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Buddhism Mantras and Dhāraṇīs
by
Paul Copp

Introduction

Mantras and dhāraṇīs are two of the most prominent genres of incantation in Buddhism. Mantras, which tend to be briefer than dhāraṇīs, are among the most ancient elements of Indic religious practice and are found in nearly all Indic religious traditions, including most traditions of Buddhism across Asia. Dhāraṇīs are mainly limited to Buddhist traditions and are of obscure origins. Early examples of the term dhāraṇī—meaning basically “to support” or “to hold”—refer to the great capaciousness of the bodhisattva (his capacity to remember and understand the teachings and his skill in applying them), as well as to brief texts that served as mnemonic devices and contemplative objects. Though this semantic complexity has been maintained in Buddhist writings, the term dhāraṇī most often refers to mantralike incantations that tend to be of greater length than mantras. As spoken incantations, the efficacy of both mantras and dhāraṇīs is usually said to inhere in their correctly pronounced syllables, rather than in the meanings of those syllables, though commentaries and glosses on examples of both genres were produced in scholastic contexts across Buddhist Asia. Apparently contrary to this understanding of the nature of their efficacies, the spells in their inscribed forms (as amulets and in other talismanic material forms) achieved great popularity in Buddhist practice. Though mantras and dhāraṇīs were practiced across a range of Buddhist traditions, they became especially popular within Esoteric Buddhism, a form of the religion that in part centers on incantation ritual. Certain subtraditions of Esoteric Buddhism, in fact, have taken the incantations as their namesakes (including Mantranaya, Mantrayāna, “Dhāraṇī Teachings,” and Shingon).

General Overviews

Gonda 1963, though dated, provides important background information on pre-Buddhist uses and understandings of incantations in Indic religious cultures. Waddel 1912, though similarly dated in its attitudes, remains in many ways an important work on dhāraṇīs across Buddhist traditions. Skilling 1992 is much more up-to-date but deals only peripherally with mantras and dhāraṇīs as such, focusing instead on parittas (a closely related genre of spells)—still, it constitutes the most thorough study of Buddhist incantation practices available. Alper 1989 is a standard collection of studies, many of which are important for a study of Buddhist mantras (and see especially André Padoux’s entry, “Mantras—What Are They?”). Lopez 1998 contains an interesting exploration of Western misunderstandings of the nature and meaning of a famous Buddhist mantra. Yelle 2003 provides an overarching theory for the nature of mantras in Indian religious practice.

Reference Works

Basic introductions and other relevant information may be found in Buswell 2004 (a highly useful reference work for the study of Buddhism generally), Keown and Prebish 2007 (a useful complement to Buswell 2004), and Jones 2005 (the basic reference work for the study of religion).

  • Buswell, Robert E., Jr., ed. Encyclopedia of Buddhism. 2 vols. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2004.

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    Contains several relevant entries. Those of primary interest include “Dhāraṇī,” “Mantra,” and “Paritta and Rakṣa Texts.” See also “Amulets and Talismans,” “Heart Sūtra,” “Meditation,” “Mijiao School,” “Poetry and Buddhism,” “Ritual,” “Ritual Objects,” “Shingon,” “Tantra,” and “Vajrayāna.”

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  • Jones, Lindsay, ed. Encyclopedia of Religion. 2d ed. 15 vols. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005.

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    The most relevant entry is “Mantra,” but see also “Language: Buddhist Views of Language,” “Pūjā: Buddhist Pūjā,” and “Ritual Uses of Books.”

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  • Keown, Damien, and Charles S. Prebish, eds. Encyclopedia of Buddhism. London and New York: Routledge, 2007.

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    See in particular the entry “Mantras, Mudrās, and Mandalas.”

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Japanese Language Reference Works

Among modern scholarly traditions, the Japanese has long contained the most extensive and detailed work on the subject of Buddhist incantations. Japanese reference works are thus indispensable for any in-depth study. Hatta 1985 is the most extensive reference available. Muruyama 1974, which has been reprinted in India and is thus perhaps the most readily available, remains a valuable resource. Tokuzan 1974 is also an excellent reference work. Kodama 2005 focuses on the script itself.

  • Hatta, Yukio (八田幸雄). Shingon jiten (真言事典). Tokyo: Heika Shuppansha, 1985.

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    This “Encyclopedia of mantras” is an extensive trilingual dictionary of mantras, providing information on Sanskrit, Tibetan, and Chinese transliterations.

