The Significance of the Buddhist Mantra
In Dharamsala, India, in an open square, a Tibetan refugee sits exposed to the full force of the sun. His skin is baked brown and wrinkled from many afternoons such as this one. He is thin as a rail, and his legs fold beneath him in a way that looks painful to the westerners who pass him. He wears tattered rags and looks unwashed, but sports a long white beard—a prized rarity among Tibetans. His eyes, blind and white as his beard, stare placidly into the distance, then flutter as he lifts his head and begins to chant. "Om mani peme hung," he calls. "Om mani peme hung."
Two Americans, a couple from New Jersey, witness this spectacle and are entranced. The man, after much prodding from his wife, shyly approaches the yogin and says to him, "That is a magnificent sound you just made. Is it a song?"
"It is mantra," he answers in stilted English.
The man and woman go aaahhh and nod their heads at one another. "What does it mean?" the husband asks.
"My mantra purifies the six realms of samsara," the refugee tells them. "It speeds gods, demigods, humans, animals, hungry ghosts, and hell beings alike on the path to enlightenment."
The Americans are suitably impressed, and return satisfied to their rooms in the city. Later that night, though, the man realizes that he has not learned the meaning of the mantra. The next day he returns to the square to find the yogin sitting in the same spot, chanting as he did the day before. "Tell me, what does your mantra mean?" he asks.
The blind man replies "Om, with its three letters A, U, and M, is like the perfect body, mind, and speech of the Buddha. Mani is the precious jewel of compassion; peme is the lotus which rises from the mud of ignorance, yet is not sullied by it. Hung is the infinite in the finite. To recite this mantra is a great blessing, and speeds me along the path to enlightenment."
The man goes aaahhh and nods his head to himself. He returns to his room and waits for his wife to return from her day’s adventures. But later that night he ponders what he really learned: that om has three letters, that mani is a jewel and padme (as the word the Tibetans pronounce "peme" is written) a lotus, and that hum (the Tibetan’s "hung") is an inherent contradiction. The next morning, when he boards his plane to Newark, he has passed his final judgment on the blind man: though he may be a great practitioner of Buddhism, he is a silly, superstitious man, and has grown far too fond of pretty words.
What are we to make of the fable above? Is it the story of a Westerner hastily passing judgment on a tradition he does not understand? Certainly it is. The study of Tibetan Buddhism is the effort of a lifetime—perhaps several—and a non-practicing Christian interloper from Hoboken is hardly qualified to pontificate on the matter. (For the moment we will say nothing of an American college student who has merely read a few books on the subject).
Yet is it...