I was in Dharmashala almost one year ago to the day, and went to visit the Gyoto Monks. For three hours every day, apprentice monks gather inside and outside the major temple, and begin mantra chanting. Each person had their own special mantra, which they would chant for 3 hours. Every so often, a senior monk will come in and start to chant a specific buddhist mantra, and then all would join in. As part of this tantric meditation, all mantras began with the sound ‘om’.
Why does such a small sound create so much controversy?
I remember the first time I used the sound some 20 years ago. As part of my growing Buddhist spiritual commitment, I knew I was going to have to come to grips with the sound.
I had run away from all western religious practices, the disconnect between the way people practiced and then preached spirit-breaking. From priest to layperson – more often than not, people around me did not seem to really live the morals of the scriptures, commandments, torah, whatever was ‘the source’. Amen, Hail Mary or any words with religious significance, felt like more ‘lip service’.
For many who come to yoga, including myself, the sound ‘om’ is often something said at the beginning of a yoga practice by that teacher out the front. Some of us joined in because it felt kind of cool. Most of us had no idea what it meant.
What is OM?
It is the oldest spiritual symbol or sound known to mankind. We have records of it appearing in Rig Veda, an ancient Indian text, which has been dated to 2nd millennial BCE (before Christ).
There are many explanations of what Om means. At the very least, it is used like ‘amen’ at the beginning and end of any mantra or spiritual prayer in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Januism. Literally, it means affirmation. But it also is a melodic affirmation of the spiritual divine, the universe. Om is sounded so that it lengthens out for the timing of three words. I like the explanation that it is the sound of the creation of the cosmic universe.
The sound of ‘om’ has a reverberation which if done in sufficiently large groups, charges energy around you. In a positive way.
The Gyoto Monks, for example, have a particular key they sing in sounding ‘om’ which they spend years practicing and perfecting – attempting to resonate with the core of our planet. You can hear it in the video, as Deva Premal sings one of Buddhist’s most famous om mantras with them.
This pedigree makes the sound and its meaning have such weight, that it took me at least 5 years before I could say it out loud and feel comfortable.
In my yoga classes, I sound the word and also encourage people to do whatever they feel is appropriate when I do (say, not say, say their own words).
What about Om Mani Padme Hum?
Om Mani Padme Hum is, literally, the jewel in the Buddhist mantra crown. It is one of the few mantras that does not require initiation by a meditation master. Yet all the 84,000 teachings of Buddha are contained in that one single sentence. The mantra originated in India; as it moved from India into Tibet, the pronunciation changed because some of the sounds in the Indian Sanskrit language were hard for Tibetans to pronounce.
What does it mean?
There is no one right meaning, but I am going to take some liberties drawing from comments I have heard many famous buddhists about this timeless mantra. Apologies to the Dalai Lama, Pema Chodron and others…
Chanting this mantra reminds us to recognise our impure mind, speech, and feelings and to move to a state of true enlightenment, requires compassion, love, and understanding of the impermanence of all around us, including our physical self (true wisdom). Acceptance of this for ourselves and others results in achievement of nirvana – where our divine energy connects with the universal divine energy.
When and why would you chant this mantra?
When you are feeling blue, when all around there is hating, to have compassion for the Japanese fishermen and the dolphins, where slaughtering and capturing dolphins in Taiji Cove is a daily business, to send out divine truth to people from selling their girl children into prostitution and slavery.