Why are mantras so popular? What are the nine benefits of mantras? Why are mantras considered a complete practice? How do they work? What are they? This is a lot to cover, but with the help of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Kyabje Garchen Rinpoche, Mingyur Rinpoche, and Lama Zopa Rinpoche and Geshe Tsultim Gyeltsen we’ll try to unpack the gist.
Before hitting the hows and whys, it’s important to understand the benefits of mantra. They aren’t simply “stand-ins” for practice, for busy people who have no time for more elaborate meditations. They aren’t simply aspirations or wishes. Although it will require some unpacking — especially for those new to mantras — the essence of mantras is framed around nine benefits.
At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, His Holiness the Dalai Lama advised people to chant the Green Tara mantra because he said it would be “beneficial for effectively containing the spread of the virus.” He has asked people suffering from the disease to chant the Tara mantra, Om tare tuttare ture svaha, to maintain peace of mind and remain free from worries.
Dalai Lama chants Om Tare Tuttare Ture Soha:
We previously covered the “light-weight” benefits, such as concentration, proven health benefits, psychology, and even the effect of mantras on plant growth [Links below in “Mantra Resources”.] In this feature, we’re diving deeper into actual practice benefits to a Vajrayana practitioner, especially someone who engages in any form of Generation of a Deity visualization practice. With that in mind, let’s start with the top nine practice benefits of mantra in this context.
Kyabje Garchen Rinpoche: the nine benefits of mantras
The most eminent Kyabje Garchen Rinpoche explained the nine benefits in teaching on Vajrakilaya. To some extent, this relates specifically to the Vajrakilaya practice, but those who are familiar with deity-yoga practices (creation-stage visualization) — where you choose an aspect of Buddha to visualize in an enlightened form to represent “enlightened body”, chant the mantra to represent “enlightened speech”— will know that these nine benefits are universal. The language is highly visual since the mantras are normally chanted with an imagined visualization (healing light, offerings, and so on) to reinforce the illusory nature of phenomena.
In this context, Rinpoche explains:
“Mantra can be understood as:
1. The deity. Every mantra we recite emanates one deity. These deities then work for the benefit of beings.
2. Offerings. When the light rays radiate out from the mantra rosary during creation-stage visualization, each ray of light bears an offering goddess. Each of these hundreds of thousands of offering goddesses further emanates five goddesses who emanate still five more, and so forth, until space is completely filled with goddesses. All of these make offerings to the Buddhas.
3. Purification of obscuration. When the light rays radiate out a second time and touch all sentient beings, they purify beings’ obscurations. These obscurations are self-grasping, and the light rays are rays of compassion. The rays of love melt self-grasping like a hot sun melting snow.
4. Siddhi. When the light rays return and reabsorb to the deity, they bear siddhis in the form of blessings of the Buddhas/ enlightened body, speech and mind.
5. Blessings. Mantra brings about loving-kindness and compassion in the practitioner due to the blessings of the deity’s mindstream.
6. Mandala. When one has fully trained in the creation stage, reciting the mantra once will invoke the entire mandala. One no longer needs an entire sadhana text.
7. Enlightened activity. All of the four activities — peaceful, increasing, powerful and wrathful — are performed and accomplished through mantra.
8. A wish-fulfilling jewel. Whatever we need to accomplish, mantra will bring about.
9. Dharmata. When we meditate while reciting the mantra, conceptual thoughts are cut, and free from conceptual thoughts, we see the nature of the mind as emptiness. Since it allows us to see the nature of mind to be dharmata, mantra can be considered to be dharmata. Mantra cuts conceptual thought because it is sound-emptiness. Other sounds produce the graspings of attachment and aversion.
These nine benefits occur whenever you recite mantra. They apply equally to the mantras of all deities. This is the speech of Guru Rinpoche and is also found in the tantras.” 
The big question then becomes — when do we have time for mantras? We lead such busy lives, don’t we?
Mantra Resources on Buddha Weekly
- Our full special section on Mantras, over 40 features and videos.
- Theta brainwaves in meditation for health and cognition benefits, and how to achieve through mindfulness, repetition, sound, visualization, mantra
- How does Buddhist mantra actually work? Ten ways Mantra can tangibly transform our lives and our practice.
- Scientific Buddhist: Healing meditation, prayer and mantras? Do they work — according to research? Can we turn to mantras for help?
- Theta brainwaves in meditation for health and cognition benefits, and how to achieve through mindfulness, repetition, sound, visualization, mantra
- Mantra Part 2: Good Vibrations — Mantras in Buddhist Practice “Of what is the body made? Of emptiness and rhythm.” How does mantra work?
