What do mantra syllables mean?

Here is a description of the meanings of various Sanskrit syllables, from a text called “The Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom” (translated by Conze). Our author describes the meaning of various Sanksrit syllables in the context of this Pranjnaparamita Tradition. Some of my Buddhist friends pay close attention to the practice of Mantra Recitation. So, for their benefit (and my own), I share this section of the Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom along with some basic information about Sanksrit pronunciation..

Sanskrit Pronunciation

Before we learn about the syllables, we’ll have to learn how to pronounce these things. But, before we engage in learning about proper pronunciation, I’d like to share a little story:

A HERMIT AND A MONK…

A monk visited a hermit, who lived alone on an island doing retreat. The hermit had given himself three years to complete chanting ten million of the powerful six-syllable mantra of the Compassionate Buddha. The hermit had been told that attaining this level of practice would awaken his yogic powers. The mantra was “OM MANI PADME HUM”.

The monk listened as the hermit did his mantra and, with the best intention in the world, leaned over to him and whispered:

“I think you have got the pronunciation wrong. This mantra should be chanted this way…” and he proceeded to demonstrate. The hermit listened attentively and then watched as the monk walked back to his boat to leave the island.

Ten minutes later when the boat was halfway across the river the monk heard his name being called, and looking around, he spied the hermit and heard him call:

“Listen to this, have I got it right now?” and the hermit proceeded to chant the same mantra but with the monk’s intonation. Astounded, the monk turned around and saw the hermit walking on the water next to his boat. In that instant he realized that the hermit’s faith and sincerity had given his mantra recitation far more power than he had realized.

As you will see, the story state that what counts more is the faith and sincerity in reciting the mantra. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t strive hard to do our best to recite them properly, but let’s not worry too much about it.

Vowels

ū “oo” in “mood”
u “u” in “put”
longer 
(no good approximation)
ī “ee” in “teeth”
i “i” in “bit”
ā “a” in “star”
a “u” in “but”

Consonants

ka “k” in “skill”
ṅa “ng” in “lung”
ca
ña
ṭa
ṇa
ta “th” in “thumb”
na “n” in “now”
pa “p” in “spill”
ma “m” in “mail”

** All of the above information and audio comes from:learnsanskrit.og

Syllable Meanings

Subhuti, the Dharani-doors are the great vehicle of the Bodhisattva,
the great being.

Which are they?

The sameness of all letters and syllables,
the sameness of all spoken words,
the syllable-doors,
the syllable-entrances.

What then are the syllable-doors,
the syllable entrances?

