A dharani (Devanagari: धारणी, IAST: dhāraṇī) is a Buddhist chant, mnemonic code, incantation, or recitation, usually a mantra consisting of Sanskrit or Pali phrases. Believed to be protective and with powers to generate merit for the Buddhist devotee, they constitute a major part of historic Buddhist literature. These chants have roots in Vedic Sanskrit literature, and many are written in Sanskrit scripts such as the Siddham as well as transliterated into Chinese, Korean, Japanese and other regional scripts.
Dharani are found in the ancient texts of all major traditions of Buddhism. They are a major part of the Pali canon preserved by the Theravada tradition. Mahayana sutras – such as the Lotus Sutra and the Heart Sutra – include or conclude with dharani. Some Buddhist texts, such as Pancaraksa found in the homes of many Buddhist tantra tradition followers, are entirely dedicated to dharani. They are a part of their ritual prayers as well as considered to be an amulet and charm in themselves, whose recitation believed to allay bad luck, diseases or other calamity. They were an essential part of the monastic training in Buddhism's history in East Asia. In some Buddhist regions, they served as texts upon which the Buddhist witness would swear to tell the truth.
The dharani-genre of literature became popular in East Asia in the 1st millennium CE, with Chinese records suggesting their profusion by the early centuries of the common era. These migrated from China to Korea and Japan. The demand for printed dharani among the Buddhist lay devotees may have led to the development of textual printing innovations. The dharani records of East Asia are the oldest known "authenticated printed texts in the world", state Robert Sewell and other scholars. The early-8th-century dharani texts discovered in the Pulguksa temple of Gyeongju, Korea are considered as the oldest known printed texts in the world.[note 1]
Dharani recitation for the purposes of healing and protection is referred to as Paritta in some Buddhist regions, particularly in Theravada communities. The dharani-genre ideas also inspired the Japanese Koshiki texts, and chanting practices called Daimoku, Nenbutsu (Japan), Nianfo (China) or Yombul (Korea). They are a significant part of the historic Chinese dazangjing (scriptures of the great repository) and the Korean daejanggyeong – the East Asian compilations of the Buddhist canon between the 5th and 10th centuries.
Tuṭṭe, tuṭṭe–vuṭṭe, vuṭṭe–paṭṭe, paṭṭe–kaṭṭe, kaṭṭe–amale,
amale–vimale, vimale–nime, nime–hime, hime–vame,
sarkke-cakre, cakre–dime, dime–hime, hime–ṭu ṭu ṭu ṭu–
ḍu ḍu ḍu ḍu–ru ru ru ru–phu phu phu phu–svāhā.
The word dhāraṇī derives from a Sanskrit root √dhṛ meaning "to hold or maintain". This root is likely derived from the Vedic religion of ancient India where chants and melodious sounds were believed to have innate spiritual and healing powers even if the sound cannot be translated and has no meaning (as in a music). The same root gives dharma or dhamma. According to the East Asian Buddhism studies scholar Paul Copp, some Buddhist communities outside India sometimes refer to dharanis with alternate terms such as "mantra, hṛdaya (hridiya), paritrana (paritta), raksha (Pali: rakkha), gutti, or vidyā" though these terms also have other contextual meanings in Buddhism.
According to the traditional belief in Tibetan texts, states Jose Cabezon – the Dalai Lama professor of Tibetan Buddhism studies, there were three councils and the term dharani was recorded and became the norm after the third council. The first council, according to this belief, compiled the Sutranta, the Vinaya and the Abhidhamma in Vimalabhada to the south of Rajagriha in India. The first council was held in the year Buddha died, but the compiled dhamma consisted of spoken words that were not written down. The second council occurred about 200 years after the death of the Buddha in a grove provided by Ashoka, where the knowledge was compiled again, but it too did not write anything down. The third council gathered in Kashmir a century later, according to the Tibetan tradition, and the teachings were put down in writing for those "who had not obtained the power (dharani) of not-forgetting" because people were reciting corrupted forms of the teachings of the Buddha. In this context, dharani were acknowledged in the Buddhist tradition by about 2nd-century BCE, and they were a memory aid to ground and remember the dhamma teachings.
