Ramana Maharshi’s meeting with a master of Sanskrit and non-dual philosophy (Vedanta) named Ganapati Muni, speaks to the effectiveness of chanting as an avenue for awakening.
At the time, Ramana had been living in silence for 11 years in a cave on a mountain (Arunachala) in south central India. One hot fall afternoon, Ganapati Muni was in despair over his inability to achieve Realization despite enormous efforts.
He had spent many years visiting sacred places, performing ascetic practices, memorizing texts, reading extensively, arguing Vedanta philosophy, and performing mantras and invocations.
He rushed up the hillside to see the sage, now in his late twenties. Ganapati Muni fell at his feet, clasped them in his hands and said that despite all his efforts, he still did not understand what spiritual practice (tapas) was. He begged Ramana to tell him the nature of spiritual practice.
Ramana looked at him silently for about fifteen minutes and then said only two sentences, the last of which was “When a mantra is repeated, if one watches the Source from which the mantra sound is produced the mind is absorbed in That; that is tapas (spiritual practice)”.
Ganapati Muni was overwhelmed and awakened by this insight.
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Have chanted / done mantra practice at least occasionally for most of the last 20 years.
Mantra practice has meant different things at different times, and served different functions.
Wanted to write something about mantra practice.
What actual part it played remains an open question.
In the first century of the common era, (historian’s best guess) the Buddhadharma reached China. Mahayana presentation, so it came with mantras, in Sanskrit.
The Chinese believed that the Sanskrit mantras carried some powerful vibrational qualities which came from their sound, not just their meaning; thus mantras were not translated from Sanskrit into Chinese because their essence was untranslatable.
This belief (a meme) was passed down through the centuries and still exists in Mahayana Buddhism.
My first mantra (20+ years ago) was Vedic. ” Sri Ram Jai Ram Jai Jai Ram ”
Noticed that when chanted for 20 minutes in the morning, depression was warded off until after lunch. Valuable and significant, for that period when depression still occluded the mind.
Years later, Tibetan Buddhism provided a cornucopia of mantras.
Practice with visualization and the hundred syllable mantra of Vajrasattva dissolved a mountain of negativity, washing away a heavy interior darkness.*
Later still, during Pure Land practice, the mantras of Amitabha/Amita Buddha began as a kind of “insurance” in case awakening did not happen prior to the end of this life.
It developed into something else – a grinding stone which sharpened resolve to penetrate the self illusion no matter what.
Each recitation reinforced the determination to see practice through to the Gate.
Did chanting really make any difference beyond merely improving things within the context of the mind ? Would awakening have happened how and when it did, regardless ?
The story of Ramana Maharshi and Ganapati Muni describes nondual mantra practice.
The particular mantra is not referred.
The meaning of the mantra did not come up.
The esoteric vibration was not mentioned.
Seeing the nature of mind is what matters.
What is it that knows ?
Turns out mantra practice functions just like other kinds of practice,
for someone interested in awakening.
Many thanks to Gary Weber for this excerpt on chanting from his site: http://happiness-beyond-thought.com/disciplines/chanting.html
Citation for Chinese Buddhist history : http://buddhism.about.com/od/throughasiaandbeyond/a/chinahistory.htm
* Translation of 100 syllable mantra: http://2waterdroplets.wordpress.com/2009/12/29/translation-of-the-vajrasattva-prayer-100-syllable-mantra/
* Another very similar translation of the 100 syllable mantra: http://www.rigpawiki.org/index.php?title=Hundred_syllable_mantra
The Hum came from here: http://www.padmakumara.org/practices/images/mantra-vajra.jpg
A short description of Amitabha Buddha and the mantra from Wildmind : http://www.wildmind.org/mantras/figures/amitabha
Another take altogether on mantra practice: http://www.spiritvoyage.com/blog/index.php/10-reasons-to-chant-on-the-benefits-of-mantra-meditation/