Sanskrit vs. Tibetan mantras

topic posted Tue, June 24, 2008 - 9:45 PM by  Padma
Having recited and translated Tibetan sadhanas for many years, though admittedly with no real experience of them, I have observed innumerable mantras of all different sorts. The Tibetan lamas I have asked all have various explanations of their functions, usually following classical scriptural commentaries on different types of mantras, but I have heard very little information regarding their actual function and how they accomplish that function, in practical terms.

It seems that, according to the view prevalent among Tibetan practitioners of mantra, exact pronunciation is of little importance. What is important, is the devotion exercised while reciting the mantra. This is usually exemplified by the story of the Tibetan Kilaya practitioner who lost his powers when he followed the advice on proper pronunciation given to him by an Indian scholar. But if the mantras are only a support for devotion, then wouldn’t it be mostly irrelevant what syllables one is chanting? And why then the need for so many millions of mantras? Has anyone noticed the prevalent insanity of striving for maximum quantity thereby sacrificing most quality rendering the practice not only largely ineffective, but even harmful. (When one curses tantric practices for being so foolish and ineffective and leaves to go and at least have some fun in samsara.)

Now, on the other side of the Himalayas, Indian sources say that mantras should be pronounced perfectly, and that the resonance thereby generated affects the subtle energies in the practitioner’s neurological system. To me, this sounds much more reasonable and scientific than the blind-faith system promoted by the Tibetans. I always imagined that Buddhism would be a very scientific and rational system, until leaving the Tibetans after many years disappointed. To be fair, so long the bhakti for a real master was there, the Tibetan practices were effective. Unfortunately that bhakti could not survive the trap of the Tibetan scholastic system into which I was put, against my wishes, which gave huge emphasis on intellectual speculation while discouraging meditation (!!!). Suffering a terrible broken heart, I departed from my Tibetan masters to find methods that might be effective in relieving the sufferings of a great sinner.

Can someone please clarify the apparent discrepancy between these two systems of mantra recitation? Furthermore, can someone clarify the spelling, pronunciation, meaning, and intended neurological effects of mantras such as:

A / AH

This message has been posted concurrently in the Tantra tribe to receive responses from both quarters.
posted by:
  • Unsu...

    Re: Sanskrit vs. Tibetan mantras

    Wed, June 25, 2008 - 12:42 AM
    Hello and welcome,

    Transliteration of Sanskrit to the English alphabet has been around longer than transliteration of Tibetan to English and so sometimes there will be vars spellings - think ~fonix~.

    Some Hindu Yogis are sticklers on correct pronunciation of Sanskrit, others are not, it is not universal.

    In the Tibetan Tradtions, meditation is only part of the process, there is also the need to actually study things like the Four Noble Truths, Emptiness, etc. to transform the mind.

    The ego typically shops around until it finds something that does not disagree with it - nobody said it would be easy.

    A few links you might enjoy...

    I like this little story from the last link...

    The True Sound of Truth...

    An old story speaks about a similar problem. A devoted meditator, after years concentrating on a particular mantra, had attained enough insight to begin teaching. The student's humility was far from perfect, but the teachers at the monastery were not worried.

    A few years of successful teaching left the meditator with no thoughts about learning from anyone; but upon hearing about a famous hermit living nearby, the opportunity was too exciting to be passed up.

    The hermit lived alone on an island at the middle of a lake, so the meditator hired a man with a boat to row across to the island. The meditator was very respectful of the old hermit. As they shared some tea made with herbs the meditator asked him about his spiritual practice. The old man said he had no spiritual practice, except for a mantra which he repeated all the time to himself. The meditator was pleased: the hermit was using the same mantra he used himself -- but when the hermit spoke the mantra aloud, the meditator was horrified!

    "What's wrong?" asked the hermit.

    "I don't know what to say. I'm afraid you've wasted your whole life! You are pronouncing the mantra incorrectly!"

    "Oh, Dear! That is terrible. How should I say it?"

    The meditator gave the correct pronunciation, and the old hermit was very grateful, asking to be left alone so he could get started right away. On the way back across the lake the meditator, now confirmed as an accomplished teacher, was pondering the sad fate of the hermit.

    "It's so fortunate that I came along. At least he will have a little time to practice correctly before he dies." Just then, the meditator noticed that the boatman was looking quite shocked, and turned to see the hermit standing respectfully on the water, next to the boat.

    "Excuse me, please. I hate to bother you, but I've forgotten the correct pronunciation again. Would you please repeat it for me?"

    "You obviously don't need it," stammered the meditator; but the old man persisted in his polite request until the meditator relented and told him again the way he thought the mantra should be pronounced.

    The old hermit was saying the mantra very carefully, slowly, over and over, as he walked across the surface of the water back to the island.

  • Re: Sanskrit vs. Tibetan mantras

    Wed, June 25, 2008 - 8:15 AM
    There are very few Tibetan mantras-- almost all are in Sanskrit.
    There are mantras in Bon tradition which are in the language
    of Zhang Shung, there are also a few mantras in the language
    of Odyana. But you will notoce also, on the "other side of the
    mountains" that that Tamils don't typically use sanskrit mantras
    but use Tamil mantras.

    Also you will note that although there is "correct and proper Sanskrit
    pronunciation", there are regional differences-- accents if you will.
    So, you sometimes hear the pronunciations you mention even in India.
    For example, "hung" is the most technically coreect pronunciation of hum,
    that is not a Tibetanism as the "m" in not labial, but nasal (same with om).

    Similarly, there are two main dialects of Hebrew: Sephardi and Ashkanazi,
    both use the same alphabet, same words, pronounced differently. Tibetans
    pronounce Vajra as Bendza. This isn't a problem, the meaning is the same.
    So correct pronunciation of Sanskrit mantras with a Tibetan accent is that
    pronunciation closest to the way one's master pronounces it, which in turn
    would be closest to the way his or her master pronounced it-- and so on
    back through the lineage. So you have blessing of speech. For this reason
    Tibetan is still typically used as the liturgical language in tantra. The English
    translation doesn't carry the blessing yet.

    So I disagree that mantra in Tibetan tradition is only support of devotion.
    But, recognition of mantra as sacred speech is dependent on having
    either experience of emptiness or devotion. Having recited several million
    mantras myself, I can only confirm the power of the ones I've practiced.
    And remember, the monastic-academic model is not the only option
    within Tibetan tradition. We have our yogi-hermits who are lineage holders,
    and awareness-holders.
    • Unsu...

      Re: Sanskrit vs. Tibetan mantras

      Wed, June 25, 2008 - 3:01 PM

      Small correction on Bonpo mantras, there is some attempted standardization afoot and it should be Zhang-zhung (no "s").

      I seem to remember one Master saying that if you see treat your Master like a dog, the teachings are as worthless as rotten food. If you treat your Master like a friend, the teachings nourish like fresh food. If you treat your Master like a deity, the teachings are divine nectar.

      I can see how the same applies to practice an mantra repitition.
  • Re: Sanskrit vs. Tibetan mantras

    Wed, June 25, 2008 - 10:42 PM
    The problem seem to be more with the english translations from either Tibetan or sanskrit.

    Tibetan is a distinct language, however it evolved from Sanskrit and while tibetan sustains many of the 4000 grammatical rules laid out by Panini; the phonetic representations are only somewhat similar. Tibetan likewise has many borrowed words as you would expect from the original Sanskrit, however, their are differences in pronunciation as you would expect.

    Mantra and baja are however written in either script within Tibetan Buddhism, most often we see the Sanskrit vocabulary written in the Devangari script.

    Om is more correctly Aum, however, grammatically speaking [a] next to [u] may become [o] due to the sandhi rules of Sanskrit.

    the 'letter' [a] in Sanskrit and in Tibetan to my limited understanding is consider to be underlying. Kind of the dharmakaya essence of all sounds. It is thus supposed in all 'letters'.

    [A] is [a] unless their is a slight echo called anasvara making it ah. To make it more complicated short a or [a] is sometimes a long a and is transliterated as a capital [A] or [a} with a dash diacritic above it.

    Hum becomes Hung because the m should have a visarga or dot diacritic beneath it which gives it a slight echo. Having it as hu[ng] shows that it is also nasalised.

    Soti and Swasti, are probably different words. Swasti is actually Svasti as in Svastika and means good luck or auspicious

    Soha and Swaha, actual Svaha mean so be it or as it is; like the pagan 'so mote it be' or the Hebrew 'amen'. wa is actually va and is pronounced with a slight [f] sound with a intialsound that falls somewhere between w and v, which is probably why it is transliterated as a w.

    Phat is pronounced 'pay' with a sharp unvoiced aspirant [p] and a [soft alveolar t at the end, 'i think'!].

    In any case thats about all I can probably say. I don't speak fluent Tibetan and have only been studying sanskrit at uni for six months.

    Much kindness,
  • Re: Sanskrit vs. Tibetan mantras

    Thu, June 26, 2008 - 1:09 PM
    Of these, it is my understanding that only correct pronunciation of Om and Phat are of any consequence. Om - or the more phonetically correct Aum - is important because you are calling upon the power of all that is, and if you mispronounce it you are only calling upon part of is. Iz is very particular that way you see. Phat is important because if you say it correctly, kind of like saying 'pay' while coughing, it can be a very potent antidote for mental sinking, which is an obstacle of course to the attainment of tranquil abiding. If you say it like it rhymes with fat you may merely end up with an emanation of Hotei in your lap, heavy karma indeed...
  • Re: Sanskrit vs. Tibetan mantras

    Sat, June 28, 2008 - 4:31 AM
    Thank you all for your insights. I will continue my practical research into mantras. I have faith in the classical methods of Tantra, but question the approach taken by most Tibetans, though of course it certainly works for some.

    It seems Kulavadhuta Satpurananda has posted on the pronunciation of PHAT in the practical tantra tribe. Perhaps the Cool Avadhuta would be gracious enough to post here some more clarification on the science of mantras.

    To quote his post:
    PHAT, the seed-syllable mantra of vanquishing evils and obstacles.

    Proper pronunciation:

    PHA should be pronounced like FAW (like awe and not like aa). PH like F should come from the lips with a stress on H to make the exhale pronounced.

    T should be pronounced with the tongue tip touching the hard palate and the pronunciation taps in heart centre.

    PHA starts gushing out air sucked out from heart and ends up in T with a mantra lock in heart as well as a lock in the chi point (three fingersbreadths down from navel). The mantra is arising from heart and getting sealed back into the heart with a round breathing. Together with it don't forget to stamp your left heel on the ground with the pronouncement. It gives immense courage in mind. The mantra is connected to the left nadi through heart earthing through the left heel giving a shoot-up of energy to the head.
    • Re: Sanskrit vs. Tibetan mantras

      Sat, June 28, 2008 - 7:08 AM
      Well, that's certainly interesting and does speak to
      the intensity that yje syllable represents, but it has
      nothing to do with Buddhism.

      Some Hindu might want to post here, but unless
      what they have to say is relevant to Tibetan Buddhist
      view, they'll likely get deleted.
    • Reality check

      Sat, June 28, 2008 - 1:48 PM
      Some are tortured with initiation rites,
      others say 'hum', 'phat' and always count their rosary,
      others eat shit, piss, blood, semen and meat,
      others meditate the yoga of channels and winds,
      but all are deluded
      - Virupa
      • Re: Reality check

        Sun, June 29, 2008 - 8:21 AM
        >but all are deluded
        > Virupa

        I'm assuming this comes from some collection of dohas or caryagiti. The apabhramsa songs/poetry of the mahasiddhas is something I'm becoming increasingly interested in.

        can you tell me where this lil' diddy is from?