Someone recently asked me whether or not it was important to pronounce mantras correctly. I was surprised to find that I hadn't written much on the subject - only some notes on pronunciation on my other website visiblemantra.org. In another essay on that website I distinguish three contexts for mantra use, and I'll use that framework here as well. There are mantras as used in Tantric rituals, mantras used in devotional settings, and informal mantras that people chant outside or any ritual or formal practice situation.
Let's start with a little background. Mantras as you may know were central to the ancient Vedic religion. The term mantra is first used for verses made up and declared on the spot in competitions associated with the sacrifices. Over time they were formalised and then collated into the collection known as the Ṛgveda. Although this collection itself was fixed around 1500 BCE the Vedic religion kept developing and mantras underwent changes, especially in the Sāmaveda and the Yajurveda, thought to have been composed during the period around 1200-800 BCE. In the Sāmaveda the mantras were set to tunes, and frequented had syllables called stobha added to fit different meters. In the Yajurveda the mantras were incorporated into instructions for performing the rituals - it was here that oṃ was used for the first time.
Brahmins were centred in the area of the Kurukṣetra (the realm of the Kuru's, near modern day Delhi) and did not begin to move east until quite late. In fact they saw the eastern Ganges valley (Johannes Bronkhorst calls this area Greater Magadha) as barbarous. This is probably because up to about the common era the dominant socio-political and religious forms were not Brahminical. In Greater Magadha the religious sphere was dominated by the Śramaṇa groups (the word means 'toilers' ) like the Jains and Ājivakas who had ideas and practices which were very different from the sacrificial religion of the Vedas. However both influenced each other, and it is possible to see that earliest Upaniṣads as showing the assimilation of ideas such as rebirth, karma, and ātman from the Śramaṇas.
The Buddha was born in Greater Magadha, and therefore would have been unlikely to have been influenced by Brahmins in his early life. However gradual migration of Brahmins eastward had continued, and they are frequently encountered in the Pāli Canon. Although the Magadhans did speak an Indo-Aryan language, their culture was different. Indeed Brahmins are often the subject of curiosity and fun in the texts, as though they were a novelty. One of the things that Brahmins did was chant mantras at special occasions, for which they expected to be paid. This custom struck the Buddha as unhelpful and he actually banned his monks from doing it - we presume that at least some of his monks were esrtwhile Brahmins. He also forbade two ex-Brahmin bhikkhus from putting the Buddha's words into 'chandos', literally: (poetic) 'meter'. The meaning of this passage is disputed amongst scholars, however from the context I take it to mean that the two monks wanted to turn the Buddha's words into regular verse like the Vedas. And he made it a vinaya offence to do such a thing.
So this is our starting point for Buddhist mantras. Many people point out that the early Buddhists did in fact record some texts, called parittas, intended to be chanted for protection from malign influences both mundane (snakes for instance) and supramundane (yakkhas). These are usually said to be a form of mantra, but I do not agree. My reading is that these were spells from an indigenous Magadhan magic tradition - given the subject matters I would say that we could see them as belonging to the various folk traditions which focused on yakkhas and other nature spirits. The use of parittas continues to the present day in Theravadin countries. A small number of the paritta texts have continued to be important in other traditions, although often in modified form, with the most notable additions being tantric style mantras! Sometimes we are fooled into thinking that because the texts that are chanted are themselves profound, such as the Karaniya Mettā Sutta, that parittas had some spiritual significance, but as parittas they are solely for worldly protection. There is some evidence that the Buddha tried to get his monks not to participate in local spiritual beliefs, but the persistence of these practices suggests that he did not entirely succeed.
The next development for Buddhist mantra was the dhāraṇi. I have written at more length on the origins, meaning and use of dhāraṇi's here before, so I won't say much now. Dhāraṇi's may well be associated with developments in the Gāndhāra area in the Northwest of India (what is now the Taliban controlled area of Pakistan). Originally a dhāraṇi may have been a memory aid such as the Arapacana acrostic. However the word is mostly used for phrases embedded in sūtras or whole sūtras, again, intended to be chanted for protection. Over time the word seemed to change it's meaning and it is not always clear what is it refers to. Later, in tantric contexts, dhāraṇis were used more like mantras as we know them now. In some Mahāyāna sūtras, the Golden Light for instance, dhāraṇi are used in connection with rituals which seem to have a Hindu flavour, suggesting that they represent the first stage of assimilation of outside elements. One of the things about dhāraṇis and dhāraṇi sūtras is that they tend to focus on one dhāraṇi at a time (although in the Lotus Sūtra there are lists of dhāraṇi spoken by several gods and demons one after another). At some point in this period mantras also came to be used as expressing devotion or faith in a Buddha or Bodhisattva - I'll say more about this below.
