Tibetan Mantra Recitation, Delta Brain Waves & Inner Spaciousness

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Mantra recitation has been an important element in the Tibetan religious tradition long before the flourishing of the Dharma in Tibet.

The meaning of mantra in the Buddhist context differs from other religions, however — even from pre-Buddhist Tibetan religions.

Mantra in Tibetan Buddhism refers to the Sanskrit मनत्रा, which is composed to two syllables: मन, meaning “mind” and त्रा, meaning “defender; protect; shelter”. The meaning of mantra in the Buddhist tradition is “something that protects the mind”.

There are many types of mantras with specific functions. The aim of mantra recitation is to link the reciter’s mind with specific Enlightened Beings and invoke their qualities within oneself.

Table of Contents

Everything Comes from the Mind

According to Buddhism, everything comes from the mind — “the mind” being something that every living consciousness possesses. However, very few beings are fully aware of their minds and are able to exert complete control over it. Most of us are gamed by our own minds.

The nature of the mind transcends conceptual definitions. It is something that can only be realized through the right type of training. Yet, everybody has experienced it many times throughout their lifetimes, just would not be able to recognize this experience while experiencing it.

The nature of the mind is also a very specific phenomenon. In order to have an idea about the level of training required to acquire a stable realization of it an insight into Buddhist science is needed, even if purely historical.

A Perspective into Buddhist Scholastic Tradition 

Among the many symbolic numbers in esoteric Buddhism is the 84000 teachings of Buddha Shakyamuni. While it is not likely that Buddha has given this exact number of teachings, it is accepted that he has lived for eighty years and taught the basis of all Tripiṭaka collection of the Buddhist canon.

The oldest intact version of the Buddhist canon is the Korean Palman Daejanggyeong (“Eighty-Thousand Tripiṭaka”) in Hanja script. It is comprised of 1,496 titles which are divided into 6,568 books, spanning 81,258 pages.

In the 2500 years that have run since Buddha’s passing there have been hundreds of accomplished masters who have contributed to the spread, translation, and updating of the message of Buddha, ensuring it remained alive and uncorrupted up to the present day.

All of Buddha’s teachings from the past and present are about one thing: the mind.

Mind and Mental Factors

The many definitions of mind found in the different schools of Buddhism give us a clue as to what the buddhas are referring to.

The most basic aspect of the mind (Tib. sems) can be defined simply in terms of its two main qualities: clear and knowing.
The mind can be further divided into six so-called primary minds, which are the five sense consciousnesses plus the mental consciousness.

The five sense consciousnesses engage with their objects. The eye consciousness engages with visual objects, the ear consciousness engages with sounds, the mental consciousness engages with thoughts, and so forth.

The experience of unenlightened beings is shaped by their mental factors, which always accompany the primary minds, arising simultaneously with the perception of their objects. Mental factors are what apprehend the particular qualities of objects. There are a total of 51 mental factors. They are divided into six categories:

    1. 5 omnipresent mental factors
    2. 5 object-ascertaining mental factors
    3. 11 virtuous mental factors
    4. 6 root afflictions
    5. 20 secondary afflictions
    6. 4 variable mental factors

The primary minds along with the mental factors create our samsaric reality — a beginning-less and endless cycle of confusion and suffering, lack of memory, and aimless pursuits.

The compulsive entanglement of consciousness with the mental factors tightly engaged with their objects can only be solved through the realization of shunyata, which is philosophically defined as the emptiness of the inherent, self-sufficient, substantial, and true existence of all phenomena.

The emptiness expressed by shunyata is defined as a non-affirming negation. This means that shunyata negates inherent existence in all phenomena, but it does not imply something else exists instead — not even non-inherent existence.

The Five Aggregates and Karma

According to Buddhist philosophy, ordinary humans are made up of five aggregates. Namely:

⦁ Form
⦁ Feeling
⦁ Discriminative awareness
⦁ Compositional factors
⦁ Consciousness

We interact with the world through our three doors of body, speech, and mind. With these three doors, we act and create our karma, which are imprints that are stored in non-local space and are amplified with time, replicating over and over again.

Karma can also be purified. Shakyamuni Buddha’s famous non-sectarian teaching for the purification of karma, the Four Opponent Powers, is an efficient tool to control the shortcomings of karma.

According to the four outlines about karma found in the Middle Length Lam-Rim. (Lam rim ‘bring ba) by Lama Tsongkhapa:

    1. Karma is certain;
    2. Karma increases;
    3. One does not meet karma that one has not created;
    4. Karma can be purified.

In the esoteric branch of Tantric Buddhism, powerful methods to purify negative karma created in the past involving the recitation of mantras combined with elaborated visualizations are applied.

However, the practice of advanced Tantric meditations is restricted and requires special authorization from a qualified Vajrayana master. Such practices come with strict set o vows and pledges that must be protected, even at the expense of one’s own life. Only disciples who are considered ready can have access to Vajrayana practices. 