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  • Kodama, Giryū (児玉義隆). Bonji no shohō: Shingon Mikkyō hotoke no moji (梵字の書法: 真言密敎: ほとけの文字). Tokyo: Daihōrinkaku, 2005.

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    (Sanskrit calligraphy: Shingon Esoteric Buddhism; The script of the Buddha.) Helpful study of Siddham as it has been used within the Shingon tradition.

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  • Maruyama, Tatsuon (圓山逹音). Darani jiten (陀羅尼字典). Tokyo: Kokusho Kankōkai, 1974.

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    Basic but helpful glossary of standard incantatory phrases that gives both the Japanese pronunciation of the Sanskrit syllables and their traditional Chinese character equivalent. Reprinted as Sanskrit-Japanese Dictionary of Dharanis (New Delhi: International Academy of Indian Culture, 1981).

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  • Tokuzan, Kijun (徳山暉純). (Illustrated dictionary of the Siddham script.) Zusetsu Bonji: mikkyō no kabe: shittan sankyū (図說梵字: 密敎の壁: 悉曇参究). Tokyo: Mokujisha, 1974.

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    Helpful reference for working with Siddham texts.

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Scripts and Syllabaries

The nature of the scripts and syllabaries with which the incantations were transcribed is of key importance, especially in those cultures that were not significantly influenced by Indic Languages, such as those of East Asia. Chaudhuri 1998 is the best and most extensive work on the Siddham script in East Asia; it significantly updates Van Gulik 1956 (which remains useful). Salomon 1990, Salomon 1993, and Skilling 1996 offer important insights into the nature and origins of the Arapacana syllabary, which bears an important relation with the nature of mantras.

Ritual Language in Buddhism

Questions of the efficacies of Buddhist incantations are wrapped up in larger issues of the power of words and ritual practice in Buddhism more generally. Abé 2005 provides an illuminative examination of what makes the language of Esoteric Buddhist texts different from those that came before. Along with his discussions of the nature of mantras and dhāraṇīs in The Weaving of Mantra (Abé 1999, listed under Esoteric Buddhism), Abé offers a strong reading of the nature of Buddhist incantation rituals. Gummer 2000 includes a study of the nature of the efficacy of language in Buddhist scriptures that do not feature mantras and dhāraṇīs; the work is very helpful for thinking about similar issues in regards to Buddhist incantations. Staal 1990 centers on a controversial thesis about the nature of mantras lying solely in their sounds and ritual contexts. Padoux 1990 and Staal 1979 examine relevant myths of the nature and origins of language.

Esoteric Buddhism

Though they were widely practiced in many styles and schools of Buddhism, incantations became especially associated with its Esoteric or tantric schools; consideration of the histories and nature of these traditions is thus of great importance. Davidson 2002 is the state of the art study of the origins and rise of Esoteric Buddhism in India. Other works feature explorations of the nature of the regional Esoteric Traditions of East Asia (Strickmann 1996, Abé 1999, and Orzech 2006), Inner Asia (Gibson 1997), and Tibet (Powers 2008). See also Snellgrove 2002 (listed under India).

Dhāraṇī as a Doctrinal Concept

The term dhāraṇī and its cognates meant more than simply “incantation.” Knowledge of this wider semantic range, which figured importantly in understandings of dhāraṇī incantations, is necessary for any deep study of the spells known by the name “dhāraṇī.” Copp 2008 and Davidson 2009 survey the semantic range of the term and its philosophical and literary uses, both offering correctives to previous understandings that the primary meaning of dhāraṇī was “memory” or “spell.” Gyatso 1992 provides a stimulating exploration of the mnemonic ranges of the term, drawing on Piercian semiotics. Braarvig 1985 is an influential study of dhāraṇī as an aspect of the character of the bodhisattva.

  • Braarvig, Jens. “Dhāraṇī and Pratibhāna: Memory and Eloquence of the Bodhisattvas.” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 8 (1985): 117–130.

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    Often-cited study of the meaning of dhāraṇī in Buddhist writings.

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  • Copp, Paul. “Notes on the Term ‘Dhāraṇī’ in Medieval Chinese Buddhist Thought.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 71.3 (2008): 493–508.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0041977X08000852Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Revisionist exploration of the semantic range of the term dhāraṇī in Chinese sources.

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  • Davidson, Ronald. “Studies in Dhāraṇī Literature I: Revisiting the Meaning of the Term Dhāraṇī.” Journal of Indian Philosophy 37.2 (2009): 97–147.

    DOI: 10.1007/s10781-008-9054-8Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Revisionist exploration of the semantic range of the term dhāraṇī in Sanskrit, Tibetan, and Chinese sources.

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  • Gyatso, Janet. “Letter Magic: A Peircean Perspective on the Semiotics of Rdon Grub-Chen’s Dhāraṇī Memory.” In In the Mirror of Memory: Reflections on Mindfulness and Remembrance in Indian and Tibetan Buddhism. Edited by Janet Gyatso, 173–213. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992.

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    Influential study of Tibetan doctrinal understandings of dhāraṇī, in part through the lens of Peircean semiotics.

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India

Snellgrove 2002 is a standard study of the forms of Buddhism that center on incantations and their ritual enactments in both India and Tibet. Kapstein 2001 presents a strong argument that scholastic understandings of mantras and dhāraṇīs were key factors in the development of Esoteric Buddhism. Both Schopen articles (Schopen 2005) have been very influential in their analyses of dhāraṇīs and dhāraṇī practice, as well as their place within the wider Buddhist tradition, and must be central to the study of the incantations in any cultural context. Braarvig 1997 offers a close examination of an important scholastic treatment of mantras. Wallis 2002 centers on a helpful reading of Buddhist ritual practice and provides, along the way, very clear discussions of the natures of certain forms of Buddhist incantation. Waddell 1914 consists mainly of very clear translations of dhāraṇīs, mainly from Tibetan versions, that reveal much about the nature of the spells in their early Indic contexts.

  • Braarvig, Jens. “Bhavya on Mantras: Apologetic Endeavors on Behalf of the Mahāyāna.” In Aspects of Buddhism: Proceedings of the International Seminar on Buddhist Studies, Liw, 25 June 1994. Studia Indologiczne 4. Edited by Agata Bareja-Starzyńska and Marek Mejor, 31–40. Warsaw: Oriental Institute, 1997.

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    Study of the interpretation of the nature of mantras of a prominent Buddhist philosopher.

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  • Kapstein, Matthew. “Scholastic Buddhism and the Mantrayāna.” In Reason’s Traces: Identity and Interpretation in Indian and Tibetan Buddhist Thought. By Matthew Kapstein, 233–256. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2001.

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    Influential study of scholastic interpretations of mantra practice and their role in the evolution of Esoteric Buddhism.

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  • Schopen, Gregory. Figments and Fragments of Mahāyāna Buddhism in India: More Collected Papers. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2005.

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    See the following two chapters: “The Bodhigarbhālankāralaksa and Vimolosnisa Dhāranis in Indian Inscriptions: Two Sources for the Practice of Buddhism in Medieval India” (pp. 314–344), and “The Text on the ‘Dhāraṇī Stones from the Abhayagirya’: A Minor Contribution to the Study of Mahāyāna Literature in Ceylon” (pp. 306–313). Both essays offer penetrating discussions of dhāraṇīs important throughout Asia, and they contain important notes about the place of dhāraṇīs in Buddhist practice.

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  • Snellgrove, David. Indo-Tibetan Buddhism: Indian Buddhists and their Tibetan Successors. Boston: Shambala, 2002.

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    An excellent study of forms of Buddhist practice, in part centered on mantras and dhāraṇīs. See especially pp. 141–144.

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  • Waddell, Austin. “The ‘Dharani,’ or Indian Buddhist Protective Spell.” Indian Antiquary 43 (1914): 37–42, 49–54, 92–95.

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    Includes rare translations of dhāraṇīs that offer insights into the nature of these incantations.

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  • Wallis, Glen. Mediating the Power of Buddhas: Ritual in the Mañjuśrīmūlakalpa. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002.

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    The introduction contains a helpful discussion of both mantra as a general category and hṛdaya as a subset within it.

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Tibet and Inner Asia

Beyer 1978—along with Snellgrove 2002 (listed under India) and Powers 2008 (listed under Esoteric Buddhism) —provides a standard overview of the place of mantras and dhāraṇīs in Tibetan Buddhism. Lopez 1996 analyzes Tibetan scholastic writings on one of the most famous mantras of all, the spell at the end of the Heart Sūtra. Martin 1990 presents evidence for Tibetan understandings of the popular practice of spinning wheels inscribed with mantras and other texts, and Scherrer-Shaub 1994 examines an important Dunhuang Tibetan manuscript concerning incantations as relics of the Buddha. Hinüber 1981 is an important study of little-known Central Asian amulet practices that often incorporated written incantations.

