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).
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.
Alper, Harvey P., ed. Understanding Mantras. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989.
A helpful collection of essays on mantras in various contexts.
Gonda, Jan. “The Indian Mantra.” Oriens 16 (1963): 244–297.
The standard study of mantras in Indian religious culture, providing necessary background for any study of mantras elsewhere.
Lopez, Donald S., Jr. Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.
Chapter 4, “The Spell,” offers a penetrating analysis of the life of the famous mantra “oṃ maṇi padme hūṃ” in Western culture, as well as a discussion of the issues involved in its translation.
Skilling, Peter. “The Raksā Literature of the Śrāvakayāna.” Journal of the Pali Text Society 16 (1992): 109–182.
An extensive and excellent discussion of protective spells, focusing especially on paritta (a genre popular mainly in Southeast Asian Buddhism) but including discussions of mantras and dhāraṇīs as well.
Waddel, L. A. “The Dhāraṇī Cult in Buddhism, Its Origin, Deified Literature, and Images.” Ostasiatische Zeitschrift 1.2 (1912): 155–195.
Though dated, this seminal article remains in many ways the best single introduction to the varieties of dhāraṇī practice in Buddhism.
Yelle, Robert. Explaining Mantras: Magic, Rhetoric, and the Dream of a Natural Language. London: Routledge, 2003.
A highly theoretical work on mantra, focusing on Hindu tantric mantras but applicable to tantric Buddhist mantras as well.
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