A seismic shift came after the end of the Gupta Empire. Some time in the 6th century a grand religious synthesis happened that combined elements of Buddhism, the old Vedic religion, the newer Vedantic religion, and aspects of the Śramaṇa and animistic traditions of Magadha. This weaving together of many strands was called appropriately enough "tantra", i.e. woven. Mantras now came into Buddhism in a form that we will recognise qua mantra. In fact mantra took centre stage along side meditation and puja. The mantras were different in form from dhāraṇi or paritta, and seem to owe something to the Yajurvedic tradition. Tantric texts are full of mantras, and for example a mantra accompanies every stage of the tantric ritual - the function being to make the ritual action potent. This idea is already found in the Vedic tradition, so we assume that's where it comes from.
So this is a potted history of the introduction of mantras to Buddhism. As I have said there are three main contexts in which we currently use mantras. In the Tantric tradition a mantra exists in a particular context. It is said that the first communication from the Dharmakāya Buddha consisted of mantra, mudra, and mandala (or images) in the context of a ritual anointing that mirrors a royal coronation. These three modes of communication represent the body, speech, and mind aspects of the Dharmakāya and are called the Three Mysteries. When we perform a tantric sadhana we are in theory recapitulating this original communication. It allows us to align our body, speech and mind with the Three Mysteries and become a Buddha "in this very life" as Kūkai used to say. Clearly here is it vital to reproduce everything exactly as it was done originally and in that case pronouncing the mantra correctly would be essential. To pronounce it incorrectly would be to garble the message, to rob it of any significance what-so-ever. In this I see some influence of the Vedic mantra traditions which had a very strong emphasis on accurate pronunciation. The Vedas were an oral tradition for something like 2000 years as the Brahmins eschewed writing well after the Buddha came along. The Vedas were divine and getting them wrong also was thought to rob them of their power to influence the gods. So in this context of sadhana it was originally important to pronounce the Sanskrit accurately.
However once Buddhism began to be transmitted outside India there were difficulties. Sanskrit has many sounds which are not found in other languages - true particularly of Central Asia, China, Japan and Tibet where the tantra took hold. It was very difficult for them, as it can be for us, to pronounce Sanskrit accurately. English pronunciation of Sanskrit has problems with retroflex letters, e.g. ṭ ṭh ḍ ḍh ṇ, and with nasalised vowels e.g. aṃ uṃ iṃ etc. And this is leaving aside the issue of regional variations within India! Pronunciation of mantras shifted with time to conform to local norms. So svāhā becomes soha in Tibet, and sowaka in Japan. Most Buddhists are therefore pragmatic about pronunciation. Sometimes you will here a story told of a hermit who was pronouncing his mantra wrong, and a travelling Lama called to see him. The Lama corrects the hermit and goes off on his travels. But as he leaves he hears the hermit calling him, and sees him running across the surface of a lake to ask again about the 'correct' pronunciation. The moral of course being that pronunciation doesn't maketh the saint. Funnily enough Donald Lopez, in Prisoners of Shangrila, has pointed out that this story was in fact told by Tolstoy at the end of the 19th century (read The Three Hermits online). It was a Russian folktale told about three Christian hermits. How did it come to be a Buddhist, and indeed Tibetan, story? My guess is that it was quoted in The Autobiography of a Yogi (p.309) by Paramhansa Yogananda, first published 1946, and from there into Buddhist circles via enthusiastic yogis.
This all raises the issue of transmission. Ideally we pronounce the mantra as it was spoken during the first anointing ritual by the Dharmakāya Buddha. Because pronunciation has shifted over time some of the mantras that come down to us are clearly corrupt - the best example to my mind is the Vajrasattva mantra were the Sanskrit has become quite badly mangled in places. So if we know any Sanskrit we will find it creates a cognitive dissonance to hear mangled Sanskrit in a mantra. There are two schools of thought about this. One is that we should pronounce it exactly as taught to us by our teacher - even if it is plainly wrong. The other is that if it's clear what the original Sanskrit was we should use that instead. How you view this will depend on your tradition, and indeed how traditional your teacher is. But consider that if the word padma is pronounced 'pema', then at some point someone got it wrong and what we are transmitting is simply a human error, not the mantra spoken by the Dharmakāya. If it doesn't matter then there are implications for our entire approach to lineage and transmission: they simply cannot be as important as they are made out to be. If it does matter how are we to reconstruct something which has been changing for 1000 years? Is it even possible?
