Mantras are sacred sounds that are believed to possess supernatural powers. The word "mantra" is a Sanskrit word, which probably means "that which protects (tra) the mind (man)."
Mantras are practiced especially in Tibetan Buddhism, where they are believed to embody the power and attributes of particular deities. The best known mantra is that of the beloved deity Avalokiteshvara: Om mani padme hum. Tibetan Buddhists chant mantras repeatedly as a part of meditation, often with the aid of mala beads for counting.
In addition to invoking deities and providing supernatural power, mantras are often used for protection from evil and misfortune. They are chanted during large public rituals to avert collective danger and in private rituals to protect individuals against illness or other misfortune. For example, every summer in Kyoto, Japan, children sit in a circle and pass around a large rosary to invoke the protection of the bodhisattva Kshitigarbha, guardian of children.
Protective rites play an even greater role in the Mahayana and esoteric Buddhist traditions, found primarily in East Asia and Tibet. In these regions, especially in Tibet, dharanis and mantras are widely used in exorcistic and protective rites. Dharanis are statements of doctrine or adoration believed to have spiritual power when chanted. Mantras are shorter statements, often just single words, that are believed to contain the same power. In both cases, their power derives not as much from their content as from their invocation of the gods and the frequent exclamations, which are believed to frighten away evil spirits. One common dharani is the Dharani of Removing Disasters, which translates as follows:
Adoration to all the Buddhas!
Adoration to the Teaching that knows no obstructions!
Thus: Om! Khya khya khyahi khyahi (speak, speak)!
Hum hum! Jvala jvala prajvala prajvala (blaze, blaze)!
Tistha tistha (up, up)!
Sphata (burst, burst)!
One who is quiescent!
To the glorious one, hail!
- "Buddhism." Encyclopedia Britannica Premium Service.
- Sacred Texts Archive: The Dharanis.
- Meher McArthur, Reading Buddhist Art: An Illustrated Guide to Buddhist Signs and Symbols (Thames & Hudson, 2004), 62.