The term dharani as used in the history of Mahayana and tantric Buddhism, and its interpretation has been problematic since the mid-19th-century, states Ronald Davidson. It was initially understood as "magical formula or phrase", but later studies such as by Lamotte and Berhard interpreted them to be "memory", while Davidson proposes that some dharani are "codes". According to Eugène Burnouf, the 19th-century French Indologist and a scholar of Buddhism, dharanis are magical formulas that to Buddhist devotees are the most important parts of their books. Burnouf, states Davidson, was the first scholar to realise how important and widespread dharani had been in Buddhism sutras and Mahayana texts. The Indologist Moriz Winternitz concurred in early 20th-century that dharanis constituted a "large and important" part of Mahayana Buddhism, and that they were magic formulae and "protective spells" as well as amulets.
According to Winternitz, a dharani resembles the incantations found in the Atharvaveda and Yajurveda of Hinduism. The dharani-genre of Buddhist literature includes mantra, states Étienne Lamotte, but they were also a "memory aid" to memorize and chant Buddha's teachings. This practice was linked to concentration (samadhi) and believed to have magical virtues and a means to both spiritual and material karma-related merit making. According to Braarvig, the dharanis are "seemingly meaningless strings of syllables". While they may once have been "memory aids", the dharanis that have survived into the modern era do not match with any text. In later practice, the dharanis were "hardly employed as summaries of doctrine, but were employed as aids to concentration and magical protection benefits".
According to Jan Nattier, Vedic mantras are more ancient than Buddhist dharani, but over time they both were forms of incantations that are quite similar. In the early texts of Buddhism, proposes Nattier, "it would appear that the word dharani was first employed in reference to mnemonic devices used to retain (Skt. "hold") certain elements of Buddhist doctrine in one's memory". In Nattier's view, the term dharani is "peculiar to Buddhism". A dhāraṇī can be a mnemonic to encapsulate the meaning of a section or chapter of a sutra. According to the Buddhism-related writer Red Pine, mantra and dharani were originally interchangeable, but at some point dhāraṇī came to be used for meaningful, intelligible phrases, and mantra for syllabic formulae which are not meant to be understood.
According to Robert Buswell and Ronald Davidson, dharani were codes in some Buddhist texts. They appeared at the end of the text, and they may be seen as a coded, distilled summary of Buddhist teachings in the chapters that preceded it. For example, the Vajrasamadhi-sutra – a Korean Buddhist text likely composed in the 7th century by an unknown monk, one important to the Ch'an (Zen Buddhism) tradition in East Asia, the Dharani chapter is the eighth (second last), with a brief conversational epilogue between the Tathagata Buddha and Ananda being the last chapter. This dharani chapter, states Buswell, "encodes (dharayati) the important meanings, without forgetting them, and it reminds and codes the points to remember.
The Indologist Frits Staal who is known for his scholarship on mantras and chants in Indian religions, states the Dharani mantras reflect a continuity of the Vedic mantras. He quotes Wayman to be similarly stressing the view that the Buddhist chants have a "profound debt to the Vedic religion". The Yogacara scholars, states Staal, followed the same classification as one found in the Vedas – arthadharani, dharmadharani and mantradharani, along with express acknowledgment like the Vedas that some "dharani are meaningful and others are meaningless" yet all effective for ritual purposes.
The early Buddhism literature includes the dharani spells and incantations. It demonstrates that dharanis were valued and in use within Buddhist communities before the 1st-century CE, state Charles Prebish and Damien Keown.
The role of dharanis in Buddhist practice of mid-1st-millennium CE is illustrated by numerous texts including the systematic treatises that emerged. According to Paul Copp, one of the earliest attestable literary mandate about writing dharanis as an effective spell in itself is found in a Chinese text dated between 317 and 420 CE. This text is the Qifo bapusa suoshuo da tuoluoni shenzhou jing (or, Great Dharani Spirit-Spell Scripture Spoken by the Seven Buddhas and Eight Bodhisattvas). The Collected Dhāraṇī Sūtras, for example, were compiled in the mid-seventh century. Some of the oldest Buddhist religious inscriptions in Stupas (Dagoba, Chörten) are extracts from dharani-genre compositions such as the Bodhigarbhalankaralaksa-dharani.[note 2] Manuscript fragments of Sumukha-dharani discovered in Central Asia and now held at the Leningrad Branch of Russian Academy of Sciences are in the Sanskrit language and the Brahmi script, a script that was prevalent before the early centuries of the common era.
