summary of a teaching given by John Dupuche at the Interfaith Ashram, Warburton, January 2015
A mantra is a word or phrase or sentence, a ‘vocable’, something that is said. The term ‘mantra’ comes from two elements, ‘man’ from manas which means ‘mind’ and the suffix ‘tr’ which is an instrumental suffix. A mantra is therefore a tool of the mind, as distinct from a tool of the hand such as a knife. Any instrument is for a purpose, so too the mantra is designed to achieve an effect, but with the power of the mind.
The mantra is more interior than a hand-held tool, indeed, a mantra, properly speak, is the phonic form of a deity. A mantra is not just a vocable recited again and again in order to pacify the mind and free it from distractions. It is a form of the deity, which is received in initiation.
Thus, properly speaking a mantra cannot be obtained from a book. It is given to the disciple by the guru at the very core of the initiation process. It is a gift from guru to disciple, from the guru who has perceived the quality of the disciple. In giving the mantra that suits the disciple’s particular capacity, the guru also communicates his very being and indeed the whole tradition with which he, the guru, is identified. It is a gift from heart to heart, from mind to mind, the gift of the word.
Jesus of describes his own words in a most powerful way when he says: “The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life.” (Jn 6:63) Every word he speaks is a mantra, just as every act he performs is a sign, which speaks of God and forecasts the world to come. He is in his words; he is the Word who speaks his words. He is the Word who comes from the eternal silence of the One who speaks him. He is the Word of God and by hearing him we are taken into the immense silence of the One, that silence which is the fullness of sound.
The reciter eventually becomes the mantra. Again, the mantra is the phonic form of the guru but it is firstly the phonic form of the deity of whom the guru is the manifestation. To recite the deity’s mantra is to come into contact with the deity, indeed to become the deity. Thus there is ultimately no separation of mantra, deity and reciter. All are one. In this way the mantra, the tool, has produced its result.
The recitation of the mantra is done in complete stillness and is perfectly relaxed. Furthermore, it is an inspired act. If it is not inspired it will not achieve its effect. It will be just the mouthing of a sound, no more significant than the squawking of a parrot. But when it is inspired from above it leads to the above.
The mantra starts in silence, and the reciter perceives the beginning of the mantra, how it bursts forth, so to speak, from the silence. It is word out of silence. It then comes to an end, where the mantra leads to silence, the pregnant silence, which is fullness.
The mantra is that of one’s chosen deity (iṣtadevatā). Each person must find the deity, which most truly reveals them and frees them. For the Christian, this is the person of Jesus, the Word made flesh. But each person must find their deity, the one who touches them in the heart.
All words lead to the Word. All words are the expression of the Word; all mantras are the expression of the primordial Mantra.
The reciter lets himself or herself become identified with the mantra they recite, which must come from a valid and true tradition and from an authentic teacher. If it does not, they will be deformed by the mantra. It will injure them and not bring them benefit. Thus not any so-called mantra will do. The disciple must be without gullibility and discerning as regards the guru whose teaching and words they seek.
A mantra of particularly significance is so ‘ham which translates as ‘I am he’. That is, ‘I am the divinity whom I worship’. This can be easily misunderstood as a form of megalomania. However, properly understood it is a profound act of faith where the practitioner realises by his or her faith, namely by their deepest knowledge, that they are identified with their Deity, and that their Deity is the foundation of their lives, and that they themselves are the expression of that Deity. It is therefore an act of humility and devotion. By reciting this mantra the practitioner is identified with the Deity, such that there is but one ‘I’.
The phrase so ‘ham is related to the incoming (so) and outgoing (‘ham) breaths. It so happens that this process is sometimes spontaneously reversed, so that the in-coming breath is accompanied by the sound ‘ham’ and the outgoing breath by the sound ‘so’. This then becomes ‘haṃsa’, which means ‘swan’ (strictly speaking the Siberian goose). This term haṃsa acquires a symbolic importance. Just as the swan floats on the surface of the lake and from time to time immerses its beak into the water, so the practitioner essentially transcends this transient (samsāra) world but also takes part in it. The practitioner who achieves his or her identity with the deity is both transcendent and immanent to this reality, but principally transcendent.
This fits in with the teaching of Jesus who declares that his disciples are in the world but not of the world. (cf. Jn 17:14-16)
The term haṃsa then becomes a significant title, and we often hear of great teachers being called paramahaṃsa, laterally ‘supreme swan’
By reciting the mantra, the practitioner becomes immanent and transcendent, joining heaven and earth. He is his mantra, he is one with his guru and with the tradition and the deity. All is one.