  1. The syllable A is a door to the insight that all dharmas are unproduced from the very beginning (ādy-anutpannatvād);
  2. RA is a door to the insight that all dharmas are without dirt (rajas)’,
  3. PA is a door to the insight that all dharmas have been expounded in the ultimate sense (paramārtha);
  4. CA is a door to the insight that the decease (cyavana) or rebirth of any dharma cannot be apprehended, because all dharmas do not decease, nor are they reborn;
  5. NA is a door to the insight that the Names of all dharmas have vanished; the essential nature behind names cannot be gained or lost.
  6. The syllable LA indicates that all dharmas have transcended the world (loka); because the causes and conditions of the creeping plant (latā) of craving have been utterly destroyed;
  7. DA is a door to all dharmas because “tamed” and “taming” (dāntadamatha) have been circumscribed;
  8. BA indicates that the Bonds have departed from all dharmas;
  9. DA that the tumult (damara) of all dharmas has vanished;
  10. SHA that no attachment (shañga) in any dharma is apprehended; they are neither attached nor bound.
  11. The syllable VA is a door to all dharmas because the sound of the paths of speech (vākpathaghosha) has been quite cut off;
  12. TA because all dharmas do not depart from Suchness (tathatā);
  13. YA because of the nonapprehension of any fact (yathāvad);
  14. SHTA because of the nonapprehension of a support (shtambha);
  15. KA because of the nonapprehension of an agent.
  16. The syllable SA is a door to all dharmas because of the nonapprehension of sameness (samatā); they never stray away from sameness;
  17. MA because of the nonapprehension of Mine-making (mamakāra):
  18. GA because of that of motion (gamma);
  19. STHA because of that of subsistence (sthāna);
  20. JA because of that of birth (jāti).
  21. The syllable ŚVA is a doorway to all dharmas because of the nonapprehension of a principle of life (śvāsa);
  22. DHA because of that of the Realm of Dharma (dharmadhātu);
  23. ŚA because of that of calming-down (śamatha)
  24. KHA because of that of the sameness of space (kha)
  25. KSHA because of that of extinction (kshaya).
  26. The syllable STA is a door to all dharmas because each dharma is fixed (stabdhaī) in its place, and never leaves it  ;
  27. JNA because cognition (jñāna) cannot be apprehended.
  28. RTA because mortality (mārtya) cannot be apprehended;
  29. HA because a root cause (hetu), and
  30. BHA because breaking-up (bhañga) cannot be apprehended.
  31. The syllable CHA is a door to all dharmas because glamour (chaver apy)
  32. SMA because remembrance (smarana);
  33. HVA because true appellations (āhvāna);
  34. TSA because will-power (utsāha) cannot be apprehended;
  35. BHA because things and persons are not apprehended each as one solid mass (ghana).
  36. The syllable THA is a door to all dharmas because of the nonapprehension of fabricated appearances (vithapana);
  37. NA because strife (rand) has departed, no one goes or comes, stands, sits or lies down, or makes any discriminations of this kind;
  38. PHA because no fruit (phala) is apprehended;
  39. SKA because no Skandhas are apprehended;
  40. YSA because no decay (ysara =jarā) is apprehended.
  41. The syllable ŚCA is a door to all dharmas, because of the nonapprehension of good conduct (ścarana);
  42. TA because of the nonapprehension of the other shore;
  43. DHA because of the nonapprehension of unsteadiness. In their ultimate and final station dharmas neither decrease nor are they reborn.

Conclusion

No letters or syllables are in conventional use except the foregoing. And why? For no word that is not composed of them is used when anything is conventionally expressed, talked about, pointed out, written about, made manifest or recited. Simply like space should one pursue all dharmas. This, Subhuti, is called the entrance into the door of the Dharanis, the entrance into the exposition of the letters A, etc. Any Bodhisattva who cognizes this skill in the letters A, etc. will not be tied down by any sounds, he will accomplish everything through the sameness of all dharmas, and he will acquire the skill in the cognition of sounds.

Twenty advantages should be expected for a Bodhisattva who, after having heard this Seal of the entrances into the letters A, etc., will learn it, bear it in mind, recite it, study it and methodically demonstrate it to others. Which are the twenty?

  1. He will be mindful, clever, intelligent, steadfast, modest, wise, and inspired.
  2. He will acquire the Dharani-doors with little trouble.
  3. He will not be assailed by doubts.
  4. He will have no uncertainties.
  5. Soft words do not win him over, harsh words do not upset him, and he will be neither haughty nor dejected.
  6. He will act properly in accordance with circumstances.
  7. He will be skilled in sounds;
  8. in the skandhas, elements, sense fields, Truths, and conditioned coproduction;
  9. in the root-cause, in conditions, in the true nature of dharmas;
  10. in the cognition of the higher and lower faculties of others;
  11. in the cognition of the thoughts of others;
  12. in the cognition of the various kinds of wonderworking powers;
  13. in the cognition of the heavenly ear;
  14. in the cognition of the recollection of former births;
  15. in the cognition of decease and rebirth;
  16. in the cognition of the extinction of the outflows;
  17. in the exposition of what can be and what cannot be;
  18. in going out and coming back;
  19. in the postures; and
  20. he will also become skilled in sense of shame and dread of blame.

These twenty advantages he will acquire. Also this entrance into the Dharani-door of the letters A, etc. is the great vehicle of the Bodhisattva, the great being, and that also in consequence of taking nothing at all as a basis.

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