The second main context for using mantra is devotional, ranging from large public rituals, down to individuals. The idea for this context came to me while reading Alexander Studholme's book The Origins of Oṃ Maṇi Padme Hūṃ. I have written two précis of relevant parts of the book on this blog - The Origin of oṃ maṇipadme hūṃ and The Meaning of oṃ maṇipadme hūṃ - and so again I won't go into detail. The main thing here is that this practice bears little resemblance to the tantric ritual and is closely associated with practices known as bringing the name (of the Buddha) to mind (nāmānusmṛṭi), and bringing the Buddha to mind (buddhānusmṛṭi). In the former case the root texts are the Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtras in which it is said that recalling the name of the Buddha Amitābha even once with faith will mean your next rebirth is in the pureland Sukhāvatī from where enlightenment is guaranteed. In the Karaṇḍavyūha Sūtra it says that the mantra oṃ maṇi padme hūṃ is in fact equivalent to chanting the name of Avalokiteśvara and that by chanting the mantra, we are in fact chanting the name, and can expect to be born in a kind of pureland.
This kind of practice is really a form of recollecting the Buddha which has roots going back to the earliest days of Buddhism - it appears in the very oldest parts of the Pāli Canon. Later, although before the canon was written down, the practice is formalised and one recollects the special qualities of the Buddha by reciting and reflecting on the words of the Buddhavandana - iti'pi so bhagavā arahaṃ sammāsambuddho vijjācaraṇasampano sugato lokavidū anuttaro purisadammasārathi satthā devamanussānaṃ buddho bhagavā ti. In this context what is important, what makes the practice efficacious is that we recollect the Buddha and call his name. So I conclude that accurate pronunciation is not essential in this context. However I would add that pronouncing someone's name accurately is a good practice. We all know how it jars when someone gets our own name wrong. So I would think that making an effort to pronounce the mantra correctly would be appropriate for anyone really devoted to a Buddha or Bodhisattva. Although the counter argument that such figures are always forgiving is almost always brought out at this point so as to excuse any fault on the part of the practitioner. I'm not convinced that absolution from faults was what was intended. Surely it is still up to us to make as great an effort as we can? Pronunciation is a realtively simple matter that very few people seem to bother with.
The last of the three contexts is informal mantra chanting. This means chanting a mantra outside of any formal ritual or devotional context. Perhaps we are seeking to ward off danger, or we just want to keep up our connection with the Buddha. More superstitious Buddhists use mantras this way for all kinds of mundane worldly purposes, just as paritta were used at the beginning. In this context pronunciation is as important as the previous context, i.e. it is not so vital as the tantric ritual, but could still be a worthwhile effort. I would add here that learning how to pronounce Sanskrit is not that hard (follow the link to my rough and comprehensive guides!), and focussing on pronunciation is an excellent mindfulness practice! Try really paying attention to what your vocal cords, mouth, tongue and lips are doing when you chant. Sanskrit is a beautiful language when pronounced well. Note also that Pāli has a sonority and rhythm all of its own, quite different to Sanskrit - it is less sibilant and the many double consonants give it a lilt like a Skandanavian language I find.
There is one thing left to say in this now over-long post. In the Western Buddhist Order, as you may know, we practice a visualisation meditation that includes chanting a mantra, usually while visualising the letters of the mantra. However we say that this is not a tantric sadhana, because for good reasons Sangharakshita decided not to take tantric Buddhism on it's own terms. There are of course members of our order who have received tantric initiation and practice tantric Buddhism, but the majority of us do not. So where do our practices come in the scheme above? I think it's clear that we are practising a sophisticated form of the recollection of the Buddha in our sadhanas, and that the context is therefore devotional. However the form of the practice also highlights śunyatā - the lack of independent existence (svabhāva) of any phenomena.
So do we need to pronounce mantras correctly? I think we should make an effort on aesthetic grounds, it is more beautiful; and also on the basis that we all like our names to be pronounced correctly. I find it is a useful mindfulness practice, and most people need to be more mindful! But outside of the tantric tradition it is not vital, and, sadly, even within that tradition it seems to be many centuries since there was any real effort to maintain Sanskrit pronunciation.
image: vocal tract from MIT OpenCourseWare