Mantras and Dhāraṇīs

Paul Copp

in Buddhism

ISBN: 9780195393521
Published online September 2010 | | DOI:
Mantras and Dhāraṇīs

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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).

Article.  3982 words. 

Subjects: Buddhism ; Tibetan Buddhism ; Zen Buddhism

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