Sarah Conover has been a Buddhist practitioner for nearly three decades. She’s ready to answer your questions about the faith. What do you want to ask a Buddhist? Fill out the form below or submit your question online.
Do you meditate? If so, is there a mantra you use?
The answer to your first question is easy: Yes, I meditate every day at least one hour, and I study Buddhism daily too. Meditation, however, is the center of my practice, my daily touchstone of reflection, the necessary pause of activity and distractions that dog us all in the modern world. (I believe that if the Buddha were alive today, he would need to add email to the list of human universals of suffering and stress known as dukkha in Buddhism).
Do I use a mantra in the commonly held connotation of the word? Not exactly, but more on that later. First of all, what is your definition of a mantra, and what would your aim be in using mantras?
For me, the word mantra is synonymous with the concept of repetitive chants and/or prayer utilized by almost all religious systems—whether the act is directed to a supreme being or not. Although we think of mantras primarily connected to Hindu traditions, historically and cross culturally they appear to be universal. A mantra can be auditory, visual or both: a repetition of sound, words, symbol and/or thought. Religious traditions use them to cultivate spiritual wisdom and focus; many use mantras as well as objects of attention for solace and equanimity. In Buddhism, since a calm mind is a necessary condition for skillful action in the world, mantras serve both functions.
In my view, chants and prayers with the aid of a counting rosary, common to both Eastern and Western religious traditions, is a form of mantra use. Judaism, Christianity, Taoism, Jainism and Sikhism have longstanding traditions of repetitive prayers. I would even argue that the recitation of the Quran by Muslims (some of whom may not understand the words but nonetheless experience their spiritual power) functions much like religious mantras.
Although some Buddhist denominations now planted the West—like Mindfulness Meditation—have taken a secular turn and don’t instruct the chants and prayers of their original Dhamma practices, there are still many Buddhist traditions rich in visual and auditory mantras. If you’ve ever seen prayer flags poking out of stupas in the Himalayas—relying on the wind to carry their sacred messages—or prayer wheels turned by human hand at temples, you’d recognize that Tibetan Buddhism leans heavily on visual and symbolic mantras to deepen teachings. All ancient Buddhist traditions, from Korea to Sri Lanka, practice varying degrees of chanting and prayer.
Since attending my son’s ordination as a monastic in Thailand last June, I’ve become interested in traditional Theravada Buddhist prayers and chants. Somewhat like the 5-times-a-day salat of the Quran, the chanting at a monastery punctuates the hours from pre-dawn until late evening, consecrating each day and infusing it with a reminder of life’s sanctity. Many serious students of Buddhism in the West—myself included—are not familiar with the chanted prayers, nor do we appreciate their potential for establishing the teachings of the Buddha more firmly in our lives. On my very first day at the monastery, I began to take notice and this important aspect of the Dhamma that I’d failed to take advantage of.
After the monks went on their 6 a.m. house-to-house barefoot alms round, they gathered in the main hall to hear a Dhamma talk and to chant for an hour before eating. Many lay people in the community join them daily in the morning and evening for chanting, teachings and meditation.
As an impatient Westerner (I’m working on that challenge) and somewhat of a foodie, I couldn’t help but consider the warm rice and curries in the monk’s bowls getting cold and unappetizing. This, their one meal of the day! Sitting on the marble floor facing the monks and a statue of the Buddha, I located an English-Thai translation of the chants, and a kindly person nearby directed me to the morning offerings. Seven pages and a full hour later, the monks, the laity, and finally me, had paused long enough, had refocused our attentions to what was most important: the Dhamma teachings and the generosity of the community to support the teachers.
A few weeks ago I discovered that Spokane now has its own Thai Forest Temple, Spokane Wat Dhammaram (just south of town off of Highway 195). All are welcome to this very modest temple that looks much more like a Palouse farmhouse than a winged-roof Thai temple. They don’t have alms round on the prairie, rather they hold a daily service at 10:30am for the monks’ single meal of the day, brought to them mostly by Spokane’s Thai community but visitors can show their good manners by bringing food offerings too.
My visit felt like a mini return trip to Thailand. After the chanted prayers and the Dhamma talk, I was not only given as much food as I could eat by the congregation, but the Abbot handed me a Thai/English chanting book. I’m delighted to learn and practice and consider some of the traditional chants, not just for return visits to the Wats in Spokane and Thailand, but for a refocusing of my attentions at home.
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