Chant mantras during daily activities
Bringing the mantras into your “daily life” is especially powerful. Mingyur Rinpoche, in a talk “I’m too lazy to start a meditation practice,” said [See Mingyur Rinpoche’s short teaching video below.],
“Try to join your spiritual life and your daily life together. That’s the best!” Chanting mantras during daily activities is one way to do this. He also coaches us to meditate and do mantras anywhere, while watching TV, standing up, sitting down, driving to work. “For example, if you are in the train, subway, you can meditate while you’re standing up!”
Kyabje Garchen Rinpoche — mantra wheel in hand
Nowhere is this better exemplified than in the example of Kyabje Garchen Rinpoche. He is rarely seen without a mantra wheel in his hand, spinning constantly even as he teaches, walks, travels, chats. A mantra wheel, or mani wheel, is a prayer wheel containing millions of mantas. You spin the wheel to symbolically send millions of mantras out to the world to benefit all sentient beings. His Eminence, at the age of 22, was imprisoned for 20 years after the Cultural Revolution. In the labor camp, one had to practice secretly, or face punishment — and mantra is ready-made for secret and silent practice. He is known for his vast compassion.
“There are some practitioners who have a strong aspiration to engage in practice and although they really want to practice, due to some karmas they have accumulated in the past, they did not have the opportunity to practice and they are under the power of someone else and so they cannot practice. For them, it becomes very important to look for skillful means to engage in practices.”
Mantra — “mind method”
Geshe Tsultim Gyeltsen wrote, in a commentary on Heart Sutra :
“In both sutra and tantra, the word mantra has the same connotation — protecting the mind.”
Mantra literally translates “mind vehicle” — “man” meaning mind and “tra” meaning method or instrument. It is, literally, “mind instrument” or “mind method.” Some teachers translate “Man” as mind and “tra” as protection. The way of mantra is called Mantrayana; “Yana” means vehicle. In Buddhism, vehicles are “methods” and practices: sutra vehicle, tantra vehicle, mantra vehicle (mind method vehicle.)
Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche explained the meaning of mantra in Nyung-na Teachings at Lawudo:
“The meaning of mantra is “guarding the mind.” Guarding it from what? From clinging, or attachment, and the view of this life.
“It means guarding the mind from attachment, the view of this life, and the three lower realms. It means guarding the mind from the whole suffering realm of samsara, which means all six realms, and from seeking and being bound to the blissful state of peace for self. It guards the mind, or in other words, it guards oneself. It means the same thing. It is related to guarding the mind but it means guarding you from all these problems and from binding yourself to the blissful state of peace. It also guards your mind from the impression of the subtle dualistic view, or she-drib, which is another name for obscurations to the objects of knowledge. The ignorance that believes in self-existence causes things to appear as truly existent.”
Aside from protection, it can be said that mantra also “fortifies” our mind. How? It helps us purify our minds by focusing on pure Dharma. It helps us remain mindful (right concentration) —in this case, mindful of the sounds of the mantra, and any visualization that goes along with it. It engages our mind at a profound level — its effect well supported in peer-reviewed study after study. (In some studies, for example, mantra and visualization practices are beneficial to people suffering from cognitive decline. See “Science of Medication: Peer reviewed studies prove…”)
Mantra: essence practice
It is taught that mantra is the “essence of the Enlightened Body, Speech, and Mind.” When we chant the Chenrezig (Avalokiteshvara, Guanyin) mantra Om Mani Padme Hum, we are invoking the compassionate energy — Enlightened Body, Speech, and Mind — of Chenrezig. Even if we don’t speak the mantra — for example if we spin a prayer wheel with the mantra, or simply mentally chant the mantra — the essence is the same.
This concept of “sound essence” is not unique to Buddhism. Mantra began with ancient Vedic beliefs, widened expansively in Hinduism and Buddhism, and is also found in other spiritual paths; for example, a Catholic, chanting “Hail Mary” with a rosary might invoke a similar effect — focusing the mind on what Holy Mary represents.
Mantra — not an excuse for laziness
It is this “essence” that makes mantra a valid “stand in” for daily Buddhist practice. No teacher advocates laziness, or “skipping practice” by simply chanting a few mantras. But, in those times where you genuinely have no time or alternative, mantra is the go-to practice for many of us.
Mingyur Rinpoche on “I’m too lazy to start a meditation practice”:
Brand mantra — a stolen concept is a good one
This “essence” idea is, conceptually, why marketers use the term “Brand Mantra.” I don’t point this out to diminish the value of spiritual mantra, but simply to illustrate “essence.” Marketing and advertising tend to borrow spiritual terms a lot; in co-opting the spiritual term, they are saying “the essence of the brand, it’s Brand Mantra, is X.” Usually, this is five words or less, a slogan: “The Real Thing” for Coke, “Ultimate Driving Machine” for BMW, “Homemade Made Easy” for Betty Crocker.