The Five Wisdoms and Five Buddha-families

Advanced tantric practices are aimed at transforming the impure five aggregates into five pure wisdoms (Tib. yeshe nga). The latter can be described as the perception of the naked face of reality that is not dependent on ordinary emotional oscillations. They are:

  • Wisdom of dharmadhatu

“the bare non-conceptualizing awareness of Śūnyatā, the universal substrate of the other four jñāna” Keown, et al. (2003)

  •  Mirror-like wisdom

“devoid of all dualistic thought and ever united with its ‘content’ as a mirror is with its reflections” Keown, et al. (2003)

  • Wisdom of equality

“which perceives the sameness, the commonality of dharmas.” Keown, et al. (2003)

  •  Wisdom of discernment

“that perceives the specificity, the uniqueness of dharmas.” Keown, et al. (2003)

  • All-accomplishing wisdom

“spontaneously carries out all that has to be done for the welfare of beings, manifesting itself in all directions” Keown, et al. (2003)

Unlike the five aggregates, which create conditioned existence in samsaric realms, the five wisdoms are the manifestation of five kinds of primordial awarenesses that become accessible to a practitioner whose five clusters of aggregates have been worn out.

The five wisdoms, or five primordial awarenesses are the essence of the five lords of the five male buddha-families: Vairochana, Akshobhya, Ratnasambhava, Amitabha, and Amoghasiddhi.

Vairochana

Vairochana’s name means “One Who Completely Manifests”, he is the essence of dharmadhatu primordial awareness and the basis of all enlightened activity, and the lord of the Buddha family. Vairochana is the one who allows the true nature of phenomena to be seen clearly and without error. He clarifies the nature of all phenomenal reality.

Akshobhya

Akshobhya’s name means “Unshakable One”, he is the essence of the mirror-like primordial awareness, and the lord of the Vajra family. His enlightened activity is pacifying. Out of all the mental afflictions, anger is the cause of most restlessness in the mind. The manifestation of purified anger is Akshobhya, also known as the Unshakeable One.

Ratnasambhava

Ratnasambhava’s name means “Source of Preciousness”, he is the essence of the primordial awareness of equality, and the lord of the Ratna family. His enlightened activity is increasing. The qualities that define Ratnasambhava are merit, wealth, and excellence which are the manifestation of perfectly purified pride.

Amitabha

Amitabha’s name means Ïnfinite Light”, he is the essence of the primordial awareness of discernment, and the lord of the Lotus family. His enlightened activity is empowering. Through the purification of attachment, the clarity and the clear light of Amitabha become manifest. He represents the highest understanding, known as prajna in Sanskrit.

Amoghasiddhi

Amoghasiddhi’s name means “One Who Accomplishes What Is Meaningful”, he is the essence of the all-accomplishing primordial awareness, and the lord of the Karma family. His enlightened activity is wrathful. He represents the realization of the fundamental awareness that can accomplish all actions, achieved through transforming the five senses and completely purifying the negative emotion of jealousy.

Sounds, Vibration, and Energy

Unlike prayers, mantras are usually short combination of keywords or commands that are ordered in a determined structure. They are composed of seed syllables, which are primordial sounds that hold the quintessence of the Dharma.

"Before the development of human language, there were only the sounds of nature: waterfalls, wind, rain. Sound had no conceptual associations. When we trace sound farther back to its very beginnings, we arrive at the pure, primordial sounds of the seed syllables."

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Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche

These primordial sounds are the vibration of the Vajra Body, which is the true nature that manifests when the five aggregates are in their pure state. There are outer, inner, and secret seed syllables.

Mantras are also often comprised of the names of enlightened beings, which are a direct means of communication with the buddhas.

The power of a mantra is attributed to the vibration of their sounds as well as the enlightened beings to which they are sometimes linked. The correct vocalization of the syllables is important for the effectiveness of the mantra, even when recited mentally.

Scientific Findings

The acclaimed journal of scientific research Nature has published a scientific study which looked into the brain of practitioners who chanted Amitabha Buddha’s mantra for at least one year. In this study, they measured brain activity while practitioners recited the mantra using electroencephalography combined with functional magnetic resonance imaging.

The outcomes measured in this study included heart rate frequency as well as brain wave frequencies. The researchers found that practitioners had an increase in delta oscillations in specific areas of their brains while they were immersed in their recitation.

According to this study, delta-band activity in the brain is associated with evolutionary ancient mental states. During these states, restorative mechanisms replenish biological resources in the brain and peripheral organs, resulting in beneficial effects on both biological and cognitive functions.

Since it was a cross-sectional study, the data is not sufficient to draw hypotheses about the effect of the recitation of a given mantra on other aspects of an individual’s life, or how it can contribute to the accomplishment of mental stabilization (samatha); a state in which the practitioner is able to attend to any given object for as long as he or she wishes.

In the Buddhist context, mantra recitation is never a stand-alone practice, but a means of integrating the speech (energy) aspect of human existence into the primordial reality of the buddhas. Sound is pure vibration, it can affect both physical reality (matter) as well as our mental constructs.

Mantras, Music, and Auditory Pollution

Sound is the subtlest and most effective form of influence. Sounds are neither a substantial object that can be easily destroyed, nor are they subtle like intellectual concepts that require a lot of effort to grasp. Sounds have full access to our entire bodies and are able to move up to the tiniest molecules in our cells regardless of our consent.

In modern days, especially, we are exposed to an excessive amount of noises. Besides auditory pollution, we are being exposed to visual, and environmental pollution in general. This degrades our experience and confuse further our senses.

Although some people may consider mantra recitation as a means of attaining temporary peace of mind, as is often the case in the West, it may not be enough. While the practice of mantra recitation can be a beneficial tool for soothing the brain, its has a greater potential when used in its original context.

All dharmas abide in the mind, The mind abides in space, Space abides nowhere.

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