Japa is an important limb (anga) of Vajra Yoga, the guiding staff in the hand of blind aspirants to safely traverse the road to Enlightenment. Repetition of mantra (verbal formulas) is known as japa. In this Age of the Five Defilements, the practice of japa, in conjunction with the Three Cultivations (virtue, concentration, and wisdom) can lead us to experience ultimate reality as True Purity, True Being, True Bliss, and True Permanence.
Thought and word are different but inseparable. Whenever we think of the name of a known person, his or her form stands before our mind. In the same way, when we recite the mantras of specific Meditational Deities [yidam (Tib.) or devata (Skt.)] their Empty Forms appear in the mind.
When we know the meaning of the mantra and practice japa with full attention on the sound, we feel the divine presence in everything and everywhere. We draw closer and nearer to that presence as we recite the mantra over time. We know that the Yidam abides in the heart, and the Yidam beholds our repetition of the mantra as the witness of the mind.
Mantras are sounds —syllables, words, or phrases— that are used as an object of concentration. The word mantra means “that which protects the mind.” In Buddhist meditation, many things can be used as objects of concentration, or “mind protectors.” For example, the flow of the breath, the sensations of walking, and various hand gestures (mudras) are used in body-gate meditation. Noting arising thoughts without engaging with them, analytical syllogisms, and observing the emotions are used in mind-gate meditation.
Mantra is that constant recollection by which one is protected (mananat-trayate iti mantrah). Through the repetition of mantra with mindfulness, we can attain freedom from negative acts, higher birth, and ultimate liberation. A mantra is so called because it is achieved by the mental process: the root ‘man’ in the word mantra means ‘to think’, and ‘tra’ means ‘to protect’ or ‘free’ from the bondage of the phenomenal world. Japa is the quintessential mind-gate meditation.
Mantras may be recited aloud, whispered, written, or may be heard internally. They can be associated with particular historical or archetypal figures, or may have no such associations. There are mantras associated with Buddha Shakyamuni (om muni muni maha muni shakyamuniye svaha), and Chenrezi, or Avalokiteshvara (om mani padme hum). The Prajnaparamita mantra (gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha) is associated with the Mother of Wisdom and the body of texts known as the Perfection of Wisdom (Prajnaparamita) sutras.
There is power in ‘mere’ words. When anyone suddenly shouts ‘Fire!’ we at once apprehend the danger and react with alacrity. When anyone calls us ‘stupid’ or ‘ugly’, we are annoyed and perhaps experience anger. If anyone compliments us with kind words, we are pleased, and smile. If we mention delicious foods to those who are hungry, they may experience increased salivation. However, if we make reference to feces or urine when sensitive friends are enjoying their meals, they may lose their appetite.
When such is the power of ordinary words, consider the power of mantra: it is a vital symbol of the Meditational Deity. These symbols are in the nature of unfailing keys to gain access to the transcendental realms of ultimate reality. The mantra is the Yidam.
A mantra has the following five aspects:
- drashta (an enlightened seer), the revealer of this particular mantra
- chhandas (meter), the mantra’s structure
- devata (Meditational Deity), the informing power and presiding deity of the mantra
- bija (seed), a significant sound, word, or series of words, that empowers the mantra
- shakti (energy or power), the vibration-forms generated by the sound
Sounds are vibrations. They resonate and are concordant with definite forms. Each sound resonates with a particular form, and combinations of sound create complex shapes. Repetition of a mantra has the power to bring about the manifestation in the mind of the Meditational Deity. When a particular mantra is properly recited, the vibrations generate an Empty Form in the mind which that specific Yidam embodies. Thus, the repetition of the Vajrasattva mantra invokes the form of Vajrasattva; the repetition of the Mani mantra invokes the form of Chenrezi; the repetition of the Tara mantra invokes the form of Tara.
Although we can point to an understanding of mantra through logical inference and valid testimony, the power of mantra recitation cannot be ultimately established through reasoning and intellect. It must be experienced and realized through practice.
A mantra is a symbol of ultimate reality. It draws our attention to natural perfection, and purifies us through association with that manifest Perfection. Therefore, the power of the mantra is incalculable. Through mantra, we can achieve anything. It is a formidable means to Enlightenment. Even as the name of some ordinary thing in this world generates the consciousness of that thing in the mind, the mantra generates the awareness of natural perfection in the mind and becomes a supporting cause for purification, the separation of the mind from afflicted emotions and obscurations to wisdom.
We can recite mantra aloud, in a whisper, and silently. The mind thrives on variety, as its nature is momentary and impermanent, and it is easily bored with any monotonous practice. Silent repetition is most powerful, and is called manasika japa. Vocal or loud repetition is called vaikhari japa, and forcefully shuts out all worldly sounds. Repetition in a whisper is called upamshu japa. We can also utilize prayer wheels and flags to benefit others through contact with mantra, but that is an extensive topic that cannot be adequately covered here.
In Jonang practice, we do not seek to willfully visualize or conceptualize anything. We allow the natural process to unfold: the Mantra reveals the Empty Form of the Yidam; the Empty Form reveals the Divine Qualities; the Divine Qualities reveal the Divine Activities; and the Divine Activities reveal the Divine Abode. The recitation of mantra without any artificially constructed feeling or mental conception has a great purifying effect on the heart and the mind. When the process of mental purification has progressed, Empty Forms, Divine Qualities, Divine Activities, and Divine Abode (Pure Land) will arise spontaneously.