Mantra, in Buddhist practice, is far more profound. It literally empowers and impacts the mind at a far deeper level than even the catchiest marketing slogan. It literally is the essence of the deities essence. The essence of the essence? Literally. Om Mani Padme Hum is the essence of Avalokiteshvara; the essence of Avalokiteshvara is compassion for all sentient beings. By chanting “Om Mani Padme Hum” we are using our mind vehicle to activate compassion for all sentient beings.
Mantra is a complete practice?
So, one all-embracing definition of mantra is “essence of…” Essence of what? In various commentaries on the Heart Sutra, it is stated that the mantra Om Gate Gate Paragate Para Samgate Bodhi Soha is “the essence of the entire Heart Sutra.” [For a teacher commentary on Heart Sutra, please see “Video: Commentary on Heart Sutra” and this written commentary on Heart Sutra. ]
In the Heart Sutra is written:
“Therefore, the mantra of the perfection of wisdom, the mantra of great knowledge, the unsurpassed mantra, the mantra equal to the unequaled, the mantra that thoroughly pacifies all suffering, should be known as truth since it is not false. The mantra of the perfection of wisdom is declared:
TADYATHA [OM] GATE GATE PARAGATE PARASAMGATE BODHI SVAHA
“Shariputra, the bodhisattva mahasattva should train in the profound perfection of wisdom like that.”
Mantra — the simplest of practices, the most complete of practices
Mantra is — at the same time —the simplest essence of practices and the most complete of practices. Whether we treat mantra as a meditation practice, a commitment practice, a prayer, an aspiration, a purifying phrase, a mindfulness exercise, a healing wish, a desperate call for protection, or even as a lucky chant, it is clear that mantra is all things. It is, in essence, the complete package.
Mantra is said to be the Enlightened Mind and Body, as Enlightened Speech. Speech always has that “power.” We can visualize and comprehend all things from words.
Dharma and “words” most important Jewel?
Of the three Jewels in Buddhism — Buddha, Dharma and Sangha — the Dharma is always considered the most important. Why? Buddha taught the Dharma, and is world-honoured and respected for that. In the Buddhist analogy, Buddha is the Doctor who prescribed the cure for our suffering.
The Dharma, however, is the actual cure. Long after Buddha has “gone beyond” — “gone beyond is the literal translation of “Paragate” in the Heart Sutra — he left behind the universal cure to our suffering: the eight noble truths and his other teachings. The Dharma in all its wondrous forms: Sutra, Tantra and Commentary. And, Dharma are “words” just as Mantra are sounds. Mantra (sounds) are the essence of Dharma (words.
The final Jewel, the Sangha, is the “nurse” in our cure analogy. The Sangha are our supportive network of Bodhisattvas who help us on our quest to free all sentient beings from suffering. Vital support, wonderful support, but the Dharma is still the essence of the path. It is the Dharma that Buddha (the first Jewel) proclaimed, and it is the Dharma that the Sangha (the third Jewel) try to practice.
Mantra and words capture the essence of all
Aum (OM) is the most famous of mantras, and it forms the root of all mantras. It comes from ancient pre-Hindu spirituality, and is now common to many faiths.
So, it can be said, that mantra, even the simplest mantra, contains the essence of all Dharma.
Kyabje Zopa Rinpoche explains mantra as Dharma:
“Secret mantra is not only to guard your mind; it has many functions and benefits. Even the three-syllable mantra, OM AH HUM, or just one syllable has all these powers. For instance, the six-syllable mantra OM MANI PADME HUM, contains the whole path, the whole Dharma. There is not a single Dharma that is not contained in that mantra. MANI is method and PADME is wisdom.
“The whole path to enlightenment is divided into method and wisdom, so that is contained within this mantra. MANI refers to all the method and PADME to all the wisdom that enable you to achieve enlightenment. Somebody who knows the meaning of the mantra can recite this mantra one time and remember the whole path. In the short time it takes to hear this mantra you are reminded of the whole path to enlightenment and all the qualities of a buddha. It is said in the teachings to recite the six-syllable mantra, which is the essence of the whole Dharma.”
 Mirror of Wisdom by Geshe Tsultim Gyeltsen.
 H.E. Garchen Rinpoche Guru Yoga Teachings 2009 at Garchen Institute.
 “I’m too lazy to start a meditation practice” video teaching with Mingyur Rinpoche (video above.)
 Nyung-na Teachings at Lawudo by Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche
 Translated by Meghan Howard, November 2005, for the Vajrakilaya Drupchen at GBI.