The Chinese text Wugou jing guangda tuoluoni jing of the influential Empress Wu's era – 683 to 705 CE – is about the Buddha reciting six dharanis. The first part states its significance as follows (Japanese version of the Chinese text):
People who wish to perform the ceremony for it should, on the 8th, 13th, 14th or 15th day of the month, walk round and round the pagoda containing the relics a full seventy-seven times, with it on their right, reciting this charm [dhāraṇī] also seventy-seven times: they should build an altar and keep its surface clean. They should have the charm copied out seventy-seven times, and out of respect for the ceremony should give the copyist perfume, flowers, food and drink, clean clothes and a bath, and reward him either by anointing and covering him with perfumes or by giving him much money, or by paying him according to his ability. Then they should take these copies of the charms, place them inside the pagoda, and make offerings at the pagoda. Alternatively they should make seventy-seven small clay pagodas, place one copy inside each, and make offerings. If they duly perform this, people who are about to die will prolong their lives to old age, all their previous sins and evil deeds being completely destroyed.
Early mentions of dharani in the European literature are from the records left by John of Plano Carpini (1245–7) and William of Rubruck (1254) where they wrote in their respective memoirs that Uighurs and Mongols chanted "Om man baccam", later identified with "Om mani padme hum". They also mention that these Asians write "short sorcery sentences on paper and hang them up". Other than such scant remarks, little was known about the Dharani-genre of literature or its value in Buddhism till the mid-19th-century colonial era, when Brian Hodgson began buying Sanskrit and related manuscripts in Nepal, Tibet and India for a more thorough scholarship, often at his personal expense. According to Hodgson, as quoted by Ronald Davidson, dharani were esoteric short prayers "derived from [Buddhist tantric] Upadesa" that are believed to be amulet to be constantly repeated or worn inside little lockets, something that leads to "a charmed life".
The colonial era scholarship initially proposed that the dharanis and related rituals may have been an influence on Buddhism of other Indian religions such as from the esoteric tantra traditions of Hinduism around the mid-1st-millennium CE. This assumption, along with the view that early Buddhism was an "abstract philosophy or even a broad-based social movement" is now a part of a scholarly debate. With increased access to the primary texts of Buddhism and the discoveries of historical manuscripts in China, Korea and Japan, such as those about early Silla Buddhism, McBride and others state that dharani incantations and ritualism had widespread significance in East Asia from the early years.[note 3] Coupled with Waddell's scholarship on the "dharani cult in Buddhism" in early 20th-century, the post-colonial era scholarship proposed that dharanis did not develop with or after tantric Buddhism emerged, but preceded it and were a form of proto-tantrism.
According to Richard McBride, as well as Richard Payne, the "proto-tantra" proposal too is problematic because it is a meaningless anachronistic teleological category that "misleads" and implies that the dharanis somehow anticipated and nurtured Buddhist tantra tradition. There is no evidence for such a sequential development. Instead, the evidence points to an overlap but that the significance of the dharanis in mainstream Buddhist traditions and the esoteric Buddhist tantra tradition co-existed independent of each other. Phonic mysticism and musical chanting based on dharanis – parittas or raksas in the Theravada Pali literature[note 4] – along with related mantras were important in early Buddhism. They continue to be an essential part of actual Buddhist practice in Asia, both for its laypersons and the monks. The emerging evidence and later scholarship increasingly states that "dharani and ritual procedures were mainstream Mahayana practices" many centuries before the emergence of tantric and esoteric Buddhism and Vajrayana, states McBride. The Buddhist tantra traditions added another layer of sophistication and complexity to the rituals with deities and mandalas.
Dharanis are not limited to an esoteric cult within Buddhism, states Paul Copp, rather the "dharani incantations and related mystic phrases and practices have been integral parts of nearly all Buddhist traditions since at least the early centuries of the common era".