A very powerful mantra practice that is accessible to all is to write the ishta (chosen) or guru (Teacher-given) mantra daily a pre-determined number of times in a good quality blank book (preferably one without leather components) or sheaves of acid-free paper. There is no restriction regarding a particular script, as the mantra may be written in any alphabet.
When performing likhita japa (mantra writing), we observe complete silence. We write the mantra clearly in indelible ink, as this makes us more attentive. Mantras may also be printed from templates or carved blocks. On days when we have greater leisure, we can perform more sessions of likhita japa.
Through this simple practice, we can develop great power of concentration. The benefits of likhita japa cannot be adequately described: besides bringing about purity of heart and concentration of mind, mantra-writing gives us control of posture, control of the sense faculties, and fills us with endurance. We quickly attain peace of mind.
As we amass numerous pages of likhita japa, we can collect these and dedicate them to the welfare of all sentient beings by interring them in a stupa, or monument.
25 Guidelines for Japa
- Select a mantra, with the advice of your Teacher, and repeat it 108 or 1080 times daily.
- Recite only one mantra during a particular session, unless otherwise instructed.
- Keep your practice confidential, as comparisons with others can produce doubts.
- Dawn and dusk are the most favorable times for japa, as sattva (purity) is predominant, but any time is suitable.
- Recite japa whenever you have leisure, especially at the three junctions of the day (morning, noon, and evening) and before retiring to sleep.
- Face east or north during the practice, as it enhances concentration. (An altar is always considered to be located in the eastern direction, regardless of geography.) The exception to this rule is that it is preferable to face west when reciting the mantra of Amideva (Amitabha): om amideva hrih
- Observe silence and avoid all distractions, both internal and external.
- Resolve to complete a certain minimum number of repetitions.
- Recite prayers before the recitation, including Aspiration, Refuge, and Bodhichitta.
- Sit in a separate meditation room or any quiet location.
- Use a mala of 108 beads, as it engages the body in the recitation practice.
- Use the middle finger and the thumb of the left hand to count the beads (if reciting mantras of wrathful Yidams —and this only with by the explicit sanction of your Teacher— use the right hand). The use of the index finger is not recommended.
- Do not cross the central bead while counting. Turn the mala around when you reach it.
- Repeat the mantra aloud for a few minutes, and then recite silently. When the mind wanders, recite the mantra aloud, or whisper the mantra for some time, and return to mental japa as soon as possible.
- Pronounce the mantra distinctly, at a moderate speed. Increase the speed only when the mind wanders.
- Do not perform japa in a hurried manner, like a paid contractor who tries to finish his work in a short time. Recite the mantra slowly, with one-pointedness.
- Be vigilant and alert during japa. Look up or stand if dullness overcomes you.
- Focus your attention exclusively on the sound of the mantra.
- Do not wish for any worldly objects while doing japa, as merit will be diverted.
- When you repeat the mantra, know, but do not fabricate conceptually, that the Yidam is seated in your heart; true purity is flowing from the Yidam into your mind; and the mantra is separating you from all worldly desires, cravings, and negative karma.
- Once japa is completed, do not plunge into mundane activity immediately.
- Dedicate the merit to the benefit of all sentient beings, and then sit quietly for a few minutes.
- Perform prostrations to the Three Jewels, and only then engage in routine activities.
- Regularity in japa is desirable. If possible, sit in the same place at the same time daily.
- After japa sessions, continue the current of japa mentally during ordinary activities.
SOME JAPA MANTRAS IN THE JONANG TRADITION
namo gurave / namo buddhaya / namo dharmaya / namo sanghaya
Reverence to the Teacher. Reverence to the Buddha. Reverence to the Dharma. Reverence to the Noble Assembly.
om guru-buddha-bodhisattvebhyo namo namah
om Reverence and service to the Teachers, the Buddhas, and Bodhisattvas.
VAJRASATTVA – DORJE SEMPA
om vajrasattva hum 100-syllable Vajrasattva mantra* om ah hum
AVALOKITESHVARA – CHENREZIG
om mani padme hum
TARA – JETSUN DOLMA
om tare tuttare ture svaha
AMIDEVA (AMITABHA) – OPAME
om amideva hrih
HEALING BUDDHA – MENLA
tadyatha om bekandze bekandze maha bekandze radza samudgate so’ha**
om It is thus: Appear, O Healer, O Healer, O Great Healer, O King of Healing!
SUDDHATVA – PURITY
om svabhava suddha sarva dharma / svabhava suddho ‘ham
om All is pure as it is. I am pure as I am.
PRAJNAPARAMITA – PERFECTION OF WISDOM
tadyatha om gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha
om It is thus: Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone perfectly beyond to enlightenment.
GURU – LAMA
Reverence to the Teacher.
Teacher, glance at me with mercy.
om svasti – om All is perfectly established.
eh ma ho – How wonderful!
mangalam – May all be happy!
* The 100-Syllable Vajrasattva mantra should be received from a Dharma Teacher.
** These are Tibetan mantras. All others are Sanskrit, or non-discursive.