Meditation 102: Japa

Next level meditation

Japa is the Sanskrit term for the meditation practice of chanting. It is a disciplined practice that requires the practitioner to chant a mantra (aka mantram) a specific number of times. In japa, we use a mala, which we often see sported as jewelry in the new age and yoga communities, but it has a deeper purpose than fashion. The mala is used to track the number of times we chant a mantra. For each bead in the mala, we chant our selected mantra once. Malas usually consists of 108 beads plus one "buddha" or "guru" bead, and sometimes spacer beads are added to make them more unique and beautiful looking. These spacer beads can also allow the practitioner to build breaks in to their japa meditation. The purpose of japa is to engage the senses in meditation and provide purification to the practitioner through association with sacred sound. Japa can also be used to help us deepen our relationship with whatever form of the Divine we choose.

In my previous blog about starting with breath awareness, we explored the importance of building a foundation in our meditation practice. Breath awareness meditation allows us to become more in touch with our bodies, to learn what observational awareness is, and begin the process of establishing one-pointed focus. In this practice we are not engaging but rather practicing a detached state of listening. More specifically, we do not usually engage the voice or touch in breath awareness meditation. We sit still, with eyes closed, in silence. In this way it helps us learn to move our awareness inward. I call japa next level meditation for a number of reasons: it builds on the establishment of one-pointed focus, it engages and mobilizes the senses, it is more disciplined than breath awareness meditation, and facilitates the acquisition of Godly qualities in the practitioner. Now, my experience and expertise is mostly with Sanskrit mantras from India so that is platform from which I am writing. I don't know a whole lot about the meaning behind most Buddhist mantras or other religious mantras/prayers but I suspect most of them invoke the quality of the deity they worship.

Many mantras are simply names of God. In the Bhagavad-Gita we learn that God is non-different from His name. So if we chant the names of God, whatever names they may be, we can deepen our relationship with that particular incarnation of the Divine. In the Hare Krishna tradition, for example, we chant Krishna's name to associate with Him or to invoke His transcendental qualities in our being and our lives.

Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna
Krishna Krishna Hare Hare
Hare Rama, Hare Rama
Rama Rama Hare Hare

The recitation of this mantra as a japa practice helps us rekindle and strengthen our connection with Paramatma, or the God that resides within our hearts (Divine intuition). This is the mantra I like to chant. My practice consists of 16 rounds of 108. So one round is 108 recitations, and I do that 16 times per day. Personally, I don't always sit and chant all my japa at once. I will take a break, but this is an imperfect practice. It is better to dedicate yourself to full completion of whatever prescribed number you have accepted. However, to chant mechanically in an effort to bang out your rounds is not devotional and provides no real benefit for the practitioner. So, personally I find it's better to break my rounds up into 4 so that I can chant with my full attention. 

I also like this explanation given by Gen Rinpoche, in his commentary on the meaning of OM MANI PADME HUM [a popular Buddhist mantra]:

"The mantra Om Mani Pädme Hum is easy to say yet quite powerful, because it contains the essence of the entire teaching. When you say the first syllable Om it is blessed to help you achieve perfection in the practice of generosity, Ma helps perfect the practice of pure ethics, and Ni helps achieve perfection in the practice of tolerance and patience. Päd, the fourth syllable, helps to achieve perfection of perseverance, Me helps achieve perfection in the practice of concentration, and the final sixth syllable Hum helps achieve perfection in the practice of wisdom.

So in this way recitation of the mantra helps achieve perfection in the six practices from generosity to wisdom. The path of these six perfections is the path walked by all the Buddhas of the three times. What could then be more meaningful than to say the mantra and accomplish the six perfections?

Even though this mantra does not seem to invoke names of any particular deity, it does invoke the transcendental qualities of the Buddha. 

So we can see then, two mantras from two different traditions achieve the same effects. We develop one-pointed focus [on the mantra] as we engage the senses in meditation practice. When we chant, we engage the voice (chanting the mantra), the hearing (hearing the mantra), the touch (touching the mala), and sometimes even the sight. We can look at a written version of the mantra we're chanting, or gaze upon a deity form that corresponds with the mantra to engage the sense of sight in japa practice. The number of rounds we commit to establishes discipline in our practice. If you have ever chanted for 2 hours straight, it's difficult. In my experience, the mind greatly resists this type of practice and will do everything in it's power to try and distract you. But gaining control of the mind and establishing discipline is the whole goal of yoga. Without discipline, we cannot develop Godly qualities. 

Sanctifying your meditation practice

Chanting is one of the 9 practices of Bhakti Yoga, or devotional yoga, which is a path intended to purify the senses, by engaging them in devotional service. Krishna says that if we can practice any of the 9 perfectly, we can achieve self-realization and escape the cycle of birth and death. In the Bhakti yoga tradition, we have reverence for our malas as they are tools that facilitate our spiritual evolution. We often use mala beads made from tulsi (aka tulasi) wood, which is a sacred plant in the Hare Krishna tradition. We cleanse our bodies (hands and mouth especially) before japa practice, we use a mala bag to hold our beads as we chant to prevent any chance of the mala touching unclean surfaces, and we never place the mala on the floor. [This is the main reason I don't recommend serious japa practitioners use their malas as jewelry.] It's good to sanctify all of our practices as best we can. Building a small alter to keep your meditation objects on is always a devotional practice, whether you practice Bhakti yoga or not.

Finding a mantra

I will end on the power of sound. Sound is vibration, and it penetrates matter in a way nothing else we know of does. I'm no quantum physicist but I'm pretty sure most, if not all, energetic frequencies give off a sound, even if it's inaudible to the human ear. This is the foundation of the power of mantra. The more we engage the senses in japa, the more we will transmute our personal energy field to match the high vibrational frequencies of the mantra. It's no different with positive affirmations. It's a good self-loving practice to look in the mirror and say something nice to yourself. With daily practice, you start feeling better about yourself. The vibration of the loving words penetrate your consciousness until you start to embody them. The same goes for mantras used in japa practice. That said, you can use any mantra you want. Some people receive mantras after initiation into a particular faith, some people just discover a mantra and decide to start using it. Above are the two mantras I have used in my many years of japa practice because they are vibrations that attracted me. You can explore and experiment with mantras from different traditions and see which vibrations call to you.  

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