Dhāraṇīs are a form of amulet and believed in the various Buddhist traditions to deliver protection from malign influences and calamities. Mantra and dharani are synonymous in some Buddhist traditions, but in others such as the Tibetan tantric traditions a dharani is a type of mantra. According to Jose Cabezon, in the tantric traditions, mantra (sngags) is all knowledge and the mind of all the Buddhas, that which possesses the dharma-dhatu (essence of dhamma). The mantra exist in three forms – guhya (secret), vidya (knowledge) dharani (memory aid). The guhya mantra are about male deity and female deity relationships and union. The vidya mantra represent the mind of male Buddhist deities, while dharani mantras of the female Buddhist deities. Theologically, the vidya mantras constitute that knowledge in tantric Buddhism, according to Cabezon, which "pacifies the suffering experienced in the existential world (samsara) and the heaps of faults such as desire". The dharani mantras, in contrast, constitute that knowledge in tantric Buddhism which "causes one to hold onto the dhamma, to remember the dhamma, to remember virtue". There is very little prescriptive or practical difference between dharani and mantras except that dharani are much longer, states Eugene Burnouf.
According to Winternitz, a Buddhist dharani resembles the incantations and mantras found in Hinduism. A dharani may contain simple magical syllables and words without any literal meaning (mantra-padani), or its power is believed to result from it containing words or wisdom in nunce from a Buddhist Sutta. The Japanese Horiuzi manuscript of Prajna paramita hrdaya sutra and Usnisha Vijaya dharani dated to 609 CE illustrate both, with the latter being only invocations consisting of meaningless series of syllables. In Buddhism, a dharani has been believed to have magical virtues and a means to earn merit to offset the past karma, allay fear, diseases and disasters in this life, and for a better rebirth. To the lay Buddhist communities, states Davidson, the material benefits encouraged the popularity and use of dharanis for devotionalism, rituals and rites in Buddhism. According to Janet Gyatso, there is a difference between mantras and dharanis. The mantras are more than melodious sounds and have meaning, and these were found sporadically in pre-Mahayana Buddhism. With the emergence of the Mahayana Buddhism tradition, the dharanis became closely related to mantras. Later, as the Vajrayana Buddhism tradition grew, they proliferated. The dharanis and mantras overlap because in the Vajrayana tradition. There exist "single seed-syllable bija like dharanis, treated as having special powers to protect chanters from dangers such as "snakes, enemies, demons and robbers". The bija (seed) mantra condenses the protective powers of a Buddhist deity or a Buddhist text into a single syllable. For example, the single letter "a" (अ) condenses the 100,000 verses of the Prajna-paramita sutras into a single syllable.
The Japanese Buddhist monk Kūkai drew a distinction between dhāraṇī and mantra and used it as the basis of his theory of language. According to Kūkai, a Buddhist mantra is restricted to esoteric Buddhist practice whereas dhāraṇī is found in both esoteric and exoteric rituals. In the Nara and early Heian period of Japanese history, a monk or nun was tested for their fluency and knowledge of dharanis to confirm whether they are well trained and competent in Buddhist knowledge. Their appointment letters listed the sutras and dharanis that he or she could recite from memory. In an appointment recommendation letter dated 732 CE, as an example, a Japanese priest named Chishu supports the ordination of his student Hata no kimi Toyotari by listing that he can recite following dharanis: "the Greater Prajna-paramita, Amoghapasa Avalokiteshvara, Eleven-faced Avalokiteshvara, the Golden Light, Akashagarbha, Bhaisajyaguru, consecrating water, concealing ritual space" with the dharani rituals of prostration after eight years of training. A study of numerous such ubasoku koshinge recommendation letters from the 1st-millennium Japan confirm that dharanis were an essential and core part of monastic training, though the specific group of dharanis memorized by a monk or nun varied.
Kūkai classified mantras as a special class of dhāraṇīs and argued that every syllable of a dhāraṇī was a manifestation of the true nature of reality – in Buddhist terms, that all sound is a manifestation of śūnyatā or emptiness of self-nature. Thus, rather than being devoid of meaning, Kūkai suggests that dhāraṇīs are in fact saturated with meaning – every syllable is symbolic on multiple levels.
