Buddhism Buddhist Talismans
by
Su Jung Kim
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 October 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0286

Introduction

Talismans are ubiquitous across time and space in Buddhist Asia. With its long history and a wide range of variations, several other terms such as “amulets,” “charms,” and “seals” have been interchangeably and uncritically used. One recognizable pattern in the recent scholarship, however, is that those scholars of the East Asian tradition tend to prefer “talismans” (as a translation of the Chinese word “fu” or “fuyin”), whereas those scholars of the South Asian tradition favor “amulets.” Due to the convoluted and contentious usages of these terms, throughout this piece, on a broader level, I use the term “Buddhist talismans” as the heuristic category that includes both Indian and Sinitic heritages of these ritually charged and culturally conferred power objects. On a more concrete level, Buddhist talismans can be defined as any tangible objects believed to hold magical powers and apotropaic properties meant to be activated when they are ritually consecrated and physically contacted with the beholder, all of which were designed to intervene in the law of karma. The Buddhist use of talismans has its origins in ancient India. Printed dhāraṇī-amulets from Dunhuang, Tibet, and central Asian regions show strong Indian diagram-based and sonic components while fu-talismans from the Sinitic realm tend to be more letter-based signs, often exhibiting strong affinities with the Daoist use of talismans. Strickmann 2002 (cited under Chinese Talismans with a Broader Framework) suggests that the Buddhist use of talismans in China may have begun as early as the beginning of the 4th century although the imperial, bureaucratic use of “contracting document” or “tally” at the imperial court can be traced back to the late Western Han (206 BCE–24 CE). But it was not until the Tang period that this talisman-seal (fuyin) practice spread more widely among the Buddhists as Copp 2014 (cited under Chinese Talismans with a Broader Framework) illustrates. With the constant interplay with Daoism, the ancient Indian practice of talismans (e.g., yantra) also found newer forms and functions over time in the Sinitic Buddhist world. Certain markers, such as using the character “the Buddha” on the talismans or featuring other Buddhist divinities or requiring Buddhist mudra often carried the hallmark of “Buddhist” practices. Also, Buddhist dhāraṇī texts (written in Siddhaṃ letters and other Buddhist languages) were prominently used as talismans. Although Buddhist talismans were created in Buddhist ritual settings often at the Buddhist monastery by the monastics for the monastics and the laity, other religious elements (e.g., Daoism, Bon, Shinto, shamanic tradition, folk beliefs, etc.) and local-specific cultural components morphed in the production, consumption, circulation, and interpretation of the Buddhist talismans. For a holistic understanding of Buddhist talismans in the future, a deeply inter-religious, inter-regional, and interdisciplinary approach would be desirable.

General Overviews

Despite its prevalence and popularity both in the premodern and modern eras, the academic study of Buddhist talismans has been long forgotten except for anthropological and ethnographical works by the late-19th and early-20th-century Western explorers represented in works such as Waddell 1895 and Hildburgh 1909 (both cited under the Himalaya) Only in recent times, the study of Buddhist talismans has slowly resurfaced with the broader shift in the interest of materiality (e.g., Rambelli 2006, cited under Premodern Period) and interdisciplinary approaches in Buddhist Studies. Critical engagement with these overlooked materials has appeared in chapters and articles, although there has been no monograph solely dedicated to Buddhist talismans just yet. Among this new wave of scholarship, extending the pioneering works by Strickmann 2002 and Robson 2008 (cited under Chinese Talismans with a Broader Framework) provides an extensive and expansive discussion of Buddhist talismans in Chinese religions, situating a talisman as a written document and writing as a primary ritual form that empowers and enables efficacy. Copp is the one who continues this line of research by focusing on talisman-seals from Dunhuang ritual manuals in Copp 2011 (cited under Chinese Talismans with a Broader Framework). Copp 2014 (cited under Chinese Talismans with a Broader Framework) pays attention to the material form of the Buddhist dhāraṇīs and their talismanic use. As it is evident from the bibliographies below, while studies on Chinese Buddhist talismans are steadily increasing, other regions’ talismanic culture is still significantly understudied. Other than this geographical disparity, researchers of talismans often face several challenges. For instance, primary materials that sit in museums, archives, libraries, and private collections are labeled with different terminology, or often not even cataloged, creating a huddle in tapping into these sources. Also, different material mediums (e.g., paper, wood, silk, animal bone, stone, etc.) and techniques (e.g., writing, drawing, printing, and stamping) have been used in the productions, requiring different methodological approaches. The term, “Buddhist talismans” will be primarily used, but whenever I see fit, I try to use the original term that the individual scholar used in his or her work.

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