Among the Buddhist mantras commonly used by Tibetans, the Buddha Shakyamuni mantra – om muni muni maha muniye soha – is one of the most popular. (Along with some others, like the mantras associated with Avalokitesvara and Green Tara.)
Many Tibetans recite this mantra every day, many times a day, while praying on their malas, or circumambulating or prostrating. (If you wish to experience this for yourself, you can learn how to visit Tibet here.)
Who was the Buddha Shakyamuni?
Although there are various Buddhas – such as Maitreya, the Future Buddha, or Amitabha, the Pure Land Buddha – it is the Buddha Shakyamuni that we mean when we say “the Buddha.”
Shakyamuni Buddha was, historically, a spiritual master who lived and taught in modern day India and Nepal in either the 6th or 5th century BCE, and who founded Buddhism. The name Buddha means the “awakened” or “enlightened” one, and after his own awakening, Shakyamuni taught a path by which others might also be awakened to the true nature of reality, and freed from suffering.
Before we explore the meaning of om muni muni maha muniye soha, you may want to know how Tibetans commonly pronounce it.
Video: How to Say the Buddha Shakyamuni Mantra
What Does Om Muni Muni Maha Muniye Mean?
One simple way to interpret the mantra is to consider that:
Shakyamuni’s mantra is a play on his name. Muni means sage. Maha means great. So the mantra reads “Om wise one, wise one, greatly wise one, wise one of the Shakyans, Hail!”*
Of course, the mantra, like all of the great Buddhist mantras used by Tibetans, signifies infinitely more than the words that comprise it. This is a classic case of the sum of the whole being much greater than its parts.
The great Nyingma scholar Mipham Rinpoche said:
It was through the force of discovering this dharani that the King of Shakyas himself attained enlightenment, and that Avalokiteshvara became the supreme of all the bodhisattvas. Through simply hearing this dharani, a vast accumulation of merit will easily be gained and all karmic obscurations will be purified, and when reciting it, obstacles will not occur. This has been taught in the abridged Prajnaparamita.
Other teachings say that by reciting this dharani only once, all the harmful actions you have committed throughout 800,000 kalpas will be purified. They say that it possesses boundless qualities such as these, and is the sacred heart-essence of Buddha Shakyamuni.
From the Rigpa Wiki
When we recite the Buddha mantra, we are expressing and embodying that heart-essence.
Here’s another interpretation from the Purify Mind site, this one using a variation – tayata om muni muni maha munaye soha – of the mantra:
The mantra of Shakyamuni Buddha could be said to be the essence of the Buddha, the essence of his enlightenment. It is in no way separate from the Buddha himself.
Mantras are said to carry this enlightenment essence in the very sound of the syllables themselves. It’s an energetic thing. So, translations can sometimes get in the way of the experience of the energy of the mantra if we focus on the so-called meaning of the words at the expense of simply experiencing the sound that is being generated.
Mantra has been described as “a creative sound considered expressive of the deepest essence of things and understandings” thus the recitation of the mantra “can evoke in a formulaic or even magical way” a transcendent state of mind and energy. Also, “mantra is the pure sound of enlightened speech.”
It is Sanskrit, not Tibetan. In fact, mantras are almost untranslatable. But, what we can do is interpret the syllables.
This is Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s interpretation of the Buddha’s mantra:
TA YA THA – it is like this
OM – The All-Knowledge of the three bodies of a buddha and of the infinite Buddha’s Holy Body, Speech and Mind. The knowledge of the two paths to enlightenment (Method and Wisdom), and of the two truths (Absolute and relative) that contain all existence within them.
MUNI – Control over the suffering of the three lower realms and over the wrong conception of the self-existent I.
MUNI – Control over the suffering of all samsara and over self-cherishing thoughts.
MAHA MUNIYE – Great control over the suffering of subtle illusions and over the dualistic mind.
SVAHA – May my mind receive, absorb and keep the blessings of the mantra, and may they take root.
I’ll finish with a quote from Lama Thubten Yeshe:
“Reciting a mantra…does not mean the mere vocal repetition of speech syllables. Many meditators know from experience that the act of reciting mantras transcends external sounds and words. It is more like listening to a subtle inner sound that has always inhabited our nervous system.”
Using the Mantra for Meditation
There’s a long, helpful guide to using the Buddha mantra for meditation at the Federation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition’s (FPMT’s) Osel Shen Phen Ling’s web site. Here’s an excerpt, below, but check out the whole page, too:
From your heart, generate the request to the Buddha that he grant you inspiration to follow the path to full enlightenment; make this request on behalf of all living beings who are trapped in samsara.
Rays of light stream from the figure of the Buddha before you. This light enters your body and quickly removes all negativities, obscurations and hindrances, freeing you to progress quickly on the path. Imagine that this light flows not only to you, but to all living beings situated in space around you. Imagine that they all receive such inspiration and blessings as you recite the name mantra of Shakyamuni Buddha as many times as possible.
tayata om muni muni maha munaye soha
More Resources on the Buddha Shakyamuni and his Mantra
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