The dharanis have been a large and important part of Mahayana Buddhist literature. They are particularly abundant in the esoteric tradition of Buddhism (Vajrayana, Tibetan). However, the dharanis were not unique to esoteric Mahayana texts. The most significant and popular Mahayana sutras such as the Lotus Sutra, Heart Sutra and others prominently include dharani chapters. The dharanis are prominent in the Prajñāpāramitā Sutras wherein the Buddha "praises dharani incantation, along with the cultivation of samadhi, as virtuous activity of a bodhisattva", states Ryûichi Abé.
The Megha-Sutra is an example of an ancient Mahayana magico-religious text. In it, the snake deities appear before the Buddha and offer him adoration, then ask how the suffering of snakes, as well as people, can be alleviated. The text suggests friendliness (maitri) and lists numerous invocations such as those to female deities, exorcisms, means to induce rains, along with a series of magical formulae such as "sara sire sire suru suru naganam java java jivi jivi juvu juvu etc.", states Moriz Winternitz. The historic Mahayana dharanis have survived as single manuscripts as well as large collections. The versions found in Nepal and China include spells to end sickness, lengthen life, recovery from poison, magic for luck in war, drive away demons and snakes, protection from the effects of ill-omened constellations, release from a confessed sin, birth of a son or daughter to a woman wanting a baby, rebirth into sukhavati heaven or avoiding a bad rebirth. The snake-charm dharani is found in the Bower Manuscript found in Western China. While a 443 CE Chinese translation of Lankavatara Sutra does not contain some of the dharani chapters, other Chinese translations dated to the 2nd-century and 4th-century CE of Mahayana texts do contain dharanis. The Dunhuang manuscript collections include extensive talismanic dharani sections. The dharanis as conceptualized by medieval era Buddhist intellectuals and eminent Chinese monks were an "integral component of mainstream Sinitic Buddhism", states Richard McBride. The popularity of Buddhist spells in China was probably because older native Chinese religions valued spells already.
According to Robert Buswell and Donald Lopez, it is "almost certain" that some of the East Asian Buddhist literature on dharani were indigenous Chinese texts and syncretic with the Daoist practices. For example, the Guanding jing composed in mid-5th century in China is largely a collection of magical spells in the dharani-genre in twelve semi-independent chapters. It includes spells such as those of the 72,000 spirit kings to protect Buddhist monks, spells of the 120,000 spirit kings to protect the Buddhist nuns, incantations of spirit kings to protect one's surroundings, seals and spells to subdue devils, chants to summon dragon kings to treat infections and remove pests, and seeking rebirth in pure lands of one's desire.
The significance of dharanis was such that both the government and monastic organization had stipulated, by the 7th-century, how and when dharanis may or may not be used. A ritsuryo code for Buddhist clerics dated 718 CE, promulgated by the Nara government in Japan, forbid the use of dharani for any unauthorized medical treatment, military and political rebellion. The code explicitly exempted their use for "healing of the sick by chanting dharanis in accordance with the Buddha dharma". Another document dated 797 CE mentions "healer-meditation masters" (kanbyo zenji) in dharanis to protect the family of the ruler. Others evidence the use of dharani chanting by monks and nuns as "one of the common methods of healing during the Nara period", states Ryûichi Abé.
The dharanis were an essential part of the rokujikyoho (six-syllable sutra) liturgy ritual in Japan. They were greatly popular between the 11th- and 15th-centuries and a part of comprehensive solution to various ailments, a ritual performed by Buddhist monks and practitioners of onmyōdō.
The Theravada tradition is found in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asian Buddhist countries. The three historic ritual practices of the Theravada community include the Buddha puja (triratna rite), the Five Precepts ceremony (pancasil), and the protective chanting of Paritrana (paritta). The Theravada Paritrana texts are equivalent to the Dharani texts in the Mahayana tradition, both providing protective charm through chanting of hymns. According to Buddhist studies scholars Sarah LeVine and David Gellner, Theravada lay devotees traditionally invite the monks into their homes for rites of "protection from evil" and the monk(s) chant the paritrana hymns. These rituals are particularly common during rites-of-passage ceremonies such as baby naming, first rice-eating and others. According to Buddhologist Karel Werner, some Mahayana and Vajrayana dharani texts influenced the paritta texts of Theravada tradition, such as the Gini (fire) Paritta, as the hymns are identical in parts and the Theravada text uses the same terms, for example, "dharani dharaniti".
