are repeated in the mind.
Mere naming does not prove to be so efficient, is not so effect-producing, as when there is back of it a corresponding reality. Mere uttering the name “water” does not quench the thirst; when it is visualized and there is a mental picture of a spring it produces a more physiologically realistic effect; but it is only when there is real fresh water before us which is quaffed that the thirst actually ceases.Words are just words unless they point to a directly experienced reality. When I call “Serena!” our dog comes running (usually). That’s because we have a dog who knows her name. When I’m hungry and feel too lazy to cook anything, I often call “Maria!” That’s the name of our imaginary maid. She never responds because she isn’t real.
I’m all for repeating a mantra. Purposeful mental activity is a lot better than letting the mind ramble around aimlessly. I feel more centered when I don’t allow words to run crazily around the racetrack of my brain like blind greyhounds chasing rabbits on meth.
However, I don’t consider that a mantra is magic. It simply is a pointer toward mystery, the mystery of me, the mystery of what lies at the root of the being uttering the mantra. As Suzuki puts it:
The Nembutsu ceased to mean “meditating on the Buddha” and came to be identified with the name, or rather with “uttering the name.” Meditation, or “coming into the presence of the Buddha,” thus gave way to the constant repetition of the phrase as not always or necessarily referring to any definite objective reality, but merely as a name somehow beyond comprehension, or rather as a symbol standing for something indescribable, unpredictable, altogether transcending the intellect, and therefore suggesting a meaning beyond meaning.
Which means to me, no more words tonight. Time to make a salad. And get wordlessly real.