  • Beyer, Stephen. The Cult of Tārā: Magic and Ritual in Tibet. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978.

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    An early and influential study of ritual practice in Tibetan Buddhism.

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  • Hinüber, Oskar von. “Namen in Schutzzaubern aus Gilgit.” Studien zur Indologie und Iranistik 7 (1981): 163–171.

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    Important study of amulet practices, often involving dhāraṇīs, in Gilgit.

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  • Lopez, Donald. Elaborations on Emptiness: Uses of the Heart Sūtra. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996.

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    The chapter on “The Heart Sūtra’s Mantra” (pp. 165–186) provides an important study for an exploration of Buddhist incantations.

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  • Martin, Dan. “The Origin and Significance of the Prayer Wheel according to Two Nineteenth Century Tibetan Literary Sources.” Journal of the Tibet Society (1990): 13–29.

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    Explores the nature of one of the most famous material forms of incantation practice in Tibet.

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  • Scherrer-Shaub, Christina Anna. “Some Dhāraņī Written on Paper Functioning as Dharmakāya Relics: A Tentative Approach to PT 350.” In Tibetan Studies: Proceedings of the 6th Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies, Fagernes 1992. Edited by Per Kvaerne, 711–727. Oslo, Norway: Institute for Comparative Research in Human Culture, 1994.

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    Influential study of the uses of dhāraṇīs as relics of the Buddha.

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East Asia

Kieschnick 1997 makes clear that incantations were a pervasive element of Buddhist practice in medieval China. McBride 2005 makes this claim in a systematic way, focusing on an analysis of scholastic writings. Strickmann 2002 explores the native East Asian background within which Buddhist incantation practices took root. Gimello 2004, which focuses on a little-studied but important cult, takes the study of these traditions deep into the late imperial era, an age rarely considered in such studies. Unno 2004, along with Ryūichi Abé’s The Weaving of Mantra (Abé 1999, listed under Esoteric Buddhism), is an extensive study of Japanese Esoteric Buddhist traditions of mantra practice. Plutschow 1990 examines the ways dhāraṇīs and mantras shaped medieval Japanese poetics.

  • Gimello, Robert. “Icon and Incantation: The Goddess Zhunti and the Role of Images in the Occult Buddhism of China.” In Images in Asian Religions: Texts and Contexts. Edited by Phyllis Granoff and Koichi Shinohara, 225–256. Vancouver, BC: UBC Press, 2004.

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    Important study of a dhāraṇī goddess that explores the vitality of her cult into late imperial China.

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  • Kieschnick, John. The Eminent Monk: Buddhist Ideals in Medieval Chinese Hagiography. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1997.

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    See Chapter 2, “Thaumaturgy,” especially pp. 82–92, for an excellent study of the place of mantras and dhāraṇīs in medieval Chinese Buddhist practice.

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  • McBride, Richard. “Dhāraṇī and Spells in Medieval Sinitic Buddhism.” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 28.1 (2005): 85–114.

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    Explores the nature of dhāraṇī practice in medieval Chinese and Korean Buddhism, arguing that the incantations were not only a part of Esoteric Buddhism.

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  • Plutschow, H. E. Chaos and Cosmos: Ritual in Early and Medieval Japanese Literature. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1990.

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    Includes an important and influential discussion of the medieval Japanese literary practice of conflating waka poetry and dhāraṇīs.

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  • Strickmann, Michel. Chinese Magical Medicine. Edited by Bernard Faure. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002.

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    See especially the chapters “The Literature of Spells” and “Ensigillation: A Buddho-Taoist Technique of Exorcism” for important work on East Asian uses of Buddhist incantations in their native contexts.

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  • Unno, Mark. Shingon Refractions: Myōe and the Mantra of Light. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2004.

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    A study of one of the most important mantras in Japanese Buddhism, in part through the lens of the writings of the eminent monk Myōe Kōben.

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Southeast Asia

Spiro 1982 offers an overview of forms of Buddhism centering on incantation practice and influenced by a reading of Max Weber; Tambiah 1984 covers similar ground through a more ethnographic method. Harvey 1993 focuses more narrowly on ritual practice and claims for the nature of its efficacies. Bizot 1981 explores material closely related to incantations and important for their study.