The Pali canon makes many references to protective (raksha, paritta) incantations and magical spells. These invocations provide protection from "malignant spirits, disease and calamity". For example, in Digha Nikaya (DN I.116.14), Sonadanda remarks that wherever the Buddha stays, "non-humans do not harm the people of that town or village", states the Buddhism scholar Peter Skilling. This and similar statements are also found in the early Chinese translations of Indian Buddhist texts. According to Skilling, these "protective Buddhist literature" are used by both the monks and the laypeople of Theravada countries. These texts are a part of any "meagre library of Buddhist Sri Lankan households" and they are called Pirit Pota. In Myanmar, all classes of the Theravada community more widely know about the paritta incantation literature than any other Pali Buddhist work. The average Theravada monk in other southeast Asian countries who may not know much about a Tipitaka, states Skilling, is likely to "be able to recite numerous chants [paritta, dharani] from memory".
In northern Thailand, the Suat Boek Phranet (lit. Eye-Opening Sutta) is a Pali chant text used during rites such as the consecration of a Buddha image. The text, states Donald Swearer, includes a "unique dharani in praise of the Buddha" and his victory over the evil Mara. Though the dharani appears at the end of the text and the associated chant in Thai Buddhist practice occurs at the close of the ceremony, they highlight their key role in "the buddhabhiseka ritual".
The Buddhist dharani invocations are the earliest mass printed texts that have survived. Till the mid-20th-century, the Hyakumantō Darani found as charms in wooden pagodas of Japan were broadly accepted as having been printed between 764 and 770 CE, and the oldest extant printed texts. In 1966, similarly printed dharani were discovered in stone pagoda of Pulguksa temple in Gyeongju, Korea. These are dated to the first half of the 8th-century, and now considered as the oldest known printed texts in the world. According to Tsien Tsuen-Hsuin, the Korean dharani scrolls were printed after the era of Empress Wu in China, and these date "no earlier than 704 CE, when the translation of the sutra was finished, and no later than 751, when the building of the temple and stupa was completed". The printed Korean text consists of "Chinese characters transliterated from the [Indian] Sanskrit". While the Korean dharani were likely printed in China,[note 6] the evidence confirms that the Japanese dharani were printed in Japan from Buddhist chants that arrived through China. The tradition of printing and distributing the Buddhist dharanis, as well as transliterated Sanskrit sutras, continued in East Asia over the centuries that followed. By the 9th-century, the era of mass printing and the sale of books had begun covering additional subjects such as "astrology, divination of dreams, alchemy, and geomancy".
According to languages and ancient manuscripts scholar Ernst Wolff, "it was Buddhism, above all, that eminently stimulated and sustained printing activities". Its chants and ideas were in demand in East Asia, and this led to the development of wood-block based mass printing technology. The oldest known dharanis were mass-produced by the 8th-century, and later in the 10th-century the canonical Tripitaka in addition to 84,000 copies of dharanis were mass printed.
The 8th-century dharanis are the "oldest authenticated printed texts in the world", states Robert Sewell. These were mass-produced as a set consisting of miniature hollow wooden pagodas each containing a printed dharani prayer or charm in Sanskrit on thick paper strips. The Japanese records[note 7] state a million dharanis were so produced and distributed through Buddhist temples by the order of Empress Shōtoku – previously a Buddhist nun – after an attempted coup against her court. According to Ross Bender, these events and Empress Shōtoku's initiatives led to the founding of major new Buddhist temples, a "great acceleration" and the "active propagation of Buddhism" in Japan. Empress Shōtoku's million dharanis are among the oldest known printed literature in the world.
The Theravada compilations of paritta (dharani) are ancient and extensive. Some are a part of various suttas, while others are dedicated texts. Illustrations include: