Mantras are a strange beast within Buddhism. The tradition of mantras predates Buddhisn as a religion and goes all the way back to the early “Vedic religion”, that is the ancient devotional religion structured around the Vedas (precursors to Hinduis as we know it), but they’ve always occupied an awkward spot.
Recitation in Buddhism usually comes in the form of reciting sutras, which makes sense, because the tradition of passing down the teachings from teacher to student has existed from the beginning. Mantras do not fit this role since they are essentially nonsensical phrases, with esoteric meanings. The esoteric traditions in Buddhism such as Vajrayana in Tibet, and Shingon and Taimitsu (Tendai school) traditions in Japan tend to use them as a central practice,1 but in other non-esoteric traditions they tend to play a backup “support” role to help protect the Buddhist disciple or avoid specific calamities.
For example, here’s a certain mantra as found in a Rinzai Zen liturgy book I own. This is the famous Mantra of Light (kōmyō shingon, 光明真言), which reads in various languages like so:
|Sanskrit||oṃ amogha vairocana mahāmudrā maṇi padma jvāla pravarttaya hūṃ|
|Chinese||唵 阿謨伽 尾盧左曩 摩訶母捺囉 麽抳 鉢納麽 入嚩攞 鉢囉韈哆野 吽|
|Chinese romanization||Ǎn ā mó jiā wěi lú zuǒ nǎng mó hē mǔ nà luō me nǐ bō nà me rù mó luó bō luō wà duō yě hōng|
|Japanese:2||オン アボキャ ベイロシャノウ マカボダラ マニ ハンドマ ジンバラ ハラバリタヤ ウン|
|Japanese romanization||On abokya beiroshano makabodara mani handoma jinbara harabaritaya un|
Here’s an example of how it’s chanted in Japan (notice the Siddham letters, too):
What makes the Mantra of Light somewhat unusual within the word of mantras and esoteric traditions in Buddhism is how widely it’s been adopted. You will find it in many Buddhist traditions, even ones that are otherwise not interested in esoteric practices.
In fact, for a time in the late Heian Period of Japan, the Mantra of Light was propped up as a rival practice to the nembutsu in the Pure Land tradition particularly by a monk named Myoe (明恵, 1173 – 1232). An existing practice of scattering sand blessed by the Mantra of Light on the dead was a common funeral practice at the time, but Myoe tried to popularize it further by playing up its benefits in helping one to be reborn in the Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha.
It never quite worked as Myoe hoped, and the popularity of the nembutsu prevailed, but even today it’s common for Buddhist practitioners to chant both. I do in my home service for example. I happen to like the Tendai approach of “umbrella Buddhism” where meditation practices, Pure Land practices and esoteric practices are given roughly equal weight, with the Lotus Sutra as a kind of capstone.
Thus, reciting the nembutsu (pure land Buddhism) and the Mantra of Light (esoteric Buddhism) are both perfectly fine in my tiny little home service.3 For me at least, I chant the nembutsu for the benefit of others, and the Mantra of Light to reinforce my commitment to being a help to others (and less of a dickhead). That may not be the correct approach, but it’s a start.
Speaking of which what does the Mantra of Light actually mean? Like all mantras, they’re ostensibly nonsensical syllables, but deep with meaning in esoteric traditions. Often mantras are supposed to be recited while visualizing a specific image and holding your hands in a specific “mudra”. But the meaning is something shared between teacher and student. So, I don’t have a good answer for this. If you really want to know, consult a trusted teacher (in good standing!).
But it’s not necessarily to know the exact meaning either. The act of recitation is more important, or so I have been told. So, if you chose to recite the nembutsu, Mantra of Light, both, neither, that’s fine. Buddhism is a large toolbox, so try what works, and enjoy!
1 Interestingly enough, the Japanese word “shingon” as in the Shingon school, literally just means “mantra”.
2 Mantras are usually written in Japanese using katakana, given that they’re technically foreign words, but for ease of readibility, hiragana is also used.
3 Meditation has always been my Achilles Heel, but I still meditate from time to time.