  • Bizot, Francois. “Notes sur les yantra bouddhiques d’Indochine.” In Tantric and Taoist Studies in Honor of R.A. Stein. Vol. 1. Edited by Michel Strickmann, 155–191. Brussels: Institute Belge des Hautes Etudes Chinoises, 1981.

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    Provides important context for the study of Buddhist incantations in Southeast Asia.

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  • Harvey, Peter. “The Dynamics of Paritta Chanting in Southern Buddhism.” In Love Divine: Studies in Bhakti and Devotional Mysticism. Edited by Karel Werner, 53–85. Richmond, UK: Curzon, 1993.

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    Explores understandings of the efficacies of incantation rituals centering not on mantra and dhāraṇī but on paritta, the form of spell most popular in Southeast Asian Buddhist traditions.

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  • Spiro, Melford. Buddhism and Society: A Great Tradition and its Burmese Vicissitudes. 2d ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982.

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    See chapter 6, “Apotropaic Buddhism: A Religion of Magical Protection,” and part 3 of chapter 11, “Crisis Rituals: The Use of Buddhist Spells,” for discussions of the uses of spells, mainly paritta, in Burmese Buddhism.

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  • Tambiah, Stanley Jeyaraja. The Buddhist Saints of the Forest and the Cult of Amulets: A Study in Charisma, Hagiography, Sectarianism, and Millennial Buddhism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

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    An influential study of practices important for a study of Buddhist incantations.

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Material Cultures of Buddhist Spells

Material practices of dhāraṇīs and mantras—their use as relics in stūpas, and as amulets and other talismanic objects—are of major importance. Relevant studies include Schopen 2005 (listed under India), Tambiah 1984 (listed under Southeast Asia), Hinüber 1981, Martin 1990, and Scherrer-Schaub 1994 (all listed under Tibet and Inner Asia). Bentor 1995 provides perhaps the most extensive survey of dhāraṇī relic practices in India and Tibet. Shen 2001, which focuses on practices of the Liao period in China, provides a solid survey of East Asian techniques. Liu 2008 (in Chinese) is an exhaustive study of “dhāraṇī pillars,” an important material genre of Buddhist incantation practice in China. Ma 2004 (in Chinese) surveys the forms of an important style of dhāraṇī amulet practice, while Drège 1999–2000 makes incisive points about their dating and place in the development of printing in China. Hickman 1975 is a brief but incisive study of an important dhāraṇī in Japanese reliquary practice.

  • Bentor, Yael. “On the Indian Origins of the Tibetan Practice of Depositing Relics and Dhāraņīs in Stūpas and Images.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 115.2 (1995): 248–261.

    DOI: 10.2307/604668Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Explores an important practice that takes dhāraṇīs as relics of the Buddha.

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  • Drège, Jean-Pierre. “Les premières impressions des dhāraṇī des Mahāpratisarā.” Cahiers d’Extreme-Asie 11 (1999–2000): 25–44.

    DOI: 10.3406/asie.1999.1149Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Revisionist discussion of the dating of important amulets of the Mahāpratisarā dhāraṇī and their place in the rise of printing in China.

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  • Hickman, Brian. “A Note on the Hyakumantō Dhāraṇī.” Monumenta Nipponica 30.1 (1975): 87–93.

    DOI: 10.2307/2383697Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Study of a dhāraṇī inscription of great importance in medieval Japan.

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  • Liu, Shufen (刘淑芬). Miezui yu duwang (灭罪与度亡:佛顶尊胜陀罗尼经幢之研究). Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe, 2008.

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    (The elimination of sin and the transcendence of death: Researches into the dhāraṇī pillars of the Foding zunsheng tuoluoni.) The most authoritative and in-depth study of dhāraṇī pillars and their contexts in medieval China.

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  • Ma, Shichang (馬世長). “Da suiqiu tuoluoni mantuluo tuxiang de chubu kaocha” (大隨求陀羅尼曼荼羅圖像的初步考察). Tang Yanjiu 10 (2004): 527–581.

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    (Initial research into the Maṇḍala images of the Da suiqiu tuoluoni.) Important survey of amulets of the Mahāpratisarā dhāraṇī in East Asia.

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  • Shen, Hsueh-man. “Realizing the Buddha’s Dharma Body during the Mofa Period: A Study of Liao Buddhist Relic Deposits.” Artibus Asiae 61.2 (2001): 263–303.

    DOI: 10.2307/3249911Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Important study of the uses of incantations as relics and their material and ritual contexts.

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LAST MODIFIED: 09/13/2010

DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780195393521-0102

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