A beginner’s guide
Anyone who has heard the syllable “OM” knows something about mantra recitation. But, not so many of us have
established a daily practice of reciting mantras, often because, though we have tried, we have failed to experience
the benefits. In short, mantras haven’t lived up to the hype, to still the mind and increase awareness.
Mantras have been described as words of power, sacred syllables, a garland, and so forth. If we have tried using
mantras and failed to experience any transformation within, or if we wish to begin, there are a few tips that can go a
long way towards getting ourselves on firm footing. These tips come from my own experience as a young monastic
during my experience as a fully ordained bhikkhu. I have watched both lay and novice monks become discouraged,
often because they failed to follow the instructions of our teacher. Below are some of the suggestions that worked for
1: Mantras depend on you for their efficacy. I always assumed that mantras worked like magic and that as long as
they were on my lips they would have a transformative effect. I was completely wrong. Reciting mantras without
mindfulness is ineffective, and can lead to delusional viewpoints. We must be focused and recite with a mind that is
not distracted. The less distracted we are while reciting a mantra, the more powerful the mantra will be. As a monk, I
sometimes imagined that my thoughts were like little fish in an aquarium, all roughly the same size. Gradually, one of
the fish started feeding on the other fish and got bigger and bigger until there were no other fish in the aquarium.
That fish is the mantra.
2: Begin with a short mantra that is easy to remember. I began with the longest mantra in Buddhism, the almost six-
hundred-line Shurangama Mantra. It took me six months just to memorize it. Unless you have special conditions with a
long mantra, pick a mantra that is simple to recite, that evokes a deity or image you feel affinities with, the Buddha,
the Goddess of Compassion, Kalachakra, Vajra Pani, Durga, Shiva, and so forth. You don’t have to begin with the
600-line Shurangama mantra. Pick a mantra with a handful of syllables and use that until you familiarize yourself with
the process of mantra recitation.
3: Recite Gently. It was difficult for me to realize that I shouldn’t bear down on the mantra, overly cautious not to lose
it. Reciting a mantra is more like interacting with it as one might one’s partner in a love affair, giving attention when
needed and yet relaxing it to avoid grasping too tightly. If we try to dominate our thinking mind by bearing too heavily
on the mantra, we will vacillate between being either a hundred percent focused on the mantra, or losing it altogether.
If we find ourselves repeatedly having to pull our attention back to the mantra, we may be trying too hard.
Instead of holding the mantra with a rope, hold it with a silk thread, that is just strong enough to keep it, but barely so.
When we recite a mantra, we are aware of its presence, but we don’t want to bear down on it.
4: Have faith in the process. I was fortunate to have strong faith, but some of my companions did not. If faith is weak,
the mantra practice will be sporadic and ineffective. Faith is generated through study and talking with those who have
it. Before committing to a mantra, we must feel enthusiastic about it. If your mantra does not seem to be working, stick
with it. Don’t be too quick to fault the mantra you are using. Don’t be fickle and change it. Mantra recitation is like
being in a relationship that takes time to develop. Seldom does the failure to resonate with a mantra exist because of
the mantra itself, but rather the way we apply our mind to it.
5: Silent or audible? I sometimes wonder whether I should recite silently or audibly. It is not as arbitrary a question as
it might seem, nor is it a question purely of preference. Many masters recommend reciting audibly when we are alone
because ghosts, spirits, and deities come to listen and are benefitted by our recitation.
If we are alone, we can do it either way. Most prefer silently, at least at the beginning. I do both.
6: Breath awareness. One tip that I was able to bring from my yoga classes to the meditation cushion is being mindful
of breath. My yoga teachers always reminded me to use breath awareness to steady my asanas, and I found that it
will steady my focus on mantras, as well. This has proven to be one of the best tips ever.
If our mind becomes repeatedly distracted, use breath awareness to anchor yourself. This can be done by linking
the in and out breaths to the mantra’s syllables as you recite, or pausing the mantra for a while, and switching to
If we decide to link the breath to the syllables, we do this by imagining the syllables supported by the breath. I
sometimes imagine my breath like a fountain supporting a ball, the mantra’s syllables floating on the breath.
If we decide to leave the mantra for a time and focus on the breath alone, we should keep the method of breath
awareness simple. For example, when we feel a cool sensation on the tip of our nose, we can label the breath “I am
breathing in” and when we feel a warm sensation on the tip of the nose, we can say “I am breathing out.” Any simple
method of breath awareness will do.
7: Use a rosary (malla). I find goals useful and setting a number of recitations is also recommended in many practice
texts. We may find that using beads is a distraction if we are not familiar with the practice, but they become invisible
as we grow accustomed to using them. They are helpful tools of the trade and useful when setting goals and keeping
them. Tibetan Buddhists are seldom without their malla, which they use to count how many times they went around
the 108 beads in a day.
Mallas also act as pacifiers, something to do with our hands as we recite our mantra or prayers.
8: Don’t obsess over pronunciation. The first mantras I used extensively were Chinese and pronunciation was a
headache. If your mantra is difficult to pronounce, work on pronunciation outside of the formal meditation session.
When reciting in a session attention should be on placing the mind on the object, the mantra, as best as we know
how. If it doesn’t sound right to your mental ear, continue to recite as best as you can. Save correcting yourself for a
separate study session.
9: Be consistent. One thing I learned from body building is the value of being consistent and maintaining a gym
schedule. As far as mantra recitation goes, consistency is essential. A short session of ten or fifteen minutes,
morning and evening, the same time each day, will get results that an hour sit here and there won't. Be in it for the
long haul, and avoid being result driven. don’t work for results. If we try to make grass grow by pulling on it, we will
only kill it.
10: Keep your practice to yourself. Master Han Shan said: “The more you talk and think about it (spirituality), the
further you wander from the truth.” These words have always been with me and taught me to hold my tongue
regarding my practice. Working to obtain enlightenment is like working on a secret project. Our practice should be a
private affair, only discussed with a guru, if we have one, or kept to ourselves if we don’t.
Mantras must be employed with focus, pure intention, commitment, faith, and discipline. When all the elements are in
place, mantras are a means to self-discovery. But, our success or failure depends on us, not the mantra. A mantra is
a tool that we use, and like any other tool it’s efficacy depends on how we use it.