The term sādhana is a Sanskrit term literally meaning “means of achievement.” It is a term that mainly designates ritual and meditative practices. It is related to terms such as sādhaka, the performer of the ritual, and the sādhya, the object or “victim” of the practice, in the case of practices that are intended to directly affect another person. In tantric Buddhist and Hindu traditions, the term sādhana came to designate, first, the instructions on ritual and meditative practices given by a guru to his or her disciples, and eventually signified a genre of literature consisting precisely of written accounts of these instructions. As such, it most commonly designates (typically) short meditation manuals, but the term can also designate ritual guidebooks as well, particularly those that integrate internal visualizations with external ritual actions. Since it appears that visualization is a component of virtually all sādhana, this genre tends to include detailed descriptions of the deities to be visualized. As a result, sādhanas (and most importantly, sādhana collections) have proved to be an invaluable resource for the study of tantric iconography. However, since sādhana literature has traditionally been viewed as esoteric and to be restricted to those who have received proper instruction and empowerment, relatively few translations of sādhanas have been published.
One of the most valuable contributions to the study of Buddhist sādhanas is English 2002, which features an edition and translation of an important sādhana text, as well as a very detailed introduction to the subject. Beyer 1973 remains one of the best introductions to Tibetan Buddhist ritual and meditative practices, while Abé 1999 provides a comprehensive introduction to the Shingon system of practice. Cozort 1996 provides a concise introduction to Tibetan Buddhist sādhanas, while Bautze-Picron 1994 provides a general introduction to the sādhana genre in India. Bernard 1994 contains a trove of information on the sādhanas, focusing on the Buddhist goddess Chinnamundā. Sarbacker 2002 and Sarbacker 2005 provide extremely helpful discussions on the development and structure of tantric Buddhist sādhana.
Abé, Ryūichi. The Weaving of Mantra: Kūkai and the Construction of Esoteric Buddhist Discourse. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.
This masterful work is a detailed study of Kūkai’s successful effort to introduce esoteric Buddhist practice to Japan. Abé clearly elucidates both the practical and theoretical elements of esoteric Buddhism as presented by Kūkai and provides one of the best introductions to East Asian esoteric Buddhism. This work is thus an important resource for understanding esoteric Buddhist meditative practices in the East Asian context.
Bautze-Picron, Claudine. “Le sâdhana, ce ‘bizarre genre littéraire’.” In Genres littéraires en Inde. Edited by Nalini Balbir, 165–193. Paris: Presses de la Sorbonne nouvelle, 1994.
Provides an excellent general introduction to the sādhana genre in India. It does not focus on Buddhist sādhanas in particular, but it is helpful for providing a broader introduction to this topic.
Bernard, Elisabeth Anne. Chinnamastā: The Aweful Buddhist and Tantric Goddess. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1994.
This important work is a study of the “Severed Headed” Hindu tantric goddess Chinnamastā and her Buddhist counterpart, Chinnamundā. This work has an extended discussion of the sādhanas that describes the visualization of this goddess. Chapters 4 and 5 provide complete translations of several short Buddhist sādhanas describing the visualization of this goddess, as well as summaries of several longer sādhanas.
Beyer, Stephan. The Cult of Tārā: Magic and Ritual in Tibet. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1973.
Provides a detailed study of the practice system focusing on the goddess Tārā. While it does not directly address sādhana texts per se, it sheds considerable light on the structure of tantric Buddhist sādhana and tantric Buddhist liturgy in general, and contains numerous translations of passages from sādhana texts. It remains an invaluable resource for anyone interested in this topic.
Cozort, Daniel. “Sādhana (sGrub thabs): Means of Achievement for Deity Yoga.” In Tibetan Literature: Studies in Genre. Edited by José Ignacio Cabezón and Roger R. Jackson, 331–343. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion, 1996.
Provides a short but very helpful introduction to the sādhana genre in Tibet. It focuses on the Tibetan meditation manuals that constitute one of the largest segments of the sādhana/sgrub thabs genre.
English, Elizabeth. Vajrayoginī: Her Visualizations, Rituals, and Forms. Somerville, MA: Wisdom, 2002.
Provides one of the best introductions to Buddhist sādhanas. Its first chapter introduces the sādhana genre, and its second chapter constitutes a comprehensive overview of the Buddhist goddess Vajrayoginī. The third chapter provides a detailed study of a particular sādhana, Umāpatideva’s Vajravārāhī Sādhana. The volume concludes with an English translation and Sanskrit edition of this work.
Sarbacker, Stuart. “Traditions in Transition: Meditative Concepts in the Development of Tantric Sādhana.” International Journal of Tantric Studies 6.1 (2002).
Provides a fascinating discussion of the connection between tantric Buddhist sādhana and earlier Buddhist meditation traditions, as well as the structure of sādhana visualizations.
Sarbacker, Stuart. Samādhi: The Numinous and Cessative in Indo-Tibetan Yoga. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005.
While this work primarily addresses the concept of samādhi or meditative cessation, the fifth chapter of the work is a revised and expanded version of the author’s 2002 article.
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